In Iceland, Construction Projects Are Being Held Up Because They Might Hurt the Elves. (Seriously.) December 23, 2013

In Iceland, Construction Projects Are Being Held Up Because They Might Hurt the Elves. (Seriously.)

I don’t know how to put this any more bluntly: In Iceland, a lot of people believe in elves. Like, more than half of them. And these Huldufólk live in rocks.

If this were just a silly belief, we could leave it at that.

But construction projects are being delayed in the country because protesters don’t want the rocks these magical elves live in to be destroyed.

Dear god, I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence…

Elf advocates have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project building a direct route from the Alftanes peninsula, where the president has a home, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer. They fear disturbing elf habitat and claim the area is particularly important because it contains an elf church.

The project has been halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on a case brought by a group known as Friends of Lava, who cite both the environmental and the cultural impact — including the impact on elves — of the road project. The group has regularly brought hundreds of people out to block the bulldozers.

Why the hell is this an issue? If there are environmental concerns about the project, let’s hear them. If you have to bring elves into the debate, you’ve lost the argument. It’s like Godwin’s Law for elves. (I call it Keebler’s Law.)

There’s gotta at least be some rational basis for this belief, right? One professor tried to make sense of it:

Terry Gunnell, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland, said he was not surprised by the wide acceptance of the possibility of elves.

“This is a land where your house can be destroyed by something you can’t see (earthquakes), where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulfur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet, where the northern lights make the sky the biggest television screen in the world, and where hot springs and glaciers ‘talk,'” Gunnell said.

“Everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect,” he added.

Meh. Even he’s grasping at straws he, trying to rationalize something that makes absolutely no sense.

And this isn’t the first time major road projects have been delayed because of the belief in the invisible. The New York Times published a story about it in 1995:

This town, a port on the outskirts of Reykjavik, prides itself on its unusually high elf population. Tourists are invited to tour the known elf locations, including a large rock whose reputation as an elf habitat meant that a nearby road was diverted some years ago so as not to disturb its unseen residents.

Elly Erlingsdottir, head of the town council’s planning committee, said that made sense to her. Recently, she said, some elves borrowed her kitchen scissors, only to return them a week later to a place she had repeatedly searched. “My philosophy is, you don’t have to see everything you believe in,” she said, “because many of your greatest experiences happen with closed eyes.”

And closed minds.

At least belief in elves has, at worst, just delayed some construction projects. If it were America, I promise you evangelicals would be using those elves to justify a ban on gay marriage and a need for easier access to guns.

The best line, though, came from environmentalist Andri Snaer Magnason:

“Some feel that the elf thing is a bit annoying,” said Magnason, adding that personally he was not sure they existed. However, he added, “I got married in a church with a god just as invisible as the elves, so what might seem irrational is actually quite common” with Icelanders.

Well played.

So how did this phenomenon even begin? An article in The Atlantic attempted to get to the bottom of that and found a starting date for the myth:

According to Árni Björnsson, the former director of the ethnological department of the National Museum of Iceland, widespread belief in elves is “a rather recent myth” which arose in the 1970s, and flourished in part because of “the hippie culture.” While he acknowledges his country’s rich history of folktales, it doesn’t prove “that people really believe in them, no more than they believe in the real existence of Tarzan or Harry Potter.”

Under his theory, most of the “gossip” about people believing that elves interfere with construction projects dates back to a single story about “a clumsy but merry bulldozer driver,” who, in the summer of 1971, broke his machine and some pipelines while moving rocks on the outskirts of Reykjavik. He attempted to explain the accident by arguing that there were elves living in the rock. “No one had ever heard about elves in this rock before, but his comment made headline in a newspaper, and the ball began to roll,” he said in an email. The story gained traction in the 1980s, partly due to his assistance.

No matter the origin, Iceland, come to your senses. You’re better than this. Stop making America look like a bastion of rationality.

(Thanks to Kiel for the link)

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  • A3Kr0n

    Are gnomes and elves related, because I’ve seen an exponential growth in gnomes over at a website called Thingiverse. They seem to have hijacked our technology, and are using it to replicate themselves. I’m pretty sure if elves are related to gnomes they too could get their hands on this technology, and really start creating some mischief over in Iceland. Beware!

  • Octoberfurst

    This really puzzles me because Iceland is such a highly advanced secular society. To find out that almost HALF of the population believe in elves is disturbing. What evidence is there that these beings possibly exist? Creationists come up with reasons to believe in creationism—-albeit their reasons are bullshit. Christians have whole books on apologetics to explain why the Bible is true. But what evidence do the Icelanders provide for their belief in elves aside from the idea they think it is “possible” that they exist? So bizarre. I don’t get it.

