Here in the U.S., elves are generally seen as fictional creatures that belong to fairy tales and pop culture. We may humor the idea of their existence during Christmas, but we probably don't have a lot of cause to consider elves the other 11 months of the year. In Iceland, however, belief in elves is a very real and very significant part of national culture.
In Iceland, elves, ('alfar' in Icelandic), are beings thought to be smaller than most humans. Elves are thought to live outdoors, and to rarely speak. While some Icelanders believe elves to be a very distinct group, many have come to see them as synonymous with another group of mythical beings known as the huldufólk, or Hidden People.
Like elves, huldufólk also live outdoors, making their homes in Iceland's rocks and cliffs. According to a study done in 2006, 32% of Icelanders believe the existence of these beings to be possible, while 24% believe their existence is either likely or an outright certainty.
Celebrating elves and huldufólk is common in Iceland. For instance, it is customary for Icelanders to clean and leave food for elves as it's believed they hold parties late at night. On New Year's Eve, it is thought that huldufólk move to new locations. As a result, it's traditional to leave candles out to help them find their way. Finally, Þrettándinn, or Thirteenth Night, is celebrated on January 6th and marks the last day of Christmas in Iceland. On this day, bonfires called álfabrennur, of Elf Fires, are commonly lit.
The most interesting huldufólk holiday might be Midsummer’s Night, when it is believed that standing at a crossroads during the late hours may bring wandering huldufólk who will lure you with gifts and money. It's believed that taking these gifts will lead to misfortune.
Even outside the holidays, first-hand experiences of huldufólk sightings have been noted by citizens of Iceland—and these stories extend beyond the occasional anecdote. Tales of elves and huldufólk extracting revenge on those who disturb their homes are well documented.
The most famous story involves Álfhólsvegur (Elf Hill Road), a road that was at one point intended to run through Álfhóll, a hill where elves are believed to live. Construction was begun on this road on two separate occasions, but each time a collection of misfortunes and thefts prevented it from being completed.
The widespread belief that elves and huldufólk live within the rocks and mountainsides of Iceland sometimes complicates things for non-Icelandic organizations trying to set up shop. Sometimes, new construction will be halted by concerned Icelanders who wish to protect the habitats of elves and huldufólk.
For instance, in 1982, over a hundred Icelanders protested at a NATO base and demanded to inspect the area for any elf dwellings. In 2004, ALCOA, a company that specializes in aluminum, had to halt construction of a smelter and hire a government official to inspect the area for elven ruins.
While much of the world likes to poke fun at the idea of wacky Icelanders getting worked up over fairytales, belief in elves and huldufólk may be about more than simple superstition. It's possible that belief in the supernatural in Iceland may be related to modern day environmentalism.
To better understand this theory, we have to take a look back at early Nordic history. According to Alaric Hall, a researcher of medieval Icelandic beliefs, Iceland's elves may have been created by early Viking conquerors who were disappointed to find that there was not much to conquer on the barren island of Iceland.
Hall notes, “Like everyone else in Western Europe in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period, they really wanted to be invaders. So, what elves did is they provide ... this kind of earlier indigenous population that can allow you to feel like a conqueror.”
These early folk legends evolved as the Vikings became more familiar with their new home. As they began to colonize the island, legends persisted of indigenous "people" who still inhabited the earth. These legends taught the Vikings to respect the land, lest they anger its indigenous inhabitants, and almost acted as an early manifestation of modern-day environmentalism.
In some ways modern-day Icelanders are still adopting these ancient beliefs, continuing the practices of their ancestors. Just as the worship of Zeus allowed Greeks to feel connected to the sky, Iceland’s belief in elves could be a way for the people of Iceland to connect with the earth. For Icelanders, these beliefs have manifested into a culture stressing a deep respect for their environment and the importance of protecting it.
With this in mind, perhaps it shouldn’t be that odd that the people of Iceland believe in the existence of elves and other mythological beings. If you think back on some other widespread supernatural beliefs, such as the existence of ghosts or Santa Claus, there's often an underlying message beneath their existence.
Ghosts remind us that we should respect the dead, while Santa teaches us that being good has its rewards. Elves and the huldufólk might just be an extreme example of people using myth and belief in the supernatural to support their desire to do right in the world.