Issue #21, November 1, 2022
Author: Stefan Jonasson
“This book is a love song for Iceland,” said Nancy Marie Brown about her new volume, Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth, during a webinar on the eve of its publication. She was presenting to a webinar hosted by the Icelandic National League of the United States on September 30. “The first time I went there, in 1986, it was like I had found a piece of myself that, even if I hadn’t quite lost it, it had been long supressed.” So, she first imagined that her latest book would be a collection of travel essays based on her journals, and it began to take shape back in 2009. But on her 21st trip to Iceland, she took a walk with an elf seer and that’s when, she says, “my collection of travel essays was hijacked by the elves.”
Nancy described a hike she took through a lava field with Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, who was instrumental in protecting the field from destruction by a proposed road project. “We didn’t talk much about elves or the hidden folk,” she recalled. Instead, they photographed the rocks, listened to the wind and the birds, experienced some of Iceland’s famously variable weather, took in its distinctive smells, and observed its bountiful flora. “We talked about art and inspiration. Why do some places attract artists and spark creative thought? Why are some places beautiful? And how do you define beauty? And we shared an experience I still can’t explain.” As they left the lava field, Ragnhildur asked, “Now, do you believe in elves?”
Looking for the Hidden Folk is Nancy Marie Brown’s attempt to answer that question. “It’s a question that seemed to get harder to understand the more I tried.” She used to work as a science writer and, after offering a long list of ways she’s sought to understand the world, she acknowledged, “my quest took some unusual turns.”
“Believing in elves, I learned, is a lot like believing in quantum mechanics. It is a way of perceiving and valuing the world around us.” She came to realize that the travel essays she had been working on shared one theme: “Icelanders see nature in different ways than I had been taught to see it. In Iceland, where the geology and the weather patterns are as fantastic as anything Tolkien thought up, the imagination is set free, and the mind is urged to pay attention.”
Nancy felt more open to wonder and beauty while in Iceland because, “to the Icelanders that I met, the world around us, every rock and every hill, is inhabited – by elves, yes, but also by stories. Stories shape how you see the world; they determine not only how you think of elves, but how you think of real things, such as hills and mountains and volcanoes. The stories we tell protect a place or permit its destruction. That’s why it seems to me we make a critical mistake when we laugh off an Icelander’s belief in elves.”
“What immaterial beings are we allowed to believe in,” she asked, “and who is allowed to do the believing?” She noted that a 1974 survey of Icelanders revealed that one in 20 had seen an elf, while one-third of them were prepared to entertain the possibility of their existence; thirty-two years later, the percentage of people who reported seeing an elf was the same, but more than half of the people entertained the possibility of their existence.
She recalled experiencing Eyjafjallajökull as having been like a dragon. “When I say I saw a dragon, I’m speaking metaphorically. Elf-seer Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir is not. But the elf she sees may not look like any elf you might see. Elves have always been shapeshifters. … Throughout history and across cultures, elves can only be seen when they wish to be seen, and they can take on whatever shapes they like. Or perhaps what’s true about mountains is also true about elves: we see what we’ve been trained to see, what our education allows us to see.”
After a short journey through how the human understanding of elves and trolls changed from the time before the Christianization of Iceland to the present day, Nancy observed, “In our day, elves are not so much evil as trivial. Our world has been disenchanted. Everything can be understood by science, we think; everything can be tamed, even if we haven’t tamed it or understood it quite yet.” Although she’s never seen an elf or troll herself, she says she’s had several encounters with the supernatural while in Iceland. She described one experience of feeling eyes on her neck while crossing the highlands on horseback, which she describes at length in her book. She also recounted her experience of being drawn towards Snæfellsjökull, a feeling about certain mountains that she suspects in universal.
“Wonder is an emotion,” Nancy says, and it’s the source of religion and science and art, adding, “it’s wonder that is at the heart of looking for the hidden folk. We all tell stories; we always have. But we don’t always take responsibility for the effects of our storytelling. The purpose of a story is not to pass the time; the purpose of a story is to help you lead a good life. In looking for the hidden folk, I invite you to join in intimate conversation about how we look at and find value in nature. I hope to reveal how the words we use, and the stories we tell, shape the world we see. … Our beliefs about the earth will preserve or destroy it.”
And therein lies why she believes that Iceland’s elves can save the earth. “Climate change will lead to the mass extinction of species unless we humans change course. Iceland suggests a different way of thinking about the earth, one that to me offers hope. Icelanders believe in elves. And you should, too.”
A robust question and answer period followed Nancy’s presentation, which was hosted by Carrie Kozubal, and we will report on it in a future issue. Nancy Marie Brown’s Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth is published by Pegasus Books.
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Lögberg-Heimskringla is the only newspaper that covers the entire Icelandic community.
