American Indian Sailed to Europe With Vikings?
Centuries before Columbus, a Viking-Indian child may have been born in Iceland.
By Traci Watson, for National Geographic News
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 26, 2010
Five hundred years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, a Native American woman may have voyaged to Europe with Vikings, according to a provocative new DNA study.
Analyzing a type of DNA passed only from mother to child, scientists found more than 80 living Icelanders with a genetic variation similar to one found mostly in Native Americans. (Get the basics on genetics.)
This signature probably entered Icelandic bloodlines around A.D. 1000, when the first Viking-American Indian child was born, the study authors theorize. (Related: “Vikings’ Barbaric Bad Rap Beginning to Fade.”)
Historical accounts and archaeological evidence show that Icelandic Vikings reached Greenland just before 1000 and quickly pushed on to what is now Canada. Icelanders even established a village in Newfoundland, though it lasted only a decade or so (regional map).
The idea that a Native American woman sailed from North America to Iceland during that period of settlement and exploration provides the best explanation for the Icelanders’ variant, the research team says.
“We know that Vikings sailed to the Americas,” said Agnar Helgason of deCODE Genetics and the University of Iceland, who co-wrote the study with his student Sigrídur Ebenesersdóttir and colleagues. “So all you have to do is assume … that they met some people and ended up taking at least one female back with them.
“Although it’s maybe interesting and surprising, it’s not all that incredible,” Helgason added. “The alternative explanations to me are less likely”—for example the idea that the genetic trait might exist independently, undiscovered, in a few Europeans.
The study authors themselves admit the case is far from closed. But University of Illinois geneticist Ripan Malhi—an expert in ethnic DNA differences who wasn’t part of the project—agreed that the report holds “strong genetic evidence for pre-Columbian contact of people in Iceland with Native Americans.”
(Related: “Fifty-One Headless Vikings in English Execution Pit Confirmed.”)
Dating the DNA Signature
Through genealogical research, the study team concluded that the Icelanders who carry the Native American variation are all from four specific lineages, descended from four women born in the early 1700s.
Those four lineages, in turn, likely descended from a single woman with Native American DNA who must have been born no later than 1700, according to study co-author Ebenesersdóttir.
The genealogical records for the four lineages are incomplete before about 1700, but history and genetics suggest the Native American DNA arrived on the European island centuries before then, study co-author Helgason said.
He pointed out that Iceland was very isolated from the outside world in the centuries leading up to 1700, so it’s unlikely that a Native American got to the island during that period.
As further evidence, he noted that—though the Icelanders share a distinct version of the variation—at least one lineage’s variation has mutated in a way that would likely have taken centuries to occur, the researchers say.
This unique signature suggests that, in Helgason’s words, the Native American DNA arrived in Iceland at least “several hundred years” before 1700.
Despite the evidence, for now it’s nearly impossible to prove a direct, thousand-year-old genetic link between Native Americans and Icelanders.
For starters, no living Native American group carries the exact genetic variation found in the Icelandic families.
But of the many known scattered versions that are related to the Icelandic variant, 95 percent are found in Native Americans. Some East Asians, whose ancestors are thought to have been the first Americans, carry a similar genetic pattern, though.
The Inuit, often called Eskimos, carry no version of the variant—a crucial detail, given that Greenland has a native Inuit population.
Helgason speculates that the precise Icelandic variation may have come from a Native American people that died out after the arrival of Europeans.
It’s possible, he added, that the DNA variation actually came from mainland Europe, which had infrequent contact with Iceland in the centuries preceding 1700. But this would depend on a European, past or present, carrying the variation, which so far has never been found.
(See pictures of Native American lands in National Geographic magazine.)
History Not Much Help?
Complicating matters, the historical record contains no evidence that Icelandic Vikings might have taken a Native American woman back home to their European island, scholars say.
“It makes no sense to me,” said archaeologist and historian Hans Gulløv of the Greenland Research Centre in Copenhagen.
For one thing, experts say, nothing in excavations or the Icelandic sagas—thought to be rooted in fact but not entirely reliable—suggests a personal alliance of the kind reported in the new study, published online November 10 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
(See “‘Sagas’ Portray Iceland’s Viking History.”)
