Ashley Joseph explores Iceland’s rich mythology of elves, trolls and ghosts under the midnight sun.
I’m standing on a ledge at the end of Víðgelmir cave, a nearly 1,600-metre-long lava tube just under two hours by car from Reykjavík in West Iceland’s Hallmundarhraun lava field. Above ground it’s summer, a time when the sun hardly sets in this part of the world, but down here it feels like winter and it’s pitch-black. The tour guide leading our excursion instructs us to turn off our headlamps, the only source of light. “Now let your eyes adjust,” he says. “You’ve probably never experienced complete darkness before, and your brain may start doing some weird things.” While my pupils acclimate to the blackness (I’m starting to see faint lightlike formations), he tells us about Iceland’s Huldufólk (“Hidden People”)—a ghost story of sorts.
In this tiny country inhabited by fewer than 350,000, the stories about the Huldufólk are more than just folk tales and could date as far back as the Viking period, when scholars first found mention of the word alfar (“elf”). These elusive beings are believed to be abnormally beautiful, ranging in height from several centimetres to a few metres, and reside in an invisible dimension in the cracks of rocks, caves and mountainsides—and among Icelanders, this belief is widely held. According to a 2017 poll carried out by local magazine The Reykjavík Grapevine, 67 per cent of respondents said they believe in elves, while a 1998 survey found 54 per cent of the population to be believers. Back in 1982, some 150 activists marched on NATO’s Keflavík base in search of elves thought to be endangered by the military operations.
There’s a sense of exhilaration that comes with being in a place on the verge of combustion.
According to folklore, the Huldufólk are neither good nor evil and keep mortals in line, exercising their power to reward good behaviour and punish malice while encouraging the preservation of Iceland’s many natural wonders. Passed on through generations, these tales impart a kind of moral code to life here and figure as prominently in the naming of landmarks and geographical features as the Western world’s saints and statesmen. The Snaefellsnes Peninsula, at the western tip of the country—known for its goldand pink-sand beaches—honours half-troll half-man Bárður Snaefellsás, who is said to live in the Snaefellsnesjökull glacier and serve as the area’s protector. You wouldn’t want to incur his wrath by building, say, a condo project atop this nature reserve.
Iceland is located on a hot spot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The surface of the earth beneath this Nordic nation is unusually thin, which is the catalyst behind its geothermal activity and the geothermal energy that has been helping power it since the 1930s. It’s this energy that allows the country to remain largely self-sufficient, and it has a burgeoning agriculture industry. Iceland is actually home to Europe’s largest banana plantation, which puts that geothermal energy to use heating greenhouses. Plans to share the wealth of clean energy are already in the works, in the form of a power interconnector between Iceland and the United Kingdom. At 1,000 kilometres, it will be the longest the world has ever seen.
There’s a sense of exhilaration that comes with being in a place on the verge of combustion, with countless hot springs bubbling up everywhere and a somewhat apocalyptic landscape of lava fields and scorched earth. The midnight sun casts this already otherworldly place in a surreal light from late May until July: A walk home from dinner under pale blue skies at 11:30 in the evening becomes anything but ordinary, while spotting white-beaked dolphins dancing out of the water on a nighttime whale watching excursion is almost too magical to be believed.
Even underground, there’s a whole world to discover, with networks of lava caves carved violently through the earth, the scar of volcanic fury. As I climb up out of Víðgelmir into the sprawling lava field, the warm air envelops me and thaws out my extremities; I might as well be on another planet. On the drive back to Reykjavík, our tour bus makes a final stop, at Barnafoss waterfall. Travel is all about escape—from work, from monotony, from reality— and natural wonders are the ultimate antidote to anxiety. No, your negative thought processes won’t reverse as you peer at a peaceful waterfall, but watching milky glacier water rushing over lava rocks just might melt your worries away.
ICELAND EXPERIENCES A MIDNIGHT SUN FROM LATE MAY UNTIL JULY.
INSIDE A LAVA TUBE; BELOW, BARNAFOSS WATERFALL