  • Lando

    In the midwest, we have these billboards all over. Maybe the originator of this story needed a ‘Buzzed Bulldozer Driving is Drunk Bulldozer Driving’ campaign.
    Bit of a tongue-twister, huh?

  • WallofSleep

    Orcs live in dirty dishes, and that’s why I won’t touch them. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  • Bob Jase

    Have you seen how Legolas moves? Damned if I’ll upset an elf.

  • Bob Jase

    Yet look how the population of trolls exploded with the rise of the internet – you can’t deny that.

  • WallofSleep

    That’s a Tolkien elf, and you’re right to respect them. These elves, however… well what can you say about a group of elves that don’t know that it’s supposed to be dwarves that live in rocks? You probably have little to fear from that lot.

  • Bob Jase

    Battleaxes. Be afraid.

  • Don’t believe in Elves? Then how do you explain Keebler Cookies. I believe that is what they call, “Checkmate, atheists.”

  • newavocation

    They must have some special mushrooms growing in those rocks too.

  • OCRazor

    Not unlike the fairy trees that the Irish folk believe in, and don’t disturb:

  • WallofSleep


    Likely made from honey comb and butterfly wings, knowing this lot of confused, rock dwelling fey folk. Nah, I think I’ll be sleeping easy. Laughing quite a bit, and sleeping easy.

  • These protesters are probably just trolling everyone

  • Dávid Kerekes

    I don’t really see the difference between this, and everyday religion. Just as Christians would protest if you’d want to build a highway over a pilgrimage site, there guys protest to protect that church or whatever. Elves and fairies are quite common in northern mithology. Why are everybody so shocked?

  • WallofSleep

    Shocked? That the world is full of superstitious nincompoops? I’m not shocked. Saddened, maybe, but not shocked.

  • this is a good time for me to (very seriously) recommend the movie “Troll Hunter.” it’s on netflix and is frakking HILARIOUS.

    the best part: “are you a Christian?” i won’t spoil it for you, but when you see that part, you’ll plotz, laughing.

  • WallofSleep
  • WallofSleep

    Seconded. Great flick.

  • Bdole

    I have a hard time believing these people are serious. Maybe they’re just environmentalists approaching the issue from a religious angle to garner wider sympathy from…or support from…

  • Darren Wilson

    I have it on Blu Ray. It deserves another outing.

  • EdmondWherever

    Also, Crackle and Pop.

  • I wonder if these elves are the kind that look beautiful from the front. However if you see their backsides, you see a gaping, rotting hole filled with worms and beetles.

    Scandinavian mythology can be interesting at times.

  • islandbrewer

    “Muslim? That should be ok, right?”

    “I guess so. Never tried it, we’ll see.”

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    It’s not nice to eminent domain a leprechaun’s winter vacation home 😀

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    Well the norse elves were pretty badass and so were the wee folk in celtic myth. You really wouldn’t want to piss off Oberon.

  • Achron Timeless

    Sounds like they were foretelling the attitudes of supermodels.

  • Anonnz

    It pains me to say this, but the same thing happened here in New Zealand a few years ago, except it was a Taniwha (some kind of water dragon thing) holding up construction of a highway. Unfortunately being a reasonably secular country doesn’t mean a lot when you have a handful of crazies that can make a lot of noise.

  • Greg G.

    Elves go into the rocks, Elves come out of the rocks. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.

  • Matt D

    Seems like a canard to me.

  • Michael R

    Iceland is a small and cohesive population. They are so homogeneous they are described as an extended family. Instead of adopting foreign words for new things, they make their own words. They have a long history with folk tales. It sounds to me like they’re a tight-knit community who values tradition as a means of social cohesion.

    So now Hemant The Wrecker (name of a modern folk tale?) wants to intrude his rationality (misnomer for “radical uprooting of tradition”) for the sake of what? Only Hemant The Rationality-Totalitarian Wrecker knows. Presumably it’s all in the name of his peace-of-mind.

    Wikipedia says:
    “Round about 1600 sources for hidden folk become so voluminous that we can readily define the beliefs and legends about them, and after that there is one source after another about them right down into the twentieth century.”[42] According to Árni Björnsson, belief in hidden people grew during the 17th and 18th centuries when Iceland was facing tough times.[43]

    Bottom line: tradition is a means of social cohesion and maybe a tight-knit community like Iceland knows what’s best for their community than Hemant The Wrecker does.

  • Brian Macker

    Plus dwarves are actually way more dexterous than elves if you’ve watched the latest hobbit movies.

  • Brian Macker

    So trolls do exist.

  • Brian Macker

    Thirded, but I’ll watch any crap movie. This was better quality crap however.

  • Brian Macker

    If someone seriously polled me on whether I believe in elves then I might must troll them and answer “yes”.

