In my last blog article you could follow my experiences with letting go on our recent family holiday in Iceland. We not only love the wide landscape and crisp air but are also fascinated by its culture and history.
This article concentrates on the most popular supernatural beings that are connected with Iceland: the elves and trolls. I share here some interesting and fun facts about the history, customs and stories of these magic creatures.The picture above this article features a well-known fairy church on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West-Iceland.
Icelandic fairy tales and sagas feature a multitude of supernatural beings. You can meet light-elves, flower-elves, dark-elves, house-elves, gnomes, dwarfs, giants, and many types of ghosts in these stories.
Historical roots of elves and trolls
Historic tales about supernatural beings go back a long way. They are mentioned both in the Poetic Edda, a collection of orally passed down unnamed dramatic poems and in the Prose Edda written by Snorri Sturluson in 1220.
An elf in medieval Germanic-speaking cultures is a being with magical powers and supernatural beauty, ambivalent towards normal people and capable of either helping or hindering them. In Norse mythology you can read about elves or hidden people called huldu. Huldufólk is the Icelandic term for hidden people or elf. The word fairy (fae), another synonym for elf, is a loan word from the French language.
Tales about elves and trolls
When I am walking through the wind-beaten wide Icelandic landscape I can easily imagine trolls, elves and other beings sharing the world with us.
Life in Iceland was very harsh in the past. The climate and weather-conditions constantly challenged the people. This is why the Icelanders to this day are very resourceful and flexible.
Tales of the huldufólk, often shared in the long winter nights, passed the time and represented dreams of a more perfect and happy existence. Elves in these stories are often beautiful, powerful and free from care, while the Icelanders themselves were starving and struggling for existence.
The tales about elves and trolls also served as warnings. They prevented the children from wandering away from human habitations, taught Iceland’s topographical history, and instilled respect for the harsh powers of nature.
Do Icelanders still believe in the existence of elves?
Well, a majority of the Icelanders (54%) believe that elves probably exist. I have met many city dwellers in Reykjavík who laugh at the notion of elves, though. I can understand that very well, because in the busy capital of Iceland there does not seem to be any room for them.
Nevertheless the enterprising Icelanders are catering to tourists´ interests by offering excursions with elf themes. The Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavík organises five-hour-long educational excursions for visitors. In Hafnarfjördur, just south of Reykjavík, you can go on a guided elf tour.
Where and how elves live
Elves live in the fairy tale dimension, and in many other dimensions as avid readers of my blog know. In Iceland the two dimensions are very close together and this makes it easier to visit one another. The entrances to fairy homes in Iceland can be found in distinct rock formations.
Fairies visit our dimension just as often as we visit them in the fairy tale dimension. Since we visit them mostly in our dreams we have not much recall of these visits or deem our recollections to be fantasies.
The hidden people are invisible unless they decide otherwise. In Iceland there always have been seers, who are able to see and describe them. They report that the hidden people look much like humans and wear colourful clothes with golden and silver buttons. They are described as being very beautiful and having different sizes from human children of about ten years to dwarf sizes of 20 to 30 centimetres.
Elves are said to be living much like humans; they work as farmers and raise sheep. They love to party, especially around Christmas time. As to their religion, some people believe they are catholic and others think they worship heathen gods.
In the ocean there even exists a separate elf world: The merpeople (marbendlar) raise cattle on the bottom of the ocean. Their sea-cows have air bubbles under their noses and eat sea-grass. When a human farmer dives down there and manages to burst the air bubble he is allowed to keep the cow. These cows give a lot of milk and are very valuable.
Elf relationships with humans
There are a lot of tales describing contact between humans and elves. Human women are said to have helped hidden people often with childbirth. The hidden people leave gifts out of gratitude for the help they received. There are numerous items they have left over the centuries and some of these are displayed in local museums all over the country.
There are many historic tales about love affairs between humans and fairies. Men and women are lured into the elf world, never to be seen again or reappearing healthy but sometimes out of their minds.
In other Icelandic folktales elves are invading empty Icelandic farmhouses during Christmas time and having wild parties there. It is still customary today to clean the house thoroughly before Christmas, and leave food for the perhaps then visiting huldufólk, which is gone the next day, of course.
