Secret Santa and Why We Don’t Mess with Elves

IMG_6257 (1)On my first day in Iceland, I rode the bus from the Keflavík airport to Reykjavík. Along the way, the bus driver mentioned several interesting places I should visit, as he pointed beyond the vast volcanic landscape that enveloped the main highway on either side. He said this was the site of a big construction controversy. He explained a road had been proposed to ease the commute from the Álftanes peninsula to Gardabaer, a suburb of Reykjavík. But the project was interrupted because a rock that was proposed to be move, was a home for elves. Now, I was doing quite well with this gentleman’s Polish accent, but I had to ask for confirmation, “Did you say elves?” “Yes, elves,” he replied. And that was my first exposure to the rich and colorful folklore of Iceland.

A month later, I was on a Reykjavík city tour and our tour guide kept mentioning areas of the city that were linked with the elves (again, with the elves). I have come to learn that elves, in fact, are a part of the Icelandic culture and are known to wreak havoc when disturbed. As a result, elf mitigation has now become a business in Iceland. For example, the builders of the Kárahnjukastífla dam in eastern Iceland hired an elf consultant. The clairvoyant consultant is used to act as a mediator between the Hundufólk (hidden people, as elves are known) and humans to prevent any problems when elfin homes or churches must be moved. This use of a clairvoyant stems from problems that have occurred in the past when elves were not considered.

In 2015, workers were called to clear mud on a highway caused by heavy rainfall. From the beginning, a series of unfortunate events plagued the project including work injuries, broken machinery, and further flooding as workers continued to remove mud from the road. It turns out, they were dumping mud onto a large rock in the vicinity known as the Elfin Lady Stone, or Álfkonusteinn. To some, these unfortunate events might be the result of dangers associated with construction projects, but for others, the incidents are a result of what happens when the human world collides with the elf world.

It seemed that during my first few months in Iceland, elves continued to pop up. So, I started searching the internet and learned about “Elf School”. What does one learn at Elf School? I had to find out! According to their website, elf school is where attendees can learn “everything that is known about elves and hidden people, as well as gnomes, dwarfs, fairies, trolls…and mythical beings in Iceland and in other countries.” The website also claims we will learn “about hundreds of Icelanders that have had personal contact with elves.” You are also enticed with the promise of a diploma and traditional Icelandic food for the low price of $64. Because I love acquiring certificates and I was exited to share elves on my blog, I would be happy to pay my tuition.

The school is in a business district a few kilometers east of downtown Reykjavík. As I walked to the main entrance, located at the top of a dark corridor, there was quite a bit of clutter spewing from the purple outline of the doorway. As I walked in, I took a quick scan of the room which appeared to look like the inside of someone’s house. In fact, the décor took me back, back to my grandmother’s house circa 1970’s. There were gnomes everywhere. As I proceeded through the dimly lit room, I noticed a large bearded gentleman sitting behind a counter. All I could think was “clutter”. Could this be the school? Was I in the right place? “You’re here for Elf School?” the man behind the counter asked. I quietly nodded still unconvinced I was in a school. As he collected my payment, the room was eerily quiet except for the humming of the credit card machine. I was handed my free book and told to take a seat while we wait for others to arrive. I entered a smaller room that contained two rows of chairs on either side of the room with a small table in the center. I squeezed through the rows of chairs taking a seat in back where I could quietly observe and take notes. Over the next 10 minutes people quietly trickled in. This did not look like a school. “Should I leave?” I thought. I could not make out the quiet murmurs, but I am pretty sure we were all noticing the cluttered walls donned with shelves containing various statues, pictures, and hints of elves. Maybe they wanted to leave, too. Altogether, the people quietly seated, the indifferent facial expressions, and the shifting eyes that contemplated why we are all here was reminiscent of waiting at a doctor’s office, dreading to hear the results of a test no one wants to take. I just did not get the sense that people were excited. Maybe it was shock and awe of being at a “school” that looked like we entered a time capsule; it even smelled like 1970, if that was possible. So, there we all sat quietly, waiting for the headmaster.

