After the relative success of our first “Uncommon Adventure” video, we set out on round two yesterday, this time on an adventure of a much different, much more old-timey tenor. We had been brainstorming a variety of ideas (some of which, like surfing, I opted out of) and spinning off of my desire to learn how to milk an animal, my filmmaker colleague Hallur decided that perhaps we should visit Árbæjarsafn, Reykjavík’s Open Air Museum, and get them to teach me some traditional húsfreyja, or housewife, skills.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither am I going to become a really bang-up domestic worker in an hour, so we kept it simple and decided we’d stick to two tasks: spinning yarn and churning butter. I’ll be writing about this in more detail later—and there will be a video, too, of course—so I won’t go into too much hilarious detail about this except to say, spoiler-alert: this stuff ain’t easy. Spinning yarn is like the original multi-tasking nightmare: you have to pulse your foot on a peddle at a steady and somewhat unnatural rhythm, while gently twisting the carded wool into a thread which you feed into the spindle with your hands. It was very quickly determined that as a potential housewife, I had better have other skills on offer, because my yarn technique wasn’t going to nab me any husbands any time soon.
So, áfram með smjörið! (“Onwards with the butter!” LITERALLY, guys.)
Oh. My. God. Churning butter takes some major endurance. And arm strength, particularly once the cream becomes whipped cream becomes butter. It takes roughly half an hour of the same plunging motion which kind of requires a full body movement and pretty quickly tuckers you out and covers you in cream flecks. A new workout in the offing? I’d recommend it, particularly if you get to reward yourself with butter afterwards.
Again, the short version is that my arms are wicked sore today, and I have a deep respect for olden dayes house mavens. They must have been pretty fierce. But the reward is that I got to take home a bag of almost-done butter. Then today, I finished kneading the buttermilk out of it (yeah, that’s a thing…it’s messy), salted it, and served it to myself on toast. Butter: for the win.
A final note, per the captions here. Why, you may wonder, has my butter been marked with a cross, and what on earth is a Tilberi? (Nope: not the band [which is spelled different, anyway].) Well:
A tilberi is an Icelandic witch-created milk-stealer, and you draw a cross in the butter to ward these beasts off. That’s the summary version, at least. Here’s a bit more detail:
To create a tilberi, the woman steals a rib from a recently buried body early on Whitsunday, twists around it grey wool which she must steal for the purpose (it is sometimes specified that the wool must be plucked from between the shoulders of a widow’s sheep soon after its wool has been plucked) and keeps it between her breasts. The next three Sundays at communion she spits the sanctified wine on the bundle, which will come more alive each time.She then lets it suckle on the inside of her thigh, which creates a tell-tale wartlike growth.
The woman can now send the tilberi to suck milk from others’ cows and ewes. It will return to the window of her dairy and call out “Full belly, Mummy!” or “Churn lid off, Mummy!” and vomit the stolen milk into her butter churn. To suck the milk from the animal’s udder, it jumps on her back and lengthens itself to reach down; in some versions it is said to be able to reach down on both sides to suck from two teats at once. Inflammatory hardening of the udder was traditionally ascribed to the tilberi, and as late as the 19th century, animals were protected by making the sign of the cross under the udder and over the rump and laying a Psalter on the spine. Butter churned from milk stolen by a tilberi will clump together as if curdled, or even melt away into foam, if the sign of the cross is made over it or the smjörhnútur (butterknot) magical sign drawn in it.
(This reminded me a bit of Chupacabra legends. You?)
But yes, I made butter. Real, edible, delicious butter. Another apocalypse skill down.