By: Jonah Hoffmann
This blog series focuses on magical creatures, artifacts, and folk belief in various countries during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Witchcraft and sorcery, as illustrated by contemporaries of these eras, were part of a wider magical world filled with an array of supernatural beings and objects. These could be created either explicitly through rituals for a practitioner’s own personal use, or simply exist outside of conjuring as one of the many otherworldly creatures or objects of legend said to exist within the European landscape. In this series, we will highlight a specific belief in a certain artifact or creature to give a window into the wider supernatural world that witches and witchcraft existed within.
The volcanic deserts, ice fields, mountains, and fjords of Iceland sit beneath a dazzling display of lights from the Aurora Borealis. With an island full of such picturesque backdrops and breathtaking scenery, the remarkable stories of the supernatural that have been told since people first settled in the 9th century seem hardly unbelievable. Trolls, dwarves, ghosts, and sea monsters are some of the many fantastical beings said to roam the land of ice and fire. Among them, however, is a particular human-like group that seems to dominate these supernatural conversations: the Huldufólk.
The word Huldufólk translates to “hidden people” and is used to refer to the race of invisible beings that are said to live alongside humans. These unseen people supposedly bear a strong resemblance to the average person, behave and live much as we do, and wear simplistic, green clothing. While the word “Huldufólk” may seem foreign to some, there is another more familiar word that can be used in reference to these beings. Icelanders tend to shy away from such a term out of respect, but still acknowledge that most people outside of Iceland would know and refer to the hidden people as elves.
The true origin of the Icelandic Huldufólk is unclear as oral traditions surrounding the hidden people have existed since the island was first inhabited. Interestingly, Medieval Iceland also holds the oldest records of something resembling the common elf, with the description and characteristics of these creatures being consistent across the continent of Europe. Jón Árnason, the author, librarian, and museum director who created the first collection of Icelandic folktales, found that the term “álfar,” the Icelandic word for elf, is pejorative but otherwise synonymous in meaning. Some contemporaries disagree, however, with many modern day Icelanders stating that they view elves and the Huldufólk as separate groups by means of their difference in clothing and activities. With Christianization in the 11th century, a folk origin emerged for the Huldufólk claiming that Eve had a number of children that she hid from God. When finally discovered, an angry God stated that “what man hides from God, God will hide from man.” The children then vanished and have been living alongside humanity invisibly ever since. This religious origin story has further wedged the differences between the Huldufólk and elves, but scholars, historians, and the people of Iceland remain divided.
As they are only visible at will, encountering one of the hidden people is unlikely as they prefer to remain in their parallel world. Even still, tales of encounters with the Huldufólk have been shared for centuries and usually begin with an accidental disturbance of their home. While most people would not give a lava rock or large boulder a second glance, a geological feature such as this could potentially be hiding a small community of these beings. As early as the 1930’s, there has been documentation of construction and roadwork being halted or discontinued totally due to perceived interference by the hidden people or in an effort not to disturb them. To this day, many buildings in Iceland incorporate boulders and other earthly features into their construction so as to not disturb their potential inhabitants. To see a wall with jagged rock sticking out from the bottom, or a road curving around a mound, is all part of the belief in, and the respect for, the Huldufólk.
Whatever these creatures may be, they are an important piece of uniquely Icelandic culture and society. As stories and belief in the hidden people have been preserved over centuries and generations, their importance to the country’s identity seems clear. While a perfect, invisible world full of peace and prosperity may speak to a greater wish of the early inhabitants to this harsh yet beautiful land, a sincere belief in the Huldufólk perseveres to this day.
The witch was often blamed for the various misfortunes that could befall a family in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period in Europe. However, this oft-depicted ugly or grotesque hag was not the only unsightly human-like entity to wander across the continent and cause mischief and mayhem. A uniquely English supernatural creature called a Boggart would be just as likely to be blamed for disappearing objects, sour milk, and the health issues of animals. Short, naked, and horribly unattractive, this being could be found in the home of an unlucky family and was said to follow them wherever they traveled. Should the antics of the Boggart become too much, the family could try to flee however far, but their household spirit would be sure to follow. Some tales in the northern portion of England describe these creatures as living not only in homes, but in the wetland areas of nearby villages. As the Boggart is exclusively malevolent, the disappearance of people in the woods, bogs, or marshes would often be blamed on these entities and their evil disposition.
Most people are familiar with the Boggart as tales of this horrible creature have existed for centuries. Children are often warned to behave and stay in bed as the knocks, creaks, and scrapes heard at night likely originate from their household Boggart. Whether under the bed or behind a closed door, this creature could be lurking in any part of the darkest corner of the most ordinary home.
As language changes and words shift in spelling or meaning, the original form may be lost or forgotten as is with the Boggart. While still a familiar name in England, many other parts of the world, including the United States, would perhaps know the Boggart from another name: the Boogeyman.