Iceland: History, Elves, and Vikings

As the weeks have gone by, Iceland is still on my mind. We’ve seen some crazy headlines in the news about a complete white-out and hurricane force winds keeping people locked inside. But as we thank our lucky stars that we traveled when we did, I can’t help but look back on our days in the beautiful country. The sunsets were out of this world, the Northern Lights would make a Photoshop artist jealous, and also the elves.

Wait, elves?

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Yes, there is some incredible history and stories about the elves and trolls that live in the Icelandic countryside. Elves or “Huldufolk” are very well-known and popular in local folklore. According to President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, “Icelanders are few in number, so in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies.” But it’s not just to boost the population. Icelandic citizens believe in the hill fairies or the “Good People” and protect them.

Building projects have been halted and oil companies thwarted from expansion as to not disturb the elves. As a child, you are also told not to throw stones because you may hit one of these mystical and invisible creatures. (This may have been a lesson to just not throw rocks, period, but whatever it takes to get a kid to listen, I’m fine with.)

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One of the earliest theories of how the hill fairies came to be was from as far back as Adam and Eve. It is said that Eve hid her unwashed and dirty children from God. So, God said, “What man hides from God, God will hide from man.” Other theories explain that these pixies are actually fallen angels condemned to a life between heaven and hell.

Documentation of these beings can be found as early as the 12th century. Stories continue to develop through the 15th century with more stories being written in the 17th and 18th centuries when Iceland was going through difficult economic times. It is common when there is a financial crisis, people turn to stories of fantasy or paranormal. This is one of the reasons Dracula and Twilight were born.

In Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss, she interviewed a few people who had a special connection with trolls and gnomes and told the story of an oil company talking to a family about laying some pipeline through their land in an effort to expand their economy. The family refused because of the hill people that lived within the large stones and rocks. The country is so ingrained with this myth that the oil company completely understood and found another way around the property.

I was in awe. And then, I was in love. I love that this country has such a deep and meaningful history whether it’s supernatural or not. It’s out of the ordinary and unique to Iceland. A survey taken in 2006 shows that 47.5% of the population believe in some capacity that there are elves, trolls, fairies, or other mystical folk living among them.

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Aside from mythical stories, Iceland is ripe with amazing history. The larger-than-life Vikings were a big influence on the country. One of the gorgeous waterfalls we saw on our trip was Skogafoss. This massive water wall with a drop of 60m comes with its own Viking legend.

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The first Viking settler in the area, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a treasure in a cave behind the waterfall. The legend continues that locals found the chest years later, but were only able to grasp the ring on the side of the chest before it disappeared again. The ring was allegedly given to the local church. The old church door ring is now in a museum, though whether it gives any credence to the folklore is debatable.

Vikings traveled from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden to settle on Iceland as early as the 9th century, but there are signs discovered near the current airport of Gaelic monks having lived before the Vikings even step foot on the land. Like America, Iceland was “discovered” by mistake. Naddoddr was traveling to the Faroe Islands when he found Iceland, and he decided to stay becoming the first settler. The first “on purpose” settler, Ingolfr Arnarson, landed in Reykjavik and claimed it in 874.

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The country was mostly independent since it is said the Norwegians were fleeing their home country. But in the 13th century, the Age of the Sturlungs began an internal conflict that continued for almost 50 years. Because of this, the Nordic states (Sweden, Denmark, and Norway) formed an alliance, but when that alliance dissolved, Iceland became a subject of Norway leading to continued economic hardship.

It wasn’t until June 17, 1944, Iceland became a completely independent state. It took the Second World War and the distrust of the Nazis who had occupied Denmark, for them to finally break free.

But to symbolize and celebrate their original settlers, every year there is a Viking Festival in the summer. It is complete with Viking school for children, archery and axe throwing, storytelling, and dancing. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate Icelandic life like that?

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As we wandered through Reykjavik on our last day in Iceland, we came across The Sun Voyager sculpture situated right on the water. It is a gorgeous piece of artwork that shimmers in the sunset and symbolizes “undiscovered territory.” While it was incredibly cold next to the water and the wind was pushing us off our feet, we marveled at the stunning display against the most picturesque backdrop of white capped mountains and the gentle ocean.

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The last place we visited was the Hallgrimskirkja Church. It is one of the most massive churches we have seen in all of our European travels. We were in complete awe when we saw it at night and equally shocked in the day. We decided to walk inside to see how it compared to the other cathedrals we have visited.

Completely bare of gold leaf and crucifixes, the stark white walls only highlighted the blue sky that peeked through the non-stained glass windows. It reminded us of the marble churches of Germany with minimal decoration except for a hanging painting facing downward. It was a floating sky among the white pillars. For a small fee, you can climb to the top tower, but we didn’t allow ourselves the time before we had to get to the airport. It was truly one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen.

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While we feel like we got a nice sample of Iceland in the five days we were there, Jeff and I are anxious to return. There is so much more to see and explore in this vast land of waterfalls and sunsets.

One thing we didn’t get to was exploring the little islands. One was recently photographed and spread through the internet because it looks like an elephant head. That would be something to see. But exploring the newly-made volcanic islands would have been fun since a few of them were created as recently as the 1970s.

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I also would recommend exploring the northern part of the country. We had been told by many to see Akureyri. It’s the second largest city in the country and offers another feel for the country. Next time, we plan on using that area our base. But Reykjavik was the perfect choice for our first trip to the frozen country.

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Here are some more resources on elf culture:


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