Iceland conjures up images of a foreboding country, a land where boiling water shoots forth from the bowels of the earth and huge clefts in the land break up the miles of endless tundra.
But in fact these mighty splendors make Iceland one of the most exciting travel destinations there is. Plus, according to a recent survey by the World Economic forum the people are among the friendliest in the world, up there with Morocco and New Zealand.
There is also another reason Iceland has such an enigmatic personality. Whereas across much of Europe the march of Christianity came in the first few centuries AD, it didn’t reach Iceland until a good five hundred years later. In many countries our belief in supernatural beings has dwindled down to a few characters with dubious origins (our image of Santa Claus is clearly pagan) but Iceland has continued holding its ancient beliefs much closer to heart.
The world of ‘hidden beings’ is taken quite seriously in Iceland, with the majority of people refusing to rule out the existence of ‘spirit beings’ such as Elves, Trolls and ghosts.
Elves were originally a race of minor gods associated with nature and fertility, thought to be the same size as humans or smaller, and usually dressed in a similar clothes. They are believed to inhabit the landscape alongside us, but are usually unseen by humans as they operate in a different frequency and therefore in a different dimension. This can of course cause trouble when it comes to construction.
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In the 1930s, road construction began which was supposed to go through Álfhóll (Elf hill) in Kopavogur, meaning the hill would have to be demolished. Nothing went well, and construction was stopped due to money problems. A decade later road construction through Álfhóll was continued, but when work resumed the machines started breaking and tools got damaged and lost. They then decided to reroute the road around the hill, not through it as originally planned. Then once more in the 1980s construction began again, which went as planned until the time came to demolish part of Álfhóll. They used a rock drill, but it broke. Another drill was fetched, but that one broke too. After this the workers refused to go near the hill with any tools. Álfhóll is now protected by the city as a cultural heritage.
In 2004, construction crews who were building a golf course on the outskirts of Reykjavik tore out a rock believed to be the dwelling of elves. Bulldozers began failing and workers became the victims of strange injuries, eventually the chief engineer issued an apology to the elves and vowed not to trouble them again. The event was ridiculed by media reporters, but the strange events stopped occurring and the golf course was completed on schedule.
Icelandic Trolls are human-like in appearance, but inhumanly big, strong and ugly. Trolls are very often thought to be fearsome and cruel creatures, although like the elves they often treat people as they are treated and they return favors, seeking vengeance if harmed.
University students were recently asked whether a drop in ghostly sightings was due to the age of enlightenment or the electrification of the island.
One student answered “The question is based around a false premise. Ghost sightings are as common as ever”.
An interesting story is told by Thor Vigfusson, a schoolteacher in Selfoss, who believes there has been a demise in ghostly contact, but that it is due to the age of the ghosts themselves.
One of the peculiar points about Icelandic ghosts is that they are said to haunt families, accompanying descendants when they move and according to tradition remaining with them for nine generations.
Vigfusson was brought up living next to a farm haunted by a local ghost called ‘Mori’ or ‘The brown one’. The last remaining member of the ninth generation of Mori’s family is now very old, and Vigfusson says that the locals worry about what will happen to the ghost when they die.
The haunting reportedly began when a young man was refused shelter at a farm in 1784. He then drowned in a nearby lake later in the night. Any car that refuses to pick up a hitchhiker outside Mori’s gate is said to break down within 500 yards.
Not all Icelanders believe wholeheartedly in the existence of these ‘hidden beings’, but even those who say they don’t prefer to behave as if they did to make sure nothing bad happens.
Terry Gunnell, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland, said: “This is a land where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulfur from the taps tells you there is an invisible fire not far below your feet.
“Everyone is aware that the land is alive. We can say that the stories of ‘hidden people’ and the need to work carefully with them reflects a deeper understanding that the land demands respect.” For further delving into the weird and wonderful world of Icelandic folklore you can visit the Icelandic wonders museum in Stokkseyri or attend a lecture at the Alfaskolinn (Elfschool) in Reykjavik.