• Yvonne Kristín Fulbright

Are Icelanders really like that?? Such has been the million-dollar question since the release of “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” last summer. Featuring Lars Ericksson (Will Farrell) and Sigrit Eiríksdóttir (Rachel McAdams) as pop duo Fire Saga, the movie centers around Lars’ life-long desire to not only get into Eurovision, but also win. His bandmate, Sigrit, believes that Iceland’s elves are key to that quest. The Netflix hit (#1 in Iceland upon release) has had viewers in stitches ever since, and asking whether it portrays Icelanders and their culture accurately, especially when it comes to our belief in elves. Common enquiries include…


Do Icelanders really believe in elves?

Icelanders’ belief in elves has been media fodder for years, with outlets like National Geographic and BBC reporting on Reykjavík’s Elf School, Hafnarfjörður’s hidden world walks, and the hundreds of Icelanders who have claimed to meet an álfur (elf). Despites decades of modernization, Icelanders are still enamored with their island‘s immortal mystique.


Research shows that Icelanders are “very tolerant” when it comes to believing in elves and other sorts of natural spirits. The best-known survey, from 1998, revealed that 54% of Icelanders (more women – 59.5% - than men - 50.2%) said that they believe in elves. Another survey, from 2011, indicated that while 41% of the Icelandic population holds that the existence of elves is possible, with 18% considering it likely, only 13% are confident in the existence of elves. This is the data that gets lumped together in the claim that the majority of Icelanders – 72% - believe that elves exist to some extent. Perhaps a better way to frame our belief in elves is that the majority of Icelanders aren’t willing to say that the elves don’t exist.



Where do the elves live?

The Eurovision movie portrays the elves’ home as a mini-Icelandic turf (doll)house in the side of a grassy knoll, a far cry from what’s described in old Icelandic folktales. Unlike the movie, we do not have these adorable miniature homes gracing our countryside, at least, as far as elf accommodations go. Stories passed down through the generations hold that Iceland’s elves live in rocks, hills and stones. They can, but are unlikely to, dwell amongst lava rock (which is, supposedly, too dense enough for habitation). Elves live on small and large farms, and in their own dense towns or buildings, which appear to humans as grassy stones, mounds, or small hills.



What should I be looking for in spotting an elf?

Don’t look for Santa’s little helpers, as in little men with beards and pointed hats; Icelandic elves present as nothing of the sort. According to Being Elveswhere: A Guide to the Hidden People of Iceland, many Icelandic elf tales describe elves as, generally, more beautiful than humans, and lacking a nasal septum. Instead of a slight dip below the nasal septum to the upper lip, like humans, they have a rise/protuberance below the nose. Some are also described as thinner and smaller in stature than humans, but not tiny or fairy-like. “Elegant,” “expressive”, “well dressed,” and “robust” are amongst the descriptors that have been used with the Icelandic elf. According to the guide’s author, Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson, to most ordinary people, the elves, their homes and livestock are invisible. While they see us and everything that we do, we only see elves if they want to make themselves visible to us.



Do Icelanders leave goodies for the elves in hopes of receiving good fortune?

A couple of “Fire Saga’s” scenes show Sigrit or Lars leaving an offering at the elves’ home in hopes of wishes coming true. (Spoiler alert!) After learning that Fire Saga has made it into Iceland’s own Eurovision contest, Sigrit brings the elves whiskey and biscuits as thanks. She then asks them to help Fire Saga become Iceland’s representative in the larger Eurovision contest, adding that it would also be cool to have a baby with Lars. Making such an elf home pilgrimage and placing offerings is not something that Icelanders do, but it could be argued that such wouldn’t be a bad idea.


Elf stories tell of elves’ healing powers or times they have returned the favour for a human’s good deed(s). The National Museum of Iceland houses an alter cloth, originally from Hof in Vopnafjörður, in Northeast Iceland, that is said to have originated from elves. The story goes that a housewife at Bustarfell helped an elf woman, who lived in a large boulder on the farm property, during a difficult birth. The beautiful cloth was given as a reward for her assistance.


Are the elves truly vindictive or mean?

With Sigrit bemoaning lines throughout the movie like, “The elves must hate us!”, “Shut your mouth or the elves will shut it for you!” and “The elves have gone too far!”, the elves come across as vengeful, malicious creatures. In general, the Icelandic elves are known to be honest, first and foremost, as well as good-natured, modest, helpful, serious and demure. Trickery is unheard of in their community. They are loyal and hospitable to their friends.

They will, however, seek vengeance if a human wrongs them.


