Hidden People, Trolls and Elves in Iceland

Learn all about mythical creatures in Iceland and if Icelanders still believe in them

|July 7, 2020
Sigurður is a literary critic. He has worked as a university lecturer in literature, the artistic director of two professional theatres, director of the Icelandic Saga Centre, a TV host and a journalist. For the last three years, Sigurður has been working as a Driver Guide for Arctic Adventures. He is a bookworm who loves travel and travelers.

Supernatural and mythological beings are a big part of ancient beliefs about Icelandic nature. Icelandic folklore is rich with stories of these creatures and has been since the beginning of time. These tales were originally passed down in oral form from one generation to the next. They were then eventually collected and published. Many Icelanders still believe in these mystical beings. Read on to find out more about Iceland trolls, elves in Iceland, and the hidden people of Iceland!


The Main Categories of Mythical Beings in Iceland

Elf woman with a dog in the forest

Iceland’s fantasy creatures fall into four categories: (1) Trolls, (2) Hidden people, (3) Elves, (4) Other mythological creatures such as monsters, serpents, wurms, chimeras, nuggles, and more. We will skip the last – and least important - category.

There is no clear difference between Hidden People and Elves, so we’ll discuss them together in one category below.

That being said, Trolls and Hidden People/Elves are distinct entities. Trolls are the only ones who have corporeal bodies, meaning they exist in the flesh. The others only exist in the spirit. In other words, Trolls are invisible while the others are invisible. Trolls exceed human size, Hidden people and Elves are human size or smaller. Trolls can be huge, even several hundred feet tall.

Do Icelanders really believe in Trolls and Elves?

Elf girl

The vast majority of Icelanders say yes! Most at least believe in the Elves, according to official surveys and opinion polls. Locals are ready to tell you that this is not superstition but an empirical truth. Many even claim they have seen the Elves despite their invisibility or even communicated with them. Such people are known as “Elf whisperers.” 

Iceland Trolls

Trolls are giants. They live in rocks and cliffs and mountains, mostly up in the hinterlands of Iceland. They only dare to leave their abode in total darkness. Sunshine is fatal to them and turns them into rocks. If they escape that menace, however, they will live forever.

Troll statue at Geysir Centre in Iceland

Iceland trolls are known to be greedy and many like to eat human flesh, especially the flesh of disobedient children. They often capture people or lure them into their caves. They are capable of magical tricks and casting spells, but their problem is a lack of intelligence. In most cases captured humans easily manage to outsmart them and escape. However, in some legends Trolls can also be kind and reasonable. People are often generously rewarded if lending a hand to a Troll in trouble.

The most notable Icelandic Troll is the giantess Grýla. Her favourite food is naughty human children. Her husband is Leppalúði. He is quite useless except for in the sack, as they have birthed 13 sons, the famous Yule Lads.

Street Trolls in Iceland

The Yule Lad brothers hibernate or hide inside their cave for most of the year, but 13 days before Yule Tide, also known as Christmas, they stroll to the inhabited regions and visit every home in Iceland. Each has his own designated day with the last arriving on Christmas.

Traditionally the Yule Lads were thought to be mischievous creatures who came to harass people and rob them. This reputation lent them their descriptive names like Door-Slammer, Candle-stealer, etc. In the present day, however, they have inverted their role and taken up the charitable function of Santa Claus. Now, instead of stealing and teasing, they bring gifts to well-behaved kids. Badly-behaved kids instead get a raw potato. The absolute worst children are fed to the Yule Lads’ Troll mother, Grýla.

HIDDEN PEOPLE and other ELVES

Hidden People are human size and look and behave like humans. However, they are invisible to humans and live in wild nature. They are eternal and immortal.

The difference between the Hidden People and Elves is uncertain and there may be none at all. Traditional folklore and ancient fairy tales do not make a clear distinction. Often Elves are smaller, but even the size is not a clear guideline.

Elf Woman in the Forest

Hidden People, however, often seem to have more and closer interactions with humans than (other) Elves. Numerous stories recount how they frequently overstep or transcend the invisible border between the sphere of the human and ethereal race. They mingle and mess with people, for better or worse.

Hidden people – and (other) Elves – apparently have the gift of prognosticating. This means they can foresee harmful events that are yet to happen in the world of humans and therefore are able to forewarn them about upcoming tragedies. However, communicating these warnings can cause complications. Often the Hidden People have to transmit this vital information to people through their dreams or even by some sort of premonition or augury. For example, they might wake people up and make them leave their home before an avalanche, a landslide or deadly volcanic activity destroys their house.

Female Elves

But Hidden People and (other) Elves also possess a darker side. They can play all kinds of tricks and do all sorts of mischief to humans. They can even lure them into their secluded spiritual world with no hope of return. In these cases people disappear abruptly from the material world without a trace. There are myriad examples of these disappearances in Icelandic nature and mysterious disappearances are still blamed on the Hidden People in Iceland today.  

What’s the moral of the story?

Most folk- and fairytales in Iceland have one thing in common: their message. The moral of their story is always to remind humans that they must respect and protect nature.

Elf Houses in Iceland

The message is simple: If you respect nature, if you venerate Mother Nature, she will be on your side and come to your aid. If you disrespect nature, if you defy the Elements, they will rise up against you and overpower you. 

Do young Icelanders believe in Elves?

Icelandic tour guides like me are often asked whether we believe in Elves and other supernatural beings. My personal answer is that no, they don’t exist literally. That being said, I also don´t think they are an utter fabrication. Instead, I think they are personifications of the forces of living Nature. And as such, I DO BELIEVE in them and also believe that they are alive and kicking in Iceland today. 

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