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How Elves and Serpents are Saving Iceland for Future Generations

by Mark Hay

October 30, 2014
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Last month, the mayor of the 2,200-person town of Egilsstaðir in eastern Iceland matter-of-factly announced that his government had verified video proving the existence of the Lagarfljótsormur, the Iceland Worm Monster. A fixture of Icelandic myth since 1345, the Worm is supposedly a 300-foot sea serpent, which thrashes about and slithers up onto the surface from within the glacier-fed Lagarfljót Lake. Some say the Lagarfljótsormur was put there by men, some say it was tied to the bottom by Finns to keep its bloody appetites in check, and some say its lashing and churning portends disaster. But rather than go the way of most wyrms—into myth, history, and crackpot theories—a casual, possibly coy half-belief in the Lagarfljótsormur and many more magical creatures still persists in Iceland, with modern-day sightings by government officials, entire classrooms of children, and as in the case of the 2012 film that supposedly confirmed the serpent’s existence, men casually observing a roiling river demon over a cup of coffee. Many suspect these “beliefs” are just opportunistic bids for attention or tourism dollars. But no matter the motive, the Lagarfljótsormur and its mythic kin now play a significant role in shaping Iceland’s relationship with and preservation of its own culture and the natural world it’s tied to.

Historically, the particularly dense population of trolls, elves, and dragons in Icelandic poetry and legend makes sense from a number of angles. Some myths were warning tales for the children of the first ninth-century settlers, growing up in a harsh, bizarre volcanic landscape. Some were origin stories for natural phenomena or lyrical amusements in a bleak existence. But perhaps most compellingly, some legends were an attempt to imbue the uninhabited island with an unseen and ancient native population, giving the struggling colonists a way to connect with the past and inject a little magic into life on the explosive, godforsaken rock they now found themselves on.          

But belief in these legends—especially Huldufólk, Iceland’s version of elves—has endured well past the point of any historical utility. Part of it is just the entrenched superstition implicit in Icelandic culture, in which the Huldufólk, invisible men who live in stones, are said to have their own cities, economy, and culture, alternately harassing or protecting humans depending on their mood. In Iceland, the Huldufólk play a role in major holidays like New Year’s, Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night, and Christmas. The persistence of belief (or at least homage to belief) in these creatures shows up when Icelanders don’t throw stones to avoid possibly hitting an elf or when some families leave álfhól, the elven equivalent of a birdhouse, in their gardens. But participation in these legends runs deeper than just tradition, or a small group of devotees. In 1998, a survey found that more than half of Icelanders had some level of belief in elves alone, and in 2007, only 13 percent were willing to definitively state that elves’ existence was impossible.         

Still, it’s tempting to chalk something like Lagarfljótsormur verification up to a tourism stunt. Iceland is overrun with road guides for elf spotting, walking tours of magical spots, and magical museums like the Ghost Center or the Elf School in Reykjavik. The Natural History Museum has maintained since the 1980s that the monster is nothing more than flotsam and jetsam in the river, while outsiders looking at the 2012 video claim the slow-moving coil in the ice is likely a frozen fishing net or a natural disturbance of gas rising up from the lakebed. The video itself was an entry in a contest, proposed in 1997 by the previous mayor of Egilsstaòir, promising about $4,000 for whomever could furnish proof of the creature. Though the panel of non-experts who reviewed the film deny their verification was a ploy, the announcement has garnered an ungodly amount of attention, and the local tourism association granted the submitter an additional prize.

Road narrows to avoid Elf habitat. Photo by Christian Bickel/Wikimedia Commons

Yet it’s impossible for tourism to account for all the creature stories in Iceland. Amazingly, it appears that honest belief in local folklore started to rise again in the 1970-80s, possibly as part of a growing sense of environmental and cultural awareness—which may explain why members of the country’s Progressive Party are more likely to believe in elves than most. Believers often become activists, forcing state agencies to officially heed the word of seers and divert roads around “Huldufólk habitats,” or carefully remove elven rock churches to avoid their destruction. These advocates have even forced companies like Alcoa to consider elves in their site analyses for future projects, helping to preserve nature, culture, and a sense of Icelandic magic against the tide of industry. And in 2013, when elf activists forced a halt to yet another road construction project—this time to protect the “hidden people” of the lava fields—the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration was forced to prepare a five-page response to media inquiries on their decision to plan around elves.

Iceland is a small island, administration officials explain, and though some of these beliefs may be contrived and many in the government might not share them, officials learn to err on the side of openness to possibility, just in case the serpent grows wrathful or the elves become spiteful and decide to rain rocks on government equipment. Honest and heartfelt, passive and casual, or opportunistic and money grabbing, Iceland’s magical beliefs have endured, and in doing so have incidentally become effective stopgaps for cultural and environmental conservation.

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How Elves and Serpents are Saving Iceland for Future Generations