If elves feel as though they’ve been disturbed or attacked by humans, even unintentionally, they will take revenge. Repercussions, even if it’s a human child who has accidentally caused a disturbance, include killing the family’s farm animal or causing a mishap to the person who did the wrong.


Lars and Sigrit often utter: “As the elves say, anger cannot churn the butter.” Is this an actual Icelandic saying?

No.


Have I ever seen an elf?

Any confirmation that there are elves here in Iceland are based on oral accounts. This is no documented scientific proof that they exist (though there is an entire academic field which studies Icelandic folklore, including elves). Mention of elves can be found in the Icelandic sagas. Snorri Sturluson, a 12-century poet and author, (and my direct forefather 23 generations removed) wrote about elves in Snorri’s Edda, explaining why they’re hidden from humans. But I digress. Like Sigrit and Lars, I’ve never seen an elf, though my daughter has been claiming, since age 6, that she spotted one whilst on an elf-hunting mission/class fieldtrip with her school.


Do I believe in elves?

At the time of Iceland’s Settlement, people weren’t using the terms “elves” or “hidden people” to talk about what were regarded as “natural spirits.” Since the 19-century, Icelanders have considered elves and hidden people (huldafólk) to be one and the same phenomenon. Given I personally know people whose lives have been magically touched by huldafólk, I can‘t help, but believe in these spirits. Since those relaying their experiences to me aren‘t known for spinning yarns, and there‘s no other way to explain the miracles they describe, how can I not?

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  • Yvonne Kristín Fulbright

As societies around the world have been under orders to lockdown, practice social distancing, and self-quarantine, I can’t help but think that Icelanders are – literally - weathering such circumstances more easily than many others. This spring has been typical Iceland weather, with almost every day bringing a mix of rain, snow, sleet, and high winds; the sun makes its occasional guest appearance. In some respects, Icelanders are preconditioned to manage any degree of lockdown quite nicely since such is a staple of surviving North Atlantic winters. It’s practically in our DNA to hunker down and entertain ourselves indoors. Our ancestors did so, for centuries, with an evening tradition known as the “kvöldvaka.”

The kvöldvaka (which translates as “evening wake” – a bit of a misnomer) took place in the evening, when household members would work together on indoor chores in the baðstofa (main room of the traditional Icelandic farmhouse). It was a time for people to keep themselves preoccupied, especially in the dark winter months, with a member of the household reading aloud, from any available book, while others occupied themselves with knitting, spinning, tool-making, and various other tasks.

This time of the day also staged the area for moral teachings, lessons that eventually became imbedded into the moral fiber of Icelandic social order. The kvöldvaka was a time when Icelanders shared stories, sometimes in the form of long, epic poems from memory, that became a part of their collective identity and existence - tales of Nordic gods, trolls, heroes, hidden people (huldufólk), outlaws, ghosts, and forefathers who were Vikings, chieftains, or kings.

Common themes were characters confronting adversity and emerging victorious. The endings were often uplifting. Stories always involved moral lessons on ethical behavior. These stories very much acted as an opportunity for Icelandic families to impart societal values, while sharing history, geography, and cultural knowledge.

Storytelling contributed to children’s spiritual development, playing a huge role in their upbringing and providing them with role models and a moral compass. It sparked imaginations of what it meant to be noble, valiant and have character. It strengthened one’s sense of right versus wrong, giving youth role models to emulate and, hence, shaping their character. The kvöldvaka was also a time when children received education, namely how to read and write, as required by religious law.

For everyone, the kvöldvaka provided an opportunity to stay mentally sharp, with entertainment involving people making up poetry on the spot. “Að kveðast á”, as it was called, involved somebody making up the first line in a poem, then another person the making up the next, and so on. This evening time together ultimately proved itself a cultural institution for creativity, enlightenment, and the cultivation of the nation’s values and attitudes towards life.

The kvöldvaka was a space of hope in lives that were full of loss, grief, and hardship – and in ways many Westerners will, thankfully, never know. It ended as a formal, nightly tradition with my great-grandparents‘ generation, when housing in Iceland became more spacious and sophisticated. But given Iceland‘s long, hard winters, Icelandic families have continued such regular quality time together to some extent, enjoying evenings filled with activities like puzzles, card games, reading, music and movies.

These last few weeks of social distancing, to counter the spread of COVID-19, have been incredibly challenging for many of us globally. Yet for those lucky enough to be quarantining with others, this time together can be an opportunity to enrich and bond as never before. Instead of looking at lockdown as a type of imprisonment, consider how you and yours can have a kvöldvaka of sorts.

What can you make a tradition for your family in spending quality time together? Could this involve reading aloud for each other? Putting on a play or puppet show? Discussing the themes and morals of a family-friendly movie? Taking turns making up your own tales? Singing or playing musical instruments for each other? Learning to knit or perform other hand tasks, perhaps with YouTube experts as guides?

