Friday 31 July 2015

Icelandic Elves

Last time I was in Iceland, it was the best I could do to appreciate the scenery - and learn to cope with the weather! This time, I'm doing much better on understanding the history and culture. This post contains my thoughts on Icelandic elves, to be followed, if the Internet holds out over the next day or so, with a post about Icelandic sea monsters. I learned from Alda Sigmundsdóttir (see references at the end of the post) that Icelanders are all supposed to believe in elves, although she herself finds this assertion somewhat annoying. It would probably be fairer to say that Icelanders have traditionally had a lot of stories about elves. So, where do Icelandic elves come from and what are they like? Well, they partly come from a common European tradition, I expect, but I have my own ideas, based on hiking experiences in Iceland.

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....
There’s still the behavior of Icelandic elves to consider. From the stories, they don’t really come across as particularly closely connected with nature, unlike the elves further south who are often half way to being nature spirits. Icelanders were probably as closely connected with nature themselves as they could just about stand, and it’s a feature of people in struggling agricultural and pastoral economies throughout the world that what they actually aspire to get closer to is a state of civilization, not a state of nature as some of us might. Icelandic elves live like Icelanders - except not quite! They live as Icelanders thought they would be living if everything went well for them: like rich Icelanders whose flocks and fields always do well. They have fine houses (still made of turf), fine clothes (of wool), plenty of sheep and they never run out of food, but what they don’t have is a different kind of society to the human Icelanders. More southerly Europeans also imagined the fairy world on the model of the fortunate in their society, their elites, and ended up with royal courts presided over by elven kings and queens. The situation is not so different in Iceland, but the Icelandic elites were in a different place.

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

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