Iceland 2001: The Huldufólk

Those Strange Basalt Formations Could Be a Troll ... or the Home of an Elf

Those Strange Basalt Formations Could Be a Troll … or the Home of an Elf

Many Icelanders, particularly those who grew up before the island became cool, believe in the hidden folk. As a matter of fact, despite all that ice, it was once a very hot place—so hot that the residents bake rye bread by burying it in a hole only a couple of feet deep. Many places, like the original Geysir (yes, that’s how it is spelled) are so hot that a single misstep could plunge you into boiling mud.

There are numerous stories about the island’s hidden folk, or huldufólk, namely trolls, ogres, elves, mermen, and others. If you think I’m being tongue-in-cheek while writing this, allow me to refer you to a story that recently hit the news in Reykjavík.

An interest group called Hraunavinir (‘Lava Friends’) is planning to sue over the making of a new road to Álftanes from Engidalur in Garðabær, across the lava field Gálgahraun, and to a roundabout opposite Bessastaðir, the presidential residence.

Seer and piano instructor Erla Stefánsdóttir maintains that the elf boulder Ófeigskirkja will be destroyed in the process and fears that wrath of dwarves in the hidden world will cause accidents on the road, Fréttablaðið reports.

Now this is not the type of story one would encounter in the New York Times. What I found particularly interesting was that there were some serious follow-up stories, including one just a few days ago in which one resident suggested the whole problem could be eliminated by a couple of strategically-placed roundabouts.

In Reykjavík, there is even an Elfschool, which has been open for over twenty years. It is run by Magnus Skarpheðinsson, who is an expert on Iceland’s huldufólk.

When I look at that basaltic plug in the photo above, at Dimmuborgir on the shores of Lake Mývatn in Northeast Iceland, I think that it may well be a petrified troll who hung around after sunset, or the residence of elves, who venture forth from their stony fastness to confound the ways of men.

Trunt, Trunt, and the Trolls in the Fells

Troll

Troll

There were once two men who went up into the mountains to gather edible moss. One night they were sharing a tent, and one was asleep and the other awake. The one who was awake saw the one who was asleep go creeping out; he got up and followed him, but however hard he ran he could not catch up with him. The sleeping man was headed straight up the mountain towards the glaciers, and the other saw where a huge giantess was sitting up there on the spur of the glacier. What she was doing was this: she would stretch out her arms with her hands crossed and then draw them in again to her breast, and in this way she was magically drawing the man towards her. The man ran straight into her arms, and then she ran off with him.

A year later, some people from this man’s district were gathering moss at the same place; he came there to meet them, and he was so short-spoken and surely that one could hardly get a word out of him. They asked him who he believed in, and he said he believed in God. The following year he came to the moss-gatherers again, and by then he looked so like a troll that he struck terror into them. However, he was again asked who he believed in, but he made no reply. This time he stayed a shorter time with them than before. The third year, he came again; by then he had turned into an absolute troll, and a very ugly-looking one too. Yet someone plucked up courage to ask him who he believed in, but he said he believed in “Trunt, Trunt, and the trolls in the fells”—and then he disappeared. After this he was never seen again, but for some years afterwards men did not dare go looking for moss in that place.—Jacqueline Simpson, Icelandic Folktales and Legends