Huldufólk

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See Huldra for general folklore on these beings across Scandinavia
Huldufólk
Engraving of a man jumping after a female elf into a precipice. An illustration to the Icelandic legend of Hildur, the Queen of the Elves.
Grouping Mythological
Similar creatures Elf, huldra, fairy, mermaid, pixie, sprite, leprechaun
Mythology Icelandic
Country Iceland
Habitat Various

Huldufólk (Icelandic hidden people[1] from huldu- "pertaining to secrecy" and fólk "people", "folk") are elves in Icelandic folklore.[2][3] Building projects in Iceland are sometimes altered to prevent damaging the rocks where they are believed to live.[4][5][6][7][8] According to these Icelandic folk beliefs, one should never throw stones because of the possibility of hitting the huldufólk.[9]

Icelandic gardens often feature tiny wooden álfhól (elf houses) for elves/hidden people to live in.[10] Some Icelanders have also built tiny churches to convert elves to Christianity.[11] President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has explained the existence of huldufólk tales by saying: "Icelanders are few in number, so in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies."[12]

They are also a part of folklore in the Faroe Islands.[13][14][15][16][17] In Faroese folk tales, Huldufólk are said to be "large in build, their clothes are all grey, and their hair black. Their dwellings are in mounds, and they are also called Elves."[18] They also dislike crosses, churches and electricity.[19]

Terminology[edit]

The term huldufólk was taken as a synonym of álfar (elves) in 19th century Icelandic folklore. Jón Árnason found that the terms are synonymous, except álfar is a pejorative term. Konrad von Maurer contends that huldufólk originates as a euphemism to avoid calling the álfar by their real name.[20]

There is, however, some evidence, that the two terms have come to be taken as referring to two distinct sets of supernatural beings in contemporary Iceland. Katrin Sontag found that some people do not differentiate elves from hidden people, while others do.[21] A 2006 survey by Erlendur Haraldsson found that '54% of respondents did not distinguish between elves and hidden people, 20% did and 26% said they were not sure'.[22]

Elf houses near Strandakirkja in south Iceland

Origins[edit]

Gunnell writes: "different beliefs could have lived side by side in multicultural settlement Iceland before they gradually blended into the latter-day Icelandic álfar and huldufólk." [23] He also writes: "Huldufólk and álfar undoubtedly arose from the same need. The Norse settlers had the álfar, the Irish slaves had the hill fairies or the Good People. Over time, they became two different beings, but really they are two different sets of folklore that mean the same thing." [24]

According to one folk tale, the origins of the hidden people can be traced to Adam and Eve. Eve hid her dirty, unwashed children from God, and lied about their existence. God then declared: "What man hides from God, God will hide from man." [25] Other folktales claim that huldufólk originate from Lilith, or are fallen angels condemned to live between heaven and hell.[26]

Precursors to elves/hidden people can be found in the writings of Snorri Sturluson[27] and in skaldic verse.[28] Elves were also mentioned in eddaic poems,[29] and appear to be connected to fertility.[30]

Official opposition to dancing may have begun in Iceland as early as the 12th-century, and the association of dancing with elves can be seen as early as the 15th-century. One folktale shows the elves siding with the common people and taking revenge on a sheriff who banned dance parties. Guðmundsdóttir concludes that these legends "show that Icelanders missed dancing".[31]

In the 13th and 14th centuries, books from mainland Europe reached Iceland, and may have influenced folktales about elves.[32]

Einar Ólafur Sveinsson writes: "Round about 1600 sources for hidden folk become so voluminous that we can readily define the beliefs and legends about them, and after that there is one source after another about them right down into the twentieth century."[33] According to Árni Björnsson, belief in hidden people grew during the 17th and 18th centuries when Iceland was facing tough times.[34]

Holidays[edit]

There are four Icelandic holidays considered to have a special connection with hidden people: New Year's Eve, Twelfth Night (January 6), Midsummer Night and Christmas night.[35] Elf bonfires (álfabrennur) are a common part of the holiday festivities on Twelfth Night (January 6).[36][37][38] There are many Icelandic folktales about elves and hidden people invading Icelandic farmhouses during Christmas and holding wild parties.[39] It is customary in Iceland to clean the house before Christmas, and to leave food for the huldufólk on Christmas.[40] On New Year's Eve, it is believed that the elves move to new locations, and Icelanders leave candles to help them find their way.[41] On Midsummer Night, folklore states that if you sit at a crossroads, elves will attempt to seduce you with food and gifts; there are grave consequences for being seduced by their offers, but great rewards for resisting.[42]

