05.07.14 9:45 AM ET
The Elf Whisperer of Iceland
Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir wants you to know that she’s not crazy. She’s gone to a doctor—two, actually—to make sure. She just wants to save the elves. After all, they’re her friends.
“Of course lots of people look at you a certain way, like they’re wondering, ‘Are you crazy?’” Since she was a little girl, Jónsdóttir has had the ability to see and speak with elves. That means that, since she was a little girl, Jónsdóttir has been dealing with our side-eyed judgment.
Draped and wrapped in a series of scarves and sweaters with a loose braid of graying hair cascading down her shoulder, Jónsdóttir looks every bit the part of “The Elf Lady.” She’s sipping coffee while glancing out the window at the Elf Garden just outside of Reykjavik, Iceland, where she and her best friend Pulta, an elf woman, give tours of the hidden people’s community of houses, which are rocks. “You know what they say, if everyone else thinks you’re crazy, then maybe you should look inside yourself and see what’s happening,” she says. “So twice I went to see a doctor. I had to be sure myself, to make sure I wasn’t crazy.”
After a lifetime of speaking with the huldufólk (hidden people), it’s been years since Jónsdóttir has questioned the sanity of her eyebrow-raising gift. But after recent headlines spotlighting the lengths to which she’ll go to save the elves, strangers from all over the world once again are questioning it for her.
Last December, Jónsdóttir was among roughly 25 people arrested for protesting the building of a road through the ancient Gálgahraun lava field, about 10 minutes outside Reykjavik. The road would provide a more direct route from the country’s capital to a semi-remote suburb on a nearby peninsula that houses, among other things, the president’s residence. The road would also mean bulldozing Ófeigskirkja, a large lava rock that is one of Iceland’s holiest elf churches.
“When the elves came to me and said, ‘Are you ready to be a kind of spokesperson for us?,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’” Jónsdóttir starts, before hushing into a whisper, “They didn’t mention police!”
“It was a story to tell to the grandchildren,” she continues, laughing as she recalls the day she was arrested. But it’s with pride. Later that afternoon, she’s back at Ófeigskirkja, this time she’s not in a stand-off with the bulldozer, but walking right past it as she shows me the site where the rock will be moved. Yep—Jónsdóttir and her fellow protesters, named “Friends of the Lava,” succeeded. The government will, later in May, pay to move the rock out of the path of the road, a compromise that will both preserve the elf church and allow the road to be built as planned.
The whole affair, from the cause célèbre behind the protest (Save the Elves?!) to the government’s eventual acquiescence, is indicative of the unusual and complicated relationship Iceland has with elves and other hidden people. Jónsdóttir was advocating for the lives of invisible tiny beings that most of us associate with building Santa’s toys…and the government listened.
Yet she’s not crazy. And neither, apparently, is her country.
Take, for example, a 2007 poll that revealed that 54 percent of Icelanders don’t deny the existence of elves. The kicker, though, is that only 8 percent said they believe in them outright. The results belie the nuance that is locals’ relationship with elves. It's not that the entire country believes they are real and tip-toes around in a constant state of anxiety, should they accidentally step on an unseen elf. But they, overwhelmingly, respect the idea that they may be real, and certainly respect the people who believe that they are.
Spend enough time in Iceland and you may even grow tired of hearing the same story, said with the same wink, of how roads in the country are often rerouted around one rock because it is believed that elves live there—were the stories not so charming. Icelanders attributing lost car keys to mischievous elves is as common as the rest of the world crediting a prayer to St. Anthony with finding those keys, and said in the same half-sincere, half-in-jest tone. A 2009 Vanity Fair article made waves when it revealed that an aluminum company named Alcoa had to wait for the government to scour land that a smelting factory was about to be built on for the presence of elves before construction could begin.
Then there’s the famous case in 2010 when then-Icelandic Parliament member Árni Johnsen got to into a brutal car crash but survived without major injuries. He suspected the elves that were said to live in a nearby boulder with saving his life, and when a road was later planned that would mean destroying the rock and the three generations of elves that called it home, Johnsen had the rock moved to a safer location—his own property.
Jónsdóttir herself cited a 2011 study conducted by the University of Iceland that showed that 37 percent of Icelanders said elves possibly exist. What does that mean? “There’s no way that 37 percent of the nation is crazy!” she says.
The rest of the world, however, may disagree. And even if they don’t find the belief crazy, they do find it incredibly curious, near to the point of obsessive fascination. That’s at least part of what brings hordes of tourists each year to Jónsdóttir’s Elf Garden for tours and explainers on the huldofólk. It’s also what gets them to purchase copies of the book sold there, What Does It Take to See an Elf?, which is by an elf named Fróði—he dictated it to Jónsdóttir and she transcribed his story.
But even if the tourists are snickering at the start, there’s something about being in Iceland, or even just listening to Jónsdóttir talk, that makes you not exactly believe that elves are real, but at the very least believe in the people who say that they believe they are. It may sound a tad convoluted, but it’s an important distinction.
“I’ve never met anyone here, at least, who really laughs out loud,” Jónsdóttir says. “And people come from all over the world. I’m not trying to convince anyone to see things the way I do. I ask them to open up their heart and let their inner child out while listening to these stories. It’s much more fun. They don’t have to think, ‘How can an elf live in a rock?’ Then when they go back to their hotel they can use their grown-up logic.”
But even in a land where a large portion of people believe in the existence of elves, there are still only a very small number who claim to actually be able to see and speak with them. Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir is one of them. But why her and not anybody else?
“I have often thought about this,” she says. “You know, we can all do different things. Some people can sing, dance, or build houses. And some people see elves. We are all different.”
It was early on when Jónsdóttir’s family began to realize just how different she was.
When Jónsdóttir was just 2 years old and was beginning to talk, her mother put her in the car and closed the door, causing Jónsdóttir to burst into tears. “No, no! Pulta! Pulta’s outside!” her mother told her she cried. When her mom opened the door to let Pulta in, she stopped crying.
“My mom says there are so many stories and so many incidents that a 2-year-old doesn’t have the imagination or the skill to make up,” Jónsdóttir says. “And now, all these years later, Pulta and I are still friends. Now we work together.”
Don’t be fooled by Jónsdóttir’s exuberance, though. There was a time when she wasn’t so pleased to be burdened with her not-so-normal lot in life. “You know, as a teenager, I really tried not to see them,” she says. “It’s not cool! But thank goodness I couldn’t stop seeing them." Now she's negotiating the rescue of their holy buildings, protecting their communities from destruction, and, in turn, saving their lives. She’s not hiding her talents anymore, she’s trumpeting them. She’s sort of like an Icelandic Lorax. Ragnhildur speaks for the elves.
But again, why her? Why choose Jónsdóttir to be the spokesperson? “I never asked about that!” she says. “Maybe because I’m crazy enough to say yes!”
There it is again, that word “crazy.” Even after all this, it’s still a huge leap to get on board with the fact that everything she says it true: that these things that we cannot see are real, and need to be saved. But perhaps we shouldn’t be selective in the things that are invisible to us but that we still believe in.
“When you go into a church, you don’t see God or Jesus or Muhammed or Buddha,” Jónsdóttir says. “And you don’t see love. But most of us, at least, believe in love. Or, if you’re anxious, you get physical pain. But it’s just a feeling. You don’t see it.”
So maybe Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir is a little crazy. But maybe, then, we all are, too.