With news about people and events from one end of North America to the other, as well as Iceland, Lögberg-Heimskringlahas the full story on people of Icelandic descent, whether they live in Manitoba, North Dakota, Alberta, Utah, Nova Scotia... or any point in between.
|Photo: Stefan Jonsson||Jim Busby, Col. Dave Grebstad, Cathie Eliasson, and Mayor Brian Bowman|
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, an advisory board to the federal government, unveiled a plaque commemorating the national historical significance of the Winnipeg Falcons Hockey Club in a special ceremony held at the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame on April 26, 2022. Icelandic Canadians, mostly descendants of the Falcons, filled the exhibition area of the Hall of Fame for the unveiling ceremony. “National historic designations reflect the rich and varied heritage of our country and provide an opportunity for Canadians to learn about our diverse history,” according to Parks Canada.
The bronze commemorative plaque reads: “The Winnipeg Falcons Hockey Club, founded through the merger of two Icelandic Canadian teams in 1909, rose from a community organization in the West End to become Canadian and Olympic champions. In 1920, the Falcons won the Allan Cup after beating a strong University of Toronto team in Canada’s senior amateur championship. The same year, they represented Canada in Antwerp, Belgium, where they won the first Olympic gold medal for hockey. The skill and sportsmanship of the Icelandic Canadians who dominated this club, named for Iceland’s national bird, have been a source of pride for people of Icelandic descent across the country.” The text also appears in French and Icelandic. The plaque, which will eventually be installed outside First Lutheran Church, was formally unveiled by Colonel Dave Grebstad and Cathie Eliasson.
Accustomed as I am to attending events where people stand passively while the national anthem is played, I was struck by how energetically the crowd joined in singing O Canada out loud, which was followed by the now customary land acknowledgement in both English and French. Master of ceremonies Terrie Dionne, superintendent of the Manitoba Field Unit of Parks Canada, introduced the official party, which included Brian Bowman, Mayor of Winnipeg; Colonel Dave Grebstad, author of A Confluence of Destinies: The Saga of the Winnipeg Falcons; Jim Busby, historical researcher and representative of First Lutheran Church; Cathie Eliasson, representing Winnipeg Falcons descendants; and Dan Vandal, Minister of Northern Affairs and Member of Parliament for St. Boniface–St. Vital, who joined the event virtually.
“We all know about the Heritage Minutes, Historica Canada’s one-minute history lessons on TV,” noted Jim Busby. “In 2014, after a hiatus of several years, Historica Canada decided to make a new one recognizing both the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and Canada’s national game of hockey. That story would be about our Winnipeg Falcons.” The video was played and Jim advised everyone to pay close attention to the facial expressions and hand gestures, all of which are filled with meaning. He explained the action scene by scene.
“Winnipeg endures,” said Colonel Dave Grebstad, quoting the late CBC radio personality Stuart McLean. “That phrase resonates with me. It resonates with me because we boast the values of perseverance, determination, and grit that personify the very spirit of Winnipeg, a spirit that was perfectly manifested by the men of the Winnipeg Falcons, in light of the numerous challenges they overcame on their way to becoming world champions in ice hockey. … The Falcons endured.” It was Colonel Grebstad who nominated the Falcons for this recognition by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 2018.
“All descendants were thrilled to hear that the Falcons were finally getting national recognition, not just through community sports teams with their induction into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and the Olympic Hall of Fame, but also for how they accomplished this grand feat of winning the first Olympic gold medal,” said Cathie Eliasson, speaking on behalf of their descendants. “As the season played out, they became Manitoba and Western Canadian champions, ultimately winning the Allan Cup, the national title, showing that no matter what your ethnic background may be, it was hard work and team play that won games.” She went on to say, “Some of us are old enough and lucky enough to remember our afis, grandpas, and uncles, and have stories to pass on to our own children.”
While acknowledging the historic significance of the Falcons’ achievement, which he described as “an important and poignant victory, not only for the team, but for all Canadians,” Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal said, “I would be remiss not to mention Team Canada, who earlier this year brought home the gold for women’s hockey at the Beijing Winter Olympics,” before adding, “All Canadians will be inspired and captivated by the stories of the people, places, and events that have shaped our great country.”
Describing Winnipeg as a “rapturous hockey city and a hotbed for our country’s national winter sport,” Mayor Brian Bowman highlighted the city’s rich hockey history. “The Winnipeg Falcons helped solidify Winnipeg’s reputation as a hockey city.” He noted that the Falcons’ Olympic victory in 1920 was just one of many championships the team claimed. “I grew up a Falcon – a Varsity View Falcon,” he quipped to great laughter, referring to the team at one of the city’s suburban community clubs. “The Falcons name is one that really resonates with Winnipeggers and Canadians.”
