I was fortunate enough last month to be able to visit Iceland for just under two weeks. I had never been there before and had been looking forward to the trip, as Iceland has a reputation for its beauty and for its deeply ingrained folklore. Neither disappointed. 

Words cannot do the country's beauty justice. It is truly amazing and everywhere you look seems more gorgeous than the last. Not only the natural places but even the cities, which I am not prone to favouring, are beautiful and full of statues and street art. I saw more murals on walls in Reykjavik than I have ever seen anywhere else and the art was a nice counterpoint to the natural beauty. My main focus wasn't on the ambience though, impressive as it was, but on the spiritual connection and folklore. 

There is a very old story that says Iceland is protected by four landvaettir, or land spirits, and that these spirits keep out anyone with hostile intentions. The story goes that foreign king sought to take over Iceland and sent his sorcerer to see what the best strategy would be. The sorcerer took the form of a whale and swam across the sea but when he approached the island on the eastern coast he found his way blocked by a dragon who breathed fire and who dropped insects and toads from under its wings. Turning aside the sorcerer swam northwards around the land but in the north he found a great eagle guarding the shore and again he turned aside. Swimming to the western coast he found a fierce bull which drove him back. Finally reaching the southern shore he found a group of mountain giants, the largest of which carried an iron rod. Giving up the sorcerer returned to his king and told him that Iceland couldn't be taken because the land spirits were too strong.

Knowing this when we arrived it was important to introduce ourselves to these spirits and to do what we could to be on friendly relations with them. We were keenly aware that we were strangers travelling in their land and no where else have I felt the presence of Otherworldly spirits so keenly as I did in Iceland. There is a sense in that place that the land spirits are still dominant and it inspires awe to be aware of them and of the power of their places. 

Landspirits aren't the only beings that are strongly present in Iceland. There are also the Huldufolk, or Hiddenfolk, beings who are roughly analogous to celtic fairies. The Hiddenfolk include a range of beings from Alfar to Trolls, from the dangerous Nykur to more ambiguous water spirits. Terry Gunnall and Trausti Dagsson created a map of locations across Iceland where different types of these beings had been sighted which shows exactly how widespread these beliefs and these beings are. 

Many of the locations we went to across our time in the country were near or included Hiddenfolk lore. We visited an √Ālfakirkja (elf church) which is a special boulder that is the home of elves and I stumbled across a less well known place that seemed to be important to them. We travelled close to a town, Hofsos, that features in local folklore in a story that nicely illustrates what dealing with the Hiddenfolk can so often be like.

In the story a man who was considered eccentric by his friends became lost while setting out to Hofsos to trade and found himself on the doorstep of a large building where a celebration was going on. He knocked and explained his situation and was invited inside where he found himself treated as an honored guest; the next morning to his great confusion the owner of the home not only offered to trade his goods so he didn't have to go on to the town but gave him better prices than he'd ever gotten anywhere before. Finally the stranger gifted him with a cloak for his wife, promising that it would bring him luck, then explained that once the man had laid his cloak out to dry on a hot sunny day and other men had started throwing rocks at it out of boredom. He had stopped them without realizing that the strangers son - one of the Hiddenfolk - was hiding under the cloak and unwittingly saved his life. the stranger was paying back the man's kindness now. With the cloak and his traded goods packed up the man set out for home, turning back to wave goodbye only to find the stranger and large house had disappeared. 

This is only one short piece of folklore, but I think it captures the feel of the Hiddenfolk. They can be helpful and they always pay back their debts - although other stories also show that they can be dangerous. In another tale we see a little girl putting her hand into a hole in a rock and making up a little chant asking for a coin, which she is given as the Hiddenfolk living there are amused by her actions; when her older brother tries the same thing in turn he loses the use of his hand as a punishment for his greed. I find myself wondering what happened to the men throwing those rocks because I doubt they got away with nothing for what they did. 

Iceland is a land full of folklore, and I found when I visited there that it is also a land full of Landvaettir and Hiddenfolk. Travelling there was an adventure and also a lesson in what it is like to be immersed in stories and spirits in a place that is wholly unlike anywhere else I've ever been. 

 

For more on Icelandic folklore: 
Elves and Hidden People translated by H. Gissurarson
https://guidetoiceland.is/history-culture/folklore-in-iceland
The Little Book of the Hidden People by A. Sigmundsdottir
Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends by J. Bedell