The Hidden Folk of Iceland

Iceland is a truly mystical island. The stunning scenery, with its many hot springs and geysirs, volcanoes and waterfalls and its rugged, rocky coastline lends itself perfectly to the many folk tales that abound. Such tales are deeply embedded in Icelandic culture, and surveys have shown that well over half of all Icelanders believe in the existence of the ‘hidden folk’.  So just who are these ‘hidden folk’ or huldufólk?

In Iceland – and also in the Faroe Islands – the term refers mostly to the elves and trolls, although belief in fairies, gnomes and ghosts is also widespread.

Our guide on one of the tours we went on informed us that in a recent survey, 80% of Icelanders professed to believe in (or at least, they refused to deny) the existence of elves and other hidden beings. Most sources I’ve read online tend to have the figure around 54%, which may simply be based on an earlier survey. But 80% is staggeringly high. Of course, many people worldwide hold beliefs in magical creatures, although it’s generally in the name of ‘fun’. Dragons and unicorns, ghosts and fairies etc. are common topics in many fantasy books and films. In Britain, if something goes wrong, or something disappears, we jokingly blame it on the ‘gremlins’. And in Ireland, we have belief in the leprechauns, another type of fairy, or pixie.

But in Iceland, the hidden people are taken much more seriously.

The origin of such strong beliefs revolves around Iceland’s geographical isolation.  At such high latitudes and out there in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with the rest of Europe and North America so far away, life on the island changed little in hundreds of years. Although things have changed greatly in modern times, until little over a century ago, most of the population lived in turf houses, farming and fishing for their living. And with this simple, age-old way of life, superstitions and beliefs from long-gone times, lingered on. Even the Icelandic Christian Church condones these beliefs.

Turf house in Glaumbaer, Iceland. Author TommyBee. Public Domain.

The huldufólk are common topics of conversation among Icelandic people. To upset the elves – particularly by disturbing their homes – can lead to very strange happenings. For example, engineers have been forced to divert the planned routes of roads in order not to disturb the elves.

This short video by Torsten Scholl describes some of the things the elves reputedly did to stop a road disturbing one of their homes:

Trolls are another feature of Icelandic culture that can be seen all over the island, inside and outside of souvenir shops as well as across the countryside in rocky places. They can be seen along the rocky coast, too, as stacks out at sea as well as in the cliffs. Because, you see, many trolls are simply dead!

Trolls are creatures of the night, doing their work and enjoying themselves in the hours of darkness. But as soon as the sun comes up, like vampires, they must rush indoors and sleep. To be caught in the sunlight means certain death: they are turned to stone for all eternity.

This fun video by Sunnefa Palsdottir,  which I really enjoyed, explains all about trolls and is well worth watching, if you have the time:

Yes, Iceland is a country with far more to offer than initially meets the eye. But the huldufólk are never too far away…