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The Truly ‘Imagined’ Community: The Role of Elves in Icelandic Identity

Written by: Beatrice Catena & Victor Uwe S. Wascher

On a trip to Iceland in January, we met an Icelander who told us all about the existence of elves. Yes, elves. You may think that only a madman could speak of elves so passionately, but his rhetoric had substance. One of the first things he told us was that 54% of Icelandic people believe in the existence of elves and hidden people.

Magnus Skarphedinsson is an Icelandic historian, anthropologist, the headmaster of the Elf School in Reykjavik, and a leader of the Paranormal Foundation of Iceland. We had the pleasure of reconnecting with Mr. Skarphedinsson last week, when we interviewed him for the purpose of this article. In it, we will be exploring how elves contribute to Icelandic identity.

Mr. Skarphedinsson pictured teaching a class at his Elf School in Reykjavik

Why do so many Icelanders believe in elves?

Elven tales date back to the first settlements in Iceland. Initially, stories of álfar (Icelandic for elves) were passed on between generations through storytelling, as per Viking culture, but were later written down, along with other tales and historical events, in the diaries of Irish monks. Because of this, Iceland acquired a reputation of being ‘the island of history’. 

According to the Landnámabók (“The Book of Settlements”) — the earliest source of Icelandic history — Irish monks were first to arrive on the island around the 8th century. Vikings later arrived on Icelandic shores and were subsequently trapped on the island for centuries. According to Gunnel, the volatile climate and the absence of wood to build and repair boats forced Vikings into a long period of isolation, where the telling of tales about pagan gods and magical creatures was central to maintaining a feeling of community. Through a unique symbiosis, the Irish monks enriched the Viking tales through stories of elves and fairies. This multicultural influence on Icelandic folklore, a junction of Irish and Viking stories, has given rise to a rich elven tradition which persists to this day.

What mainly surprised outsiders like us, however, was that so many Icelanders genuinely believe in these creatures. We asked our expert why this is the case. In response, Skarphedinsson identified the Enlightenment and the isolated geography of Iceland as key explanatory factors. The 17th and 18th century Enlightenment movement, with its progressive liberal philosophy and its promotion of the scientific method, ‘undoubtedly changed the world for the better’, Skarphedinsson says. Nevertheless, had it reached Iceland concurrently to the rest of Europe, it would have swept away tales of the álfar. Because the Enlightenment reached the isolated island only in the 20th century, folklore went unchallenged, in contrast to the rest of Europe. Skarphedinsson stresses that the story of Iceland, a story of an isolated population and an allochronic timeline, meant the ‘imaginary’ was allowed to flourish into a national identity.

Folklore and religion in Iceland

Beyond elves being historically integrated in the identity formation of Iceland, they also ‘fit’ in the religious beliefs of Icelanders. Anderson argues Iceland’s relationship with religion is unique as it does not exclude or preclude folklore’s fundamentals. Instead, Christianity, spiritism, and Icelandic elf-lore syncretise.

This syncretism can be seen in the transition from the belief in Pagan gods to Christianity. At the dawn of the 11th century, King of Norway Olaf Tryggvason brought Christianity to Iceland. Around the same time, the biggest volcanic eruption of the island’s history occurred. These events were outlined in Völuspá — an ancient folkloristic poem — where it is stated that the eruption served to kill the ancient pagan gods to allow the introduction of the new Christian God. This poem is particularly interesting as it functions as an explanation for a societal transition without a need for a complete repudiation of the past. It proves the unique role that folklore may play to explain, as well as accompany, social changes in Iceland.

Elves in themselves also enjoy a syncretism with Christianity. In tales detailing the origin of elves, there is the claim that elves are descendants of the ‘hidden children’ of Adam and Eve. Uniquely, Icelanders have allowed their culture, religion, folklore, and of course, the elves, to integrate seamlessly.

What do elves mean for contemporary Icelandic Identity?

According to Icelandic professor of folkloristics Hafstein, in contemporary Icelandic identity, elves play a normative role. This is because the Huldufólk, which Skarphedinsson explained to us are a subset of elves which are human-like creatures living in an alternate dimension known as the ‘Otherworld’, inhabit a parallel universe reflective of an idealised traditional Icelandic society.

