Elves halt new road in Iceland

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Reykjavik - In this land of fire and ice, where the fog-shrouded lava fields offer a strange landscape in which anything might lurk, stories abound of the hidden folk – elves who make their homes in Iceland’s wilderness.

So perhaps it was only a matter of time before 21st-century elves got political representation.

Elf advocates have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project building a direct route from the tip of the Alftanes peninsula, where the president has a home, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer.

They fear disturbing elf habitat and say the area is particularly important because it contains an elf church.

The project has been halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on a case brought by a group known as Friends of Lava, who cite the environmental and the cultural impact – including the impact on elves – of the road project. The group has regularly brought hundreds of people out to block the bulldozers.

It’s not the first time issues about Huldufolk (hidden folk) have affected planning decisions. They occur so often that the road and coastal administration has come up with a stock media response for elf inquiries, which states in part that “issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on”.

Scandinavian folklore is full of elves, trolls and other mythological characters. A survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 found that about 62 percent of the 1 000 respondents thought it was at least possible that elves existed.

Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a self-proclaimed seer, believes she can communicate with the creatures through telepathy. “It will be a terrible loss and damaging both for the elf world and for us humans,” Jonsdottir said of the road project.

Although many of the Friends of Lava are motivated primarily by environmental concerns, they see the elf issue as being part of a wider concern for the history and culture of the unique landscape.

Andri Snaer Magnason, a well-known environmentalist, said his major concern was that the road would cut the lava field in two, among other things, destroying bird nesting sites.

“Some feel that the elf thing is a bit annoying,” said Magnason, adding that he was not sure they existed. “However,” he added, “I got married in a church with a god just as invisible as the elves, so what might seem irrational is actually quite common.”

Terry Gunnell, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland, said he was not surprised by the wide acceptance of the possibility of elves.

“This is a land where your house can be destroyed by something you can’t see (earthquakes), where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulphur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet, where the northern lights make the sky the biggest television screen in the world, and where hot springs and glaciers ‘talk’,” Gunnell said. “In short, everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect.”

Gunnell said similar beliefs were found in western Ireland, but they thrived in Iceland because people remained in close contact with the land. Parents still let their children play out in the wilderness, often late into the night. Vast pristine areas remain, even near the capital, Reykjavik.

Writer Hilmar Gunnarsson fondly remembers a story his grandmother told him about a mischievous elf.

“She told me about a pair of her scissors that went missing and she was certain that an elf had borrowed them. She would not buy new scissors. She said the elf would give them back when he was finished. She said they were returned.”

Singer Bjork had no hesitation in responding when asked by US television host Stephen Colbert if people in her country believed in elves.

“We do,” she said. “It’s sort of a relationship with nature, like with the rocks. (The elves) all live in the rocks, so you have to. It’s all about respect, you know.” – Sapa-AP


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