Rock Piles and Elves: Secularism and the Supernatural in Iceland

Anxious Bench | 6/6/2018 | Staff
jolan (Posted by) Level 3
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Some years ago, a town in Iceland stopped the construction of a road. Not because it was an archaeological site—or because of budgetary concerns. But because the proposed path of the road was the habitat of invisible elves.

Multiple rock piles stood in the way, which signified that elves inhabited the site. Government officials asked local elf whisperers to seek permission from these elves to proceed with construction. The answer, relayed the elf whisperers, was a firm “No, you cannot level the rock piles to build this road.” General consensus among locals, construction workers, and government officials was that the wishes of the elves should not be defied. After all, defying the elves can have disastrous consequences (in Alfholl, machinery and drills repeatedly broke down when the city proceeded despite a denial from the elves). And so the road was rerouted at considerable expense.

Story - Hiking - Trip - Iceland - Whether

I heard this fascinating story during a recent five-day hiking trip to Iceland. Whether or not the elves are real, the rock piles certainly are. They’re everywhere, even in the most remote areas of Iceland. In the Westfjords (the most remote of the five regions in the country), I saw more rock piles than people (about 7,000).

The persistence of elves in the Icelandic imagination reflects a spiritual syncretism. Pagan until about 1000 CE, Iceland’s rulers converted to Christianity and named it the national religion. Paganism was officially tolerated, however, and pagan spiritual practices have persisted ever since.

Rites - Fertility - Sheen - Eleventh - Centuries

Related to pagan rites of fertility, elves took on a more Christian sheen in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. According to one folk tale, the origins of elves can be traced to Eve. She hid her dirty, unwashed children from God,...
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