Women of the Fäbod

Photo by Anders Lind, 1907

The year was 1890 in the village of Sjöland, Ångermanland, Sweden. Thirteen year old Anna was standing on the threshold between girlhood and womanhood, and the time had come for her to follow with her mother to the fäbod for the first time. They left in the evening and the men went ahead to clear the path while the herdswomen followed behind them, guiding the livestock. The sound of cow bells and herding songs could be heard far and wide as the procession of people and livestock headed up the mountains in the midsummer evening light. It was a long way to the fäbod, and once they arrived, the men stayed for a night or so to help the women settle in, but once the men headed back to the village, the women were left alone. 
In the mountain regions of Sweden and Norway, the fäbod transhumance culture has existed since the medieval period. Herding was primarily women’s work in these areas and herdswomen went with the livestock to the fäbod dairy farm for the summer while winter crops were grown back home on the farm. There were many different kinds of fäbodar, some were close to the village whereas others lay far into the woods or higher up in the mountains. Women spent the summer at the fäbod, taking care of the cows, goats and sheep, making butter and cheese, and knitting socks for the coming winter. 
A unique fäbod culture developed with its very own music traditions. Birch trumpets, animal horns and the distinctive singing technique of kulning was used by herdswomen as a way of herding the livestock, scaring away wolves and bears and as a way of communicating over vast distances. Herding music had many practical uses and anyone who has learnt to kula will also know of how incredibly empowering it feels to hear the echo of one’s voice in the surrounding landscape. 
Following after the older herdswomen, adolescent girls would learn how to find their way in the woods among bears, wolves and vittror, and through singing and kulning, they would be initiated into the musical language and traditions of the fäbod community of herdswomen. Here, they would learn what it meant to be women of the fäbod

Herdswoman playing the näverlur (birch trumpet). Photo by Mårten Sjöbeck, 1937, Trogsta

Ever since I first stayed at an old fäbod in the mountains of northern Dalarna, Sweden, and began learning the music tradition of kulning, I have wanted to learn more about the fäbod culture, and especially about the fäbod herdswomen. During the autumn of 2018, while studying ethnology at Stockholm University, I was given the opportunity to explore the folklore archives at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm and the Institute for Language and Folklore in Uppsala. Throughout that autumn and winter, I read through hundreds of stories about life on the fäbod in the late 1800's and early 1900's. My research resulted in a bachelor’s thesis titled "Women of the Fäbod: an Ethnological Study of the Swedish Fäbod Culture at the Turn of the 20th Century."
Both archives at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm and the Institute for Language and Folklore in Uppsala house a vast collection of questionnaires. My study is based upon a questionnaire from 1928 that was sent throughout the fäbod regions of central and northern Sweden with the ambition of documenting fäbod traditions from as far back in time as possible. The questionnaires of the early 20th century are a product of a time period when ethnologists and folklorists throughout Europe were on a mission to save what they saw as the last remains of the old folk culture. In Sweden, ethnologists were roaming the countryside on foot and bicycle, knocking at doors and questioning people about local customs. Another method of documentation was sending questionnaires throughout the country to ortsmeddelare – correspondents who represented their local communities and were assigned the task of answering the archive’s questionnaires from their own knowledge and by questioning people in the area.
The purpose of my study is to explore the meaning of womanhood in relation to the Swedish fäbod culture at the turn of the 20th century. Drawing upon gender and ritual theories, the study intends to gain an understanding for what it meant to be a woman of the fäbod by examining how fäbod herdswomen were culturally shaped and initiated into women both in relation to their place in the fäbod community of herdswomen, but also in respect to the wider community and society of which they were a part of.
“The deeper you want to immerse yourself in a material, the more you must know about the society that you’re studying,” writes the ethnologist Rebecca Lennartsson, and in order to conduct a cultural analysis of the past, “one must dwell in the context that one seeks to study.” After reading through a vast amount of material from various fäbod regions, I began to build up a foundation of background knowledge. Even seemingly unimportant details about what kind of food was eaten and what kind of shoes were worn were useful in my own relationship with the material and process of becoming acquainted with the historical context. By immersing myself in the material, as well as building up a background foundation of knowledge, I attempted to dwell in the cultural and historical context of my study to the best of my ability.
Of all the material that I read through, only a limited amount was presented directly in the thesis, but I must stress how important the whole process of working with the material was for my understanding of the fäbod culture in all its different variations, painting a picture in my mind of the geographical landscape, the people, the atmosphere, sounds and smells. My own personal experiences of staying at a fäbod, learning the art of kulning and the stories that I have heard over the years about fäbod herdswomen were also a valuable source of background knowledge to draw upon in my relationship with the material.
The main conclusion of my study is that the journey into the fäbod woods can be seen as a rite of passage where adolescent girls going to the fäbod for the first time were initiated into the fäbod community of herdswomen. Womanhood is a cultural phenomenon in which women are culturally shaped and initiated into women not only by the codes, conceptions and values of the society at large, but also by the stories, customs and traditions of their local communities. The fäbod herdswomen were born into the gender power structures of a patriarchal society that sought to shape them into promising wives, and they were also women of the fäbod, initiated into the fäbod communitas, a form of female counterculture with its very own musical language, customs and traditions, and with its very own definitions of womanhood.
Almost one year has passed since I finished writing “Women of the Fäbod,” and now I am busy working on a book about the forgotten stories of the Nordic woods – exploring Nordic folklore, mythology, animism, rewilding and much more. In this book, I will write more about the fäbod culture and especially about the folk music tradition of kulning. In the book, I will include an interview with Jonna Jinton, a Swedish artist, photographer and singer who has become world-famous for her kulning videos on YouTube. I love interweaving the past and present, combining archive materials and interviews with people today, as well as writing about my own personal journey of returning to the land of my roots.
Read the full text of the thesis here
One of my favourite kulning spots.


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