A Hidden People
What if you were told that, sequestered in the hills and rocks of the wilderness near you, there lived hidden people? In form, they resemble you and your neighbours, and in their daily lives, they also pursue many things you enjoy. Yet their homes are neither condos nor cottages, but rather the hunched and tumbled stones strewn about the field beyond your four walls. This is more than a mere thought experiment for many people who live in Iceland or the Faroe Islands. To those whose communities huddle together against the grey chill of the North Atlantic's storms or live in the lee of volcanos like a mouse asleep beside a mammoth, the idea that the land is alive with invisible—and active—forces are not too far to fathom.
History of the Huldufólk
For centuries tales of the huldufólk, the 'hidden folk' or elves, have been told in the low glow of northern hearths. There is a long tradition of tale-telling on these harsh isles, many about magical beings, particularly in Iceland. Some of the richest troves of Norse myth in the world have been penned by its mediaeval poets, who mention elves ('alfar') alongside such Nordic gods as Odin and Thor. It is, therefore, possible that modern Icelandic elf-lore is a remnant, a tumult turned into a trickle, of the country's earliest supernatural beliefs. But there are differences. The huldufólk of later belief seem earthlier, wilder, more elemental than their shining and Orlando Bloom-Esque ancestors. They live "in the earth, not on it", writes politician and doctor of Icelandic studies, Ólína Þorvarðardóttir. But their connection to the land is far more than just residential.
Personification of Landscape
The relationship between the natural world, elves, people, and their tales is a beautiful entanglement that permeates the Nordic countries' landscape and culture. In many ways, the huldufólk are the land's agency given a human guise. And like the land, they can be both providers and punishers to the inhabitants of Iceland and the Faroes. Scandinavian story books tell of elves who lead lost travellers to shelter on one page, and on the next, those who conjure fog to cause said travellers to stray in the first place. The hidden folk, if they are not indeed true beings in their own right, may be seen as a representation of the intangible influences that so many of us feel in a landscape but may have a hard time pinning down.
An Elvish Education
This notion goes beyond a metaphor for wilderness and weather. Folded into the tales of the huldufólk are lessons to be learnt concerning one's interaction with both human and nonhuman realms of activity. To quote the title of Þorvarðardóttir's writings, these tales are "a tool for social education" intended to instruct and entertain. For the denizens of these islands, the elf stories that have been passed down for generations are laced with the customs required to successfully navigate mysterious and unforgiving geography. To eke out an existence on wintry wind-whipped shorelines and barren moors required constant attention to a peril that was part-and-parcel to this lifestyle. They furthermore eliminate the supposed origins of certain features of the land—like rock formations that are petrified trolls or, in the example of the Ófeigskirkja stone near Reykjavík, a huldufólk church. This boulder was at the centre of significant international attention when, in 2013, it and the lava field it stood in (Gálgahraun) were threatened by proposed road work. Environmental activists and folklore believers alike were quick to link arms in an attempt to prevent bulldozers from brutalising a site of beauty and superstition.
Irish Fairy Connections
The example of Gálgahraun cuts to the very core of huldufólk narratives, which arises from the overlap of environment and culture and pushes the question of land relationships to the fore. In an article by Ryan Jacobs in The Atlantic, a man named Árni Björnsson recounts a warning he had been given as a child to never cut a certain patch of grass at his family's farm—for the elves there forbade it. The same theme crops up in countless other European traditions, such as in Ireland, where belief in the fairies or 'Good People' very closely resembles Scandinavian huldufólk lore. Like Iceland's elves, the fairies of Ireland reside in quiet patches of the countryside (commonly in old burial mounds) and can wreak ruin on humans who lapse in the upholding of land laws. An account that seems to be a grimmer version of Björnsson's, held in the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin, tells of a farmer who one day cut down the trees on his local fairy mound. A short while later, he was found dead. This shared folk motif can be considered a warning against the overharvesting of resources, a lesson that seems to be becoming forgotten in our minds and our land at the same rate as the stories that contain them.
Heeding Ancient Tradition
Think back to the query posed at the beginning of this article. Do you believe that there may be elves on that hill nearby? Even if the faith in secret spirits seems to be on the ebb, the lack of their literal existence should not necessarily be considered a drawback. To have a place such as Gálgahraun, a place that is a repository for centuries' worth of accumulated oral culture, is invaluable to a landscape even if the huldufólk are a story alone. Such beliefs serve as needles which sew a people's thread deeper into the fabric of the landscape they live in. This kind of environmental embroidery is something Icelanders seem to have retained for longer than other modern nations and is still common to countless Indigenous and traditional cultures worldwide. And yet its opposite is more often seen than not today. So please, try and conjure some elf into that hill nearby. Consider that the land may not be a mere mass of material but potentially humming with hidden sentience. Though we two are not sitting by the fire, though this is being written on a laptop and not wrapped up in Nordic rhyme, the telling and the reading of such huldufólk lore enmeshes us in an ancient tradition. And so there is hope yet that the elves are out there, in the hunched and tumbled stones strewn about the field beyond your four walls.
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