According to the old folk stories, the Icelandic population had a curious relationship with the elves or hidden people [terms that are used interchangeably in Icelandic and mean the same thing]. The hidden folk were, obviously, hidden [read: invisible] to humans, yet they could see the humans without any difficulty. Which is kind of unsettling when you think about it.
The thing about the elves was that they decided when they wanted to be seen. Generally this only happened if they needed something. Hidden women, for example, had trouble giving birth with alarming frequency, and in those instances they needed the assistance of mortal women, who helped them to give birth simply by laying hands on them.
When hidden people did decide to appear to humans they usually did so in dreams. If the humans agreed to come away and help the elves they were usually amply rewarded, leading an auspicious, prosperous life from then on. If they refused to help, or pissed off an elf in some way, WOE to them because there would be no end of trouble in their lives.
Many scholars believe that folk stories were the anti-depressants of the day. Stories of elves and hidden people allowed people to escape into a fantasy world that existed parallel to their own, where there was order and prosperity and where the [hidden] people had some power over their own destinies.
Humans projected their deepest desires and longings onto the hidden people. The ubiquitousness of the elf women’s birth trouble, for instance, was likely a reflection of what happened in the human world, where women routinely died in childbirth. No doubt they longed for a world where this did not need to happen – where people came to your aid, like they did in the world of the hidden people. Imagining such a world, so close to their own, likely provided comfort during times of grief and adversity.
To be fair, stories of elves exist where the women die in childbirth because the human refuses to help. As I mentioned, the wrath of the elves comes down on the humans in such cases, and their lives are made miserable from then on. I believe that this story construction was the humans’ way of coping with their own feeling of powerlessness. They could identify with the elves, who like the humans were filled with grief and a desire to lash out at someone – anyone – whom they deemed responsible. However, in contrast to the elves, the humans could only accept their fate. The elves had an outlet for their anger – just like the humans desperately wanted to have.
I could go on drawing parallels like this. There are many, many. But the bottom line is that, examined in this context, the Icelanders’ elf belief is far more profound than simply the stories of strange beings who allegedly still dictate the conduct of the human population, just for the hell of it.
All of this is discussed at length in my Little Book of the Hidden People, available here.
[Painting by Þrándur Þórarinsson, found here.]