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The Huldufolk, Part 1

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.

A Better Burden

We arrived in Reykjavik at 6:00 AM yesterday morning during a spring snow squall that made the road to Akureyri impassable. But our friends Vigdis and Sveinn took us in, fed us Icelandic pancakes, and sent us to bed, for which we were grateful. We’re on the road today after a good night in the company of good people and two sweet-tempered cats who curled around us while we slept.

Iceland isn’t a foreign country to me anymore, breathtaking because I have never seen her before. Now her snow-covered mountains and spring-brown soil are familiar, even welcoming. I love this place from volcanic bones to glacial crown. She is a young queen among geological elders, still showing off to the world.

I said something to Vigdis about that love that I think is worth exploring. I told her that I admired the landscape, the language, the culture, and the history of Iceland but also tried to be a wise traveler, as the Hávamál recommends. Then I talked about the Pagans who come here to fetishize these things, which I gathered was problematic for the Ásatrúarfélagið when I visited the organization last summer. “I’m not one of them,” I told her, and I’m not, but only because I made those mistakes among the Gaels some time ago and know better than to make them again.

It was hard to fall for a landscape, culture, and spirituality that wasn’t mine by birth. When Christianity divided my family, I went away hollow from the experience. Hegemonic religion held less than nothing for me, so when I discovered “Celtic,” it was like finding food at the end of a bitter winter. I conflated modern Gaelic and Celtic culture with their historical predecessors, with fragments of pre-Christian Celtic religion, with modern Pagan writing, and with my own gnosis (I should add for the Heathen crowd that I’m solidly pro-gnosis, but I’ll cover that another time). Underneath it all lay a deep, sweet yearning I came to identify as hiraeth, the longing for a time and a place in the distant past.

That yearning drove me to the University of Toronto, where I earned a Bachelor of Celtic Studies, to Ireland, and ultimately to Cape Breton, the Gàidhealtachd where I now own a home. In that time, those pieces of Celtic I had conflated became distinct again. It was good they did, because then I learned to see and interact with them separately, a necessary prerequisite for avoiding the specter of cultural appropriation. As a result, I’ve come to embrace Heathenry on better cultural and spiritual footing. The mystic in me wonders if there might have been a greater plan at work in this, but the evidence of that remains to be seen in my deeds. I don’t walk with Gods who teach me to no good purpose.

We’re climbing into the mountains of Northern Iceland now, and we’ll make Akureyri by dusk. The road rises damp and gray ahead of us, and there’s a good playlist on the car stereo. We were wise to rest yesterday and travel today; early spring is a mercurial time in this country. I hope that I have grown wiser in the ways I choose to travel the soul road as well. It too can be mercurial, but I wouldn’t trade either journey for anything you might offer me.

“A better burden can no woman bear
on the way than her mother wit;
’tis the refuge of the poor, and richer it seems
than wealth in a world untried.”

Hávamál, Stanza 10

Liminal Space

I am in liminal space as I write this post. Behind me, the successful completion of my first year as a PhD student of Folklore; a discipline for which I have genuine passion in a department full of committed professionals. Ahead, ten days in Iceland, a place of unparalleled beauty for which I feel something akin to the reverence one might reserve for a god. Afterward, a five-day meditation retreat at home in Cape Breton and a summer of writing both fiction and non-fiction pieces already slated for publication in their various anthologies and journals.

And while the demands of graduate school are everything you’ve heard and more, I’ve had a good, fallow season to rest the spiritual and creative aspects of my character. In February, I retired from my volunteer position as a mentor for the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. It was a necessary departure, and it precipitated others which were equally necessary. Druidry and Gaelic have taken me a long way down an important road (over twenty years, in fact), but it’s long past time I stopped lingering at the station and took the train north.

There was a time when I would have argued that mixing spiritual traditions was perfectly healthy, and I do still think it’s a viable choice for some. But after practicing Druidry and Heathenry together for many of those years, I’ve come to realize that for me, too many symbols create too much competition for my attention, making it difficult to cultivate deep practice. So while I remain grateful for and utilize the tools I’ve brought with me from Druidry, and while I still attend the occasional Buddhist meditation retreat, I am Heathen.

I’ve also been taking notes on a novel I’ll research more thoroughly once I’m settled in Akureyri for the duration. I’m hoping the local library and archives will have some English-language material on local huldufolk lore. Perhaps I should look for Icelandic learning materials as well while I’m there. If the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore Archive is any indication, much of the good material will be collected by Icelanders in Icelandic, and it would be good to have that barrier removed in future visits.

That’s all for now. I’ll write more from the road.

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