Tonight, to accompany the strange and often beautiful No Such Thing, we were lucky to snag photographer (also, editor and author) Jen St. Louis to talk about her family experience with Icelandic fae. How cool is that? If there are links to images in the post, click on them for a serious treat, and you can find the rest of Jen’s work at Jen St. Louis Photogprahy.
And definitely watch the elf sex video, too. (You’ll see what I mean. It’s brilliant.)
Iceland: land of fire, ice, and hidden people
By Jen St. Louis
Ah, Iceland. What’s not to love about a country of glaciers, volcanoes, and sulphur-spewing geysers… and whose capital city has its very own Elf School?
My great-grandparents were called West Icelanders, having come from a farm northwest of Reykjavik. They emigrated to Canada in the early 1900s with their two small children; a few years later, in 1915, my grandmother became the second of their children born outside of Iceland. My grandmother – Amma in Icelandic – and my great aunt, the only two from that side who had a significant influence on my life, held onto their Icelandic heritage with a ferocity that would have made their Viking ancestors proud.
They spoke Icelandic to each other, like it was their own private language (which it was, since my grandfather didn’t speak a word of it, nor did my mom or her siblings… though apparently my mom spoke it fluently with her Amma, despite having absolutely no memory of ever understanding the language now); they had paintings of Icelandic landscapes hanging on the walls, and a woven tapestry of a typical volcanic countryside above the living room couch; I admired runic symbols on jewellery or engraved on polished lava; I have pictures of myself wearing beautiful, hand-knit Icelandic sweaters from the time I could walk (don’t ask me how many I have in my closet right now… it’s rather shameful for someone to have that many sweaters, I realize, but I love them). My mom was subjected to strange Icelandic foods from which, fortunately, I was mostly spared. I don’t remember hearing too many folk stories, but I do have vivid memories of knowing about the Norse god Thor from a very early age, and trolls. I was actually quite terrified of some of the troll figurines my great aunt had in her living room; they just creeped me out.
But I don’t ever remember any talk of fairies, and neither does my mom. Which is why I was so surprised, when looking at my mom’s pictures from her first trip to Iceland a few years back, to see pictures of tiny little houses in someone’s yard. When she told me they were fairy houses, I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t. At all.
I finally got to Iceland for the first (but definitely not last) time last year, on a mother-daughter trip. Our first day in Reykjavik, we took a walk through a nature reserve near our hotel, just on the outskirts of the main city. As we walked through the woods, I noticed neat piles of berries and nuts sitting on a tree stump. It struck me as odd, and when I commented on it, my mom informed me that it was an offering to the huldufólk (hidden folk) – apparently it’s not uncommon for Icelanders to set out food in areas where these magical beings are thought to be.
According to folklore, Iceland is absolutely lousy with huldufólk, a group that includes dwarfs, gnomes, fairies, trolls, and elves (though some consider elves to be a unique group, called the álfar). According to which resource you choose to believe, anywhere between 50% and 80% of Icelanders believe in the existence of huldufólk, and as many as 90% “take notice” of them.
(Now, when I asked my cousin Helga – who works for the Icelandic tourist board, incidentally – she played down the claims that so many Icelanders eagerly believe in magical creatures. “The statistics are not that crazy,” she insisted. Hmmm. Methinks I smell a cover up.)
So, what does it mean to “take notice” of the huldufólk? Well, in this case, it means that the belief in even the possibility of the huldufólk existing is so strong that engineers regularly re-route the construction of new roads or the laying of pipelines or cables to avoid sites that are supposed to be of some importance to huldufólk. There are actually mediums who are brought in to consult on construction projects that experience greater than normal delays and problems – presumably, because the huldufólk are unhappy with the plans.
Want to learn more about the huldufólk? Well, good news! Simply enrol for an afternoon of learning at the Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavik. You can also find more than a few tours throughout the island that cater to the mythology of the huldufólk; in many a town, you can find maps pinpointing out known spots allegedly occupied by huldufólk – sort of a fae version of the map to the stars’ homes in Beverly Hills. A good bet for a map or a guided elf-finding tour is in the town of Hafnarfjordur, just south of Reykjavik; it’s known as one of the most huldufólk –populated places in the country.
When you look at Iceland, with its dramatic and stark-yet-stunningly-beautiful landscapes, it’s easy to see why stories about huldufólk became so common. It’s so otherworldly that I strongly believe Lord of the Rings should’ve been filmed there rather than in New Zealand. The landscape, often described as lunar in areas where the lava flows have taken over, just lends itself so well to this kind of fantastical mythology. When you look at them long enough, the rockscapes often take on humanoid forms. There are spots throughout the country where strange rock formations are tied to legends of trolls being caught in the sun and turned into stone. One of the most famous such is the beach at Vik, on the southern-most tip of the island, where the stunning sea stack rock formations are said to be the remains of trolls who were caught outside at sunrise.
Two hours north of Reykjavik lies the Snæfellsnes peninsula, purported to be the most magical (literally) region in Iceland. Driving along the winding road, craggy volcanic mountains line the way, with water seeping through small cracks in the lava form countless waterfalls that seem to appear out of nowhere. It’s truly stunning, and it’s not hard to imagine the hillsides housing a healthy population of huldufólk.
One of the main attractions on the peninsula is the Snæfellsjökull glacier, which lies on top of a dormant volcano. This is the precise spot which, according to Jules Verne’s writings, is the entrance to the centre of the Earth. Many Icelanders claim the area is a source of other-worldly energy – in fact, they claim it’s one of the Earth’s seven energy sources. What that means, exactly, I’m not sure, but it seems to be important. Every summer, visitors from around the world congregate at the glacier for several days to mediate and absorb this mysterious energy. (Better hurry if you want to see the glacier, though – thanks to global warming, all of Iceland’s glaciers are shrinking at alarming rates. Some scientist believe the glaciers will all but disappear in 100 years; the estimates for Snæfellsjökull fall around as little as 50 years.)
Iceland is a study in contrasts, besides the glaciers and volcanoes that shape the country. It boasts a 99.9% literacy rates and consistently ranks in the top 10 countries in the world for quality of life, yet their Road Authority has an elf medium on speed dial. Clearly, some Icelanders take the huldufólk more seriously than others. Like the 150 people who, in 1982, visited the NATO base in Keflavik to determine whether or not the US jets were a danger to the elves in the area.
I’ll leave you now with the journalist who wrote a book on how to have sex with Icelandic elves. No, really. There are even stick-figure illustrations, and she claims to be speaking from experience. And she seems shockingly normal, all things considered. Don’t believe me? Watch the video. It’s actually pretty awesome.