Elves are one of the creatures that have inspired the most fantastic books and stories. Many stories tell us about them. Sometimes they are depicted as benevolent creatures and sometimes as nefarious beings full of malice.
Most countries and cultures share the concept of elves as fantastic and magical beings whose existence is limited to legends and tales that took place in a remote past. That is quite the opposite in Iceland, where elves are real creatures and where its population still has the due respect that Iceland elves deserve.
Few things are ordinary in Iceland. Not its landscapes, not its history, much less its beliefs. This Nordic island has about 300,000 inhabitants, human inhabitants, but an indeterminate number of elves or “Huldufólk” in Icelandic.
The concept of Iceland elves is different from what we know in other parts of the world. Let’s learn a bit more about this exciting side of the Icelandic culture.
Elves in Nordic mythology
The role of elves in Norse mythology is essential. And although it is not exclusive to Scandinavian culture, its representation has been the most widespread and well-known by far.
The word “elf” derives from the proto-Germanic “albh” which means "white". The term became a loanword to different languages evolving on the way, in Old Norse in changed over time to Álfr and which in turn passed into Icelandic as Álfar, Álfafólk, and finally Huldufolk (hidden people).
Elves were minor divinities of nature, men and women who lived in caves, forests, and away from humans. These beings of extraordinary beauty fulfilled an animistic and spiritual belief, without physical limitations. In the Icelandic Eddas or Sagas written by Snorri Sturluson, two different types of elves are named:
• Elves of light or Ljósalfar
• Dark elves or Svartal
"Sá er einn staðr þar, er kallaðr er Álfheimr. Þar byggvir fólk þat, er Ljósálfar heita, in Dökkálfar búa niðri í jörðu, ok eru þeir ólíkir þeim sýnum ok miklu ólíkari fejarlfari Reyndum in Dökkálfari sýnum ok miklu ólíkari reyndum. in bik."
“There is a place that is called home of the elves (Álfheimr). The people who live there are called elves of light (Ljósálfar). But the dark elves (Dökkálfar) live underground and do not resemble them in appearance. - and they are not alike in reality either. Light elves are brighter than the sun, but dark elves are blacker than darkness itself.“ (Snorri, Gylfaginning 17, Prosaic Edda)
However, the Iceland elves or Huldufolk are somewhat different and do not fit this description.
Iceland Elves: Huldufolk
Many think that the Icelandic elves can be defined with the description mentioned above. And it is quite understandable; there was a moment in history when these folktales and creatures intertwined.
During the 19th century in Iceland, the word “Huldufolk” was considered a synonym for álfar or elves. However, some authors such as Jón Árnason clarified that the term “elves” was pejorative, then “Huldufolk” began to be used as a euphemism to avoid the wrath of these creatures. And although there are still many who think that both words refer to the same thing, there is enough evidence to suggest the contrary.
Huldufolk translates to hidden people, and they usually live inside of rocks and in a parallel world invisible to our eyes. However, legend has it that children can see them right away. The Huldufolk have the ability or power to appear to whom they deem appropriate; that is why some adults declared having had encounters with them.
Besides the Nordic roots of this tradition brought along by the Vikings, there is another Christian version of this folktale. And it states that Adam and Eve had many children. Eva used to take good care of them by keeping them pristine. But on a visit from God Himself, she didn’t have time to bathe and clean the Huldufolk properly.
Profoundly embarrassed by the situation, she hid them. But of course, nothing can be hidden from an omniscient God. Knowing what Eve had done, God asked her, Do you have more children? And she straightforwardly answered, “No.” To which God replied: “What is hidden from me must also be hidden from humans.” And this is how these children of Eve became invisible in the eyes of men.
What do Iceland elves look like?
Iceland elves are identical to humans in appearance and form. They are born, grow up and die just like us, humans. They have nothing to do with the image of elves or fairies that we usually know. Smaller, fancifully dressed, and somewhat magical.
Like humans, there may be taller or shorter Huldufolk, but they are still anthropomorphic. The activities that the Huldufolk perform are precisely the same as those of human beings. They go to church, and they weave, produce their food, build societies; it is just that everything happens in a parallel world behind Iceland’s rocks and caves.
The origin of these Norse mythological creatures in Iceland
The origin of these folk creatures can be traced back to Viking times. However, it is interesting to note that the tradition of the Huldufolk as such exists only in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and few wonder why.
The tradition has come down to our days through our ancestors, who mostly recounted their experiences orally and continued to pass it down generations. However, the experiences are not limited to past stories; some of those experiences are recent. Today, it is part of Icelandic folklore and tradition, a tradition that is still very much alive in the land of fire and ice.
Do Icelanders believe in elves?
There are statistics from 2007 confirming that 62% of Icelanders believe in elves. However, this reading can be misleading. In reality, no more than 5% of Icelanders believe undoubtedly in elves. While the rest of society keeps a more neutral and skeptical position. They just don’t know, elves might or might not exist, who knows?
The response to this question does not have a straightforward answer. Many Icelanders cannot even provide a “yes” or “no” answer. There is no black or white, there is a whole gray area.
