Gnomes and elves in Iceland
Iceland is known for the breath-taking scenery, but also for the enduring belief of the populace in the existence of nature beings such as elves and gnomes. This belief is reinforced by the added concrete collaboration with these beings, such that Icelanders avoid building their houses or constructing roads in places that are known to be inhabited by the “hidden people”.
A well-grounded belief
In all countries all over the world there are tales and legends about gnomes, elves, and other such nature beings. But whereas everywhere else these beings are viewed primarily as fictional characters, in Iceland they are considered quite real and a force to be reckoned with.
According to one survey, 5% of Icelanders claim to have seen these beings and 55% say they are either convinced of their existence or consider them very likely. And indeed, when asked about nature beings, Icelanders have many stories in which family members or acquaintances have experienced some incident that seems to confirm their existence:
• A grandmother who saw elves flitting about in flowers.
• A little girl asked her father about all the busy little people in the garden.
• A dying young boy who suddenly recovers from a severe infectious disease after having been visited during the night by a “group of doctors” that is unknown to the hospital staff.
The hidden people
Since nature beings are not visible to ordinary mortals, Icelanders generally refer to them as "hidden people".
Thus, side by side with Icelanders of flesh and blood live an invisible people, who interact with them, care for the natural environment and participate discreetly in the lives of the humans, whether in their homes, stables or gardens.
According to Icelanders, the hidden people comprise different kinds of beings, mainly elves, dwarfs, water sprites and trolls.
The belief of Icelanders in the existence of nature beings manifests visibly in their way of life and their environment. Here and there a road that suddenly turns or unexpectedly changes from a double lane to a single lane highway for no apparent reason. The reason, however, is that the road circumvents a rock or hill where elves or gnomes are believed to live.
For instance, the road leading to the foot of Mount Kerlingarfjöll in the centre of Iceland makes a surprising twist around a boulder just before arriving at the car park. Why this detour? Why couldn’t the engineers have just moved or dynamited the obstructive rock, as is usually done? They could indeed have done so but chose not to, because the rock is believed to be the habitat of a troll.
The road linking the capital Reykjavik to a suburb suddenly changes from two lanes to a single lane. This is a straight road that, at a certain point, is very close to a hillock inhabited by elves. Here too, rather than skirt round the mound, the engineers opted to reduce the width of the road.
Besides making bypasses or reducing the width of a road, other solutions are at times adopted. In the Hegranes district, a road construction required drilling through a rocky mountain ridge that obstructed the route. The foreman was planning to blast the ridge but dreamt one night that elves dwelling in the ridge were vehemently opposed to his plans. Other people also received the same warning. The elves’ wishes were respected and the hitherto flat road abruptly rises to a very steep incline in climbing the ridge.
Location of houses
Houses and buildings are not built haphazardly. Some sites are carefully avoided, as they are known to shelter some of the hidden people.
In the city of Grundarfjördur, the main street does not carry a number 84. The houses located at numbers 82 and 86 are separated by a piece of land deliberately preserved, because an elf lives in this plot.
Number 102 of a street in a suburb of Reykjavik had been allocated by the town council for the construction of a family villa, like the rest of the numbers on the street. However, the town council changed its mind and withdrew the building permit in order to “avoid trouble”. They had, in fact, been notified that the land was the home of a group of elves. This type of information is usually obtained through clairvoyants that are able to see and communicate with nature beings and receive messages from them. In other cases, human beings are informed by nature beings through intuitions, premonition, or dreams.
Precautions taken to preserve the “elf places” could be regarded as ridiculous and outdated beliefs if not for the fact that Icelanders learned at their own cost from experiences that it was by far preferable to respect these habitats. When they did not heed these warnings, whether through ignorance or intentionally, they paid dearly.
Although invisible, the hidden people are able to affect events to an extent that human beings do recognise that something is amiss and would do well to change their plans. The developers of a holiday resort had one such bitter experience. Work had already started for several weeks, workers and machines were busy, but the work did not progress. Nothing seemed to go smoothly and they were plagued with a seemingly endless series of difficulties, obstacles and setbacks that slowed the completion of the project. Even a 50-ton excavator overturned twice into the same ditch! The project director, with 30 years experience, affirmed that he had never seen anything quite like it. It was a total mystery.
An individual with the ability to see and communicate with nature beings was invited to see if there was not something in relation with the beings that could explain the catastrophic situation at the building site. And they were right. Gnomes, nymphs and trolls who strongly populated the site chosen for the project were fiercely opposed to the construction of the holiday village, hence the myriad of problems and delays.
