North by East to Iceland: Part 7 Icelandic Elves, Demons and Hidden People

Icelandic landscape

Icelandic landscape

Folkoric Beliefs of Icelanders

As we approached Keflavik International Airport in Iceland, appearing on the IcelandAir tv screen was an interesting saying: the most amazing thing about Iceland is not that ten percent of the world’s volcanoes are in Iceland or that 15% of Iceland is covered with glaciers, but that 50% of Iceland’s population believes in elves. We hoped that we would be exposed to some of Iceland’s rich mysticism before we would leave five days later,

Our third tour guide, several days later, took us on some back country roads and out of the way places like an area fenced in with vertical pine poles where thousands of codfish hung on lines to be dried out over the months for domestic consumption. On the opposite side of this area hung hundreds of large codfish heads also being dried out for eventual shipment to Nigeria where they would be boiled for fish soup. We all felt a bit dumbstruck as we stared out at this secretive and hidden place.Sensing our amazement, our guide chose the perfect spot to begin his mystical story about Icelandic belief in “hidden” people.

He contended that a fair percentage of Icelanders have had encounters with hidden people and that each one has his own story. Naturally, we asked, “do you have such a story?” He responded that he certainly did. He proceeded to relate his own experience of going up in the mountains away from Reykjavik to a “get-away” cabin.

After a very enjoyable and relaxing day out in Nature, he returned to his cabin to retire for the day as the sun gradually set in an arctic sky. Around 2 A.M. he sensed a presence of something or someone in his room. As he gradually opened his eyes, he saw a little boy staring at him. He closed his eyes and shook his head and opened his eyes again to see him still standing there all dressed in blue colors. He asked the boy who he was and what he wanted only to have the youngster vanish into thin air.

On the next day after our tour, I picked up a paperback copy of Halldor Laxness’ novel, Independent People (originally published in 1946). As I got deeper into the novel that night, I came across a passage describing the protagonist’s second wife and her deep belief in the existence of fairy farmers living in little lit-up elf farms..And later, she has a dream that she relates to her husband Bjartur in which an elf explained to her that their son would go to America and “sing for the world.”

Bjartur, the sheep farmer who lives with his family in a croft, is very skeptical of superstitious beliefs, especially the peasants’ belief in an infernal sorcerer from Ireland named Kolukilli (Columkill) and his mate, a blood-drinking witch named Gunnvor. These two fiends once lived, ages ago, in the very valley where Bjartur’s croft was located. Local peasants, in order to placate these evil spirits, would place stones atop a cairn marking the fiends’ graves. Bjartur thought all that was hogwash.

On one occasion Bjartur’s tom cat entered the sheep pen to frighten a dozen sheep into a stampede whereby many of them ran into exposed nails to kill themselves. Even though Bjartur knew it was his tom cat that caused this tragedy, he went to the grave of Kolumkilli and Gunnvor to curse them at the top of his lungs! Large processions of fellow sheep farmers came to conduct prayer walks around Bjartur’s sheep pen and to tell countless ghost stories about this event. The narrator of the novel writes that if all those ghost stories were written down they would make a book thicker than the Bible.

Despite Bjartur’s desire to remain truly independent of everything and everyone, of one political system or another, of one belief system or another, at the end of the novel when he becomes destitute after the loss of two wives and his three sons, he can only blame his fate on Kolumkilli and Gunnvor.

Iceland is a place that is far more than glacial landscapes with icy mountains and steaming volcanoes and spritzing mud pots. It is a place with a tremendous wealth of the human imagination and spirit.

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