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03 Nov 2006 10:20
We went looking for elves in Iceland. Belief in the unseen runs so high here that the Public Roads Administration sometimes delays or reroutes road construction to avoid what locals believe are elf habitations or cursed spots.
Search “elves” and “Iceland” on Google and you get 846 000 hits, nearly triple Iceland’s population.
So with time to spare before our more mainstream assignment, photographer Bob Strong, TV producer Sofia Hilden and I struck out from Reykjavik to get to the root of this belief.
We started with a tip from the hotel concierge, who told us about a place where a local woman had made “elf doors” to mark densely populated rocks.
Piano teacher and local seer Erla Stefansdottir, cited in a tourist brochure as an elf expert, assured us over the telephone that Iceland’s elves were so plentiful that we would not need to go far to find some.
So we left the capital with its handsome and hospitable big people and found many strange and wonderful things outside.
Iceland looks like the sort of place elves would live.
The landscape along the sole major road, Highway 1, could be from another planet.
Thick moss in a wealth of colours, from a pale near-grey to vermillion, clings to fields of rough black volcanic rocks, dotted with yellow and rust flowers and shot with sudden streams and waterfalls.
Plumes of steam push high into sulphurous air from vents that go straight to the Earth’s molten heart. There are also few humans to scare off the little people.
Since the vast majority of Iceland’s not quite 300 000 inhabitants live in Reykjavik, complete isolation is easy to come by. There are virtually no trees, except near towns, and we saw only three birds that chill day.
We found fields of Icelandic ponies and thick-coated sheep. We found a particularly beautiful valley cut down to the sea, criss-crossed with loose lava rock roads.
Late in the day, we found the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s famous geothermal spa, where bathers soaked in milky, hot, mineral-rich waters. But before that, we found the elf doors.
Kristin Bjorg, a gas station worker in Hveragerdi, about 50km east of Reykjavik, hadn’t seen any elves herself, but said they’d been blamed for town mischief in her childhood.
“When I was small some people said things disappeared,” she said. “Sometimes if you would put your keys on the table, for an hour or two they’d disappear. And then just an hour or two later, the keys were on the place that they were before.”
Bjorg turned out to be related to the woman who made the bright-painted false house fronts our concierge remembered as elf doors. With Bjorg’s directions, we drove to a flat-topped mountain nearby and quickly spotted one among the tumble of moss-covered rocks at the base.
We stopped the car and slogged through ankle-deep mud to a red-and-white marker with a number two on its tiny door.
Our trek was in vain. No elves turned up to stare at us, although a herd of ponies watched our progress curiously from across the road.
Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, publishing chief of the roadworks authority, wrote an extensive report called The Public Roads Administration and the Belief in Elves outlining the steps his agency takes to accommodate local concerns about elf settlements and cursed places.
He said he “severely doubts” such phenomena exist, although among PRA employees, opinion “differs greatly”.
At the United States naval air base whose closure we were in Iceland to cover, base spokesperson Fridthor Eydal said he suspected his countrymen may play up their credulity to attract tourists. I must admit I felt vaguely disappointed. - Reuters
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