ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
Christmas is the perfect time to spot an elf. And we're not talking about Santa's helpers up there at the North Pole. Just to the south, in Iceland, elves are said to inhabit the rolling volcanic hills. Most Icelanders have never actually seen an elf, but many believe they still exist.
As reporter Libby Casey found out on a recent visit.
LIBBY CASEY: Iceland's self-proclaimed elf capital is a small port town called Hafnarfjordur, right outside the human capital city of Reykjavik. No one knows more about the local elves than tour guide Sybil Carlsdaughterp(ph). You might mistake her for an elf with her pointy hat and impish grin.
Ms. SYBIL CARL DOPTERP (Tour Guide): No. See that big hill? This is the palace of the elves. Many people that lived in the houses below have seen a woman in a beautiful dress walk in front of the hill. Some have seen her enter, and it's all red carpet and gold inside.
CASEY: Sybil says elves are human-sized and make their homes in rocks as well as the craggy hillside. They live the good life, perhaps a fantasy of early Icelandic farmers who struggled to survive off the harsh land.
Terry Gunnell, a folklorist at the University of Iceland, says elves helped people make sense of nature.
Prof. TERRY GUNNELL (Folklorist, University of Iceland): Icelanders' houses can be knocked down by a force they can't see in the form of an earthquake. You look up at the sky, you've got the Northern lights there. The wind can knock you off your feet. The wind can take shapes in a snow. So it's the things can manifest themselves.
CASEY: And they do manifest themselves to many people here. Nearly three-quarters of the Icelanders, Gunnell recently pulled, said it's possible elves exist. Another 8 percent were convinced they do.
Prof. GUNNELL: Grab an Icelander, tell them to imagine that they were planning to build a Jacuzzi in their garden, but there's a rock there. And if one of their neighbors told them that this was an elf rock, would they blow it up? Most of them will pause quite a long time before they'd make a decision. I'd say even more will say no. Some people because of the superstition is saying something might happen, might come up.
CASEY: To test Gunnell's theory, I hit the streets of Reykjavik and found Helga Piatosdaughter(ph), who's in her 70s.
Do people believe in elves here?
Ms. HELGA PIATOSDAUGHTER: Some people.
CASEY: Do you?
Ms. PIATOSDAUGHTER: I don't know. I think not.
CASEY: If there was a big rock in your garden and someone said that's an elf rock, would you touch it?
Ms. PIATOSDAUGHTER: No, I would not. There's a reason for it.
CASEY: It is best not bother it.
Ms. PIATOSDAUGHTER: Yes. It's better.
CASEY: When the elves are bothered, Icelanders believed there are consequences.
Back in Hafnarfjordur, the elf capital, shopkeeper Gokjo Bionsdughter(ph) says she upset the local elves with her health renovation. She says they retaliated by breaking the contractors equipment.
Ms. GOKJO BIONSDUGHTER (Shop Keeper): The machine broke down and all possible ways. He had never witnessed it before.
CASEY: So Gogo called Eartla Stephansdaughter (ph), one of Iceland's most famous elf mediums.
Ms. BIONSDUGHTER: When she came and we talked to the elves and asked them if it was alright, if they could move just while we were doing it and then come back? And everything was all right. I (unintelligible).
CASEY: It's not just home improvement that's held hostage by the elf. Multimillion dollar construction projects can grind to a halt until Eartla find's out why the elves are upset.
Entire roads have been diverted to run around elf rocks. Eartla says, she can usually help, but as she told me through a translator she had to give up on a recent golf course that had damaged the landscape beyond repair.
Ms. EARTLA STEPHANSDAUGHTER (Elf Medium): (Through translator) Imagine if you woke up one morning and there was a bulldozer on your house, you would start making problem for that bulldozer because nobody asked you permission or anything.
CASEY: Asking elves permission might seem strange in this high-tech nation with 100 percent literacy rate and heated sidewalks.
But Professor Terry Gunnell says just below the modern surface is the Iceland of folklore and tradition.
Prof. GUNNELL: Iceland already came into the 20th century in about 1945. So you have people telling these stories living in the country until quite recently.
CASEY: To get out into Iceland's countryside and suddenly the stories can be very real. Walk through the mist at night no trees for protection, do you see a strange shape in the mossy lava rock. Who is to say it's not an elf.
For NPR News, I'm Libby Casey.
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