As you have perhaps heard, Icelanders are pretty liberal when it comes to their love lives. But that said, the saying “Betra er að vera góðs manns frilla en gefin illa” would probably still be on the fringe of acceptable society nowadays.
The idiom literally (well, almost) translates to: “It’s better to be a mistress to a good man than to be married to an asshole.”
The origin of this saying goes way back into the olden days of Iceland, when Chieftain’s sons often took mistresses before they got married and what’s more, often kept these mistresses around after they got married. But why were these women mistresses and not wives? Most often, they didn’t come from prestigious families and could therefore not marry a Chieftain.
If the Chieftain didn’t want to keep his mistress around after his marriage, she was sent back to her farm and a “suitable “ husband was found for her. Then, she was literally given to the man—and perhaps the bride’s family would throw in a chicken or two for the dowry.
While the history behind the saying has changed—the patriarchal system behind it has not. Women are still often viewed as property and divided into “wives” and “mistresses”—except today it’s often referred to as the Madonna/Whore complex.
As a side note, the old word for a mistress in Icelandic is “frilla,” with the male version of it being “friðill.” The meaning is exactly the same. In English though, you have the word “mistress” for women, but the male version is what, “a lover”?! Patriarch system, much?
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