Folklore: People who live in Iceland shouldn’t throw stones /spatial politics according to elves.

Whilst in the Westfjords we also visited the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft famous as the ‘home of the necropants’. I guess I should start by describing what necropants are… Well, they are a pair of pants made from the skin of a dead man which can produce an endless supply of money for the wearer. According to Icelandic witchcraft there is a very specific way they must be made, and it’s not easy. First you have to get permission from someone who is living to use their skin after they die (this is actually probably the easiest part). After he is buried you have to dig him up and skin his corpse from the waist down, removing the skin in one piece. As soon as you put the skin on it will fuse to your own skin and then you have to steel a coin from an old widow and put it in the scrotum of the necropants, along with the necropants stave (magical witchcraft symbol) written on a piece of paper. From then on the coin will always draw money into the scrotum, so it’s never empty as long as first coin is left in there. To pass the pants on you have to convince someone to step into one leg before you take your leg out of the other one. I guess an endless supply of money through necropants isn’t so easy.

So the Museum’s pair of necropants didn’t seem like they had been flayed from a dead body all in one piece, more like a latex mould with a lot of hair stuck to it. They were still quite creepy though. The Museum was very useful as an insight into Icelandic witchcraft, learning about various staves, grimoires (books on magic) and also the history of witch trials in Iceland. Surprisingly, many of the witches burnt were men.

The Museum was a good way to get a feel of the history of magic and folklore here and has definitely made me notice the staves you see everywhere in Iceland from tattoos to business logos, obviously for different things from protection to good luck in fishing. One of the most interesting things I am learning about are the huldufólk who are Icelandic ‘hidden people’ or elves. Building projects in Iceland are sometimes altered to prevent damaging the rocks where they live. According to these Icelandic folk beliefs, one should never throw stones because of the possibility of hitting the huldufólk.

There are marked examples of halted building projects all over Iceland and roads that go around certain sites to avoid cutting through the homes and churches of elves and it is said that people in Iceland shouldn’t throw stones in case they hit an elf. There have been numerous surveys that show a large proportion of the population believe in elves and there are two people (that I already know of) in Skagastrond that have had direct experiences in seeing the hidden folk, and I am sure many more.

What’s really intriguing to me when considering spatial politics here is the influence of these hidden folk on major construction projects. There’s an paper, The Elves’ Point of View, by Valdimar Hafstein, who is a folkloristics professor at the University of Iceland that describes elves messing with people’s construction projects that encroach on their territory –these are usually linked to building impacting on rocks and hills. Hafstein writes, “They tell of mechanical breakdowns with no apparent cause, freak accidents, and dream warnings, or a series of these, interpreted as the work of elves.” There’s stories of elf supporters alongside environmental groups protesting developments due to them going through elf settlements.

The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration has a “standard reply” for press inquiries about elves which a reporter from The Atlantic received when asked about the existence of elves impacting construction decisions, here’s a sample;

...It cannot be denied that belief in the supernatural is occasionally the reason for local concerns and these opinions are taken into account just as anybody else's would be. This is simply a case of good public relations.

We value the heritage of our ancestors and if oral tradition passed on from one generation to the other tells us that a certain location is cursed, or that supernatural beings inhabit a certain rock, then this must be considered a cultural treasure. In the days when the struggle with the forces of nature was harsher than it is now, conservation came to the fore in this folklore, and copses and beautiful natural features were even spared.

The reaction of the [administration] to these concerns has varied. Issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point whilst the elves living there have supposedly moved on. At other places the people in charge have seen no other solution than to continue the project against the wishes of certain individuals. There have been occasions when working arrangements have been changed slightly but at little extra expense. There is no denying that these stories of elves and cursed places have attracted the attention of the media. [The administration]'s employees have answered questions on this matter and have not ducked the issue.

I’m interested in how these folkloric beliefs impact contemporary living and how they can be read through other lenses – I wonder if the elves are influenced to choose certain places not to build on according to factors such as; environmental conservation, personal preference of people in power or even property speculation? Many folkloric tales seem to link to economics, whether it’s actual money or wealth through other means such as bountiful crops or fishing catch. I also think the ingrained beliefs of these spirits could be a way to explain living in the Icelandic landscape, dominated by volcanic action, wind and water in extreme forms it seems to make sense to harness the imagination to explain these natural phenomena. Perhaps folklore could be a way to explain various historical memory and cultural phenomenon?