Yvonne Kristín Fulbright
Icelandic Elves: Is “Fire Saga” Fact or Fiction?
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?
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?