Huldufólk (Elves) in Icelandic and Faroese folklores
In Icelandic and Faroese folktales, the ‘hidden people’ (or ‘Huldufólk’ as they are known in both Icelandic and Faroese) are supernatural beings that reside in, beneath or behind the rocks. The term ‘huldufólk’ is a synonym of ‘álfar’ (meaning ‘elves’), and has been in use since at least the beginning of the 19th century in Icelandic folklore.
Nonetheless, according to several recent surveys, some people do not distinguish elves from hidden people in Iceland. In the Faroese folklore, the ‘huldufólk’ are also referred to as ‘elves’, and are believed to dislike electricity, crosses and churches. Similar mythological creatures loosely connected to the ‘hidden people’ — aside from the elves — include the hulder (mesmerising, yet deadly, forest creatures), the pixies, the mermaids, the fairies or the leprechauns.
According to the 19th century Icelandic scholar and folk collector Jón Árnason, the terms are indeed synonymous, but ‘álfar’ is a rather pejorative form for these exceptional beings. Written accounts describing the precursors of the elves/hidden people date back as early as the High Middle Ages in Iceland.
Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, many books stemming from Europe arrived in Iceland. Since then, belief in elves steadily increased as the result of the extreme natural landscapes in the island. The precursors of the elves are also documented in the writings of the Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson, the author of ‘Heimskringla’. In addition to the writings of Snorri Sturluson, the elves are referred to in eddas as beings connected to the notion of fertility.
While it is debatable whether the ‘elves’ and ‘huldufólk’ are the very same beings among some Icelanders, the origins of the latter are even more mysterious. On the one hand, it is believed that these ‘hidden people’ are Eve’s hidden children from God. Eve is thought to have lied to God about the existence of her unwashed children and then God stated: ‘What man hides from God, God will hide from man.’
On the other hand, it is also possible that these ‘hidden people’ might have originated in the Icelandic folktales as of the cause of a mixed perception on elves from both the Norse settlers — who colonised Iceland in the late 9th century — and their Irish thralls. The Irish had the hill fairies while the Norse had the álfar. In the passing of time, it is likely that these two became separate entities, but ultimately it is a common root that they both share, albeit belonging to different cultures.
Nowadays, belief in elves among Icelanders is debatable and mixed. Some do believe in their existence, some are not sure whether they exist and some think it is impossible.
Furthermore, this can be even more problematic as sometimes road constructions are postponed or canceled in Iceland so as not to disturb the elves.
Documentation sources and external links:
- Huldufólk on www.wikipedia.org (in English)
- Definition of Huldufólk on Icelandic Online Dictionary
- The Folk Stories of Iceland by Einar Ólafur Sveinsson on www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk (in PDF format; in English)
- Jón Árnason on www.wikipedia.org (in Icelandic)
- In Iceland, ‘respect the elves – or else’ on www.theguardian.com
- Mapping Where to Find Elves in Iceland’s Proposed New National Park on www.citylab.com
- Why Icelanders are wary of elves living beneath the rocks on www.bbc.co.uk
- Elves in Modern Day Iceland on www.ismennt.is
- Álfaskólinn (the Icelandic Elf School)
- Iceland’s elves blamed for road project delays on www.smh.com.au
- Sagnagrunnur (interactive map depicting sightings of elves/hidden people in Iceland)