20 May 2011

Icelandic folk-tale: The Black Skirt

People who do not conform to what is considered good and normal by society have a much better time of it today that they did back in the old days. Reproductive freedom is now considered to be a human right, but back then people who didn’t wish to have children were considered abnormal, even evil. Consider this story:


Once upon a time, log ago, there were a middle-aged couple, rich and respectable, who had one daughter. She was an attractive, lively girl and had many suitors, but turned them all down. Finally the parish minister, a young man with good prospects, came to ask for her hand. The parents were all for the match, but the girl absolutely refused to giver her consent. Her parents asked her how she could turn down such as wonderful prospect but she answered that she was so mortally afraid of the terrible pain of childbirth that she couldn’t possibly consent to marry anyone, however good the prospects were.

“There is a way out of that, my daughter,” said the woman. Then went her clothes trunk and opened it and pulled out a black skirt that she handed to the girl.

“If you wear this as your underskirt, next to your skin,” she said, “and never take it off, neither by night or day, you will never suffer the pangs of childbirth.”

After this the girl accepted the proposal and married the minister. They lived well and prospered, and the young wife turned out to be a hard worker and a good housekeeper and was liked by everyone. 

A few years passed and the young couple continued to prosper and grow rich, but they had no children even though their love-life was active and good. The young husband suspected that this had something to do with his wife’s black underskirt but although he asked her nicely and ordered her by turns to take it off she absolutely refused to do so and persisted in wearing it. He was disturbed by this but there was nothing he could do about it.

One summer, on Midsummer’s Eve, he got a visit from an old school-fellow and childhood friend of his who lived in another parish. He was a knowledgeable and wise man who had ken of many mysterious things. The young couple received him gladly and the two friends had many things to discuss and remember and news to tell. The visitor asked the young husband about his children and watched his friends’ spirits sink as he answered that they had none. The visitor said it was a pity that such a handsome couple had no children and asked if there was any particular reason for this. The young husband then told him, in confidence, about his misgivings about the black skirt that his wife wore night and day would not on any account take off. 

This made the visitor thoughtful. He was quiet for a while and then spoke: “I can try to fix this situation to the good for you both. Tonight is Midsummer’s Night. Go around midnight and say a mass with only myself and your wife present. Then we shall see what happens.”

The young minister agreed to this and that night they suggested to the young wife that she join them for a midnight mass in the church. She was willing and just before midnight the three of them walked to the church. The minister took up his position before the altar and the visitor and the minister’s wife took seats on each side of the altar. They then sang the mass loudly and clearly. 

After a while a little boy came walking down the aisle. He stopped at the woman’s knees and looked at her with sorrowful, accusing eyes and said: “You did ill by me, my mother, when you denied me life. I was to have become a bishop.” Then he turned around and walked back up the aisle. The woman was quite startled and turned pale, but continued her singing. 

A short time later another boy came to her and said: "You did ill by me, my mother, when you denied me life. I was to have become a sheriff and a judge.” This startled her even more than before and she broke out in a sweat, but was still able to continue singing, albeit with difficulty.

But then a little girl came to her and spoke in a soft child’s voice: “You did ill by me, my mother, when you denied me life. I was to have become a minister’s wife.” This was too much for her and she fainted away and fell from her seat as the child turned away from her. The visitor and the minister immediately jumped up and whipped the black skirt off her and then carried her into the farm and laid her in her bed. The skirt they took and burned. 

These events did not make the minister’s wife any more unwell than this, but the young minister felt that a burden had been lifted off him and was deeply grateful to his friend. Following these events fortune favoured the young couple: they had three children, each more promising than the last, two boys and one girl. The elder of the two boys grew up to become a bishop and the younger a sheriff and judge, and the daughter a minister’s wife.

Note: The greatest office any man could hope to achieve in Iceland back then was to become a bishop, a sheriff and judge, or a minister, and to marry one of these was the best most women could expect.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.

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