“Elves are everywhere in Iceland,” Sahir tells me as I sip my hot cocoa on this windy afternoon in Reykjavik, Iceland. “You just need to know what to look for.”
I’ve come to this coffee house specifically to learn about elves, because I heard that the owner has seen them. Unfortunately the owner sold the restaurant to someone else a few years ago, but it’s still my lucky day: Sahir, the barista, can see into other worlds and she’s happy to help me understand the culture of Iceland’s huldufólk, or “Hidden People.”
Sahir hails from the north of Iceland, a rugged, rural area where most natives still hold a deeply rooted belief in the old ways, when the Hidden People interacted more frequently with humans. When her mother was a teenager, she tells me, a huge rock fell down the mountain and split in half, burying itself deep in the earth. One day a female elf emerged from the ground, through the rock, right in front of her eyes. Some people in town doubted the story, but most believed, including Sahir.
“My generation tends to be more skeptical,” she tells me, “but the older people still believe. Younger people aren’t as close to nature as they used to be, so maybe that’s why.”
Sahir explains to me that Iceland is special. “The earth is particularly alive here,” she tells me, and it’s something I’ve experienced myself. In fact, I’ve used those exact words to describe it. In most places the earth seems like a passive object, but in Iceland, the constant gurgling water, steaming geysers and rushing wind literally feel like a living being. “The Hidden People have a deep connection with the earth,” Sahir explains, “and they feel it here more powerfully than anywhere else.” It’s no wonder in a land like this that more than half the Island’s inhabitants hold some belief in the world of the Hidden People.
Here are some things to know about the Hidden People:
- Elves are neither good nor bad, they merely react to how they are treated by humans.
- You’re most likely to see elves on the longest day of the year, but be especially careful, because on that day they get mischievous and tempt humans with gold and gifts. If you follow them into their home in the rocks, when you finally emerge you’ll have lost your mind.
- Consult with an elf expert before starting a building project to ensure you’re not disturbing an elf habitat. Just a few years ago the Icelandic Supreme Court was brought into a case protecting Hidden People from a road construction project.
- Elves don’t have pointy ears like in Lord of the Rings. They look a lot like humans, but have a special ethereal aura around them.
- Trolls are very vulnerable to sunlight, so they mostly stay underground. The weather turns so quickly in Iceland that sometimes they get caught above ground, and when the sun comes out unexpectedly the trolls turn to stone. Keep an eye out on the southern coast for strangely shaped stones along the road. Most likely they used to be trolls.
- Trolls are much more troublesome than elves. They often sneak out of their lairs and steal sheep or children.
- At Christmas, there’s no Santa as we know it; instead the 13 Lads visit young children and either bring them presents or trouble, depending on their behavior. The Lads’ mother is a troll, which may explain their fickle nature.
Do you believe in elves, trolls or other Hidden People?