Building Houses for the Huldufólk

Background Information:

My informant is a 23-year-old student originally from Iceland, but studying in Dublin. She was born and raised in Reykjavik and moved to Ireland in her 20’s to come to University there. She informed me that not only was belief in the huldufólk common, she herself believed in them and that many Icelandics go out of their way to please them, and that to apply for planning permission in Iceland you need to have someone look at the site to check that you would not upset the huldufólk by building there. She related this particular facet of belief to me when I told her about fairy forts. She was an active bearer of this tradition and was taught it by her parents, and their parents before them. It is one of her favorite pieces of Icelandic heritage and plans to carry it on whether or not she decides to stay in Iceland, as it is a family tradition. She is signified in this conversation by the initials A.J.

Main Piece:

A.J.: The huldufólk are kind of mystical creatures. They are generally depicted as all grey, and they live in rocks and under the ground. They are not malicious, they usually help humans and are not so much tricksters as they are simply respected in Iceland. Nobody really says bad things about them. People give them offerings at the summer solstice and at Christmas. This is usually to thank them for a good harvest last year, and to look after the next one. Actually, when people are building new houses in Iceland, or in the Faroe islands as they also believe in the huldufólk, you have to get a person to check that you do not disturb them by building there. When you have built the house, you have to get a stone and put it in front of the porch of the house. You have to find the stone usually from specific places where you’re not disturbing the folk already living there, and it’s a big day out to go and get a stone. They’re pretty big, maybe a meter cubed in size. And you take it back to the house and paint on a little door and some windows. In this way, you’re offering the huldufólk a home and they in turn look after you and your home. At the summer and winter solstice you can then place your offerings to them at the stones. We have one at our house and it’s a really common thing to have, as they offer the house protection. They’re also a nice Icelandic tradition that I’d like to carry on, as I have really fond memories of getting the stone and painting it with my family.

Performance Context:

I interviewed my informant over the phone, as she is in Ireland and I in California. After discussing the huldufólk in class, I asked her whether she knew anything about them and she related this to me, as it is the most common household tradition to do with the huldufólk.

My Thoughts:

This custom reminded me a lot of the fairy forts in Ireland, and the idea of putting little bits of food out for the fairies. It was interesting to see a similar custom in Iceland, and suggests a strong Celtic influence on Icelandic culture. What was astonishing to me was the level of belief in the huldufólk, which was absolutely different to belief in the fairy folk in Ireland. The one thing that struck me was the level of community in going out and finding the appropriate rock, and this connection to the landscape. Iceland, being a volcanic creation, relies heavily on the landscape for tourism and also for the production of geothermal electricity. Therefore, connecting their huldufólk to the land seems like a natural progression, for a country so intrinsically tied to the landscape.