Iceland Believes

As discussed here, a 2007 survey of Icelanders showed that large numbers believed in elves and ghosts. The researcher stated:

Only 13 percent of participants in the study said it is impossible that elves exist, 19 percent found it unlikely, 37 percent said elves possibly exist, 17 percent found their existence likely and eight percent definite. Five percent did not have an opinion on the existence of elves.

More admitted to believing in ghosts. Only seven percent said their existence was impossible, 16 percent unlikely, 41 percent possible, 18 percent likely and 13 percent definite. Four percent had no opinion on the existence of ghosts.

These numbers are reportedly higher than other nations, but the article does not provide specifics. But even more interesting, these results were very similar to a similar survey conducted in 1974.

I visited Iceland last year, and on various excursions, my tour guides would point out various fanciful features. “That’s where some elves live,” one would say. Another pointed out a field of rocks and said, “Those rocks used to be trolls, but the sunlight turned them to stone.” At first, I thought these comments were just local color and kitsch for the tourists, but then I noticed that people had left flowers and other gifts at the elves’ house (a cluster of rocks leaning together, forming something akin to a shelter). So maybe there was something more to my guides’ comments. The survey would seem to back up that thought.

But why does Iceland continue to believe? I’m not an anthropologist or historian, but my guess is that Iceland has a very rich storytelling history, which, combined with its unique geography, primes Icelanders to continue believing today.

Iceland was settled by Norwegian Vikings after making brief pit stops in Ireland and Scotland to pick up women and slaves. These cultures have fantastic native mythologies and stories, many of which include creatures such as ghosts, elves, and trolls. It’s no wonder the stories came with the settlers (whether the creatures did is a question you can take up with Neil Gaiman after he completes the long awaited sequel, ICELANDIC GODS).

Even today, Iceland’s population is concentrated almost entirely along the coasts. The center is virtually vacant. Originally forested, today it is less so. But Iceland is still home to a number of natural wonders: geysers, glaciers, volcanoes, thermal vents, the Northern Lights, and waterfalls. Additionally, Iceland is so far north that Iceland is plunged into darkness throughout the winter. One can’t help but imagine what is lurking around the country, taking advantage of months of darkness (particularly when sunlight is lethal to some). I’m sure many families gathered together and shared stories of creatures just outside their door.

As a storyteller, I’m glad to see that a nation continues to believe. I think it makes the world a more charming, beautiful, wondrous place. It’s a way of preserving our past and creating new stories for future generations. It’s how we end up with movies like Trollhunter, artists like the human-pixie hybrid Bjork, and writers inspired by a bunch of flowers propped up against some mossy rocks.