I first learned about glíma, a unique form of Icelandic folk wrestling, from the the short film by Grímur Hákonarson called Bræðrabylta. The story focuses on two gay men in rural Iceland, whose primary way of acknowledging their affection for each other is through glíma. I was immediately struck by how different it looked from other forms of wrestling; opponents grasp each other’s waists in a pose that invokes dancing more than fighting. It was perfect for the plot of the film, and made me want to learn more about this variant of the sport.
Despite the difficult terrain and challenges of traversing the rough seas, people in the Faroe Islands have made their homes on all but one of their eighteen islands. Not included in that count are the numerous islets, sea stacks, and separated cliffs; landforms distinct enough to garner their own names and identities but treacherous enough to resist inhabitation — by people anyway. Because of their isolation these remote areas can be perfect grazing grounds for the plentiful population of sheep.
The Guga Hunters of Ness
Islands aren’t always synonymous with isolation, and a tightly grouped archipelago can create a shared sense of identity. Sometimes that relationship results in a hierarchy, where islands like Streymoy or Eysturoy in the Faroe Islands are referred to as the “mainland” when compared with the smaller outliers. In other places, like the Aleutian Islands, the chain of siblings is so long that they’re often lumped together as a whole.
In contrast, the tiny island of Sula Sgeir sits truly alone. Technically part of the British Isles, it’s separated from its nearest inhabited neighbor by 40 miles of rough North Atlantic sea. But despite that distance there is a strong tie between the island and the distant village of Ness. Sula Sgeir is a plentiful breeding ground for northern gannets — and every year, for centuries, a small group of men spends two weeks on the island hunting them.
I could fly to the Faroe Islands right now. It would take a few connections from Pittsburgh, but soon I’d be looking out the window of an Atlantic Airways flight and trying to name the islands, if I could make them out through the fog. But that accessibility is a modern phenomena, and for most of its history the tiny archipelago was a distant place, a significant sea journey from anywhere. Isolation required self sufficiency, which led to a unique food culture, distinct even from its Scandinavian neighbors. Fermented lamb, boiled pilot whale, braised guillemot, puffin stuffed with cake. These dishes bear the imprint of the landscape itself. Faroese food is the creative output of natural constraints, defined by both what was missing (fertile soil, salt) and what was plentiful (steep bird cliffs, grassy mountains, deep ocean inlets).
Mummers? If you live in America, and have heard that term before, it’s likely in connection with the annual Philadelphia Mummers Parade. While they may share some distant relatives, that New Years parade in the City of Brotherly Love is a far cry from the Christmastime tradition of Mummering in Newfoundland. Dating back over 200 years, imported from Irish and English settlers, Newfoundland Mummers don’t masquerade like their American cousins, who dress up as someone else. The tradition is instead rooted in disguise, using everyday clothing in unconventional ways to conceal one’s identity. Common techniques include pillow-case face masks, lace veils, layers of bulky stuffed coats, mismatched gloves, and gender smokescreens like skirts on men and bras worn over outerwear. Once disguised, a group of mummers will travel unannounced to a house in their community, and if allowed to enter, start dancing and playing music. The host provides snacks and drinks, while trying to guess the identities of each visitor. Easier said than done, as the mummers not only disguise their bodies but distort their voices or refuse to speak. Once everyone has been named, or if the heat inside makes the layered costume untenable, the mummers are revealed and group moves on to another house.