Jóan Pauli Joensen

I ærlige brudefolk. Bryllup på Færøerne.

Museum Tusculanum Press, København 2003


ISBN 877289-808-9



Ye honest bridal couple

Weddings in The Faroe Islands

The research aims at clarifying weddings and traditions surrounding the marriage procedures in Faroe Islands from medieval times to the present day. This is a topic that has been touched upon by the author previously but gained new topicality caused by a request to write an article for a homage volume. The work developed into a whole book filling a gap in the literature regarding Faroese folk culture.

This is not a book on the history of marriage but a book on the introduction to and the completion of a marriage. The process of marriage and the wedding is discussed in a historical perspective from medieval times to modern times. The treatment, however, is not chronological but thematic so that both the traditional aspects of the wedding and the modern ones are illustrated; the wedding itself is regarded as part of a larger social context while the wedding is studied as a rite de passage.

It is possible to distinguish the weddings into simple types and here there are three possibilities: not to have a wedding, the village-type wedding, and the modern wedding. Obviously not everybody could afford to arrange a great wedding party but only invited very close relatives. To hold a wedding normally involved inviting a comparatively large number of guests. The village weddings, resembling the traditional pattern of festivities, could last for several days while the modern weddings only last one evening and often far into the small hours.

The primary function of the wedding is to formalise a relationship between two people into the institution that makes up a marriage. However, not exactly the same signals are transmitted today as those at a wedding held more than 100 years ago.

The research regarding weddings in Faroe is based on several different kinds of sources. For the oldest period mostly topographical literature has been used, including some travel books. The source material for the first period is sparse; the clergyman Mr Lucas Debes who otherwise gives information on several phenomena in Faroe in his book, published in 1673, English translation in 1676, only sporadically touches upon weddings. A couple of years previously, however, both engagements and weddings are described in detail by another clergyman, Mr Thomas Tarnovius in 1669; and in his Report from the 1780s, Mr Jens Christian Svabo has also quite comprehensive material about weddings. In addition, many descriptions of weddings and wedding traditions are to be found in the 18th century by authors like Mr Jørgen Landt, Mr H C Lyngbye, Mr H J J Sørensen and Mr V U Hammershaimb. Finally Mr Rasmus Rasmussen's memoirs of his childhood and youth towards the end of the 19th century must be mentioned. Apart from these sources practically all available topographic literature as well as local historical and memoir literature has been perused and drawn on.

When reaching the 20th century the source material is increased thanks to accounts of traditions and material on folklore collected by the Faroe National Museum and the Faroe University. A substantial effort at collecting was made in the 1960s and 1970s; and the author took part in this work. Furthermore material from clergymen has been collected in connection with this research and also by asking secondary school students to write essays on personal experiences regarding weddings that they have taken part in. Apart from this the author has built the account on own observations and information from the modern Faroese society.

The account is first and foremost a narrative. Concepts within anthropology and ethnology such as habits, traditions, rituals and norms are used. The concept ritual is not used as a concept within religious science but as a concept only of importance in connection with practises concerning culturally standardised actions. Thus rituals as seen as a form of communication which in this context is used as a unifying concept for both sacral, secular and more profane rituals.

The celebration and the elements attached to it are put in a wider socio-cultural and historical context examining the function of the wedding and the changes taking place in changed socio-cultural circumstances. New times create new rituals and new elements are continually added. The symbols of the 19th century differ from those that we know in the 20th century. Although the tradition in fundamentally stable in structure, it is continually being changed and details are added. Even in the so-called traditional folk culture there are both inventors and innovators. In this way the tradition is also a kind of communication that goes over time and where both the existing forms and new ones are combined together with new ideas and inventiveness which people get when interacting with each other and as results of own independent reflections. As the Faroese researcher of the traditional boat, Dr Andras Mortensen, says: "Tradition does not only tell us something about the preserved but is also open to changes and innovations within a certain framework."

Another concept, coined by a Faroese ethnologist and folklorist, Dr Eyðun Andreassen, is popular publicity that is a supplement to the concept civic publicity, but in addition to the second one the first one is characterised as being more directly interactive, based on its role in everyday life in the local community itself and existing at the local level where there is a direct response in the communicative process, expressed in recreation, identification, information and socialisation. The popular publicity is directly interactive because the distance between sender and receiver is short and works both ways in situations defined similarly, the meaning of which members of the local community agree on.

