Ancient Icelandic Elves and Dwarves

We woke up around noon, still having trouble adjusting to the time difference, apparently. Or else it was just very comfortable to lounge around in our Room With a View apartment, bright and tidy as it was. It was especially lovely to saunter downstairs to the coffee shop for an espresso macchiato, and Rebecca loaned me her laptop while I sat in the café.

We were having a slow-paced morning—many shops were still closed for May Day—so I used the opportunity to do some maintenance for my photos and online records. Because I didn’t bring my own laptop on the trip, I was forced to use my wife’s Mac laptop to upload my photos, for example. All I wanted to do was connect my camera, find the image files and email them to myself for online use: even though the Mac did run a sluggish program to view all the photos on my camera, it somehow refused to acknowledge that a camera was connected at all, when I went searching for the files to send. And fighting through this obtuse iOS was made all the easier by using one button for every function, rather than three like I’m used to. So when my time was up and we had to go, I got nothing done. Lesson learned: bring my own laptop and never use a Mac.

At length we made our way down Laugavegur, the main drag, to the Information Center. There was a young English woman working behind the counter, who had taken the position for the fun of working abroad and travel. She was in a great mood and fielded all our questions with great information and some humor: we were going to Hafnarfjörđur today for a walking tour that covered the Icelandic traditional beliefs in elves, dwarves and other supernatural beings. The clerk guided us through the buses we’d need, and we also took care of postage for postcards here. Very positive experience with this place.

Busing to Hafnarfjordhur

Mass transit from Reykjavik to Hafnarfjordhur.

We caught the S1 bus south to Hafnarfjörđur (560 ISK for two one-way tickets), but we weren’t sure where to disembark. The driver, a portly, middle-aged man, spoke no English whatsoever, though he responded positively to the town name as I struggled to pronounce it. He also gestured directions, pointing and waving in a system that meant nothing to me. Another passenger, a lean, excitable woman in a long, quilted coat, who did speak English and she very kindly assisted us with directions. We were grateful for her voluntary assistance, and I’m sure the driver valued her help too.

Fjörđur Shopping

Fjörđur Shopping: now with coffee.

As it turned out, we might have been able to discern which stop to get off at on our own: it’s very obvious when the residential streets open up and the city begins. There was a large mall that seemed to be the epicenter of activity, and I would like to think that would have been a suitable visual cue for us to go there. We went into Fjörđur Shopping for more coffee and to sit a while: we were early for the tour and had time to pass. The shopping center was like any other in the world, with the distinctly Scand patina of cleanliness, orderliness, and a milder, earnest flavor to its marketing. I found it refreshing, coming from the perspective of gritty, aggressive marketing strategies fighting for attention; by contrast, this district felt more like retro ’50s Americana if it hadn’t become so jaded.

When our time was up, we left out the back entrance to the mall and crossed a plaza along Strandgata. The tour office was in a business complex nearby. Entering into the glassy buildings and spacious paved social areas, I had the strongest sense of déjà vu, as though recalling a particularly lucid dream from some months ago that took place in an area very similar. There was nothing more to be made of this sensation, except that it was pleasant in its familiarity rather than creepy or threatening. If anything, it felt to me like revisiting a childhood neighborhood with many pleasant associations attached.

Hidden World Walks

The sign you’re in the right place.

We found the office for Hidden World Walks, indicated by a spirit drawn in chalk on the sidewalk, and were greeted by Sigurbjörg Karlsdóttir, or “Sippa” as she introduced herself. She wore her signature red peaked hat, both a visual marker as well as a gesture of deference or honor to the ancient Icelandic spirits to whom she would introduce us. Sippa was all business but still friendly and engaging, but the first order of business was for her to learn how we’d heard of Hidden World Walks. She explained there was a rather famous tourism agency (I’ll omit naming them) that was attempting to capitalize upon her reputation, but that it went further and misrepresented her tour. Participants in the past had come expecting people dressed in elaborate costumes, popping out from behind objects and dancing around for an interactive performance. Sippa had tried many times to correct this agency’s messaging but they effectively stonewalled her and continued to put out their misleading campaign. Other unscrupulous companies had taken advantage of this confusion to start up their own walking tours and intentionally redirect customers away from her (customers who later reported the tour was nothing like what they thought they were getting into, having expected Sippa’s tour). As well, she had been reviewed by tourism magazines that had never sent anyone out to actually attend her tours. All of this was understandably a source of frustration for her and we got to hear all about it.

Hidden World Walks

Sippa is deeply invested in her community.

But then we went on the tour and, without wanting to spoil any surprises Sippa may have, it was a great stroll around Hafnarfjörđur. We walked through residential neighborhoods and parks. Near an apartment complex, there was a large boulder supposedly home to a dwarf (who, at the time, was suffering a head cold). A construction crew that attempted to move this boulder, despite the warnings of locals with “second sight” or respect for the old ways, were then plagued with mechanical failures and dangerous accidents. Finally, the foreman of the crew went to speak to the dwarf, one on one, by himself with a few beers. He apologized, explained his position, and outlined a more respectful course of action he hoped the dwarf would find amenable. At once their problems disappeared and work continued, leaving the boulder in place.

Jonas (another tour guide you’ll hear about soon) later grumbled that the Icelandic people were willing to give wide berth to some volcanic boulder in which a dwarf-spirit supposedly lived, yet they refused to extend the same courtesy to the natural breeding ground of a species of bird that they could actually see, and on whose habitat they had a measurable impact.

Hidden World Walks

Formerly a troll, now a rock formation.

