A journey to study the elves of Iceland rekindles a sense of magic and possibility
This past summer, under the auspice of the bright Nordic sun, I found myself in the parking lot of a nondescript office park in Reykjavik, Iceland, searching for a man.
His name was Magnús Skarphéðinsson, and he was the headmaster of the world’s only elf school.
On my left, my Icelandic friend, Markús, located a small paper sign on the wall with a drawing of a man riding a horse into a magical fire. Next to this ominous graphic was written “The Elf School, 2nd floor” in small bold font.
After months of planning, my belly was nervous with anticipation. I collected my two red bags filled with mini California SunMaid raisins (my gifts to the elves), and I tiptoed up the steps to enter another realm where fantasy and legend were alive and real.
I have always been drawn to magical, hidden worlds. As a child, I absolutely knew that everything was alive—the rocks, the trees, and the angels in old Renaissance paintings. I knew that there were things and beings in existence that were unseen by human eyes.
Among the greatest gifts my grandmother gave to me before she died were her stories from the old country in China, where spirits wandered the countryside at night causing mischief.
She also revealed to me traditional spiritual traditions and ceremonies conducted during important lunar holidays to appease deceased ancestors and curry favor with the gods.
Her stories instilled in me the belief that the world of the living and the world of spirit and legend were one in the same. Also, as members of the world of the living, we must show respect to the unseen kingdoms because they are more vast and more powerful than we could ever imagine.
Because of her influence on me when I was young,, I held an unwavering belief in energy, magic, and all things unseen. Later in my life, this would lead me to delve more deeply into human intuition, spirituality, energy healing, and the Akashic records.
However, at some point during my adolescence I came to believe that this was foolish. Under the pressure of my parents, I put my energy into focusing on more “useful” things like standardized testing and getting a job to support the family. Gone were the moments when I would lose myself gathering rocks in the woods or painting the stars in the night sky. For a period of nearly 10 years, I didn’t pick up a single paint brush, I and denied the rich world of spirit that was always gently beckoning me.
Until I saw my first glimpse of Iceland.
It was a photo my college classmate brought back depicting him and his colleagues knee deep in dirt and mud and surrounded by lush green fields. He was doing archaeological excavations in a northern town called Sauðárkrókur—a place where I would later ride Icelandic horses and visit a woman whose backyard housed a city of elves.
The harsh and magnificent terrain of Iceland holds a distinctly mystical quality that pervades the land.
Iceland itself is a living wonderland of paradox and delight. In a country of glaciers and icebergs, there are also active volcanoes and pools bubbling with thermal heat.
Icelanders are decedents of Vikings, Celts, and Nordic chieftains whose history is recorded in their sagas. These family sagas speak of politics, battles, and family feuds, and, much like the epics of Virgil and Homer, they also speak of myth, pagan gods, and legendary beings such as elves and huldufólk, hidden people.
This belief in the mystical is not only part of Iceland’s history, but it is also part of everyday discourse. In fact, many Icelanders have first- or second-person accounts of interactions with elves and hidden people who live in dwellings invisible to most human eyes.
Icelanders refer to a time not too long ago when humans coexisted harmoniously with the elven people. Now, however, because humans no longer maintain a profound relationship with the earth, the elves avoid human contact. This tenuous relationship between humans and elves even made mainstream Icelandic news when it was reported that angry elves caused accidents and harm to workers at a construction sight because people were destroying their homes. In the end, the government made apologies to the elves and worked around the location where they purportedly lived.
As I step through the door of the Elf School, I found myself surrounded by statues of dwarves, trolls, gnomes, and other creatures of lore.
I strained to locate Magnús, as there were columns of boxes, old books, and periodicals stacked to the ceiling obstructing my view. The surroundings resembled an academic’s office, filled to the brim with research materials and paperwork. (I later found out that Magnus is actually a historian and his brother, Össur Skarphéðinsson, was the Minister of Foreign Affairs.)
