Last year, Sean and I went to Iceland as tourists. This year, we returned as friends to participate in a knowledge exchange with the owner of the northernmost vegan and raw food restaurant in the world. You see, Sean makes tofu from scratch, and the owner of the restaurant wanted to learn the trick of it. Conversely, she’s a raw food wizard, and Sean wanted to spend some time in her kitchen. I offered to update the restaurant’s web site, which was in need of attention, in order to help make her offer of free room and board more equitable. But when she learned that I had recently written a paper on Newfoundland fairy abduction legends and had an interest in the huldufolk, she became an important ally to my research.
I should preface what follows with a bit of personal information for the sake of context. I’m predisposed to circumspection about many things, especially those related to my faith and practice. I’m also a PhD student of Folklore with an ethical mandate to respect the wishes of my informants, which means I share nothing about them without their explicit consent. So while I gathered information about the huldufolk from several sources while I was in Iceland, this blog series will be intentionally vague about most of them, both to protect my own experience of the sacred and to preserve my informants’ privacy. However, I will tell you that I gathered information from direct experience, from self-described seiðworkers, from others who had direct experience of the huldufolk, from casual conversation with Icelanders, and from the Akureyri library staff and English-language holdings.
Some Thoughts About Icelandic Belief in the Otherworld
Keeping in mind that my knowledge here is limited to the people I met and the things they told me, I learned that while most people in Iceland identify as Lutheran, this Christian identity sometimes coexists with belief in and interaction with the otherworld. One person I met sings in a church choir but also practices Lakota-infused seiðwork, which includes an ongoing search for power centers in the country and communication with its huldufolk. Another person has painted and written about various kinds of elves and believes they live in a dimension next to ours. A third told me that a portal exists near Selfoss after I described an uncanny, uncomfortable feeling I had while traveling through the area. And when I told of a dream about trolls and elves Sean had while camping last year in a cave near Vík, our dinner companions wondered whether or not it was just a dream.
In fact, in every conversation I had with Icelanders, discussions of the huldufolk were taken seriously. Some told me about contemporary incidents involving stalled road work because of broken equipment, worker illness, and other unforeseen catastrophes that were abruptly resolved when the work was re-routed around particular stones. Others told me about losing household items for a time and requesting them back from the elves, only to find these objects soon after in obvious places. One person told me that hidden people travel with families, so that if a family moves house, their hidden companions move with them.
But what struck me most about Icelandic belief in the hidden people was that it wasn’t solely tied to Heathenry or Paganism. Last year, we had the opportunity to interact with several Heathens during an Ásatrúarfélagið kaffeeklatsch, and one expressed a belief that the “elves had brought us to them” because we arrived in time to participate in a sacred tree-planting beforehand. But that sort of comment might have been made by many of my acquaintances and friends in the north of the country. So even in Iceland, where one of my Lutheran informants mentioned the “old gods” in passing conversation, huldufolk belief and practice are not purely Heathen or Pagan. They evolve in step with Lutheranism, Lakota-inspired seiðwork, and other expressions of spirituality.
I’m going to close here, partly because I’m still catching up on other writing tasks after returning home, and partly because I have a great deal more to write on this topic. In my next post, I’ll continue with a discussion of the huldufolk themselves and perhaps move on to some of the lore I learned. After that, I’ll write what I can of direct experience with the huldufolk and offer some book recommendations.