When I was travelling recently, I saw emblazoned on the beverage cart of a certain budget Icelandic airliner a motto. I may not remember it correctly, but it went something like: “50% of Icelanders may believe in elves, but 100% of Icelanders believe in delicious chocolate.” Or something to that effect.
Everybody loves to read headlines like “Construction Modified for the Sake of the Elves” and “Elves Approve Drilling Project,” and yes, we enjoy writing them sometimes. But there’s no denying that elves and the hidden people are increasingly used to sell things and to paint an image of Iceland as a wholesome, mystical place where nothing goes wrong, everyone wears lopapeysur, and people still believe in the old myths. When someone is trying to sell you something, it’s always a good occasion to raise your eyebrows.
Now, with those cantankerous caveats out of the way, yes, Iceland does have a folk tradition of elves, and many Icelanders to this day “believe” in them, or at least use them as a way to talk about nature, the landscape, and everyday coincidences.
If you’re interested in a more academic consideration of elves and other magical beings, John Lindow’s “Handbook of Norse Mythology” is a good general reference for many topics related to Scandinavian folklore and religion. Another option, Alaric Hall’s “Elves in Anglo-Saxon England” is, of course, not about Iceland as such, but was a very influential study of the phenomenon with many parallels to beliefs in Iceland as well.
If you’re looking for something lighter, “The Little Book of the Hidden People” is popular and fun, and can be found in most tourist shops throughout Iceland.
Another, more recent offering is Nancy Marie Brown’s “Looking for the Hidden Folk,” which occupies a nice middle ground between the scholarly and popular. She takes elves seriously as a cultural belief, and knows how to tell a story about them and their role in the history and lives of Icelanders.
Finally, you may be also interested in the work of Jón Árnason. A 19th scholar and author, he was one of the first to really take folklore seriously and collect the traditional tales told on farmsteads through the country, making him a kind of Icelandic brothers Grimm. He was also the first national librarian of Iceland, and the collection he curated eventually became the National Museum of Iceland. A translated selection of works from his original two-volume “Icelandic Folktales and Fairytales” is available in most bookstores in Iceland.
And just a word of warning: there are plenty of interesting websites, blogs, and social media accounts out there with information about the elves, but it may not all be the most accurate. The hidden people have taken on a life of their own in the last few years, and if you want actual information about the history of this belief, then you’re best off with a book that had an editor!