ON A SCRAP OF TARMAC behind a school on the
outskirts of Reykjavik, a pickup soccer game is in full swing.
Little boys race back and forth, yelling, laughing, and celebrating
each goal with air punches.
But when a misplaced pass sends the ball spinning toward some large
rocks nearby, the gaiety stops. A sign hammered into the grass
warns that three elves live inside the stones - and that humans
should approach with caution.
"I don't like going on the rocks," says Tomas, a streetwise
12-year-old. "If the elves get angry, they could set fire to my
house or make me sick. Or they could make my computer break
Welcome to Iceland, a small island republic where surfing the
Internet goes hand in hand with a belief in the supernatural.
Nestled just below the Arctic Circle, Europe's most remote nation
is a model of modernity, mostly free from poverty and illiteracy,
in thrall to cell phones and laptops. Yet a majority of Iceland's
296,000 citizens believe they are not alone, that this wind-blasted
island in the North Atlantic is teeming with spirit beings more
often found in fairy tales and Disney movies.
The cast includes elves, trolls, gnomes, light fairies, and
mountain spirits, as well as 13 evil Santas who wreak havoc at
Christmas. Oh, and don't forget the "hidden people," a race of
friendly humanoids who dress like characters from Little House
on the Prairie.
"Iceland is probably the strangest country in the world," a local
entrepreneur tells me. "On the surface, we look very modern with
all our technology, but underneath, we are still peasants who
believe all kinds of crazy stuff."
According to lore, Iceland's hidden beings inhabit a parallel world
invisible to human eyes. Only psychics, and sometimes small
children, can see them - unless the supernatural beings choose to
Outsiders may snigger, but hidden beings are a serious matter here.
Among the textiles, ceramics, and other artifacts on display at the
National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik, there is a small, black,
cast-iron pot. A label says it may have belonged to a little elf
In the same way that some Americans dabble in feng shui, Icelanders
hire elf spotters to sweep land earmarked for development.
Engineers reroute roads, pipes, and cables, often at great expense,
to avoid disturbing the homes of hidden beings. The street that
runs past the schoolyard where Tomas and his friends play soccer
bends to avoid the rocks said to house the three elves.
Annoying the hidden beings carries a heavy price. Tales abound of
fishermen going missing at sea after ignoring warnings from elves
to stay in port. Or of construction projects plagued by illness,
mechanical breakdowns, and cost overruns.
Last year, crews building a golf course on the outskirts of
Reykjavik moved a rock believed to be an elf dwelling. Soon after,
bulldozers failed and workers succumbed to mysterious injuries.
Eventually, the chief engineer caved: With journalists looking on,
he issued a groveling apology to the elves and promised not to
bother them anymore. The mishaps stopped and the course was
finished on time.
"Even Icelanders who don't believe in elves and hidden people often
consider it safer to behave as if they might exist," says Olafur
Stephensen, deputy editor of the country's leading newspaper. "That
way they don't risk offending them."
FROM WHERE DOES this belief in the supernatural
spring? Geography may play a part. Cut off from the rest of the
world, Iceland missed the Enlightenment, which put science ahead of
superstition in Europe. Modernity came late, too: A century ago,
most Icelanders were still living in turf homes, eking out a living
as fishermen or sheep farmers.
To cope with the isolation and the long, dark winters, the country
evolved a rich storytelling tradition. Written in the Middle Ages,
and still widely read today, the Icelandic Sagas turned Iceland's
early history into a rip-roaring yarn of epic battles, pagan gods,
magic spells, and ax-wielding Vikings. The same blend of fact and
fantasy underpins the many folk stories about hidden beings. Over
time, the line between enjoying the ancient tales and believing
them seems to have blurred.
"Stories about elves and hidden people are part of our heritage,
but I also like to think some of them are true," says one
university student. "It's fun to believe in something you can't
explain, and anyway, it's hard to be 100 percent scientific in a
country as weird as ours."
Iceland, which is about the same size as Kentucky, has a strange,
primordial beauty - geysers spray boiling water high into the air,
earthquakes shake the ground underfoot, the sea crashes against a
jagged coastline of bays and fjords. Much of the island is a
treeless moonscape of vast craters, mountains, volcanoes, glaciers,
hot springs, waterfalls, and fields of twisted lava rock. The
topography is so lunarlike that the Apollo 11 crew
trained here in the 1960s.
In this bizarre, Tolkien-esque world, the supernatural seems almost
natural. With a straight face, Icelanders tell you that certain
buildings in Reykjavik are jinxed, which is why shops never last
long in them. Or they chat about the ghosts that live in their
homes, offices, and factories. The media regularly reports on
encounters with hidden beings.
Icelanders sprinkle their everyday speech with references to
supernatural fauna. When a key or wallet gets mislaid, they blame
the trolls. Someone who is lost or confused is said to look like an
elf that has just come out of the hills.
Modern Icelandic art, music, and literature all have a whiff of the
otherworldly about them - what one critic calls a "weird David
Just look at Björk, the pop world's surrealist-in-chief and a firm
believer in elves. Or at chart-topping band Sigur Rós, which makes
music full of ethereal wailing and moaning. "When you listen to it,
you can hear the stones talking," one fan says. "It's like a
dialogue with the elves."
