Here Be Monsters: The Elves of Iceland

Iceland Elf Houses

During our tour of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, our guide stopped to show us an oddly conspicuous boulder. The large stone stood on the outskirts of a small park and it was clear that the park had been constructed to accommodate the stone’s position. Our guide explained that it was an Elf Stone, a doorway through which elves could reach their homes. This one, she said, was used by an entire family of elves.

Our guide was an expat and didn’t believe in elves, but she made it clear that many Icelanders did. Wandering Icelandic towns and neighborhoods, you’ll invariably spot tiny houses perched on lawns or leaning up against stones, not unlike fancy bird houses for imaginary beings.

It might seem weird, but, think about it: how many people do you know who believe in ghosts? Hell, you might believe in them yourself. And Icelanders don’t have “Elf Hunter” TV shows on their Learning Channel.

Then again, Icelanders can take their belief in elves a tad far at times. For decades, construction projects—like the park we visited—have been altered, rerouted or cancelled altogether to accommodate the various dwellings of the Huldufólk, or Hidden Folk. A winding road in northern Iceland owes its twists and turns to a decision made in the 70s not to detonate a rock formation that was said to cover the “Troll’s Pass”, used by supernatural beings. The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration has even drafted a “standard reply” to enquiries regarding the effects of their various projects on the local Hidden Folk. The document is five pages long.

So, yeah, the people of Iceland take their elves very seriously.

The elves have been known to help people, like the politician who crashed his car near a stone outcropping and swore that he was saved by the beings who lived with the rocks. He later had a local woman—a sort of “elf whisperer” capable of speaking to the little guys—ask them what they wanted. The elves, she said, wanted to live on grass so they could raise sheep. So the politician had the boulder—all 30 tons of it—moved to a field where it would be surrounded with livestock.

When angered, though, the elves have been known to cause accidents. A construction project, for example, which encroaches on elven territory, might see frequent worker injuries or equipment failure. In 2013, a controversial road project fell afoul both of environmentalists and lovers of the elves. To justify the project’s continuation, the road agency’s spokesperson explained that “the elves have not been conspicuous . . .”

Icelanders have a highly inclusive approach to their elvish taxonomy. If you’re into the Santa slave-style of elf, they got you covered, describing most elves as child-sized. But if you’re more of the Lord of the Rings school of elves, they also appear as tall, lithe beautiful beings.

And, speaking of elf schools: Iceland has one. Now, I admit, I got kinda excited when I first read about it, thinking it was either a big empty school where people “taught” elves, assigning homework to tiny empty desks; or maybe an institution that specialized in teaching humans how to actually be elves. But, no. It’s more a school of Icelandic folklore, which is actually pretty interesting. I guess.

In the end, whether an Icelander believes in elves or not is a highly personal matter and not one to be debated in polite company. To be on the safe side, though, when in Iceland, avoid messing with large boulders; in addition to causing accidents when angered, elves have also been known to steal babies and replace them with “an elf that looks like a baby but isn’t.” So, think about that if ever your kid suddenly starts hanging around crossroads, attempting to seduce passersby with cupcakes.