Irish-American Witchcraft: Adventures with the Hiddenfolk in Iceland

Irish-American Witchcraft: Adventures with the Hiddenfolk in Iceland October 1, 2018

I saw my first troll* – the folkloric ones, not the internet sort – within a half hour or so of leaving Keflavik airport in Iceland and heading towards Reykjavik. I was surprised to see him, not because I was seeing him as I’d expected at some point to run across the local Otherworldly beings on my trip, but because I was seeing him so close to a main road. I was sitting in a taxi looking out the window when I noticed what I at first thought was an archaeological site at the side of the road only to realize a moment later that it had that slight tinge of other-ness to it that I’ve come to associate with things that aren’t human made.

Gullafoss, Iceland. picture by M Daimler 2018

Maybe to someone else it would have looked like just a tumble of stones, I don’t know. And as we drove past from the doorway of the structure a figure slowly leaned out, moving as if it was half asleep or as if the air was thicker than air. It was wide across the shoulders and the torso tapered in, the head looking a bit rounded; the overall effect was hunched but like that was the natural shape of it rather than as if it actually was hunching over. It reminded me somewhat of the shape of a bear.

At the time it seemed odd to be seeing something Otherworldly so soon and so close to a large road, as my experience has been that usually human habitations and construction make Them more subtle and less obvious. Soon enough I’d learn that Iceland has its own rules. As I’d say later on during my trip “Iceland’s Hiddenfolk are next level”.

Travelling in Iceland

I spent about 12 days in Iceland in September as part of the Hiddenfolk, Witches, and Elves tour by Land Sea Sky Travel. This is the third international sacred sites tour I’ve done with Land Sea Sky but my first ever time going to Iceland. I’d been warned it was expensive there – it is – and I’d been told how beautiful it is there – words don’t do it justice – but no one had ever told me how close and present the Other is there.  In fairness I’m not sure that any warning could have really prepared me for what it was like there for someone like me who sees the Hiddenfolk and who’s main focus at this point is dealing with Them.
I’ll warn you though, if you go there and are particularly sensitive to Otherworldly beings brace yourself in advance. Whatever you think intense might be like this is going to be 10 levels beyond that.

That place is theirs first and belongs to humans only secondarily. And that detail is hugely important. This isn’t like other places where humans have dominated or where there are agreements in place that give humans reign over the visible world or ‘world above’ or anything like that. There is a raw wildness to the land there, a feeling that humans are only guests, and I suspect (as do several people on the tour I talked to about this including the inestimable Seo Helrune) that the intensity of Their presence directly correlates to it’s sparse human habitation.

equinox dawn through rowans, Skjaldarvik, Iceland. picture by M Daimler

The Hiddenfolk Tour

The Hiddenfolk tour itself, like the previous ones I’ve done with Land Sea Sky, was amazing and hit a mix of well known and more obscure locations. The people on this particular tour were a wonderful group and they rolled with both unexpected weather, rough seas, and exceptional fey weirdness. Although my main focus in writing this piece is on my own experiences I wasn’t the only one who found that the name of the tour was extremely apt and some other members of the group also had odd happenings occur.

Socknanigans and A Mystery Rock

There was a running theme throughout the tour of strangeness with socks. I have no idea why. Yet it was an undeniable thing that was happening to multiple people, myself included. Socks going missing, socks appearing neatly laid out on a bed, socks showing up in unexpected places. This may sound funny and it was in a way but it’s also a bit unnerving to step out for a shower and come back to find your socks moved from your luggage and laid out on your bed when no human has done it.

To illustrate the level of weirdness going on I also had a moment  when I went to pull on a hoodie I’d worn the previous day and a walnut sized rock fell out of it. It had been hanging up on a hook in the room I was sharing with my friend and I hadn’t been putting anything except paper receipts in the pocket, so I was genuinely surprised to hear something loud hit the floor as I was pulling it over my head. My friend witnessed this and can verify that it happened and that I was so surprised I froze with my hoodie halfway over my head.

An Elf Church, Troll Party, and Full Moon

One of the places we stopped on our trip north from the area around Reykjavik was a site that included an elf church, that is a rock that acts as a ‘home’ or gateway for the elves to pass from their world to ours. This site had a quiet peaceful feel to it and was very inviting. The few of us who were gathered together around it all sensed different things in various ways: what I saw in the main rock was a large door edged in light, as if it was light from inside, and in the surrounding rocks many other entrances and things like windows. It was my first time experiencing what is called an ‘elf church’ and while I don’t know exactly why they have that name I think my own experience was one of a solemn sort of reverence that would line up with what might be expected of a sacred place. From that I can see why people would call these places what they do.