Faroe is a geographically isolated community in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean and furthermore the 18 islands are also to a certain extent isolated from each other which, for instance, can be seen in the dialectal differences. No research has been carried out regarding the traditions of marriage in Faroe or how far from the home village one's bride or bridegroom was acquired. However, there seem to have been several opportunities to find a partner outside one's own village as a result of various systems of reciprocity in connection with celebrations and dance visits; additionally many people went to other villages to serve.

 When offshore fishing was introduced at the end of the 19th century, the area of marriage changed considerably because the crew members on the fishing vessels normally came from many different villages. Furthermore many women went to the big villages to work in the fish processing, especially on the island of Suðuroy where men and women could meet outside the social control of the home village. Although some found their partner in the home village, at least as many found their partner outside the village, either in Faroe  or in neighbouring countries.

In older times there were periods in Faroe when certain economic conditions had to be met in order to marry to prevent people from becoming a burden for the local community. The average families were normally small and there are documents indicating that in certain villages the number of children was limited to two. In 1813 the average household or family was 4,8 persons and for centuries the population in Faroe was between 3,000 and 4,000. In 1780 the total population numbered 4,409 people. The number of villages was 85 so the average number of inhabitants in a village was around 50 persons. Only few villages had more than 100 inhabitants. During this time there were between 28 and 30 weddings a year so there were often years between weddings in the small villages. Of course this number increased in the 19th and 20th centuries when the population increased and consequently the number of wedding guests also increased.

The development of commercial fishing from the middle of the 19th century and the emergence of a smaller bourgeois class in the villages also created the possibilities for others than the wealthy farmers to arrange glamorous weddings. The great weddings, however, are mostly the only ones described in the oldest literature while very little is said about poor or ordinary people's weddings. Furthermore changes in the way in which weddings were arranged took place. In the old days the celebrations lasted for several days but as we approach the end of the 19th century this was reduced to a single day. Only in exceptional cases were the old wedding procedures revitalised. The fashion of time or, as we would say, the trend of time also differed. For a period no great weddings were held, for another period the trend of the day demanded just this.

Moreover, often it was a personal choice as to whether a great wedding was appropriate or not but a certain social pressure can not be ignored in this connection. Silver and golden weddings were not celebrated in the older days but later this became increasingly common. The part concerning weddings and community is concluded with accounts of three Faroese weddings from the middle of the 19th century.

We do not know very much about marriage and weddings prior to the introduction of Christianity but the little that we do know seems to indicate that probably it was similar to the rest of the West Nordic area. Rituals and customs in this regard were part of the cultural luggage that the first settlers brought with them. The influences since then have been by way of the Nordic connections and interaction by sea that Faroe had with the outside world which again was influenced by the European tradition to a greater or lesser extent.

Of course the old Norseman did not completely reject the role of love regarding marriage but more important was the economic and social security in the wider community. Originally it was a matter involving two families but later the Church got increasingly involved in the marriage although there are reasons to doubt whether in practice the ecclesiastical influence was in accordance with its theory and wishes. The social considerations were often more important than those of the Church's demands. Therefore the domestic banquet, as Mr Eilert Sundt called it, was often more important than the ecclesiastical marriage, but for most people it was a contract both for God and people where both parties were of equal importance; it is the whole concept surrounding the wedding and the accompanying celebration that matters.

In the old Norse community in the early Christian period there was a sliding transition between engagement and wedding, and during a period the Catholic Church acknowledged a marriage valid when the official engagement had been established by the matrimonial cohabitation  that both parties agreed to go through with. Therefore it was important that it was announced that the engagement had now moved into the marital phase. Here the wedding party enters the picture but later the Church obtained a stronger hold on the marriage and in this connection tried to eliminate the importance of the engagement.

In principle men had greater liberty in the choice of a wife than the women had in the Norse community. At the outset the woman could not decide herself because she was not economically independent which only happened if she became a widow and then obtained other independent possibilities of choice. Thus the marriage was primarily an economical arrangement and a social safety net that also should establish important strategic alliances and power structures as far as the embarkation of a marriage between persons of powerful families was concerned. For poor and socially weak groups this was of lesser importance or perhaps no importance at all.

The ecclesiastical laws of medieval times did not accept a marriage in which both parties were not in mutual agreement and it could be dissolved if it could be proven that one of the parties had been forced into the relationship against his or her will. This can hardly be interpreted in another way than the church appreciated mutual sympathy or love as an important element in the marriage. On the other hand the parents had great possibilities of sanctions, if need be, to force their children to accept the partner that they thought was the right one. Furthermore it was a fact that most young people in the paternalistic community were brought up to listen to their parents' advice and less to their own hearts. They knew what was expected from a good wife and a good husband in a marriage and in most cases tried to live up to these demands. So on the day the suitor came for a visit, they normally knew what decisions had to be made. That love also entered the marriage was seen as an additional gain by most people.

