What ties us together? A cross on top of a building, Christmas dinner with family? A Sunday trip with a friend in the woods? A language we have in common? Stories we know, have heard, believe in? In 1994 when Norway won over Brazil in World Cup football?

I do not know why I’m mentioning the latter, I am not even interested in football. I live in an apartment complex in the middle of Oslo city, I have nothing in common with the neighbor across the hall. He never asked me for a cup of sugar. But if something had happened here, then we might have had a common culture, maybe, I do not know.

And if we want to break out of this community, what happens then?
I this post I use a Norwegian folk tale called, translated to English: The Woman Who Dared Not Give birth to Children (Olsen, p. 194) and it is found in the book called «Norske folkeeventyr og sagn samlet i Nordland» by O.T Olsen. According to folklore, there are only variants of this folk tale in Norway and Sweden. This folk tale is written down from a certain period, it shines through which culture the story is taken from.

In 2019, the abortion law in Norway was tightened, this was a compromise between government parties. There were major protests against this incident. In a way you can say that the restriction was minimal and insignificant, but the fear is that when you first touch on such a law, what happens next? These thoughts can be a good thing to keep in mind, when you read this story.

This is a folk tale that in so many ways I do not want to tell myself in a real life storytelling situation. It is something that has been told before, for some reason, and one may wonder what is the reason why such a story was told.

There were once four sisters. The three elders got married and they all died when they gave birth to their first child. When the fourth sister understood this, she was scared that it would be the same destiny for her. She knew she had to be married; but having children she would not. Every day she went out, first in one direction and then in the other. But she always ended up in the graveyard where her sisters were buried under three simple, gray stones that bore their names.

Before, one could be been buried outside a cemetery because one were not considered to part of the community. For instance, if a child died before being baptized, it was buried outside the graveyard.

One day when she was out walking, she met a wife. The wife noticed that she looked sad and asked what was wrong with her. Yes, she told what it was and asked for good advice.

“I will give you some advice!” the woman said. “You shall go to the tombs of your sisters and at each tomb you must say:” I do not want children!” And then you will give something of yourself ”. Our protagonist listened to the advice.

She went to the graveyard where the silent gray stones stood. She went to the first grave, put down a piece of her hair, prayed, and said, “I do not want children.” Immediately the stone cracked as a response to her prayer. She went to the other grave, put down a clipped nail, prayed, and said, “I do not want children.” The same thing happened with that stone. She went to the third grave, weeping over the gray stone, so the tears hit it and said, “I do not want children.” There was a crack in the stone.

I grew up on an island. We, my mother, my brother and my sister and I moved there when I was three years old. This was in the 1970s, she was a single mother and at that time it was a shame, a threat to the community whose core was a family. There was almost an inheritance sin that followed us three children, for example when we started school. It was clear that we did not come from “an ordinary family”, for instance, we used inherited clothes. I do not see this as something difficult today. No, rather a strength, it has given me an ability to find strength in the otherness.

Sometime later, the woman started working in a pastor’s home. Once the neighboring pastor came for a visit, he was a bachelor. He saw that she was working well, she had wide hips and good hands, he liked her, he proposed and expected a yes. She said yes, for what else could she do? Then there was a wedding in the early summer, she with a bridal crown and a flower wreath while trees burst out their buds. The ring came on her finger and an oath of eternal fidelity out of her mouth. Forever, eternity, endless.

Her parents were present, but not the sisters because they were dead. That night she went to their graves and laid flowers there and promised the dead ones that she would never lie by their side. “Happy home; I still will have.”

Her husband was rich and she got everything she could wish for. She did what a pastor’s wife should do, she took care of her husband and cared for the parish with good deeds. But she did not have children. Her husband kept talking about the children they were going to have, she did not. Her husband asked: “What bothers you?” But she shook her head and said nothing. Quiet, mute, vulnerable.

One evening, when they had been in a banquet, they drove home by horse and sleigh. It was moonlit. As the man looked down the road, he saw the shadow of the horse and himself. But she lacked a shadow. He was worried.

The next day when she went up to the attic and was searching in her chest, he came after, grabbed the lid and dropped it over her neck. He said, “I kill you if you do not say what is wrong with you.”

Then there was no way around it, she had to tell; but when the pastor, her husband, heard what she had done, he became so angry that he sweated under the nose, was red in the face and he chased her out of the house, took an old shoe and threw after her, raised the arm with the fist and said: “As little as the grass and flowers can grow on this shoe, so little you will have mercy.”

Then she wandered from place to place, and mournfully she always was. She visited one and saw the other and asked for mercy. She folded her hands begging and prayed and looked down. But she was a stranger who did not belong where she wandered. No one would ask her in or pray for her, she had to pray herself.

