If you’re looking to build yourself a new home, you’ll quickly learn that the construction itself is only one part of the process. Before the shovels hit the dirt or the hammers hit the nails, you’ll be filling out a lot of paperwork. Depending on where you are, you’ll need to make sure you get the all-clear from your planning and zoning commission. You may need to do an environmental impact story. There may be all sorts of easements and restrictive covenants that you need to deal with.
And if you’re in Iceland, you may need to get permission from the elves.
Yes, elves. As the Atlantic noted in a 2013 story, “it is fairly common for Icelanders to at least entertain the possibility of elves’ existence. In one 1998 survey, 54.4 percent of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of them,” and follow-up investigations have found that number holding strong. These elves, though, aren’t what one would find in Lord of the Rings or in Santa’s workshop; rather, as the Atlantic continues, “Icelandic elves live and look very much like humans” except that they’re typically much, much shorter (around 1′ to maybe 3′ tall) and dress like it’s the 1500s or so. In general, though, they just kind of do the same things we larger folk do, and if you leave them be, they’ll similarly leave you alone. Sure, once in a while, they’ll borrow a tool or something — one Icelander told the New York Times that “some elves [once] borrowed her kitchen scissors, only to return them a week later to a place she had repeatedly searched” — but in general, it’s a live-and-let-live relationship.
But if you get in their way? They’ll stand up for themselves. Elves, apparently, live in rocks, boulders and the like, and they don’t take kindly when us non-elves relocate them. Again, per the Atlantic:
Building around or otherwise disturbing their homes and churches, on the other hand, can agitate their “fiercely” territorial side, [folklore professor Jacqueline] Simpson says. 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.
The solution should be simple — just don’t build near elves. (That’s why there’s a boulder on the side of the road in the picture above, via the Guardian.) But that’s complicated for one similarly simple reason: the elves tend to not make themselves known to just anyone. You need to know what you’re looking for — or you need to consult an expert. Which is what many Icelanders end up doing.
Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir is one such expert. In December of 2016, according to the Daily Beast, she “was among roughly 25 people arrested for protesting the building of a road through the ancient Gálgahraun lava field, about 10 minutes outside Reykjavik.” Their objection: “the road would also mean bulldozing Ófeigskirkja, a large lava rock that is one of Iceland’s holiest elf churches.” And for Ragnhildur, the protest wasn’t ideologically driven, but one of mercy: the elves, she claimed, approached her and asked her to be their spokesperson. She, of course, agreed. The two sides — with Ragnhildur acting as an intermediary (I guess?) — ultimately compromised; the government built the road, but also paid to have Ófeigskirkja and its elves relocated to a safe (and elf-approved) location nearby.
As outlandish as asking the elves may seem, it turns out to be not terribly uncommon in Iceland, either. Per the above-linked New York Times piece, governments will often consult “elf experts” on how to best approach a large rock or cliff face before engaging in construction. It’s better than the alternative: per the Times, when once construction project hit some bad luck, the supervisor decided to call it quits, telling the local press “we’re going to see whether we can’t reach an understanding with the elves” before continuing. So you’re probably better off getting pre-clearance.
From the Archives: Santa’s Elves Live in… Schenectady?: Not the North Pole. Just upstate New York.