Ahead of me were two French tourists, registering at the front desk. They had heard of the Elf School from an interview Magnús did on Icelandic TV. Speaking to them in perfect English was a grey-bearded man whose eyes were obviously sparkling with delight. When it was our turn, Markús said something in Icelandic to the seated headmaster.
Utterly overcome with excitement, Magnús rose up from his seat, revealing a giant figure of a man—a cross between a Viking warrior and Santa Claus. He exclaimed,“In nearly 20 years of the Elf School, there has never been an Icelandic student!” he laughs, “Welcome!”
Bright-eyed students gripped their notebooks and headed into the classroom, where Magnús would spend the next several hours recounting his personal, in-depth interviews with the over 800 people who have had first-person interactions with elves and hidden people. Some of these people have had decades-long friendships or relationships with these beings, have been invited to their homes, and even raised families with them.
We sat and listened, soaking in every detail.
For nearly seven years, the mystery of Iceland had been tugging at my heartstrings. My body craved the freshness of wild food and the touch of warm white silica against my skin. My heart longed for the serenity of a pure and untouched landscape. Most of all, my soul longed for old magic, the kind of vibrant energy inherent in the living earth from the time of creation.
Up until my trip, my life in the city had been consumed by building my coaching business, recovering from heartbreak, and desperate attempts to nurse my terminally ill grandparents back to health. After nearly three years of this, I began to lose myself and my spirit. Once so full of curiosity and life, I began to retreat. I was getting sick more often, I was always worried about money and my family, and I felt like a shadow of a person in my own life.
I craved rawness and wonder. I wanted to reconnect to what the Sioux call “The Great Mystery,” the force that connects all things.
The truth is, most people are so conditioned and regimented in their lives that they lose any connection to the greater forces at work. Once we disconnect from magic, we disconnect from grace and the divine. As a result, similar to a flower cut from its roots, our spiritual life force weakens as we lose our connection to nature and the flow of life. We become anxiety ridden and blind to the complex ecosystem that surrounds and supports us.
I knew nothing short of a miracle had brought me to the Arctic Circle to visit Magnús’ Elf School. As I pondered this series of events, Magnús’ partner sauntered into the classroom with a heaping platter of scrumptious cream-filled pancakes and hot tea. Sitting together like an odd family of misfits, we lightheartedly chatted about elves and made jokes about how our Elf School certification would help us in the competitive job market.
I felt at home. To speak openly about magic and magical beings healed my soul. It integrated the disparate pieces of my reality and allowed both realities of the visible and invisible to coexist. It reminded me of my grandmother and the grace that brought our group together from all ends of the earth to share this experience.
After nearly four hours of elf study, Magnús proudly handed us our Elf-School graduation certificates, and we hugged and wished each other well on our journeys.
The elves were with me during the rest of my trip through Iceland. In fact, they even left me a gift.
While hiking up a waterfall in the southern region of Hella, I was inspired to ask my new elven friends to help me find a special rock to bring home with me.
Rocks have always spoken to me, and I have a deep affinity to those that contain smaller fragments of stone within their crevices. I could spend hours peering into the depths of these rocks.
With no luck in my search at the waterfall, I gave up and suggested to my travel companion, Scott, that we stop by a roadside fried fish stand, Sveitagrill Miu (Mia’s Country Grill), to grab lunch. We were the only ones there and as we waited for the owner to take our order, I immediately felt an instinct to look down.
I yelped with joy as, right between my feet, I found the most marvelous rock I’d ever seen. It was an odd-looking trapezoid with a tiny mouth-like opening that contained a perfectly small round stone inside. It looked like the stone was chewing a giant wad of gum, and it was love at first sight.
Absolutely jubilant, I thanked the elves and ate my fish and chips with a heart full of love and awe. Scott, no doubt, thought I was out of my mind.
As the sun began to set, I remember the distinct satisfaction of knowing that, finally, I had reconnected to magic and it had welcomed me with open arms.
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