She sits there in the corner every day greeting you gently. She has blankets well pressed around her to keep warm. Most people do not want to say hello, they look down or some other way and pretend that she does not exist.

After far and even further than far, she came to the pastor where she once had worked, and there she again could work.

During the day she was diligent and faithful; but every night she slipped away into the church. She went up to the altar, took the altar book and read a prayer in it, and finally Our Father. But when she came to the seventh prayer: ” rescue us from the evil one” it always answered three times inside the church: “For you there is no mercy neither here nor there.” Sadly she left, but the next night she always came back. The other servants found out what she was doing every night, gossiping, whispering, talking to the pastor.

He hid in church one evening and saw everything she did. At the seventh prayer, it answered within the church, then he stepped forward and said aloud, “Yes, for you there is mercy here and there.” He let her take the altar book and go up into the tower and stay there at night. She should not go down again until he came up to her and picked up the book. At night they would all come, both her husband and parents and relatives and try to lure her down, but then she should point the book  at them, so that no one would have power over her.

She then went up into the tower, and everything went as the pastor had said: the man, parents, relatives and friends all came together, appeared to her and wanted to lure her down; but she just pointed the book to them and they were gone.

How far back can you count your family?

Everything she had not done came against her. They told her how evil she had been, she who would not give birth to children.

Then came the evil one, and this look made the blood stop in her; he tried to scare her down to get hold of her. At the same time, she thought the tower was burning around her; but as she pointed the book in a ring around her, the evil escaped and the fire went out.

As the day soon arrived, she could see in the church a fountain leaping out by the altar ring and running across the floor; on the stream was a white board, and on the board were seven children, who stretched out their hands to her and shouted, “mother, mother, mother!” These were the children she never gave birth to. And when all seven had called out to her, it was all gone.

The pastor came and took both her and the altar book and brought her up to the altar; there he forgave her sin and blessed her. Then he let her hurry home to her husband and said that she had to be under a roof before the sun rose.

Family story, I want you now to think of a story that is constantly told in your family. In our family, we tell about those who no longer exist, especially about the stories that are funny and the stories they themselves told.

Maurice Halbwachs, the French philosopher and the man who coined the concept “The collective memory”, believes that the collective memory is a social construction and consists of traditions and conventions, ideas and knowledge. Halbwachs says that when a person or historical event enters the collective memory, it is transformed into learning, a notion, or a symbol, something that creates a meaning. Tradition and new ideas may exist side by side in the collective memory.

The imagination we use to recreate memory is bonded by our social environment (Halbwachs, 1992). What makes memories come together is not because they naturally come in a particular order, but because they are part of a larger line of thought that characterizes a group of people. Folk tales are an example of the collective memory, they have a structure of events that are influenced by a variety of circumstances, the way the storyteller adapt to the storyteller’s environment, and the influence of folklore on how a folk tale should be. Today, this structure may not be suitable, because my environment is different than when the folk tale was written down. I would have trouble telling the folk tale in this post, because there is probably no context today where I can tell it.

Halbwachs believes that every family has its own way of structuring memories and the family does not tell everything that has happened, but has made a selection. And, without Halbwachs saying it directly, this could be the seed of long-standing family conflicts. Although we remember in our peculiar and individual way, the family or group to which you belong activates this memory. The family’s way of recreating and selecting memories is again influenced by the structure of society. This has led to a number of things being censored, events that are not acceptable to remember.

This can be both a strength because it creates a common culture, but also an obstacle for those who want to break out of it.

The collective memory is not fixed and something archived as a stagnation, the contemporary influence enriches the collective memory.

When the woman arrived back home, the gate was closed, the watchman chased her away.

In the horizon, a luminous stripe began to appear. She fell to her knees and asked to be let in. She had to under roof before the sun appeared. It did not help. Her husband had told that she was never welcome back into her home. She ran around the house, lay down. She started to dig under the house. And she had come all the way as far as the baking ovens when the sun was setting; but before she was completely under roof, a ray of sun fell on her and then she died. She died there, at the edge of his mercy.

Shortly after, her husband came out, he walked around for a while. When he arrived at the gate, the watchman told him his wife had been there and wanted to come in. At the same time, the pastor’s eyes fell on the shoe he had thrown after her, standing there full of grass and flowers.

“Where did she go?” He asked the watchman; he suddenly realized that something had happened. The watchman pointed to the other side of the house.

The pastor went and searched and searched until he found her under the baking oven. Then she was dead. “But the shoe that blossomed,” he said, “had her sin been great, the mercy was even greater.” And he who had closed his door to her when the door of mercy was open.

Literature

Halbwachs, M. (1992). On collective memory. Chicago og London: The University of Chicago Press.

Olsen, O. (u.d.). Norske folkeeventyr og sagn samlet i Nordland.

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