Elves on Ice

Since we’re in the holiday spirit, I wanted to post a piece I wrote on my elf tour in Iceland. The following is published in the December issue of Luxury Las Vegas magazine:

Elves on Ice

In Iceland, the holidays are the best time to spot the elfin population.
The ‘Hidden Worlds’ tour gives insight into these little people,
who do far more than bake cookies and help Santa.

 

Raucous applause fills Hamborgarafabrikkan, a popular gourmet hamburger
restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland, as a young server stands on a wooden ladder
and stretches her arms to change a “3” into a “4” so that the latest population
count of Iceland reads “319,724.”

For this isolated island country, which is about the size of Kentucky, a new
addition is reason to celebrate. But ask around, and you’ll find out that human beings
aren’t the only worthwhile population in Iceland. Here, they say the world of hidden
people is also very much alive—particularly at Christmas time.

If you’re in Iceland right now, or heading that way, make your way to the nearest
intersection, grab a gray cat, and wait. According to folk tales, that’s the best way to
spot an elf.

That’s right, an elf. You know—about three feet high, skinny legs and arms, pointy ears? Elves are said to be everywhere in Iceland—particularly living in rocks, hills and trees—and Christmas, New Year’s Eve and January 6 (as well as June 24) are the best days to spot one. At least, that’s what my elf-tour guide, Sibba Karlsdottir, says.

She tells me this as we’re walking around Hafnarfjordur, the self-proclaimed elf capital of Iceland, located about a 10-minute drive from the capital, Reykjavik. Looking around at the lunar-like lava rocks, it’s easy to imagine seeing something curious out of the corner of your eye—particularly in the wintertime, when there’s often more than 20 hours of dark each day.

As Karlsdottir leads the way through lush green parks and along sleepy residential streets, we don’t see a single person in passing. “There was a survey that we ran here in this town a few years ago, and 54 percent said they believed in the elves,” says Karlsdottir, who leads the Hidden Worlds Walks tour Tuesdays and Fridays throughout the year, and schedules private tours for other days. Still, she says, even if an Icelander doesn’t believe in elves, try getting him to break down an elf rock. They’ll all refuse, she says. Every single one of them.

“So that can tell you something,” she smiles. With her small stature, red-apple cheeks and red hat, she actually looks a touch elfin.

Iceland is, after all, only 1,800 miles from the greatest employer of elves (or so we’ve been told): the North Pole. To put that in perspective, that’s about the distance from Las Vegas to Chicago. As the sleigh flies, not a bad commute.

But it turns out our American version of Santa’s elves are very different from Icelandic elves. There, the Santas, themselves, are elves. Known as Jolasveinar, which means “Yule Lads,” the 13 impish elves are descendants of two child-eating ogres (let us not forget that the Icelandic people are descendants of Vikings, and their children’s stories reflect that). The elves, while not child-eaters, haven’t always been the philanthropic creatures you might hope would come down from the mountains at Christmas time.

“They used to come and harass people. One would slam the door, one would steal candles,” says Karlsdottir. “They’ve improved over the years.”

But they still tend to be troublemakers, and each has a name corresponding with the particular prank to which he’s prone: There’s Þvörusleikir the Spoon-licker, Gluggagægir the Peeper, Bjúgnakrækir the Sausage-pilfer, Hurðaskellir the Door-slammer, and the list goes on. They each come down the mountain, one a day, beginning 13 days before Christmas, and put a gift inside a child’s shoe. Bad children receive rotten potatoes. “We don’t have coal,” explains Karlsdottir.

After Christmas, they head back up to their mountain dwelling one by one, sausage-pilferers, spoon-lickers, peepers and all, returning by January 6.

Of course, just because the Yule Lads are gone doesn’t mean the elf activity stops. Not in Iceland, where roads have been rerouted and buildings halted because of reports of elf activity. (Actually, the reports are about failed equipment, after which a seer, i.e. psychic is called in and describes the presence of elves.)
Karlsdottir says that there are a couple of stories that tell the origin of the elves. She shares one that dates back to Adam and Eve.

“God the almighty paid a visit to Adam and Eve,” she says, taking on a dramatic tone. “Eve was a good mother. She expected her children to be clean, and when God arrived some of the kids were still dirty. And Eve felt ashamed. So she decided to hide them. When God visited, he asked her, ‘Do you have any more kids?’ ‘No,’ she said. Of course, God knew, and he said, ‘What’s hidden to me shall be hidden to humans,’ and these children became invisible. And started to live in rocks.”

She points out different rocks, telling stories about the elves that live within. One has a metal stake sticking out of it, after a man decided he wanted to break the rock and build his house here. An elf caught the stake, however, and it’s been stuck there ever since. The man, rather than risk the wrath of elves, decided to build his house further up the street.

Karlsdottir began giving these tours years ago, after working for the Iceland tourism bureau, where she saw firsthand the great interest outsiders had in elves. She has her own theory about why the Icelandic people know elves so well, and it has to do with their extreme isolation. Stories of the elves date back to Norse mythology, and have carried through the centuries. Icelanders once relied on storytellers for entertainment. They would travel from farm to farm, earning their room and board through their narratives. She thinks that’s how the elf stories migrated and evolved across the country.

Or maybe it has something to do with the surreal, moon-like landscape and moving shadows, the rocks shaped like trolls, the lack of sunlight and the prevalence of a drink called Black Death. Whatever it is, if you’re traveling to Iceland, you should book a tour and decide for yourself. And you may want to take an extra-large suitcase along. Just in case.

To learn more about the Hidden World Walks go to http://www.alfar.is/Index/English/.

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