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Icelandic 'Cruel Mother' story

03 Dec 11 - 06:50 PM (#3268051)
Subject: Icelandic 'Cruel Mother' story
From: Jack Campin

exposing newborn babies in Iceland

What the ghost of the dead baby does isn't paralleled in any Anglo-American version I know.

    Carried Out (NÁ)

    3 Dec 2011
    I’m writing a book. I’ve written one before so you don’t have to roll your eyes. If you’re not rolling your eyes, clearly you haven’t met enough novelists.

    The book is a ghost story and therefore I have been doing a lot of research into Iceland’s relationship with the “the other side.”

    People get so fixated on the whole “elf” business that they tend to neglect Iceland’s rich “spectral” culture. Maybe it was just my family but there was always talk of ghosts at my house growing up.

    As a hardened atheist and skeptic I am of course fascinated by this and this past week I have been reading about a particularly awful part of Icelandic history and the surrounding ghost lore.

    I’ve been reading about útburður. It’s hard to translate; if I were to try I would say: “left out”.

    In the days before Iceland had birth control and was astoundingly impoverished, women would at times carry out newborn babies and leave them outside to die.

    This happened for a number of reasons but the most common reason was likely the fact that the women simply did not have the means to feed the baby or because they had been raped.

    Sometimes it was because the child was a product of incest, disabled, already quite ill or the aftermath of an out-of-wedlock affair.

    The practice of “carrying out” newborns eventually became illegal and women were punished by law if suspected of having committed the crime. In order to discourage women further, a kind of supernatural horror lore was born out of leaving babies out to die of exposure.

    The most famous story is—as many stories in the past were—a song. The song is called “Móðir mín í kví kví”, or as my rough translation would lead you to believe: “My Mother in the Pen”.

    You can hear a very impressive version of the song here and as you listen, I’ll give you the back story.

    Once there was a young girl who became pregnant. She didn’t want the child for whatever reason (to my knowledge the reason was not specified) and therefore wrapped the newborn up in rags and left the baby out to die.

    Some time later she was working on a farm, or more specifically in a pen, and she started to fret about what to wear to an upcoming dance.

    This is where the story gets really fricking creepy.

    Suddenly the corpse of her left-out baby wanders in singing the song which goes like this (excuse my clumsy translation):

    My mother in the pen, pen
    Don't you worry for, for
    I will lend you these rags of mine
    Rags of mine to dance in
    I will lend you these rags of mine
    Rags of mine to dance in.

    Upon seeing this, the “vain” young girl who worried about what to wear to the dance was overcome with grief and guilt and then lost her mind.

    This, of course, is just one in a number of stories designed to horrify. They were most likely based on facts and then used as ammunition to scare the crap out of girls who might be having premarital sex.

    The problem with this, of course, is that these women weren’t vain, or evil. These women were perhaps raped and ran the risk of social exclusion for having an illegitimate child or so poor that they would either starve to death themselves or had to watch their babies starve to death anyway.

    The worst part is that reaching out for help wasn’t exactly a viable option either. The community around these women, most likely as poor and hungry as they were, condemned ómagi (pauper children) and considered the babies untouchable anyway.

    This is a dark part of Icelandic history and it makes for one hell of a scary ghost story. Of course this is just one of many more I am bound to stumble across in the research for my book.

    Nanna Árnadóttir –!/NannaArnadottir

04 Dec 11 - 12:58 PM (#3268347)
Subject: RE: Icelandic 'Cruel Mother' story
From: GUEST,SteveG

Are you suggesting this is related to the very English ballad Child 20? As far as I know there are no foreign parallels to the ballad. Child got this wrong (IMO). All of the continental parallels he quotes are actually versions of Child 21 The Maid and the Palmer. What seems to have confused him is that Scottish versions of 20 have had the pennance stanzas from 21 added on after the broadside of 20 entered oral tradition there. All of his notes to 20 are based on these pennances.