The Huldufólk, according to Hafstein, are described in Icelandic Folklore as protecting and enforcing ‘pastoral values and traditional [Icelandic] culture’. Huldufólk society includes farmers, fishermen and priests, all dressed in traditional Icelandic attire and speaking Icelandic; it is a snapshot of pre-industrial Icelandic society. By extension, the Huldufólk society is portrayed in opposition to modernised Icelandic society — you will never hear of a social media influencer elf or a ‘hidden’ Uber driver. As Hafstein affirms, ‘there is no sign of change in the Otherworld’. 

Because of this, the Huldufólk find themselves in the middle of an Icelandic identity struggle. Nationalist discourse revolves around assigning danger to difference — think ‘Middle Eastern terrorists’ or ‘Mexican rapists’. However, in the case of Iceland, the difference is to be found not at a nations’ border, but at the boundary between our world and the ‘otherworld’. Paradoxically, however, the modernised ‘real-world’ Icelandic identity then becomes the ‘other’, while the Huldufólk society represents a quintessential ‘self’. Danger — which in Icelandic folklore manifests itself in urbanisation, capitalism, and the destruction of nature — is brought in not by foreigners, but by Icelanders who have lost their roots.

Hafstein argues that the Huldufólk further function as a nostalgic escape for the Icelanders who believe in them, as well as a coping mechanism to deal with anxieties induced by modernity. In many stories, or depending on who you ask, historical events, the Huldufólk appear in instances where modernity goes too far. When nature, arguably Iceland’s greatest quality, is interfered with, there are sure to be ‘interferences’ by the Huldufólk. There are countless accounts of bulldozers suddenly breaking down or construction workers falling ill. Elves, in this sense, may be used by nostalgic Icelanders as a scapegoat to halt modernity — it is not Icelanders who reject modernity, it is the elves, ‘and we must not mess with the elves’.

Is it appropriate to intellectualise elves?

While the academic inquiries into the role of elves in Icelandic identity seem intriguing, Skarphedinsson playfully told us off when we referred to them. When mentioning the arguments of Hafstein, he told us academics like him ‘are so far from understanding the phenomenon.’ Their arguments, for Skarphedinsson, are ‘made-up explanations’ to rationalise something that, in its essence, is not rational. He told us that sometimes we need to accept that not everything can be, or needs to be, intellectualised; at least not in ‘an enlightenment way’. ‘I have done that, [and it] changed my mind totally.’

It was interesting to hear this as students of nationalism. It made us reflect on how trying to academically break down identities may in itself pose a threat to them. Indeed, Enlightenment thinking quickly pushes us to diminish the contents of an elf witness’ testimony. Skarphedinsson has devoted more than forty years of his life to write down the accounts of over 1400 witnesses that have seen or communicated with elves, and views this as the only method to accurately study elves — ‘this is where the true knowledge is […] I saw it in their eyes, they weren’t lying to me’. Skarphedinsson himself is reluctant to publish his accounts, because he believes it will influence the memories of other witnesses, as well as diminish the ontological security of the elf. By refraining to publish, the elves may live on, and adapt and protect against the future threats facing the Icelandic people and its unique identity.

What can we learn from the elves?

Elves represent a story of multicultural immigration, magic, hidden hopes, and idealised communities. Interestingly, elves have never been a reason for division in the Icelandic society. Skarphedinsson told us the elves remain a unifying symbol of what it means to be Icelandic, even for those who do not believe in their existence. According to Canetti, it is not so much history or shared language that makes up a national identity — these can, in fact, be forces of division. What brings an identity together, and solidifies it, is a crowd symbol that instills a sense of national belonging which is sustainable over time. Elves constitute exactly this, a unifying crowd symbol of Icelandic identity. These creatures are respected by all. Perhaps we should listen to Skarphedinsson, talk to the witnesses of our environments, internalise the knowledge they give us, and refrain from dismissing their knowledge due to incompatibility with the mould of academia. Iceland may very well be a last frontier where an identity is based on a unifying appreciation for the unknown.

Acknowledgements. We are grateful to Mr. Magnus Skarphedinsson for his time, expertise, and support during the writing of this article.

Beatrice Catena is a third-year international relations student and Editor-in-Chief of the Identity Hunters blog. Her main academic interests include the study of radicalization, identity, and critical security studies.

Victor Uwe S. Wascher is a third-year international relations student. His main academic interests include European identity, Flemish nationalism, and New Right political movements in Europe.

Editor: Ewa Bialoglowska

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