A Beginner’s Guide to Iceland’s Huldufólk
There are many misconceptions about Iceland, fuelled mostly by the internet and the rapid spread of information that never gets fact-checked. One subject that is consistently misrepresented is the topic of the Huldufólk or Hidden People. Are they real? What do they look like? Do all Icelanders really still believe in them? I’m going to address all these questions and more in this beginner’s guide to the Hidden People.
Huldufólk - Hidden People, Elves
Huldukona - Hidden Woman
Huldumaður - Hidden Man
Hulduheimar - Hidden World, Hidden Realm
Álfar - Elves in Norse Mythology
Who Are the Huldufólk?
The word Huldufólk literally translates from Icelandic to English as “hidden” + “folk” or “people,” but what does that really mean? Others translate Huldufólk as meaning Elves, but this comparison does not provide any more clarity because the next question follows: are they elves as in Tolkien’s elves, or are they elves as in Santa’s elves?
The short answer is that the Huldufólk are supernatural beings that live in a world hidden from ours yet connected, allowing them to visit when they choose. Why would they bother to visit us? We’ll dig more into that topic soon.
Where Do the Huldufólk Come From?
The most common origin story for the Huldufólk was published in the definitive collection of Icelandic Folktales by Jón Árnason and is a common story in many cultures to explain elves, earth dwellers, and other supernatural beings. The tale goes like this:
Adam and Eve had many children. One day, God decided to drop by for a surprise visit. Eve rushed to clean up her children for the honoured visit but only finished half in time. Rather than present her unkempt children, she told them to hide in the hills beyond their home until she called them back. But the all-knowing God knew what she and Adam had done, and he declared that those who were hidden from him would be hidden from humanity forever. Thus, the hidden children were never seen again, only sensed.
Another Christian explanation claims that the Hidden People are descendants of fallen angels, doomed to be earthbound. Others argue that the Hidden People are a reinterpretation of the Álfar (elves) from Old Norse mythology.
It is likely that the Hidden People that live on in stories are a combination of all of these. Older beliefs were replaced with newer stories to keep the tales and culture alive yet aligned with the norms of the day.
What is certain is that this story plays out again and again across cultures and stories around the world.
What Do the Huldufólk Look Like?
The answer to this question depends on who you talk to. Traditionally, it seems that the Hidden People look very much like humans, except better looking in every way. They are healthier, more attractive (whatever your definition of that is), stronger, and faster than humans. Because tales of the Huldufólk are part of Icelandic folklore, the images of these beings resemble Icelanders.
They are also noted to appear in wardrobes that resemble the formal dress of the 1800s. Why would they wear old-fashioned clothes? This is likely because the height of folklore stories was in the 1800s and early 1900s. Therefore the image of the Hidden People is cemented in that time period.
Some stories mention that they are particular to the colour green, yet sketches also show them in the black and neutral colours that Icelanders tended to wear. One illustrated children’s book about the Huldufólk (author Terry Gunnell, artist Brian Pilkington) describes them as having only one nostril for their nose.
Modern reinterpretations have imagined the Huldufólk as smaller beings, most notably in the favourite children’s book, The Gimli Huldufólk, by Kathleen Arnason.
Who Can See the Huldufólk?
With Huldufólk being hidden, how is that people can see them? The stories say that the Hidden People reveal themselves to those they choose, usually because they want something from the human.
Other stories tell of humans who are born with the sight either as an inherent power.
For others, the reason they can see is that when they were baptized, the water did not touch one or both of their eyes. Holy water can take away the ability to see Huldfolk.
Another tale tells of a midwife who was led to the Hidden World to help deliver a baby. When the baby is born, a salve is rubbed into its eyes to give it the sight of the Hidden World. The midwife sneaks some of the salves for her one eye, allowing her to see elves as they visit the human world. When an elf catches the midwife, recognizing that she has the sight, the elf woman spits in the midwife’s eye, causing her to lose the sight.
Where Do the Huldufólk Live?
The Hidden People are associated with nature. While their homes are in another realm that looks much like ours, only superior in resources and weather, there are portals between the two. In Iceland, many massive stones are said to be the homes or churches of the Hidden People. There are entire books devoted to listing the homes of the Hidden People, as well as signs and museums to mark these locations.
There is one tale in particular that describes an elf church in a stone that faced the church of the community. Due to a series of unfortunate events, a curse is laid upon the minister that if he ever delivers a sermon and sees directly across the field into the elf church, he will perish. One day a gust of wind blows open the human church doors creating a direct line of sight to the elf church in the rock, and the minister dropped dead to the floor. Subsequently, the human church was moved to a different location.
Humans Following Huldufólk Home
There are also many stories of humans slyly following Hidden People home to their realm. Some involve finding hidden valleys where everything flourishes. Others involve swimming to the bottom of the sea to an underwater realm. There are many parallels to tales from the British Isles of humans following the Fair Folk to their realm. The trick is that humans cannot find the worlds on their own; they must be led there.
Human Interactions with Huldufólk
The way humans interact with the Hidden People varies from story to story. Sometimes the interaction is positive and friendly—at other times, deadly. The following are common types of stories about the Huldufólk.
Huldufólk and Midwives
Some tales tell of Huldukonar or Hidden Women needing the hands of a human midwife in order to deliver their babies. Hidden People will either come to the midwife in person or in a dream and lead them to the home of the Hidden Woman in labour. Once the birth happens, the midwife is returned to their home.
Huldufólk and Human Lovers
Other tales tell of Hidden People taking humans as lovers, either by bringing them home to the Hidden World or visiting our world for brief encounters and leaving behind mysterious babies.
Huldufólk, Gifts, and Temptation
Another repetitive theme includes Hidden People visiting humans to test them. If they pass the test, they are rewarded with gifts. If they give in to temptation, then they are punished, cursed, or in some cases, murdered.
Changelings, Children, and Huldufólk
As in other folklore, Huldufólk are sometimes blamed for the disappearance of children by accident and on purpose. Parents would find solace in that their children were living a better life with the Hidden People rather than face the tragic truth of reality. In other circumstances, Hidden People were said to swipe babies and replace them with old Hidden People disguised as human babies. The giveaway was the behaviour.
Allies and Friends
And in some tales, Hidden People come to the aid of humans in need to lead them to safety when they are lost or to provide something valuable when needed.
What Is the Significance of the Huldufólk Tales?
What could all these tales of Huldufólk mean? Should they be taken literally? Are they simply metaphors for hardships in life? Are they projections of how we wished our lives could be, especially for those Icelanders living in harsh conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries? Scholars have different theories, but realistically, it’s a combination of all those things.
Are Huldufólk Friend or Foe?
So, are the Hidden People friendly or malicious? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
Do Icelanders Believe in Elves?
This is the infamous question that the world seems to be fascinated by. I like to compare the belief in Huldufólk to the belief in ghosts. For many people, ghosts are real, they’ve seen them with their own eyes, or they’ve sensed them in particular places. Others know that ghosts are probably real, even if they haven’t experienced them first-hand. And others are skeptics and say none of it is real, only stories. But even if the Huldfufólk are just stories - that doesn’t make them any less real.
Recommended Books to Learn More About Iceland’s Huldufólk
The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir
Looking for the Hidden Folk by Nancy Marie Brown
Icelandic Folktales by Jón Árnason (Icelandic)
The Huldufolk by Terry Gunnell and Brian Pilkington
The Story of the Gimli Huldufolk by Kathleen Arnason