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The world I'm building is pretty much exactly the same as the real world, with one exception: there are some immortal people with access to magic. These people have so far remained hidden from the normal population and formed a fairly large community somewhere in the wilderness of Scandinavia.

I want the community to be in an area about the size of the country of Luxemburg. It will contain one relatively large city (~ 50.000 people) and a bunch of smaller villages spread through the area. The total population would be around 70.000 to 80.000 people.

I chose Scandinavia because of the lower population density and the overall landscape (lots of forests, lakes and some mountainous areas), which will hopefully make it somewhat easier to remain hidden.

My question is: would it be possible for a community of this size to remain hidden and how much effort would it take? While they do have magic, I'd prefer not to just handwave it away as a large magical bubble. I'm fine with them having sentries and capturing or killing any trespassers (although too many people disappearing into the forest would attract attention). Of course, with the rise of technology it's going to become harder and harder to remain hidden, so this question will be limited to the start of the 20th century (before advanced technologies like satellites and radar).

For the purpose of this question, assume everybody is working together to stay hidden.

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    $\begingroup$ The modern era began either in 1648 (traditional periodization) or around 1500 (post-modernist periodization). A city of 50,000 in Scandinavia at the beginning of the modern era would be by far the largest city in Scandinavia. (And your 80,000 people would surely need to trade with the outside world for essentials -- the country is way too small to cover their necessities. Since they must trade with outsiders it follows that outsiders trade with them, and thus know perfectly well that they exist.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Trading with outsidetrs, willingly exposing that there are some people, when they are all desiring to hide their community? Also magic can for example provide them with hydroponics, underground farms, other means of producing enough food way earlier than tech, with way less exhaust produced. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Right, modern era is probably not quite the right term then. I'll change it to pre-1900s, which is around what I was thinking about. Thanks. In terms of trade, I imagine they would have dedicated merchants that travel beyond their borders and the people they trade with won't know exactly from where they come (although that probably requires a bit of magic to keep it that way, but that can be done by the individual merchants). $\endgroup$
    – Dnomyar96
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 11:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Vesper: Magic can also hide them, make their neighbours forget they are there and so on. If magic is allowed as an explanation then no answer is ever needed -- poof! a wizard did it. The way I understand such questions is that they ask for a non-magical explanation. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ Why Scandinavia? Canada or Alaska might work better, or an island in the middle of nowhere. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 19:51

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Impossible.

I can't see a way to do this. Whether you define "hidden" as "never located or introduced to outsiders" or define it as "unnoticed," that's just too many people, even in a place like Scandinavia.

Your problems are at least these:

  1. You're not just a city the size of the city of Luxembourg. You're also all the farmland, forest, mining, and other activities needed to keep a sizable community running. That means access to a lot of water (river or lake) and a lot of property. The nation of Luxembourg is about 1,000 square miles — but it's had the pleasure of trading with its neighbors since the dawn of its history for whatever it needs. Your community doesn't have that privilege, which means it needs enough land to be entirely self-sufficient.1 So, problem #1, you're trying to keep people away from a very, very, very large chunk of real estate.

  2. Your next problem is the traditionally nomadic Sámi people. They've been around since the stone age and they traveled. A growing density of sedentary population to the south and nomadic tribes to the north. You might think you can hide for a long period of time — but you really can't.

  3. Even if you could convince all 70-80 thousand inhabitants to never divulge the location of the city, can you guarantee that they're all happy living there? That they never have any curiosity about the outside world? All it would take in all that time is one visit by an itinerant peddler or one angry teenager running away from home and the cat's out of the bag.2 The simple truth is that people wander. Whether it's adventurous pioneers, hopeful merchants, or armies looking for some Lost City of Gold (or a family outgrew their house and sent their oldest with spouse and a hundred goats to find somewhere else to live), it's so well beyond improbable that no one would ever know of this growing city.

