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Excerpt from "Dark Fairies"

by Dr. Bob Curran

Huldufolk and Alfar

According to a tradition promulgated by the monks, the origin of the huldufolk goes back into early Biblical times. When they dwelt in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had a number of children who were regularly inspected by God to make sure they were upstanding and pure. On one occasion, some of the children became very dirty and rather than let the God see their uncleanness, Eve hid them away in a remote part of the Garden. God, who knew all things, realized that they were there and made a pronouncement—“What Man has hidden from God, God will hide from Man.” The dirty children were ancestors of the huldufolk, so when Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden, so were the huldufolk, who were then driven north to live away from others in the cold frozen lands of snow and ice. They seem to have settled in parts of Iceland and in the Faeroe Islands.

Originally, the huldufolk were described as being tall and reasonably handsome with little differentiation between them and humans (they were the children of Adam and Eve, after all), but later descriptions depict them as much smaller, more misshapen, and with rather strange and pointed ears. They are now described by another name—alfar (the nearest equivalent being elves). However, there still appears to have been some sort of confusion in Icelandic folkloric terms between the huldufolk and alfar. A rule of thumb once common in Iceland was that the alfar didn’t drink coffee or eat bread, while the huldufolk did, because their food was closer to that of humans. Nevertheless debate still raged. The famous Icelandic folklorist Jon Arnason (1819–1888) asserted that the two terms were the same, but the alfar was a somewhat derogatory term. The German ethnographer Konrad von Maurer (1823–1902) suggested that the term alfar was a way to avoid calling the huldufolk by their proper name, because this implied that they were less than human. (A similar thought is employed in Ireland where it is unlucky to refer to “fairies” except on Tuesdays “when their heels are to you.” The term that is used here is “the Good People.”) An ethnographic survey conducted in 2006, however, found that few Icelanders made any distinction between the two.

The alfar constructed small stone houses in various remote parts of Iceland, which the local people called alfhol (roughly translated as “elf houses”). There they lived side by side with the Icelanders and seemed to enjoy an excellent relationship with them. Indeed the alfar were invariably connected with fertility, were extremely lusty, and are said to have fathered a number of human children from Icelandic maidens. They were also associated with growing things, were incredibly good at horticulture, and observed many old traditions from the pagan times including festivals and dances. This would bring them into conflict with the Christian Church, which was spreading across Iceland and Faroes in the 11th and 12th centuries.

In the late 12th century there was a general opposition to dancing in Iceland, particularly at ancient festivals that occurred at certain times of the year. The movement was largely inspired by the Church, which saw such behavior as anti-religious. It was also the province of the huldufolk whom the clerics viewed as secretive and sinister custodians of the old pagan ways. In a number of tales from the period, either huldufolk or alfar joined with a number of local communities in order to oppose dancing bans (and the Church) and to restore old festivals. This, of course, made them implacable enemies of Christianity, and the Church decreed that they should be driven away from civilized Christianity and further into the wilds. Yet at late as the 15th century there are still stories of huldufolk aiding various villages in the preservation of their traditions, such as one tale where the village overthrows a harsh sheriff who has placed a ban on dancing and festivals.

But relations between humans and huldufolk weren’t always so cordial. Although there were a number of nights when the huldufolk congregated (especially during the winter—or “thick nights”—when the land was dark even during daytime and Icelanders believed that all manner of evils went about at this time), there were four human festivals that were particularly special to them. Three of these were around the same time in the Christian calendar—Christmas, Twelfth Night (January 6th), New Year’s Eve, and Midsummer. At these times the huldufolk became particularly boisterous and often malignant in their ways and would often cause damage or injury to humans. They broke into houses, held impromptu parties, and often attacked the householders—some stories claim that they might even kill if provoked. In many cases it was claimed that many of these “parties” were of a sexual nature with young girls being raped or sexually attacked.

Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from DARK FAIRIES © 2010 Dr. Bob Curran. Published by New Page Books a division of Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371. All rights reserved.

Dark Fairies (EAN 978-1-60163-110-7, pages: 192, price: $14.99) was published by New Page Books. The book is available at Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon.com, and many other booksellers.

Dr. Bob Curran was born in County Down, Northern Ireland. After leaving school, he held down a number of jobs and travelled extensively. He now works as a writer and broadcaster, as well as in an advisory capacity for a number of governmental organizations with regard to culture and education. He is the author of numerous books for New Page Books, including Vampires, Werewolves, Zombies, and Lost Lands, Forgotten Realms. He currently lives in the north of Ireland with his wife and young family. He appears frequently on Coast to Coast AM and other radio programs.

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