At the end of a muddier-than-expected hike up to Kallur Lighthouse, on the island of Kalsoy in the Faroe Islands, I probably should have been looking down at the waves breaking against the crags, or marveling at the lonely lighthouse atop the steep precipice. Instead, I asked my guide, “Do the cows ever get lost?” The fields high above the town of Trøllanes — with a population of 12 — were full of cows, and on hills so vast and difficult to traverse, I thought managing the cows must be difficult for farmers. “They don’t get lost,” my guide replied with a knowing smile, “except when the huldufólk take them.”

I had heard Nordic myths about elves and fairies rumored to live in the remote reaches of the countryside, but never the name huldufólk, and certainly never heard them referenced with such matter-of-factness. Most prominent in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, the belief in fairies, elves, and huldufólk (or “hidden people”) isn’t just the stuff of children’s picture books. It’s an integral part of the culture, rooted in a respect for the natural world.

Who are the huldufólk?

While every community has its own conception of what the hidden people actually look like, they are generally believed to be invisible to humans unless they choose to reveal themselves. They are so ubiquitous in the Faroese cultural consciousness, the official tourism website of the island of Vágar has a whole page dedicated to the huldufólk. It describes them as “grey dark-haired hidden people or elves; supernatural beings that reside in, beneath or behind the rocks and mounds. Huldufólk can use their psychological power to lure and trick people and gain power over them.”

Indeed, huldufólk aren’t just playful imps prancing around the countryside — they’re complicated creatures whose relationship with humans can be rather strained. Rani Nolsøe, my guide to the island of Kalsoy, said, “In the old days…everything that happened out in the outfield — a loss of a sheep or a cow or more seldom a missing person — the hidden people were somehow blamed for it. But the relation between the people and the hidden people are more complex than that. For sometimes the hidden people are very helpful. If a man loses his track in the outfield a hidden man (huldimaður) from a distance can guide him back.”

He emphasized that there is a fragile balance between the Faroese and the hidden people, wherein if the Faroese respect their natural surroundings (the huldufólk’s home), the huldufólk will not make mischief for the islanders, and may even assist those who are in trouble. To illustrate this relationship, Nolsøe gave this example: “If the people have some cows in the outfield, the hidden people can milk one of the cows, never them all.” In return the hidden person may guide a lost traveler back home.

Simply put, they want to be left alone. Huldufólk only seem to cause trouble for humans when their homes are disturbed. Since they often reside in large rocks, any attempt to climb the rock or carve something into it could provoke the ire of a hidden person.

Huldufólk in a modern world

As scientific learning replaces superstition, belief in the huldufólk has inevitably declined over decades. But that doesn’t mean the legendary creatures are forgotten. Far from it. Reykjavik is home to the Elfschool, a 32-year-old institution with lectures not only about the hidden people, but also Iceland’s other spirits and mythical beings. And interest in the legend isn’t fading with time. According to a 2007 survey conducted by the University of Iceland, 62 percent of the country believed in the actual existence of the hidden people. Six percent even claimed to have seen a huldimaður in person.

That might explain how the huldufólk can transcend the boundary of myth and reality, and actually impact real-world events. In 2013, the Icelandic government planned to build a road through what was believed to be an “elf dwelling.” Protestors argued that the protected area of lava on the Alftanes peninsula was an elf habitat, particularly a 12-foot-long rock used as a church by the huldufólk. Construction halted until Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a local seer, brokered an agreement with the huldufólk, who would graciously allow the rock to be relocated.

This incident speaks less to a belief in magical beings than to the Icelander and Faroeses’ affinity for the natural world. The huldufólk are nature personified, embodying the souls of the ancient rocks and hillsides. To disturb them would mean disturbing a fragile landscape, and the huldufólk stories remind people to think twice before doing so.

If you’re wondering why belief in huldufólk is most prominent in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, the answer is simple. The Enlightenment thinking that gripped Europe in the 18th century didn’t reach Iceland or the Faroes until much later, allowing ancient traditions to take deeper root. And in a world where nature is constantly being supplanted by technology and development, and superstition often dies by the sword of reason, a little magic can be refreshing.

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