The Saga of Erik the Red does tell of four Skraeling boys—the Norse term for the American Indians—who were captured by an Icelandic expedition and taken back to Greenland, said Birgitta Wallace, an emeritus archaeologist for Parks Canada who has written extensively about the Norse.
But Icelanders spent little time in North America, and their relations with the people they found living there seem to have been mostly hostile, she said. The stories “talk in not very flattering terms about [Native Americans’] looks,” Wallace said.
One saga, she added, tells of explorers “who found some sleeping natives—and they just killed them.”
(Related: “Viking Weapon Recycling Site Found in England.”)
Time to Rewrite Viking History?
“What we have is a big mystery,” study co-author Helgason admitted.
It won’t be solved, he said, until the DNA pattern’s origins are nailed down, perhaps through the study of ancient DNA—for example, if an ancient Native American bone is found with DNA closely matching the Icelandic variant.
But at least one skeptic suggests it’s a mystery worth pursuing.
“I have no historical sources telling me” that Vikings took Native Americans home, said Gulløv, the historian. But often when new data is uncovered, he added, “we have to write history anew.”
Chabad has been attempting to make some inroads in organization of the Jewish community. Its first Seder in 2011 was attended by over 50 people. Sadly in 2015, only 13 attended. The following article might be of interest:
Iceland’s few Jews grapple with faith
With no synagogue, no rabbi, and a majority of marriages interfaith, Jews in Iceland find unique ways of keeping tradition alive.
Iceland has no synagogue, no rabbis, no Jewish community center or organized structure. In fact, Judaism is not even one of Iceland’s state-recognized religions.
Still, Iceland has about 100 Jews who call this North Atlantic island home. And last year, roughly 50 of them gathered in a hall downtown on Erev Rosh Hashanah for services — a proportion of prayer attendance that rabbis in many other countries would give their left arms to achieve.
This coming Jewish New Year, traditional Ashkenazi food will be served once again. And once again, if they are lucky, attendees that night may see the aurora borealis, in all its green glory, dance across the sky, as they did on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773.
A rabbi will also be on hand, something relatively new for Iceland. Though he remains based in the United States, Rabbi Berel Pewzner of Chabad, the Brooklyn-based Hasidic group, visits regularly and is into the third year of his tenure here.
It was in 2011 that Pewzner came to Iceland to help develop the small Jewish community. He presided that year over the first kosher Passover Seder ever held in Iceland, and more than 50 people attended that event, too. The rabbi decided to return for Yom Kippur and came back again in 2012.
“I’ve always been fascinated with Jewish life in remote and unique locations around the globe,” Pewzner told the Forward. “I have traveled to quite a number of countries, with the purpose of connecting with the Jewish communities living there…. So when I came across Iceland, a country that seemed to have few Jews, but a vibrant model of modern Jewish community, I was intrigued.”
Jews are relatively new to Iceland. The first observant Jew settled in Iceland in 1906, according to records. Fritz Heymann Nathan started one of Iceland’s most successful businesses at the time, Nathan & Olsen, a food distributor, after arriving from Denmark. He stayed for 11 years before returning there.
It wasn’t until 1940 that the first Jewish congregation was established on Iceland’s soil, when Jewish soldiers from Britain were stationed there. The arrival of American forces in 1941 brought more Jews to the country, with roughly 2,000 Jewish soldiers based in Iceland by the end of World War II.
Jewish numbers fluctuated over the decades until the United States Army left Iceland in 2006.
Prior to that, Iceland’s government had a troubled history with Jews. In the 1930s, when Jews were trying to flee Germany, and Iceland was still affiliated with Denmark — though formally sovereign — the government refused to open its doors, following Denmark’s lead. Furthermore, most of the small number of Jews who were already on its shores were deported.
Today, Iceland’s Jewish community comes from around the world. There are no native Icelandic Jews to speak of. The Jews who reside in Iceland came, at least initially, to study, to work or because of marriage to an Icelander.
So, what’s it like to live in Iceland as a Jew today? Most of the Jews who reside in Iceland come from secular backgrounds, and the community’s identity does not lie in religion. Indeed, most of the Jews here today are in interfaith marriages. Many in the community, however, are interested in retaining a connection to their Jewish heritage.
