Iceland’s unique environment is respectively matched by its distinctive folklore which is rich in tales of aquatic monsters, ghosts, spirits, elves and trolls. During the long dark nights of Icelandic winters, storytelling was the chief form of entertainment with each region having its own treasure trove of colorful legends passed down over the centuries through the oral and written traditions.
Despite today’s globalized world of modern age technology and electronic media, there are ancient folklore beliefs that are alive and well in Iceland. Surveys show that more than half the nation believes in elves and ‘hidden people,’ or at least don’t deny their existence. (It’s considered bad luck to do so!)
The 'hidden people' or Huldufolk are believed to be living in the lava rocks and include elves, trolls, fairies, tiny sprites and other supernatural beings. According to legend, Eve hadn't finished washing her children when God came to visit, so she had to hide the unwashed children away, and they were destined to remain forever ‘hidden.’
The elves of Iceland are considered benevolent beings but are fiercely protective of their homes. Traditionally, great harm has come to those who disturb an elf’s dwelling. Respectful of their elfin neighbors, Icelanders go to great lengths to avoid disturbing rocks where elves are said to live. There are several cases where the highway department has consulted local ‘elf experts’ who recommend where new roads will do the least harm to the Huldufolk.
Elves are invisible to nearly all humans, but are most likely to be spotted on certain days of the year: New Year's Eve, Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night and Christmas. Visitors to Iceland can learn about elves in Hafnarfjordur, a town just outside Reykjavik that has special tours, an elf spotting map and a dedicated school offering a real elfin education complete with diploma.
Trolls are equally elusive members of the Huldufolk, only lurking after dark because if they are caught in sunlight they turn into stone. The Icelandic countryside is scattered with oddly shaped lava formations which are said to be the bodies of petrified trolls, trapped in stone for all time.
Iceland’s beloved folklore adds to the mystique and thrill of the Christmas Season with no less than 13 mischievous Yule Lads, or jolasveinar who are supposed to be descendants of trolls or elves. They live in the mountains with their terrifying ogress mother Gryla and her giant black cat, which eats all the children who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas.
Instead of bringing gifts, the Yule Lads take turns sneaking into town during the 13 days before Christmas to create mischief as Icelandic families prepare for the holiday festivities. During this time 'Window Peeper', 'Bowl Licker', 'Door Slammer' and their 10 brothers do just what their names suggest.
But these playful lads aren’t all bad, they often make appearances at holiday gatherings to sing and dance around the Christmas tree, and they do leave a small present in the shoes of children who leave them on windowsills for that purpose.
After Christmas, the Yule Lads head back to the mountains one at a time until they’ve all gone. On New Year’s Eve things get really interesting when, according to local folklore, elves become visible, people come out of their graves, seals take human form and cows develop human speech. Needless to say the holidays are not a dull time to visit Iceland!
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