Christianity in Iceland
In the year 1.000 the Icelanders accepted the Christian faith under massive Norwegian pressure at the AlÞing. Before this they worshipped Nordic gods.
After making Christianity the official religion of Iceland lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði returned from the Alþing and threw his statues of the Norse gods into this waterfall that was then named Goðafoss (Waterfall of the Gods). Because Icelanders are pragmatic people they officially renounced the old gods but in secret everybody did as they pleased.
Heathen traditions and beliefs mixed with the new Christian faith and this is how trolls became an important part of Icelandic Christmas traditions.
In old times the word troll was an insult, meaning monster. Later the term was used mainly for giants and witches. Trolls lived in caves in the mountains and sustained themselves by fishing and hunting. A lot of them were night-trolls who immediately turned into stone when they saw the sun. You can see a lot of distinct troll rocks all over Iceland and the natives will gladly tell you their stories.
The trolls are said to be extinct now: the male ones in the 16th century and the female ones in the 19th century. When you google the word troll you will find that a new kind of trolls is very much alive today though. This modern species are called the Internet trolls.
Trolls are part of Icelandic Christmas traditions
The jólasveinar, the thirteen Christmas lads, are the famous trolls who found their way into the Icelandic Christmas traditions.
The origin of this Icelandic Christmas myth dates back to the Viking era and to Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Edda. He described a fearsome huge troll lady named Grýla. Her favourite food was stew made of naughty children. The 13 children she had with her lazy husband Leppalúði became her helpers in kidnapping and eating children.
The stories of her and her children got so horrifying that a law was passed in 1746 that prohibited scaring children with stories about these monsters!
The thirteen Yule-lads visit the Icelandic homes and farms one after the other in the thirteen days before Christmas and go again afterwards one after the other. This is the reason why the Icelandic Christmas season is 26 days long.
The Christmas lads are mischievous criminal pranksters. They break into the homes, harass the people, steal their food, cooking utensils and tools. They have descriptive names that give hints about the way they operate.
The first one visits on the 12th of December and leaves on the 25th. He is called the peg-legged Sheep-Cote Clod, who likes to harass sheep. Next the Gully-Gawk sneaks into the cowshed to steal milk. The extremely thin undernourished Spoon-Licker steals wooden spoons to lick them. You get the idea.
There also are Stubby the short Crust-Stealer, the Pot-Scraper, the Bowl-Licker, the Door-Slammer, the Skyr-Gobbler, (Skyr is a very tasty Icelandic dairy product), the Sausage-Swiper, the Window-Peeper, the Doorway- Sniffer, the Meet-Hook, and the Candle Stealer.
In modern times the Yuletide-lads have much more benevolent roles similar to Santa Claus in other countries. Nowadays they even leave gifts for the children in their shoes.
Trolls have shaped the landscape
Many stories explain how trolls have manipulated the Icelandic landscape. On our trip we visited Dimmuborgir, a bizarre lava field in north Iceland near lake Myvatn. One story explains how these big lava pillars were created: One night the trolls residing in the area decided to have a big party and invited all their troll friends to join. The party ended up being so much fun, that they forgot that the sun was coming up. They all turned into stone and formed the dark castles (this is the translation of Dimmuborgir). It must have been a great party!
Most of the Icelandic fjords are surrounded by flat-topped mountain ranges. Their rims are sometimes interrupted by massive depressions that look like bowls. These the Icelanders call troll seats. The Naustahvlift opposite of the town of Ísafjörður in the Westfjords is a good example for this.
The story of its creation discribes a troll – remember, they are giants – hurrying home before the morning sunlight could turn her into stone. Since she still had some time she sat down and rested her aching feet in the fjord. She thereby created the peninsula of Ísafjörður between her feet, the deep harbour where her feet had been and the troll seat where her backside had rested.
Geologists explain that the big indentation in the mountains is a hanging valley left over from the last Ice Age, but I like the troll story much better.
I hope you enjoyed this excursion to the hidden people and the trolls in Iceland. They are as fascinating for me as the country itself. In the next blog article I will tell you how I met fairies in Iceland and why my family has such a close connection to them.
Brigitte Bjarnason: Auf den Spuren von Elfen und Trollen in Island, Sagen und Überlieferungen, Acabus Verlag Hamburg 2013
© Inge Schumacher