“Overall my experience living here as a foreigner has been great,” Jovana Alkalaj said. “Being from Serbia and being Jewish, both somewhat controversial, have never been an issue for anyone I have met [in Iceland].”
But Alkalaj’s connection to the community is a cultural one.
“Jews in Serbia have been through a lot, including my late grandparents, and I do identify with them and what they went through,” she said. “I am a member of the Jewish community in Serbia, as well, and have taken a year’s worth of Hebrew classes. Being Jewish is more of a personal statement in honor of my family and what they went through, and a sign of identification with other people whose families suffered the same way.”
Alkalaj, who moved to Iceland in 2010, is married to an Icelander.
Roughly 80 percent of Iceland’s residents are members of the Lutheran Church, which is state funded, as are several smaller religious communities that have chosen to register with the government. So far, the Jewish community has chosen not to do so.
One woman who came to Iceland from America to live with her Icelandic husband, said such demographics take their toll. She and her husband have one child, who has been baptized.
“There have been some sacrifices on my part, but that is something that I had to accept when I moved to Iceland,” said the woman, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to retain her privacy. “In many ways I did lose my Jewish identity. But it was a choice.”
Others in the community do practice their Judaism, though not in a traditional sense, to keep tradition alive.
Julian Burgos, a marine biologist who grew up in Ecuador, considers himself a secular humanistic Jew. “But I do practice,” said Burgos, who has lived here for four years with his wife, a nonpracticing Catholic. “At home we celebrate the Sabbath and the holidays, albeit from a humanistic, not theistic, point of view… The Jewish people have always also included the apikorsim, those who do not accept the dominant rabbinic religion, and I guess I am one of those.”
Like other community members, Burgos says he has never experienced anti-Semitism in Iceland. Israel, and the politics that come with it, however, is a very different issue. Politically, many Icelanders are quick to criticize the Israeli government, and Iceland’s previous government came out strongly against Israel at times.
“Many Icelanders are very upset with Israel because of the occupation of the Palestinians,” Burgos said. “Sadly, in some cases people cannot distinguish between the actions of the Israeli government or the settlers, and they blame ‘the Jews’ in general.”
During the most recent conflict in Gaza, in November 2012, Burgos said, some comments in the media and in the social networks against Israel and the Jews “were virulent.”
Össur Skarphéðinsson who was at that time Iceland’s foreign affairs minister, criticized Israel’s military incursion into Gaza, taken after rockets from Gaza landed on Israeli soil. Skarphéðinsson called Israel’s response “tragic and unequal.” Ögmundur Jónasson, then Iceland’s interior minister, opined that Icelanders should protest the attacks. And they did.
The protests took place in front of the U.S. embassy last year, with roughly 1,000 people attending.
When confronted with such protests, Burgos himself feels conflicted. “Even though I am Jewish and I love Israel, or perhaps because of it, I am also very upset with the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, and the intransigence of the Israeli government,” he said. “At the same time, you do not see people complaining, for example, about the situation in Syria. So there is a particular focus on Israel.”
Iceland’s closest tie to Israel, however, lies in a personal relationship. In 2003, Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, married Israel-born Dorrit Moussaieff — bringing yet one more Jew to Iceland and to an interfaith marriage with an Icelandic native. While Moussaieff is secular and has lived in London since age 13, she was born in Jerusalem’s old Bukharian Quarter and is the great-granddaughter of Shlomo Moussaieff, one of the quarter’s well-known founders. Some in the community have credited her with bringing positive publicity to Iceland’s Jewish community, though she herself has never reached out to the community directly.
Still, the tie has not necessarily helped burnish Israel’s image. During a private visit to the land of her birth in 2006, the Icelandic first lady was taken out of line at passport control and denied permission to leave the country after a three-day stay because she did not have an Israeli passport. An immigration officer refused to accept her British passport, noting that Israeli law requires all citizens to arrive and leave the country using an Israeli passport only.
According to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, the president’s wife was allowed to leave only after one and a half hours, culminating in a shouting match between Moussaieff and the female border patrol officer.
“This is about to become a serious diplomatic incident,” Moussaieff reportedly said. “This is why everyone hates Jews.”
