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By Vicki Hoefling Andersen
 (Photos as credited)
High on Adventure, November 2017


It’s serious business, these “hidden people” populating a nation that enjoys a high standard of living, little unemployment (2.6%), and the fourth lowest crime rate in the world. They can halt building projects, reroute highways, and care is taken they aren’t provoked. Yet according to a fairly recent survey, only 6% of the residents of the country claim to have seen them.

Welcome to Iceland and the Huldufolk.

The name, deriving from Icelandic “huldu” for “secrecy” and “folk” for people, is most commonly used to refer to elves. Not the caricature North Pole pixie busy making toys, but a being similar in appearance to us. Ubiquitous in Iceland’s folklore and dating back to their Viking sagas, elves join a pantheon of mystical creatures that includes trolls, dwarves, sorcerers and ghosts.

  Iceland, hidden folk face   Iceland, hidden folk face  
Sometimes the very rocks among which they live seem to pay homage to the hidden people
(images courtesy Ragnhildur Jonsdottir)

Although they live alongside humans in lava boulders and wooded parks, to see the huldufolk you must have a special ability or they must grant you permission to see them. They reside in rock homes with lights and windows, grow crops and raise animals, enjoy fishing and music. While not immortal, their lifespan is longer than ours. Mainly peaceable, they can create mayhem if you disregard or threaten their homes.

Iceland’s 99-percent literacy rate places it among the most educated on the planet. Yet as recently as 2007, in a survey conducted by the University of Iceland, 62% of the population say they “do not disbelieve” in the possibility of “hidden people.” Among 1,000 respondents to the questionnaire, representing approximately one of every 300 Icelanders, well over half believe it is “Possible/Probable/Certain” that Hidden People exist (5% “no opinion”).

So where did this paradox come from, and why does it still have such an impact in the 21st century?

  Emstrur lava field Iceland   Gigjokull Iceland  
Vast lava fields such as Emstrur (above left) and glaciers like Gigjokull cover much of Iceland
(images by Vicki Hoefling Andersen)

A chunk of island about the size of Kentucky or the country of Cuba, Iceland’s land mass is more than ten percent barren lava; more than that is buried beneath glaciers. Of the remaining land, less than twenty percent is inhabited, mostly in small towns scattered along its 6,000-mile coastline.

The wild and potentially hostile environment of this remote island near the Arctic Circle holds the power of life and death, the success or failure of crops and livestock. There is something mystical about it that is usually attributed to nature spirits which the settlers profoundly wanted to appease in order to thrive. But the source of Iceland’s diversity of huldufolk isn’t this simple. According to Terry Gunnell, Professor of Folkloristics at the University of Iceland, “Everything about these references suggests they stem from a variety of different belief systems originating in different times and environments... before gradually blending into the latter-day Icelandic huldufolk.”

Perched atop the mid-Atlantic ridge, Iceland’s 180 volcanoes are fed by 30 separate volcanic systems which fueled rumors of mysterious happenings. During Medieval times, many Europeans believed the volcano Hekla was an entrance to Hell. Jutting into the Atlantic Ocean from the western edge of the country, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is home to Snaefellsjokull glacier which covers another active volcano. Famous for its powerful ley lines, this was the entry portal Jules Verne chose for his novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

Regardless if Iceland is home to the huldufolk and access to the under/inner world, powerful forces beyond those attributable to geologic intrusions do seem to be at work across the country, summed up in this brief official statement from the Icelandic Road Administration (ICERA): “In recent decades there have been a few alleged incidents of road construction intruding on elf settlements and cursed places. These problems have all been resolved.”

The huldufolk have been causing all sorts of problems for a long time.

South of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, a small boulder called Alfholl, or Elf Hill, is believed to be the home of elves and has caused roadwork issues since the late 1930s. Jutting into the desired path of a new road, the initial project was immobilized by financial issues. Another construction attempt years later was brought to a halt due to constant broken equipment and missing tools. By the late 1980s it was decided to level the hill, but two drills broke when workers tried to bore through the rock. News reporters covering the problem found their cameras wouldn’t work. These difficulties were finally resolved by routing the road around the rock, and Alfholl is now protected as a cultural heritage.

Expansion plans for another highway near Reykjavik encountered a series of misfortunes in the early 1970s. When it was discovered an elf rock known as Grasteinn was in the way, a medium was brought in to obtain permission to move it. This was granted, but unfortunately the rock broke in the process. That night, one of the equipment operators who helped reset Grasteinn accidently drove a bulldozer across the water supply line to a fish farm and tens of thousands of them did not survive.

