Folklore Landscapes in Strandir

Thursday 22. September 2022 | By: UW Staff

Authors are Matthias Egeler and Jón Jónsson.

 

The ground is squelchy, waterlogged. It pulls on your boots. I wonder whether I am just imagining that every step sends a quiver across a few adjacent square metres of watery grass. I also wonder how deep the peat deposit is here, and about the flip-side of this question: how far down do you have to go until you reach ground that is
actually solid?


Just ahead, though, things get solid quickly enough. A rock formation steeply
protrudes from the little coastal strip of bog land. This rock formation has the name
Stapar, and it is one of the more prominent coastal rock formations on the land of the
former farm of Ófeigsfjörður in the fjord of the same name in Árneshreppur, at the
northern end of Strandir - pretty much exactly where the road north ends. I am here
because Stapar has a story, and we are trying to document the locations and
contexts of these stories. The story of the Stapar goes as follows. At some point in
the past, before farming was stopped at Ófeigsfjörður, somebody decided that the
Stapar would make a great spot to light the New Year’s bonfire. Then, however, an
old woman on the farm had a dream. In this dream a woman appeared to her and
threatened horrible vengeance if a bonfire should be lit on top of her farmhouse. So
on the morning after this dream, the old woman made sure that no bonfire was lit
atop the Stapar rocks, not then and not ever. After all, just as the dream appearance
had pointed out, there was plenty of space where one could do that without doing it
on top of the Stapar.

 

The Stapar rocks in Ófeigsfjörður, Árneshreppur, Strandir.
The Stapar rocks in Ófeigsfjörður, Árneshreppur, Strandir.
 

There indeed is plenty of space at Ófeigsfjörður, enough to make one wonder
why the story is connected with the rocks of Stapar in the first place. Most of the story
is a very traditional local story about the ‘hidden people’, the ‘elves’: in lots of such
stories somebody considers damaging a hill for one reason or another, and then in a

dream a woman from the hidden people appears to an older woman on the farm to
ensure that this does not happen. What makes the story of the Stapar surprising is
that it is located so far from the farm: as the crow flies, it is almost a whole kilometre
between the Stapar and the farmhouse. So what is so special about this place? Why
light the traditional New Year’s bonfire there?


The ground around the Stapar is very squelchy, and it makes a valiant effort to
keep my wellingtons as a souvenir. Nevertheless, walking halfway round the base of
the rocks one comes to the straight face of an old turf cutting site that reaches up
almost directly to the Stapar. This is the explanation for why the story is located here.
The Stapar are located directly above the peat bog where the turf was cut that was
used to heat the farm. Well into the twentieth century, remote Icelandic farmsteads
used, wherever possible, fuel from their own land, and since wood was too rare a
resource to burn, this meant one had to use peat. a farm that had its own peat bog
could cover its need for fuel from its own turf. This turf was cut during the summer
months, dried, stored on site, and then moved to the farm with sledges when the
ground froze in winter. There, it then heated the farm buildings.

 

The peat cutting site at the foot of the Stapar rocks.
The peat cutting site at the foot of the Stapar rocks.
 

The peat cutting site at the Stapar gives a very down-to-earth explanation for
why somebody had the idea of lighting the New Year’s bonfire directly atop the rocks.
That way, one would not have had to move the fuel very far. The bonfire could be lit
directly at the source of the fuel, minimizing the effort necessary to physically haul the
peat for the fire to the site for the New Year celebration. Except that somebody else
at the farm thought that the Stapar awfully look like typical Icelandic elf rocks, and
would it be worth the risk to annoy the inhabitants in case the Stapar are indeed elf
rocks? Iceland’s most famous modernist painter, Jóhannes S. Kjarval, in 1935
created an oil painting Álfastapar, “Stapar of the Elves”: it shows a rock formation that
is eerily reminiscent of the Stapar at Ófeigsfjörður together with a number of translucent,
otherworldly figures. The Stapar rocks just look like what typical elf rocks
look like. No wonder an old woman got a nightmare at the idea of burning a bonfire
there. Or so they say.


Does all this sound very fanciful? It is on some level, sure, but on another level
this kind of storytelling forms a central part of the intangible cultural heritage of the
region. Stories like the story of the Stapar make up the warp and weft of Westfjord
folklore, and recovering its connection with the actual physical landscape tells us a lot
about how this folklore was integrated into the everyday world of life and agricultural
work. The story about the Stapar is a story about otherworld beings; but it is not set in
an otherworld, but in the landscape of everyday agricultural work, and it is literally
grounded in this landscape. In our story, the Stapar were not viewed as elf rocks
because of some metaphysical speculation, but because they are located where the
farm’s peat cutting site was.