Sippa had dozens of stories like this everywhere we went, making for a fantastic afternoon. At one point we were in a park and looking at a small cavern, in which a colony of trolls were reputed to live. Many old lava formations, untouched by developers, were homes for the Hidden People.

You may not be acquainted with the concept of Hidden People, and I know I wasn’t until this tour. The concept is this: in the beginning, there was Adam and Eve and a bunch of their children. They heard that God was coming down to the Garden of Eden to inspect the grounds and they hurriedly tidied the place up. Unfortunately, Eve was unable to wash all of her children in time for the visit, so she hid a bunch of them in shame.

They greeted God and walked around, showed Him all the plants and animals, and had a nice visit. At the end of His stay, God asked, “So, is that all there is?” Adam and Eve assured him, nervously, that it was. He asked again, “Is that everything you have to show me?” and they insisted that there was nothing else. God, being omniscient, knew that Eve had attempted to hide her children from His sight. This was stupid of her, and He said, “I know you’ve got those dirty kids stashed away from Me. But as you have tried to hide them from Me, so shall they be hidden from everyone, forever.” And with that, an entire population of Hidden People started down the path from history to the present. They live in nature, parallel to our existence but imperceptible to all but those with “second sight,” or ESP/clairvoyance. Kind of a sad story, but evidently they’re very happy not existing with us.

There is a park not far from downtown, called Hellisgerđi. The raw, volcanic landscape here is preserved and valued by the community, who come here for short, scenic walks or even picnics. As we walked through there were a couple of teenaged boys taking a pause from skateboarding to have a smoke. My gloomy assumption—that they occasionally snickered at the naïve tourists who listened to an old woman spinning yarns—was shattered when they came over to contribute to Sippa’s lecture. One of them hadn’t heard about the troll and was quite interested. He shared stories of growing up in the area and his informal spelunking in this cavern, which many kids seemed to do at some point here. He was flattered when I suggested he must’ve been quite brave, seeing as how the tunnels were very small, even for an adventurous little boy.

It came clear to me that Sippa apparently enjoyed a certain amount of clout in the town, rather than being dismissed as a crazy old person, and that made me admire Icelandic culture that much more.

Volcanic boulder

The petrified troll may no longer eat humans.

We were taken to a small crag that used to be a troll but he was caught out in the sun and so all he is now is a large boulder that looks like an anguished face screaming up at the sky. Upon hearing this Rebecca promptly ran up and shoved her fist up the troll’s nostril, reporting a handful of grass, though she does not remember this. She does remember putting her head in the troll’s mouth, though.

There was a much larger cliff on the edge of the town, which we could just see over the buildings. There was a flagpole at the top of it, then a sheer dropoff to some jagged rocks at the base. Sippa said that, not too long ago, two boys had been playing on the top of that cliff and, surprise surprise, one of them fell off. The other ran down to attend to his friend, only to find him standing there, perfectly fine, unscratched. The second kid grilled him as to how the hell that could happen, and the first kid avoided the answer for a long time, insisting he just got lucky, but then they both agreed that the kid should get checked out by a doctor. Sure enough, the doctor found him in the pink of health and wondered why the kid bothered to come in. The boy confessed that he’d fallen off the cliff and his friend was concerned. The doctor said this couldn’t be possible and demanded to know what happened, and the kid finally broke down and confessed.

Elf cliff

The cliff where the elf saved the little boy.

He said that he fell off the cliff while playing, but immediately felt as though a pair of hands had come out of the cliff to catch him and slowly carry him down to the ground below. He reported seeing a tall, beautiful woman with long golden hair and a silver belt, and she explained that this cliff was a palace for the elves. The doctor who examined the boy related this story to Sippa, our guide, and he couldn’t come up with any other explanation as to how someone could fall off a cliff and be perfectly fine lke that.

We thanked Sippa very much for an entertaining time. I don’t have second sight and was unable to detect any mystic or otherworldly presence, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there, just that I lack the faculty to perceive it. And even if we hadn’t known about the Hidden People or gone on this tour specifically, the town is just beautiful in its own right, and it was lovely to observe the buildings and look out over the ocean. It’s just an exciting, interesting town to study, for an outsider. We wrapped up the trip with a stop at Café Aroma, overlooking the harbor (hafnar).

The S1 bus runs on a circuit so we caught this back to Reykjavik and walked around the town, peeking in the windows of businesses that were closed. This seems to have been a coffee day, because we stopped at Kaffi Felagiđ for espresso and a croissant. While Rebecca can’t tolerate a lot of gluten products, she did try some of this (cake flour has less gluten content) and said it was the best she’d tasted in a very long time.

Kronur screwdriver

Throwing money at home repairs actually works.

We also found a store that sold a variety of handcrafted bags, many of these crafted by local artists. Rebecca selected a new purse and was very happy with it. We also took the time to hit a music store on Laugavegur, a place that struck me as the Icelandic equivalent of Sam Goody or Media Play. I mean, much smaller, just a clean white store with tidy aisles and lots of CDs, DVDs, and video games. I didn’t spot any video game titles I wasn’t already familiar with, but I couldn’t have gotten them anyway since our gaming systems are NTSC and they’re PAL. But still, that would’ve been neat. Rebecca got a couple CDs that we still listen to once in a while. They’re good, but they mostly hold nostalgic appeal for the trip in general rather than the merits of the band.

I did discover that the bolt holding a sink drain is sized to accommodate a kronur coin, if you don’t have a screwdriver on hand. I made this discovery when one of us dropped a piece of jewelry down the admittedly large and gaping sink trap.

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