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The Milk House: A woman’s business

Ryan Dennis Published on 20 November 2013

The Vikings, besides being fierce raiders and conquerors, knew how to settle a land.

In addition to the livestock they brought – sheep, horses and cattle that have now evolved to unique breeds only found on the island – they are believed to have kidnapped the best-looking women they could find in Ireland and Scotland, taking them to the new land as brides.

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A recent genetic study has confirmed that Icelandic women, often suggested as being the most beautiful in the world, have Celtic origins. The study did not state whether Irish men still hold a grudge.

In addition to being warriors, nearly all settlers, particularly noblemen, were farmers. The Icelandic Sagas, written mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries, record embellished stories of some of them.

Because of a long history of record-keeping, many Icelanders today can trace their ancestry back to one of these figures.

The Sagas tell of feuds, conquests and outlaws, but it becomes apparent that little fighting occurred during harvest-intensive seasons when, despite the vengeance to be sought, farming came first.

Still, not having forfeited the sword for the ploughshare, the men were often away. They fought battles in their own name or that of someone else, leaving the women to manage the farm.

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The wives were given responsibilities and charge over difficulties uncommon for women at that time in most parts of the world and for a long time after. There’s no way of knowing who these women were before they were taken from their native lands or what their husbands had thought of them when they had left the farm.

What they found when they came back, however, were women who were capable, tough and independent. They did not easily concede the equality they believed they had earned.

Today, Iceland is one of the top nations in the world regarding egalitarianism for women. The income disparity between sexes is among the lowest on the planet, and every political party is required by law to contain at least 40 percent female representatives.

In 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became Europe’s first female president and the first democratically elected female head of state in the world.

The dairy industry in particular has historically been connected to women, although not always with a positive connotation. In 1934, Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s only Nobel Prize laureate, published Independent People.

Being a nation proud of its literary history, nearly every Icelander has read it. Among other things, the novel is meant to reflect the national conscience of the nation before it headed into modernity.

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Bjartur, the main character, prizes two things above all else: sheep and autonomy. His wife begs for a cow, but Bjartur states, “It so happens that all my life I’ve had the opinion that freedom and independence are worth more than all the cattle that any crofter ever got himself into debt for.”

When the local council arranges for him to have a cow, and he begrudgingly accepts it to save face, it is her duty to care for it. It becomes almost a companion to the wife … until Bjartur slaughters it out of spite.

Dairy cattle, explained a professor from the Agricultural University of Iceland, were considered “a woman’s business.” Men managed the sheep, horses and fields but had less interest in the dairy until it became more mechanized after the Second World War.

Recently I traveled north on the island with a friend named Hördur to visit his family on the weekend of the valley’s horse réttir. All the locals participated in rounding up the mares and foals that spent the summer grazing free in the mountains.

They herded them into a central gathering pen and then jumped inside to look for their own stock. It was something I thought could have only existed in the middle ages: Icelandic people singing, drinking and wrestling horses.

Hördur was going to introduce me to one of the area dairy farmers, but the farmer was engaged in the act of horse trading. He stood inside the pen with his arm over a stranger, a bottle passed between them.

The farmer’s face took in more color as he laughed and pointed out horses and leaned further on the other man.

Later that night, we went to his farm. As is tradition, the merriment continued and the farmer’s house was filled with neighbors from the valley, eating, laughing and swinging their bottles of Brennivín as they told stories.

The farmer was in the corner, entertaining the guests that surrounded him and using spirited hand gestures as he talked. Hördur asked if we could look at the barn. He motioned us toward the door. “Ask Ása about it,” the farmer said. “She knows more about that stuff anyway.”

We walked into the barn and found a small crowd gathered around the calving pen. Hördur and I took a position on the walkway built over the freestalls, where one could look down over the entire barn. A few people below warily stared up at first and then seemed to forget us, figuring us for party guests that got bored.

Ása, the farmer’s wife, stood in the middle of the calving pen, rolling up her right sleeve as far as it would go. She was in her 50s, had choppy gray hair and was built solid. She plunged her arm inside a cow tied to the pen.

The Icelandic cow is known for having a higher rate of stillborns. This calf, however, she was not going to lose. She slipped a rope around its pasterns and leaned back with all her weight, her face frozen with strain and tension.

Finally, the heifer dropped to the floor as a wet bundle. Ása cleared out its nostrils while peals of laughter could be heard from the house.

Hördur once told me that the use of words has always been an important part of Icelandic culture, from their interaction with the Danish king, to their fight for independence, to how they honor their poets and writers.

I think they would agree that how a group of people uses the language lends insight into the culture itself. The women the Vikings came back to are still present in the country today.

Since moving to Iceland, I’ve never heard the expression “a farmer and his wife.” Here, on this island, there are only farmers. PD

Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. He is currently on a Fulbright scholarship in Iceland .

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