Construction sites have been moved so as not to disturb the elves, and fishermen have refused to put out to sea because of their warnings: here in Iceland, these creatures are a part of everyday life.
But honestly, do they really exist?
Anthropologist Magnus Skarphedinsson has spent decades collecting witness accounts, and he’s convinced the answer is yes.
He now passes on his knowledge to curious crowds as the headmaster of Reykjavik’s Elf School.
“There is no doubt that they exist!” exclaims the stout 60-year-old as he addresses his “students,” for the most part tourists fascinated by Icelanders’ belief in elves.
What exactly is an elf? A well-intentioned being, smaller than a person, who lives outdoors and normally does not talk. They are not to be confused with Iceland’s “hidden people,” who resemble humans and almost all of whom speak Icelandic.
To convince sceptics that this is not just a myth, Skarphedinsson relays two “witness accounts,” spinning the tales as an accomplished storyteller.
An Elvish Warning
The first tells of a woman who knew a fisherman who was able to see elves who would also go out to sea to fish.
One morning in February 1921, he noticed they were not heading out to sea and he tried to convince the other fishermen not to go out either. But the boss would not let them stay on shore.
That day, there was an unusually violent storm in the North Atlantic but the fishermen, who had heeded his warning and stayed closed to shore, all returned home safe and sound.
Seven years later, in June 1928, the elves again did not put out to sea, which was confusing because there had never been a fierce storm at sea at that time of year. Forced to head out, they sailed waters that were calm but caught very few fish.
“The elves knew it,” the anthropologist claims.
The other “witness” is a woman in her eighties, who in 2002 ran into a young teen who claimed to know her. Asking him where they had met, he gave her an address where she had lived 53 years ago where her daughter claimed she had played with an invisible boy.
“But Mum, it’s Maggi!” exclaimed the daughter when her mother described the teen.
“He had aged fives times slower than a human being,” says Skarphedinsson.
Negotiating Over Rocks
Surveys suggest about half of Icelanders believe in elves.
“Most people say they heard [about them] from their grandparents when they were children,” says Michael Herdon, a 29-year-old American tourist attending Elf School.
Iceland Magazine says ethnologists have noted it is rare for an Icelander to really truly believe in elves. But getting them to admit it is tricky.
“Most people tread lightly when entering into known elf territory,” the English-language publication wrote in September.
That’s also the case with construction projects.
It may prompt sniggers, but respect for the elves’ habitat is a consideration every time a construction project is started in Iceland’s magnificent countryside, which is covered with lava fields and barren, windswept lowlands.
Back in 1971, Skarphedinsson recalls how elves disrupted construction of a national highway from Reykjavik to the northeast. The project, he says, suffered repeated unusual technical difficulties because they didn’t want a big boulder that served as their home to be moved to make way for the new road.
“They made an agreement in the end that the elves would leave the stone for a week, and they would move the stone 15 meters. This is probably the only country in the world whose government officially talked with elves,” Skarphedinsson says.
But Iceland is not the only country that is home to elves, he says. It’s just that Icelanders are more receptive to accounts of their existence.
“The real reason is that the Enlightenment came very late to Iceland.
“In other countries, with western scientific arrogance [and] the denial of everything that they have not discovered themselves, they say that witnesses are subject to hallucinations.”