Story of the week: Elf hunting in Iceland

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* The last dip into the archives of this year, so let’s end with a suitably festive and seasonal story from the back catalogue. 

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I never realised Icelandic road building was such a tricky business.

Driving through the lava deserts topped with neon-green moss on the Alfholsvegur road outside Reykjavik, I’d been puzzled by the strange contours of a large bend in the tarmac.

The explanation, I later discovered, was that the Icelandic Roads Department, after their equipment had broken in a series of mysterious accidents, had been instructed by local mystics to build the road with a hefty deliberate kink so as to avoid bulldozing a large rock where the elves lived.

That’s right. Elves. Iceland’s 280,000 population has the world’s highest literacy rate at 99.9 per cent. Some 82 per cent of Icelanders are regular Net-savvy computer users.

Yet, despite their propensity to embrace modernity, 70 per cent of Icelanders still believe in the old ways – ways that include the existence of a huldufolk or a ‘hidden world’ of elves, dwarfs and spirits with magical powers.

Elf school

As I started to ask around about this so-called hidden world, it became clear that Iceland with its glaciers, geysers and a landscape somewhere between that of Ireland and the Moon, had a long and proud heritage of being close to nature.

The hard-living inhabitants have told folk tales of ‘little people’ since the time of the Sagas, medieval stories of Nordic life dating from the 12th century.

Today, however, Reykjavik has been transformed from rural fishing community into one of the coolest world cities. 5,000 locals and tourists crowd bars such as the Damon Albarn co-owned Kaffibarinn each weekend to revel in the city’s ebullient nightlife.

Mass tourism has mushroomed with revenues now accounting for 13.6 per cent of Iceland’s foreign earnings, second only to the fishing industry.

Nevertheless, the old ways survive.

For a glimpse into the marriage of old and new ways, I hooked up with one of more enterprising locals who was turning ancient folklore into a nice little earner. As such I found myself outside an ordinary grey building in Reykjavik’s east to meet Magnus Skarphedinsson, historian and headmaster of the Reykjavik Elf School.

From these premises, shared with a psychic school, Magnus has devoted 19 years of his life to documenting eyewitness reports of contact with the hidden world.

He has also helped 2000 students – mainly Germans and Scandinavians – successfully complete their diploma in elf studies, a course comprising a half day in the classroom followed by an afternoon’s elf hunting around town.

As I took to my desk diligently, pen poised, Magnus explained to the class that there are, in fact, two nations living in Iceland: the human world and the hidden world.

The latter, he assured us, gesturing to a large ceramic elf in a jaunty red hat and britches on the shelf above the whiteboard, live in a different dimension to humans and have their own unique culture. Only psychics or the odd lucky student actually gets to spot one.

Fairy dust

His main rival in the elf studies stakes is Erla Stefansdottir, a local mystic women who lives in an unassuming corrugated iron house on the edge of Reykjavik. Erla claims the ability to communicate with the hidden world and espouses the need to respect their culture, not exploit it for material gain.

On a rainy Monday morning, I joined Erla for a guided elf tour of Hafnarfjordur, a fishing village seven kilometres south of Reykjavik built on lava and lay lines.

The village is, reputedly, the elf capital of Iceland. Indeed, according to Erla, the local population of 20,000 people share their home with over 20 types of dwarves and four of gnomes.

The town’s Hamarinn cliff, in particular, is a centre for activity with its elfin inhabitants believed to be of royal elf stock.

Erla agreed to assist with tours, which have proven so popular they are set to go twice daily from next summer, on the proviso that visitors are encouraged to show love for the earth by patting rocks gently.

Having been assured by the Hafnarfjordur tourist board, she went about drawing up a hidden world map of key sites around town. And the tourists promptly flocked in.

The battle for the hidden world tourist market is rapidly escalating into a showdown between Reykjavik’s two leading elf-spotting experts with their drastically different approaches to elf folklore.

However, while ‘non-ethical’ tours continue to carelessly trample over the rocky lava field elf homes, Erla is concerned that if humans continue to violate the hidden world, the elves will soon take their revenge.

And, as the Icelandic Roads Department will tell you, nobody messes with a seriously angry elf and gets away with it.

This story first appeared in the Guardian in 2001. Liked this? Try On the Edge in West Greenland.

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