On gendered landscape

Can landscape be gendered? Anthropologically speaking, women have long been linked with nature and men with culture. Moreover, this position affirms that culture (or men) presides over nature (women). But how does this premise extend onto the actual landscape?

As I explore the area near my current studio in Banff, Alberta, I have observed that many mountains are named after men (Mount Rundle, Mount Bourgeau, Mount Louis) and lakes after women (Lake Louise, Lake Annette, Helen Lake). While this is merely a trend and not a general rule, this trend may illustrate an imposed gender upon nature. However naming these landmarks is part of cultural construct. Nature becomes culture.

In Iceland, I found an example of culture’s power to shape or create gendered landscape, one that was defined by the limitations set upon women by law. At the ruins of a farm near Sandfell, I learned about a very peculiar statute that limited women’s ownership of land, and about a widow named Thorgerdur who was the first to claim this land as her own.

The site of Thorgerdur’s farm at Sandfell. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

“It was said that a woman was not to take a settlement larger than a two-year-old heifer could be led around between sunrise and sunset on a spring day, and so Thorgerdur led her heifer from Tóptafell, near Kvíá, southwards to Kidjaleit near Jökulfell in the west. Thorgerdur therefore took the land extending across the entire Ingólfshöfdi district between the rivers Kvíá and Jökulsá and built her house at Sandfell.”

– From Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) originally composed by historian Ari the Learned in the 12th Century.

The law that allowed Thorgerdur to take land, yet be limited by her and her heifer’s physical capabilities can be traced by a physical boundary on the land.

The absurdity of this law may have made you snicker, however it is sobering to think about how gender roles played out in the lives of Saga-age men and women. Not surprisingly, women were not supposed to take part in decision-making, an ultimately cultural practice. A woman’s father or brother would decide upon their marriage and they were not allowed to vote at the assemblies. Women’s roles were mostly linked to nature, childbearing and farming. But despite their lack of authority, Viking-age women were not passive individuals, illustrated by numerous dialogues from the Sagas and in this previous post.  And while the men were directly engaged in feuds and battles, most women outlived their male counterparts, often marrying three or four times.

The visible ruins at Sandfell are from more recent settlements, that were presumably built over the same site that Thorgerdur chose for her farmhouse. Scan from a 6x7cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

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On female heroines

Many people have heard of Erik the Red and his son Leif the Lucky. Although these two men have been credited for establishing the Norse settlements of Greenland and Vinland, Gudrid Thorbjornardottir, also known as Gudrid the Far-Traveller, is the leading hero of the Vinland Sagas.

Perhaps the first European to give birth to a child in the New World, Gudrid may have also been the instigator of several journeys to explore Vinland, one that left her and her second husband floating about at sea for several months. And although some of Gudrid’s accomplishments may be legend more than history, it is very likely that she travelled more widely than any other woman during the Viking Age, from Iceland to the New World and back, and then on a pilgrimage along the eastern route to Rome. The life of this resilient and elusive lady is extremely well researched in the book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown.

A statue of Gudrid Thorbjornardottir with her son Snorri at Glaumbaer in the North of Iceland. Gudrid settled down in Glaumbaer after travelling to Vinland with husband Thorfinn Karlsefni. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Turf hut replicas at the living museum in Glaumbaer. Author Nancy Marie Brown assisted in the excavation of a viking-age farmhouse just meters from the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum grounds. Image scanned from a 6x7cm negative. Photo by Jessica Auer.

In this book, Brown attempts to comprehend the meaning of the term skörungur used to describe Gudrid in the Sagas. Brown, not wanting to go much further than defining a skörungur as a woman of strong character, alludes to several other qualities these Saga Age women may embody; intelligence, independence and bravery.

Two more significant skörungur appear in another Saga, The Laxdaela Saga, a story that covers several generations of characters from the Dalir region in Iceland.

Most of the Dales were originally claimed by Aud The Deep Minded, who after being widowed by an Irish King , sailed via Norway to establish a new life during the settlement of Iceland. Bear in mind that a desolate 10th Century Iceland would not have normally been a great attraction for a Queen. Aud then divided and gave parts of her land to family, friends and freed slaves.

The main protagonist of the Laxdaela Saga is Gudrun Ósvifsdóttir, who like many saga characters, commits deeds that are as heinous as they are fascinating. After causing the deaths of two men who vied for her affection, she confesses to her son, “To him I was worst whom I loved the most.” She lived out the rest of her days as a nun in Helgafell.

View from the top of Helgafell facing east. A common belief is that those who climb to the top of this modestly-sized mountain will be granted three wishes, as long as they follow three simple instructions (which I managed to mess up!). Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

A stone marks the grave of Gudrun Ósvifsdóttir in the churchyard at Helgafell, Iceland. Photo by Andreas Rutkauskas.

Although all of the Saga authors remain anonymous, historians speculate that the Laxdaela Saga was composed by a woman, due to its feminist perspective and cast of exceptional female characters. I have an affinity for these women who were leaders of their time. Even in the 21st Century, landscape photography remains a male-dominated occupation, so trodding the same ground as these characters has been very inspiring.

There are two other modern-day women worth mentioning in regards to these sagas. Let us not forget Stine Moe Ingstad, the Norwegian archeologist, who along with her husband discovered the remains of the site at L’Anse aux Meadows and subsequently carried out the initial excavation. Finally, there is Birgitta Wallace a Swedish-Canadian archeologist who led more recent excavations with Parks Canada. I had the pleasure of meeting Birgitta at the latest conference for the Association for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies in Canada.