Inevitably, the Icelandic love affair with the supernatural has a
commercial side, too. Shops sell miniature statues of elves,
dwarves, and other hidden beings. Towns peddle maps and tours of
their invisible homes. Reykjavik even has an official Icelandic Elf
Opened in 1991 and housed in a drab office block, the school is
stuffed with books about folklore and spirit traditions, as well as
a small army of ceramic elves and gnomes. More than 9,000 people,
most of them foreigners, have paid about $60 to attend a one-day
course on the hidden beings. Local children also come here on field
Magnus Skarphedinsson, the historian who runs the school, estimates
that Iceland is home to up to 20,000 hidden beings. Most are benign
creatures, he says, who live in harmony with nature. If provoked,
though, they will strike back.
Skarphedinsson believes similar hidden beings exist around the
world, which is why the drawings made by Icelandic psychics
resemble images from other folkloric traditions. The dwarves in the
Elfschool Studybook look very much like those in Snow
White - short, bearded, and dressed in jaunty jackets and
pants. Icelandic gnomes are not so different from the ceramic
statuettes sold in every American garden center.
"Perhaps these beings are more visible in Iceland because we are
more open-minded," Skarphedinsson says. "We also live very close
to nature, which is their home."
The hidden people, on the other hand, may be unique to Iceland.
Skarphedinsson describes them as gregarious beings who look human,
wear colorful, old-fashioned clothes, and can see into the future.
They build invisible farmhouses and live to well over 100.
Sometimes they materialize in our world to rescue a human lost in
the snow or just to invite one home for coffee and pancakes.
Skarphedinsson, who has never seen a spirit-being himself, claims
three humans have actually married hidden people and vanished into
Why these creatures eat pancakes and occasionally fall in love with
mere mortals is anybody's guess. "There are thousands and thousands
of unanswered questions," Skarphedinsson sighs.
TRYING MY BEST to keep an open mind, I set off in
search of a hidden being. Hafnarfjördur, a suburb of Reykjavik and
renowned for having one of Iceland's largest colonies of elves and
spirit beings, seems like a good place to start. My guide is Sibba,
a middle-aged woman in a red elf hat. She tells me that visitors
sometimes spot supernatural beings on her tours.
We walk through a typical Icelandic neighborhood of corrugated-iron
houses huddled by the harbor. Sibba points out some rocks beside a
driveway that are thought to be the home of a dwarf. She tells me
that, years ago, a local man tried to pry them open with a metal
spike, which snapped in two. Half of it remains lodged in the rock
face, like King Arthur's sword in the stone.
I pull on the rusted spike, but it refuses to budge. We stand
beside the rocks in a reverential hush, listening for I'm not sure
what. There is no sound apart from the sighing of the wind.
Our next stop is a small park in the middle of a 7,500-year-old
lava field. Sibba steers me toward a black boulder believed to be
the home of another dwarf. He recently made himself visible to a
tourist, she says, and complained to her about the noise in the
I knock on the boulder and listen. Then I ask the dwarf to show
himself, or at least give us a sign. Again, nothing. "Maybe he is
out," Sibba whispers.
Not everyone in Iceland believes in the elves and hidden people.
Many think they do not exist at all, or that they are no more than
an amusing bit of folklore or symbols of Mother Nature.
Even true believers cannot agree on how to interact with them. Erla
Stefánsdóttir, Iceland's most famous psychic, sees hidden beings
everywhere she goes, from her backyard to the parking lot at the
local supermarket. Although she has published maps of their homes,
she disapproves of guided tours.
"It is too much fuss," she says. "People should connect with nature
by going into it and meditating rather than running around pointing
at rocks and trying to see elves."
Maybe so, but a visit to Iceland somehow seems incomplete without
at least one brush with the supernatural. To my relief, and
astonishment, something straight out of The Twilight Zone
happens to me on my final day.
The search for a last-minute souvenir takes me to an artists'
cooperative housed inside an old fishnet factory in Reykjavik. It
is a weekday, and the building is quiet. Eventually, a young man
appears, smoking a cigarette, and suggests that I take a little
I wander alone through a maze of half-lit corridors. Some of the
rooms are empty. Others contain upturned furniture, scraps of wood,
and curtains hanging from the ceiling. It could be a haunted house
from central casting.
In the basement, things turn genuinely spooky. I feel that someone
is watching me. I call out but nobody answers. A shiver trickles
through me. I decide to leave, walking at first, then quickening
the pace. By the time I reach the stairs, I'm running.
Smoking Man is waiting at the top, smiling triumphantly. "I see you
met our ghost," he says. "Everyone here has felt his presence. He
gets irritated and scares people."
I nod meekly. Anywhere else in the world, this would have been a
cue to laugh or say something wry and skeptical. But the normal
rules do not apply in Iceland, nor to its people - hidden or
engineers reroute roads, pipes, and cables,
often at great expense, to avoid disturbing the homes of hidden