  4. By 1900 the world had been consumed with filling in all the blank spaces on the world map, and 1,000+ square miles is a pretty big blank space to ignore. When those spaces existed in Africa, it spurred whole expeditions funded by everything from scientific non-profits to nations to find out what was hidden and whether or not it could prove profitable. Even religious missionaries would walk into those unknowns just to be sure everyone's souls were saved. Now, in your favor, similar blank spaces in Russia might have gone unnoticed for a long time — but by 1900 the trans-Siberian Railroad had been constructed. Communities actually existed all through central and eastern Russia for a long time. So I'm really building a false hope. Between 1700 and 1850 pretty much all the empty spaces on the map had been filled in.

  5. Worst of all, 70-80 thousand people by 1900 represent an economic and political force to reckon with. They would have represented an economic and political force for centuries. The moment they're discovered a veritable (and literal) army of diplomats, tax collectors, lawyers, spies and soldiers would be keeping a very close eye on that city and would want very much to control it. Keep in mind that their sewer needs to go somewhere, and unless you declare it otherwise, it tends to go down-river to the next settlement.

But who cares about "impossible?"

Over the years this Stack has seen its share of "how long can I keep X hidden?" questions. From a storybuilding perspective, it can and will stay hidden for as long as you want.

But from a Real World perspective, no group of people that size would go unnoticed through the middle ages, much less up to the Industrial Revolution. They have too large a foot print and that need for water would seriously make it easier to find them. The odds are pretty good that every river that could support a boat had been investigated to its headwaters by 1800 if not earlier.

So the real question is, do you care? Readers will suspend their disbelief for almost anything if the story is good. All the factual details in the world won't impress them if the story is bad. It's your world, so you can declare the community having stayed hidden for as long as you need. All you require is to explain that the valley they lived in was high altitude, surrounded by difficult-to-traverse mountains, and had little redeeming value to the outside world. And you can handwave the Sámi by actually trading with them. The language barrier that existed between the Sámi and the Norweigans, Finns, and Swedes was pretty nasty in Real Life (and still is!) and if the Sámi simply saw the relationship as normal, they'd have no reason to care if anyone knew they'd visited your version of Shangri-La.

Conclusion

Ignore us and write a great story.


1Unless you want a stone-age community suddenly being discovered by humanity, they need access to a LOT of resources. Remember, even if we delay discovery to the year 1900, you're only 14 years away from World War I and 373 years away from World War II.

2The reason that phrase is such a good phrase, and why it's so applicable here, is that the metaphor isn't one of seeing a cat leave a bag. It's the problem of putting the experienced cat back into the bag. If you've never held a cat that doesn't want to go where you're taking it, with all 20 claws, a mouth full of sharp, pointy emphasis and the capacity to wiggle around like spikey zombie Jell-o from Hell... all I can say is you should count your blessings.

3An edit tried to change this number to 1939 suggesting that my high school history class might have failed me once again. On November 5, 1937, Hitler held a secret meeting in the Reich Chancellery announcing his expansion plans for the German people. That was the beginning of World War II. I respect that people may disagree about what the start of a war can be. But IMO an authoritative and empowered statement to invade someone else's territory meets the requirement.

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  • $\begingroup$ In relation to the footnote, whilst the US only entered World War I in 1917, the war had been raging in Europe since 1914. Denmark, Norway and Sweden remained neutral throughout the war, but were nonetheless impacted by it from its outbreak. $\endgroup$
    – James_pic
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ @James_pic That's an excellent point and betrays the nature of my high school history class. Thanks for the clarification, I'll edit the post to include it. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 15:48
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No. The efforts to unify all parts of Norway started during the Viking era. Most of Sweden was under one king from a similar time. Sweden worked to conquer Finland from the 1150's. These efforts to unify the country meant that soldiers were going throughout the place finding any towns that were not under the crown and working to put them under the crown.

How big of a town could remain hidden? In much of Norway, "town" was a nebulous concept. Places were more of a collection of farmsteads. When we checked out the place in Sweden where my grandfather came from, we found that the "town" had three buildings: the old church (1214), the new church (1850's), and a community hall. Considering that the stories of Norway's consolidation included verifying established farms, I don't think that anything larger than a few houses could have remained hidden.

