Monday, May 2, 2016

Iceland's Magical Geography of Trolls and Elves

Walking hand in hand with the trolls on a street in Reykjavik

Strolling with the trolls in Akureyri, Iceland's second largest city, located in the north of Iceland.

Who is to blame if the yard is unkempt or if you are suddenly missing a possession? The elves or trolls, of course! It's always more secure to have a scapegoat when a pail of milk is accidentally spilled, right? Elves and trolls are celebrated in Iceland, the land of stark, stunning landscapes in the northern latitudes. Although most Icelanders do not believe in the little people or hildufolk (meaning small, secretive people) anymore, the supernatural has been a way to explain away nature's misfortunes and disasters for centuries. But the playful happiness of life is also captured with the trolls and elves too. Since there were not many people who inhabited Iceland one thousand years ago, the president of Iceland, Olafur Ragner Grimsson, jokingly explains, "Icelanders are few in number, so in old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies."

Icelandic trolls and elves are written about in the ancient sagas, originating in German paganism and mythology. They were ancient oral poems from mid-Europe and Scandinavia--written in Iceland between the 12th and 14 centuries. J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the epic novel, Lord of the Rings, studied Old Norse, which is very similar to modern Icelandic. One of Tolkien's favorite sagas was Volsungasaga, a story of a cursed gold ring and a sword that is broken and reforged. Sound familiar? He also learned much about trolls and elves from an Icelandic au-pair his family employed in Oxford, England in the 1930's, as she spun tales of them to his children (he began writing The Hobbit when she was employed by him). With his tremendous reservoir of knowledge and imagination, the Middle Earth of Tolkien was born. Through the study of the old sagas and myths, he produced the beloved and best selling novel: Lord of the Rings.


Although Tolkien never visited Iceland (he said he couldn't afford it), the wind-swept landscapes of geysers, volcanoes, granite-spired cliffs, and glaciers were the homes of the elves he wrote about. Apparently, according to the au-pair, he often rummaged through black and white photographs of Iceland--gazing at places where his fairies, elves, and hobbits would live in our imaginations. Sindarin, the elf language in The Lord of the Rings is said to originate from Tolkien's study of Old Norse or Icelandic.

There is a magical geography in Iceland that begs to be seen and explored. The fissures in the rocks, cliffs that resemble "elf castles," open terrains of glaciers, grass, and sand, plus the aurora borealis bespeak an enchanting land. Sometimes the Icelanders feared the mostly invisible creatures who only appeared on special holidays, but they tried to live side by side harmoniously--helping one another in the harsh and unpredictable world they inhabited. Trolls, elves, and fairies were the justification for my ancestor's beliefs that the earth quivered and the geysers spouted. There are not many people in Iceland, and I guess they felt a little more "community," with the notion that the trolls and elves were there. If things got really tough, then they could rely on someone, right? A human neighbor might be geysers away....

Ancient Icelandic folklore states that the origins of the trolls and fairies came even before the Norse myths. It is said that God came to visit Adam and Eve every week or so with their hosts of children. One day God came to Eve, and asked her if these were all of her children. Some of them were not properly dressed or washed so she said, "Yes, these are all my children." God, who knew Eve was not telling the truth, then told her that the children she was keeping in the earth would stay hidden forever. This is the explanation for all the children under the earth, many who say resemble humans, and who are the same size as humans. Christmas, Twelfth Night (January 6), New Year's, and Midsummer Night are the supposed time when sightings can occur, when people put food out for the hildufolk.

These rich myths intertwined with village stories taught children to keep away from lava fields or not to wander too far away since the trolls and elves were tucked into a hill. The elf and troll folk were ready to play a trick or do a favor--depending on their mood and how you had treated them. There are many stories about how some people are currently trying to protest road construction in Iceland because they don't want to destroy the lava fields they think the trolls and hildufolk live in. (Article about Trolls in Iceland in the The Atlantic) Whatever anyone believes, Iceland is a gloriously beautiful place that needs protection and conservation.

