A Brief History of the Hidden People of Iceland

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Sometimes referred to as elves “Álfar” or  Hidden People “Huldufólk”,  Iceland has a long-standing relationship with elves. The history of the country is decorated with elves living under certain rocks, or certain places carrying a special spiritual or ethereal presence.

This week, we discuss some of the questions that you might have about the elves and we outline the appearance of elves in Icelandic history. 

Perhaps the most important question: do Icelanders believe in elves?

The internet is awash with reports that the majority of Icelanders believe in Elves, as this article  and this article note. 

In an effort to quantify this and perhaps settle the question, a 2007 study from the University of Iceland shows that eight percent of Icelandic people believe that elves definitely exist, but 54 percent would not deny that elves exist. This is something like being elf-agnostic. 

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When was the first elf story?

It’s difficult to trace exactly when the first elf stories originated, but the elves are written about in the Prose Edda, written and compiled by Snorri Sturlason in 1220. 

The Prose Edda is a remarkable text written on approximately 60 pages of calf skin vellum which distinguished between Dökkálfar (dark elves) and the Ljósálfar (light elves), representing a good and evil duality. Elves have been described in many different ways throughout the centuries, with no single definitive account thereof. 

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Where does the idea of the Hidden People come from?

The origins of Iceland’s hidden people likely stems for a historical relation with the landscape, and an attempt to understand it. The Icelandic landscape was for centuries, and is, a very unforgiving landscape. Without 20th and 21st century technology, life for centuries was very difficult in Iceland. 

Icelanders were hostages to the landscape, and lived by it’s forces. As Benedikz notes: 

The reason [that Icelanders believe in elves] is of course perfectly clear. When one's life is conditioned by a landscape dominated by rocks twisted by volcanic action, wind and water into ferocious and alarming shapes... the imagination fastens on these natural phenomena

Benedikz, B. S. (1973). "Basic Themes in Icelandic Folklore". Folklore. 84 (1): 1–26.

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Where do they live?

It is said that the lives in rocks, and there have been many cases of residential property developments being halted, and roads being diverted, in order to not upset particular sites that have a history of an elven presence. 

In the East of Iceland,  in the small town of Borgarfjordur Eystri there is the famous Elf Church  which you can climb on top of! This is also an excellent hiking area, it feels a lot like the end of the world! Climb the elf church respectfully, and don’t damage the rocks. Elves do live there after all!

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Has anyone ever seen elves?

Ask an Icelander, and many of them will have personal tales of the elves, or they will know somebody who has had a personal account of dealing the elves. Many people have claims of the elves intervening in their day-to-day lives

Elves in 21st Century Iceland

Elves continue to occupy a place in Icelandic culture. This mostly takes the form of construction projects being altered and modified in order to accommodate elf “churches” or “houses” under which they are said to live. 

Construction projects run into problems, which results a “elf negotiator” coming in who is able to speak with the elves and reach a deal with them. 

The BBC notes a case of a road that was planned and an elf “chapel” needed to be moved and relocated.  This is just one of many thousands of examples to choose from. Even with Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon, elves had a part to play. During the construction of the Lagoon, it was discovered that the elves wanted the building stay low profile, and so they remained. 

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Take a tailor made elf tour!

Iceland Rovers specialises in private and tailor-made tours. If you are super curious about the elves and want to visit a round of spots with a special significance, we can absolutely organise that. Check out our tailor-made tour page for more details on how you can build a custom itinerary


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