In Iceland, faith in elves can move mountains ...or at least boulders. At the end of 2013, in the town of Gardabaer, a woman named Ragnhildur Jonsdottir and a couple of dozen others shut down the construction of a road. The grounds? Its planned route was straight through an ‘elves church’ - a lava boulder.
”When the bulldozers arrived we threw ourselves down in front of them,” said the 54-year-old. Two arrests and many letters sent to high-ranking politicians later, the road construction was allowed. However, out of respect for the ‘natural spirits’, the boulder was saved. A crane lifted the boulder - weighing many tons - and placed it in another spot.
”Naturally it would have been better if they had stopped building the road,” Jonsdottir said in a tender, quiet voice. She said the chapel in the field of lava rocks was a place where humans and elves came to seek advice. By the coming winter the boulder is to be placed next to another, creating what she calls a ‘sacred church’. Thanks to Jonsdottir’s actions, the new road is making a wide berth around them. This isn’t the first time that protection for elves, the purported hidden creatures called the ‘Huldufolk’, has obstructed a construction project.
In 2012, an Icelandic politician told her that he had had a serious car accident, but by some miracle he had escaped unharmed; a boulder had brought a stop to his car after it had rolled over five times. ”He was convinced that elves lived there,” Jonsdottir said. When the road’s course was set to be changed, putting the rock in jeopardy, she and her son helped the man - a parliamentary deputy - have the rock heaved from its spot and placed on his property.
Jonsdottir, the woman with the shimmering white hair, hasn’t always been involved with elves. As she tells it, the natural spirits chose her, after she turned 50, to become their spokeswoman. ”They promised me adventures,” she says, while strolling through her elf garden - a park in the city of Hafnarfjordur. She would not have dreamed then that one of these adventures would mean going behind bars in the capital Reykjavik. She and other ‘friends of lava’ are now fighting in court against similar arrests.
With its bizarre lava rock landscapes and forests heavy with moss, Iceland can easily give an impression of being an enchanted place. Each year, several hundred tourists make the pilgrimage to Hellisgerdi Park to listen to Jonsdottir’s stories about the elves.
In bookshops you can buy maps leading to the ‘favourite’ spots of the hidden creatures. In the otherwise nondescript town of Hafnardfjordur, interest in natural spirits has remained strong for decades - quite different from the hip capital Reykjavik, where the young city people clearly don’t believe in elves (or at least don’t talk about them). All the same, every person on the island knows at least one anecdote in which the fabled creatures play a role. ”Everyone has such a story in their family,” says Petur Matthiasson, working in Iceland’s highway construction authority. “It is simply part of our cultural heritage.”
Matthiasson quickly adds that he himself is not convinced of the existence of the spirit creatures; but, at the same time, any number of his agency’s building projects have been delayed because others do! You see, when elves are ‘seen to be’ inhabiting a spot that is in the path of construction, the bulldozers have to wait until the spirits have moved elsewhere – as long as it does not cost too much money. A colleague, Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, wrote a five-page paper to help deal with the many questions that journalists were asking about elves. ”Belief in the supernatural can prompt anxiety among locals. We need to take account of such views, just as we respect all opinions,” the policy document intones. Ingolfsson described a curse that is said to have come down on a construction project years ago. A medium had warned that the rocks in the path of a planned road should not be blown up; ‘sure enough’, there were some accidents and bulldozers suddenly broke down for no explicable reason. At the end, the rocks stayed put. ”Some people believe that the elves are now protecting those using the road - out of gratitude for the ‘consideration’,” Ingolfsson wrote.