In an interview afterward with Iceland’s national broadcasting authority, Moussaieff did not deny the comment. “I lost my temper,” she said. “I couldn’t say anything else… At that point, [the immigration officer] didn’t know that I was married to Ólafur. And I said something like: ‘How can you do this to the first lady of another country? I’m not your possession.’”
The immigration officer’s response, according to Moussaieff, was: “I couldn’t care less who you are. I’ve never heard of Iceland, and the people there don’t interest me at all.”
Bullying Gets Under Your Skin: Health Effects of Bullying on Children and Youth
April 21, 2015
Tracy Vaillancourt Ph.D., Professor and Canada Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa, and Elizabeth Edgerton, M.D., Health Resources and Services Administration
Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Studies suggest that this type of peer victimization is a pervasive issue — 28% of children and youth reported being bullied at school during the 2011 school year. Research since the 1990s shows that children who are bullied are more likely than their peers to develop mental and physical health problems. Now, new neurobiological research shows the negative effects of bullying on the physical health, mental health, and overall well-being of children and youth.
Genetics research, neuroimaging studies, and studies of the stress response system reveal harmful biological changes associated with bullying. For instance, studies show bullying causes depression in children and youth. Researchers have tried to explain this bullying-health link by examining the role of the body’s stress response system. These studies suggest that bullying impacts the body’s stress response system and that these changes can be risk factors for poorer health. Researchers are now examining specific genetic vulnerabilities that may place a person at risk for later health impairment and disease risk factors, such as poorer immune function. These studies suggest that peer victimization seems to “get under the skin” and that exposure to peer abuse affects the developing stress response and expression of genes, which places children and youth at greater risk for poorer health outcomes.
However, far more research is needed to understand the complex relationship between bullying, health outcomes, and neurobiology. A deeper understanding of the neurobiology of peer victimization could help explain why some children and youth become ill as a consequence of bullying, while others do not. It is well-documented that factors such as family life, school climate, gender, and temperament can impact health outcomes of bullying. However, much less attention has been paid to how a person’s biology may also affect health outcomes of bullying or to how the experience of being humiliated by peers on a consistent basis may alter gene expression in such a way that health problems ensue. Recognizing the “invisible scars” bullying can leave is an important step in promoting positive well-being for youth through adolescence and into adulthood.
Tracy Vaillancourt is a Canada Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa where she is cross-appointed as a full professor in the Faculty of Education (counselling program) and in the School of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences. Elizabeth Edgerton is the Director of the Division of Child, Adolescent and Family Health at the Health Resources and Services Administration.
If Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is all about focusing on the positive, how do educators address bullying, the ultimate negative and aggressive behavior?By avoiding use of the term “bully,” removing the social reinforcements for bullying and focusing on teaching the concept of being respectful to all students in school, according to a recent study in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. The study introduces a bully-prevention program consistent with the PBS philosophy.“A major emphasis was on teaching students that disrespectful behavior typically keeps happening because it results in attention and praise from others,” the researchers write. “Students were encouraged to ‘take away the attention that serves as oxygen maintaining the flame of disrespectful behavior.’”
The 3-step strategy (stop, walk, talk) encourages students to defuse bullying situations and to go to an adult when they are unsuccessful, according to the article.
The specific skills taught include:
• discriminating between behavior that is respectful and disrespectful
• saying “stop” and using the stop gesture (hand held up) when a student experiences disrespectful behavior
• saying stop and taking away the victim when a student witnesses disrespectful behavior
• walking away after saying “stop” if disrespectful behavior continues
• telling an adult about the disrespectful behavior if it continues after the students walks away
• if told to “stop” by another student, discontinuing the behavior.
Three elementary schools in one district that had implemented PBS were selected to participate in the study evaluating the effectiveness of the BP-PBS curriculum. The curriculum (available at www.pbis.org) was delivered by teachers in the schools over 4-5 days. The curriculum focused on behavior in unstructured and less monitored settings such as the cafeteria, gym, playground, hallway and bus area where aggression is most common.