Gradually this changes during Christian times when somewhat more attention is paid to emotions, but as can be seen from the Faroese material it is not until modern times - or more precisely in the 20th century - that the marriage becomes solely a matter between two individuals, without interference from the parents.

Both engagement and marriage were introduced by a series of ceremonies, traditions and habits. In Faroe we recognise traces of the Scandinavian tradition of nightly affairs that gave young people in the rural, relatively socially homogenous Scandinavian communities the opportunity of coming together. These traditions of nightly affairs, including a certain bed etiquette, have at any rate existed in Faroe for a certain period. There were, however, also various systems of reciprocity where the traditional Faroese ring- or chain dance in a special form of Faroese popular publicity was a splendid instrument in the creation of a contact between male and female. The whole situation on the dance evenings was clearly defined in the direction that it was here that young people were enabled to expose mutual sympathy towards each other; but mutual sympathy apart, the etiquette and the rules demanded that if the relationship was meant to lead to a marriage, the young man had to ask for the young woman's hand in the appropriate way.

The various contractual obligations had to be sorted out involving several people both regarding the engagement and, not least, the wedding. The procedures in connection with engagement and the accompanying ceremonies have changed with time. Earlier the suitor's staff was a compulsory accessory carried by the suitor to signal his wish, one of many phallus and fertility symbols. An appropriate meal was also included and the girl had to give her consent. In the oldest source the suitor first wanted the father to exclude other suitors in order to acknowledge that negotiations regarding the engagement were proceeding. If both parties agreed, a contract was entered into of which the engagement was the first important step and then followed the wedding and the wedding festivities. During the past several centuries, however, it has not been the engagement but the wedding itself that has been of importance.

Wedding festivities required many resources and a ceremonial surplus in the community. Therefore the acquirements of these resources are frequently referred to in the old source material. Many guests had to be supplied with good and plentiful food at a great wedding that could last for several days. As far as it is known the killing season in Faroe has always been in the autumn and consequently this was the season where most meat was available. This was the main reason why most weddings were held in the autumn in the old days. As the new occupational pattern emerged as a result of offshore fishing towards the end of the 19th century and right through to World War II, this was even more prevalent because most men were fishing at sea the whole summer and did not come back home until late September or early October.

In order to procure sufficient meat for the wedding arrangements had to be made with various potential local suppliers in beforehand and these were normally the farmers and landowners in the village concerned. In some cases it was necessary to go outside the village to procure meat. Also this tended to be a characteristic of the system of reciprocity in the old community.

First it was important to acquire a sufficient number of sheep. The so-called wedding sheep were kept in the field and not slaughtered until just before the wedding. Fresh mutton was of the highest priority at a wedding party although half dried mutton, "raest kjoet", i.e. mutton hung in an outhouse for some time, was usual later on. This special dish had a special fermented taste. In addition there were several bi-products derived from the slaughter, such as sheep heads, intestines, liver and not least blood for black pudding, that were important ingredients in the meals during the wedding days.

Although most of the meat was bought and paid for, in many places it was quite common that the landowners in the village provided the married couple with a special gift sheep. This was conducted according to special rules and the slaughter of this sheep was an important festive prelude to the wedding itself and had an integral function in the small village communities. The collection of the wedding sheep and the subsequent slaughter, as well as the slaughter of the gift sheep, was an introductory part of the wedding festivities and an important part of the popular publicity surrounding the approaching wedding.

The introduction of modern freezing technology that became increasingly widespread in Faroe from the middle of the 20th century made the timing of weddings independent of the killing season so that the festivities could be held regardless of any particular season. Furthermore it was no longer necessary to contact local farmers and landowners for meat because this was handled by shopkeeper or wholesaler and meat was also imported from other countries. Consequently, since World War II the wedding festivities have taken place all year and nowadays by far the most weddings are held during the summer when normally the weather is also better and it is easier to provide for many guests. A lot of weddings also take place in December about Christmas.

The preparations for a wedding involved several people such as wedding directors, cup bearers, cooks and other more professional assistants, nowadays also a toastmaster. These are roles that have developed in the village communities, and in Torshavn can also be provided by hotels and restaurants; but even at a hotel wedding the couple still needs private help to bake cakes for the coffee table that the newly weds normally brought along themselves. A variety of home-made cakes is required at a wedding and to serve anything else would be regarded as inappropriate.