  Husadalur Valley troll pee hole Iceland   Husadalur Valley lady troll cave  
Geographical features in the Husadalur Valley belonging to the huldufolk include
the Troll’s Pee Hole and the Lady Troll Cave
(images by Vicki Hoefling Andersen)

Building a road over Trollaskard, the Trolls’ Pass in Hegranes in the late 1970s, required blasting some rocks. When Hafsteinn Bjornsson, a noted medium, informed the engineers the site was cursed, a compromise was attempted. Sadly Bjornsson passed away before this was accomplished. The construction foreman then had dreams warning him against removing the rocks, followed by equipment problems at the site. When the decision was made to work around the troublesome rocks rather than disturb them, the project progressed without further issues.

In 1995, workers extending the Westfjords Highway encountered Klofasteinar, or Cloven Rocks, protruding over the planned roadway. Elves thought to be living in the rocks were blamed for minor accidents and equipment breakdowns, convincing the contractor the rocks shouldn’t be moved. A local woman who could communicate with the huldufolk assured the workers there were no elves in the rocks, and received permission from neighboring elves to supervise Klofasteinar’s relocation. Once done, there were no further problems.

  Elves Ofeigskirkja Iceland   Elves Ofeigskirkja Iceland  
  Elves Ofeigskirkja Iceland   Elves Ofeigskirkja Iceland  
  Elves Ofeigskirkja Iceland   Elves Ofeigskirkja Iceland  
Moving Ofeigskirkja required a lot of work and effort, and shows Iceland’s commitment to respecting the concerns of the huldufolk (images courtesy G. Petur Matthiasson)

Ofeigskirkja, a 50-ton boulder believed to be an elf church, lay in the route of a new major highway near Reykjavik that would cross an 8,000-year-old lava field. The elves informed Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a renowned elf seer, “Ofeigskirkja has been used as a beacon to guide people through the lava field for centuries” and asked for her help. After she contacted the mayor, in March 2015, a construction crew gently moved the elf church out of the way and the new highway was built.

The Akureyri Tunnel in the northern part of Iceland was finally completed in 2017 after a two-year delay due to floods. Workers theorized the water fissures might be the work of elves not pleased about a 4.5-mile tunnel, Iceland’s longest, that shortened the old mountain road by ten miles, being bored through their landscape.

Messing with the huldufolk’s environment can be a serious thing. Elves were blamed for a 2011 rain of rocks onto neighborhood streets In Bolungarvík, possibly in response to an anti-avalanche barrier and tunnel built without their consent the prior year. After a local musician wrote a song of appeasement and an apology ceremony was conducted, things returned to normal.

As the ICERA explains, “We value the heritage of our ancestors and if oral tradition passed on from one generation to the other tells us that a certain location is cursed, or that supernatural beings inhabit a certain rock, then this must be considered a cultural treasure.”

Sometimes you need to stay ahead of the game. In 2004 Alcoa wanted to build an aluminum smelter, but first a government specialist had to confirm that the desired construction site did not contain any archaeological or huldufolk-related sites. An elf hill in Reykjavik, destined to be leveled for the construction of a new apartment complex, was saved by locating the building behind the knoll rather than atop it.

Elves Hotel Klettur Rocks Iceland
Reykjavik’s Hotel Klettur is named for the massive boulder incorporated into its design (“klettur” is Icelandic for boulder or cliff), leaving it undisturbed for the elves who call it home (image courtesy Travel Reykjavik).

Another home to the huldufolk, Dvergastein or Dwarfstone, was left undisturbed when the National Church of Iceland was built in Hafnarfjordour. Hafnarfjordour rerouted a roadway around an elf rock on Merkurgata street, and neighbors on Vesturbraut incorporated a shared huldufolk home into their landscaping. Even if the majority of Icelanders say they can’t see the huldufolk, many people welcome them and provide a place in their gardens for tiny wooden alfhols or elf houses.

Icelanders not only appease, accommodate and welcome their huldufolk neighbors, they sometimes go to great effort and expense to show their appreciation and help their elven friends. Former member of the Icelandic parliament, Arni Johnsen, credits a boulder inhabited by elves for saving his life. When his SUV slid off a cliff and overturned, coming to rest against a 30-ton rock which destroyed his vehicle but restrained him from tumbling onward to his death, he emerged without major injury. Three years later a road was to be built which would destroy the boulder, so Johnsen reached out to Jonsdottir for help in saving the elf rock that had saved him.

Jonsdottir discovered three generations of elves living in the boulder, a rather unusual multi-generational arrangement. They told her they were willing to move if two conditions were met: They wanted grass so they could raise sheep, and the “window” side of their home needed an ocean view. Johnsen, who lives on Vestmannaeyjar, a.k.a. the Westman Islands, offered his own land, and finances, to accomplish this request.