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  • $\begingroup$ If the hiding efforts included infiltrating the main power structures of the nearby courts and churches, and turning their main agents, such as people in charge of implementing any policies which could affect the magic town, or simply magically controlling them or replacing them with magic duplicates, this could be avoided. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 0:29
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Huldra

hulder cave

https://www.facebook.com/thehuldraphotographybook/

A hulder (or huldra) is a seductive forest creature found in Scandinavian folklore. Her name derives from a root meaning "covered" or "secret".1 In Norwegian folklore, she is known as huldra ("the [archetypal] hulder", though folklore presupposes that there is an entire Hulder race and not just a single individual)...]

The word hulder is only used of a female; a "male hulder" is called a huldrekall and also appears in Norwegian folklore. This being is closely related to other underground dwellers, usually called tusser (sg., tusse) A multitude of places in Scandinavia are named after the Hulders, often places by legend associated with the presence of the "hidden folk".

The Hulder people live underground. D'Aulaires Trolls book makes their lands sound pretty nice. Huldra are almost human. So too your people. The Norwegians suspect they are around and sometimes encounter one, maybe. They are treated respectfully. No-one finds your city of thousands because they are underground.

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What does 'hidden' mean, exactly?

I do not believe that there is any place in Europe where the existence of 50,000 people or so could have been hidden from the outside world, in the sense of a blank spot on the map with 'only wasteland' or 'here there be dragons' on it ...

  • In Central Africa or perhaps in the Amazon basin, it might be remotely possible that such a people would remain unknown to the Western countries until 1900 or so. Easier to do it until 1870, but they would be known to their neighbours, and some rumors would have reached London and Paris. But not in Europe. Finland was a province of the Czarist Empire, and all of Scandinavia had tax collectors and a more-or-less modern bureaucracy.

  • It would be considerably easier to have a population that is generally known to the outside world, nominally subject to some king or czar, but not welcoming outsiders. "Do you know anybody who has been to Ruritania? Me neither, and I guess there is no good reason to go there."
    There would be the problem to deal with government auditors to look into finances, missionaries to spread their faith, and the occasional entrepeneur who wants new markets. Can your magic help with that?

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    $\begingroup$ By the 1960s, they'd have satellite photography. By the 2010s, redditors would be posting links to the Google Maps images. By the 2020s, internet hustlers would be offering paid tours of the Huldufolk city where you can meet vampires and faeries. In this day and age, I'm not sure a single individual could hide with any certainty. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnO, the OP wanted to be hidden until the start of the20th century, not the start of the 21st century. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 21:04
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Scare them away

Your people don't want to be seen, thus, it will be easier to not let trespassers into your "forbidden area" than killing. Since inducing fear is decently easy (infrasound can do that without any magic, with magic it could be even easier), this will be the near-perfect solution to secure a border deep within forests. Eventually local people will mark the place they couldn't wander into as "cursed", and since anyone who wanders close would be struck by fear, this designation would persist over the ages, until probably the invention of flight, which is likely too modern for your purpose to satisfy.

How much effort that would take? That depends on your magic, and whatever means necessary to detect an offending human available to those hiding, whether it could work without maintenance for long enough, etc. But installing a ring of "things" that detect humans and make them fear going further should be pretty cheap.

You said, however, you want them to be hidden until satellites, that would require means of protection or disguise from aerial observation. These would tax your insiders a lot more, as protecting just the borders is proportionate to borders' length, while protecting the inside is proportionate to the inside's square, but they can develop an elvish style of architecture (Tolkien's elves, they used to live in the trees), likely that would greatly reduce the need to develop active masking, as well as shifting parts of their infrastructure underground, especially whatever makes "magical smoke" or ordinary smoke. Overall I don't envision the expenses to protect the territory as too big, and with proper planning and greenery even a large low-height town could be hidden under pretty ordinary vegetation.