Two students with aggressive behaviors
Principals from each school nominated 2 students for observation on the playground based on their high levels of physical or verbal aggression toward peers. Following teachers’ delivery of the curriculum, observers monitored childrens’ playground behavior, focusing on the children who had been nominated by the principals.
Observers recorded the frequency of physical or verbal aggression during lunch recess. Physical aggression was defined as hitting, biting, kicking, choking, stealing, throwing objects, or restricting freedom of movement. Verbal aggression included teasing, taunting, threatening, negative body language or negative gestures.
Observers also recorded victims’ and bystanders’ responses to aggressive behavior. Appropriate victim and bystander responses included the use of a stop signal, walking away, or ignoring the aggression. Inappropriate responses included positive responses such as laughing or cheering and negative responses such as complaining, fighting back or whining.
The 6 target students had a combined mean of 3.1 incidents of aggression at baseline observation before implementation of BP-PBS. Once BP-PBS was fully implemented the mean was 0.9 incidents for the 6 target students, a 72% decrease from baseline.
With the BP-PBS intervention, victims:
• said “stop” 30% of the time during a bullying incident (a 28% increase from base line),
• walked away 13% of the time (10% increase)
• delivered a positive response 8% of the time (11% decrease)
• delivered a negative response 15% of the time (19% decrease) and
• delivered no response 41% of the time (1% increase).
“First, the results of this study indicate that the use of bullying language may not be necessary, because its complex definitions and descriptions can be difficult to recognize for students as well as staff,” the researchers write. “By avoiding the bullying language, we were able to focus on observable behaviors, permitting more reliable data collection and more consistent responses by staff and students.”
The researchers note that staff rated BP-PBS as efficient to implement, indicating that the approach may be more likely to be sustained over time. While the frequency of aggression decreased for each of the selected students, their problem behavior was not eliminated completely, nor did it reach the lower levels of their peers. These students would need supplemental, individually designed interventions to reduce aggressive behavior to the norm.
“Bully Prevention in Positive Behavior Support,” by Scott Ross and Robert Horner, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Winter 2009, Volume 42, Number 4, pps. 747-759.
A painted “elf door” leans against rocks near the Icelandic town of Selfos. (Bob Strong/Reuters)
At the edge of the ancient Gálgahraun lava field, about a 10-minute drive outside Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík, a small group of local environmentalists has made camp among the gnarled volcanic rock, wild moss, and browning grass to protest a new road development that will slice the bucolic landscape into four sections and place a traffic circle in its core. The project, led by the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration and the nearby municipality of Garðabær, will provide a more direct route to and from the tip of the Álftanes peninsula, where the rustic, red-tiled compound of the country’s president and an eponymous hamlet of 2,600 people stand.
The Hraunavinir, or “Friends of the Lava,” believe that any benefits from a project that snakes through Gálgahraun are cancelled out by its cultural and environmental costs. According to protester Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, the thoroughfares would destroy some of the “amazingly beautiful lava formations” and spoil a habitat where birds flock and small plants flourish. One of Iceland’s most famous painters, Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval, once worked on his canvases there, perhaps magnetized by the charm of the terrain’s craggy natural relics.
Not all of the arguments against the development are so straightforward. At least a few believe it will displace certain supernatural forces that dwell within the hallowed volcanic rubble, and fear the potentially dark consequences that come with such a disturbance. Jónsdóttir, a greying and spectacled seer who also operates an “elf garden” in nearby Hafnarfjörður, believes the field is highly populated by elves, huldufolk (hidden people), and dwarves, many of whom, she says, have recently fled the area while the matter is settled.
One of the many oddly shaped rocks at the lava field houses “a very important elf church,” which lies directly in the path of one of the roads, according to Jónsdóttir. Both she and another seer visited the field separately and came to the same conclusion about the spot. “I mean, there are thousands or millions of rocks in this lava field,” she said, “but we both went to the same rock or cliff and talked about an elf church.” She knows about the elf church because she can see it, she says, and also sense its energy, a sensation many Icelanders are familiar with.
If a road is completely necessary, the elves will generally move out of the way, but if it is deemed superfluous, a possibility at Gálgahraun, “very bad things” might happen. “This elf church is connected by light energy to other churches, other places,” Jónsdóttir said. “So, if one of them is destroyed, it’s, uh, well, it’s not a good thing.”
