Published September 12, 2008
Safe and legal abortions are a great idea. Just ask the Útburðir.
“In our past and our stories, we’ve got this massive database of monsters and mythological creatures. A lot of their stories are really fascinating, and I think it’s a shame that they’re not used more in modern culture. Many people haven’t heard about them,” remarked master comic artist Hugleikur Dagsson in a Grapevine-interview this summer. The subject was his latest graphic novel, Garðarshólmi, in which he depicts many of the aforementioned creatures. This prompted the Grapevine – on a perpetual quest to educate the masses – to draft Dagsson to illustrate a series of articles on these monsters of yore. For this edition, we introduce the sad fate of Iceland’s unwanted children, the Útburðir.
Even though the children are our future, and life is a miracle, we as a species need to uphold constant procreation in order not to perish; bringing a new child into this world isn’t always easy. There are many reasons why a parent may not be able to welcome a baby into his or her life – be they economic, domestic, temporal or spatial – and this is the main reason why abortion is an accepted and legal, if regretful, alternative in most civilised parts of the world.
While safe and legal abortion is a relatively recent addition to our society, the problems that render them necessary are not. And this is where Útburðir come in. Back when giving a baby up for adoption wasn’t an option and untrained amateurs performed abortions at a great risk, parents-to-be often reverted to inhumane ways to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies (keep in mind that bearing a child out of wedlock was often a punishable crime back then). In rural Iceland, the most common method for this was to carry the newborn out into the wilderness and leave it to its fate: i.e. to die of exposure in the unforgiving Icelandic climate.
Legend has it that parents who employed such methods of postpartum abortion were more often than not sealing their own fate in the process, as the child would inevitably come back as a ghost and haunt them for the rest of their lives – eventually driving them past the brink of sanity. Such ghosts are collectively referred to as Útburðir and Icelandic folklore is abound with tales of their misfortune.
Útburðir can generally be divided into two camps: those who keep to their final resting places and like scaring the pants off any passers-by, and those who focus on haunting the persons responsible for their fate until they go mad. Some sources say that when in human form they can be identified by the fact that they crawl using only one of their knees and elbows, and they are said to give off a chilling howl when the mood strikes them.
The most infamous Útburður tale – Móðir mín í kví kví – deals with a young female farm worker whose dire circumstances forced her to abandon a newborn to exposure. A while later she was asked to a dance, and was fretting to a co-worker about not having anything to wear. At that moment, her Útburður was heard reciting a chilling poem from underneath the rafters, promising to lend her a rag to dance in. The poor woman reportedly went instantly mad, and never regained her sanity.