In the 4 months of research leading up to our adventures in Iceland, we hadn’t heard anything about elves or trolls. We noticed elf t-shirts at a store on our first day in Iceland, but we didn’t think much of it. The next time we heard anything about elves, we were standing on a mountainous lava field in the middle of the Highlands.
A Colorful Landscape & A Colorful Guide
To rewind a bit, we toured Landmannalaugar (the painted mountains) with a guide a few days into our trip. Our Icelandic guide seemed a little cooky from the start. We first met her when she picked us up in Reykjavik. She was driving a large Ford pickup truck that barely seemed to fit down the tiny one-way streets. A woman in her late thirties with loosely tied back blonde hair, she wore a long sleeve pink and orange flower print shirt under a thick orange Icelandic wool sweater. Pairing that with a candy apple red jacket, a fuzzy wool cap, and a green daypack, we wondered if her colorful outfit might give a hint to her personality. We were right.
Although her English wasn’t perfect, she spoke enthusiastically. During the long drive to the highlands, she spoke about the history of Iceland, the Icelandic language, and the importance of preserving their culture and heritage. Over our stop for lunch, she told us about her dream of moving to the north and buying a small home for herself. When we arrived near Landmannalaugar, we left the truck behind and started our hike. Our guide explained how the volcanic landscape around us was formed. She spoke with passion for the environment. It quickly became apparent that she had a special connection with nature.
More Than Just a Lava Field
We hiked through a large area of volcanic rock mostly covered in vibrant green moss. When we reached a nice viewpoint, she explained that when she looked out at this landscape, she saw a city… but not a city for people. She saw a city for elves.
She explained that she was taught about elves from a young age. As a child, she learned that when taking from the environment, people should only take a third. The other two thirds are for future generations and the elves. She told us that she didn’t have a picture in her head of what elves look like. She had never seen an elf herself, but she wanted to be open-minded enough for the opportunity to present itself. To her, being a good person and being good to the environment meant that the elves would be good to you. In her words, “being open to the elves will help you”.
As we continued on our journey, she pointed out trolls that had been touched by sun and turned to stone. These were natural rock formations with similar features to a face or body. Some trolls were naturally carved into the landscape. Others were free-standing rock structures. She didn’t seem to have as strong of a belief in the trolls and didn’t elaborate much on them. However, the prospect of large creatures trapped in stone surrounding us as we made our way through the mountains, did feel like a romantic way to look at nature.
For the rest of the day, the elves remained in our minds. Although we don’t believe in elves or trolls, the experience gave us a new appreciation for the nature around us. The understanding that our guide believed we were walking through elves homes made my steps lighter and more cautious.
A few days later, we had another opportunity to spend some time with an Icelandic guide. This time, we were glacier hiking to natural ice caves at Breiðamerkurjökull glacier in Vatnajökull. Our guide for this trip was a guy in his twenties with a more adventurous streak. He was tall and thin, with a striking red beard. Similar to our previous guide, he also loved nature and cared about preserving the Icelandic landscape.
He spent a lot of time explaining how the glaciers in Iceland are melting at an alarming rate. As we hiked, he made it a point to tell us whenever we were standing where the glacier used to be. He showed us where the glacier stood hundreds of years ago, but more shocking was how much it had changed since just last year. It saddened us to see the effects of global warming in person. Everywhere we looked, the damage caused to such a beautiful natural wonder was evident.
Aside from discussing the landscape, we spoke with him about world politics, religion, and he was even open about his family and upbringing. When the opportunity presented itself, we explained our experience with our previous guide and asked if he had any other information for us about elves and trolls. He explained that many Icelanders do not believe in elves (himself included)… but others, mainly the older generations, still do.
Those that do believe, generally take it very seriously. Elves are not part of a religious belief. However, there is still a strong level of servitude and respect for the elves’ habitat. Our guide told us a story about road construction plans that had to be changed in order to avoid a large rock. Some folks believed that elves lived there and wouldn’t allow for the rock’s removal. He also explained that his own grandmother took her leftovers outside to a large rock in their yard every night after dinner. She knew the elves enjoyed the meal when the food was always gone in the morning.
Maybe Don’t Be A Jerk
Once we were on our own again, we talked about the elves quite a bit throughout the rest of our trip. While we’re not easily offended, we try to be considerate of others in general. One thing we agreed upon was that the shirts and souvenirs that poke fun of the elves, with sayings like “I had sex with an elf in Iceland”, could be offensive to some Icelandic people who grew up around these beliefs. Overall, we’re excited to learn more about the Icelandic elves and trolls in our next visit to Iceland.