Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
An incredibly detailed map shows where Icelanders have come into contact with “hidden people.”
It’s an oft-reported, can-you-even-believe-it fact that many people in Iceland still believe in the possible existence of elves. This myth from the country’s folk traditions has persisted, and the niggling suspicion that the Good Folk may still be out there among the rocks has even led to Icelandic road and housing plans being altered to avoid sites associated with them. Now, there’s an incredibly detailed map that shows you exactly where such sites can be found.
Iceland’s Saga Foundation compiled and published the map last fall, linking traditional folk tales featuring so-called Huldufólk (“hidden people”) with locations all across the island. While deciphering the attached stories can be a challenge for those who don’t speak Icelandic, what’s striking is the mind-blowing volume of tales mapped. Zoom into any corner of the map and you will find an incredibly dense scattering of sightings, stories, and legends about the hidden people, sprinkling almost all of the island’s under-populated landscape with an intricate network of tales and supposed elf sightings. This past winter, a large portion of this unpopulated zone was back in the (Icelandic) news, as campaigners, including Björk and her union leader father, have lobbied to have the region protected by a new national park.
If created, the park would cover 40 percent of the entire country. If this scope seems huge, rest assured that most of the area is empty—at least of humans. The Icelandic Highlands are largely barren, dominated by glaciers and volcanic desert peppered with small oases but almost no inhabitants. Having this stark, ominously beautiful landscape in their backyards could help to explain why Icelanders’ belief in nature spirits has persisted. It’s not that Icelanders are inherently any more witchy or suggestible that people from other nations. (In fact, when it comes to religion, a recent poll suggested that no young Icelanders even believe that a god had created the world.) Rather, Icelanders have long lived spread thinly across a far-flung island whose natural extremes and emptiness somehow make the perception of a non-human presence more palpable. I would personally challenge anyone to visit the highlands and not feel a little spooked.
The folk tales mapped across this terrain are, by contrast, entirely human in their concerns. Icelandic stories told about elves were, like all folk tales, vehicles for ordinary people to explore their own day-to-day concerns—hunger, sex, jealousy—through supernatural proxies whose form and stature was still similar to their own. As Terry Gunnell, one of the map’s co-creators, commented in the introduction to an Icelandic folk tale collection, elves are:
[N]ear mirror-images of those humans who told stories about them—except they were beautiful, powerful, alluring, and free from care, while the Icelanders were often starving and struggling for existence. The huldufólk seem in many ways to represent the Icelander's dreams of a more perfect and happy existence.
The other overwhelming impression to be gained from the tales listed on the map is of people trying to live in harmony, or at least come to terms with difficult natural surroundings. Often said to live under rocks, Icelandic elves have a backstory: They’re supposed to be descendants of children Eve hid from god because they hadn’t been washed. They nonetheless come across as embodiments of the landscape itself. In one tale, for example, an elf man treats a fisherman to a feast in thanks for preventing his crew from throwing stones at a rock—thus saving the life of the elf’s son, who was sleeping underneath it. Another has a woman who scrubs clothes on a rock being rewarded by an elf with a glass of buttermilk. In scrubbing the stone, she has also inadvertently been cleaning the elf’s house. It’s not hard to read such stories as exhortations to treat the landscape with respect.
It’s this idea that lives on in the drive to cover almost half the country with a new national park. Iceland’s interior may be inhospitable and almost lunar in appearance, but for centuries it’s been a stomping ground for the imagination—an imagination that sees the volatile volcanic landscape as full of life. Re-routing a road to bypass a reputed fairy stone might seem somewhat ludicrous, but the spirit behind the move—of respect, forbearance and a need to balance human needs with those of others—is one we should all hold on to.