Elves, Spirits and Trolls in Iceland
Updated: Apr 12
Icelandic people have a strong oral tradition of telling folklore stories and tales. It is something every Icelander has grown up with. And they in turn whisper hushed bedtime fairy tales of the ‘hidden people’ to their own children. Iceland’s magical landscapes hold all sorts of secrets. Folklore tales connected to the land are a source of endless interest and intrigue. Mountains, volcanic sea stacks, bubbling mud pots and geysers all have a story to tell.
Elves and trolls in particular are especially present in the lives of Icelandic people. In this article, we’ll explore some of the stories of the elves in Iceland. Including their surprising impact on the built environment. We will also take a whistle-stop tour around some of the current homes of the better-known trolls in Iceland.
Elves and Hidden People
Aside from elves, there is a radically different belief in Iceland, that we may not have heard in other countries. "The hidden people." or "Huldufolk" in Iceland is a tradition that derives directly from the Viking era. The name comes from "Huldu" "secret or hidden" and "Folk" "people". This descriptive name already hints that it has nothing to do with Santa Klaus' helpers or mischievous Irish elves. For Icelanders, there is another type of creature that is more of a kind of miniature human that dwells and lives among us.
Still, not everyone can see them. It is they who get to decide who can see them and who cannot. Elves often dwell in rocks, they plant grain, raise livestock, love fishing, among many other things. Unlike other folklore, the Hudulfolks are not immortal, but they do have a much longer lifespan than the average human being.
Elves, on the other hand, are rather humanoid, smaller in size, and probably much more like the idea we have in other countries of what an elf is.
Do elves exist in Iceland?
Of all the mythical creatures in Iceland, The Hidden People are the most respected. In fact, mythical is probably the wrong word to use here. For many people, these elven folk are very real. Although we can’t see them as such they are often sensed. In fact, few Icelandic people would be willing to deny that they exist.
In a 2007 study by the University of Iceland 80% of those surveyed refused to deny that elves are real. Some people are in fact dedicated fans of elves. To such an extent that they will construct perfect miniature houses for them to come and live in.
Elves and the built environment
Stories of elves disrupting construction projects are also commonplace. This will only happen if an Iceland road-building project unwittingly strays into an elfish enclave or territory. Icelandic elves are very territorial folk and they don’t like their boundaries crossed. They will mount an unforgiving campaign on any road crew that infringes on their homes. This manifests in an uncanny series of mishaps, accidents, and set backs for the crew and their project.
There was an instance of this happening back in 2015 around the Gálgahraun lava field. In the end, the road crew had to call in an elf expert to run tests. They located the borders of the enclave and the project was redirected. After that, all went smoothly. The moral of the story is to be careful where you build in the wild places of Iceland.
The Icelandic Troll
The Icelandic word troll comes from the verb „Trylla” which has two meanings. The first one is to make someone go crazy, and the second to charm someone. The word was initially reserved for evil spirits, but it soon became useful to name those beings we all know as trolls. Do not mistake them with elves as there is a massive difference between trolls and elves.
Trolls resemble humans but in a much bigger and more robust version. Elves, however, at least in the Scandinavian mythology, were seen as gorgeous girls who lived with their elve king in the woods. They have a long life span, and they are easygoing by nature. We know that this is not the case with the Icelandic trolls. The stories about elves have been in Iceland for centuries. Even though a vast part of the Icelandic society is not willing to admit they believe in them, it is at the same time hard for them to say they don’t. This is probably to keep a gate open in case they really do exist.
Among the most important Icelandic trolls names, we can distinguish two based on their type. Males are called jotunn, Risi, or Thun. And on the other hand, women are called Gygur and Skessa. Icelandic troll folklore is rich in legends and stories about those giants, greedy, but wise creatures. They used to live in the mountains and hide them to only come up down for food. The best known in the Icelandic troll folklore is, of course, Gryla, the mother of the thirteen Santas already mentioned above. If you really wish to see some, but you are still somewhat scared, go to the South Coast of Iceland. There, few of them were turned into stone, and you can now see them as the Reynisdragnar rock formation.
The best-known trolls in Iceland
Trolls are known to be quite a bit sillier than the elves. They can be bumbling and quite dumb. They also have quick tempers and will put curses on people if they do something wrong. There are some very mean trolls indeed and the best-known one in the history of Iceland is certainly Gryla.
She is the mother of 13 Yule Lads who are a type of Santa Claus (more on that later!). In Icelandic folklore, Gryla is known to eat children! Quite an unsettling troll indeed and the reason why most children behave well in December.
Trolls thrive in rocky and mountainous terrain around craggy outcrops and lava fields. Many trolls lived in the remote mountains of the island and came down to forage for food. An important thing to know about trolls in that they are nocturnal beasts. They can only go out at night when the sky is dark. If they are caught out and about during the day then they will turn to stone. This fact explains why there are so many unusual rock formations in Iceland. It is nothing to do with volcanoes and erosion of course! The sea stacks, craggy outcrops and river boulders you see all over Iceland are actually careless trolls.
The famous Iceland trolls at Reynisfjara Beach
Some of the most visited trolls in Iceland are almost certainly the ones at Reynisfjara Beach. This is Iceland’s famous black sand beach that lies just outside the town of Vik in southeast Iceland. It's an amazing-looking place to go with your motorhome rental, with high basalt cliffs and a huge swathe of black sand. The wild North Atlantic Ocean batters the coastline here and stormy seas and moody skies are the norm. Out in the bay stand three dark rocky sea stacks.
May we present to you the famous trolls of Reynisfjara! Folklore tells that the trolls were busy trying to drag a three-mast ship into the bay. They were distracted by the effort and didn’t realize the time. The sun came up and the trolls were caught out in the open and turned to stone.
If you are visiting Iceland for more than a few days you should take a trip along Iceland's South Coast. There is a wealth of sights to see along this route and it is perfect for a self-drive road trip. Hire a camper van or motorhome and make an adventure out of it. The culmination of the trip can be a stroll along this incredible beach.
Icelandic Christmas folklore - The Yule Lads
We mentioned these cheeky Santa Clauses before. The Yule Lads come out to play and sometimes create mischief every Christmas season. They all have characterful names such as door-slammer or bowl-licker. In the past, they used to live up to their names and try to scare or prank people.
Nowadays they are mellower creatures and will reward good children with treats all through the Christmas season. They are joined in Christmas tales by their mean troll parents and their fat Christmas Cat. All three are hungry for naughty children! So watch out if you visit Iceland at this time of year. Children especially should be on their best behavior.
Iceland mythology - Giants, spirits and other tall tales
Along with elves and trolls, all sorts of other magical creatures roam around Iceland. Take the Land Wights from the traditional Icelandic Sagas for example. These are land spirits that have long protected Iceland from the perils of the oceans. Whether that be supernatural storms or fierce whale-wizards. There are fiery dragons, powerful griffin, and mighty giants too. As well as ghouls and ghosts that haunt caves and caverns.
It is not all-mighty battles and drama though. Over in the Reykjanes Peninsula, there is a sea pool where giants are said to bathe. So from high drama to the mundane, the magical creatures of Iceland are woven into all aspects of life here.
Folk Tales and their place in Iceland
Folk tales and stories of elves are very much woven into the fabric of Iceland. They are a big part of what connects the Icelandic people to their land. It is no coincidence that these tales often center around the incredible natural phenomena of Iceland. In turn, the Icelandic people gain a profound connection to the natural world from an early age. These tales nurture a deep respect for nature. And the Icelandic people are fiercely proud of their wild places with a desire to protect and preserve them.