“It’s not that we believe in ghosts; it’s that we know they’re there.”
So said our Icelandic guide Hlíf after we visited Höfði, the site of the Reykjavík summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that marked the beginning of the end of the cold war, and which is said to be haunted by The White Lady. She repeated the phrase when discussing Icelanders’ belief in elves, a topic she broached with a tone of “here we go…”
Most tourists have heard about roads being diverted so as not to disturb the elves. Icelandic celebrities (that is, Björk) are probed by foreign journalists hoping for a link-bait headline. There’s also genuine curiosity: could anyone today really believe in hidden people? Are they quirking it up for the tourist industry?
Hlíf explained the persistence of elves in various ways. Respect for the old beliefs of their people who attempted to explain the world around them, no different from any religion or folklore, and which is now ingrained in their culture. A fiercely independent, isolated society who adopted Christianity by arbitration in 1000 AD on the condition that old customs would coexist. A way to anthropomorphize and therefore protect nature, in a land where the extreme beauty is so worth preserving and so often demands appeasing.
“If a loved one was depressed and disappeared, why not assume they found peace with the elves? If there’s an interesting rock formation and the road would destroy it, why not assume it’s an elf house and divert the road?” Hlíf asked.
When you see the vastness of space in this country, huge swaths of which are unpopulated, and where the second-biggest city would barely qualify as a town at home, there does seem no good reason not to divert the road. Just in case.
So much land. So few people.
But it was when we stopped at the endless, undulating lava field that caused the catastrophic mist hardships in the late 1700s that I half-expected to see hidden people darting among the shadowy crevices. The quaintness disappeared. They’re right.
Call it hidden people or geothermal activity, this land is alive.
Icelanders are tightly connected to the land in ways spiritual and practical. The ubiquitous sheep roaming freely are tonight’s dinner. Renewable energy provides nearly all of Iceland’s electricity.
Volcanic eruptions are common, some from familiar mountain-like stratovolcanos and some from the ground opening up, swallowing and spitting destruction and new life.
In 1973, inhabitants of Iceland’s Westman Islands were evacuated for months when their little island Heimaey erupted. The volcano threatened to destroy the harbour that was their life. Instead, when the lava flow stopped and cooled, it was sheltered and improved.
Iceland itself is growing by 5 cm per year as the two tectonic plates that meet in Þingvellir drift apart.
Those lava fields so alive with moss and elves blanket large swaths of the country. Some are vivid green where moisture helps the moss thrive, some peppered with waterfalls. Some are cracked black moonscapes where it seems nothing could survive, yet a lone farm occasionally appears in the distance, dwarfed by the hills above.
The Blue Lagoon might be glamming it up for tourists but natural hot springs and pools are the vital centre of Icelandic towns. Steaming sulfur flats bubble with flatulent mud, geysers erupt predictably as though the earth is breathing water.
In Iceland, nature has anthropomorphized herself. Icelanders follow her lead.