The wedding was the great celebration, but not everybody could afford to arrange such a costly party so it was natural to reduce the affair to what was compatible with the social standing and financial possibilities of the couple. In modern times it is not necessarily financial or social reasons for not having a wedding because there might be several other matters influencing this personal choice apart from economical circumstances - and here the trends of the day cannot be ignored.

Not until the end of the 19th century did other religious communities other than the established church emerge in Faroe, so all marriages were performed either in the church or at the vicarage although civil marriages were possible, but this was the only option open to people that did not belong to the established church. Such weddings were performed either at the local sheriff's office or at the police office in Torshavn. The first civil wedding of this kind took place in 1895.

While the marriage ceremony at church is open to everybody, the wedding festivities are not. In the small villages everybody was normally invited to the festivities, but it was different in bigger villages. In the old days the invitation process involved ceremonial traditions, using special invitation men, a tradition that Faroe had in common with, for instance, Denmark and there were specific rules determining who was invited, more dependent on family relations than acquaintance or friendship.

In the 20th century other methods of invitation have developed in many places, not seldom written invitations, but also a kind of welcome weddings, open to everybody, announced by way of one or more posters in the village, later in the papers, so that all were informed of the event.

A quite new form and an innovation is the so-called enrolment wedding where the couple announce their wedding in beforehand and request those that want to come to the festivities to sign up for the wedding before a certain date. The advantage of this as compared to the welcome wedding is that then they can control the number of guests and at the same time do not exclude anybody. There are no preferred guests. Now it is not the newly weds that can be blamed for offending people but rather potential guests that may offend the newly wed couple by not signing for the festivities. The methods of invitation are independent of religious affiliations.

As in Denmark a new element has emerged in Faroe in connection with a forthcoming wedding, and this is the Polterabend, i.e. the prewedding celebration or the bachelor's dinner before a wedding. This has no traditional roots in Faroe but has emerged within the past ten years as a result of influences from abroad. Regarding content, form and practice the Faroese Polterabend resembles a Danish or European one. This is a completely new tradition that has been introduced in Faroe like other traditions, such as Halloween that is also emerging in the islands.

Since old days the ceremony in the church has been a mixture of a compulsory ecclesiastical marriage service and a folk cultural version of other rituals the continuity of which rests with the local congregation rather than with the clergyman. The bride's and the bridegroom's dresses have altered considerably in the passage of time from being a full dress, based on the usual Faroese national costume both for bride and groom, to a white wedding dress for the bride and a dark suit for the groom. The old stakkur, a kind of cloak, in its finest versions of silk, is referred to in the oldest sources. Belonging to this was jewellery, the finest of which was of silver. This cloak that was in several colours went out of fashion around the middle of the 19th century but re-emerged later, but then in a revitalised form and is still part of the wedding dress.

During an intervening period after the abolishment of the Royal trade monopoly modern dress was often used like in other provincial towns in Denmark, e.g. a long dress for the men and a white wedding gown for the women. It was not unusual to borrow wedding dresses from others.

When arriving at the turn of the 19th century Faroese dress, based on the National Costume, was reintroduced as a wedding dress. Throughout the 20th century people were married in either the so-called Danish clothes or in Faroese ones. In some cases there were even hybrid forms where one might wear Danish clothes and the other one Faroese ones.

In this way the wedding dresses for bride and groom alike have changed in the passage of time. Today it is for the individual to decide what to wear at a wedding and couples may wear both the national costume –  even brides wearing the old cloak –  and wearing more internationally fashionable wedding dress. It is very much up to the single couple to choose what dress they want to wear on the day of their marriage; so people create their own personal style at their own wedding.

From the end of the 18th century there are many comparatively detailed descriptions of the wedding procession where changes in sceneography and role play can clearly be seen. Pealing of the church bell was a firm component then and has been so ever since. What characterised the procession was that the groom with his followers went on his own and the bride with her followers on her own. The bridegroom, accompanied by his two brides men and other followers, first went into the church; and when they had arrived the bride came with her followers. The bride has two leading men acting as waiters; and in front of the bride's train the young girls, "stoylur", bridesmaids, walked according to rank. To be a "stoyla" or "peikistoyla" was quite a challenge because the ones closest to the bride were regarded of the highest rank and the first one sweeping a stick in front of the procession, the lowest. These special bridesmaids were symbols of innocence as well as a magical aura and should, as the shots fired to and from the church, keep evil spirits at bay. Behind the bride the ordinary bridesmaids walked into the church; women and men sat separately on either side of the church.

