Don't tell anyone, but last week I actually left New England. I know - it's shocking! I went to Iceland. And while this blog is called New England folklore, I thought you might enjoy reading some of the strange stories I heard while I was there.
In geological terms Iceland is a relatively young place. The wind and water haven't had much time to wear down the strange rocks and lava fields that have been created by Iceland's multiple volcanos. The country has a very dramatic landscape.
In cultural terms, Iceland is relatively young too, at least for a European nation. People have only lived there since 874. But in the last 1,100 years the Icelanders have developed lots of stories about their landscape. Some involve historic figures or famous artists, but others are about supernatural beings like elves.
For example, while driving on a bus across the Snaefellsnes peninsula our tour director pointed out a low cliff abutting the road. "A group of elves are said to live in those cliffs," he said. "Elves like to live in cliffs. I'll tell you more about this later." He never got around to telling us why elves like to live in cliffs, but we did learn that they also live in other rock features like boulders. Their homes are invisible to the human eye. It is perhaps because of this that they are called the Hidden People.
When I think of elves I tend to think of cute little Christmas elves, but the elves of Iceland are taller and more beautiful than humans. Another tour guide told us the belief in elves is a survival from the country's pagan past, and that the elves come from one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology. We were also told that the elves in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings were inspired by the elves of Icelandic and Norse mythology.
Perhaps the most elfish place we visited was Asbyrgi, a large horseshoe-shaped canyon in northern Iceland. Geologists say the canyon was probably created by a glacial flood, but local tradition claims it is a hoof print of Sleipnir, the god Odin's eight-legged horse. The canyon is enclosed by tall imposing cliffs, and is said to be the capital of the Icelandic elves. The cliffs contain the elves' homes, concert halls, and cathedrals. Forests are quite rare in Iceland, but a lush one fills the canyon at Asbyrgi, as does a small but beautiful lake. The lake is said to be a good place to hear music from the elves' concerts.
According to legend, two young humans who lived nearby fell in love and wanted to get married, but before they could they had to save an Asbyrgi elf's lover who had been enchanted and transformed into a hideous monster. The humans saved her lover, and the grateful elf blessed their wedding.
Not all elf stories are so romantic or set in the past. Some are more down-to-earth and more modern. As we were driving towards the town of Selfoss our guide pointed to a rocky field next to the highway. Several years ago a politician was driving on the highway when his car slid off the road. It came to rest gently against a boulder, and the politician believed he had been saved by elves who lived in the rock.
Time went by, and it was decided that the highway had to be widened. The rock would need to be destroyed. Remembering the elves who saved his life, the politician hired a psychic to communicate with the elves. Through her, the politician asked the elves if they would be willing to come live with him at his home on the Westman Islands. They agreed, as long they could have green grass near their home and a view of the ocean.
The politician arranged for the boulder to be moved to his home by boat. When he boarded the boat he paid his fare, but the ticket agent stopped him and said "I've heard about this boulder in the news. You say it has a family of elves living in it. How many?" The politician explained that seven elves lived inside: an elderly couple, a younger adult couple, and their three small children.
The ticket agent performed some calculations in his head. "OK, you only need to pay full fare for the younger adult couple. The old people and the kids travel for free." The politician paid. Sometimes you pay a price for believing in elves.