Beware the Little People
By Victor Tanner
Is “Atheist” a strong enough word for skeptical thinkers? It really only denotes a non-belief in gods and, as we all know, there are many more wacky things out there. What’s stranger than believing that an invisible friend is watching over your every move? Or than believing that the world is only 6,000 years old despite the evidence to the contrary? How about believing that a race of tiny elves that cannot be seen by human eyes are inhabiting the world all around us?
In Iceland, there is a deeply held belief in the existence of the Huldufólk, or Hidden People. Even though Iceland is a largely secular country with low church attendance, many inhabitants of the frozen country believe that the Huldufólk are real. A 2006 survey concluded that 16.5% of Icelanders think their existence is “likely”.
Of course, there are worse beliefs to have. After all, belief in a race of diminutive trouble-makers usually doesn’t fill people with a desire to overthrow the government or deny others their civil rights. It may involve building little houses in your yard, true, but they usually won’t ask the government to help fund them. Just the tiny little Home Depot down the street.
The origins of the Huldufólk stories probably stem from a long extinct pre-Christian mythology. However, in practice, belief in Huldufólk and Christianity often mix. One version of the Hidden People story even ties their birth narrative into the Biblical story of Genesis. In it, Eve, in one of her well known acts of disobedience, hides some of her children from God, who (in a reactionary manner typical of his Old Testament behavior) condemns them all to a life of never being seen by the rest of the world. Of course, the children weren’t the ones asking to be hidden, but God never has spent too much time in the “judging” part of his job. In a further step of pagan-Christian syncretism, some Icelanders have been known to build little churches to try to convert the Huldufólk to Christianity, perhaps in an effort to get them to burn down little abortion clinics.
In the last decade, there has been a noticeable decrease in religious belief, but unfortunately there also appears to be a rise in revivals of old religious customs. And, of course, people still love Bigfoot. Do these beliefs tap into some kind of human need for magic and wonder in the world? Are humans programmed to think in some sort of mythological imagery? Perhaps. But, if you are going to believe in some sort of supernatural belief, just make sure it’s a harmless one. After all, just because the story exists, doesn’t mean we have to believe it.