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Reykjavik Elf School spills secrets of the 'Hidden People'
Never cross an elf and other lessons from Iceland's premier institution for identifying imaginary creatures
Iceland. Home to around 320,000 Icelanders and an undetermined number of elves, dwarfs, fairies and trolls.
With its eerie landscape of frozen lava fields, smoking geysers and barely dormant volcanoes, Iceland certainly seems the sort of place the latter group would inhabit.
This alternative population is known locally as Huldufólk, which translates as Hidden Folk or Hidden People. Ask Icelanders if they believe in them and the answers are as elusive as their name suggests.
To find out more about these hidden peeps, I enrol in a crash course on all things elvish at Reykjavik's Elf School.
The psychics next door
The school is based on Sidmuli Street in the east of the capital. Naturally, it shares its premises with a psychic center.
A tatty sign on a bright blue door guarded by a rosy-cheeked gnome statue provides an odd welcome.
The solitary classroom looks like the study of an eccentric tutor.
There are hundreds of books, lamps with frilly shades, fiber-optic flowers and painted, plaster elves.
“Are the elves a good likeness?” I ask Magnus Skarphedinsson, the school headmaster.
“What? These plastic things? Not at all!” he replies demonstratively, as if the little folk in question might be listening.
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Elves first appeared in a literary sense in Iceland's medieval sagas -- epic, imaginative tales firmly rooted in the country's culture.
In a long-isolated nation such as Iceland, the language has remained pure enough that the population can read these thousand-year-old legends as if they were today’s newspapers or websites.
Compared to, say, “Beowulf" in Old English, these elf stories must seem pretty fresh and modern.
Skarphedinsson has spent 30 years talking to thousands of people who claim to have met the Hidden People.
Among those, he describes a man called Halldor Gudnason who once saw a rock at his farm in Slettuhreppur, in western Iceland, turn into “a church with blazing lights” with an “unusually handsome priest” dressed in a gold robe standing at the door.
Then there's Elly Erlingsdottir, who was convinced elves had borrowed her scissors. They weren't juvenile delinquents, though -- they returned them a week later.
Sounds like the nights are long in rural Iceland, I think to myself.
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But urban Iceland, too, dishes up its fair share of (partial) believers.
Before enrolling in Elf School, I bump into Helga Thor. (Such legendary names are common in Iceland.) She's a student who tells me her aunt believes an elf lives in her neighbor's garden.
“She's never seen him but she has a feeling he's there.”
So does she think the Hidden People are real?
“I can't rule it out. They're like ghosts -- you don't have to see them to believe in them.”
The most recent folkloric study, from 2006, found that 56% of Icelanders at least believed the Huldufólk might exist.
"Very few will say immediately that they 'believe' in [them] but they won't deny it either," the survey’s author, Professor Terry Gunnell, later said.
The country’s long-serving current president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, thinks Icelanders long ago invented the Hidden People to keep them company.
Iceland, after all, is among the least densely populated nations on the planet, with around three people per square kilometer.
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And Skarphedinsson? He has no doubts about these Hidden Folk.
He tells me he can differentiate 13 types of elf, four kinds of gnome, two species of troll and three varieties of fairy -- handing me a text book to aid identification.
Elves are depicted with long, spindly legs and big ears; dwarfs have pointed hats and turned-up shoes; gnomes are rotund and smiley.
So far, so Christmas card.
While popularly this motley crew are lumped together as "the hidden people," Skarphedinsson says (rather confusingly) the latter are actually a separate race -- the capitalized Hidden People.
What's more, they're apparently supernatural beings who look very similar to humans, although they wear unfashionable clothes.
That would make them stand out all the more in a nation of hipsters such as Iceland (as any visit to pierced and tattooed Reykjavik will show).
As for elves, Skarphedinsson describes them as farmers and fishermen with a fondness for fortune telling.
When elves met our ancestors they explained the difference between right and wrong, "but we ignored them,” the headmaster says.
“We became liars and cheats -- poison to their ears.”
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Never cross an elf
That's why elves have a bone to pick with humans, which leads to the most important lesson at Elf School: never cross an elf.
In particular, disturb their homes (notably solitary rocks), and you’ll pay for it.
Skarphedinsson mentions a small boulder in a car park off Armula Street, near the school.
The car park used to be a chicken farm.
“The farmer who built the farm had a dream,” the headmaster says.
“An [elven voice] said, 'Save the big stone on the east of the land, because we live there.'
“The farmer left the stone alone.
"But when he sold the farm, the new owners didn't show any respect.
"When they shifted the stone their chickens all stopped laying.
“Today everyone gives that stone space.”
I visit the site that evening.
The parking spot next to the stone is empty, although cars are double parked elsewhere.
Nowadays, Icelanders’ actions towards the Hidden Folk speak at least as loudly as their ambivalent words.
Many families have small wooden alfhol (elf houses) in their gardens for the tiny travelers.
A highway in Kopavogur was narrowed to accommodate a protruding stone said to be inhabited by elves.
Roadworks in Grasteinn were put on hold until a dwarf's boulder could be moved -- delicately -- to one side, and a hotel in Reykjavik (Hotel Klettur) has incorporated stones into a wall to prevent any bad elven feelings.
Despite his lifetime of research into the Hidden People, Skarphedinsson has a surprise up his sleeve.
He’s never seen one himself.
“I asked my psychic friend if she knew why,” he says.
“A few days later she told me one of the Hidden People had appeared to her in a dream and told her they'd agreed never to reveal themselves to me.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because they thought I’d ask too many questions.”
Elf School (Sidumuli 31, Reykjavik; +354 588 6060) is open on Fridays, when three-hour seminars are held. The cost is €39 ($52) per person, including coffee and pancakes or waffles.
Groups of three or more can make special reservations if regular hours do not suit.
Attendees receive a certificate.