My grandmother, who would often speak of the hildufolk, not believing in them of course, but with a twinkle in her eye would say, "You never know if you leave out the knitting needles on the table with some yarn, it just might be a masterpiece in the morning."

Christmas Time with the Trolls:


Here is an awesome video about a children's illustrator, Brian Pilkingon, an English/Icelandic artist. He grew up in Liverpool, but has spent the last 36 years in Iceland. He has written and illustrated 23 books that have been published in 15 languages. His images of trolls are drawn with whimsy and wit. He likes to show their pranks and antics: Brian Pilkington video

At Christmas time, the troll parents, Gryla and Lepakoul await when all their 13 lads will join them in the cave, one by one. The Christmas lads in the twentieth century began to wear red clothes, reminiscent of Father Christmas, Santa Claus, or St. Nicolas. All of the Christmas elves or lads were more mischievous in earlier times, but now they are thought of as more benevolent and fun loving. Children put out their shoes on the window sills every night, and they are either given treats or rotten potatoes in their shoes for their behavior throughout the year. I remember going to Iceland in December years ago, when my relative was instructing his grandchildren to be good so they wouldn't get potatoes in their shoes.


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Image result for pictures of brian pilkington
Image result for pictures of brian pilkington
Image result for pictures of brian pilkington






Instead of Santa, there are 13 Yuletide Lads that come give treats or potatoes. I think an Icelandic Christmas sounds so much more interesting. For a child, if you can't please one Santa, you can at least get one of the 13 Yuletide Lads to love you. Ha!
Icelandic NameEnglish translationDescriptionArrivalDeparture
StekkjarstaurSheep-Cote ClodHarasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.December 12December 25
GiljagaurGully GawkHides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.December 13December 26
StúfurStubbyAbnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.December 14December 27
ÞvörusleikirSpoon-LickerSteals Þvörur (a type of a wooden spoon with a long handle - I. þvara) to lick. Is extremely thin due tomalnutrition.December 15December 28
PottaskefillPot-ScraperSteals leftovers from pots.December 16December 29
AskasleikirBowl-LickerHides under beds waiting for someone to put down their 'askur' (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.December 17December 30
HurðaskellirDoor-SlammerLikes to slam doors, especially during the night.December 18December 31
SkyrgámurSkyr-GobblerA Yule Lad with an affinity for skyr or yogurt.December 19January 1
BjúgnakrækirSausage-SwiperWould hide in the rafters and snatch sausages that were being smoked.December 20January 2
GluggagægirWindow-PeeperA voyeur who would look through windows in search of things to steal.December 21January 3
GáttaþefurDoorway-SnifferHas an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð.December 22January 4
KetkrókurMeat-HookUses a hook to steal meat.December 23January 5
KertasníkirCandle-StealerFollows children in order to steal their candles (which in those days were made of tallow and thus edible).December 24January 6



My son taking a rest in some large boulders in the river near Althing. It is said the large boulders are trolls who turned to stone, when they didn't get back to the cave in enough time when the sunrise came.

At a geothermal pool where the auroa boralis is supposed to be remarkable on the Golden Ring Road.
A park where The Elf Castles supposedly stand.
Caves that were known to have trolls in olden times....
Fissures, openings in the earth, are places where people thought the trolls lived.
Just trying to look like a Viking....
The sublime beauty of Iceland makes you feel like a child again, ready to bound out for any adventure.
A picture taken at 3 a,m, in the morning. I guess the trolls don't get out much in the summer time because there is so little light. Maybe that is why there are so many boulders. They just didn't make it back to the cave in time....
The beauty is other-worldly, like you are escaping from anything you have ever known. It is marvelous to feel so far away in a place with such majestic beauty.
I guess the trolls accidentally dropped in the ocean because there are boulders jutting everywhere in the ocean.
The pristine beauty of Iceland, so remote and mystical, is a place where imaginations can run wild. It is a shame Tolkien never came to Iceland. I wonder what books he would have written if we would have visited the waterfalls and lava fields of Iceland.





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