Don‘t be afraid to challenge yourselves as far as how creative you can be, perhaps discovering a talent you never knew that you had. Don‘t underestimate the joy and satisfaction that can be found in the simplicity of activities. Do be open to all of the ways this challenging time can invite more old-fashioned enrichment and connection.




Kvöldvaka Resources

I originally learned a lot about the kvöldvaka when doing research for my dissertation (on mother-daughter sex communication in Iceland), thanks to:

Koester, D. (1995). Gender ideology and nationalism in the culture and politics of

Iceland. American Ethnology, 22, 572-588.

A delightful book I recently came across, Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s The Little Book of the Icelanders in the Old Days, confirmed much of what Koester had to say.

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  • Yvonne Kristín Fulbright

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

In these uncertain times, with global panics on more than one front, I’ve found myself thinking of the notorious Icelandic saying “Þetta reddast.“ In conversations with my fellow Icelanders, no matter how bad the news on the coronavirus (COVID-19) or its economic impact, we‘ve been reassuring each other with „Þetta reddast.“ And we truly believe it will. It has to.


Regarded as an Icelandic motto of sorts, “Þetta reddast“ captures the country‘s philosophical outlook on life. It basically means „this (Þetta) will work itself out in the end.“ When uttered, the sentiment is that everything will be all right. A solution will always reveal itself. And Icelanders should know.


Icelanders are used to life being challenging. Centuries of hardship have resulted in a hardy mentality, one combined with a sense of surrender and laissez-faire attitude toward life. Foreigners have found this stance annoyingly carefree. But Icelanders surrendered themselves, long ago, to being made inconsequential in a climate and landscape full of uncertainty, knowing there will always be another volcanic eruption, earthquake, hurricane force winds, or avalanche to deal with. Their forefathers (and mothers!) endured extreme poverty, deadly volcanic eruptions, high infant mortality, indentured servitude, and brutal living conditions.


So this “Þetta reddast“ (pronounced: „thet‘ tah redt‘ ahst“), laid back approach to life is a coping mechanism of sorts. And no matter what they‘ve been through, Icelanders manage to carry on with a positive fatalism, believing that one can find happiness in spite of life‘s realities.


A 2017 poll conducted at the University of Iceland found that nearly half of Icelanders report living their lives according to „þetta reddast.“ Over half of respondents confirmed feeling „very“ or „rather“ lucky. And lucky them, indeed, since there‘s a strong correlation between luck and happiness, with happier people significantly likelier to consider themselves lucky.


Perhaps a great example of such optimism is the mini-Baby Boom Iceland experienced nine months into its crippling financial crisis years ago. In August 2009, the birthrate increased by 3.5% - the highest number of deliveries in Iceland in at least half a century. While experts don´t want to attribute this uptick to the financial collapse entirely, given birthrates were already rising before the collapse, it speaks to the Icelandic mentality that everything is going to be okay, that life goes on.


In light of recent events, people around the world are joking that we can expect a Baby Boom in nine months. But Icelanders may be the only population that actually delivers, literally. Throughout history and around the world, there has been a decrease in births with wide-spread adversity, e.g., the Great Depression. The 2009 mini-Baby Boom in Iceland can be possibly explained in that some had more time on their hands in being suddenly unemployed. With emotions high from the collapse of the nation´s biggest banks, some may have been looking for comfort.


Then there is this trust Icelanders have that this will all get sorted, that fortune will smile upon you in leaving things to fate.


Icelanders are very self-sufficient in spite of being a country with great social support. Less than a generation ago, many families survived as fishermen or farmers, with a number of today‘s elderly growing up in households where milking a cow, collecting the sheep, knitting sweaters, churning butter, maintaining a potato garden, making rhubbarb jam, baking bread... were all a part of liveihood. At the same time, Icelanders have the comfort of community and social support in having a social welfare state, a safety net to fall back upon in hard times.


Icelanders are used to battling the elements. There´s a level-headedness that life is hard and that this is a part of life, and you need to make the best of the hand you´ve been dealt. Icelanders believe in themselves and their ability to do just that.


Þetta reddast can feel flippant in trying times or moments of crisis; it‘s not meant to sound insensitive. It provides comfort in hoping for the best and actually believing it. We, Icelanders, are a people who know grey skies and long, dark winters, both in actuality and figuratively. From that, we‘ve developed a conviction that things will work out because they have to.


In getting through the next few months, it can´t hurt to adopt this Icelandic mentality. Things always have a way of working out in the end. Þetta reddast.




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