The Winnipeg Falcons Hockey Club was established in 1909 through the merger of the Icelandic Athletic Club and the Vikings, playing initially in an intermediate league before being accepted into the city’s senior league after a strong showing in the 1914-1915 Allan Cup playoffs. The entire Falcons lineup enlisted to serve in the Canadian Army during World War I, six players seeing active duty while two paid the ultimate sacrifice. The surviving team members regrouped following the war and began their steady march to Olympic victory, returning to Winnipeg in 1920 to a grand parade and street celebration, not to mention the accolades of government officials, the press, and the proud people of their home community.
The leading and the sights
The plot of this old Icelandic folktale is reminiscent to that of Charles Dickens’s classic, A Christmas Carol, but in this case the role of the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” we know as Ebenezer Scrooge is occupied by an unnamed parish priest and the role of the three spirits is played by a single angel from God. Given the dominant role of priests in Icelandic history, and the great wealth amassed by the clergy, compared to other Icelanders, it’s not the least bit surprising that it would be a priest who symbolizes the greed and indifference of unchecked privilege in Icelandic lore. Unlike A Christmas Carol and many Icelandic folktales, Christmas does not enter into this story at all. Instead, it hinges on the denial of baptism to an infant and the horrible fate that awaits the child and its parents. Many Icelandic tales from the past concern the fate of the unbaptized or incorrectly baptized, and after the Christianization of Iceland, the law dealt severely with priests who failed in the performance of this crucial duty.
In the beginning of this story, there was once a priest in the western part of the country. He was both greedy and unrighteous, arrogant and eccentric. Among other things, he adopted the custom of having worship in the church no less on weekdays than on the sabbath, and even said that it was a breach of the sabbath not to come to church on weekdays.
Once, in the wintertime, a child was brought to the priest to be baptized, but the weather was bad and looked foul. The people who had brought the child told him their errand, but he reprimanded them severely, as he was inclined to do, and said, among other things, that they ought to have let him know of their desire beforehand. He refused to baptize the child and sent the family away. But the couple who had brought the child, along with the child itself, died from exposure on their way back home. This in no way troubled the priest's conscience, and he went on quite as before.
The following summer, the priest sent a notice to his parishioners that he had fixed the following Thursday for service. This was at the high point of the hay harvest.
No one said they would come, and yet none dared say they would not. When Thursday arrived, the priest waited for the people to come to the celebration of worship. But when he found that his flock were too late in coming, he rushed into the church and began pacing up and down the floor. After he had been there awhile, an unknown man came to him and greeted him. The priest, in his arrogant manner, did not respond to the man’s greeting, but asked him whether he had seen any of the people coming.
“What people?” asked the stranger. “Why, the church people, to be sure,” said the priest. “Why should they come today, a weekday?” asked the stranger.
The priest answered, “What does that matter to you? The people are bound to come, as I have called them.”
The stranger said: “This is a strange expectation, especially when everyone is busy making hay. So none will come, naturally enough. You seem strange in many other ways, my good priest, and unlike other people. If I searched further, I would no doubt find much more that was odd about you.”
At this, the priest became angry, asking: “What is there so strange about me?”
The stranger replied: “I will show you, if you like; let us both go out together.”
And so they went. When they got outside the door of the church, the priest saw a large, oblong vat, filled to the brim with milk on one side and blood on the other, which did not mingle together. The priest wondered at this, then went to the container and put his hand in to try to mix them by stirring them about, but they did not mix.
“This is certainly strange,” said the priest.
“Sure enough,” answered the stranger, “but you will see more things of this kind.”
The priest asked what he meant. “That you shall know later,” said the man. Then they walked out of the churchyard and arrived at a lake. There they saw two grown birds swimming, along with one young one. No sooner had they touched the shore of the lake than the young bird flew up, perching in the hair of the priest, pecking his head hard. The priest tried to get rid of the bird, but being unable to do so in any way, he begged his companion to drive the bird away, but his companion answered that he could not yet do so.
After this, they came to a large waterfall in a river, beneath which a man was standing with his mouth wide open, swallowing the whole of the waterfall; but it flowed through his body as though it were a sponge. This, too, the priest found a strange sight.
Next, they came to another river with a waterfall in it that fell over a mighty rock. Underneath was a man who also swallowed the whole of the waterfall, but no water could be seen flowing through him this time. Once again, the stranger would not tell the priest what this meant.
Now they came to a fine grassy pasture. Here the priest saw two sheep, both ugly and thin, and they were so thin-woolled that one could count the hairs on them. They devoured the grass like wild beasts and fought with one another as if one would drive the other out of the pasture. This, too, the priest found strange, and asked if the sheep had been long in the pasture.
