The Hidden People (Elves) of Iceland

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Myths, legends, folk tales — I love them all, especially as they relate to new places I travel to. They are a great insight into a country's traditional culture, and are always really fun to hear about.

I've learned about Maori legends in New Zealand, and Irish myths in Ireland…

But nothing quite compares to the folk tales of Iceland.

Vikings and Trolls
Vikings and trolls

Full of elves, trolls, and “hidden people,” the folk tales of Iceland are made all the more fascinating because a majority of the population of 300,000 actually believes in them.

Go on just about any tour in Iceland, and you'll likely hear at least one story that involves elves or trolls.

Those fallen boulders in the middle of a field? Trolls.

The sea stacks off shore in the midst of crashing waves? More trolls.

Reynishverfi Beach, Iceland
“Trolls” at Reynishverfi Beach

Ignoring the fact that most of these things can be explained scientifically (after all, this is a land where earthquakes and erupting volcanoes abound), most of the folk stories are actually quite fascinating.

The troll stories all follow the same basic plot — night trolls (who can only be out in darkness) are too busy stalking prey to notice the sunrise (or simply stray too far from their caves to get back before sunrise), and are turned to stone in the first rays of daylight.

Lava Tube Cave, Iceland
Looks like a perfect troll cave to me.

These troll stories are plentiful — probably because there are a LOT of big rocks in Iceland. But it was actually the story of the “hidden people” or Huldufólk — sometimes also called elves, sometimes not, depending on who you ask — that really caught my interest.

The hidden people are either said to look like small children, or like tall, beautiful humans-that-aren't-quite-humans. I couldn't quite figure out why they are sometimes synonymous with elves and sometimes not — but I think the belief just depends on which Icelander you ask.

Iceland Elves

Either way, I was told the same story about the origin of the hidden people on more than one occasion, so that's the one I'm going to share with you here.

The story dates back to the days of Adam and Eve. Yes, that Adam and Eve. In this version of the story, God would come visit Adam and Eve every once in a while to check up on them and their many children.

Before one particular visit, however, Eve wasn't able to find enough time to tidy up all of her children — a couple of them were still dirty and unpresentable when God arrived. So Eve told the children to hide, figuring God wouldn't notice their absence among so many other children.

But of course God did take notice, and asked Eve multiple times “Are these all your children, Eve?” She told him yes each time, but her lies did not fool God.

God got very angry with Eve and told her, “What you have hidden from me, I shall now keep hidden from you.

And so the hidden people were born. God gave them the ability to show themselves occasionally — but only to those who they chose. Which explains why many Icelanders tell stories of seeing elves and other hidden folk all over Iceland.


To you and I, this may sound like just another folk tale. But in Iceland, dating back for centuries, people have believed in such mythical creatures very seriously.

There have been quite a few noticeable instances — even as recent as in 2016, when road workers had to dig up an enchanted rock that was accidentally buried — of construction projects being postponed for fear of building on land occupied by hidden people. An “expert” of some sort often has to be called in to parlay with the elves to ask their permission to build on the land. If this crucial step isn't taken, “bad things” tend to happen in conjunction with the projects.

All over Iceland, you can see signs of these beliefs — from trinkets is shops to little houses in gardens meant for the elves to live in.

Reykjavik, Iceland
A souvenir shop in Reykjavik

I was told by one guide that at least 50% of Icelanders either believe in hidden people/elves, or at least believe in the possibility that they could exist.

And you know what?

In a place as wild and magical as Iceland, it's quite easy to be convinced that trolls do live in the hills, and that you can find elves frolicking across the lava fields.


READ NEXT: 25 Photos That Prove That Iceland is Magical

What do you think about Iceland and its elves/hidden people?


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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47 Comments on “The Hidden People (Elves) of Iceland

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  1. I didn’t know Iceland was so into elves. Very funny! I know when I visited a distant cousin in Ireland, he wholeheartedly believed in the “ferries”, what we call leprechauns.

      I didn’t really know either until I got there! It’s was pretty fascinating, though. You don’t often hear about beliefs like this (or like the ones they have in Ireland) in America…

    Compared to the beliefs manly will shout out here in the US during this year’s elections, elves ain’t so bad!

    The Nordic countries usually have this kind of stories in their folklore, elves, trolls, gnomes and stuff like that. Iceland is incredible, but a bit to wild, wet and cold for my taste. And believe me, I love that kind of weather and surroundings but Iceland haves a bit to much of this qualities.

      Yes, Iceland certainly isn’t a place you travel to if you’re looking for a sunny summer holiday! But I still found it very beautiful!

    Great post! Thanks for all the history behind the legend. It’s fascinating.

    Oh! I absolutely love these folk tales. They help you connect to the place and you get into the culture of the place.
    We too have so many tales here in India!
    Loved the pics, especially the second one.
    Have a nice day Amanda:)

      I’d love to hear some India folk tales sometime! Like you said, stories like these really help you get to know a culture better.

    Love it, I don’t know a lot of folklore from that end of the world but it is fascinating.

      Isn’t it, though? I’m curious now as to how folklore in Scandinavia (especially Norway) is similar.

    I love learning folk stories/myths! Thanks for sharing, and how interesting that their society is still so affected by their myths. Have you read “The Power of Myth” by Joesph Campbell? It’s a good read if you are interested in myths across cultures.

      I feel like folk stories like these are so fascinating, since they reflect so much about a culture. Glad to see so many others enjoy them too!

    That last pic is AMAZING! I swear when I was there I saw an elf! I even have a pic!!!

      I have an even better rainbow pic from that day that I’m saving for another post! 😉

      And you saw an elf?!? AWESOME!!

    Living in California where things don’t get built because of tortoises, I find the hidden people wreaking havoc very normal! I love folklore and found this very interesting. I want one of those troll/elf dolls!

      I didn’t know that about California! Interesting!

      And I made sure to bring a troll magnet home to keep on my fridge. 😉

    How fun! I think the whole Adam and Eve story came probably way later than the belief in trolls and elves – like many religious events were determined to happen on big pagan holidays to make conversion easier. Either way, I love the idea that there are “hidden people” in the woods and in the sea 🙂

      Yes, you’re probably right about the story coming after the belief. But I still think it’s cool and interesting!

    I am not really buying that story about elves and hidden people. Like with other countries, Iceland has their own mythical creatures; the difference is that they take theirs very seriously.

      There are plenty of Icelanders who don’t buy it, either — but I think it’s cool that some of them do!

    What an interesting tale! I love how it came to be, and that most people actually believe in it. It’s too bad Irish don’t believe in leprechauns, too!

      But the Irish (well, some of them) still believe in fairies, right?

    I love this – was waiting for this post. One of the main reasons Iceland has been on my radar was the fact that so many people believe in elves. I figure anyone who does can’t be half bad, right? =) There is talk about trolls here in Norway but I haven’t had a chance to learn much about them yet…

      I wouldn’t be surprised if Norway had some similar troll legends to Iceland, since their histories are so similar. You’ll have to share some troll stories of your own soon!

    I just learned something reading this! from the title I thought there might be a race of actual elves 😉

      Well, depending on who you talk to, there IS a race of actual elves! 😉

      Glad you learned something!

    I don’t know what’s in the hills, but I’m pretty sure I met at least one troll at a bus stop in Reykjavik.

      Hahahaha. It’s possible, Curt, it’s possible. 😉

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