Huldufólk: Hunting for the Fey in Iceland by J.C. Drake
TURF HOUSE AT KELDUR
Only four of us had been in the bar that entire night, along with the bartender – who was also the manager and the brewer. It was my wife and I and a married lesbian couple whom we’d befriended during our layover in Boston. A light snow was falling in Reykjavik, Iceland, where we had come, ostensibly, to see the Northern Lights; the Aurora Borealis. By profession I am a researcher, but my hobby is traveling the world exploring out of the way places and investigating mysteries that others have not been able to solve. I am a skeptic – but from time to time I encounter phenomena that I have not successfully explained.
Ever on the lookout for a chance to explore high strangeness I took the opportunity to query the barman about a local mystery. I’d been praising his excellent beer all night and we had developed a rapport. The man was overflowing with a desire to laud his home country – at that time emerging from the recent banking crisis. Icelanders are characteristically understated people – but they are a nation of storytellers.
ELF HOUSE AT VIK
“So. I’ll just say it. Elves. Is it true that you all really believe in them?”
There was no hesitation in the response. The barman proceeded as if I’d asked him about the color of his shirt.
“Oh, yes. Absolutely. I’ve seen them.”
I fought to maintain my poker face. “Really? I’m very interested in that.”
“Yes, yes. Huldufólk. Little people.”
“It means secret people, yes? Sorry, I speak German and I’m trying to at least learn to read Icelandic.”
“Oh, very good. It’s the hardest language in the world. You’ll never learn it. Yes. It’s secret people – or you’d call them ‘hidden people’ in English.”
Then we talked about these Huldufólk for a long time, much of the history I already knew, having studied it previously. Belief in little people is largely a worldwide phenomenon, dating to very ancient history. The tradition is especially common in Europe. Elves, gnomes, changelings, and faeries; all of these are varieties of “hidden folk.” Likely the word we best know them by is “fairy,” derived from the old world “fey” or “fae.” This word is derived from the Latin fata – a difficult word to understand, which we loosely translate as “fate,” “death,” or even “understanding.” The French give us our modern meaning for the word fey, which we take to mean “enchanted.”
Fey Folk aren’t just hidden people – but dangerous people. Legends speak of men who wander into fairy rings and find themselves lost to the world, dancing away for a century or more until they’re returned to our realm with all their friends and family long dead. Parents leave their homes and return to find their healthy, happy child replaced with a wizened and distant simulacra of their baby – a fairy changeling. Milk maids who didn’t leave a little milk in the barnyard might wake to find their hair in knots. Fairies steal, hurt, and play tricks.
The British author Arthur Machen believed quite seriously that the fay folk were real hidden beings and that we moderns had cartoonized them to remove their menace. But the Icelanders certainly recognize their potential to do harm; with surveys showing a majority of Icelanders believe in the hidden people. It is not uncommon to see alongside a stretch of road or in a lonely boulder field a so-called “elf house;” a painted cutout of a door or an intricately worked wooden model of a house placed there by humans as a totem to honor these elves. The Icelandic government goes so far as to build roads around sites sacred to the Huldufólk.
If stories of these creatures were limited to Iceland or even European culture then they might be dismissed as mere phantoms of folklore to those interested in the paranormal. But they are not. Indeed, there are parallels in other cultures, worldwide, that are uncanny. Of particular interest is the North American Pukwudgie, a creature known to the Wompanoag people of Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Pukwudgie is in every way a parallel of the European fey folk – small, hidden, living in sacred rocks and out of the way places, and dangerous when crossed. To this day, locals claim to see the Pukwudgies, especially in the area of Hockomock Swamp. Most interestingly, for the purposes of this account, Pukwudgies often appear as balls of light – some witnesses see them as white or blue illuminated balls that move about the landscape.
This brings me back to my conversation in that Reykjavik bar. I finally got around to asking my barman for a description of these hidden people.
“Lights,” he said, “they look like lights that move around on the ground and on hillsides. Sometimes they appear out of nowhere. Sometimes they are very close to you – other times very far. The old people say this is the light of the Huldufólk’s lanterns as they walk around at night or the lights from their little houses. But I don’t know.”
“And you’ve seen this?”
“Yes. I can tell you where. At the mouth of a cave very near the city out towards the local airport. We drive out there and host beer tastings to local groups and tourists at night. One night while setting up for an event I saw these lights. Moving just outside the mouth of the cave. It was like what you would see if little men, maybe a meter tall, were walking along the ground with a little lantern. Orange and white light. Do you have a car? Where are you headed to?”
I told him we were going east to explore over the next few days, at least as far as the beaches of Vik.
“Keldur. Very old. You may see the hidden people near Keldur. The locals say that – it’s right off the main road.”
