I hadn’t heard anything about elves or trolls in the 4 months of research leading up to my adventures in Iceland. Jake, my travel buddy for this trip, mentioned elf t-shirts in passing about a day after we arrived in Iceland, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. The next time I heard anything about elves, I was standing on a mountain in the middle of Highlands.
An elf city in the Highlands of Iceland?
To rewind a bit, we toured Landmannalaugar (the painted mountains) with a guide a few days into our trip. Our guide seemed a little cooky from the start. She picked us up in Reykjavik in a large Ford pickup truck that barely seemed to fit down the tiny one-way streets. She was an Icelandic woman in her late thirties with loosely tied back blonde hair. She wore a long sleeve pink and orange flower print shirt under a thick orange Icelandic wool sweater. She paired that with black and grey hiking pants, a candy apple red jacket, brown boots, a fuzzy wool cap, and a green daypack.
Although her English wasn’t perfect, she spoke enthusiastically. During the long drive to the highlands, she spoke about the history of Iceland, the Icelandic language, and the importance of preserving their culture and heritage. When we stopped for lunch, she told us about her dream of moving to the north and buying a small home for herself. When we arrived in the Highlands near Landmannalaugar, she explained how the volcanic landscape in the area was formed as we hiked through the Laugahraun lava field. She spoke with passion for the environment and it quickly became apparent that she had a special connection with nature.
We hiked through a large area of volcanic rock mostly covered in vibrant green moss. When we reached a nice viewpoint, she explained that when she looked out at this landscape, she saw a city… but not a city for people. She saw a city for elves. She told us that she was taught about elves from a young age. As a child, she learned that when taking from the environment, people should only take a third. The other two-thirds are for future generations and the elves. She told us that she didn’t have a picture in her head of what elves look like. She had never seen an elf herself, but she wanted to be open-minded enough for the opportunity to present itself. To her, being a good person and being good to the environment meant that the elves would be good to you. In her words, “being open to the elves will help you.”
As we continued on our journey, she pointed out trolls that had been touched by sun and turned to stone. These were natural rock formations that had similar features to a face or body. They were either carved into the landscape or free-standing rock structures. She didn’t seem to have as strong of a belief in the trolls and didn’t elaborate much on them. However, the prospect of large creatures trapped in stone surrounding us as we made our way through the mountains, did feel like a romantic way to look at nature.
For the rest of the day, the elves remained on my mind. Although I don’t believe in elves or trolls, the experience gave me a new appreciation for the nature around us. The understanding that our guide believed we were walking through elves homes made my steps lighter and more cautious.
A different perspective of elves & trolls in Iceland
A few days later, we had another opportunity to spend some time with an Icelandic guide. This time, we were glacier hiking to natural ice caves at Breiðamerkurjökull glacier in Vatnajökull. Our guide for this trip was a guy in his twenties who seemed to have a similar love for nature and preserving the Icelandic landscape, but with a more adventurous streak. He was athletic looking, with a striking red beard. He spent a lot of time explaining how the glaciers in Iceland are melting at an alarming rate. As we walked, he made it a point to tell us whenever we were standing where the glacier used to be, anywhere from just last year all the way up to hundreds of years ago. It saddened me to see the effects of global warming in person and the resulting damage caused to such a beautiful natural wonder.
Aside from discussing the landscape, we spoke with him about world politics, religion, and he was even open about his family and upbringing. When the opportunity presented itself, we explained our experience with our previous guide and asked if he had any other information for us about elves and trolls. He explained that many Icelanders do not believe in elves (himself included)… but others, mainly the older generations, still do. Those that do believe, generally take it very seriously. Although elves are not part of a religious belief, there is still a strong level of servitude and respect for the elves’ habitat. He told us a story of road construction plans that had to be changed to go around a large rock because of the belief that elves lived there. He also explained that his own grandmother took her leftovers outside to a large rock in their yard every night after dinner. She knew the elves had enjoyed the meal when the food was always gone in the morning.
Jake and I talked about the elves quite a bit during our trip. One thing we agreed on was that the shirts and souvenirs that poke fun of the elves, with sayings like “I had sex with an elf in Iceland” could be offensive to some Icelandic people who grew up around these beliefs. Overall, I’m excited to learn more about the Icelandic elves and trolls in my next visit to Iceland. Tell me your elf and troll stories in the comments!