'Hidden Folk' book explores whether belief in elves and mythical creatures can save the environment
How do the stories we tell and the beliefs we hold shape the way we interact with the planet? A new book “Looking for Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth” by author Nancy Marie Brown maintains that looking at myths and how various cultures think about the planet can help shape the actions we take to protect it.
Her thesis, which delves into art, history, religion, science, culture and mythology, is that Icelanders believe in elves — and you should too. In the end, that could make all the difference.
Book excerpt: “Looking for Hidden Folk”
By Nancy Marie Brown
The Elves and the Auks
Icelanders believe in elves! If you’ve read anything about Iceland in the last twenty years, you’ve read this. It was already a cliché in 2004. Speaking with Alex Ross of The New Yorker, the singer Bjork joked, “A friend of mine says that when record-company executives come to Iceland they ask the bands if they believe in elves, and whoever says yes gets signed up.”
Now, we can argue about what it means to “believe” in elves, but there’s no doubt Icelanders know a lot of elf stories. At the University of Iceland, folklorist Terry Gunnell and his colleagues have created a geographically mapped computer database, Sagnagrunnur (“Story Database”), containing some 10,000 folktales from various printed volumes—and students are in the field collecting more. Iceland’s elf stories, Gunnell writes, tell us how to “behave in this landscape: what is right, what is wrong, when are they right or wrong, and how punishment is likely to descend on you.”
One of my favorites in the database is mapped to a dot in the sea, twenty miles off Iceland’s southwestern tip. It’s a story, not only about elves, but about the great auk, a flightless black-and-white bird almost three feet tall, like a penguin. In fact, this auk is the original penguin; the better-known birds of the southern hemisphere reminded explorers of the European great auk, a favorite mariners’ food. Seamen sailing to Newfoundland in the 1600s took along little meat, relying instead on hunting great auks (though “hunting” is hardly a fair name for driving these placid birds through a funnel of sailcloth up the gangplank of a ship to be slaughtered).
For centuries Icelanders ate great auks and their eggs; they stuffed pillows with their feathers, fine as eiderdown. A large colony bred on the steep-sided rocks called the Great Auk Skerries, in a channel notorious for crosscurrents. In 1808, British sailors anchored near the skerries and killed all the great auks they could find; a Faroese ship did the same in 1813. By 1821, the skerries were nearly bare of great auks; nine years later, during an undersea volcanic eruption, the rocks sank. The few birds left relocated to a more accessible island. There the last two great auks in Iceland were killed in 1844. As anthropologist Gisli Palsson of the University of Iceland writes in his forthcoming book An Awkward Extinction, they were the last great auks in the world. The species is now extinct.
Shortly before 1862, when Jon Arnason published it in his collection of Icelandic folktales, an old fisherman told this story: In the old days, men rowed out in open boats to hunt great auks and collect their feathers. But they never went to the farthest end of the rocks, for that is where the elves lived. One autumn day, a boat set out for the skerries as usual. It never came back…
Another version of the story begins a little differently. It sets the hunt in early summer and lets the boat successfully land, making no mention of elves. “Suddenly the sea began to get rough, so that the boat had to leave in a hurry. The egg-gatherers boarded the boat again with some difficulty, all but one. He was the last down from the rocks, for he had climbed the farthest.” He was left behind. His mates meant to come back for him, but the weather worsened; they gave up hope.
The tales so far may be true. According to Hjalmar Bardarson’s Birds of Iceland, a dozen men drowned at the Great Auk Skerries in 1628. Two boats on their way there were lost at sea in 1639. In 1732 auk hunters arriving after a long hiatus found two hovels, three cudgels, and “some weather-beaten human skeletons.”
According to the old fisherman telling the tale in 1862, six months later one auk hunter from the missing boat reappeared, refusing to say where he’d been. The other storyteller leaves him stranded all year, until the next hunting trip: “When the egg-gatherers climbed up onto the rocks, they were amazed to see a man walking where no man was expected to be.”
His friends rejoiced. No one asked questions. “Time now went by, and the news ceased to be talked about,” until one fine Sunday a newborn baby was found at the church, tucked into a beautiful cradle, and covered with a cloth “of very precious stuff unknown to all.” The pastor asked whose child it was. No one claimed it. The pastor took the auk hunter aside and asked if he didn’t think the child deserved to be baptized and given a name. “Choose your words carefully,” the pastor warned. But the hunter said no, the child was none of his responsibility. The pastor asked a third time. Again, no.
At that, a strange woman appeared, elegantly dressed, beautiful and stern. She snatched the coverlet off the cradle and tossed it to the pastor. “The church can have its fee,” she said. “As for you,” she told the auk hunter, “you shall become the most monstrous whale in the sea.” She picked up the cradle and disappeared.
The auk hunter swelled to an enormous size, bursting out of his clothes except for his red cap. He began to bellow horribly. People tried to hold him, to bind him with rope, but he broke free. He ran toward the sea cliffs and jumped. Thereafter, for many years, a ship-sinking, man-eating red-headed whale patrolled the channel between Iceland’s southwest coast and the Great Auk Skerries.
What is this elf story about? Extinction: Don’t hunt to the far end of the skerries, but leave the auks (and elves) somewhere to live in peace. Don’t transgress this taboo—or lie about your transgression—or what is given to you as a blessing (the auk’s meat and eggs and feathers; the elf woman’s love and her child) will be lost, you will be revealed as the monster you are, and your people will suffer for many years.
Excerpted from ‘Looking for the Hidden Folk’ by Nancy Marie Brown (Pegasus 2022).
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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