Iceland Is the Land of Fairies, and 'Everybody Believes'

By Cathy Carroll

Reed Travel Features

NEW YORK -- A recent conversation about the growing interest in visiting Iceland prompted someone to remark, "Why wouldn't anybody want to go to a place where 60% of the population believes in fairies?" It is difficult to argue with that, but a spokesman for the Iceland Tourist Board took it a step further. "Everybody in Iceland believes in fairies. No one will ever say they totally do not believe in them," he said.

The belief in fairies and other "smafolk" is so pervasive that before a government road project is started, officials pay a consultant to determine whether construction would destroy any elves. "If so, they take a detour," the spokesman said. The main road from Reykjavik to Selfoss bears left a few miles beyond Hverageroi for this reason -- to avoid an elf hill, according to the tourist board. Icelanders contend they have learned from experience that attempts to build over such a site is useless: Bulldozers will fail, hammers will break.

To those who have experienced the country's charms, the Icelandic sensibility seems not so far-fetched. Richard Libbey, a photographer and managing partner of Photo Adventure Tours in Atlantic Beach, N.Y., said, "When you are out in the countryside near the south coast, there are interesting rock outcroppings where the moss is two- to three-feet thick. Sometimes, at dusk, when the northern lights are hitting them, mysterious green light shoots across the sky and the moss on top of the rocks looks like a patch of hair -- like a little punk-rock troll," Libbey said. "You get the mystical feeling of it, and you know it's an interesting, special area." All Photo Adventure Tours touch on this aspect of Icelandic culture, Libbey added. "You can't get away without doing it. It's ingrained in Icelandic culture," he said.

This is most evident in the Hidden Worlds Map of Hafnarfjorour, a port town just outside Reykjavik. On one side of the colorfully illustrated folding map is a listing one would expect to find on any such document: phone numbers and addresses for taxis, the police and fire brigade, hospitals, museums, post offices, restaurants and camping grounds. The flip side, however, contains a map and a grid with color-coded symbols for locating: hidden people (blue dots), churches of hidden spirits (purple dots), bright elfin beings (pink dots), elves (brown dots), light-fairies (yellow dots), gnomes (green dots), dwarfs (black dots), hermits (purple triangles) and the light of the faith (large blue circle).

Surrounding the map are whimsical, pastel drawings of the locations of elf, dwarf, gnome and other dwellings. They correspond by number to places on the map. For example, at location No. 1, "colorful and kindly elves live near the swimming pool in particularly beautiful houses." The drawing depicts ice-blue, cream-puff-shaped domes with pink trim. At location No. 2, "joyful, squat dwarfs live in these dome-shaped houses."

An Iceland-based ecotour company called Landnama also finds it impossible to separate Icelandic cultural tourism from its elfin population. For example, a seven-hour tour from Reykjavik harbor includes a boat trip to Lundy Island for bird-watching. Then, the tour proceeds to Heiomork, to "learn about the role that elves play in the life of Icelanders and partake in a spiritual walk discovering the elves' favorite hiding places," according to the company.

More information is available by calling the Iceland Tourist Board at (212) 949-2333.

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