Exploring Iceland's fascination with elves

Iceland is a small country with a population of 323,000 people – and a yet-to-be-determined number of elves.

It might seem strange to talk about elves as part of the population, however a significant proportion of Icelanders believe that elves are real. In 2007, a University of Iceland survey found that over 80% of respondents refused to deny that elves exist. So maybe there’s more to it than just some ancient legend.

A little bit of info about elves

According to myth, elves live in large rocks and communicate with humans in a variety of ways.

Signs they’re angry include making cattle ill, souring milk and causing machinery to malfunction. Happy elves can do a lot of good though. They bless farmers with abundant harvests, heal the sick and cause good weather and calm sea.

This is why there are often little elfin doors at the base of trees in gardens, and many Icelanders take care not to disturb their elfin neighbours. Basically it’s considered best to keep on the good side of elves – even if you won’t admit to believing in them!

If you’re visiting Iceland there are several places where you can find out more about Iceland’s elfin folklore.

Elf diploma courses at the Elf School, Reykjavik

If you want to learn about elves from the real experts, the Elf School is the place to go. You can take a full course on elves, which is around four hours long, and you’ll earn your own diploma. You could therefore come back from your Icelandic holiday with a very cool souvenir.

The course starts with a description of what elves look like – they’re a lot like humans, but smaller. It explains that elves are not to be confused with trolls, dwarves and fairies – these are very different folks. You’ll also hear true life stories about people who have met and spoken with elves or been saved by them in the Icelandic wilderness. Afterwards you can choose to take a half hour private walking tour to see some elf hotspots located close to the School.

Although the teachers take their subject seriously, it’s done with a light touch and you get tea and biscuits. It’s sure to be an interesting idea for a day out during your Icelandic stay.

Hafnarfjordur - Iceland's biggest elf settlement

According to Icelandic legend, Hafnarfjordur is the home of whole clans of elves, dwarves, fairies and other mythical beings. These beings are collectively referred to as the Huldufolk, which means Hidden Folk. This is because only a few rare human beings can see them in the regular world.

You can take a Hidden Worlds tour here which takes you around important elfin sites in the town including Hamarinn Cliff. This cliff is known as the home of the Icelandic Elfin King and Queen and is where they hold court. You can also take the Elf Walk route around Hellisgerdi Park. Located on an ancient lava flow, it’s believed to be a favourite spot where local elves gather.

Hafnarfjordur is less than 20 minutes’ drive from Reykjavik, so if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan it’s definitely worth a visit.

A quick word about the Yule Lads

The Yule Lads are Iceland’s version of Santa Claus, except that there are 13 of them. From an elf point of view it’s important to note that, unlike Santa’s helpers, the Yule Lads are actually mountain trolls.

Originally depicted as scary monsters, today they’re fun, silly and festive. There’s also a Yule Cat that likes to hang out with them. According to legend, the Yule Cat eats children who don’t get new clothes for Christmas.

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