Iceland’s amazing landscapes have fostered a rich culture of the imagination. As May and Hallberg Hallmundsson write in the introduction to their book on Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales, Iceland’s humanity is fashioned by a deep experience of the land that has imprinted itself on the minds of its residents. Each feature of the land has a character of its own and is full of lifelike energies. Icelandic air advertises to its customers that “more than 50% of Iceland’s population believe in elves.” So I was eager to visit Dimmuborgir, one of the key places that Iceland’s elf population is said to hide. within. I set off to explore the unique terrain that lay before me. At first I could see only natural beauty in the landscape.
I knew that elves likes caves, so as soon as I saw one I climbed up to have a look inside. But the cave seemed empty. I also saw enticing footpaths. But there was no one except myself and my husband walking on them.
Then, after some time adjusting to the lovely area, I suddenly saw an elf. He was out for a stroll in his bright red cap! Next I saw another elf. This one was enjoying a moment of deep contemplation while standing on a rock that was just his size!
Next I noticed an example of typical elf architecture, a cantilevered roof. There was no one home. But then I looked a little bit to my left and there was an elf watching me closely from the shadow of a nearby rock, a boulder many times his size.
A moment of great delight came soon after this. I saw a different type of elf, this time wearing a green cap, comparing his favorite mushroom with one growing in the community garden. Elves love mushrooms, but they live on tender green leaves and stems. I now began to see their carefully cultivated plots all around me. This was elf agriculture!
But not all elves are so industrious. Some love to snooze in the warm sun, like this little fellow I found on his own private rock ledge. Another, just nearby, was tending to his private flower garden.
Then I saw that green-capped fellow again. This time he was showing his favorite mushroom to a bird, perhaps suggesting his bright polka dot treasure would produce better dreams than the little tiny berry that bird had just picked. Now I was able to talk to the little fellow. He was welcoming and he asked me to follow him. After a few minutes he jumped up on a rock and told me that this was an archeological site, a place the elves lived long ago. He then asked if I’d like to see where his family lived now. Of course I said “yes.” He told me to close my eyes and walk a little further with him. Then he asked me to wait to open my eyes until he called.
To my amazement my eyes now beheld the entire little community, all sitting (or reclining) on their communal front porch! I tried to speak to them but they had all disappeared within a flash. Just my little green-capped friend remained. He was the odd fellow and he didn’t mind befriending a stranger. I asked politely and he let me pick him up in my hand… just for a minute. Then he bid “goodbye” and he was gone too. What a wonderful day that was! I felt the elves had let me share, just for a little while, the way Icelanders experience their own local landscapes.
As I continued to travel around Iceland I saw much evidence of how people love to honor and think about their elves. Many honor them in their front gardens. Some even try to help the expanding population by building communal houses for them!
Other Icelanders believe every elf would like to have a house of their own. Some even want to help by building them elf-sized churches. But elves are not all Christian believers. Instead they live in a sort of no-man’s land, seemingly located halfway between Iceland’s old pagan and newer Christian belief systems. They are little tricksters. Sometimes the elves let you see one thing and sometimes another. More of this in a latter essay….
Elf life in Iceland would not be complete without honoring the role of elves as little sailors. After all, Icelandic elves continue to live essentially the same traditional life style its human residents once did. Generally elves are treated as friends. They are even welcomed as visitors, by those who live in modern homes!