I was in Iceland less than a day when I was told by an Icelander that if I went for a hike alone in the hills above Laugarvatn, I might see people who weren’t really there. The landscape conspired with perception, revealed visions. It was the quality of the light and lack of trees. What I wanted to see I’d see, the woman who ran the residency told me.
The first week, I saw a child dancing but it was really a towel blowing on a laundry line.
The second week, I saw rocks jumping sideways through hills but the rocks were sheep.
It was always daylight in Iceland in July, the sky perpetually soft-lit, and the light foreshortened the landscape. Eventually, I began to distrust my vision and felt a need to clarify what I’d just seen, look again.
Baltic-region mythology depicts stories about shape-shifters, the deception of sight. Icelandic hidden people—the unwashed children of Eve who she hid from God and who are invisible to humans—live in the hills of Iceland unless they choose to be seen.
The Icelandic folk story “The Sealskin” is about a man who steals a sealskin, and who, upon returning to the site of his theft for more sealskin, finds, instead, a naked woman. She is weeping and he takes her to his house to console and clothe her. Years after his theft of her identity—the sealskin—after his abduction, after they marry and have children, he goes fishing one day and she finds her sealskin in a locked chest in their house. She puts it on and dives back into the sea, never to return.
Pagan Scandinavian mythology is unabashedly brutal. There are child-stealers, jealous dead lovers, and in the story of “My Jawbones!” to stop the haunting of her hearth, a woman must bury the jawbones of a child she finds in her house.
In one Icelandic myth, a stranger comes to town and encounters bad weather, so he spends the night in the home of an older woman and her two young beautiful daughters. He asks the mother if he can take one of her daughters to bed and she agrees. In bed, he tries to have sex with the woman, but when he touches her, his hands move through her body. “I am a spirit with no body,” the woman explains. “You cannot get pleasure from me.”
These misogynistic myths of the young woman, someone who is little more than a beautiful body, often alone, primed to be taken, have hung around. Some of the more violent Baltic region mythologies are about women alone in the woods and the bad things that happen to them because they are alone.
The first funeral I went to was my second cousin’s. She was murdered by a stranger after he abducted her. She was rollerblading home alone one dusk on Kittson County Road 1, a northern Minnesota county road flanked by golden grain.
Lidia Yuknavitch’s essay “Woven” discusses Laumes, Lithuanian water spirits who can take the form of animals and beautiful water-women. She writes: “Laumes were both benevolent and dangerous. They could tickle men to death and then eat their bodies. They could protect women and children or punish them brutally.”
In the same essay, Yuknavitch writes about violence against women and the difficulty of depicting such violence. “In America, it’s tricky to describe violence without it turning into entertainment.”
As a child, I was told my mother’s father was French. More accurately, he was a Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Turkish Jew raised in Nice, France, and later, Brooklyn.
His mother went to Nice seeking refuge from Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. There, she lived with her two sisters in a small flat where they worked as hat models in the city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
I inherited my grandfather’s photos after he passed. Beautiful women in hats. Other details about the sisters’ lives remain hazy. When I write about them I come up with more questions than answers, so this past feels closer to mythology to me, to a set of exaggerated familial beliefs, some, perhaps, fictitious. This was Europe, late 1930s, and they were Jews who escaped to America. In Nice, some versions of the story go, they changed their names and assumed Christian identities. In Nice, they lived as themselves and as false selves. They shape-shifted.
Intermediate spirits in Icelandic folktales, those who can shape-shift, are depicted, often, as beautiful women. The moral point of the shape-shift narrative is connected to punishment, to reveal dubious or desperate transformation and its consequence. It’s a relational trope reliant on a quality of before and after. Like a good secret, shape-shifting acquires its gravity by what it conceals and promises to expose later. Across cultures and mythologies, some shape-shifters are more deceptive or punitive, many are humiliated for their transgressions, some symbolize inner conflict, such as the werewolf who changes to reveal his true self. In some shape-shifting narratives, once a character takes on a new form, it becomes impossible to change back.
In a 2008 Grand Forks Herald article about my second cousin’s murder, a friend of hers describes how no women or children went biking or skating alone after her murder on the rural straightaway. It would be a betrayal to her memory, her friend said, to do these things alone now.
In Nice, when Nazi’s found out that my great-grandmother’s sister had been assuming a Christian name, they murdered her children in front of her but let her live. The memory of that sight would be her punishment.
John Berger defines sight as the thing that comes before words. To Berger, the relationship between sight and knowledge is never settled and always relational, mediated by perspective, by sight relative to position. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag, on the photography of atrocities, writes that “Photographs objectify: they turn an event or person into something that can be possessed.” Certainly narrative does this work of possession too and I feel the edges of shape-shifting as I write this: anything I say about grief or loss is my singular possession, incomplete and mediated, reflecting my flawed sight. What are the details I’ve included, the details I’ve left out? For you, reader, I objectify my experiences and lay claim to those of my family. I mold, omit, and transgress the past.
But the violence is real, the vulnerability that hangs around the edges of sight. Yesterday, I learned from a neighborhood community message board that a white man driving a gold car tried to abduct a child my son’s age two blocks from our home. When I walk the dog tonight, I stare down every honey-hued sedan, try to see inside every car, to every man I don’t trust, but I can’t. Dusk has turned the windshields to mirrored glass.
In her essay “The Precarious” from her recent collection, The Reckonings, Lacy M. Johnson writes, “both autopsy and atrocity require a witness—someone who survives, who sees for herself, with her own eyes. But the violence changes the person who looks.”
One day I went for a hike alone in the hills above Laugarvatn. The hills were steep and mossy and rocky. All the people I saw were tourists like me in bunchy jackets and hiking boots. I was grieving and lonely and wanted something revealed to me. I knew this was ridiculous, but I wanted it anyway. Some unnamable more, some sight or being to lure me away from pain. In some shape-shifting stories, the mother appears and beckons the child home. Sometimes, this isn’t the mother, but a dubious figure able to assume the mother’s form. Instead, in the hills above Laugarvatn, behind mossy lava rocks, there were clumps of used toilet paper. A woman’s torn ticket stub from her flight to Iceland from Tel Aviv.
On a gray day at The Skagaströnd Museum of Prophecies, I gave every Króna in my wallet to a fortuneteller to look at my hands and face so she could see into the privacy of my nature, my past, reveal truths I couldn’t yet see.
Works used to research this post include John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Lydia Yuknavitch’s essay “Woven” originally published in Guernica, and Lacy M. Johnson’s The Reckonings. The folktales and quoted excerpts come from Jacqueline Simpson’s Icelandic Folktales and Legends and Silja Aðalsteinsdóttir’s The Trolls in the Knolls. The Sontag quote can be found on page 81 in Regarding the Pain of Others and the Lacy M. Johnson quote can be found on page 28 in The Reckonings.