Feldur by Hildurhak

by Audur Hildur Hákonardóttir

The word feldur is Icelandic and means a skin from a living or a dead animal. Pelt where the f has changed into p would be the grammatically closest in English but hide might in some cases be a better translation. You might want to hide under a hide and in Icelandic you say fela (hide) under a feldur. Same play with words. We have pelt in Danish and pelage in France.

But feldur also can mean a piece of clothing made from skin or woven as an imitation of sheepskin. And we have these ancient feldurs – later called vararfeldurs or röggvarfeldurs   – and they were probably made not only in Iceland but in all the countries that were herding sheep in ancient times.

Icelandic feldur from the 10th century, Heynes, (Photo, M. Hayeur Smith, 2013 at the National Museum of Iceland).

When agriculture was introduced the ox became important and hide was an early measurement of land in Britain. Maybe one hide of land could support one ox – female settlers in Iceland were allowed to claim as big a piece of land that they could walk around with a young cow in one day and night. (Nights are bright in Iceland at the height of summer). There were 12 hides of land around Avalon and Dido the Queen of Carthage was given land on the north coast of Africa as large as one ox hide would cover. She was clever and found the biggest ox and the best leather worker in the area and had him cut the hide in paper thin strips which she spread around the land she claimed. Carthage became famous for its gardens and bigness and splendor.

And the oxhide was used for mystical purposes such as seeing into the future. Að liggja undir feldi – means literally to lay under a hide – and means one is pondering some problem or finding the right answer to a riddle. When at the Althing in Iceland a decision had to be reached whether we would accept Christianity (and Jesus as our king) a trusted law man lay under a feldur for a day and a nighte before he came to his conclusion. I remember reading that the Irish kings of old were chosen by a wise man laying under a feldur which then was still wet from a newly slaughter ox. But sheepskin also had its magical role. A yogi may have a better chance to reach enlightenment meditating on a sheepskin as it creates an insulation between the yogi and the magnetic pull of the Earth. The mystery of the golden fleece Jason acquired with Medea’s help has never been unraveled.

Close up of the underside of the feldir from Heynes, (Photo, M. Hayeur Smith, 2013, at the National Museum of  Iceland).

The feldur still lives with us – not only as a museum piece as in Eastern Europa and even amongst the shepherds called guba or a derivative thereof – but also as the Greek flokati the shepherds boys would have wrapped it around them in the mountains on a cold night while they were practicing the flute play which they thought would entice the nymps living in trees and brooks. The flokati is now woven and sold as a naturally white colored tuffed wool rug. The feldur lived on until recently as a boat ryja in Western Norway and still as bed covers in many countries. The Finnish decorative ryja rug is its descendant of the feldur and so is the taatiet bedspread or  Shetlands Pile.

I have little doubt that the woven feldur would have been considered a magical achievement when it was cut down from the upright loom as an imitation of the sheepskin. A magic born in likeness of the animals pelt.

All this made me want to attempt to weave a feldur. When people settled in Iceland in the 9th century the vararfeldur had become a legal trade item. It should be 2 by 4 ells (about 1 x 2 meters) and the loose wool inlays at least 13 across. (13 is an easiest number to work with). I was not the first one to revive it as at least two British women had woven something likewise but with looped wool inlays and not in the legalized trade size. I though then I would discover a relationship between the fleeces and the woven piece. Like one or two fleeces would be needed for one feldur. But I found nothing like that, not working with a modern fleece anyway. I needed 3 or 4 to get all the loose ryja tufts for just one feldur but this was not a scientific experiment, just an achievement and joy to perform even if I needed help from my weaver friends to finish the whole piece but it was woven on an upright stone weighted loom.


Hildur, RoggvarfeldurAudur Hildur Hákonardóttir

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