  • diogeneslamp0

    As an American of Elvish descent, I find this post deeply offensive. It is unfair to discriminate against all Elvish people simply because they are imaginary. We are an ancient and noble people who have made major contributions to many walks of life, including toy manufacture, cookie baking, and shoe fabrication at night while the cobbler is asleep. Elvish people can point proudly to many influential and successful individuals that represent our race, including Wingle, Tingle, and Legolas. End the hate! Boycott Friendly Atheist!

  • GubbaBumpkin
  • GubbaBumpkin

    That’s a Tolkien elf…

    So they only hired him to improve their diversity rating?

  • Lee Miller

    I’ve seen pictures of elves. I’ve never seen a picture of God.

  • This is Discworld we’re talking about right?

  • You obviously didn’t get the memo, we’re a “Hate site” now!

  • Timmah

    Are they Night Elves or Blood Elves? Cause if they are Night Elves, screw those purple skinned SOBs pave over their homes as much as you like.

  • Let’s at least wait ’til after Xmas or Santa won’t have all the toys made…THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

  • kielc

    You missed the point, which is: One person’s folklore is another’s religion (and vice versa). So let’s stop pretending any one of them has a corner on truth. They’re all quaint little fairy tales, which are fine as long as they are not raised above that level. (Which, unfortunately, many are.)

  • Conuly

    That was my thought, that at least *some* of them have to be treating this with FSM levels of seriousness, using “elves” as a cutesy way to define “we don’t like this particular construction project”. Just like some people use zombie awareness days to promote emergency preparedness?

  • Sam B

    And of course the highway got the go ahead after a very large koha (cash donation) to the local iwi (tribe).

  • Intelligent Donkey

    This just proves beyond any doubts that humans will believe in absolutely anything, no matter how silly or far-fetched.

    But all of my beliefs are perfectly reasonable, of course.

  • Bruce Martin

    Icelanders are simultaneously 97% Lutheran, and highly rationalist if not atheist. So they should have no problem simultaneously believing in the huldafolk and not believing in them. It’s not compartmentalization when you know it’s a myth. They’re just a lot better than us at keeping the Merry, and the Myth, while knowing and enjoying that it’s a myth.
    Read the recent atheist research in Danish sociology (from Claremont Pomona) for context on Scandinavian secularism. If it isn’t bothering Hope Knutssen, it probably shouldn’t bother the rest of us.

  • Patricia Magicia

    I’ve always thought of the Iceland elf thing as something so ridiculously whimsical that it’s just like “Aww, Iceland. You do you.” Actually using them as rationale for not building a thing in a place is way farther than I thought they went with it… but seriously, can someone bring in Bjork to write a concept album about them or something?

  • Pisk_A_Dausen

    The elves have been said to be perfectly capable of protecting themselves, though. (The story with the bulldozer driver isn’t the only one told about elves messing with humans building on their turf.) We’re not talking about the fragile, gossamer-winged type there; this is the kind that throws a party *in* your grave. So… let them fight back themselves?

  • Michael

    There are a few places in Scotland where plans have had to change to preserve curious rocks that are considered part of the local heritage for no other reason than that ancient people thought fairies lived in them.

  • I’m Icelandic and this type of reporting annoys me highly. I live close to where this road is being built and I oppose it, though I do not believe in God nor elves. It’s a stupid road that serves no purpose being built through a beautiful land containing lots of fragile wildlife, etc. I highly oppose it.

    However, as with most things, there are a few high profile weirdos who interject themselves into the discussion. This time around, a prominent voice told every news outlet in Iceland that there was (seriously) an Elf church located in the area that’s up for construction. This was reported in a “laughing at you, not with you” manner by Icelandic media, prompting few to report it to overseas news outlets. And from there it snowballed to “Icelanders oppose a road being built because Elves, obviously.”

    We’re not that silly. Yes, there is a portion of the demographic that believes in Elves but like Andri Snær Magnason said, that’s no more far fetched than believing in an invisible God anyway. And a lot more people believe in God than Elves here, just like other countries.

    So, no. The road is NOT being opposed because of Elves, although a few annoying weirdos have obviously managed to turn the discussion that way. It is being opposed because it endangers wildlife and a beautiful piece of nature for no benefit to anyone but contractors. You know all about those type of deals in America, I’m sure.

    Oh and happymerry holidaychristmas everybody!

  • MD

    Love your country, btw.

  • Ben

    Cate Blanchett is an elf.
    Cate Blanchett exists.
    Therefore, at least one elf exists.

  • Taneli Huuskonen

    Any reports of Elvish sightings in Iceland?

  • Jachra

    Well, if you’ll consider a few things…
    A) Celtic/Germanic elves commonly live in mounds
    B) In Norse mythology, dwarves are the Svartalfar, or the Black Elves.

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