Icelandic folklore[edit]

Haukur Ingi Jónasson, a theologian and psychoanalyst, writes:

"The imaginary elves and hidden people are another fascinating projection of the Icelandic psyche upon nature. These creatures live in the underworld right under the beneath of the ground in rocks and hills. Icelandic folklore contains two accounts of the origin of elves. One claims that they are the unwashed children of Eve that she wanted to hide from God, thus, symbolically representing aspects of the human personality that the self regards as unwanted. As an omniscient God knows everything, however, he decided that whatever humans try to hide from him, he would hide from them. The other account of the origin of elves holds that these creatures were created at the time when God created a woman for the first man, Adam. As the woman turned out to be exceedingly difficult to manage (for both Adam and God), God changed his plan by creating a man for her, equal to her untamable nature, and named him Alfur. She was named Alvör, and all elves and trolls are descended from them. Both stories point towards a male tendency to blame women for their provocation, as well as the repression of unaccepted tendencies. Many things indicate that the hidden people originate in our unconscious: They resemble us in many ways, though they are more spirit-like and invisible, and to see the elves, must to either be given permission by them, or have a special ability. They can have supra-human capacities; and they can be both better and worse than humans. To provoke their anger means trouble but to help them in times of crisis means blessings as a result they are powerful, respected and feared. The hidden people have various human attributes, and even though they live longer than we do, they are born and they die just as we do. They eat and drink, play instruments, have lights in their houses, go fishing, move residences, and keep animals, though they are more productive than those of humans. Traditional belief holds that there are both good elves and bad elves, light elves and dark. Light elves live closer to the gods and are Christians. They worship in churches that can be identified in formation of rocks or in domelike caves. The dark elves live in the ground. The hidden people live not only in hills and stones, but in the ocean and lakes as well, and even in the air. The elves do not live in burnt lava for it is the dwelling of evil spirits and death. It is possible to learn magic (how to influence the unconscious of others with psychological powers) from the hidden people. They can be very seductive, though if you don’t do what they want they turn against you — and if you do accept what they offer (or identify with the psychic contents that they represent) you run the risk of becoming insane." [43]

Several scholars have commented on the connections between hidden people and the Icelandic natural environment. B. S. Benedikz, in his discussion of Jón Árnason's grouping of folktales about Elves, Water-dwellers, and Trolls together, writes:

"The reason is of course perfectly clear. When one's life is conditioned by a landscape dominated by rocks twisted by volcanic action, wind and water into ferocious and alarming shapes... the imagination fastens on these natural phenomena".[44]

Ólina Thorvarðardóttir writes: "Oral tales concerning Icelandic elves and trolls no doubt served as warning fables. They prevented many children from wandering away from human habitations, taught Iceland's topographical history, and instilled fear and respect for the harsh powers of nature."[45]

Michael Strmiska writes: "The Huldufólk are... not so much supernatural as ultranatural, representing not an overcoming of nature in the hope of a better deal beyond but a deep reverence for the land and the mysterious powers able to cause fertility or famine."[46] Pálsdóttir claims that in a landscape filled with earthquakes, avalanches, and volcanoes, "it is no wonder that the native people have assigned some secret life to the landscape. There had to be some unseen powers behind such unpredictability, such cruelty." [47] Alan Boucher writes: "Thus the Icelander's ambivalent attitude towards nature, the enemy and the provider, is clearly expressed in these stories, which preserve a good deal of popular -- and in some cases probably pre-christian -- belief." [48]

Robert Anderson writes that syncretism "is active in Iceland where Christianity, spiritism, and Icelandic elf lore have syncretized in at least a couple instances." [49]