The stranger answered him curtly: “I believe so.”
Next, they came onto a rough and barren heath, where little was to be seen except rubble and sand. There the priest saw two more sheep, fat and beautiful, chewing merrily and resting one at the other’s side like brothers or sisters. They rested their heads on one another, as if neither could bear to lose sight of the other.
They walked on further still until they came to a mansion so beautiful and grand that the priest thought he had never seen the likes of it before. It was surrounded with green moorlands and the scent of countless flowers filled the air. There were all kinds of songbirds and they sang delightfully. Inside the mansion itself, one could hear the sweetest strains of music and of song, and behold all possible manner of glee and merrymaking. Everything was idyllic and beautiful.
Then the priest said to his companion: “Stop! Now I will go no further. Let me rest here.”
But the stranger replied: ‘‘No! You may not rest here, for you are destined for another place.”
So, on they walked further along until the priest saw a house in complete contrast to the mansion. A foul stench filled the air, and everything was vile and ugly. There were also winged beasts in the shape of birds, who swarmed and shrieked. When the priest saw this, and heard the noise, he was stricken with fear and panic. He loathed the place so much that he begged the man to retreat, the sooner the better.
Then the. stranger said: “No! Here you shall dwell. This is a place for you and all evil men.”
“Oh, no!” said the priest. “Give me a break from this place. Tell me there is another way, and teach me how I may avoid having this place for my residence.”
“I will,” answered the stranger, “but you must know that this is the place of torment for all evil people, and but a faint shadow of hell, which you have deserved for your chronic acts of wickedness. But you may escape it by repenting your evilness and henceforth mending your ways.” Relieved at this news, the priest promised to do so.
Returning the same way they had come, they came to the beautiful mansion. “This,” said the stranger, “is the place prepared for good and holy people who fear God. The niceness of this place is a faint foretaste of the eternal joys of God’s children, who have rejected sin and vice.”
Now they came to the goodly and gentle sheep on the heath. “These sheep,” said the stranger, “are like the poor people who live content with what God gives them, and do not complain, although they do not always have at hand all they may wish for, but live together in harmony.”
Then they came to the ugly and wild sheep. “These sheep,” said the stranger, “are like the ungrateful rich, who are never satisfied and therefore never thrive, although they have an abundance of all things. But they are addicted to having more, and the discord and hostility of these sheep reflect the envy that the rich have for one another.”
Then they came to the river with the waterfall the man swallowed up. The stranger observed: “This river shows the sin of wickedness, which the children of this world forever drink and swallow without letting go of it. It fills them. They die in their wickedness, never quitting their sin until the sin quits them.”
Then they came to the waterfall that flowed through the man and out of him again. “This river,” said the stranger, “shows you the sin of folly, which takes hold of the best of the children of God, but which they drive out from their hearts.”
Next, they came to the lake on which the three birds had been swimming. Then said the stranger: “These two large birds represent the two people you drove from your door in the wintertime, out into the frost and storm with their unbaptized child.”
Next, they came to the vat at the door of the church in which the fluids had not mingled together. Then said the stranger: “Here you may behold the blood you have sucked from the poor, and the wealth you have taken from the rich. They can never be mingled together, and therefore, you must give relief to the poor, and be more balanced in what you take from rich and poor.”
Now their journey had drawn to an end. They went into the church, and the priest begged the stranger to take the little bird out of his hair.
“That I will do,” said the stranger, “but you must know that it is the avenging spirit of the child whom you refused to baptize, and now you must baptize it.”
The stranger released the bird from the priest’s hair, and the priest baptized it. This done, the little bird flew away and disappeared; then the priest knelt down in prayer. After he had finished praying, he and his companion walked out of the church, and the stranger vanished into the churchyard before the priest’s eyes.
Then the priest went home to his farm, where another priest came up to him and greeted him, asking who he was. The old priest told him, and then asked who he might be. The latter answered that he had taken charge of the parish since the former priest had vanished some seven years earlier.
The old priest was surprised by this and now realized that the angel of God had come to him in a trance, and that they had wandered together for seven years. He took to heart all he had seen, and learned well from it. He mended his life and entered a monastery, where he remained for the rest of his days. And here ends the tale.
This story appears as “Leiðslan og sjónirnar” (The leading and the sights) in the collection of Jón Árnason (1819- 1888), Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og ævintýry (Icelandic Folk Tales and Legends). In the collection, Kvæða- og rímnasafninu, this story is entitled, “Ein merkileg frásaga af einum mjög dramblátum presti” (One remarkable story of one very arrogant priest). This version is adapted and retranslated by Stefan Jonasson based on the translation of George E.J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnússon, where it appears as, “The priest and the angel.”