Icelandic Elf-Curious Attitudes

Toni Demuro

In a world that is full of climate denial nonsense, where responsibilities to nature are abandoned by many, what harm could possibly come from Icelanders believing their own peculiar sort of nonsense? We will take any help we can get if it helps us and helps our protection of nature:

In “Looking for the Hidden Folk,” Nancy Marie Brown makes a strong case for everyday wonder.

For 70 summers, children have boated to an island in the Adirondack wilderness to seek out a cluster of tiny wooden houses and leave messages for the fairies who are said to live there. Sometimes the fairies write back — on slips of birch bark, tucked into the crevice of a log for children to find and exult over. The adult go-betweens behind the letters can’t resist feeding the children’s faith that the natural world reciprocates their interest.

Of course, they don’t believe in fairies themselves. In “Looking for the Hidden Folk,” the cultural historian Nancy Marie Brown asks: Why not? “Why should disbelief be our default? Why should we deride our sense of wonder? Why do we allow our world to be disenchanted?”

By “we,” the author means non-Icelanders: Depending on which poll you consult, anywhere from half to two-thirds of Icelandic grown-ups still believe in the huldufólk — hidden folk — commonly known as elves, who live in stone dwellings, visible only to one another and to those humans known as elf-seers.

A millennium ago, Brown writes, this belief was not confined to Iceland. But the spread of Christianity demonized elves, fairies, witches (derived from pagan goddesses) and other holdovers from earlier religions, and priests and ministers sought to stamp out their influence. Over time, secular forces also diminished the stature of sprites in the public imagination, transforming them from potent shape-shifters to mischievous specks, like Shakespeare’s fairy Queen Mab, who rides in a hazelnut shell, with a gnat for a coachman. By the time of the Salem witch trials, it was not safe to profess a belief in elves. Three hundred years on, it still isn’t — unless you live in Iceland.

Brown asks those who snicker at this national predilection to examine their own assumptions: “Are gravity and dark matter real? What do we mean when we say something is real?” These questions are not purely rhetorical. At a cultural moment when fantasy and physics continually conjure the multiverse, the medieval theory that there are “nine overlapping worlds, one being the home of the elves,” ought not to be ruled out, she suggests. When the first Icelandic sagas emerged in the 12th century, their interconnected stories of elves, warriors and mortals helped people find an organized logic to the hardships they endured in their rugged land. Lately, ethnographers have plotted the ancient tales onto a topographical map, and discovered that the elves “come across as embodiments of the landscape itself.” Or, as she explains, “Each folk tale gets a dot on the map.” Contrasting the belief systems of Norse mythology with the theories of Newton, Einstein and contemporary physicists who explain the universe through invisible phenomena, Brown argues that an elf-curious attitude is not “silly”: “It’s the physics of the 21st century.”…

Read the whole review here.

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