In all there were 12 attendees, a husband and wife team from public news radio in Germany, a U.S. couple from Arkansas, a student from the local university, four American tourists who were very happy to share their knowledge and interest in the supernatural, a couple of honeymooners, and myself. At last our headmaster arrived, wearing a large corduroy blazer draped over sweat pants. He claimed the classroom was upstairs, but we would all be more comfortable and intimate in this room; he probably spent too much time talking about the closeness of it all. It did not make me feel comfortable, quite the opposite, in fact. He started with pleasantries and welcomed everyone. Perhaps appealing to the majority of us who were American, he opened with his connection to Barrack Obama. The headmaster’s brother, a former member of the Icelandic Parliament, was asked by Obama if Icelanders believe in elves and does his brother really teach at elf school. This was the lead-in to Icelanders and their belief in elves-54%, in fact, believe in elves. But according to online reports, the 1998 poll showed 54.4% of respondents checked the box that they “do not deny the existence of elves”. In comparison, 8% said they believe in elves while 3% actually had an encounter; still quite a bit for a country of ~334,000 inhabitants (not including the elves). I think it’s time for another poll. The headmaster’s introduction went on for about 30 minutes and continued with Republican bashing, the trouble with American politics, etc. and it was apparent he was having a good time. The tone of the stories was slow and choppy. Maybe he was trying to create a dramatic tone using short sentences, followed by long dramatic pauses. During the pauses, it seemed the headmaster was elsewhere. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run. But I wanted to know what was coming next because I quickly realized there was a story to be had, not about elves, but about elf school. At some point I looked over to my Arkansas neighbors-he was asleep, she was playing games on her phone. I must admit, I was struggling to keep my eyes open. Throughout the next three hours, we repeatedly heard the statistics that 54.4% of Icelanders believe in elves and then he would tell a story to validate that statistic. In fact, he claimed, the reason he knows the stories are true is because each time he interviews people who have had run-ins with elves, they repeat the same story without changing details from year to year. He claimed, if people are lying, they will consistently change their stories. Sometimes, in between quiet pauses came completely off topic statements. “I should tell you I’m married, to a man”. “Do you know, schizophrenic people are clairvoyant? They are in two dimensions at the same time”. “By the way, did you notice the weather changes in Iceland”. More pauses, more short, choppy stories. Buddy, I think you are in another dimension, I thought. Things livened up a bit when a prop, I mean evidence, was passed around the group. It was a metal tea kettle, supposedly very, very old. It looked like the metal coffee pots used for camping. As it was passed to me, I looked for “Made in China” stamped into the bottom, but nothing and I mean nothing–no signs of use or wear, either. Other stories followed, mostly about lost children being saved by the elves during a snowstorm, an elf structure appearing and then disappearing. I wanted to know how others were feeling so during the 30-minute break, I asked a few people what they thought. I already knew how the four-supernatural fans felt because they were already making plans to meet with an elf clairvoyant. I could sense the Arkansas couple were quite angry- or maybe it was because they had to wake up for the break. I asked, “Is the school what you expected?” The response was quick, “NO! We thought it would be different because some of the reviews were good”. I meekly agreed but I was not disappointed with the experience because now I knew I had a story. The single woman (besides myself) was a student, she made it clear she was here to write an assignment for school, thwarting any ideas that she was here voluntarily. After break, the long, slow stories with intermittent pauses continued. “Hold on, you can make it”, I kept telling myself. As I mentally dozed away, I began to make a revelation. Now, from my point of view, the headmaster was sitting sideways so that I could see a complete, body profile. He looked so familiar; a white beard, wire-rimmed glasses, a big belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly when he laughed at his own jokes. “Santa?!” I thought, shifting in my seat, trying to hold back laughter. Hadn’t I heard Santa was king of the elves-or just an elf. He looks like Santa and he’s talking about elves! Does anyone else in the room notice this irony?

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Sometimes, the landscape looks dark and macabre, perfect habitat for trolls and other legends.

Before coming to elf school, there were several people who warned me to save my money. My reply was that I needed to learn about elves so that I can share elves on my blog and besides, I will get a free book out of it. What I did learn during that very slow, backward-step-in-time experience, was that the story was the school itself and its headmaster, not the elves. Unfortunately, the elves were overshadowed, both in the school and in this story I am writing. But I will eventually talk more about elves and their connection to the land and Icelandic people.

Today, as I read the experience of others at elf school in blogs or reviews online, their experiences and the tales they heard during their class, appear to be the same. I would expect the headmaster to tell new stories, as more people have run-ins with elves, but the stories seem to have not changed over the years. In the end I did not learn anything during the 3.5-hours I lost. I have learned more reading on the internet or reading the tales presented in Icelandic folklore books. At the end of class, the experience got even weirder when the headmaster proposed we all get naked and take a group picture. In all, the word naked was used three times. If you read online reviews and blogs, you will find this is a common theme, some inappropriate request followed by uncomfortable silence. In the end, we did not learn “everything about elves” or stories from “hundreds of people” as the website claimed. What I did get was a good laugh and an experience.

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The volcanic landscape around Lake Myvatn makes a great backdrop for Icelandic folktales.

 

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Dimmuborgir, featured in Game of Thrones, is said to be the home of the 13 Yule Lads who are another group deeply rooted in Icelandic folklore.

 

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Just another picture to demonstrate the enchantment of Iceland.

 

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Graduation

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