Thursday, April 24, 2014

Two Icelandic Traditional Cultural Properties

With my sons Josh and Tom, and my grandson Duncan, I recently travelled to Iceland and Scotland.  I went in part to seek ideas for the forthcoming second edition of Places That Count, my 2003 book on traditional cultural properties.

In Reykjavik, Iceland, I was honored to be shown around by Magnus Skarphedinsson, a leading expert on Icelandic elves and huldufólk (hidden people).   Traditional belief in Iceland, presumably dating back to the country’s settlement by Scandinavian seafarers in the late 9th century ACE, populates the rugged landscape with elves – small people of various sizes, and with huldufólk of approximately human scale, all of them capable of winking in and out of human perception.  They make their homes in various more or less distinctive landforms, notably cliffs, caves, and rock outcrops.  Under certain unspecified conditions, some people can see doors and windows in such landscape features, and in some cases whole houses and farms materialize and dematerialize. 

According to Mr. Skarphedinsson, 54% of Icelanders believe in elves and huldufólk, while an additional 33% take their possible existence into account.  Belief in such “nature spirits” was probably widespread in Europe, he thinks, prior to the Enlightenment, which had little impact on Iceland until the late 19th century.  Icelandic elves and huldufólk are obviously very similar to the spirit beings that many Native Americans and other indigenous groups believe occupy the landscape.

Although there do not seem to be official legal requirements for identifying and protecting places associated with elves and huldufólk, such places are apparently routinely considered in planning and protected from harm.  Failure by project planners and developers to extend such consideration to elf/ huldufólk sites has reportedly complicated construction work through equipment breakdowns, supply problems, illnesses, injuries, and cost overruns.  As a result, planners routinely consult with local residents to identify elf and huldufólk sites and design their projects to avoid and protect them. 

Mr. Skarphedinsson took a film crew from Eurovision and me to two elf sites in Reykjavik, illustrated below.  According to my notes on what Mr. Skarphedinsson told us, their stories are as follows. 

The Chicken Farm Strike Site

In 1936, a chicken farmer obtained land from the government containing a modest sized rock outcrop.  In 1939 he developed plans to clear the rocks away for construction of a new chicken house.  He was visited in a dream by an elf woman, who explained that the outcrop was her family’s home and asked him to save it.  He agreed, and did so.

All was well until 1942, when he sold the farm to a bakery company.  The seller asked the buyers to save the outcrop, and they agreed, but by 1945 they were planning an expansion that would take out the rocks.  Despite warnings from the neighbors, they sought approval from the local planning authorities.  At the time, the farm had some 300 chickens, producing about 250 eggs per day. 

The company received local planning approval for its expansion, whereupon egg production went into a steep and wholly mysterious decline.  Within a few days production dropped to 190 eggs, then 150, then 80, then 30, and finally to zero.  The company brought in veterinarians to figure out what was wrong with the chickens, but the chickens seemed fine, and were eating happily; they just weren’t laying.

Seeing the handwriting on the rocks, as it were, the company changed its plans so as to save the outcrop.  The chickens began to lay, and within a few weeks production was back to normal.  In 1964 the local government declared the outcrop an “honored guest,” not to be disturbed.  Today it stands protected in the midst of a car park in what is now a light industrial zone.

Chicken Farm Strike Rock

Elf House Road

In the 1950s, residential development was planned along a ridge in suburban Reykjavik.  The main road along which houses would be built was planned down the spine of the ridge, through a low outcrop of volcanic rocks.  Local residents warned that the rocks were occupied by elves, and after some discussion the planners elected to realign the road to skirt the outcrop, and named it Elf House Road.  Plans for a house immediately adjacent to the rocks were also abandoned.  Life went on with occasional elf sightings but no problems until the summer of 1973.

Reykjavik has developed an advanced geothermal heating system, with insulated hot water pipes snaking throughout the city.  In the summer of 1973 the system was expanded into the Elf House Road development.  The system was designed to avoid the rock outcrop, but a main pipe trench was laid out in the adjacent open field.  The trench was dug, and a large cement truck arrived to pour the walls and floor of a facility to contain some of the distribution equipment.  The driver, a young man, drove over the edge of the rock outcrop.  The several workers involved in digging the trench were appalled, pulled the driver out of the truck, and began informing him vigorously about the dangers of encroaching on the elf house.  During which discussion the cement truck abruptly fell over on its side.  It required a considerable effort with a good deal of equipment to right it and set it on its way.

All is apparently quiet on Elf House Road today, and when we visited we spoke – well, Mr. Skarphedinsson  and the filmmakers spoke; having no Icelandic I just listened and watched – with a very self-possessed local resident of about 12 who said she had quite recently seen an elf among the rocks.  About 40 cm. tall, bearded, dressed in white with black shoes, he smiled at her and disappeared.

Elf House Road


Lance M. Foster said...

Excellent post, Tom, and thank you for it. River bluffs and other locations were the homes of spirits, including the Little People, and these places were respected by the old-time people and left alone. Such natural places that are the homes of nature spirits here should be respected and left alone too, like burial sites. The Crow have a stone cliff at Pryor Gap in Montana which are still respected as a home of the Little People.

Thomas F King said...

Thanks, Lance. My impression is that Little People figure in traditions world-wide. The headmaster of the Elf School in Iceland blames the European Enlightenment for the decline of nature spirit knowledge among Europeans and Euroamericans. Walking the Scottish highlands after visiting Iceland, I saw a lot of places that looked to me like elf houses, but no one seemed to be home. Tried to take David Hume to task for it all when we reached Edinburgh, but he was unresponsive.

Thomas F King said...

There's now a piece on the Iceland Elf School (among other things) up on Eurovision TV at, with video of the Elfhouse Road site.