Thursday, March 12, 2009

Icelandic Elves

You might think that widespread belief in nature spirits of various sorts is confined to the same third-world societies that persecute witches and engage in various other superstitions that don't even make sense to trained magicians, but you would be wrong. An article today from Slate discusses the Icelandic belief in elves or "hidden people" (huldufólk in Icelandic). These beings are apparently similar to the Fey of continental Europe and the British Isles, and according to the article 54% of Icelanders refuse to deny their existence outright and 8% are certain that they exist. 3% of the population even claim to have encountered these beings personally.

The huldufólk are thought to live in another dimension, invisible to most. They build their homes inside rocks and on craggy hillsides, and they seem to favor lava formations. The port town of Hafnarfjördur, near Reykjavík, is thought to have a particularly large settlement of elves—as well as other mystical beings like dwarves (who also fit under the broad category of huldufólk). According to local clairvoyants, the huldufólk royal family lives at the base of a cliff in that town.

Not only do many Icelanders believe that these beings exist, they are also said to make trouble for land development and other public works projects that proceed without their approval. Mediums are often employed by construction firms to contact the huldufólk and secure their consent before moving forward with projects. Many believe that failure to do so can be dangerous, and even when all these steps are taken approval is not automatically granted.

When Icelanders try to build roads or settlements through elf dwellings, the elves are said to go bonkers—causing equipment failures and other problems. In the early 1970s, for example, contractors trying to move a large rock to make way for a highway near Reykjavík hired a clairvoyant, Zophanías Pétursson, after experiencing several minor mishaps. Pétursson detected the presence of elves and claimed to obtain a waiver from the supernatural creatures so that work could progress. But the elves weren't finished: A bulldozer operator who had helped move the stone fractured a water pipe that fed into a fish farm, killing thousands of trout hatchlings.

I've never encountered the Fey myself, though I've talked to a number of other magicians over the years who claim to have contacted them in isolated undeveloped spaces like the parks that line the banks of the Mississippi River here in the Twin Cities. Along the river valley there is a lot of green space even running right past both downtowns, so if such spirits can be found in cities at all Minneapolis and St. Paul strike me as pretty good places to look. Despite my years of magical practice I've always found clairvoyance difficult, so maybe it's more a lack of talent on my part than their absence that has prevented me from seeing or experiencing them over the years.

Like magick, nature spirits have been part of the human experience for many thousands of years, and only in the last century or so has much of the modern world rejected the idea that they could still haunt our streams and forests. Maybe in places like Iceland their presence is simply too tangible to be ignored and their numbers too great to be easily dismissed, even by those who might otherwise consider themselves unbelievers. Certainly any force, magical or otherwise, that has shown itself capable of causing real damage should be taken into account by those who find themselves in opposition to it.

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Suecae Sounds said...

Very interesting. Modernization and industrialization came to Iceland very late. Iceland was christened around year 1000 by decision of the althing. Pagan influences continued to live on probably. Both inside the adopted christian belief and outside it.

Snorre Sturlarson who wrote down the Prosaisic Edda lived during the 12th and 13th century. But all of this you probably already know. :)

Scott Stenwick said...

But all of this you probably already know. :)

I do, but it still bears mentioning that Sturlarson's work is profoundly important to modern Norse Heathenry. Iceland retained many of the old Norse beliefs and traditions into the present era precisely because of its late modernization and isolated location, and without its contributions many aspects of the Norse tradition could easily have slipped away.

Suecae Sounds said...

(...) without its contributions many aspects of the Norse tradition could easily have slipped away.

- Exactly. Without this history we would know much less. And we would be poorer for it.

Courie Bishop said...

Oh! Here's a cute little documentary on Icelandic Elves!