Apparently, in Iceland, one of the world’s most educated and developed countries, approximately 50% of people believe in the existence of huldufolk, what in English are usually called elves. In a recent episode of the CBC radio program Q, Jian Ghomeshi explores this odd phenomenon, interviewing writer Ryan Jacobs, whose essay on the subject in The Atlantic sparked a great deal of interest. Both works are outstanding. You can listen to the episode of Q here, and you can read Ryan Jacob’s original essay here.
I won’t give a summary of the Icelandic stories here; you can listen to Q and read The Atlantic essay on your own. What I did want to comment on, however, is my own reaction to these stories, and some thoughts that occurred to me afterwards.
At first I assumed that the Q program was satirical. As some of you may know, CBC has a comedy program called This is That which presents comedic news stories with deadpan seriousness. (One of my personal favorite episodes was a 2012 story reporting that a new Montreal bylaw would require all dogs in the city to be able to respond to commands in both English and French). Some of the episodes on This is That have actually been taken seriously by other news outlets who didn’t realize at the time that the program was satirical. For example, in September of this year, both USA Today and the Washington Post reported as factual a This is That story about a children’s soccer league that was playing games without a ball to remove competition from the sport. It isn’t only Americans who are fooled; the show regularly plays recordings of Canadian listeners who call in expressing outrage at This is That stories that they believe are actual news items (you should have heard some of the calls about the Montreal dog bylaw story).
So when I heard the broadcast about the prevalence of Icelandic belief in elves, I assumed that Q was taking a page from This is That, or that it was perhaps some kind of CBC crossover, like that magnificent comic book I had as a kid where Spider-Man and Superman teamed up to fight Dr. Doom and the Parasite.
But no–episode of Q is factual, as is the essay in The Atlantic which inspired it. Belief in elves really is widespread in Iceland, and construction projects in Iceland really have been halted in response to mass protests against encroachment on elven land.
But then the obvious occurred to me: is this really different from other parts of the world, including Canada? The Montreal Gazette found in a 2008 national survey that 48% of Canadians believe in ghosts, and 66% believe in angels. The Vancouver Sun reported that 20% of Canadians believe in Bigfoot, and the British Psychological Society reported in a 2001 paper that 50% of Americans believe in psychic abilities, and that this number is consistent across much of the western world.
I suspect one problem many outsiders have is that when we hear the word “elf” we think of noble warriors with pointy ears wielding magic swords and wearing chainmail armor. But the Icelandic concept of elves is not grounded in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or the World of Warcraft video game. Rather, the Icelandic concept of elves is parallel to how most people think of angels or ghosts: spiritual beings who exist in another realm or plane of existence who may interact with the physical world from time to time. Once we understand exactly what the Icelandic belief actually is, it’s hard to see a meaningful difference between that belief and the belief of many Canadians that angels protect them from car accidents, or psychics communicate with the dead, or large hairy man-apes live deep in the rain forests of southwestern British Columbia. Just as angels are a belief that, historically, developed from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the Icelandic belief in elves developed from that region’s Celtic folk religions.
Arguing about whether these beliefs are true or not is almost missing the point; to believers, of course they are true, and to skeptics, of course they are not. A more intriguing question is why people hold these beliefs in the first place. They seem to represent our need for wonder, and transcendence, and hope, things that reason and rationality cannot quite seem to give us. And they seem to be intuitive and powerful. In the Q interview, Ryan Jacob suggests that the Icelandic belief in elves parallels the beliefs of many First Nations people in Canada about the sacredness of the natural world. Replace the statement “Icelanders believe in elves” with “Icelanders believe their land is sacred and holy” and it starts to make a lot more sense.
Because many human beings–dare I say, most of us–have an intuitive sense that there is something special, and primal, and sacred about nature. Ironically, it was the skeptic Bertrand Russell who perhaps said it best. In his book The Conquest of Happiness he observes, “Whatever we may wish to think, we are creatures of Earth; our life is part of the life of the Earth, and we draw our nourishment from it just as the plants and animals do. The rhythm of Earth life is so slow; autumn and winter are as essential to it as spring and summer, and rest is as essential as motion. To the child even more than to the man, it is necessary to preserve some contact with the ebb and flow of terrestrial life.”
If that isn’t sacred, what is?