After numerous similar experiences, Icelanders, or at least some of them, consider it wise to take nature beings into account before embarking on construction projects. For example, some individuals seek the advice of a clairvoyant before building a house. They want to avoid harming these beings and so protect themselves from later disagreements. The local authorities, such as the “Icelandic Highways and Roads Department” for instance, also take the same precautions.
Warnings and efforts made by nature beings to protect a rock, a hillock, and so on make them appear to be very attached or even dependent on these spots. It is as though the rock, inhabited by a gnome for instance, is its personal habitat and that it is harmed when the rock is destroyed. According to accounts, harm ensues because the nature being likes that spot and does not wish to leave it or its survival is endangered, and for that reason their emphatic protests.
This way of thinking seeks to humanise these nature beings too much and to confer behaviours on them that cannot possibly be theirs. Nature beings are not human spirits. They have a different nature and belong to another species, and therefore possess different faculties.
One major attribute that distinguishes human beings from nature beings is our ability of free will. It is the faculty that allows human beings to make absolutely free decisions, and on this basis to possibly oppose the laws of nature, the sense of good and just, the sense of reason and logic. Since nature beings do not possess free will, they always act in accordance with the laws of nature. Their will and action are adjusted to maintaining and advancing the development of nature. Each type of being works within its domain: elves in flowers and plants, the gnomes in the rocks, the sprites in water, and so on. Not possessing a free will, nature beings cannot arbitrarily decide to hurt humans.
In addition, and contrary to various accounts, nature beings are not bound to places – whether rocks, trees, or streams – where they live. Granted, these places serve as their habitats but there is not, for example, a gnome in every rock. Indeed gnomes look after all the rocks, but they only live in some of them. If humans threaten one of these places, nature beings can easily relocate since they are independent of these places.
What nature beings can do, however, is to interfere when human beings disturb the peace of nature. They can render the human work more difficult by slowing it down through various obstacles and complications like the example cited of the holiday village construction site.
If it is not personal interests that cause nature beings to send warnings to humans to prevent them from disrupting or destroying a particular area in nature, what then is their motive?
Nature beings in all their types promote all processes of growth and change in nature. Their role is to maintain and preserve the natural order of things. The disposition of trees, groves, rocks, hills, streams ... in nature generally and particularly in each region is not due to chance. Everything is organised with logic and wisdom by these beings. Thus among the many elements of a landscape, certain rocks or hillocks have a particular importance, not to the physical equilibrium, but to the total energy balance of the place.
It is therefore quite normal that when humans threaten such significant sites, nature beings react within their means – by warnings, or by seeking to prevent the realisation of a project. It is not for personal reasons that they want to protect a site but for reasons far more superior and global. Human activity on and in nature succeeds all the more easily the better the conscious or unconscious contact with nature beings is, but, as the example of the holiday village shows, is slowed or obstructed when it receives no support.
By becoming aware of these facts, we cannot help but wonder why nature beings warn and react emphatically to seemingly small issues, like a road being too close to a rock, and do not react a lot more, or seem not to react at all, when confronted by more fundamental and general issues such as pollution of the seas or the intensive destruction of tropical forests.
Well, they do react and warn, as people who are in contact with the beings time and again emphasise. But if the warnings are not heeded, since, generally speaking, human beings of today have lost all knowledge about nature beings and do not believe in their existence, then collaboration is impossible - except in places where there is still a certain degree of open-mindedness, as is the case in Iceland.
Why especially in Iceland?
Icelanders are especially open to nature beings. Where does it come from?
The extraordinary natural forces that shape Iceland make its inhabitants particularly vigilant. A people so forced to remain alert and watchful of nature for their survival are more likely to perceive these beings and to believe in their existence. Their enduring preoccupation draws them closer to nature.
In Iceland the climate is very unsettled. Warm southern winds can quickly change to freezing northern wind. During the summer months daylight lasts almost 24 hours, whereas winter is very gloomy, even dark since the sun does not shine or only briefly over the horizon. The mountain peaks are snow-capped while hot springs and geysers bubble on the plains. Many volcanoes are still active, and daily small to medium earthquakes shake the ground.
In such circumstances, the continual consideration of nature helps the inhabitants of Iceland to be more open and to develop a particular sensitivity towards nature and to the beings that animate it.