Terry Gunnell notes that huldufólk legends recorded in the 18th and 19th centuries showed them to be "near mirror-images of those humans who told stories about them--except they were beautiful, powerful, alluring, and free from care, while the Icelanders were often starving and struggling for existence. The huldufólk seem in many ways to represent the Icelander's dreams of a more perfect and happy existence." [50] Anthropologist Jón Haukur Ingimundarson claimed that huldufólk tales told by 19th century Icelandic women were a reflection of how only 47% of women were married, and "sisters often found themselves relegated to very different functions and levels of status in society... the vast majority of Icelandic girls were shunted into supporting roles in the household." He goes on to say that these stories justified the differences in role and status between sisters, and "inculcated in young girls the... stoic adage never to despair, which was a psychological preparedness many would need as they found themselves reduced in status and denied the proper outlet for their sexuality in marriage, thereby sometimes having to rely on infanticide to take care of the unsolicited and insupportable effects of their occasional amours, an element... related in huldufólk stories." [51]

Anna Pietrzkiewicz contends that the huldufólk symbolize idealized Icelandic identity and society, the key elements of which are seeing the "past as a source of pride and nature as unique and pure." [52]

Hidden people often appear in the dreams of Icelanders.[53] They are usually described as wearing 19th-century Icelandic clothing,[54] and are often described as wearing green.[55]

Contemporary Iceland[edit]

Surveys[edit]

Árni Björnsson, the former director of the ethnological department of the National Museum of Iceland, did a study of Icelanders born between 1870 and 1920. He was disappointed to find that only 10% believed in supernatural beings.[56][57]

According to a 1975 survey by psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson, Icelanders’ level of belief in hidden people and fairies can be broken down into the following percentages:

  • Impossible, 10%
  • Unlikely, 18%
  • Possible, 33%
  • Probable, 15%
  • Certain, 7%
  • No opinion, 17% [58]
# Question Total Men Women Age 30-39 Age 40-49 Age 50-59 Age 60-70 Education: Primary Education: Secondary Education: College
20 Percentage of Respondents Claiming Various Types of Psychic Experiences: Fairies or "hidden folks" 5 5 5 3 4 8 6 8 3 0
41 Attitudes Towards Paranormal Phenomena Etc.: "Hidden Folks" and fairies
impossible 10 14 7 14 10 5 10 7 10 24
unlikely 18 19 16 18 21 14 16 10 18 38
possible 33 31 34 28 33 38 33 35 32 26
probable 15 14 16 14 15 17 17 21 14 5
certain 7 7 8 8 7 9 4 10 8 0
no opinion 17 15 19 18 14 17 20 17 18 17

[59]

There was also a 1995 survey by Pétur Pétursson, which only looked at people interested in alternative belief systems and alternative medicine rather than the general population. According to the survey, among the people this group, belief in elves broke down as follows: 70% believed in their existence, 6% did not believe in their existence, 23% were unsure, and 1% would not answer.[60]

A July 1998 survey by Dagblaðið Vísir found that 54.4% of Icelanders surveyed claimed to believe in elves, while 45.6% did not.[61][62] This survey has been criticized for only allowing yes or no responses rather than more nuanced answers. Notably, it also showed that supporters of Framsóknarflokkur (the Progressive Party) believed in elves more than other political parties.[63]

A 2006 rerun of Erlendur Haraldsson's 1975 survey by Erlendur and Terry Gunnell[22] found that "There is a little bit more doubt than there used to be, but generally the figures were much the same as they were." [64] Sontag summarises its results: "8.0% of 650 persons [...] were certain about the existence of huldufólk and álfar, 16.5% thought it was likely they existed, 31.0% assumed it was possible, 21.5% thought it was unlikely, 13.5% thought it was impossible and 8.5% did not have an opinion on this."[65]

Anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup found that different ways of asking Icelanders about Huldufólk could elicit very different responses.[66] Similarly, Folklore professor Terry Gunnell has said: "Very few will say immediately that they 'believe' in such, but they won't deny it either." [64]

Icelandic communities in other countries may have lower levels of belief in huldufólk.[67] Daisy L. Neijmann claims that among Icelanders in Canada, "Belief in these creatures... was geographically bound seeing that they were part of the Icelandic landscape, and therefore they could not, ultimately, survive among Icelandic Canadians." [68]

Tourism[edit]

Árni Björnsson thinks that the belief in elves/hidden people has been exaggerated by the tourist industry and then reported by the mass media, giving a distorted view of Icelandic culture.[69][70] Valdimar Hafstein feels that this claim is "rubbish." He goes on to say: "Iceland has experienced a total revolution in terms of living standards. Most of the population now live in cities, and Icelandic identity is tied up with a way of life that is very much disappearing. In most contemporary accounts elves are not urban people but live on farms, authentic Icelanders. Antagonisms seem to come up when cities are being expanded, so there may be feelings of guilt mixed with nostalgia." [71]

The Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavík organizes five hour long educational excursions for visitors.[72][73]

Hafnarfjörður offers a "Hidden Worlds tour", a guided walk of about 90 minutes. It includes a stroll through Hellisgerdi Park, where the paths wind through a lava field planted with tall trees and potted bonsai trees in summer, and said to be peopled with the town's largest elf colony.

