|Summer in Iceland! That patch of water does not represent some high mountain lake, either, but the sea as I was arriving from Denmark. Of course, it all looks very different when the sun is out.|
In Iceland’s past, it must at times have been as difficult to distinguish between the signs of human civilization and the works of nature as it was for 19th Century observers of Martian canals. Even today, I’ve followed hiking paths which were not so much trails on the ground as a question of knowing which geographical feature you’re meant to be following. Across the high plateaus, the way is marked by cairns, and in a good light, if they’re well-maintained, it’s reasonably easy to distinguish between a cairn and a pile of stones. In the all too common fog, not so much - and those wretched piles of stones have a way of forming themselves into alignments quite naturally.
These days, Icelandic houses can seem quite attention seeking, with their bright red or blue roofs. When they were basically mounds of turf, I daresay they could look a lot like the other mounds of turf which aren’t houses - at least not human ones. And if the life of travelers depended on distinguishing the human ones (as it probably would from time to time), and avoiding the false ones which could lead them astray and consume essential time, energy and resources, their minds, senses and emotions would inevitably become intensely focused on these signs. All that mental intensity, that question mark over whether a feature was natural or man-made had to go somewhere - and I suspect some of it went into elves.
|The king of cairns, made by the guys who built the road across this rather desolate high plateau, just because....|
Icelandic elves also seem to work as proto-deities. They’re potentially dangerous and threatening. Sometimes they take children or even adults, and possibly those people are going to a better place. It must be said that the demands of adult labor meant child supervision was limited, the demands of child labor meant children were often alone, and Iceland is a dangerous place, therefore children (and adults) had a tendency to disappear. On the good side, you could use elves to warn children away from places which were likely to be dangerous. While in Iceland, I read Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, and particularly enjoyed the part in which Jonas Palmason reminisces about his childhood experiences at the elven mound: the immense fear of the mound with had been created in him by the adults around him, and the amazing revelation of what lay within.
Sometimes however, children were replaced by useless old elven men who appeared to be suffering from learning difficulties or behavioral issues, and then, I’m afraid, the way to get your own child back was to beat the imposter ruthlessly. The elves are not necessarily nice people, but people they certainly are. They can reward you if they like you, or if you help them. It’s possible to do deals with them. Sometimes young elven men formed relationships with the young unmarried human women who spent their summers alone in the mountain dairies and caused unexpected pregnancies. Most unusually - or perhaps not, given the elvish affection for human children - these elven men didn’t try to avoid their parental responsibilities, often taking charge of the child and raising it themselves in the elvish world. Alas, I suspect the unwanted babies in question were indeed ‘left out for the elves’. Basically, elves caused a lot of the unwanted difficulties in life, but they also smoothed them over. Elites, they might be, but they were useful ones.
- Alda Sigmundsdóttir: The Little Book of Icelanders in the Old Days; The Little Book of the Hidden People: Stories of Elves from Icelandic Folklore
- Sjón: From the Mouth of the Whale (highly recommended, btw)
- There is a museum dedicated to Icelandic elves (and trolls and ghosts) at Stokkseyri, about 70km from Reykjavik in Iceland