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Science is My Specialty Presents: Anita Brook Dupree
ELVES AS ENVIRONMENTALISTS IN ICELAND
by Anita Brook Dupree
(Director of Operations for GreenTreks Network and Science Education Expert for Science is My Specialty recently travelled to Iceland. This is the first in a series of blogs about the trip.
In the next few weeks we will see images of cartoon like elves everywhere here in America. It will be unavoidable. They will appear in print and TV ads, in movies, and in the theater in productions such as the musical Elf. They will appear on holiday cards and wrapping paper, and there might even be elf impersonators at your local department store, hanging out with Santa. If you think elves are big here in the United States, you must visit Iceland and ask any Icelander about them. The American elf that we see this time of year is very different from how people in Iceland depict them. They describe them as looking and living like humans, with houses and churches, and whole societies with cattle and farms often inside rocks and cliffs. Icelandic elves have magical powers and can be nice or mean, depending on the situation. They are known to be mischievous and if something goes missing, Icelandic people often blame the elves.
On my trip to Iceland I asked my tour guide about the elves that are reported to be living there. He explained that while many people don’t truly believe they exist, they do feel there is a place for them in Icelandic society. Icelandic parents tell their children stories about elves. Recent studies report that about 10% of the Icelandic population believes that elves exist and about 80 % “take notice” (and about 10% are staunch non believers). However you look at the numbers, the stories about elves are part of Icelandic society.
Academics that study the folklore of Iceland have come up with a few theories as to why elves have such a place in Iceland. They say that when the Vikings arrived in Iceland over 1000 years ago there were no indigenous populations there. All Icelanders are descendants of Vikings (and the Scotch and Irish) who settled the land. In order not to feel so isolated, the settlers believed that elves (and trolls—giants) inhabited the island. It is not hard to image the Huldufolk (hidden people as they call them) darting around in the lava fields. The rock formations, the shadows at dawn and dusk and the desolate isolation can make natural landforms look like human forms. There is an eeriness to the landscape in Iceland that is conducive to a vivid imagination.
The folklore associated with elves lives on and probably one of the most important roles that the elves take on is that of environmentalists. Iceland is a country of true beauty. It is unmarred by advertising signs, population growth and careless industrial development. Most of the country is still pure and pristine, with most of the population living in the capital city of Reykjavik. The Icelandic people place a high priority on environmental issues. They do not like to disturb nature for unnecessary reasons, and often the stories about elves represent a special connection to the environment and natural landscape that is otherwise difficult to explain. Iceland is a land of volcanoes, lava flows, high winds, glacier movement and shaking ground from earthquakes. The people have to give in to and embrace nature.
The strong belief of the possibility of elves actually works in favor of the environment. In a town about 10 minutes drive outside of the capital, a group of people from a civic organization called “Friends of the Lava” met with the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration and members of the governing board of the municipality of Garðabær. They met to discuss a new road development that would cut through the landscape to install a traffic circle and provide a more direct route from town to the tip of the peninsula. The “Friends of the Lava” protested the road development because it would destroy “amazingly beautiful lava formations” and spoil a habitat where birds flock and small plants flourish. Others said the road “will displace certain supernatural forces that dwell within the hallowed volcanic rubble, and fear the potentially dark consequences that come with such a disturbance.” They believed that elves live there and it is not a good idea to disturb their home. Some people say that if a road development is truly necessary then the elves don’t mind. But if it is not, that is when problems can occur. As of October 30, 2013 the new section of road was not built. The local council is still deliberating and the issue is going to a high court.
No matter how you view the story of elves in Iceland—fiction, fantasy or a story to tell your children to perpetuate the culture-- the stories behind the elves significantly contribute to how people in Iceland care for the environment. They do not want to take the chance of upsetting the elves, so they take preservation of the environment seriously.
There seems no reason to begrudge the Icelanders in their elf-belief. It doesn't seem to be hurting anyone and it certainly is interesting!
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