Ghosts, Elves Alive and Well : Iceland's Belief in Supernatural Is No Fairy Tale


Iceland's president tells visitors of chats with a ghost haunting her official residence.

In addition, in this North Atlantic island of 250,000 people, roads have been diverted to avoid disturbing "elf mounds" and a quarry stopped work for a few weeks to give fairies time to move out.

In Iceland the supernatural is taken so much for granted that so-called "invisibles" rate the same matter-of-fact entries in the local road guide as geysers, monuments or waterfalls.

Even foreign diplomats succumb to Icelandic ghosts. The British Embassy says John Greenway, envoy from 1950-1953, made the government sell his home because it was haunted. The town council now gives parties there, but no one sleeps in it.

Schwartzkopf the Ghost

The ghost said to haunt the official residence of President Vigdis Finnbogadottir is called Apollonia Schwartzkopf. She died there of a broken heart in the early 18th Century, rejected by her fiance, the governor of Iceland, then a Danish colony.

"I hear her at night, pacing the halls and going from room to room. Sometimes she comes up the stairs and walks in the corridors outside my room. And I say to her: 'Please, Apollonia dear, be very welcome,' " the president regularly tells visitors.

A 1974-1975 survey showed that 5% of Icelanders claimed to have seen "invisibles", says Erlander Haraldsson, a researcher in parapsychology at the University of Reykjavik.

"We are not trying to hide our beliefs, but is there really anything unique about Iceland?" asks Snaebjorn Jonasson, the island's Director of Roads.

Belief in Elves

In his job he often has to deal with very real problems caused by belief in ghosts and elves.

When his department wanted to build a road near the northern town of Akureyri, a biologist objected that it would cut through an elf community and drew up a map complete with the elves' harbor and town center to prove it.

The biologist's objections were overridden, but Jonasson still has the map that was published in a magazine. "It is the only documented case of an invisible city plan," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

His chief engineer, Jon Birgir Jonsson, had a much more difficult case to solve. When the road builders tried to cut through the Pass of the Giants in another northern fiord, local people started having nightmares, and protests poured in.

Curse Stopped Bulldozers

As soon as bulldozers were turned toward a particular rock, they broke down, Jonsson said. Eventually, the Road Department was forced to investigate the problem.

"A medium found out that a lady had cursed the place so we had to get her permission," said Director of Roads Jonasson.

"The trouble was that this lady had died so long ago that she was no longer in the next heaven, but in the one beyond. They therefore had to contact a medium in the next heaven who could then get in touch with her."

Out of curiosity, engineer Jonsson himself sat in on some of the sessions, together with the foreman and another engineer. The locals--not the department--paid for the medium.

Ghostly Permission

The lady never appeared, but her permission was obtained after the Road Department agreed to build over the rock rather than blast the top off, as it had originally planned to do.

"Almost every farm has some curse. In almost every Icelandic field there is a patch where it is forbidden to cut the hay. When the farmers spot our surveyors, they tell us where the untouchable parts are and we just build the road elsewhere.

"Our country is so open that it really does not matter," said Jonasson, who stressed that he does not believe in ghosts or elves, but thought it important to keep the idea alive.

The main road out of Reykjavik bends to avoid an elf stone. Machinery had broken down when workers tried to move it. Today, there is a fence around the stone.

Rocks Are Their Homes

Rocks are believed to be the natural habitat of elves, who can be either nice or nasty but will not harm you unless you disturb their homes. However, they cannot live in the lava that covers much of the island because this is "dead" rock, experts say.

"There are many gravel pits our engineers would like to use, but don't dare to," Jonsson said. His boss, however, reminded him of the quarry where work stopped for several weeks so the fairies could "move" elsewhere.

Few books can match the Icelandic Road Guide for deadpan descriptions of the supernatural, though many entries are in the past tense and testify to a fall in the spirit population.

"Up from the farm is an impressive rocky canyon, Bolugil, with many nice falls, formerly the home of trolls," reads one.

'Very Much Alive'

Students at a teacher training college were recently asked whether the decline of Icelandic ghosts was due to either the age of enlightenment, the electrification of the island or the age of the ghosts themselves.

"The question is based on a false premise. The ghosts are very much alive," one student answered.

One story is told by Thor Vigfusson, a school headmaster in Selfoss, a farming town of 3,800 people, for whom the threat of extinction of Icelandic ghosts is a personal problem.

One of the peculiarities of Icelandic ghosts is that they tend to haunt families, accompanying descendants if they move. They usually stay with families for nine generations.

Mori's No Laughing Matter

Vigfusson was brought up on a farm next to one haunted by the local ghost--Mori (the brown one). The last member of the ninth generation of Mori's "family" is very old, and Vigfusson says the locals worry about what will happen to the ghost when she dies.

The hauntings began after a young man was refused shelter at a farm in 1784. He drowned in a nearby lake that night. Any car that refuses to give a hitchhiker a lift outside Mori's gate is said to break down within 500 yards.

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