Mending the Past 11: Enchantment and the meaning of one word


Poèsie, 1938 by Otto Mäkilä (1904–1955), Finland

Det angår jord og gror av alt ditt hold
– Eg ligg i armen din og drikk meg ør og varm
går under i deg som ein død i mold
og søv ei vårnatt vekk innved din barm.
Eg sansar deg igjennom alt eg drøymer,
til glade fuglerøyster bryt min blund
og morgonsola gjennom ruta fløymer
du slår auga opp og finn min munn.
“Jordange” (earth smells)
It smells of earth and grows from your flesh
– I lie in your arms and drink myself giddy and warm
perish in you like a corpse in the ground
And sleep away the spring night in your embrace.
I sense you through the fabric of my dreams,
until joyous birdsong breaks my slumber
and the morning sun streams through the window
you open your eyes and find my mouth.
–Halldis Moren Vesaas, 1929 Norway

Given the high cost of her transgressions, what would explain Maja Lisa’s behavior? Anthropologist Mary Douglas writes that “…it is a mistake to treat ‘us’ the moderns and ‘them’ the ancients as utterly different.” And yet, as the grandchild of immigrants I know that to cross the sea is to tear away from a place in a way that makes it forever different and difficult to know. The passage of time, from one generation to the next, just widens the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

How can I relate to the life of a Swedish peasant in the early nineteenth century? Reading the PCM records reinforces the impression that life was dismally hard, fraught with uncertainties and dangers. People found comfort in their puritanical culture and superstitions. And yet, I know that there must have been light in their darkness, laughter and sometimes even joy. There were celebrations for baptisms, weddings and harvests and midsummer dances when desires were given free rein amidst music, dancing and bonfires that cast sparks and blue smoke into the dusky sky.
But desire itself was one of life’s great dangers. It was in the old days for ‘them’ as it is now too for ‘us’ the moderns. Is desire the explanation for the relationship between Maja Lisa and Nils Nilsson? There is only one clue so far. (The possibility remains that there are records I have yet to discover that detail the court case or church meeting commentary.) For now, I have one word.
I recently spent an entire weekend translating a note written in the Härja parish register, 1850/55 concerning Maja Lisa Magnusdotter.  The cursive handwriting was tiny, ink-blotted and peppered with old fashioned spellings and abbreviations. My method, slow as it is for a non-native speaker of Swedish, is to first work out the Swedish words. (This works something like an autostereogram, where by staring at 2 dimensional image a 3D image emerges. I have to contemplate each word until a recognizable pattern of letters is revealed.)

In Swedish:

(Dr) Dotter Maja fött ett oäkta
barn; mördat det och
dömd till 20 dagars XXX (utan? without or häkte? custody)
och hemlig kyrko-
plikt Den 12 maj 1841
Framfött ett oäkta barn
Britta Cajsa och därför
undergått hemlig skrift.
Se Risadråg–XX XX?” (NN.?)

The translation into English:

daughter Maja gave birth to an illegitimate child, murdered it and was sentenced to 20 days (one word here but I can’t make it out. It is not “fängelse,” prison or “vatten och bröd,” water and bread, but we know that was her 20-day sentence) and hemlig kyrko-pligt (confidential church duty). On the date 12 May, 1841
gave birth to an illegitimate child Britta Cajsa and therefore underwent hemlig skrift (confidential confession).
See Risadråg (perhaps a footnote to refer the reader to another page). A date or initials follows, that I can’t make out.

The record notes that two and a half years after her conviction for the murder of an infant, Maja Lisa gave birth to another illegitimate child, Britta Cajsa. This time there is no note of prison time. Instead, she underwent “hemlig skrift,” confidential confession. I think this means that she was perhaps fined by the church and required to confess and repent in a meeting with the priest.
The word that really hung me up in this translation, and it took a fair amount of time to figure out, was the first word, Uttlevfad. I had to work at making out each letter and then research possible versions of a word until, after about four days, I finally found it in an old dictionary. This one word, written clearly and singly at the top of the paragraph, is an adjective without a noun. Ostensibly it is pointed at Maja Lisa herself and expresses the opinion of the person holding the quill. Utlevad, here used in an old fashioned sense, means debauched: indulging in or characterized by sensual pleasures to a degree perceived to be morally harmful; dissipated, degenerate, corrupt, depraved, sinful, unprincipled, immoral.
The danger of desire was a familiar theme in and out of church. Scandinavian myths, legends and folk tales are full of warnings about the bewitching power of desire. In one of my favorite books (and a wonderful 1984 movie) Ronia Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren, Ronia, an adventurous young girl, spends a lot of time exploring the wilderness around her father’s robber castle. One day, a mist settles over the forest and she becomes entranced. Her eyes close and she is drawn forward by the beguiling voices of the Unearthly Ones, de underjordiska, luring her to their underground world. She is saved by her friend Birk, who has to throw a rope over her to draw her back, but not before she bites him in her savage and bewildered state.

A hulder meets a coal burner in the forest. Note her tail. Per Daniel Holm–Svenska floksägner, Herman Hofberg (1882)

There are many variations on this story which authors Inger-Lise Hjordt-Vetlesen and Else Marie Kofod write about in Nordic Women’s Literature: Behind the Apron. When a lone character is bergtagna, bewitched or enchanted, it literally means  ‘taken to the mountain’, which is a entire genre of Nordic folk tale. “In Iceland the dangerous forces dwell in the mountain pasture, in Norway most often by waterfalls and mountains, in Denmark by bogs and barrows, and in Sweden by the forests and charcoal stacks.” These forces are seductive, unreal and lead one away from reality to other worlds. The hulder is a forest woman (sometimes a man) known throughout Nordic folklore by many variants of the name. Essentially, she is a creature who lives secretly in the forest. She is beautiful, magically seductive and identifiable by her tail. The hulder tales and kidnapping-type stories are meant as warnings and to show that desire, erotic impulses, are beyond our control and can be fatal. It is the community that controls our safety, that ropes us back from annihilation.
In their time, the oral tradition of folktales, legends, ballads and proverbs conveyed history, ways of life, and codes of conduct from generation to generation. Was Maja Lisa part of that ancient tradition or was she more influenced by its decay? Was she utlevad, sinful, as the church would have it, or was she förtrollat, enchanted, in the old way, or, in modern terms, was she trapped in a dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship? Or quite simply, was she in love?


  1. Charles Gustafson · · Reply

    Dear Lisa~

    You are really grinding out supportive information to your story. We do have some family photos that date back to the time period of 1890 – 1910. Some of the clothes are reminiscent of an earlier time because of slowly changing dress habits or affordability restraints. It might be interesting to use some of the personal along with the stock photos.


  2. I would love to use more of the family photos.

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