Welcome to our new series In Focus, where we take a deeper look behind the headlines and stories that have left us intrigued. In today’s piece, we head to Iceland – home to Netflix hit Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – to uncover a nation’s love affair with a fairytale.
Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir can still recall the moment she saw a furious elf taking on a construction team who were trying to demolish its home.
‘His aura was horrible,’ she says, shaking her head. ‘He was so angry. It was like black and furiously red, you know, like a cartoon and he was destroying big concrete walls that are not breakable.’
What had caused the elf such strong upset, explains Ragnhildur (who goes by the name of Ragga), was the attempted removal of the tree he lived in to make way for a home extension. ‘He was damaging machines – one builder even lost a little part of his finger,’ she adds.
Although neither the construction workers or homeowners ever actually saw any of this, they had an inkling of what might be behind such chaos and requested Ragga’s expertise.
That’s because Ragga, a 60-year-old who lives in the countryside outside of Reykjavik, is known internationally as the Elf Whisperer.
Sounds a bit… Silly? Childish? Delusional? Maybe. But in Iceland, calling on someone like Ragga for elf support is not as rare as one might think. In fact, local reports of elves are pretty common, while a massive 62% of Icelanders believe they are more than just a fairytale.
One family in the northern town of Sauðárkrókur claim that an elf named Rosa protects their home after they escaped any damage during a catastrophic avalanche in 2012. Despite the Iceland Met Office avalanche department declaring their street in high danger of a recurrence and advising against people building in the area – which has seen many residents moved away – the Johannson family insist they sleep soundly and without fear thanks to their spirit friend.
Meanwhile, another elf was said to be hellbent on reeking revenge in 2015 after roadworks in the town of Siglufjörður accidentally covered a rock, thought to be its home, in soil.
From unexpected mudslides to random broken machinery, the area was hit with a string of disasters – until council chiefs realised what had happened and the stone was dug up. After that, order was restored.
Even an Icelandic MP spoke out about his belief that an elf family saved his life after he nearly died in a car accident a decade ago.
But while elves have been woven into the country’s rich history for centuries, their existence – or the belief of it – only recently became mainstream global fodder following the June release of Netflix film, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
The movie, starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as the unlikely Icelandic entry into the annual song contest, heavily features elf folklore as part of the storyline, giving insight into the level of their supposed influence – McAdams’ character leaves gifts in the hope they will help her get into the contest – and the powers they wield: from exploding boats to stabbings.
For the people of Iceland, this nod to their traditions and beliefs has been welcomed, with plans already being made to build a replica of the movie’s elf-house in the town where it was filmed.
What makes this elf-obsession all the more astonishing is the fact that elves and other such beings are said to be invisible to most humans – apart from those rare people who possess the gift of ‘sight’. Like Ragga.
As one of these ‘seers’, she has taken on the position as a spokesperson for the elves at their request, after she helped them previously during the Lava Field anti-construction protests in 2013, representing their interests to the rest of humanity.
And that’s exactly what she did in the case of the angry elf whose home was about to be destroyed.
Within days of the desperate homeowners calling Ragga to help deal with their endless building woes, they suddenly stopped. Why? Ragga talked the elf down from his rage with the promise of a new ‘rock’ home nearby, she claims.
While many imagine the appearance of elves to take shape as those seen in books, movies and video games, Ragga says that in reality, they’re quite different. ‘The most famous elf is probably Tinkerbell. A lot of people imagine all elves kind of like that. But they aren’t, they can also look like small trolls! So, a very big nose and big ears and deep lines in the face.’
But it’s not just elves that present themselves to Ragga. She says she can see hidden folk (huldufòlk in Icelandic), fairies, trolls, and angels – all existing in a realm just beyond most people’s sight.
While each being is different, Ragga explains that Huldufòlk resemble humans most – but with one difference. ‘There is always this beauty about them,’ she says. ‘I’ve been trying to find out why, but I think it’s because they don’t have the materialistic greed that we humans have.’
As she speaks, Ragga begins to describe several beings currently in her sight.
‘I’m looking across a fjord,’ she says, her eyes drifting to the right and her arms gesturing peacefully at the mountains through her window.
Her long, grey hair is in a plait, and it gently swings over her shoulder as she speaks about the Mountain Devas she can see on the peaks in the distance.
‘They’re huge. Like guardian angels of the area, they are constantly sending and transmitting energy between each other all over the place, it’s like a net of light all over the world.’ Ragga delicately gestures outwards with her hands, mimicking the movements of the beings only she could see.
