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53 2 IN OUR BLOOD A LINEAGE OF SEA KNOWLEDGE In perusing various books, articles, and archives, Thóra Lilja and I became increasingly surprised by the wealth of material we found on early Icelandic seawomen. We had thought, as did most people, that almost no seawomen had existed. Instead, we discovered dozens upon dozens of accounts of seawomen, and mentions of hundreds . It gradually became clear that, particularly in the West and South of Iceland, very large numbers—hundreds—of women had worked at sea. Indeed, from the 1700s through the late 1800s it was so “usual” for women to go fishing1 that in 1722 two male travelers to Iceland wrote that in Breidafjördur the women were as used to going out in a boat as the men.2 Bergsveinn Skúlason and Thórunn Magnúsdóttir, who each spent years researching, interviewing, and writing about such women, both agreed that in the Breidafjördur area, women comprised at least a third, if not more, of the fishing fleet. The death records for that area also reflected, in the tragically common drownings, that sometimes half or more of the people crewing were women.3 Thóra Lilja and I found the same results. This is remarkable—I know of nowhere else in the world where a historical record reflects such a high percentage of women working at sea.4 Most of the accounts give only a frustratingly brief if enticing mention of a seawoman. But for some of the seawomen, Thóra Lilja and I kept finding scattered mentions and longer accounts in various books and archives. These we were sometimes able to pull together into snapshots 54 CHAPTER TWO of the seawomen’s lives, reflecting their sea knowledge and relationships with fellow crew. We found that most went to sea as farmhand crew, but even in these positions of oppression, various accounts applaud them, recounting their expertise, their strength, and their savvy, consistently comparing them favorably to the men with whom they worked. A surprising number of women worked as foremen in command of the boats; we also found accounts of skilled helmswomen, and, after sails became common, accounts applauding women for their sailing skill. These accounts reflect a lineage of knowledge that spans both time and space, from the medieval past to the early 1900s, and throughout the country. STRONG SEAWOMEN Born in 1829, Ísafold Runólfsdóttir grew up on a remote farm in East Iceland near present-day Vopnafjördur.5 From a family celebrated for their singular strength, Ísafold was known as the best and strongest of the bunch. She was so renowned for her strength that she became part of the folk history of the area, with accounts of her taking on the form and style of the traditional Icelandic narrative tales. She is described as very intelligent, tall, broad-shouldered, handsome with a firm expression , bold, eager in her work, unsparing in her words, unafraid to speak her mind (her language sometimes a bit crass) and overall considered a hero both at sea and on land. Ísafold went to sea when she was “very young,” first rowing with her father Runólfur. Fishing became her main source of income. She often went out alone, and only the “hardest workers could hope to match her.” As with so many of the seawomen in the historical record, it was not so much for her fishing that Ísafold is remembered but for her personality and phenomenal strength. This included her ability to pull her heavy wooden boat ashore alone—an unheard-of feat. One young seaman recalled that once, when the boat was getting in danger upon encountering rough waves as they neared shore, Ísafold jumped from the boat into the waves, grabbed him, and then tossed him with such a throw that he landed safely on shore. Then she dragged the boat ashore after her. Another account describes how, when unloading hundred-pound bags from the boats with the men, who carried one bag each, Ísafold would often remark, “Well, you are not so strong,” and grab two bags, In Our Blood 55 one in each hand.6 Some speculated that it was the fish oil she took religiously that aided her famous strength—but that she was stronger than almost anyone else, man or woman, was undisputed.7 Ísafold also had exceptional skill and strength at a wrestling and martial art form called glíma. Brought from Norway by the early...


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