To understand the belief of the Huldufolk, you have to experience Iceland. An Island with a unique, wild, virgin landscape where nature’s forces are constantly changing and moving. In Iceland, you grow up surrounded by this contact with the environment and wildlife that speaks to us every day. Whether in the form of earthquakes, geothermal energy, geysers, or volcanoes. The land here is alive, and Icelanders can see it and feel it.
Many of those who travel to Iceland leave with a much more intense experience than just sightseeing. Finding yourself in the solitude of a vast landscape of irregular, unique, and sometimes terrifying forms makes you contemplate your existence from a somewhat humbler perspective. You feel smaller, tiny, right before the immensity of what your eyes see. Is there something beyond ourselves? Many people end up wondering.
These sensations have accompanied Icelanders for centuries. The history of the Huldufolk may be a consequence of that feeling. It has also served to help the little ones interact with nature: be careful with this, don’t go there, don’t do that. Keeping our children safe and nature unspoiled.
Elves and the Icelandic government
Newspapers published news on how the existence of elves influences the Icelandic government’s decisions. That leads many to think that everyone in Iceland believes in elves, but that is a wrong conclusion.
Decisions have been made to stop road construction, change the layout of roads, or move stones based on elves’ existence. But as the Road Administration of Iceland manager has expressed, the decision was made based on the respect of our tradition and culture, not on the belief of elves itself.
There are areas where, for some reason, machines always stop working, batteries run out, and phenomena that could be classified as paranormal occur. That is where many believe that it is an area inhabited by elves.
A person is then authorized to speak with them, ask for permission, make agreements, or change plans. There is a street in Kopavogur, a municipality adjacent to Reykjavík, with a street called Álfavegur or “Road of the elves” in English.
On the side of this road, there is an immense stone that was removed from the road after tough negotiations with the elves. The stone has its own street number. Now, if the elves still live there or not is something that we cannot confirm.
Elf School in Iceland
It’s not just Icelanders who are open to the possibility that elves exist. There are also many tourists and visitors interested in this part of Icelandic folklore. For those who wonder how to learn about elves and fairies in Iceland, there is the Elf School in Iceland, a site created expressly to share the knowledge, origin, and customs of elves with foreigners.
Magnús, the school principal and expert on these creatures, offers classes of about 2–3 hours for about USD 64. More than 900 Icelanders claim to have had encounters with elves, and he has dedicated his life to studying these testimonies and collecting everything to share them with the world.
Many of the people who have had these experiences have their sixth sense more developed, he states. Some people have only seen elves go by; others have communicated and spoken with them directly. In the most extreme cases, the person has managed to go into their world and interact there before returning to human reality.
In case you are interested in learning more about elves and want to attend a class, you can contact them and require further information:
Sidumuli 31, (2nd floor),
108 Reykjavik. ICELAND.
+354-588-6060, or +354-894-4014.
Hafnarfjordur Elf Circle Route
If you want more after attending elf school, then Hafnarfjördur Elf Circle Route is all you need.
Hafnarfjördur is a small port town about 10 km from Keflavik, so you can take your rental car in Reykjavík and head to the area. This area is well known in Iceland for being home to one of the largest colonies of elves and other creatures. There is, therefore, a marked route that you can travel and that will take you to the following points:
- Hellisgerði: A dwelling place for the elves where there is also a church for these creatures to congregate. Hellisgerdi is a park, and within it, there is an area called “Elf Garden.” It opens in the summer in the afternoon.
- Siggubær: City museum with exhibitions on elves.
- Víðistaðatún: Lava fields where many elves live.
- Hraphnist: It is an area with large rocks nearby where old elves live.
- Langeyri: area with gravel beaches. It is said that elves can be seen both in the water and near the shore. Also, goblins and nymphs.
- Hamarinn: It is a cliff where there is a palace owned by the elves’ royal family.
- Laekurinn: is a brook where nymphs live.
- The church on Austurgata Street: Refuge site for elves and Huldufolk who need help.
Are elves real in Iceland?
For many people, they are indeed real. Most Icelanders who believe in elves do so because people in their trust circle have had experiences with them—grandparents, parents, siblings, uncles, aunts. Etc. There are several videos on YouTube and other platforms with elves being caught on camera in Iceland. We can’t, of course, confirm whether that is real footage or not.
This debate barely exists for Icelanders; it is not about whether Huldufolk exists or not, whether they are real or not. They are part of our culture. We grow up with these stories, we grow up with testimonies about them, and it is something we are still proud of.
The truth is that regardless of whether you believe in them or not, when you visit Iceland, you can’t help but have a feeling that there is magic everywhere. To see the northern lights dancing in the sky, along with the Icelandic landscapes that invite you to think that you are not even on planet earth.
This island is home to people who live with nature’s forces in constant movement; most of these forces are invisible to the eyes. But they can, however, create beautiful things or destroy everything in a blink of an eye.
And when your existence depends on something more significant and uncontrollable that can barely be perceived with your eyes, it can, perhaps, lead you to believe there has to be something more. We really do not know. What about you?