The first night of the tour we were staying at a location full of hot springs and thermal vents; we had been warned they could be dangerous because of how hot they are and that even the steam rising from them would burn. I wonder if the nature of the landscape influences the spirits that live there, even those that are not themselves land spirits. At any rate that night several of us set off into the darkness to hike into the hills hoping to see the northern lights. Things quickly started going sideways, with several subtle indications that our way was being befuddled and blocked. Although honestly our first real clue that something was really off should have been when all four of us saw the full moon rising over the hills – and it would have been a clue if any of us had realized at that point that it was a week too early for the moon to be full (what can I say, I fail witchcraft astronomy).

I mean we did acknowledge that it seemed strange and we thought it seemed early but none of us actually knew if it should be full or not so…we kept on going. Eventually we ended up on the right path and suffice to say the hints to turn aside became blunt. We turned back. And then things got truly odd. Black shapes and figures moving all across the hills, some human sized some human shaped but too large to be human, animals, and indistinguishable things. Several of us saw these. We heard dogs (wolves?) howling and I heard foxes yipping. I also saw a bonfire on the ridge although no one else saw that. Voices on the wind responding to things we were saying. It was off the hook even by my lenient standards. Later we started joking that we had accidently tried to crash a troll party* although I’m not sure how much of a joke that was.

Speaking of the full moon, when it actually was full a week later I found myself drawn away from the second location we were staying at to the shores of the nearby fjord. In the darkness the moonlight made a path on the water and standing on the shore I found myself joining in another, albeit friendlier, Hiddenfolk celebration. This one lacked the wildness and sense of danger that the troll party had and instead reminded me of the atmosphere of a summer party with friends. Walking away from it after a time I looked up and saw the northern lights in the sky for the only time while I was in Iceland.

Hveragerdi, Iceland. Picture by M. Daimler 2018

Not All Socks And Rainbows

We did see quite a few rainbows and I did have many positive interactions, but lest this seem too cheerful I do want to include something of a warning. While the Icelandic Hiddenfolk are more generally well inclined to humans than their Celtic counterparts (both in folklore and my own experience) they are not purely benevolent beings. And like all of the Otherworldly beings sometimes what they consider kindness or ‘good’ behavior may not be so from our perspective.

The first place we stayed at, the one where Seo Helrune, a couple friends, and I stumbled across that troll party I also encountered a sinister being fishing in the river after dark. I kept clear of him, didn’t acknowledge that I saw him, and he vanished but the encounter was unnerving. The spirits of the place seemed intent on keeping me from leaving to the point that my friend and I once found ourselves locked in our room unable to open the door to get out, although the door opened from the outside.

When we went to the park at Dimmuborgir, the so-called troll park where Gryla and her Yule lad sons are said to live I found the energy so off putting that I basically clung to the birches near the the parking lot. It was fine for other people, which is good, but I felt a sense of menace about it. Whatever lives there, and I have no doubt some things do, they are not things that get on with me or the beings I am allied with. There were also several places where Hiddenfolk of the water tried to talk me into joining them despite the fact – or perhaps well aware of it – that I’d drown or be dashed against the rocks where they lived.

Returning Home

I think my biggest personal take away from this experience, besides a stronger sense of where I belong, is a deeper feel for the way that the Othercrowd manifests differently in different locations. In America they are definitely present both as native beings and as those who have emigrated just as the human populations have, but they are not constantly present and engaged. They are here and they interact but when they choose to and sometimes their presence can seem intermittent. In Ireland they are more immediate and imminent but there is still a feel of distance most of the time, as if they are lurking just at the edges of a gathering. Iceland is entirely different. In Iceland the Hiddenfolk are present in a way that is hard to describe if you aren’t experiencing it. They are everywhere and they are tangible and active in ways that I found to be more rare elsewhere.

I also found, for what it’s worth, that the Icelandic Hiddenfolk really appreciated offerings of cooked eggs. So that’s a thing I’ll continue doing now that I’m home.

*I’m using the best terms I know of for all of the beings I saw throughout this piece.

*I don’t think it was specifically for the trolls, as opposed to the Huldufolk more generally, but it certainly was something significant. It seems like the time around the equinox was a particular important time for them.

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