Of course, the Elf Whisperer adds, she is more than aware that these tales may seem unbelievable to many.
‘People say “what is she smoking” or “she should see a doctor”,’ says Ragga, with a resigned look on her face. ‘But that’s okay. That’s sometimes the last defense you use before seeing something.’
She doesn’t try and convince non-believers, though. ‘That’s not my mission,’ she says. ‘Sometimes they don’t have to believe, but they can enjoy the magic feeling and enjoy the stories of the elves even so.’
While she’s adamant she’s seen these creatures for her whole life, Ragga remembers a time when she pretended she couldn’t – and even took herself to a psychiatrist for help.
‘I said if I’m sick, I just want help,’ she recalls.
However, it turned out that Ragga’s psychiatrist was one of two researchers in the country working on a study into Icelandic elves. ‘He told me that they’d discovered that 30% of the nation could see beings so well that they could describe them very accurately,’ she recalls. ‘He said it just wasn’t possible for so many people to simply be mentally ill.’
The University of Iceland also has research that partially supports such claims.
In one 1974 survey, 17% of respondents reported seeing or experiencing Icelandic ‘supernatural’ beings called fylgja – a being similar to a witch’s familiar, in popular culture, while 5% claimed to have seen elves or huldufòlk. These results were replicated in 2007, 33 years later.
Sigurbjörg Karlsdottir, is a guide who runs walking tours in Iceland’s elf capital, Hafnarfjördur, a harbour town just outside Reykjavík. She says her father possessed special insight, too.
‘He was a psychic kid,’ she explains. ‘His brothers and sisters used to say that at times, it was very difficult to go places or to buy milk from the shop because he would see all kinds of things on the way.’
Though Sigurbjörg is not a seer herself, she’s a firm believer. So much so, her job is to take people to one of Iceland’s largest colonies of elves, dwarves and other spiritual beings, which is situated in the rocks and hills that are part of Hafnarfjördur’s town centre. She also accompanies visitors as they explore Hellisgerdi Park and the base of a cliff called Hamarinn, where it is said the Royal Family of the Hidden Folk lives.
But while such folklore is hundreds of years old, it’s still fiercely protected in the 21st century. Less than a decade ago laws were made noting that all places reputed for magic or connected to folk stories, customs or notational beliefs should be protected for their cultural heritage.
But while the rest of the world might smirk at such whimsy, what is it about Icelanders that makes the belief in elves so common?
‘These beliefs continue to exist here partly because of the fact that the church has never worked very hard to eradicate them and because of how late urban life came to Iceland,’ explains Terry Gunnell, Professor in Folklore and Ethnology at the University of Iceland.
Ragga and Sigurbjörg also have their theories.
Sigurbjörg says these stories and legends are part of the fabric of life in Iceland. The elves are in bedtime tales and novels; they are even used in schools, she explains.
For Ragga, it’s the unpredictable environment of Iceland that makes the belief in elves so common. Iceland is a country where up to 80% of the land is uninhabited – where unpredictable volcanoes, vast fjords, and pastel-blue glaciers dominate the land instead of industrial, grey, city-scapes.
‘Nature takes control.’ she says. ‘We know that we are part of it and we can’t deny her power – no matter how solid our houses are.’
Gunnell seems to echo Ragga’s sentiments: ‘Iceland is very much a “living landscape”, with hot springs, earthquakes, volcanoes, glaciers, and regular performances of Northern Lights. It is thus quite natural that people have a sense that the land is alive.’
For many believers, the link with nature goes both ways. As much as the elves seem mystical and impossible, they also seem to connect Icelanders to their identity; to their surroundings, their natural environment, and their unique heritage.
‘I always say, no matter what you think of this, I hope we can all agree that we should respect nature and each other – we are all different but all the same.’ says Sigurbjörg. ‘After all, we all have different habits and different customs.’
‘While some people in other countries might regard this as strange, when it comes down to it, it is no different to a belief in a god or in the existence of ghosts, which one finds all over the world,’ Gunnell agrees.
For Ragga, the elves and hidden folk serve to remind us all of where we come from – and the environment that we all need to protect.
‘We need to work together and we need to work with them – all the different species of elves and huldufòlk and nature beings and the animals and plants,’ she says, emphatically.
‘We all have to remember, we are all part of this one being – The Earth.’
Exploring the stories behind the headlines, In Focus is the brand new long read report series from Metro.co.uk.
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