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    $\begingroup$ That's interesting. Scaring people away so they tell everybody else about that horrifying monster in the forest would probably be quite effective. You do mention it can be done without magic, but is that also the case with industrial era tech (and lower pre-industrial revolution)? Either way it would require less magic than a protective field that stops people from entering altogether, so I like this answer. $\endgroup$
    – Dnomyar96
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 11:18
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    $\begingroup$ Why a monster? Irrational fear works even better. There is a something that's so scary that people couldn't advance pasta certain point, no matter how brave. Something unknown scares even better than knowing there's a monster... A monster could technically be slain, while a scaring unknown cannot. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ Harving an area on the map with a thick red border and a label in 72 point type "Frygtens Land" strikes me as the opposite of "hidden". $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Here Be Dragons scares more, yet people went in and found no dragons. But here they will find Frygtens Land again and again, and only when they would be able to fly over the border and paradrop in (no landing sites, mind you!) there could be issues. Yet, such trespassers could be eaten without special effects. Up to a magical sleep field triggered upon paradrop. Still, paradropping requires advanced flight and plastics, so it's pretty modern for such elves to only rely on fear generators. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 12:26
  • $\begingroup$ The question request hiding. This answer provides for defending. They are different concepts. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 12:31
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Taking a different tack, I think your question could be reframed as to how people are counted, and how they are officially recognized by a government. This could connect to how independent your 'special people' are.

There are still a surprisingly high number of uncounted people in the world. Deciding what it means to be uncounted, can range from it being people without some kind of official identification, in which case the numbers can be extremely high with maybe ~1.1 Billion people not having IDs, to those who live in autonomous or tribal zones, or area where 'official government' doesn't reach. How that gets defined is probably pretty political, because no government wants to say it doesn't have control over an area. But, it can be pretty murky as to who is providing what services in some pretty large areas around the word - is it the government, a government, a cartel, tribal leaders, warlord, etc. Counting people is of course important when it comes to elections, and collecting taxes, but also deciding where you want to spend your tax money on infrastructure. Also usually people are counted better where resources are and the money is...

Around 2015, for example with better satellite imagery there started be a lot more interest in mapping out where people are partly out of the concern in getting vaccines distributed in parts of Africa. The Africa case is pretty interesting, because at night, looking at the light people were generating, the satellites were getting good enough that you could find villages and relatively small population groups, and hypothetically this could help figure out how to get vaccines to more people. With other types of imagery you could start to find paths between different villages and find clearing and try figure out how to distribute vaccines efficiently. It turns out there were a lot more people living in remote areas than the governments thought. Today there are a bunch of data scientists that are using light pollution to figure out where people live not just in remote areas, but also in cities in developed countries.

Geography usually plays a large part of how well the official governments control an area, but also there is the social context - of how much a group trusts a government, or wants services from a government. This is especially true of nomadic groups, or people who live off the land, but can also be true because of some religious identity, or wanting to have close family ties and only wanting to have marriages within a particular group.

So for your world building, especially in the pre-industrial era and maybe up to the early 1900's, perhaps it is not that they are so much hidden, but more that they are ignored, and because of some remoteness, and their self sufficiency they are somewhat transparent to the rest of the world. Perhaps rather than a big centralized city, they are more decentralized to be more self sufficient, and while there may be a few explorers and travelers that come through, they don't find that much to report back to the national governments.

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You won't really need much magic

Northern Scandinavia is a remote and hostile place, and as you say makes an excellent place to hide. Siberia would be even better. You could finesse it to avoid requiring much magic at all, depending on the strictness of your criteria.

Feeding such a large population in the middle of a frozen wasteland would be tricky, hopefully their immortality can help with that.

Hidden from who?

The "normal population" is not a very meaningful criterion. There are different kinds of populations. In Scandinavia specifically you have settled agricultural peoples who gradually developed into modern industrial society (largely in the south, around the coasts and plains), and nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples (largely in the north, in the tundra and at higher elevations).

Settled society has complex governments, and governments have a big thing for exploring, keeping official records, and sciencey things that make it inconvenient for a small town to keep hidden. But nomadic societies often lack some or all of these factors. This makes covert coexistence with them much easier for a society that doesn't care to reveal itself.

Hidden to what extent?

The structure of one town surrounded by a low-density population works well for a diversionary tactic against similarly sparsely-distributed Arctic nomads:

  • The residents of sparsely populated outer regions adopt, or pretend to adopt, a similar lifestyle to Sami reindeer herders, close enough to the nearby tribes that they are able to establish: we are like you, this is our territory, don't go here.

