Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Apologies to rock-throwing elves

I visited Iceland in 2000 with my then-girlfriend (now wife), and we were both impressed by its natural beauty, fascinating history, and amazing geology.  We were also taken by the civility of its people, who pride themselves on a near 100% adult literacy rate, and one of the most conservative languages on Earth (its lexicon and grammar have barely changed in 1000 years -- sagas written in the 10th century are still required reading in the schools, in the original language).  I had a rather idealized picture of the place, an idea that the people were sensible, reasonable, and rational people, notwithstanding that their culture produced Björk.

Now I find that sadly, my opinion may need to be revised.

A couple of weeks ago, a hillside was dynamited as part of work being done to construct an anti-avalanche barrier near the town of Bolungarvík, in the northwest of Iceland.  This resulted in areas of the town being pelted with fist-sized rocks.  You would think that the obvious explanation -- that dynamite has a way of making things fly through the air -- would be obvious enough, and that someone would solve the problem by respectfully asking the construction workers not to use so damned much dynamite next time. 

You would be wrong.

Last week, the residents of Bolungarvík went to a meeting of the Town Council and demanded that action be taken, not against the people who blew up the hillside, but against... elves.  The rock barrage was not caused by the dynamite, they said; they were thrown by the huldufólk, a type of elf that lives in the hills.  The huldufólk, they claimed, were pissed off because they hadn't been consulted in the construction of the anti-avalanche barrier, and had responded by throwing rocks.

I would have thought that town officials would give this claim the response it deserved, namely, laughing in said residents' faces and then recommending that they lay off the brennivín.  This, sadly, did not happen.  The residents who brought the story about the irritated elves to the Bolungarvík Town Council were politely listened to.  The residents then demanded that the Council draft a resolution apologizing to the elves on behalf of the town, so as to forestall any further rock-throwing incidents.  The members of the Town Council voted, and the motion for a resolution failed, which initially gave me some hope that my perception of Iceland as a seat of rational skepticism was correct.  But then, the Town Council, in a move that should make skeptics the world over do a faceplant, encouraged the townsfolk to convene an appeasement ceremony of their own to apologize to the elves for building the barrier without consulting them.

So they did.  A local musician, Benedikt Sigurdsson, wrote a song for the occasion, and the people got together and offered prayers to the huldufólk.  Sigurdsson is quoted as saying, “I have now been asked by both elves and men to broker a compromise here, and I hope that this song will suffice."

The fact that Sigurdsson thinks that the elves have talked to him should be a cause for concern, but that notwithstanding, I suspect he's right.  For one thing, the dynamiting is over, and so any further rock incidents are unlikely.  For another, I'm guessing that subsequent construction will be done only after contacting the local authorities, obtaining a building permit, and talking to the elves.

And when the elves are propitiated, and no rocks are pelted, it will further convince everyone in Bolungarvík that you can't do anything without consulting, appeasing, and asking advice from supernatural beings for which there is no evidence whatsoever.  And here I will stop, and trust that you are perfectly capable of drawing your own parallels without my having to point them out to you.

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