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The land of elves: Hidden creatures make their home in this Icelandic town
HAFNARFJORDUR, Iceland — In the United States, we think of elves as Santa’s little helpers. In Iceland, elves are a bigger deal.
Icelandic elves don’t work in Santa’s workshop. They are an independent lot, with magical powers. They aren’t even associated with Iceland’s Santas, which number 13. That’s right: Iceland has 13 Santas, brothers each with a weird name and bad habits. They’re like a crude version of Snow White’s footmen, the Seven Dwarfs.
Every culture has its mythology. Iceland’s is strong, with roots in age-old Nordic sagas. Mention elves here and the skeptics and cynics will roll their eyes, but just as many Icelanders will relate an elf story passed on from friends or passed down from uncles, aunts or grandparents.
How deeply does this belief reside among the human population of Iceland? Well, highway engineers and construction crews take elves very seriously.
Elves live in rock outcroppings. In the United States, road builders have certain salamanders, spotted owls and other endangered wildlife species to contend with when plotting a route. In Iceland, it’s the elves.
Mischief befalls Icelandic road builders who can’t recognize good elf domain, including breakdowns of heavy equipment and even worker mishaps and injuries. It is said to have happened on more than one job site, enough to take the mythology seriously. Consequently, road planners here consult with an elf expert before routing a road or highway through rock piles that may be elf habitat.
According to elf seer Erla Stefansdottir, “Elf Central” in Iceland is this town, just a few kilometers southwest of Reykjavik, the Iceland capital. The town, she said, has “the richest elf and spirit populations” in all of Iceland. Elves, gnomes, dwarves, angels, light-fairies and “the hidden people” are all classes of what Stefansdottir calls elvin beings.
To learn more about Hafnarfjordur’s wee population, visitors can sign up for the town’s Hidden Worlds tour, a guided walk of about 90 minutes. It includes a stroll through Hellisgerdi Park, where the paths wind through a 7,000-year-old lava field planted with tall trees and potted bonsai trees in summer, and said to be peopled with the town’s largest elf colony.
Tour guide Sibba Karlsdottir is not an elf, but with a pointed red wool cap on, she looks like one. She leads the tours, relating old elf tales and a few modern “firsthand” stories along the way.
She points out the “Dwarf Stone,” where an Icelander wanted to build his house in the early 1900s. When workmen could not break up a pile of rock on the property, an old neighbor told them a dwarf lived in the rocks and did not want to move. The property owner decided to build elsewhere. No one has disturbed the rock pile since.
“We think most of these creatures, they are good,” Karlsdottir said, “elves and dwarves and hidden people — but they can get quite upset if we ruin their houses or go against their wishes. They get very upset and we have to face the consequences. They can put a spell on us.”
On the other side of town lived a farmer who dug up rock to use for the basement of his farmhouse, she said. All his neighbors said this is not a good idea. “You know you shouldn’t do that,” they told him. “You know elves live there.”
The farmer didn’t believe in elves, though. Shortly after he moved into the house, his daughter became mysteriously ill and died. The sad farmer sold the house to a Catholic priest and moved away. The priest forbade anyone to disturb the rocks on the farm, and no one has, Karlsdottir said.
Whether or not you believe in the existence of elves, Karlsdottir reasons, “It doesn’t cost you anything to pay respect to the old ways.”
Her tour offers visitors the chance to walk the back streets of Hafnarfjordur, to enjoy its eclectic mix of architectural styles and to spend a peaceful interval in Hellisgerdi Park.
Though few townspeople or visitors claim to have seen elves, there are four nights when your chances are best: Midsummer’s night, June 24, when the northernmost latitudes enjoy 24 hours of sunlight; Christmas Eve; New Year’s Eve; and Jan. 6, the 13th day of Christmas, when the last of Iceland’s Santas returns to the mountains.
The 13 Santas, or Icelandic Yulemen, have enjoyed a place in the nation’s folklore since the 16th century. They are the sons of two trolls: Leppaluoi, their father, and Gryla, their monster of a mother, who were rumored to snatch and eat children. Their sons were comparatively harmless, noted for stealing and playing tricks.
By 1930, Icelandic seamen had brought home from the North Sea countries tales of St. Nicholas, which blended with the old lore of the Yulemen.
Children began to practice a new custom of placing their shoes in the window before going to bed. The Yulemen had become so nice they would leave small gifts or treats in the children’s shoes.
Putting shoes in the window begins Dec. 12, the night the first Yuleman comes down from the mountains. A different Santa comes each night until they are all there on Christmas Eve. They return in the same order they came, night by night, the last one leaving Jan. 6.
If you go
Getting there: Icelandair flies nonstop from Boston to Reykjavik, a 5-hour trip. Round-trip fares begin at about $350 (www.icelandair.com).
Getting around: If you’re staying in Reykjavik, take a taxi or local bus, the S1, to the center harborfront of Hafnarfjordur.
Touring: The Hidden Worlds walking tour is offered Tuesdays and Fridays, January through mid-September and by appointment thereafter. To book, call 354-694-2785 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Dining and lodging: Stay and eat like a Viking at Fjorukrain (“Viking Village”), Strandgata 55, on the Hafnarfjordur harborfront. For reservations, go to www.fjorukrain.is
INFORMATION: Go to www.hafnarfjordur.is, or for other Iceland destinations, go to www.goiceland.org
Every Yuleman has his weakness
Their names have varied in different locales and have changed over the centuries, but here’s a roster of Iceland’s Yulemen and their bad habits, in the order by which the Yulemen arrive:
1. Sheep-Cot Clod - Sneaks into the sheep cot (pen) and harasses the sheep.
2. Gully Gawk - Tries to milk cows because he loves heavy froth on milk.
3. Shorty - Hovers in the kitchen, waiting for the chance to snatch a roast.
4. Ladle Licker - So thin he resembles the utensil he loves to lick.
5. Pot Scraper - Snatches dirty pots and pans and scrapes the burned-on food by hand.
6. Bowl Licker - Like the puppy of the house, he’s adept at licking bowls clean.
7. Door Slammer - Out of sight, late at night, doors go bang in the night.
8. Skyr Gobbler - Skyr is the Icelandic term for yogurt, which he has a penchant for.
9. Sausage Snatcher - Skilled at clambering into rafters, where the sausages are hung to smoke.
10. Window Peeper - A very ugly guy, who can be a fright to see peering through windows.
11. Door Sniffer - Leave the door to the kitchen ajar and he’ll stick his big nose into it, looking for food to steal.
12. Meat Hook - Down your chimney comes his long pole with a hook on the end, aimed at snatching meat that may be hanging from your rafters.
13. Candle Beggar - Steals Christmas candles when no one is looking.
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