Freaky Friday

Paranorma & Millennial

Gnome Is Where the Heart Is:
What Little Elves Tell Icelanders
by David Wallis

   Most Icelanders can rattle off obscure but impressive statistics about their homeland: This sophisticated nation of 275,000 people leads the world in Internet connections per capita, chess grandmasters, what have you. But Icelanders rarely point with pride to the myriad superstitions many hold so dear.

   When prodded, Icelanders from all walks of life -- bank tellers, rare book dealers, university administrators -- can recount vivid experiences with supernatural beings. In fact, in surveys, few Icelanders rule out the existence of elves, dwarfs, trolls, light-fairies, and especially "hidden folk," gregarious, human-like creatures that purportedly dwell in rocks.

   Erla Stefansdottur, Iceland's most famous "elf-spotter," has helped Reykjavik's Planning Department and two tourist authorities create maps charting the haunts of hidden folk and their ilk.

   Though Icelanders often lump these invisible entities together, calling them all hidden folk, the maps detail the differences.

   Elves, known for festive clothes and demeanors, nevertheless cherish their privacy. Dwarfs, more moody than elves, are the size of human toddlers.

   Light-fairies -- think Tinkerbell -- glow and possess flight. Trolls, reportedly not the brightest giants in the otherworld, live like hermits inside mountains and glaciers.

   Ms. Stefansdottur says she receives about four calls a month from prospective homeowners, asking her to make sure building lots are spirit-free. But the widespread acceptance of hidden folk occasionally bedevils Iceland's Public Roads Administration. Every few years, construction crews unwittingly verge on demolishing invisible homes, provoking a very real outcry.

   The road authority typically responds with sensitivity, routing roads around hallowed boulders or delaying construction long enough to give non-human constituents time to find new accommodations.

   According to Valdimar Hafsteinn, a folklorist and historian who used to work for the roads administration, the agency in the late 1970's even called in a medium to negotiate with irate elves who had objected to scheduled blasting at a road construction site near the city of Akureyri. Apparently, the perturbed pixies threatened to sabotage the project.

   The medium convened two seances, which led to a compromise: Bureaucrats eschewed explosives and the elves withdrew their opposition.

   In the next few weeks, road authority contractors will gently move a cracked gray boulder known as Grasteinn, said to be owned by dwarfs, that blocks the expansion of a highway on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Viktor A. Ingolfsson, a spokesman for the road agency, defends his department's unorthodox expenditure -- "hundreds, not thousands, of dollars" -- describing it as a reasonable public relations expense: "When Native Americans protest roads being built over ancient burial grounds, the U.S. listens. It's the same here. There are people who believe in elves and we don't make fun of them. We try to deal with them."

   Mr. Ingolfsson admitted that the road administration's image could do with some repair, "since in the past we built roads wherever we wanted without much concern for the environmental impact." He added, "A few beautiful spots have probably been saved because of elf stones."

   Icelandic taxpayers tend to support the odd concession to the elf lobby. Marianna Clara, a writer sipping cappuccino at a chic Reykjavik coffee house, said: "We're a small nation.

   It's important to be proud of our culture. I think it's nice that the Government takes into consideration the people, their stories and the magic of the country."

   Magnus H. Skarphedinsson, self-described headmaster of the Elfschool, which offers half-day seminars on paranormal phenomena, expects the rock relocation to actually save the Government money.

   "If you ignore the hidden people, the cost of construction doubles or triples," he said. "Everything goes wrong. The workers get sick. The machines don't work." He was echoing a a claim so entrenched in Icelandic lore that it scarcely matters whether it's true or not. B UT not everyone considers elves, or their proponents, worthy of any fuss.

   "I'm a bit ashamed that foreign newspapers will report that Iceland's road department moves rocks rather than Iceland helps feed the world," fretted Thorvoldur Karl Helgason, a Lutheran pastor and chief of staff for the Bishop of Iceland. The pastor, however, refused to condemn the practice, only advising parishioners to "be careful, because they may not know what they are doing."

   Whatever Icelanders are doing, they've been doing it for a long time. Arni Bjornsson, a cultural anthropologist at the National Museum of Iceland, traces tales of hidden people to the 15th century.

   Belief blossomed in the 17th and 18th centuries -- "the bad centuries" -- noted Mr. Bjornsson. Iceland hardly resembled the prosperous nation it is today. The king of Denmark (which ruled Iceland until 1944) imposed a strict trade monopoly in 1602, cutting off the island's products from lucrative markets. Most Icelanders lived in cramped, damp turf houses and many suffered from chronic hunger. Then, in 1783, a huge eruption of the Laki volcano wiped out 75 percent of crops, leading to a severe famine that killed about 20 percent of the population.

   "In terms of nature, Iceland is a very unstable country," Mr. Bjornsson said. "A man could never be sure if he would wake up in the morning and his land would be covered in volcanic ash." Mr. Bjornsson thinks the hidden folk met a psychological need of his impoverished ancestors: "The world of the hidden folk was often a dreamland where elves were usually better dressed than humans and lived in beautiful homes.

   Elves didn't have to trade only with the Danes. They had their own merchants. It was a wish fulfillment."

   Since times have improved, Mr. Bjornsson wonders if greed for tourist dollars spurs hype about hidden folk.

   "Some people," he lamented, "manipulate folklore for commercial purposes."

   Mr. Hafsteinn, the historian, rebuts his colleagues' cynicism.

   "The idea that this is cooked up to defraud foreign tourists is rubbish," he said. "In this century Iceland has experienced a total revolution in terms of living standards. Most of the population now live in cities, and Icelandic identity is tied up with a way of life that is very much disappearing.

   In most contemporary accounts elves are not urban people but live on farms, authentic Icelanders. Antagonisms seem to come up when cities are being expanded, so there may be feelings of guilt mixed with nostalgia."

   The hidden folk, however, may not feel as sentimental as their human counterparts. Ms. Stefansdottur, speaking from her candle-lit townhouse decorated with Russian icons, Oriental rugs and handmade elf dolls, claims that the dwarfs of Grasteinn scampered off without complaint once notified of the imminent highway expansion.

   The dwarfs could not be reached for comment.


Reprinted from the NY Times

IMPORTANT NOTE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.


Website Maintenance and Promotion