How Elves and Dragons Are Doing a Fantastic Job of Protecting Iceland's Environment

In Iceland, where my father is from, it’s perfectly reasonable for people to think elves exist. Over half the population believes in, or at least entertains the existence of these invisible, magical and often mischievous creatures. I have relatives who are marine biologists, professors and agnostics who will not deny that elves, the huldufólk, or "hidden people," reside in communities underneath rocks, living in detached harmony with humans and the natural world. For the most part, elves ignore humans until they interfere with their habitat.


When developers try to destroy rocks that are known elf homes or churches, things get spooky. A notorious example is the Álfhólsvegur (elf-hill) road in Kopavogur, which was eventually moved to accommodate the elves after machinery continued to mysteriously break down and construction accidents began to frequently occur in the 1930s. Fifty years later, plans to rebuild the same road were again halted when the same issues resurfaced, and workers refused to go near the hill with any machinery. Similar cases of construction machinery malfunctioning or natural disasters occurring when people attempted to disturb elf homes have led many Icelanders to abandon development over elf sites.

Over the last few decades, elves have gotten political representation in Iceland. An emerging group of elf advocates have formed alliances with environmentalists, and have managed to prevent major roads and homes from being built over rocks where elves are rumored to live.

Elf advocates have not always been successful in defending their invisible friends, as in the case of the Ófeigskirkja boulder, which was eventually moved after an 8-year battle with developers. Some argue that the process of protecting elf territory, and taking elf issues seriously, gives elves time to adjust to leaving their homes. “It cannot be denied that belief in the supernatural is occasionally the reason for local concerns and these opinions are taken into account just as anybody else’s would be…Issues have been settled by delaying construction projects so that the elves can, at a certain point, move on," the Iceland Road and Coastal administration stated.

It’s difficult to imagine why elves garner so much respect in Norse culture. In America, we think of elves as Santa’s pointy green factory workers. But according to 18th- and 19th-century legends, Icelandic elves are anything but servile. They have been known to seek revenge on people who betray them, but also provide good fortune to those who pay them respect. Roughly the same size as humans, they are invisible, and have been described by scholar Terry Gunnell as “beautiful, powerful, alluring, and free from care.”

Some Icelanders go as far as to allegedly have sex with elves. “Sex with humans is boring,” writes self-proclaimed elf sex expert Hallgerdur Hallgrímsdóttir, who is fed up with dating her own kind. “Elf sex is possibly the safest sex on earth. They don’t carry sexually transmitted diseases and you can't get pregnant or make an Elverine pregnant unless you both want to, which is not unheard of.”

The island of fire and ice, full of geysers, waterfalls, glaciers, fjords, natural hot springs, and vast mossy fields, is a landscape people want to preserve, and one that fosters the belief in supernatural forces. Elves and other mythological beings came to represent a way of understanding the natural environment, and also human consciousness. “Many things indicate that the hidden people originate in our unconscious: They resemble us in many ways, though they are more spirit-like and invisible, and to see the elves, must to either be given permission by them, or have a special ability. They can have supra-human capacities; and they can be both better and worse than humans,” says Haukur Ingi Jónasson, a theologian and psychoanalyst.

Though defending elf homes is not merely about Icelandic belief in superstition, but also in respecting the natural, non-human world. "Icelanders are few in number, so in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies,” says President Ã“lafur Ragnar Grímsson. Even Icelandic-born singer Bjork admitted to believing in elves when asked by TV host Stephen Colbert: "It's sort of a relationship with nature, like with the rocks. (The elves) all live in the rocks, so you have to. It's all about respect, you know."

“Iceland is full of álagablettir, or enchanted spots, places you don’t touch – just like the fairy forts and peat bogs in Ireland. They’re protected by stories about the bad things that will happen if you do. This word of mouth, passed down over generations, is usually more effective than an official preservation order,” says Terry Gunnell, professor of folklore at the University of Iceland.

Iceland’s rising tourist industry could be one factor in maintaining the existence of not just elves, but other Icelandic mythic characters, such as trolls, sea monsters, and dragons.

One example is the Lagarfljótsormur, the Icelandic version of a Loch Ness monster. Resembling an aquatic brachiosaurus, myths of this serpent date back to 1345, though most sightings of the monster have occurred in the 20th century. Stories of the wormlike monster breathing poisonous fire and killing civilians abound, and sightings of the creature are said to foreshadow natural disasters. In 2014, the Fljótsdalshérað municipal council declared that the Lagarfljótsormur exists, though some speculate that this was a ploy to attract monster-seeking tourists.

Originally Icelanders used these mythological creatures as a way to deter people from coming to their island. Thirteenth-century cartographers depicted Icelandic coasts as utterly terrifying, laden with sea monsters, mermen, serpents and other unclassifiable mutants in order to dissuade explorers from settling there. On some ancient maps, the northern region of Dreki is ominously marked "Here be Dragons," and is rumored to be populated by sea monsters.

Coincidentally, this same area is also thought to have untapped oil resources of interest to private companies who have recently gotten licensing rights to search for oil there. In a 2014 agreement, oil companies agreed to pay 10,000 ISK per square kilometer per year for the exclusive right to search for any useable resources.

While elf activists have been vocal about disturbing elf territory, there have yet to be sea dragon advocates rushing to defend the fire-breathing aquatic monsters of the Dreki region, or the Lagarfljótsormur for that matter. Elves have been known to cause mischief, but sea monsters have been less than desirable residents in Iceland, having been rumored to eat children.

Still, many Icelandic environmentalists are wary of disturbing the arctic region. Though beliefs in these otherworldly characters may seem ridiculous, the traditions have promoted a worldview of existing in harmony with the natural world rather than merely dominating it.

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