I came home from our Iceland holiday very impressed by both the country and its people and I’ve already posted about some impressions. Several books of Icelandic folklore came home with me and as I’ve read my way through them my fascination has grown.
Trolls and elves feature regularly in the folklore. Trolls come in all shapes and sizes and are creatures of the night – sunlight turns them to stone. Driving around the island it’s impossible to miss the spectacular mountains with the columns of rock ringing the summits. Many of those columns really do look like figures and are called ‘night trolls’, being those creatures caught in the open when the sun rose. Every mountain seems to have its own legend about how a local character, pursued or captured at night, managed to confound the trolls and trick them into being outside when the first rays of the sun turned them to stone. Trolls, it appears, are not very clever. Elves, however, are very different.
Elves are known in Iceland as ‘huldufolk’ or hidden people. The traditional story is that Eve, the mother of all humankind, heard that God was going to visit. She set about washing the children, but some were still dirty when God approached and Eve hid them. God praised the children that were in view and asked if Eve had any more. Embarrassed, Eve denied the existence of the hidden children. Having had their existence denied before God, the hidden ones have stayed hidden forever, although they can make themselves visible to us if they want to, and when they do we find that they are, of course, very beautiful and highly intelligent.
Given that Icelanders are one of the most highly educated races on Earth, the level of belief in the huldufolk is surprising at first glance. A recent study of supernatural beliefs throughout Western Europe found that 41% of Icelanders claim to have had contact with the dead and 53% believe in the huldufolk (or at least refused to deny their existence). These beliefs are less surprising when one remembers their extraordinary tradition of storytelling embodied in the Sagas. Those long, long winter evenings spent gathered around the fire, entertaining each other with stories have embedded the folklore in the subconscious.
It’s not a belief that they are reluctant to share. 20th Century Trade Union leader, Tryggvi Emilsson, was happy to talk publicly about his experiences. As a young man he fell down a cliff face and lay injured in a gully. He was rescued by a huldufolk maiden whom he described as hauntingly beautiful.
Neither is it a belief that is without practical implications. All over Iceland are spots where the huldufolk are believed to live and that is taken into account in development projects. Roads turn sharply to avoid disturbing those areas. On a road in Grundarfjordur there is a gap between houses numbered 82 and 86. Number 84 is a rocky outcrop where the elves live. When the new road and tunnel were being built to the town of Akranes the heavy-duty construction equipment kept breaking down in one area. A woman known for her ability to talk with the huldufolk was called in. She confirmed that the huldufolk lived there, but said that they were prepared to move and only asked for a little more time. Construction work was suspended until the woman returned and announced that the elves had gone. Work was then completed without problem.
It’s not surprising that this cultural, storytelling background leads to a love of books and writing, but an article on The Guardian Book Blog suggested that 10% of the adult population will be a published author – and that is traditionally published, in print format. If that is true, it’s a staggering statistic.