I’ve been putting off sharing my pictures from a Norwegian seter since August, so may as well make it my last post of 2015! As you may have noted in my August posts, I was able to scrape together some funding to visit Scandinavia this past summer–first time in Sweden in… maybe 7, 8 years, and first time in Norway since I was 15. I got to visit lots of awesome locations on this trip, relevant to my past research, my teaching, my favorite movies, or my family history, but one unexpected pleasure was finding that there was a seter (summer pasture, called a shieling in Scotland) right next to Solvorn, the town I stayed in when visiting the Urnes stave church (will have to post on that another time). I’ve got a professional interest in the seter, of course, but I’ve also been working the idea into some of the fiction I’ve been writing the last few years (one story got honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest), so it was nice to visit one personally!
The seter (Norwegian– säter in Swedish), is part of a tradition of transhumance in Norway and parts of Sweden (though not the parts my family is from, I believe). The seter/säter is basically summer pasture, or a summer dairy, run by women in Scandinavia (I believe the Scottish shieling is used by male shepherds, but I still hear the term used in connection with the Scandinavian phenomenon). A summer dairy could be run by an older woman, or, going by the legend tradition that I’m familiar with, you could have just unmarried girls running the summer pasture. Some places might have a distinction between närfäbodar (pastures closer to hand where the cattle are first moved) and långfäbodar (where they are moved later in the summer–see the Swedish wikipedia entry for fäbod for this
info), and while some locations may have the seter nearby (I got a bit lost, but I think you can make it to the seter from Solvorn in 1-2 hours) there are others where (I believe) you might have to hike a good part of the day to get there–I imagine it goes even longer with the cattle. If you’ve read Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (you probably haven’t–it’s pretty different from his A Doll’s House, but a fascinating read), you might remember the three seter girls he encounters early in the play, who are crying out for the trolls living nearby to keep them company (a bit euphemistic here–Peer stays with them instead, and we catch a glimpse of the anxiety over sexually mature yet unattached young women staying alone out in the wild that we see in the legend tradition).
My knowledge of the seter/säter is mostly limited to some of the ways it shows up in Scandinavian Folklore (a course I took with John Lindow when I started grad school at Berkeley back in 2002-3, and which I later got to teach as a lecturer in 2010), and I’ve never pursued the topic in my own research, just in my teaching, but I’ve been interested in it since I first heard of it. In the legend tradition I am most familiar with the story is usually one of a failed abduction–a young woman, engaged but not yet married, is alone at the seter with her dog. A cute guy from the huldre folk/hidden folk/underjordiska (the under-earthers)/elves/trolls/etc stops by and starts wooing her–potentially a very attractive offer, as there were certainly legends out there about girls abducted by the hidden folk who later appear to their parents and tell them to stop searching because they’ve married the prince of the mountain or some such and are actually a lot better off now than they used to be.
Of course in this story the girl is loyal to her fiance, but this other guy suddenly has all his hidden folk family and friends there and they are putting a bridal crown on her head and pretty much getting set for the I-dos, so she ties a ribbon around her dog and sends him running down the mountain for her fiance. And of course when her fiance sees the ribbon he knows something is up, so he rushes up the mountain, gun in hand, and when he sees the wedding going on he shoots a bullet over the wedding party (because, of course, you get power over the hidden folk when you pass iron/steel over them, duh), and they all scatter, and human boy and human girl live happily ever after, the end.
I’ll leave off more thorough analysis, but the narrative tradition surrounding the seter is obviously pretty preoccupied with young unmarried women and sex–some versions have outlaws visiting the girls instead of trolls, and I expect that in some versions the girl actually does marry the troll–and taking a cue from the cameo in Peer Gynt, I also expect there is bawdy folklore aplenty revolving around seter girls (not my specialty, so I don’t have much to say about that, sorry!). Folklorists have noted that the legend tradition often features threats at key points in the standard (local) human biography–in-between points, liminal moments, where someone is poised between two identities and is therefore vulnerable: the space between birth and christening is dangerous in changeling folklore, for example, and of course not being properly buried or given last rites at death can result in the dead walking again–the liminality of the living dead is right there in the name. For young men and women just reaching sexual maturity, the threat is–you guessed it. SEX. In the version of the story I gave above we see her liminality emphasized in her engaged status–pledged to be married, so not “single”, but not yet married. No longer a child, not yet an adult. Legends (as opposed to more explicitly fictional and escapist fairy tales) tend to be told by the farming class–maybe still poor, but nevertheless with a bit more of a stake in the status quo than the rural proletariat (those who tend to tell fairy tales, according to folklorist Bengt Holbek). Given this we shouldn’t be surprised to see the legend tradition expressing anxiety over these eligible and unattached young women out in the wilderness–lots of potential for transgression there. And of course, lots of potential for titillation on the other hand. Early folklore collectors tended to keep bawdier material out of circulation, but their informants were not necessarily so shy.
I didn’t actually hear about the seter first at Berkeley–during an undergraduate semester abroad in Lund, Sweden I took a course in Scandinavian Music history which began with the kulning, a traditional way of singing (or of herd-calls, however you want to think of it) that girls at the seter would use. You can see a nice traditional version here, and here you can see what a contemporary composer has done with the art. It’s a bit harsh at first, but it didn’t take too long for me to fall in love with it–haunting.
Below are more of my pictures (two sets) from the hike up to the seter and the seter itself. Enjoy!