Iceland is a country of such rough and ragged scenery that it can sometimes appear unfriendly or adversarial, even in today’s highly technology-ruled world. For the earliest settlers on this island, first Norwegians and later other Scandinavians, this must have been even more challenging. During the long, dark hours of winter, storytelling was the favorite pastime and the tales told in those nights often reflected the daily struggle in the face of the harsh nature.
These times gave birth to a whole set of Icelandic folklore, in which the respect for nature, earth and the land plays a central role. For as repellent as the land appears, it was still the land the people had to use and cultivate to make a living. It may have been for this reason that elves and trolls quickly began to make frequent appearances in the stories told and relayed between generations. In folklore, elves live inside large rocks and want to be left alone In the Icelandic language, these elves are called “huldufolk”, which translates into “hidden people”, alluding to the fact that they are rarely seen. In the belief of the Icelanders, though, they have a way to make their presence felt. It is not uncommon even in the 21st century to explain mishaps and unforeseen challenges in road construction, for example, with the wrath of elves who feel disturbed by the work. It is also not uncommon for authorities to alter existing construction plans so as not to anger the hidden people. Visitors will often encounter roads making a sudden curve in order to circumvent a large rock or massive rocks blocking the direct path to a house. These are, in Iceland’s lore, the sacred homes of elves that cannot be disturbed.
One should be aware though that it’s not only the large rocks that may have a supernatural quality to them. Smaller ones may just be trolls, as Icelanders may tell you, that have been hit by sunlight. Trolls, said to be living in the barren, rocky landscapes of the country’s interior highlands, travel by night and will transform into stones if they are still outside when the sun goes up. Like elves, trolls are fiercely defending their territory, but contrary to them, trolls are mischievous and not exactly friendly creatures. In folklore, they were often used to scare children away from any notion of naughtiness, as they were said to have an appetite for flesh, particularly that of misbehaving kids.
The odds are high that visitors to the country will encounter Iceland’s trolls and elves in one way or another. They appear in the stories of tourguides and in the form of paintings and figurines everywhere in the country. These characters however aren’t the only ones that make an appearance in Icelandic stories which will also frequently feature the likes of dwarfs, ghosts and others, both on land and in the sea.
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