  • The tribes would not suspect anything was amiss, and in their sparse contact with each other and with Norwegian and Swedish societies they would say "over there is just like over here."

  • Infiltrators into settled society could strategically dismiss rumors as "pagan superstition" but that is unlikely to be necessary. These infiltrators could also pose as explorers, circulating highly accurate maps of the region that just happen to exclude the city or anything valuable that might attract settlers, or prospectors. These infiltrators could also "call home" to send tips about expeditions to the area, which could then be misled or killed.

It was not until the 19th century that Norwegian and Swedish (Finland is not Scandinavian) efforts to assert their sovereignty in the north really took off. Even then, land (and thus societies) away from the coast were seen as less valuable and therefore less interesting, and only began to be actively settled by Norwegians and Swedes in the early 20th century.

But what about planes?

When powered flight was taking off (haa haa), Sweden and Norway were not exactly world powers, and are entirely absent from the early history of airplanes. The remoteness and general lack of interest of the northern areas, combined with the foul weather, would have made it very unappealing to go flying there on a primitive airplane that would have been poorly insulated and unstable. Even the transpolar flights of the 30s would not have gone through that area.

The area only really became important in WWII as a passage for Arctic convoys (and therefore Luftwaffe bombing and Kriegsmarine raiding). But as long as you keep the society inland and have decent air defenses (or reports by pilots are dismissed as hallucinations from taking too many amphetamines) you should be alright.

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Even if you heard of it, would you believe it?

Even to this day, Northern Scandinavia is very sparsely inhabited with many regions 100s of kilometers wide with negligible human life. Not only would these places tend to be very cold, but a lot of it is also very mountainous and had no roads leading through them making them virtually inaccessible to outsiders. Without magic, life or travel in some of these areas would be extraordinarily difficult for explorers.

As a whole, these are the lands of the Sami people who are collectively the indigenous tribes of northern Scandinavia, and who at the turn of the 20th century had very little legal status or cultural association with the actual governments of Sweden and Norway. So even if these nomadic peoples did occasionally come in contact with your civilization, and knew for a fact that it was real, there would have been very little cultural exchange or trust to pass this information on to the rest of Europe, and what few stories might get passed along would be easily dismissed as Sami folklore.

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    $\begingroup$ ..supposed these hidden people won't need fire and chimneys in winter time. Smoke is very visible from long distance. Maybe smoke can't escape from their "magic bubble" but in that case, they should be able to cope with a lot of smoke inside. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ I lived two years in Finland in cities up to central Finland. The assumptions you're making aren't as clear-cut as you think. The nomadic Sámi people have lived in the northern third of all those countries for centuries if not millennia and trade regularly with the south. While I get what you're saying, I don't think this is a slam dunk for a society of 70K-80K people. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 2:43
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH From what I've read, the cultural attitudes towards the Sámi have improved a lot over the past century, and all the proper towns and cities I could find in the Northern parts of the country were less than 100 years old. I don't think the impetus here will be no one hearing about the magic city; so, much as no one believing the superstitious claims of these indigenous people. The more more outrageously they describe the magic of this land, the more people will believe it is just some primitive culture's mythology. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ what if this hidden culture were the Sami people? Hiding their sophisticated civilisation in plain sight? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 30, 2022 at 17:58
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The question you need to ask is why? Why are they isolated? What story are you aiming to tell? If it's about solid world building, you can't avoid this question. If it's an exploration of what isolation does to a society, then you don't really need too complex or believable of an answer because the focus of the story is elsewhere. If it's just a gimmick because magic needs to remain hidden from the world at large, there are easier ways to arrange that. If it's about how magic might affect a community culture, you need a solid explanation for why they keep it to themselves, when they could be rich, famous, respected.

If you're following real world history, geographic isolation for a population that size, in Europe, is not happening. On a global historical scale, europe is busy and crowded. Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Antarctica, and maybe some parts of the Russian steppes would be feasible, until the advent of air craft and satellites. I dont know much about Sub-Saharan Africa but there might be space there. A secret island in the Bermuda triangle could work, but only for a much smaller population.

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