Updated: Aug 5, 2020
The reason people tend to gravitate so much towards fairytales and magic is because we view them as an escape from the world around us, a way to go beyond what is thought to be possible. Since the beginning of civilization, and certainly long before television and books, people have entertained themselves with fantastical stories passed down orally for generations. Many stories focused on establishing a life lesson or a warning such as never to wander the forest alone or never to borrow without permission. Other times, they were meant purely for the enjoyment of the listeners, giving them a chance to use their imagination and dream of worlds outside of what is known. Icelandic folklore is no exception.
One of the most popular myths to come from Iceland is the story of the huldufólk, or “Hidden People.” Huldufólk are elf-like creatures that live in Icelandic rocks and cliffs. They rarely interact with people, and they are known to bring mischief and misfortune to anyone who disturbs their land. While the idea of small elves that live in rocks and stir up trouble when disturbed may seem ridiculous to some, to many Icelandic natives, they are as real as you and I. According to a study from the University of Ireland, about 62% of Icelandic natives believe the huldufólk are more than a simple myth. And who’s to say they’re wrong? Just as many children believe Santa Claus will bring them gifts on Christmas if they are good and coal if they are bad, huldufólk encourage people to be respectful of the natural world around them and not to be greedy or selfish, lest they face the consequences. For instance, legend says if you sit on a crossroad where all four roads lead to a church on Jónsmessa, or Midsummer Night, the huldufólk will appear to you and try to lure you away by offering you gifts and riches. However, you must not go with the elves, or you will suffer misfortune. This is only one of many stories about the huldufólk that almost every Icelandic native has heard at least once whether they believe or not.
The belief in huldufólk is presumably rooted in Nordic mythology, with its origin stemming from the Vikings who “conquered” the island only to find it desolate. According to medieval researcher Alaric Hall, the Vikings created the huldufólk as an “other” for them to conquer since the Vikings were most likely the first to settle in Iceland and had difficulty dealing with their isolated existence. The huldufólk also gave them a reason to respect the natural surroundings in what is described as an early form of environmentalism, for they did not want to anger the indigenous “people.” While there is, of course, no concrete evidence to prove the legends of the huldufólk are real, many believers still exist in Iceland as a result of folklore passed down through centuries.
One such believer is Magnús Skarphéðinsson, the leader of Reykjavik’s only Elfschool. While the term “school” is perhaps used loosely, Skarphéðinsson holds lectures and discussions with like minded individuals and skeptics alike to educate others about the hidden people. While he admits he has never personally seen one, he says he has spoken to over 900 Icelanders who claim to have at least caught a glimpse of the hidden people. He explains that Iceland was prepared early on through oral tradition to be open to non-traditional ideas, allowing the huldufólk to feel safe enough to reveal themselves to the natives.
As a result, the huldufólk are frequently taken into account in everyday decisions. The belief in elves has even led to difficulty in roadwork and construction, as believers typically protest the destruction or disturbance of locations elves are thought to inhabit. In the town of Kópavogur, a road was designed to run through a hill elves were thought to inhabit called Álfhóll. In the 1930s, construction began on the road, but the drills and machinery continuously broke down. The road was eventually moved away from the hill, but in the 1980s, construction resumed again to level the hill and build over it. However, even 50 years later, they experienced similar troubles and abandoned the project. The hill has since been historically protected so that no further disruption will occur where the elves allegedly dwell.
The huldufólk are a prime example of early environmentalism in Iceland, but the myths surrounding the hidden people are about more than the land they inhabit. The stories passed through generations have served as gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) reminders of the dangers of immorality and disobedience. However, they also serve as a bit of whimsical, cultural excitement for natives and tourists alike that find themselves at a crossroad or hilltop and are reminded of the hidden people lurking about. So if you find yourself in Iceland and you hear a giggle or rustling in the distance, do not be afraid; it is only the hidden people.