04 Dec 11 - 06:23 PM (#3268512)
Subject: RE: Icelandic 'Cruel Mother' story
From: GUEST,SteveG

Whilst it is highly unlikely that there is any derivative connection between the Icelandic song and the English broadside, IMO their raison d'etre is almost the same. The English broadside is a warning to well-heeled young ladies not to go astray with male servants. The consequences described are horrific enough, and as the writer says on the website, the Icelandic song serves as a warning to young girls in a similar fashion and is just as horrific. It is perhaps debatable which is the more damnable, leaving the babies out in the cold to starve to death or dispatching them with a knife. A close similarity is the babies returning to haunt the mothers in both songs, but in times when the vast majority of the population believed implicitly in the supernatural, haunting by the victims is a logical conclusion.

In previous post read 'penance' for 'pennance'. I'll write it out correctly 20X.

04 Dec 11 - 06:34 PM (#3268516)
Subject: RE: Icelandic 'Cruel Mother' story
From: MorwenEdhelwen1

I think (unless I have it wrong) that Jack may be bringing up parallels to the ballad's infanticide plot that exist in other European cultures. And talking of Iceland- I recently discovered that the traditional Icelandic Santa Clauses are known as the Yule Boys, Yule Lads, Yule Men, or Christmas boys (apologies to anyone from Iceland- this isn't something that's known to people on other sides of the world) BTW, this story proves that some stories are common in countries on the same continent.

04 Dec 11 - 08:54 PM (#3268566)
Subject: RE: Icelandic 'Cruel Mother' story
From: MorwenEdhelwen1

Incidentally, I'm a Tolkien fan (can be guessed from my username) and would like to add (again apologies to anyone who already knows this) JRRT took inspiration for his trolls from Icelandic folklore, and could also speak very good Icelandic. Icelandic, Finnish, and Scandinavian folklore was one of his interests- some posters here might also know that he took the name "Gandalf" and the other Dwarves' names, Thorin, Balin, etc in The Hobbit, from the list of dwarves in the Prose Edda. Incidentally the Dwarf Gandalf is "the last king of the Elves" according to the Wiki stub. But now if a fantasy writer has a Dwarf called Gandalf in a story, people would think they plagiarised from Tolkien!

05 Dec 11 - 07:00 AM (#3268687)
Subject: RE: Icelandic 'Cruel Mother' story
From: skarpi

and the jule lads are 13 not just one like the American Santa ?

13 days before
Christmas ...they start to come to town ...

find Icelandic jule lads

kv Skarpi Iceland

05 Dec 11 - 07:22 AM (#3268693)
Subject: RE: Icelandic 'Cruel Mother' story
From: Jack Campin

Now somebody's pasted Nanna's article in where I just had a link - be warned that if you follow her link to the song, you will find (a) that it isn't exactly a folk song (folk-derived art song, more like) and (b) that the comments section has attracted the usual xenophobic pond scum.

The Oedipus legend is a variant of this. Infanticide (whether by exposure or more direct killing) must have been versified many times in every culture in Europe. It would be surprising if the broadside writer of the English version hadn't heard an oral version of some sort, even if no verbal trace of the original went into his work.

05 Dec 11 - 04:50 PM (#3268940)
Subject: RE: Icelandic 'Cruel Mother' story
From: GUEST,SteveG

Very possibly, Jack. Equally though none of the events described in The Cruel Mother earliest version need have come from anywhere else than the writer's own imagination. Personally I still think the main motive for writing it was to act as a warning to well-heeled young ladies not to have liaisons with servants.

05 Dec 11 - 07:23 PM (#3269018)
Subject: RE: Icelandic 'Cruel Mother' story
From: michaelr

Skarpi modestly neglected to say that his band Rosin Okkar have a recording of the song on the Mudcat's THIS IS US CD set.

06 Dec 11 - 01:21 AM (#3269097)
Subject: RE: Icelandic 'Cruel Mother' story
From: skarpi

I did not see what Nanna wrote until now , interesting ...!! what she says about the song lyric is not what I ´ve been digging up ....strange , this need to be looking into .

kv Skarpi Iceland .