Huldufólk Elves

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Hildur is the Queen of the Elves in Iceland and Huldufólk (Icelandic hidden people) from huldu “pertaining to secrecy” and “fólk people” are her elves! Building projects in Iceland are sometimes altered to prevent damaging the rocks where they are believed to live. According to these Icelandic folk beliefs, one should never throw stones because of the possibility of hitting the huldufólk.

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has explained the existence of huldufólk tales by saying: “Icelanders are few in number, so in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies.” The folklore in the Faroe Islands of Faroese folk tales, Huldufólk are said to be “large in build, their clothes are all grey, and their hair black. Their dwellings are in mounds, and they are also called Elves.” They also dislike crosses, churches and electricity.

Terry Gunnell writes: “different beliefs could have lived side by side in multicultural settlement Iceland before they gradually blended into the latter-day Icelandic álfar and huldufólk.” He also writes: “Huldufólk and álfar undoubtedly arose from the same need. The Norse settlers had the álfar, the Irish slaves had the hill fairies or the Good People. Over time, they became two different beings, but really they are two different sets of folklore that mean the same thing.”

In one folk tale, the origins claim that huldufólk originate from the Goddess Lilith (or Cave Grandmothers), official opposition to dancing may have begun in Iceland as early as the 12th-century, and the association of dancing with elves can be seen as early as the 15th-century. One folktale shows the elves siding with the common people and taking revenge on an authoritative man who banned sacred dance. Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir concludes that these legends “show that Icelanders missed dancing”.

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In the 13th and 14th centuries, books from mainland Europe reached Iceland, and may have influenced folktales about elves. Einar Ólafur Sveinsson writes: “Round about 1600 sources for hidden folk become so voluminous that we can readily define the beliefs and legends about them, and after that there is one source after another about them right down into the twentieth century.” According to Árni Björnsson, belief in hidden people grew during the 17th and 18th centuries when Iceland was facing tough times.

Insofar as Icelanders do believe in huldufólk, it is clear that beliefs are changing from those current in the nineteenth century; indeed, this change is itself evidence that, at least among some people, folklore about huldufólk is a meaningful part of contemporary culture. Unnur Jökulsdóttir found that:

Changing Beliefs today – At the beginning of my journey I was somewhat confused by all the different kinds of hidden beings that people told me about, and realised that I was looking for the “pure huldufólk” of the sort that are described in folk tales and were talked out in my own district. But gradually I got used to the idea that in huldufólk-beliefs there are immigrants, new kinds of elves which clairvoyants talk about and describe. Something that does not exist in the older stories and which demonstrates that this belief is alive. And new beings come into the world of stories, as oral story-tradition was forced out by religion, and now we have stories that are more influenced by book writers, philosophers and influences from outside the heritage and never even asking the shamans about the ancients.

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