Stokkseyri has the Icelandic Wonders museum, where "Museum guests will walk into a world of the Icelandic elves and hidden people and get a glimpse of their life."[74]

Road construction stopped[edit]

Álfhóll in Kópavogur. Since the elves are believed to live here, the road narrows.

Álfhóll (Elf Hill) is the most famous home of elves in Kópavogur, and Álfhólsvegur (Elf Hill Road) is named after it. Late in the 1930s, road construction began on Álfhólsvegur, which was supposed to go through Álfhóll, which meant that Álfhóll would have to be demolished. Nothing seemed to go well, and construction was stopped due to money problems. A decade later road construction through Álfhóll was to be continued, but when work resumed machines started breaking and tools got damaged and lost. The road remained routed around the hill, not through it as originally planned. In the late 1980s, the road was to be raised and paved. Construction went as planned until it came time to demolish part of Álfhóll. A rock drill was used, but it broke. Another drill was fetched, but that one broke, as well. After both drills broke to pieces, the workers refused to go near the hill with any tools. Álfhóll is now protected by the city as a cultural heritage, and remains much as it was after the last Ice Age.[75] Kópavogur has remained one of the most prominent sites of stories about elves disrupting road-building,[76] and this is the subject of the 2010 film Sumarlandið, which depicts the Kópavogur stone Grásteinn as an elf-home.

In 2013, proposed road construction from the Álftanes peninsula to the Reykjavík suburb of Garðabær, undertaken by the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission, was stopped because elf supporters and environmental groups protested, stating that the road would destroy the habitat of elves and local cultural beliefs.[77]

One of the foremost public commentators on building projects in relation to elves is the self-proclaimed seer and expert Erla Stefánsdóttir.

Other incidents[edit]

In 1982, 150 Icelanders went to the NATO base in Keflavík to look for "elves who might be endangered by American Phantom jets and AWACS reconnaissance planes."[78] In 2004, Alcoa had to have a government expert certify that their chosen building site was free of archaeological sites, including ones related to huldufólk folklore, before they could build an aluminium smelter in Iceland.[79][80] In 2011, elves/huldufólk were believed by some to be responsible for an incident in Bolungarvík where rocks rained down on residential streets.[81][82][83]

Changing beliefs[edit]

Insofar as Icelanders do believe in huldufólk, it is clear that beliefs are changing from those current in the nineteenth century; indeed, this change is itself evidence that, at least among some people, folklore about huldufólk is a meaningful part of contemporary culture. Unnur Jökulsdóttir found that:

Í byrjun ferðar var ég dálítið ringluð á öllum þessum tegundum hulduvera sem fólk sagði mér frá og uppgötvaði innra með mér að ég var að leita að "hreinræktuðu huldufólki", svona eins og því er lýst í þjóðsögunum og eins og talað var um það í minni sveit. En smám saman sætti ég mig við að í huldufólkstrúnni eru nýbúar, nýjar sortir af álfum sem sjáendur tala um og lýsa. Eitthvað sem ekki er til í eldri sögum og sannar að þessi trú er á hreyfingu. Og það koma nýjar verur inn í sagnaheiminn, enda er munnleg sagnahefð alltaf sambland af ytri áhrifum og gömlum arfi.[84]
At the beginning of my journey I was somewhat confused by all the different kinds of hidden beings that people told me about, and realised that I was looking for the 'pure huldufólk of the sort that are described in folk tales and were talked out in my own district. But gradually I got used to the idea that in huldufólk-beliefs there are immigrants, new kinds of elves which clairvoyants talk about and describe. Something that does not exist in the older stories and which demonstrates that this belief is alive. And new beings come into the world of stories, as oral story-tradition is always a mixture of influences from outside and ancient heritage.

Significant sites[edit]

Álfaborg, Iceland

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]