I got directions to both sites and resolved to beg my wife to take me there on one of our trips outside the city over the next week. She agreed to the diversion. Keldur would be easy. We never made it to the cave – we didn’t have to.
There’s no easy way to say it – we saw the Huldufólk. Or more properly we saw the lights that are associated with them and with other hidden folk, such as the Pukwudgies in North America. On our third day in Iceland we left Reykjavik well before first light and headed east on the Ring Road (Highway 1), with the intention of exploring several waterfalls and a couple of sites important to the Icelandic Edda, or Sagas. Keldur, itself, is such a site: an ancient farmstead with connections to Njáll’s Saga. We stopped at Kelwith the sun still up and spent much of the afternoon exploring the site. We were alone there, noticing a prominent elf house built around the mouth of a spring.
Toward the evening we had dinner in Hella, a nearby town, and spoke to the locals about the Northern Lights which, as we talked, began to appear. We drove to a remote spot near a waterfall and spent a couple of hours watching them form overhead, taking photos. We left the falls about 8:30pm and decided to try Keldur again, per the barman’s advice. The road to Keldur is a horseshoe and, at the worst, we would merely make the loop, see the Milky Way under the big open sky and perhaps the Northern Lights again.
We rolled along the narrow road, my wife at the wheel, and an Icelandic crooner on the radio. The subject of the conversation was, in fact, the hidden people and the story the barman had told us. Maybe, in a way, that’s what summoned what we saw. It appeared to the left of the car, perhaps no more than 25 yards away, floating about 3 feet off the ground. I can only describe it as a fire ball, perhaps as much as two feet wide. We both realized that it was casting a shadow above the ground and appeared to be free floating.
My wife and I have had enough adventures not to panic. She immediately stopped the car and I began reaching for cameras.
We sat still and started asking questions: what was it? Something volcanic? Gas? A light on a pole? A mirage? A car light reflected in the distance?
It reappeared, this time to the back of the car. We turned the car around and drove towards it – but it vanished again. I missed it with the camera. We drove slowly up and down the road looking for the fireball to reappear. No other cars were passing. No other cars were visible on the horizon – merely the lights of a neighboring town and the white light of a single farm far in the distance. We were absolutely alone.
We continued to drive for about an hour rolling up and down the road, over and over, eventually deciding to abandon the search. The light appeared again and I leapt out of the car without stopping. Hitting the ground I was snapping pictures and running. I took a number of shots with both my phone and a small Nikon point-and-shoot, wishing I had the big Nikon that was back in Washington, DC. I ran toward the light and then suddenly hit a patch of ice, falling. I came to a fence – a kind of deer fence with a tight wire mesh. Despite the frozen ground I began to climb the fence, yelling “WHAT ARE YOU” at the top of my lungs.
The light vanished – and this time it did not return.
We found a bar and drank a few Viking beers before finding our way back to the hotel. We talked little and then only speculation about the light. Plans for the next day were amended automatically – we would return to Keldur in the morning and explore the landscape to see if anything else could have been there. I realized, as we were getting out of the car at our hotel that I had lost my hat – my favorite traveling cap, a wool Yorkshire model.
The drive back to Keldur the next morning was largely silent, the car full of excitement. We drove to the spot we’d been at only a few hours before in the dark. No houses. No structures. No lights on poles. No obvious volcanic features. Nothing.
I wouldn’t call what we saw a fairy or an elf – I’d call it a will-o-the-wisp, that class of mystery light so often seen but never actually proven to exist. But this is the thing the barman and so many others who claim to see the hidden people are seeing. Mysterious floating lights. Two aspects of the tale, however, are especially disturbing to me. The first is that we were talking about the lights and the Huldufólk when we had our sighting. What was summoned appeared, which leads one to believe the presence of some intelligence behind the phenomenon.
The second is, well, my hat. It was lost somewhere along the road during the chase and in retracing my steps I did not find it. However, on our return trip, we once again visited the Keldur farm itself, perhaps as much as another mile down the road. When we stepped out of the car to look around and re-read the sign outlining the history of the place, I looked down and there was my hat. It was resting on a rock, returned to me by someone who will forever remain…hidden.
ELF HOUSE AT KELDUR
All photos by J.C. Drake. Taken in Iceland.
J.C. Drake is a professional researcher and general problem-solving factotum. He holds a BA in Anthropology, an MA in History, and a PhD in Adult, Professional, and Community Education, specializing in understanding how people obtain cultural knowledge through narrative. His hobbies are writing weird fiction, traveling, and researching unsolved mysteries, which he has been doing for more than 20 years. Jerry is a natural story teller – and he is driven to express his desire to tell tales through the written word. He is married to Vickie Drake and they divide their time between Washington, DC and York, PA.