A woman jilted by a priest slits her own throat. A man discovers that his wife is actually a seal. A female troll kidnaps a man to be her lover.
These are some of the weird and wonderful folk tales that Icelanders have been familiar with for ages. Reykjavík artist Solveig Thoroddsen, long a fan of Icelandic folk tales, has chosen a selection of them to depict in a new exhibition, ‘Mér er um og ó!’ (“I am a bit startled!”), showing at Gallerí Grótta until August 15th.
Heroines of Iceland’s past
“I had a collection of these books [of folk tales] as a kid, compiled by Jón Arnarsson and others,” Solveig tells us. “These stories have always been with me, and have been at the front of my mind as I teach them, too. Re-reading them, I wanted to focus on the female characters in particular.”
The choice of focus is hardly surprising. Female characters in Icelandic folklore are complex beings. They can be noble, flawed, unhinged, untamable and wild. Not just female humans, either; a lot of them involve female trolls, or other female supernatural beings.
Sisters taking charge
“In Icelandic folktalkes, the role of female characters certainly makes a strong impression,” she says. “They are lovesick, wild, mystical, desperate, gentle, strong, wise and resourceful. They are doers and initiators, in their own lives and in [the lives of] others. They also appear as victims of social conditions and situations but, without exception, respond to those conditions in an effective manner.”
Some of the folk tales are downright fantastical, such as the tale of Selsahamurinn. In this story, a man hears a party going on outside a cave and sees a bunch of seal skins laying on the ground just outside it. He takes one home and locks it in a chest. Later, he discovers a young naked woman crying outside, and takes her home to be his wife. However, one day he misplaces the key to the chest, and he returns to see her transforming into a seal and swimming away with a song in her heart.
Other stories hit a bit closer to home, such as ‘Móðir mín í kví kví’, which recounts the story of a woman driven mad by the ghost of her own baby that she had left out to die of exposure. As cruel as it sounds, it was actually common practice centuries ago for unwed women to do this, rather than face the punishment that inevitably followed having a child out of wedlock.
The ghost and the troll
“These female characters and their stories are different from each other,” she says. “Those ladies are humans, foxes, zombies, seals, troll women and so forth. What I see being common with those tales and their protagonists is that they make things happen. Sometimes they are victims of situations but they always react effectively. They don’t wait for things to happen, they go after what they need, following their longings or just simply to survive extreme conditions.”
Even the colour schemes play a part in the expression, she says, pointing out, “If you visit the exhibition, you´d see that pink and reddish colors are dominant and sure feminism has been related to these color shades. It’s the colors of love, fierce feelings, guts and blood. Usually a big part of female life.”
“I always think visually, and want to create an atmosphere for the viewer to experience,” Solveig says. “And it all comes together when these works are together in one place. I hope that anyone visiting the exhibition can feel this atmosphere, become imbued with this mystic feeling. Even those who don’t know these stories should be able to enjoy them. These are strong characters, absolute heroes. I hoped to create a mystic atmosphere referring to the feeling I had when I was a little girl and reached out for those old books from the bookshelf and buried myself into them for hours.”
‘Mer er um og ó’ runs until August 15th at Gallerí Grótta.
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