Yet if you dig a little deeper, almost everyone will have a story of an encounter with elves or huldufólk, often involving a close friend or family member.
Johanna told us how her sister awoke during the night in their childhood home to find a little elf playing her piano. When the creature saw her, he stopped playing and ran away, slamming the door behind him so hard that it left the deep mark in the wooden frame she then showed us. Thora pointed out a set of rocks on the family land where her mother says she would play with huldufólk when she was a child. A young hotel receptionist described in vivid detail to me the difference between huldufólk, elves, trolls, and other beings she claims have made their homes on their sprawling farmland.
Huldufólk are reputedly borrowers and when something goes missing in an Icelandic house, it’s the hidden people who inevitably get the blame. Yet these stories have an importance far beyond the family home. Building projects have been diverted to avoid disturbing the alleged homes of huldufólk and negotiations have taken place between contractors and ‘elves’ (via a seer who acts as an intermediary) to ensure that the needs of the rock dwelling residents are not ignored. There are even accounts of expensive machinery breaking down and new tools being rendered useless when the rumoured homes of hidden beings have been threatened with destruction.
Only a few people claim the gift of being able to see and interact with huldufólk. Iceland’s most famous seer, Erla Stefánsdóttir, has assisted in many building projects as a ‘peacemaker’ when it’s been claimed that humans risk disturbing the other-worldly beings. She has made intricate drawings of elves, huldufólk, dwarves, longlings and other beings with whom she claims to frequently interact with.
Visitors to Iceland keen to learn more about the hidden people can take a tour of Hafnarfjörður, considered to be the elf capital of Iceland, in the company of local storyteller Sigurbjörg (Sibba) Karlsdóttir. Decked out in her distinctive red elfin hat, Sibba takes visitors on a 90-minute Hidden World walking tour, pointing out the sites of elf and huldufólk sightings and providing a rich tapestry of tales involving human encounters with the hidden people. She is not a seer herself but has collected many colourful anecdotes over the years that she now shares with her audiences. While the tour will have every visitor wishing for their own elf encounter, Sibba is quick to point out that guaranteed sightings are not included in the tour.
Whether they openly believe or not, it seems that Icelanders maintain a certain respect for huldufólk. They appear in many traditional folk tales and are associated with strong moral values and a harmony with nature. A recent survey found that most people denied the existence of huldufólk when asked directly, but when they were then given a hammer and asked to smash an ‘elf rock’, almost all refused to do it.