Seeking Elves in Iceland
"My world travels are never focused on seeing the sights.
My interest lies in getting to know the people of a country and learning about their lives and culture."
Photo by Jonny Auh
Vikings and their explorations have always intrigued me so when Icelandair advertised a round trip ticket from Orlando, Florida to Reykjavik, Iceland for just $250.USD I knew it was time for me to go. My flight was booked as soon as I could get a ticket. Barely able to control my excitement I found myself flying solo to Iceland.
Allegedly the original settlers of Iceland were afraid that their enemies would pursue them so they sent back a message to Norway that their island was an ice-land always covered with ice, but a larger island a little further west was a green-land. Truth be told it was the reverse. Subsequently the green island became known as Iceland and the icy island became Greenland.
Still concerned it would be freezing cold when I arrived in February, I brought two winter coats with me only to be pleasantly surprised that the weather was not 40F below when I arrived but just above freezing most of the time I was there.
The cheapest place I could find to stay was the Salvation Army Guest house. Slightly deterred by the name, I hopped onto a local bus from the airport and headed to downtown Reykjavik. Fortunately, it was not a place for the homeless down-and-outs but a clean centrally located international hostel and perfect for my budget. I shared a room with bunk beds and four other female travelers who told me this is the most charming and best priced guesthouse in Reykjavik!
My first morning in the hostel kitchen while eating a breakfast of delicious Icelandic yogurt I met another guest. When he learned I was eager to visit museums and learn all I could about Iceland and its history he kindly offered to take me to The Icelandic Phallological Museum. When we arrived I discovered it was the world's only genuine penis museum! The sole mammal missing was a Homo sapien, however apparently an old Icelandic man has already made arrangements to complete the collection when he dies. As titillating as visiting a penis museum sounds on a first date the hundreds of organs floating in jars of preservative fluid did nothing salacious for me and my new friend was rather intimidated by the huge Sperm Whale penis that was taller than him.
Deciding to continue my exploration of Reykjavik on my own, I walked over to the more traditional National Museum of Iceland where I might learn about Iceland’s fascinating Vikings history. Norse sagas or legends were passed on verbally from one generation to the next until they were written down sometime around the 12th century. I was especially intrigued by the tales about Iceland’s mystical elves and trolls. Impressed that the vast majority of Iceland's almost 100 percent literate population still firmly believes in the elves known as “Hidden People”, I was curious to discover more.
My world travels are never focused on seeing the sights. My interest lies in getting to know the people of a country and learning about their lives and culture.
I tracked down Heida, a friend of my brother's, in Reykjavik. She invited me to dinner at her home to meet her family. When I told Heida of my fascination with elves and trolls she arranged for me to take a walking tour with Sippa in the nearby town of Hafnarfjördur, which reputedly lies at the crossroads of several powerful energy lines.
The first thing I learned from Sippa was the difference between trolls and elves.
She explained “ Trolls are huge, live in the mountains and only come down to forage for food when it is dark. They are greedy and like to eat human flesh, especially the flesh of disobedient children. They can cast spells but are not particularly bright. If trolls don't make it home before the sun comes up they immediately turn to stone. Those that turn to stone can be seen as giant rocks with troll features in many parts of Iceland.”
Note to self, don’t wander through the mountains alone at night.
Sippa continued "The “Huldufolk” Hidden People also called elves are quite different. They look like us and for the most part are good-natured. Elves can also put a spell on you when they choose to do so.”
She led me to a huge rock on a hill in the middle town and told me about a man who wanted to build a house on this very spot. He asked the builders to get rid of the big rock. They tried to break down the rock, but couldn't move it. An elderly man who lived nearby told the builders you have a problem because the elf who lives here does not want to move. The owner thought about it and decided to build his house somewhere else.
I smiled as I began to comprehend the strength of Icelanders' belief in the Hidden People. Sippa finished her illuminating tour with a final declaration, “Everyone can see the “Huldufolk'' if you are open to them but it is the Hidden People themselves who decide who gets to enjoy their company.”
Left to my own devices I decided to hike out of town up to some caves where Hidden People were purported to live. Peering into the mouth of a dark cave I was surprised to hear someone behind me.
“Are you looking for elves?” I turned around to see who had spoken. A handsome short man with dark curly hair and striking green eyes stared directly at me.
With a warm smile he added, “ I have seen the Hidden People.”
At first I wasn’t sure if I should trust him. We were alone surrounded by looming black rocks, but when I saw the warm sparkle in his eyes I knew he was telling the truth. I felt an immediate rapport.
“Follow me” he directed.
It was as if he magically controlled my movements. I could not refuse. A ghostly mist fell upon us as we slowly worked our way to the top of an enormous hill where a colossal waterfall could be seen in the distance.
Mesmerized by its breathtaking beauty I blindly took a step toward the cascade. Without warning, I felt my feet slip and start to slide dangerously down into the craggy valley toward imminent death. Before I plunged any further my new friend grabbed my arm and pulled me back with surprising strength.
“You saved my life! I don't even know your name.”
“I am Thorsteinn. Be more careful around my big rocks, girl.”
“Yes, I shall. Thank you Thorstein!” After regaining my footing and composure I asked, “Do you live around here?”
He nodded and indicated with his hand to follow him to what appeared initially to be nothing more than another huge pile of rocks, however as we got closer I could see a wooden door and several windows with lace curtains.
“This is my home. My family has lived here for over a 1000 years”.
He went on to tell me his family were nature lovers who cared deeply about their environment. They would do whatever it took to protect the wild parts of Iceland.
“We know the land is alive and so we encourage people to think twice before tearing up our landscape. We do everything in our power to stop them.”
He opened the door to his house and went in. I wondered if I should follow but as he closed it behind him, the door disappeared as did all of the windows in his house, except for one. Thorsteinn unexpectedly appeared in this last window winking at me with eyes that sparkled like green northern lights, then he and the window vanished.
Icy rain began to fall. I was left alone, facing a giant solid rock. Seeking solace I cast my gaze upward to see an emerald aurora borealis warming the dusky sky, reassuring my suspicion that Iceland's Hidden People are alive and well.
Have you met any Hidden People? Let me know in the comments.
Photo by Benjamin Suter
Alycin Hayes at the Perlan Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland, 2004
If you enjoy my blog you may also want to read my adventure travel memoir Amazon Hitchhiker: A Woman’s Adventures from Canada to Brazil and my award-winning children's book Milo and the Mustang.
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has spent much of her life adventuring all over the world. If you enjoy the stories and travel writing tips in this blog you will also love her books: Amazon Hitchhiker:A Woman’s Adventures from Canada to Brazil and her award-winning children's book Milo and the Mustang.