  Vestmannaeyjar elf rock move Iceland   Vestmannaeyjar elf rock move Iceland  
  Vestmannaeyjar elf rock move Iceland   Vestmannaeyjar elf rock move Iceland   Vestmannaeyjar elf rock move Iceland  
Arni Johnsen and Ragnhildur Jonsdottir assure the residents of the boulder that the move will be done with great consideration. Loaded aboard a flatbed and trucked to the coast, it was ferried to the Westman Islands and carefully reinstalled on Johnsen’s property. Jonsdottir checks the placement to ensure the promised ocean view. (Images courtesy Ragnhildur Jonsdottir)

Jonsdottir describes the journey: “In 2012, we drove the seven elves who lived in the rock along with three much bigger elves that came with us from Hellisgerdi Park to help with the project. We drove the south coast to Landeyjarhofn harbor and boarded a ferry to the island, and the ship’s captain welcomed the new inhabitants of Vestmannaeyjar. Upon reaching the island we continued moving the elf home to the new location. Arni Johnsen’s promise of a beautiful view was not exaggerated, and the elves have grass for their sheep.”

Alfaborg Elf Castle
Alfaborg Elves' Castle (Image courtesy Visit East Iceland)

Borgarfjordur eystri in eastern Iceland has a large population of huldufolk. The Queen of the Icelandic Elves is believed to live in Alfaborg, known as the Elves’ Castle or City of the Hidden People. A fortress-appearing butte near Bakkageroi, it is not far from Kirkjusteinn Church Rock in the Kaekjudalur Valley where huldufolk have been seen riding their horses, presumably on their way to services in the cathedral-shaped rock.

Hafnarfjordur Viking village
The Viking Village in Hafnarfjordour is another example of
this port town’s reverence for Iceland’s storied past
(image by Vicki Hoefling Andersen)

While the Elf Court might reside near the eastern seaboard, Hafnarfjordour, about six miles south of Reykjavik and one of Iceland’s oldest settlements, is the unofficial elf capital of Iceland with a sizeable population of elves and trolls rambling through the parks and lava fields conducting their daily business.

  Hellisgerdi Park Elf Garden   Hellisgerdi Park elf Garden church  
In a quiet part of Hafnarfjordour, Hellisgerdi Park is a home and refuge to the huldufolk. Ragnhildur Jonsdottir used to conduct guided Elf Walks along the winding paths, past tranquil ponds and small caves tucked into the lava rock where elf families make their homes. (Images courtesy Ragnhildur Jonsdottir)
  Elf Guardian Hellisgerdi Park Iceland   Elf Guardian Hellisgerdi Park Iceland  
  Elf Guardian Hellisgerdi Park Iceland   Elf Guardian Hellisgerdi Park Iceland   Elf Guardian Hellisgerdi Park Iceland    
Jonsdottir has often captured the ethereal glow of guardian elves, here shown in Hellisgerdi Park (first three), above a lava field, and in Thingvellir National Park (images courtesy Ragnhildur Jonsdottir)

Jonsdottir’s abilities to communicate with the huldufolk has put her in the forefront of efforts to save their homes and special places. She is often called upon to communicate and interpret their wishes. She explains, “Most of my time, I have peaceful friendly relationships with my friends of different worlds. We talk or just sit and knit together, enjoying each other’s company. They help me plant trees and bushes in our new home in the countryside. I give them honey now and then, their favorite treat, and had some stones moved onto our plot of land for the elf friends who moved with us to live in.”

Huldufolk folklore has reached beyond Iceland’s borders in a way most people would find surprising. Some scholars speculate J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” was inspired by the Volsunga Saga, an Icelandic chronicle where opposing groups battle for control of a cursed ring that bestows power and wealth. When a son kills his father and steals the ring, he takes refuge in a cavern with his plunder where, much like Tolkien’s character Gollum, he regresses into a pathetic creature despised by all.

Elves, trolls, barren and potentially hostile landscapes, portals to hell and the center of the earth—if nothing else, Iceland certainly fires the imagination. Just make sure you don’t disrespect the huldufolk.

To learn more about Iceland’s huldufolk, searching the Internet mostly brings up a lot of articles that may be apocryphal, personal, situational or just plain “enhanced” a bit for the story-telling factor. If you are interested, contact me (skicat1 at comcast.net) and I’d be glad to share the official “Icelandic Road Administration and the Belief in Elves” statement (all 2,000+ words of it) distributed by the ICERA, lectures from Professor Gunnell, and/or detailed results from the University of Iceland’s 2007 survey.