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In Iceland, elves aren’t just Santa’s little helpers

A small earthen mound is decorated as an “elf house” near Strandakirkja in southern Iceland. An Icelandic group called the Hrauvinir claims that ancient elves of Iceland would be disturbed by the construction of a proposed highway. Photo by Christian Bickel/Wikipedia

You may have heard the word “elf” mentioned a lot this holiday season, whether in reference to Santa’s helpers or characters from the latest installment of “The Hobbit” movie franchise.

But in Iceland, where elves are part of the national folklore, the word “elf” has a more serious connotation. An Icelandic group called the Hrauvinir, or “Friends of the Lava,” have joined with environmentalists to seek an injunction from the country’s Supreme Court against a building project by the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission which was green-lit in September.

The government agency is trying to build a new highway from the Alftanes peninsula (where a property owned by the President of Iceland is located) to Gardabaer, a suburb of the capital city of Reykjavik.

In addition to arguments about the environmental impact of such a project, the Hrauvinir also claim that the road work will disturb the “Huldufolk” — or “hidden folk” — the ancient elves of Iceland.

The group also claims the area the new highway would run through is of particular importance because it contains an elf church.

A 2007 survey by the University of Iceland found that while only 8 percent of the population believe in elves, 54 percent would not actually deny their existence.

The belief in elves is widespread enough and the objections to road work projects that might disturb ancient elf habitats so frequent, that the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission has written a boilerplate, standard reply for any press inquiries on the subject, saying it will not answer questions on whether its “employees do or do not believe in elves and ‘hidden people’ because opinion differs greatly on this and it tends to be a rather personal matter.”

In an interview with the Associated Press, Terry Gunnell, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland who ran the 2007 survey, said that the stories of elves and otherworldly beings is part-and-parcel with landscape and natural forces of Iceland.

“This is a land where your house can be destroyed by something you can’t see (earthquakes), where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulfur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet, where the northern lights make the sky the biggest television screen in the world, and where hot springs and glaciers ‘talk,'” Gunnell said.

“In short, everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect.”

Andri Snaer Magnason, an Icelandic environmentalist also interviewed by the AP, said that while some people might think the elf controversy is “a bit annoying,” rationality is relative.

“I got married in a church with a god just as invisible as the elves,” she said. “So what might seem irrational is actually quite common [with Icelanders].”