Around 2018 or so, Peter Weiss of the University Centre of the Westfjords put
us, the authors of this blog entry, in touch with each other. While we were coming at
landscape from rather different angles (one of us is a medievalist and historian of
religions, the other a folklorist) we quickly found that our interests converged
remarkably, and that the connection between landscape, work, storytelling and folk
belief is a field that fascinated both of us, and where a lot of work is to be done still.
More importantly perhaps, it is an area where a lot of work has to be done now: while
folklore in Strandir has been systematically collected since the nineteenth century,
the locations of this folklore often are lacking, or they are contained in the stories only
through small-scale place-names, many of which have never been mapped. But only
these locations ground the stories and folk belief; plus, often it is only a disappearing
generation of old farmers who now remember how the land was used before
agriculture was modernized after the Second World War. To understand traditional
stories and traditional folk belief, however, we need exactly these two contexts:
location and land use.


Last year, we therefore put together an application with the German Research
Association for a 3-year research project to document the contexts of traditional
storytelling and folk belief in the northern part of Strandir: “Storytelling at the Edge of Civilisation: Mapping, Contextualisation, and Analysis of Landscape-related Storytelling Traditions in the Icelandic Westfjords”. Our application was successful, and the project will start 1 April 2023. This project also includes a fully funded PhD
position, on which see below.

 

The team of the Research Centre of the University of Iceland in Strandir - The
Folklore Institute, visiting researcher included.

 

The PhD position
The German Research Association is funding a project on “Storytelling at the Edge of
Civilisation: Mapping, Contextualisation, and Analysis of Landscape-related
Storytelling Traditions in the Icelandic Westfjords”. This project will be conducted as a
collaboration between the Institute for Scandinavian Studies of LMU Munich, the
Folklore Institute of the University of Iceland in Hólmavík and the LMU Center for
Digital Humanities in Munich. We invite applications for a fully funded 3-year PhD
position based at LMU Munich in Germany. About 3 months of fieldwork per year will
be conducted in Strandir in the Icelandic Westfjords. For the official call for
applications please follow this LINK.


The main aim of the project is to map, contextualize and analyze storytelling
traditions in the northern part of the Strandir district of the Icelandic Westfjords before
the ongoing demographic collapse of the region leads to the irrevocable loss of this
heritage. This also entails conducting interviews, the on-site documentation of
storytelling places and the digital archiving of the collected data. For this, the
candidate will work with an international team (among others the Rannsóknasetur
Háskóla Íslands á Ströndum - Þjóðfræðistofa and the LMU Center for Digital
Humanities in Munich) as well as the local population.

The tasks of the job holder include:
- The independent organisation and realisation of on-site visits, also on remote
Icelandic farmsteads with no connection to public transport;
- Conducting and transcribing interviews in Icelandic;
- On-site visits and documentation of places (among others through photography,
GPS, sketch plans) in sometimes difficult terrain;
- The active and independent participation in the documentation and archiving of the
collected data by means of a digital database; this requires a close collaboration with
the LMU Center for Digital Humanities in Munich, especially in designing the data
scheme and user interface/web surface for the georeferenced representation of the
data (“digital map”);
- Completing a PhD thesis within the framework of the project and under supervision
of its PI, in which the documented storytelling tradition is analysed with recourse to
approaches of the research paradigm of ecocriticism (including postcolonial
ecocriticism and ecofeminism) and the environmental humanities more generally;
- Work on a number of research articles regarding aspects of the analysis of the
empirical data and fundamental questions of methodology;
- Participation in events within the framework of the project;
- Participation in measures for the communication of research results to a broader
public.


Required for the position is a university degree in a relevant discipline that qualifies
the applicant to pursue a doctoral degree as well as excellent knowledge of the
modern Icelandic language in both its spoken and its written form. The work entails c.
3 months of fieldwork in Strandir per year. The position is limited to a duration of 3
years, starting 1 April 2023.


Application materials (including a CV, diplomas and an email address) in the form of
a single PDF with the file name following the pattern family name_first name should
be sent by 30 September 2022 at the latest by email to:

PD Dr. Matthias Egeler matthias.egeler@lrz.uni-muenchen.de
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Institut für Nordische Philologie
Geschwister-Scholl-Platz 1
80539 München

Please note that the official German call for applications is the authoritative one in all
aspects. See there for further information, including information concerning issues of
data protection etc.

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