The superstitions of a culture reveal a lot about its people. What may seem odd or silly in one country is commonplace in another. You might not believe in ghosts, but does your heart not skip a beat when you hear an odd creak when you’re home alone? While you might not admit to it, there is probably a part of you that experiences a sliver of fearful doubt in those rare moments.
This is how Icelanders feel about the idea of elves. Their existence is found in ancient folklore and the Sagas that detail what many believe to be historical accounts of the country. The tales of Nordic bravemen settling the land of fire and ice is filled with the conflicts of exploration, violence, the woes of environmental extremes, and supernatural elements like that of elves. In a place where there is still so much unknown and miles of barren land remain unseen by the glance of a human, it isn’t really that difficult to believe that there may be more out there than we could ever imagine.
Elves have been a part of Icelandic culture for centuries, and they remain as a mystical idea that lurks in the intense highs and lows of a landscape where perpetual fog hovers and plays tricks on the eye. In southeastern Iceland, a massive glacier eats up the land space and fjords make up the eastern side of the country like archaic extremities reaching into the icy Atlantic. Lava fields blanket large sections of the island, and there are vast reaches that remain unblemished by any human activity. The weather is temperamental and the terrain challenges visitors at every turn.
Iceland is so much more than its iconic waterfalls and fertile green pastures captured by camera. Its history and culture extend beyond what could ever be caught by a lens. It is a country that refuses to be tamed despite centuries of attempts, and its people take an immense pride in the ancient accounts of its habitation. Historic sites are marked simply by stones with script and allowed to slowly return to the wild elements from which they sprouted.
There is a sense of pride in the spoken word of the sagas and legends, a feeling of honor that the history is carried forth by its people, instead of enshrined by velvet ropes. It is why the notions of elves are taken with a sense of apprehensive seriousness. They accept that not everything needs proof of existence, and sometimes there is contentment in the unknown rather than exhaustive searching. These mystical elements of Iceland attract and lure people eager to experience its beauty and understand a piece of its unique culture.
In Iceland, it is thought that elves reside in the many extreme landscapes, hidden among the rocks and tall native grasses usually taking shelter in stones. The elves are said to be small like children and human looking…only they wear clothes of a long ago era. These strange creatures are known to live in the many lava fields. Miles of desolate land stretches out racing to meet the sky, and it is nothing but hard, black lava rock sprinkled with green mossy patches of wild growth.
In those stones, many believe that elves have formed their communities, and it has even led to disputes about environmental projects. IceNews reported on the odd problems a construction crew experienced when they began drilling for water. Many believed it to be Hidden People which are different than elves but just as mystical. The Guardian also discussed the protests of a road being built through a lava field because it would harm elf habitats. Standing among those lava rocks, and looking out over an area formed by the spewing of an active volcano, it is a very unnerving feeling, especially when you know that there are still 30 active volcanoes. Stop and observe one of the many lava fields throughout Iceland…see if you can spot any elf houses.
The lava fields are just one of the many fascinating landscapes that attract visitors…and elves. Over 10% of the country is covered by glaciers and Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Iceland. In fact, it is Europe’s largest glacier, and the perfect place for elves to reside at the base of its massive size. The Vatnajökull National Park encompasses the glacier as well as surrounding areas, and the glacier is available for a variety of exploration.
Several outfits offer glacier walks from Skaftafell that introduces visitors to the amazing immensity of the glacier. The moderate to difficult climb is an experience that is somehow humbling and empowering at the same time. There is also ice climbing available for all levels. Guides will teach beginners all they need to know to scale the massive formations.
When the conditions are just right, naturally forming tunnels cut deep within the formations creating ice caves, and they can be explored along the hike. For anyone that goes to Iceland, this hike would be a mistake to miss. In general, it is difficult to understand just how big glaciers are, but this is Europe’s largest glacier which makes it even more hard to comprehend. Photos don’t capture the stunning size and details of this ancient formation. It is a link to the earth and its many mysteries.
Digging those crampons into the icy blue sheets under your feet and making your way towards the summit only to realize it is days away, you will feel like a speck of dust just floating upon the earth. It is exhilarating and fascinating. How many times will you have the chance to hike a glacier? If you find yourself in Iceland, hike the glacier.
If you are physically unable to hike, there are plenty of other options to still see the glacier. Icelandic Mountain Guides offers Super Jeep tours that will allow you to have a guide take you on a glacier exploration in the ease of an all terrain vehicle.
Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon is where pieces of icebergs from the Vatnajökull glacier break off and eventually settle. In the crystal waters of the lagoon, the pieces of icebergs bob around like toys in a pool for giants. Sea lions peak their tiny little heads from under the water and flutter through the frigid waves. Visitors can take tours of the waters on boats and get starboard views of the oversized chunks of glacial ice. The lagoon is surprisingly peaceful for being a place where icebergs come to land.
While the glacier is intimidating in its size, down in the lagoon, it is a reminder that not even larger than life glaciers are immune to the decay of time. The whipping winds and biting cold feel like a symbolic defense mechanism trying to deter visitors from seeing the vulnerability of the glacier. However, it isn’t enough to keep people away. They come in droves and brave the fierce wind to stand at the lagoon in bewilderment. Witnessing the pieces of ice floating graciously after they once sat upon the glacier, it is a visible representation of the cycles of life, and there is something reassuring about it.
The fervid shades of blue are nothing that I have witnessed anywhere else, and they shift almost imperceptibly across the color spectrum of blues. The gentle swirling of the water, the lapping of the waves, the ice dancing its way across the lagoon, under the open, endless sky, it all feels so alive, almost magical. There are miles and miles before that empty space hits an amazing sight, and it is like the world as you know it opens up to expose what feels like a daydream. Seeing the immensity of Iceland, it is hard to really wrap your mind around, and you’ll find yourself considering the unknown, the unexplainable, and even the potential presence of elves.
If you want to truly do some elf chasing, try the hike along the Víknaslódir Trail. It snakes its way through the region known as the central province of the elves. It is believed their queen resides in a fortress at Álfaborg, and it is the adventure to take if you want to completely immerse yourself in Iceland. In 2005, the trail was nominated by National Geographic Magazine as one of the 25 most beautiful treks in the world. There are tours available along the trail for a 6 day hike into the coastal mountains and a chance to see an elf with your very own eyes.
Only a short distance from Vatnajökull National Park is Guesthouse Skálafell. It is a family run guesthouse that has cabins for single, double, and triple accommodations. Its gorgeous locations at the base of the glacier and proximity to a variety of activities makes it a prime location to stay in southeastern Iceland. The helpful staff goes to great lengths to assure the comfort of their guests and has a vast amount of information for neighboring attractions.
Iceland isn’t for the faint of heart. It isn’t a place where you lounge in the hotel and order room service. This is for the adventurer and those with the will to hike, climb, and brave their way through the country to see some of the most amazing sights in the world. Its history, folklore, and mystical legends should guide you as you explore to fully appreciate the country. If you want an easy vacation, stay home on the couch. If you want an adventure and an experience that will open your mind to the mysteries of our earth, Iceland is waiting for you.
For more information or to plan your dream trip visit Guide to Iceland and check out the incredible whale watching in Iceland adventure.