February 5, 2023

Letting the Magic Go: Conservation and Iceland’s Hidden People

Letting the Magic Go: Conservation and Iceland’s Hidden People

By Gísli Pálsson
|January 19, 2023


Helgafell, Holy Mountain, an ancient volcanic plug in western Iceland. Thorolf, the man who named the hill, believed that he would enter it after death. (by Nancy Marie Brown)

American writer Nancy Marie Brown Has published several books on Icelandic culture. in him The newest book, Looking for hidden peoplehe engages in ethnography and uses Icelandic narratives of the hidden world of elves and trolls and his own lived experience.

The Norse and Celtic inhabitants of Iceland arrived in the 9th century in an inhabited country that had no narrative or sign. However, soon the land was saturated with stories. Rocks, hills, glaciers, volcanoes, and mountains were thought to carry secret beings with their representation that spoke to humans and interfered in their affairs. Many narratives presented in later epics and folklores emphasize the tragic consequences that occur if humans do not pay attention to such forces. Brown wonders if such narratives might be relevant today, in a time of radical environmental change.

Brown describes the many stories of hidden creatures in this land and their encounters with (other) Icelanders. Some of these stories are presented in public media, politics and courtrooms. Hidden people clearly have an opinion on many issues, including road construction. Sometimes the discovery of the habitat of elves makes a national infrastructure organization go in this direction Changing the route of a planned road. “Enchanted spots are found in fields all over Iceland,” Brown notes. How is this to be understood, he wonders?

Looking for hidden people It is an immersive and moving journey – through myth and theory, language and comparative literature – into a world of wonder and enchantment. It makes a compelling and surprising case for recognizing forces and entities that are not necessarily “seen” in everyday life, but are nonetheless somehow felt. Brown’s evidence is expertly drawn from several fields, including physiology (evidence on the human sense of sight), physics (concepts of gravity and “empty” space), and anthropology (comparative understanding of magic and materiality). In particular, he draws on the knowledge of anthropologist Tim Ingold. He quotes Ingold as saying: “Stone cannot be understood apart from the various ways in which it is involved in the currents of the world of life.” Most of these streams are filled with enchantment. “Why should disbelief be our default?” asks Brown. Why should we mock our sense of wonder?”

A stone wall in a field

The wall of an abandoned farm house in Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. To reach Thingvellir, the Althing, the Northmen had to travel between great mountains, imagining that the Elf Queen and her hunters would descend from the hills. (by Nancy Marie Brown)

Iceland is often associated with fire and ice. In fact, Iceland’s volcanic geology is hyperactive, providing fertile ground for all kinds of otherworldly speculation. Brown’s narrative focuses on the magic of glaciers, especially Snaafellsjökull. This relatively small “glacier” is often regarded as a sacred mountain and attracts a stream of visitors. According to Haraldór Sigurdsson, a geologist who interviewed Brown, it is not only an enigma to New Age enthusiasts, but also a geological enigma. Because the Snaefellsjökull volcanic zone is perpendicular to Iceland’s primary volcanic zones, Sigurdsson said it “creates a real paradox for geologists … it doesn’t follow the simple paradigm of plate tectonics.” Brown once attempted to climb the glacier but had to give up due to a storm and heavy rain. Each of his successive trips to Iceland, he says, has been “made or marred by seeing it or failing to see it”.

Snaefellsjökull is a key site in the novel Christianity in the fridgeWritten by Icelandic Nobel Laureate Hallður Laxens. When it was released in 1968, it was often considered superficial and played with silly magic. Brown had read it before attempting to climb the refrigerator and did not use it much. However, when he returned home, he read the book again and was “amused (or embarrassed)” to find it. [her] The obsession with Snaefellsjokull is well explained. He said it beautifully expresses “my feeling that the mountain is sensitive, that it watches me, even when I can’t see it.” Brown admits he came back “a little abstract,” “a little eccentric, a little unbalanced.” Returning to real life is not always easy.” Similarly, one of the novel’s characters (Amby sent to investigate the behavior of the Christians near the glacier) says: “I took to my heels with my laces fluttering about my ankles and ran as fast as I could. The way I came, I hoped to find the main road again.” However, Brown offers a meaningful “highway” with long-term benefits. For him, just like another character in the novel (priest/philosopher John Primus), the oddities of the wizarding world melt together into a unified whole, like a glacier on top of an active volcano.

Snaefellsjökull glacier, full of energy and mystery, in the evening sun. (by Nancy Marie Brown)

In the 1980s and 1990s, magic Christianity in the fridge It began to mean that for some (including the present author), the key plot of the novel expresses some of the problems of postmodernity, how to separate fact and fiction, novel and ethnography. In this way, we come full circle, says Brown, to Icelandic viewers who “talk to the elves who live in the rocks, and their place among this group of artists, writers, philosophers, and anthropologists who all use words and Worlds, gods and stones think. “I feel confident, and I’m convinced that his vision can provide a way for all of us to move forward.”

Some fairy tales are fables about human-animal relationships, warnings about the dangers of the Anthropocene, calls to an ethic of humility and care. Brown concludes that more science and more technology will not get us out of the environmental crisis. A fusion of modern and ancient landscapes that allow for magic may show us the way.

The tidal flats that extend towards the Snaefellsjökull glacier. (by Nancy Marie Brown)

In Search of the Hidden People: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth by Nancy Marie Brown, published in October 2022.

Gísli Pálsson is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Iceland and currently a member of the Swedish Faculty for Advanced Studies in Uppsala. Born and raised in the Westman Islands, Iceland, he studied anthropology at the University of Iceland and the University of Manchester. He has written extensively on several topics including environmental change.

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