A view from Gálgahraun lava field in autumn (Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir)
Though Jónsdóttir’s belief in elves may sound extreme, it is fairly common for Icelanders to at least entertain the possibility of their existence. In one 1998 survey, 54.4 percent of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. That poll is fairly consistent with other findings and with qualitative fieldwork, according to an academic paper published in 2000 titled “The Elves’ Point of View” by Valdimar Hafstein, who now is a folkloristics professor at the University of Iceland. “If this was just one crazy lady talking about invisible friends, it’s really easy to laugh about that,” Jónsdóttir said. “But to have people through hundreds of years talking about the same things, it’s beyond one or two crazy ladies. It is part of the nation.”
Jacqueline Simpson, a visiting professor at the University of Chichester’s Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales, and Fantasy in England, said references to the word alfar, or elf, first appeared in the Icelandic record in Viking-era poems that date back to around 1000 AD. The older texts do not divulge much about what the elves do; they mainly focus on the activities of the gods. The more elaborate stories cropped up in the folklore of the 16th and 17th centuries and have ripened with age.
The elves differ from the extremely tiny figures that are typically depicted as assistants to Santa Claus in popular American mythology. And unlike the fairies of Britain and other parts of Europe, Icelandic elves live and look very much like humans, according to Simpson and other experts. “You’ve got to get right up close before you can be sure it is an elf and not a human,” said Simpson, who began studying Old Icelandic in her undergraduate days and later compiled a book full of Icelandic legend translations. When elves are spotted, they are typically donning “the costume of a couple of hundred years ago,” when many of the stories really came alive.
Their behavior is also similar to that of people: “[T]heir economy is of the same sort: like humans, the hidden people have livestock, cut hay, row boats, flense whales and pick berries,” Hafstein writes. “Like humans, they too have priests and sheriffs and go to church on Sundays.” This would explain the elf church in the lava field. According to Jónsdóttir, elves can range wildly in size, from a few centimeters to three meters in height. But Icelanders typically come into contact with the smaller ones: one “around one foot tall” and “the other…is perhaps similar to a 7-year-old child.” They may live in houses, sometimes with multiple floors, and, if you leave them alone, they’ll generally mind their own business. According to Simpson, “treat them with respect, do not upset their dwelling places, or try to steal their cattle, and they’ll be perfectly … quite neutral, quite harmless.”
Building or otherwise disturbing their homes and churches, on the other hand, can agitate their “fiercely” territorial side, Simpson said. Machines break or stop operating without explanation, according to Hafstein’s research. Then, perhaps, a worker sprains an ankle or breaks a leg. In older stories, sheep, cows, and people can fall ill, and even drop dead. According to Simpson, “If you damage their stones, you will pay for it.”
Perhaps the darkest threads in the 19th century folklore involve elves kidnapping people and holding them hostage in the mountains, or replacing babies or small toddlers with a “changeling,” or an “elf that looks like a baby but isn’t,” according to Simpson. These acts are completely spontaneous and malicious. “There you are you see a happy young mother, got your nice baby, and then mysteriously,” she says, “it stops growing or it becomes very fretful and ill-tempered. And then you realize, ‘Oh heavens! The elves have stolen the real baby and left this thing instead.’”
Though the baby-snatching stories have certainly dropped out of the mainstream Icelandic consciousness, tales of elves meddling with construction projects that encroach on their territory, usually in rocks or hills, abound. “They tell of mechanical breakdowns with no apparent cause, freak accidents, and dream warnings, or a series of these, interpreted as the work of elves,” Hafstein writes. “The invisible inhabitants of the construction site are supposed to want to deter from, delay or retaliate for the ongoing construction on their property.”
A map of the road plans at the Gálgahraun lava field. The white dotted lines on the left represent the four new roads that will meet at its center. (Garðabær/screenshot)
In fact, beliefs in misfortune befalling those who dare to build in elf territory is so widespread and frequent that the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration has created a five-page “standard reply” for press inquiries about elves, which Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, a chief spokesperson, emailed in response to questions from The Atlantic. “It will not answer the question of whether the [Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration] employees do or do not believe in elves and ‘hidden people’ because opinion differs greatly on this and it tends to be a rather personal matter,” the statement reads.
