Elf Detection 101
How to find the hidden folk of Iceland.
An article on Iceland's de facto bankruptcy in the April issue of Vanity Fair notes that a "large number of Icelanders" believe in elves or "hidden people." This widespread folklore occasionally disrupts business in the sparsely populated North Atlantic country. Before the aluminum company Alcoa could erect a smelting factory, "it had to defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it." How do you find an elf?
With psychic powers. According to a poll conducted in 2007, 54 percent of Icelanders don't deny the existence of elves and 8 percent believe in them outright, although only 3 percent claim to have encountered one personally. The ability to see the huldufólk, or hidden folk, can't be learned; you're just born with it. To find elves, seers don't really need to do anything—they'll just sense an elfin presence. The Vanity Fair article says that elf detection can take six months, but it's usually a quick process that can last under an hour. And although the magazine claims that a "government expert" had to certify the nonexistence of elves, the Icelandic Embassy insists that these consults are performed by freelancers, not government contractors.
The huldufólk are thought to live in another dimension, invisible to most. They build their homes inside rocks and on craggy hillsides, and they seem to favor lava formations. The port town of Hafnarfjördur, near Reykjavík, is thought to have a particularly large settlement of elves—as well as other mystical beings like dwarves (who also fit under the broad category of huldufólk). According to local clairvoyants, the huldufólk royal family lives at the base of a cliff in that town.
Elf-spotting is an intergenerational phenomenon in Iceland, although more children than adults report seeing huldufólk. Indeed, it's thought that many who are born clairvoyant lose the ability after the age of 8 or so. Furthermore, it's not just Icelanders who have this capacity—theoretically, anyone, from any country, can have the power to communicate with elves. Clairvoyants see elves year-round, sometimes in their own backyards, but Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve are considered especially good occasions for elf-spotting. That's because according to some legends, these holidays are traditional moving days for the huldufólk. Elves often dress in old-timey, 19th-century outfits like homemade-looking ankle-length skirts, and they come in all sizes. There are thought to be at least 13 types of elves, some of whom are as tall as humans. Others, like the Blómálfar, or flower elves, are just a few inches tall.
When Icelanders try to build roads or settlements through elf dwellings, the elves are said to go bonkers—causing equipment failures and other problems. In the early 1970s, for example, contractors trying to move a large rock to make way for a highway near Reykjavík hired a clairvoyant, Zophanías Pétursson, after experiencing several minor mishaps. Pétursson detected the presence of elves and claimed to obtain a waiver from the supernatural creatures so that work could progress. But the elves weren't finished: A bulldozer operator who had helped move the stone fractured a water pipe that fed into a fish farm, killing thousands of trout hatchlings.
Although Pétursson apparently failed to mollify the highway-hating elves, huldufólk experts believe negotiation is possible. If a construction supervisor suspects he might be heading into an elfin zone or just wants to rule out the possibility, he can hire a medium (by asking for a reference from the Icelandic Elf School, for example). Elves sometimes agree either to move or to let a construction project go forth unimpeded as long as the workers don't blow up their nearby dwelling.
A minority of construction projects face elf-related delays. But if a clairvoyant reports seeing elves hanging about a particular rock, an Icelander will probably think twice before blowing it up to make way for a swimming pool. And as the New York Times reported in 2005, planning councils in towns with sizeable elf populations, like Hafnarfjördur, try to keep elfin-interests in mind.
Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.
Explainer thanks Magnús Skarphéðinsson of the Icelandic Elf School.
Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.
Illusration by Rober Neubecker.