The Little Book of the Hidden People
Twenty stories of elves from Icelandic folklore
Icelandic folklore is rife with tales of elves and hidden people that inhabited hills and rocks in the landscape. But what do those elf stories really tell us about the Iceland of old and the people who lived there?
The Little Book of the Hidden People presents twenty translated elf stories from Icelandic folklore, along with fascinating notes on the context from which they sprung. It is available in paperback, ebook, audiobook, and hardcover formats. The paperbacks, ebooks, and audiobooks are available from your nearest digital store. The hardcovers ship from Iceland.
The elf adornment
Once in bygone days, all the people from a certain farm went to evensong on New Year’s Eve, save for one maidservant who was made to stay at home to watch over the farm.
Soon after everyone had left, the maidservant heard a commotion and then a knocking at the door. She took a light and went to answer it, and found outside a large group of hidden men and women who invited her to dance with them, which she gratefully accepted. After she had danced for a while, the elves murdered her. She lay dead in the doorway when the other farm residents came home from church.
The same incident repeated itself the following New Year’s Eve. All the farm residents went to church, except for one maidservant who remained at home. After a time she heard a great ruckus, as the other maidservant had. There was a pounding at the door, and outside she found the same visitors as had been there the previous New Years’ Eve. The elves were boisterous in the extreme, and with much glee invited the maiden to dance with them. This ended with the hidden people cutting off her head on the farmhouse threshold, and that is how the farm residents found her when they returned from church.
On the third New Year’s Eve, everyone left the farm as before, except for one maidservant. When the people had gone she swept the floor and placed lights throughout the house wherever possible. Then she sat down to read. After a while, she began to hear loud noises and a strange commotion. There was a knocking at the door, but she ignored it and continued reading.
Next, the elves came into the baðstofa and tried to entice her to dance. She ignored them. They greatly admired how tidy everything was, and also the determination with which she read her book.
The elves passed the night in the baðstofa, engaged in frenzied dancing. When dawn finally came the maidservant said: “Thank God it is daybreak.” This so shocked the elves that they instantly made to leave. Before going, one of the hidden men placed a chest on the floor, which he asked the maiden to accept. He told her that she should use the adornment contained within it on her wedding day. The elves then vanished and the maiden kept the chest, telling no one of its existence.
A short while later the farm residents returned and were greatly relieved to find the maidservant safe and sound, even if the house was bedlam from the carousing of the elves.
Much later, when the maidservant was preparing to wed, she opened the chest as the elves had instructed and found a woman’s dress sewn with gold thread and a gold ring. She is said to have been exceptionally beautiful in her elf adornment.
From approximately 1300 onward, Icelandic authorities – meaning the church and king – took great pains to ban dancing among the Icelanders. Dancing, they believed, lowered people’s inhibitions and led to all sorts of debauchery, which in the eyes of the authorities was synonymous with unwanted pregnancies. Those had to be avoided at all costs, for the simple reason that there was not enough food to feed everyone already in the world.
Before the ban, dances were among the few opportunities people had to get together and have some fun. One of the most infamous was the Jörfagleði, an annual dance held at the farm Jörfi in Haukadalur. One year, nineteen children are said to have been conceived there, while other reports put that number as high as thirty.
After a couple of centuries of feeble prohibitions, dancing was unequivocally outlawed in Iceland from the early 1700s until the late 1800s. My thought is that stories like this one may have been “floated out there” to warn against the evils of dancing. The propaganda of the day, if you will.
Incidentally, the man who finally succeeded in banning the Jörfagleði events, Jón Magnússon, fell on some seriously hard times after that. He was the local district magistrate and was eventually tried for a variety of crimes, evicted from office, and just barely escaped flogging and execution. He died in complete poverty. The word on the street was that his misfortune was a direct result of the Jörfagleði ban since he had upset the elves who routinely took part in the celebration. In the end, the story went, the elves had taken a stand with the proletariat against the ruling elite. So in other words the elves were not only enchanting, glamorous, and powerful, they were also political.
The fascination of the international media
The meaning of elf
Come help my wife in childbirth ..
Elves were badass
Mind your morals
Hear all about the ljúflingar ..
Glamorous and regal
The grim realities
The movie stars of the day
And so much more inside!
Immerse yourself in the stories of the hidden people—an integral part of the cultural identity and psychological fabric of the Icelandic nation. Learn about the struggles, hopes, resilience, and endurance of the Icelanders in the centuries past.
Get your copy of The Little Book of the Hidden People today!
About the author
Alda Sigmundsdóttir is a writer, and occasional journalist. She runs her own independent press, Little Books Publishing, based in Reykjavík, Iceland.
Alda is the author of ten books, each of which explores an aspect of Icelandic culture or society. Her two latest books, The Little Book of the Icelanders at Christmas and The Little Book of Days in Iceland, are about the Icelanders’ enthusiasm for the Yuletide season, and Iceland’s special seasonal events and holidays, respectively. Alda is active on social media, and may be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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