The agency goes on:
…It cannot be denied that belief in the supernatural is occasionally the reason for local concerns and these opinions are taken into account just as anybody else’s would be. This is simply a case of good public relations.
We value the heritage of our ancestors and if oral tradition passed on from one generation to the other tells us that a certain location is cursed, or that supernatural beings inhabit a certain rock, then this must be considered a cultural treasure. In the days when the struggle with the forces of nature was harsher than it is now, conservation came to the fore in this folklore, and copses and beautiful natural features were even spared.
The reaction of the [administration] to these concerns has varied. Issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point whilst the elves living there have supposedly moved on. At other places the people in charge have seen no other solution than to continue the project against the wishes of certain individuals. There have been occasions when working arrangements have been changed slightly but at little extra expense. There is no denying that these stories of elves and cursed places have attracted the attention of the media. [The administration]’s employees have answered questions on this matter and have not ducked the issue.
In the late 1970s, the agency heeded seers’ advice about “supernatural beings” that resided in rocks beneath “The Trolls’ Pass” in northern Iceland and decided against detonating them. It calls the uneven road “a testimony” to its efforts to comply with local beliefs. No accidents have since occurred near the pass; some say elves have protected the drivers. “It’s good to make deals with elves,” Jónsdóttir said. “They always keep their bargain.”
There are also more recent stories of benevolence. In 2010, Árni Johnsen, a former member of the Icelandic Parliament, flipped his SUV on an icy road in southwest Iceland, careened off a small cliff, and survived without any major injuries. Later, he credited a group of elves living in a boulder near the wreck with saving his life. When a road was slated for construction over the rock, he insisted the roadmakers “save it,” according to Jónsdóttir. He then called in Jónsdóttir to determine whether his suspicions about the elves were correct, according to anIcelandic Review article at the time. She found “three generations” of elves living inside it, and, in a meeting with the creatures, inquired about whether they wanted to be moved away to a safer location near Johnsen’s home. “The elves thought about it and talked about it a whole lot,” she told The Atlantic. “They said, ‘If you can promise that you put our home on grass, because we want to have sheep. And this side of the rock has to face the view over the ocean and the small island.’”
The 30-ton boulder was transported, and now the elves live happily in a field with “sheep and horses” near his home, according to Jónsdóttir.
Ingolfsson, the road agency’s spokesperson, explained that the project at the Gálgahraun lava field will continue as planned, because the authorities view it as a “necessary improvement.” “A settlement with the protesters is not plausible,” he wrote in an email. “The elves have not been conspicuous … in this argument.”
It’s important to note that not everyone in Iceland believes in these tales. It’s certainly a sensitive subject that some don’t feel comfortable discussing with outsiders.
Icelandic music phenom Bjork once cautioned the New Yorker: “You have to watch out for the Nordic cliche,” she said. “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.”
In 2005, the New York Timesreported that Hafstein, the researcher who penned the widely cited paper mentioned earlier in this piece, had “grown weary of the subject,” after having been identified as “a national elf expert” by the Icelandic Tourist Board. In an email, Hafstein helpfully referred The Atlantic to his paper, but declined an interview, writing: “I’m out of the ‘elf business’ since a long time ago—did some research back in the mid-90s, but have long since moved on to other things.”
Then, there are the full-blown skeptics. According to Árni Björnsson, the former director of the ethnological department of the National Museum of Iceland, widespread belief in elves is “a rather recent myth” which arose in the 1970s, and flourished in part because of “the hippie culture.” While he acknowledges his country’s rich history of folktales, it doesn’t prove “that people really believe in them, no more than they believe in the real existence of Tarzan or Harry Potter.”
