A brief treatise on the Icelanders and their elf beliefs

I’m sure you have heard the stories: Icelanders believe in elves, won’t build anything without first checking whether there are elves living on the site, go around knocking on boulders to say hello to the elves, make whole entire maps of elf colonies, and blah-de-blah.

The international media loves to chew on this stuff, and the Icelandic tourist industry loves to feed it to them.

Well, I’m here to tell you: it’s a crock of poo.


“But!” I hear you say breathlessly. “There was this study that showed that Icelanders most definitely do believe in elves. I read about it in Vanity Fair [or insert name of other sophisticated media outlet here].”

Sure, ok. I will grant that there was a study. And allegedly, in this study, some amazingly high proportion of respondents said they believed in elves. However, and this is important: nobody ever tells you how the question was worded. The question was not: “Do you believe in elves?” The question was: “Would you be prepared to absolutely rule out the existence of elves?”

And some really high proportion said that they would absolutely not be prepared to rule out the existence of elves. Because, well, we don’t know, right? I mean, if I was asked “Would you absolutely rule out that the Kardashian family is a pack of zombies?” I would probably answer, “No, I would not absolutely rule it out”. Because what the hell do I know about zombies and the way they might choose to infiltrate mainstream media? Not a thing.

That doesn’t mean I believe that zombies are real, though. (In fact, what it probably means is that I have no freaking idea what makes the Kardashians and their vapid prattle so incredibly appealing … but that’s not the point.)

And please don’t get me started on those few Icelandic folks who run “elf schools” or offer elf tours to hapless tourists, who are led around the elf grounds and told where the elves live, where they go to church, where they do their grocery shopping, where they work out, and where they do whatever “elves” get up to in their daily lives. Sometimes the guides have conversations with elves which the poor tourists don’t see because THEY’RE NOT FREAKING THERE.

Run a poll asking, “Do you think the people who offer elf tours to tourists are weirdos who may or may not believe in elves but definitely believe in making money off tourists”, and I’m willing to bet that at least ninety-four percent of Icelanders would offer a resounding yes. If they were asked why they thought that, they’d probably say: “Because there is no such thing as elves”.

Yes, there have been instances of roads being diverted around some big boulder or other because they were allegedly “elf rocks”. However, that was done not because people actually believed elves lived in those rocks, but out of respect for the mythology of the rock in that particular location.

And, there is no fundamental difference between the terms “elves” and “hidden people”. In Icelandic folklore they are basically the same phenomenon, and the terms are used pretty much interchangeably. Still, to me the term “elves” conjures up thoughts of diminutive green-clad persons with pointy hats. This is vastly different from the elves, or hidden people, of Icelandic lore, who were almost always tall, regal, self-possessed, and a lot better looking than the snivelling mortals all around them. Naturally. After all, what else would you expect from creatures that can knead old people into infants?

Alda’s latest book is The Little Book of the Hidden People, which is all about the Icelanders and their elf beliefs.

The above passage is taken from Alda’s book The Little Book of the Icelanders in the Old Days. It has been slightly edited for length and relevance.

Posted in Iceland, Writing.