In Iceland, elves are called the huldufólk (the hidden folk). They are mysterious and mischievous, at times acting helpful and at other times playing tricks. Tradition says they make their homes in the rocks that cover the island. For centuries, the wee folk lived in the dancing shadows of hearth fires as farmers entertained wide-eyed children with tales of shenanigans while warning them not to stray too far from home, lest they disappear into elfland, never to return.
Modernization brought the harsh glare of electric lights and TV sets, and elf encounters grew fewer. Nevertheless, the tradition lives on. Surveys suggest as many as half of Icelanders believe in the hidden folk, or at least aren’t comfortable ruling out their existence.
“When your grandmother raised you on these stories,” one local explained to me, “It’s hard to reject them categorically. You may not have had an elf experience yourself, but odds are you know somebody who has.”
And now that Iceland is a top travel destination, a whole elf cottage industry has developed. There’s even an elf school in Reykjavik. Wanting to get lost in an adventure – and interested in researching “little people” traditions from around the world – I booked my plane ticket. Chasing elves in Iceland seemed as good an excuse as any to get away.
Upon arrival, the location of the Elfschool left me underwhelmed. I found it on the second floor of a nondescript strip mall on the outer fringes of the city centre. But, once inside, I was transported to an eccentric librarian’s paradise, with bookshelves lining the walls and garden gnomes and fairy statuettes covering every surface.
Magnus Skarphedinsson, the burly and bearded headmaster, led me and the other seven students, mostly Americans, into a small room crowded with chairs. He issued us our study books, filled with accounts of interactions with hidden folk, some traditional and some collected by him firsthand.
“The blank pages are for your notes,” he instructed.
For the rest of the day, Skarphedinsson, a former history professor with a devotion to the supernatural, regaled us with elf stories from memory, acting out the dialogue and closing his eyes to regain his spot if he ever forgot what came next. Most surprising to outsiders is how mundane most of the stories are: A hidden woman appears to act as a midwife for a farmer’s wife; the hidden folk borrow a cow for its milk, then return it when they’re done; the huldufólk save the lives of fishermen during a storm. These aren’t the grand epics of Zeus or Thor, but everyday stories reflecting the harsh realities of peasant life.
Skarphedinsson has even acquired a regular-looking kitchen pot that, he tells us, the elves gave an Icelandic woman in the 1980s. He passed it around and when it came to me, I flipped it upside down.
“It doesn’t have ‘Made in China’ written on it anywhere?” another student asked, picking up my thoughts. “We checked,” Skarphedinsson replied, a twinkle in his eye.
One theory about “little people” that applies particularly to the British Isles and Ireland holds that elves and fairies are the cultural memory of an earlier indigenous population who were pushed back over the hills and under ground by the conquering Celts. Intriguingly, Iceland didn’t have an indigenous population when the Scandinavians arrived in the ninth century.
The country takes pride in its Viking heritage, but DNA research proves that modern Icelanders share half their genetic background with the Irish. This suggests that while most of the first male settlers were Scandinavian, most of their wives and servants came from Ireland and the British Isles.
When I suggested to Skarphedinsson that the women may have brought the huldufólk with them, he shook his head. But he honours Iceland’s female founders as the country’s first storytellers, and for fostering the country’s long literary tradition.
For Skarphedinsson, continued huldufólk sightings are evidence that different realities overlap in our world. Children and those with “psychic abilities” are most likely to see through the veil, and be more comfortable sharing their experiences. The magic of the elves rests not in the Icelandic landscape, but rather in its close-knit communities where, when you witness something inexplicable, you will be believed, not mocked.
Our session ended with buttered bread and pancakes with whipped cream. Skarphedinsson was reluctant to see us go, repeatedly shaking our hands and saying, “I really enjoyed our discussions today.”
For the rest of my visit, I toured beautiful places with names I couldn’t pronounce. I marvelled at the jagged cliffs and black-sand beaches of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. I was splashed by the Seljalandsfoss waterfall and climbed the hill behind the Strokkur geyser.
Like all the other tourists, I snapped photos of the scenery and adjusted the saturation and shadows to heighten their beauty for everyone on Instagram. I took selfies along with pictures of the little gnome figurine I had brought as my talisman.
And I left with with an important reminder: There were once times and places when you didn’t need photographic evidence of all your adventures. All you needed was the story, and a trusting community would pull up a chair.