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Most visitors to Iceland are understandably keen to get their vacation started as soon as possible. But instead of heading straight to Reykjavik or the Blue Lagoon, take a five-minute detour to the waterfront town of Hafnarfjörður. Here, you’ll find the familiar moss-covered rocks and lava outcrops that dot Iceland’s landscape — but also one of Iceland’s largest elf settlements. But unless you have a special talent for communicating with the huldufolk (hidden folk) yourself, it’s a good idea to book a tour with someone who has. There’s even a bona fide Elf School in Reykjavik for the truly hardcore.
Across the country, other such rocks and lava formations are thought to be inhabited by huldufolk. They conceal elf homes, elf churches, and other buildings. So what is it with the elves? Read on to discover why they play such a prominent role in Icelandic culture.
Behind the Fascination
A poll carried out by Icelandic newspaper DV in 1998 gave respondents two choices: Did they believe in elves or not? The results: Five in 10 men and 6 out of 10 women said they did, in fact, think that huldufolk do exist. In a 2011 study for the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, around one-third of those polled considered it possible that elves are real, though the study acknowledged that personal experience with the mythical creatures was rare.
In Iceland, that desire to live side-by-side with elves goes back centuries. The study drew parallels with the concept of guardian angels; perhaps elves were a pre-Christian, pagan form of angels. According to the book Elves and Hidden People, when God summoned Eve and asked her to show Him her children, she had so many she didn’t have time to wash and dress all of them. Those that weren’t presentable she hid in a cave. When God asked her if she had more children, Eve lied and said she did not. So God’s response was that those children she had hid would remain so forever, hidden from all her descendants “except by special exception.”
Why Is It So Prevalent?
Today, though Iceland is predominantly Lutheran, the belief in elves — or at least an unwillingness to dismiss them entirely — remains. For some, it seems logical —if we can have faith in a God we can’t see, why not in huldufolk too? Others explain the enduring belief as a consequence of living in a country where nature makes its presence felt in such a dramatic fashion. The land itself is alive, they argue, as manifested in the creaking of glaciers as they slide out of the highland interior, in the many earthquakes that shake the ground or the emissions of sulphur gases beside naturally fed hot springs. Throughout the winter, the green curtains of the Northern Lights dance across the dark sky, a phenomenon that feels mysterious despite the science that explains it.
In 2016, two farmers on the Snæfellsnes peninsula started collecting stories from other residents as part of a consultation on a land use plan. They received documents that have been passed down through generations, detailing how interwoven the creatures are in local lore. One tale in particular focused on the importance of the elf community in protecting livestock. The farmer, Ragnhildur Sigurðardóttir, claimed that her sheep once sought refuge behind a small hill on the farm during harsh storms, surviving the weather against the odds. It could be coincidence, of course, or at the very least the shelter provided by the hill against wind and snow, but Sigurðardóttir is convinced that the hill’s resident elves are responsible.
This quirky custom brings to mind the willingness to indulge children when it comes to Santa Claus. Coincidently, huldufolk are especially significant in Iceland in December, when children get a visit from the 13 Yule Lads. These mischievous half-trolls, akin to elf cousins, come to play pranks on the nights leading up to Christmas. They leave presents for those that have been good and raw or rotten potatoes for those that have been naughty.
Don’t Get on Their Bad Side
A fear of antagonizing huldufolk doesn’t end with Christmastime. Numerous newspaper reports allege that construction projects have been impacted by elves. One of the most famous supposedly took place in the Reykjavik suburb of Kópavogur, where engineers’ plans to build a road through a rocky outcrop were thwarted numerous times. Work on the street Álfhóll (Elf Hill) had been plagued since the 1930s with interruptions and delays due to broken tools and other mishaps. Some said that the disruptions were caused by the elves who lived in the rock as they fought to protect their home. Eventually, it was decided that the road should divert around it — to this day, the road narrows at that point.
It’s not the only road to have faced such issues, though sometimes the disruption appeared to be coincidental. In 2015, a landslide after heavy rain caused a road in Siglufjörður in northern Iceland to be blocked by mud and stones. Road workers were summoned to clear up the mess, but in their rush to do so unwittingly dumped it on top of a rock believed to be inhabited by elves. When the Iceland Road Administration were notified, they didn’t wish to risk offending the elves any further, as the Álfkonusteinn or Elfin lady stone was considered so important. So, they sent a clean-up crew to clear debris from the rock and hose it off.
So Where Can You Find the Huldufolk?
From a distance, the Álfaborg in the East Iceland town of Borgarfjörður-Eystri looks like any other small hill, but those who believe in the huldufolk know it as the residence of Borghildur, the Elf Queen. Most of us won’t be able to see inside her palace, of course, but the sign in front of the hill reads: “Their homes (inside the rocks) are similar to those of 19th century Iceland, just a bit nicer.” In fact, Álfaborg is nicknamed “City of the Elves.”
However, Ásbyrgi Canyon in North Iceland is thought to be the capital city of the elves, with homes, public buildings, and even a concert hall. Visitors today are asked to show respect for the huldufolk by keeping noise to a minimum. The Icelandic story of “The Hidden People and a Beast” is set at Botnstjörn Pond, located within Ásbyrgi Canyon’s steep, horseshoe-shaped wall. In the folkloric tale, a rich girl and a poor boy fall in love, but the boy is turned into a beast by a creature that lives in the cliff. A fairy tells the girl that her love would only become human again if the girl throws all her possessions into the creature’s mouth when he emerges by the light of the midnight sun. She does so, and the fairy marries them so they can live happily ever after.
Back in the southwest Iceland, you won’t need your imagination to spot an elf house in Hafnarfjörður — you won’t even have to get out of the car. Drive along Lækjargata, opposite a little lake called Hamarkotslækur, and beside the road you’ll notice a row of three tiny white houses with turf roofs, less than three feet high. It’s an example of an álfhól, or elf house. They are usually constructed from wood, but can also take the form of colorful doors painted onto rocks. Once you know what to look for, you’ll notice them all over the country, from Stöðvarfjörður in the east to Akranes in the west.
An álfhól was even featured in the 2020 movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, set in the northern port of Húsavík. Elves feature prominently in the film’s plot: Singer Sigrit Ericksdottir, played by Rachel McAdams, enlists the elves’ help so that Iceland can finally win the music competition. After seeing the film, the real-life manager of the town’s Cape Hotel wanted to capitalize on increased interest in the huldufolk and recreated the álfhól in the hotel garden. (Ironically, despite shooting part of the movie in Húsavík, that particular scene was actually shot in Scotland.)
Mythology or not, the huldufolk are essential to Iceland’s cultural heritage — providing another dimension to an already fascinating place.