Under his theory, most of the “gossip” about people believing that elves interfere with construction projects dates back to a single story about “a clumsy but merry bulldozer driver,” who, in the summer of 1971, broke his machine and some pipelines while moving rocks on the outskirts of Reykjavik. He attempted to explain the accident by arguing that there were elves living in the rock. “No one had ever heard about elves in this rock before, but his comment made headline in a newspaper, and the ball began to roll,” he said in an email. The story gained traction in the 1980s, partly due to his assistance. He wrote:
This story got a new international swing at the summit meeting of [Mikhail Gorbachev] and Ronald Reagan in Reykjavík 1986. The poor hundreds of foreign journalists got for the first days very sparse news from the meeting. They tried to use their time on something else. Some of them had heard about the impressive landscape, others about ancient literature, and quite a few had heard that Icelanders believed in elves. In my capacity at the National Museum, I was overwhelmed with questions. They wanted a confirmation from an official! I tried to be flexible and diplomatic, but the stories went around the world.
Despite his doubts, even Björnsson admits that his own family had a story about elves. No one on his boyhood farm was supposed to cut the grass on a slope near the hayfield because hidden people lived in the rocks. A farm hand who disobeyed his great-grandfather’s orders was allegedly struck with tuberculosis. And while he outright claims he doesn’t believe, he hedges a bit. “I do not dare to maintain that usual human sense organs are perfect,” he wrote, “so there might be a possibility that something exists which normal people cannot perceive.”
The Northern Lights above the ash plume of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Theories about why Icelanders in particular seem prone to such superstitions center on the earliest settlers’ struggle to endure their isolated existence in such a majestic but unpredictable landscape.
Alaric Hall, a lecturer in medieval English literature at the University of Leeds who also researches Icelandic medieval beliefs, argues that the elves served as a kind of invented “other” for its earliest Viking settlers, who did not have any natives or indigenous people to “conquer.” “The Vikings who arrived in Iceland in the 870s really were probably the first human settlers on the island,” Hall, who did his dissertation about elves in England, said. “So they are actually indigenous people. But they don’t want to be. Like everyone else in Western Europe in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period, they really wanted to be invaders. So, what elves did is they provide…this kind of earlier indigenous population that can allow you to feel like a conqueror.”
Simpson believes the extremely poor and isolated life of the 17th and 18th century settlers only enriched the detail of the initial stories. Icelanders naturally imagined the elves living the comfortable and extravagant existence that everyday people longed for. Commonly, boys would encounter elves in the hills “feasting” at a time in the country’s history when having a decent meal was uncommon.
The modern stories have changed course though,according to Simpson, and now elves serve as a kind of reminder of an older existence, before cities, industry, and other developments began leaving a permanent imprint on the island. “They stand now, maybe, for the good simple old ways.”
Björnsson speculated that the stories are used to express “a sort of primitive environmentalism.” In a way, they represent a special connection with the natural landscape that is otherwise difficult to articulate. Haukur Ingi Jónasson, a professor in project management at Reykjavík University who wrote about elves during his graduate studies in theology and psychoanalysis at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, says Iceland’s many mountains, hills, and rivers are loaded with significance for the people who live near them. “[Elves are] kind of a ritualistic attempt to protect something meaningful, respect something of importance, and acknowledge something of worth,” he said. In other words, the elves honor a balance of power that has always leaned clearly in the direction of nature and the whimsy of its erupting volcanoes, shifting glaciers, and quivering ground. “We are kind of always at the disposal of something that is not us,” he said. “It’s it. It’s nature. It’s out there. I cannot control it, it’s it that I have to comply with.”
As industry has encroached, Jónsdóttir insists, many humans have forgotten about “the inner life of the earth” as they bend it to their will. When elves act out, they are doing more than just protecting their own homes, they are reminding people of a lost relationship. “[T]hey’re …protectors of nature, like we humans should be,” she said. “We have just forgotten.”
Though a case is pending about the legality of the construction at the lava field, Jónsdóttir told The Atlantic the contractors were planning to ignore it and continue working into the field anyway. She said she and the other members of the group would be there waiting for the bulldozers. Last week, she and several of the environmental protesters were arrested for standing in front of the machines. “I am out of jail,” she wrote in the email to The Atlantic after she was released. “The people in Iceland are in shock after this day. Not only Nature lost, but the [belief] in democracy in Iceland.”
The next day, the protesters returned, but this time, the police simply carried people out of the construction zone and did not make any arrests. The bulldozers are currently razing the lava, and now the elves may need to step in. “It is up to the elves, but also up to us humans,” she wrote in another email. “We really need to work together on this one.”