Sunday, 2 November 2014

Legend from the Land of Ice and Fire - Part Two - The Huldufolk and Alfar Elves

The Huldufolk, Huldra Folk or Huldre Folk (Hidden Folk) are Scandinavian elves and fairies.  According to Icelandic folklore, they date back to biblical times and to the children of Adam and Eve.  Below is the story of their origin.

     Once upon a time, God Almighty came to visit Adam and Eve.  They received him with joy and showed him everything they had in the house.  They also brought their children to him, to show him, and these He found promising and full or hope.
     Then he asked Eve whether she had no other children that these whom she now showed him.
     She said, 'None.'
     But it so happened that she had not finished washing them all, and, being ashamed to let God see them dirty, had hidden the unwashed ones.   This God knew well, and said therefore to her, 'What man hides from God, God will hide from man.'
     These unwashed children became forthwith invisible, and took up their abode in mounds, and hills, and rocks.  From these are the elves descended, but we men from those of Eve's children whom she had openly and frankly shown to God.  And it is only by the will and desire of the elves themselves that men can ever see them.

The Brother's Grimm related their own variation of this tale where Eve showed only her beautiful children to God and hid the ugly children away.  God tells they beautiful children that they will be kings and princes.  Seeing God's generosity, Eve produces the ugly children - but God, by this point, was not feeling so benevolent.  He told the ugly children that they were destined to become peasants, servants and scullions.

Other folklore tells us that the huldufolk are no more than spirits fallen from heaven during the war between god and the devil.  Here is a tale to portray that opinion.

     A traveller once lost his way, and knew not whither to turn or what to do.  At last, after wandering about for some time, he came to a hut, which he had never seen before; and on his knocking at the door an old woman opened it, and invited him to come in, which he gladly did.
     Inside, the house seemed to be a clean and good one.  The old woman led him to the warmest room, where were sitting two young and beautiful girls.  Besides these, no one else was in the house.  He was well received and kindly treated, and having eaten a good supper was shown to bed.
     He asked whether one of the girls might stay with him, as his companion for the night, and his request was granted.
     And now wishing to kiss her, the traveller turned towards her, and placed his hand upon her; but his hand sank through her, as if she had been of mist, and though he could well see her tying beside him, he could grasp nothing but the air.
      So he asked what this all meant, and she said, 'Be not astonished, for I am a spirit.  When the devil, in times gone by, made war in heaven, he, with all his armies, was driven into outer darkness.  Those who turned their eyes to look after him as he fell were also driven out of heave, but those who were neither for nor against him were sent to the earth and commanded to dwell there in the rocks and mountains.
     These are called elves and hidden people.  They can live in company with none but their own race.  They do either good or evil, which they will, but what they do they do thoroughly.  They have no bodies as you other mortals, but can take a human form and be seen of men when they wish.  I am one of these fallen spirits, and so you can never hope to embrace me.'
     To this fate the traveller yielded himself, and has handed down to us this story.

 The elves of Iceland correspond closely with British fairies, with many of the same stories being told in Britain as in Iceland.  In Iceland, however, they differ in that they are always of full human size and can often only be distinguish by some minor detail - a ridge instead of a groove in the top lip, or the absence of a division between the nostrils.  Their society is often an idealised version of human society.  They live inside mountains or hills, or even invisible farmsteads, living off the land.  They go to market, hold religious services and sometimes are said to have a king.

Their attitudes towards humans varies.  In some cases they are kidnappers, bringers of sickness, cruel and vengeful, and in others they are benevolent and kind, rewarding goodness and courage, protecting and helping their human friends, and punish only those who are undeserving of their kindness.  In some tales they are portrayed as heathens which fear the name of God, and in others they have their own religion, priests, services, sacraments and hymns which seem to closely correspond with Christianity.  Below is a tale which shows how people craved the help of the huldufolk whilst still fearing their involvement.

