Elves in Modern Iceland

By Rolf Soderlind

(Fann þessa grein á Netinu, hef engar upplýsingar um höfund, tíma og tilurð)

REYKJAVIK (Reuter) - The trouble started last month when the bulldozers kept breaking down during work on a new road. The mysterious accidents in front of one particular stone brought work to a standstill at the construction site at Ljarskogar, about three hours drive north of Reykjavik. The contractors solved the problem in an unorthodox way but one which is fairly common on Iceland. They accepted an offer from a medium to find out if the land was populated by elves and, if so, were they causing the disruptions.

"Our basic approach is not to deny this phenomenon," Birgir Gudmundsson, an engineer with the Iceland Road Authority, told Reuters. "We tread carefully. There are people who can negotiate with the elves, and we make use of that."

About 10 percent of Icelanders believe in supernatural beings and another 10 percent deny them, but the remaining 80 percent on this windswept North Atlantic outpost either have no opinion or refuse to rule out their existence, a survey shows.

The medium, a woman named Regina, said the elves told her they no longer lived in the stone but nearby. However, they wanted workers to remove it in a dignified manner and not just try to blow it up. Regina was interviewed on national radio, which found itself quoting elves, albeit indirectly, for the first time in history, according to one radio journalist.

The supernatural never seems far away in Iceland, a wild moonscape of volcanoes, geysers and lava rocks looking like trolls petrified by the first rays of sunshine on a frosty morning. This is the land where Vikings, tired of serving Scandinavian kings, settled more than a thousand years ago.

"I believe the elves want people to preserve nature," said Erla Stefansdottir, another medium and part-time consultant to the road authorities. "Elves are nice and sweet, the other side of nature, they are like light on the trees and the flowers."

Erla, sitting in her Reykjavik living room with candles flickering on the able and Handel's Water Music playing from the stereo, said elves lived not just in the countryside but also in the city and they enjoyed music. "I see elves on the table right now," the middle-aged piano teacher and mother of three said matter-of-factly. "There, there and there. They look like small human beings. I don't have to believe in these things, but I keep seeing them. I have always been seeing too much."

Erla said elves were not always at fault when roadworkers ran into unexpected problems. "You cannot blame it all on the elves," she said. "Don't believe everything you hear. People are good at bungling things themselves."

Being clairvoyant can apparently be an eerie experience. "When I walk down the street I can't tell who is alive and who is dead of the people I meet," Erla said. "I must touch them to find out if they are alive. I can meet myself on the highway 20 years ago. I can easily look back a thousand years."

Elves were first briefly mentioned in Iceland's mediaeval Saga literature -- filled with pithy, epic tales of the days when a man never left his home without his sword. The Icelandic language, old Norse, has helped the survival of folklore because it has been preserved virtually unscathed by the passing of time. Icelanders still read the old Sagas in their original version without trouble.

Iceland's President Vigdis Finnbogadottir once said her people loved telling stories although few really believed in folklore. "But to lose it would be to lose a jewel," she said. Arni Bjoernsson, head of the Ethnological department of the National Museum of Iceland, said popular belief in elves, gnomes, dwarfs, trolls and other beings often reflected the simple farmer's dream of a better world alongside his own.

"The "huldufolk," or the hidden people, live a better life than human beings," said Arni, whose interviews with fellow Icelanders have produced a book listing 500 supernatural beings. "Their houses are nice and clean. They often possess gold and other valuables. This is the wishful thinking of the poor."

But Arni said Icelanders, whose first city was founded less than 200 years ago, were less ashamed than other people in Europe to admit to superstitious beliefs. "Icelanders are sceptical people, but they are also humble and they do not want to rule anything out," he said. "I am a scientist. I am sorry to disappoint you but I have never seen an elf or a troll. But who am I to exclude their existence?"

While the elves and other serene beings may cause roadworks to make detours around magic mounds, no story about Icelandic folklore would be complete without the "skrimsli,"' or monsters. "Unlike ghosts, who leave no trace, monsters seem to leave footprints in the sand and disappear into the sea," said Thorvaldur Fridriksson, author of a 1000-page work on Icelandic Loch Ness-style monsters that is soon to be published. "Some of these monsters are dangerous. People are reluctant to tell about them because others will laugh. But about 70 percent of Earth is sea and who knows what the sea hides?"

At Ljarskogar, however, all seemingly came clear after road authorities followed Regina's advice and removed the stone with due dignity. "As far as I know, everything has been peaceful since then," said Birgir.

Reuters/Variety