Thursday, May 24, 2012

Elf Kerfuffle in Iceland

Iceland really is a magical place. Where else in the world would relocating a group of elves make international news?

Árni Johnsen is a Member of Parliament for the Independence Party. In January 2010, he was in a car accident in which his SUV rolled over five times before stopping next to a large stone that was 40 meters from the highway. Although his vehicle was totaled, Árni was unharmed.

Icelandic Member of Parliament Árni Johnsen with Elf Stone
(Please note the runes woven into his wool sweater)

He came to the completely logical conclusion that the 24-ton boulder was a home to elves - and that it was their intervention that had kept him safe. Last July, when the stone was scheduled to be buried during widening of the Ring Road (Iceland's national highway), Árni contacted Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir for advice.

I met Ragnhildur during my 2010 visit to Iceland, and I can personally attest that this beautiful and brilliant woman is exactly the person you should call when you have an elf issue. As Iceland's leading elf specialist, she leads elf walks through Álfagarðurinn ("elf garden") in Hafnarfjörður and creates original art based on her contact with the elusive creatures.

Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir leads an elf walk

The Icelandic belief in elves goes back well over 1,000 years. Elves (álfar) are referenced many times in the Poetic Edda, but there is a tantalizing lack of descriptive information about these mysterious beings. Medieval sources record the practice known as álfablót ("sacrifice to the elves"), but again there is little detail to be found.

Thankfully, we now have someone like Ragnhildur who can go straight to the source. She has the rare gift of being able to see and communicate with elves, so Árni asked her to examine the boulder and find out if the elves would mind if he moved the stone to his home in the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands).

Ragnhildur with the elf home

She examined the rock and was surprised that three generations of elves were living within it - a situation that she had never before come across. The grandparents lived upstairs and the younger family (with three children) lived downstairs. They told her that Árni's car accident had caused mass confusion in the elf settlement on the heath. Elves from all the neighboring areas had been called out; they had been quite upset until a larger being took charge and calmed them down.

Árni told Iceland Review Online that "Ragnhildur said it was my protecting spirit, because my time hadn’t come." The ancient Icelandic sagas attest to belief in fylgjur, guardian spirits attached to individuals that follow their chosen person throughout his or her life. Fylgjur usually take the form of women or animals. Typically, they only appear visible at moments of great crisis - most often immediately before the individual's death.

Ragnhildur shows Árni the size of the elves

A notable appearance of a fylgja in Icelandic literature occurs in Hallfreðar saga vandræðaskálds ("Saga of Hallfred the Troublesome Poet"), which takes place in the 10th century. Hallfred and his two sons have a strange experience while at sea: "They saw a woman walking behind the ship: she was tall, and wearing a mail-coat; she walked over the waves as if she was on dry land. Hallfred looked at her and saw that she was his fylgja-woman."

Personally, I find it somehow comforting to know that fylgjur are alive and well and living in Iceland - even if they now follow SUVs instead of Viking ships.

According to Ragnhildur, the multi-generational family in the stone welcomed the relocation offer. The grandfather was unhappy that the boulder was tilting at its current location, as his bed was almost vertical.

Moving the elf stone home

Last week, Ragnhildur explained the situation to me via email. She wrote:
The main thing for me was to help the elves. They were about to lose their home under a big road. Árni wanted to thank them for saving his life, so he went through all this trouble to move their home to safety. Árni asked me to ask the elves what they wanted to do - if they wanted to move the rock to another location nearby, to move out of the stone or to move to Vestmannaeyjar.
The elves took their time to discuss the matter with each other and get information about Vestmannaeyjar. They decided they wanted to move with their old home to the island, but they had a few demands. They wanted to travel in a separate travelling unit - a basket warm and cozy in a safe distance from all the big trucks needed to move their house. They wanted the big window wall on their home to face a good view over the ocean, and they wanted their house on grass so they could keep sheep. Árni could promise all this, and I promised to move the elves myself in a basket all the way to Vestmannaeyjar.
A stone with a view? In Iceland, this isn't such a strange thing. According to the sagas, inhabited stones even have doors.

In the 13th-century Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks ("Saga of Hervör and Heiðrek"), a king named Sigrlami meets the dwarves Dvalinn and Durin while lost in the forest. After Sigrlami forces them to forge the mystic sword Tyrfing, they place a nasty curse on the weapon. The saga describes the flight of the little guys as Sigrlami threatens them: "Then the king swung his sword at the dwarves. They sprang into the rock. The sword stuck right into the stone so that both edges were lost from sight, for the door closed behind them in the stone."

Sigrlami threatens the dwarves

Árni moved the boulder and the elf-family on the ferry Herjólfur. True to his role as a government official, he dutifully bought tickets for the elves. The ferry's employees were very reasonable about the whole affair and only charged him for the young couple; the grandparents and children rode for free. The ferry personnel also waived the restriction on the maximum number of passengers per vehicle so that the family of nine could ride together.

In transit: Ragnhildur and the elf stone

Ragnhildur brought along a basket lined with sheep skin for the elves to travel in, so that they could be comfortable during the journey. The elves rode in the back of her Peugeot, and she brought along honey (their favorite treat) in case they got peckish during the crossing.

Árni looks on as Ragnhildur
offers the elves some honey

Ragnhildur told me, “When we came to the new location of the elf home, we all saw that Árni had not exaggerated about a beautiful view. The grass was there, and I saw - in the slope behind us - an elf farmer and a few elf sheep waiting. Everyone involved is happy, all went well and the new location for the old elf home is amazingly beautiful.”

After the move, the principal of the Icelandic Elf School (yes, there is one) spoke out about his concerns for Árni's well-being. Magnús Skarphéðinsson questioned whether the elves actually gave their informed consent to the relocation of their home. He cited past instances where dangerous accidents happened after known elf-homes were moved.

I asked Ragnhildur if she had anything to say in reply. She was, as always, gracious and kind.
When [Magnus] was asked about the elf home moving, I think he didn't know the whole story. It is absolutely true that we should never move elf homes without the elves asking us to do so or with a permission from the elves. We need to talk with them as friends and remember - when we think of damaging something in Nature - that there could be a whole family living in this rock or that tree. So always talk, ask and then don't forget to listen. In this case, we were helping the elves to save their home.
Whenever you start to think Iceland couldn’t be any more magical, something else happens that makes you blink at the wonder of it all. Ragnhildur told me about the latest development in the story.
As a message from the Elf World, there was a foal being born yesterday, right next to the elf home in its new place. The mare's name is Gæfa ("good fortune"). The name of the owner of the horses is Hestaleigan ("horse rental") Lukka. Lukka means luck. The foal was given the name Álfur in honor of its new neighbors.
She concluded, “I am happy to get the story right, out there. It was all about the elves, not politics.”
‘Nuff said.


poetariat said...

The real issue is, why have the secular humanists here in Vínland banned all mention of the huldufólk in our school system? We should be teaching the elf controversy.

Unknown said...

It is truly a magical world we live in...

Raksha said...

This is fabulous! I'd love to visit Iceland some day.

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