Elves Stop Construction

By Darcy Cowan 24/12/2013

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about Taniwha and whether their alleged presence should constitute a stop sign for construction projects. At the time I was responding to an article which proposed just that on the grounds that the Taniwha claims could represent indigenous knowledge of the area relevant to construction.

I admitted that possibility but argued that any fantastical creature could be substituted for Taniwha and no information would be lost – we would still be confronted with a superstitious claim with no way to verify if there was an underlying consideration that could impact civil works. I suggest alternative creatures such as fairies and gremlins – had I inserted Elves I would have had a much smoother segue to my latest topic.

Icelanders also have mythical creatures that interrupt engineering projects – via human intermediaries of course.

It appears local myth has it that Elves occupy the landscape, including in this case lava fields scheduled to have a road constructed. Many in Iceland believe in, or at least do not dismiss, the existence of these Elves. Might we conclude then that the Elves are stand-ins for other environmental concerns? Perhaps but it seems to me that a more productive case could be made by referencing only known biological and environmental entities – indeed the disruption by Elves routine seems to be almost a matter of amusement in some quarters such that the media employ a stock “The Elves have left the area” bit.

In this case then the inclusion of the Elves may grab interest but it quickly gives ground to ridicule.

Are there parallels to the situation here in NZ? In both cases there are vague claims of supernatural entities who must be appeased/avoided or otherwise respected based on claims by human representatives who may or may not  be transmitting (in garbled fashion) legitimate concerns about the advisability of local engineering projects.

Should we automatically take all claims on equal footing? If so what other entities might we need to be wary of, borrowers? If not – on what basis do we make that determination? Supporting ecological/geological evidence? If so that seems to lead to cultural arrogance itself. What we are in essence saying is “Your cultural heritage need not be taken seriously in its own right – it is just a method of encoding local knowledge of other things”.

Is that better? I’m not sure.

Where cultures clash it it not always possible for both to leave the encounter unchanged, but I’m not sure it is helpful to add in spurious interpretations that at best add little to the conversation and at worse cheapen the whole enterprise.

Filed under: Sciblogs, skepticism Tagged: Elves, Environment and Ecology, Science and Society, taniwha

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