Who Built the Reynir Church?
     A farmer who once lived at Reynir, in the district of Myrdal, had been ordered by the bishop to build a church near his farmhouse.  However, he was having much difficulty in getting enough timber before the hay making season and in finding proper builders to do the work.  The farmer worried that he would be unable to complete the church before the winter.
     One day, as he walked through his field, sadly thinking the matter over and wondering how to explain this predicament to the bishop, a strange man stopped before him and offered his services in building the church.  He declared that he would complete the work alone and had no need of other workmen.  The farmer asked the strange man what payment he would require for his services.  The man made the following condition - the farmer should either discover the name of this stranger before the work was done, or give the man his six year old son.  The farmer found these terms acceptable and consented to the,
     So the strange man set to work building the church.  He was a good worker, barely speaking to anyone as he worked, until the church rose beneath his hands as if by magic.  The farmer could see that the work would be finished even before the hay making was over.
     However, by this time the farmer had changed his mind about the payment which he'd previously thought to be so easy.  He felt far from happy that the church building was almost finished because no matter who he asked, no matter where he searched, no matter how hard he tried, he simply could not discover the name of this unusually quick handed mason.  Despite his anxieties, the church continued to rise and, by the time autumn arrived, the church needed very little labour to finish it.
     On the last day of work, the farmer was yet again wandering his field, already grieving over the loss of his son, when he came to a mound.  Here he threw himself down and lay for a moment when he heard someone singing.  He listened and found that it was a mother singing to her child.  The singing came from within the mound and this is what it said:
             Soon will thy father Finnur come from Reynir,
             Bringing a little playmate for thee, here.
     The words were repeated over and over again, and it didn't take long for the farmer to discern their meaning.  He ran back to where the strange man was nailing the last plank over the altar.
     'Well done, friend Finnur!' he said.  'How soon you have finished your work!'  No sooner had the words passed his lips than Finnur, letting the plank fall from his hand, vanished into thin air, never to be seen again.

While they made their first appearances, usually in some distorted form, in medieval sagas, the hidden folk became common knowledge in the 16th century and, after around 1600, the mention of elves became more frequent.

There does seem to be some confusion in Icelandic folklore between the huldufolk and alfar.  Some believe that these two terms refer to just one type of mythical being.  Others, however, claim that they are two separate entities, with the common rule of thumb being that the huldufolk drink coffee and eat bread because they're closely related to humans, where the alfar do not.

The alfar were said to construct small stone houses in remote areas of Iceland, which the local people called alfhol, which roughly translates to elf houses.  Here they were said to live side by side with Icelanders, enjoying a close relationship with them.  The alfar were closely connected with fertility and are believed to have fathered a number of children with Icelandic women.  It is also claimed that they were skilled at growing all manner of things and were excellent with horticulture.  The alfar observed many Pagan traditions, including festivals and dances.  This brought them into conflict with the Christian Church as it spread across Iceland during the 11th and 12th centuries. 

There was a general opposition to dancing in Iceland during the late 12th century, especially during ancient festivals.  This oppositions was largely inspired by the Church, who saw dancing as anti-religious and the huldufolk and alfar as secretive and sinister Pagans.  A number of tales relate how the huldufolk and alfar joined forces with local communities to oppose this ban on dancing and to restore the old festivals.  The Church took a dim view on this kind of action and decreed that the huldufolk and alfar should be driven away from civilisation.  However, these tales of the huldufolk aiding various communities can be seen going into the 15th century, with one such tale relating how the huldufolk aid a village in overthrowing a harsh sheriff who had placed a ban on both dancing and festivals.

But relations between the Hidden Folk and humans were not always so good.  While there were many nights when the huldufolk congregated - especially during winter - or 'thick nights - when the sky remained dark even during the day, there were four human festivals which were very special to them.  These were Christmas, Twelfth Night (January 6th, New Year's Eve and Midsummer.  Their behaviour during these festivals left much to be desired.  They became boisterous and troublesome, often causing damage and injuring humans.  They broke into houses, attacking those that lived there, and held parties which many claim were of a sexual nature, with young girls being raped or otherwise attacked.  Some claimed that, if the huldufolk were provoked on these nights they might even go as far as to kill. 

For the 13th century onwards, the huldufolk were betrayed in a less than flattering light, with emphasis often being placed on their misdeeds and evil nature.  Their appearance became misshapen and demonic, and their attitudes became more malignant and anti-human.

Today, Icelandic people still tread carefully around the Huldufolk.  Building projects are still impacted by these hidden people, as in December 2013, when elf advocates joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon the building of  a new road for fear of disturbing the elves.  They claimed that the area also contained an elf church.  The project was halted to await the decision of the Supreme Court.  In fact, polls consistently show that the majority of the population of Iceland either openly believe in elves or are unwilling to deny their existence.  Even today, hidden folk and elves greatly influence the Icelandic people, who even build little houses for the elves and huldufolk to live in.

For those that want a deeper understanding of the the elves of Iceland, there's always Elf School.  Known as Álfaskólinn in Icelandic, this school teaches both students and visitors about Icelandic folklore, with focus of the hidden people and the 13 different kinds of elves that the school believes inhabit the Icelandic landscape.  According to the school's headmaster, hidden people 'are just the same size and look exactly like human beings, the only difference is that they are invisible to most of us.  Elves, on the other hand, aren't entirely human, they're humanoid, starting at around eight centimetres.'  For further information about the school, please visit their website here.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this.  Next time we will look at the four Guardians of Iceland.  


The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies by Anna Franklin
Dark Fairies by Bob Curran
Icelandic Folktales and Legends by Jacqueline Simpson


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