This sceneography was retained until around the middle of the 19th century and after that it was changed and became identical with the form previously reserved for widows and brides that had lost their innocence. Previously it was only the innocent bride who was entitled to bridesmaids and waiters who can, in this way, be regarded as servants of innocence.

According to the new sceneography bride and groom walked side by side into the church followed by brides people and offering people, walking in pairs after the couple. This form prevailed for the rest of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century when the tradition demanding bride- and offering people gradually disappeared and was in some cases replaced by children who were allowed to walk behind the bridal couple.

The practice of the bride's father, or another person in his place, guiding the bride along the church aisle to the groom standing or sitting waiting in the choir is quite new but occurs, although more seldom at church weddings today. On the other hand this practice has become normal in religious communities outside the established church where they have innovated the ceremony surrounding the civil marriage within the framework of the community itself and things as putting a ring on the finger have become quite popular. Previously civil marriages used to be rather tame and unromantic with no awe-inspiring ceremonies, but in communities outside the established church this has changed considerably over the past 10-20 years. In many cases the civil marriage has been transferred from the registry-office to the premises of the congregation or other houses that are arranged for the purpose.

Here the civil wedding authorities are regarded as a as part of a larger ceremonial including a high degree of aesthetics where flowers, decorations, music and speeches together with the newlywed's imposing entry into the hall have created a framework surrounding the wedding that is not less impressive in pomp and circumstance than the church weddings. The culmination takes place when the couple is united by together lightening the middle light of a three branched candlestick symbolising that from having been two individuals they have now become one in marriage. Here we find many new customs that have emerged over a short period; and some people would like these practices introduced in the established church, but many clergymen dissociate themselves from such innovations although they do not ban them.

From old times much courteousness and courteous ritual behaviour have been attached to the marriage ceremony. Bride, groom, brides- and offering people were expected to behave and act in a courteous way and bow and make curtsy in the right places, and the offering procession where money was and is still placed for clergyman and churchwarden required much etiquette that could feel onerous for many. Most people do not normally regard the offering as a kind of payment but as an important sacramental ritual.

From the earliest sources onwards the ideal has been the chaste bride who was entitled to all symbols of innocence such as "stoylur", i.e. the special bridesmaids mentioned above, waiters, hair pad on the head, partly covered hair, and later a veil and myrtle in the hair. If the bride was not certain of her innocence, which would reveal itself later, she could not dress up with the symbols of innocence because that would be inappropriate. In modern times, however, the importance of this symbolism has changed so much that they are no longer symbols of innocence but rather a question of taste and fashion.

The bridal veil is not so important today and whether a bride chooses a veil she does so for totally different reasons that have nothing to do with her innocence. What matters is the fashion of the day and the trend together with personal taste. That is what decides whether the bride wants to wear a veil, a hat or some other kind of headgear; it is based purely on  aesthetic considerations nowadays and nothing else.

Formerly the wedding festivities lasted for several days and the guests were supplied with abundant quantities of food and drink. Especially guests from far away were well treated. To eat and drink was one of the main elements at the wedding festivities, but the opportunities of meeting other people were equally important, talking together, playing cards and not least dancing and making new acquaintances. In this respect a wedding was much like guest visits to other villages in the dancing season, i.e. the dancing period during the winter, part of the system of reciprocity in the Faroes.

Some part of the entertainment was more formal than others. In the old days speeches during the supper were practically unknown, but quite contrary is the case at modern wedding festivities. On the other hand the old wedding dance was almost regarded as pious and they did not chant the Wedding Ballad but sang it. Until quite recently there was no other kind of musical entertainment due to the absence of instruments. Firing blanks was compulsory at all weddings after the end of the 19th century and to a certain extent still is, but mostly as a loud element that has now been partly replaced by fireworks. Spirits and other alcoholic beverages are not served at all weddings, but it is characteristic for the so-called abstention weddings that more attention is paid to arranging entertainment during the supper and after. Where alcohol is used as a social catalyst the need for well arranged entertainment seems to be less important.

Another part of the entertainment was the formalised tradition of passing on the "drunn", i.e. the tail piece of a sheep, while composing an occasional rhyme or poem about the person receiving the drunn. This popular kind of a poetic relay racing could be very funny within a more limited group, and some scholars regard the drunn and the poking tail as a phallus- or fertility symbol originating from Celtic and heathen times. Within this category of entertainment was also the porridge rhyme that existed in the Faroes in the old days. For most Faroe Islanders the tradition of "sending the drunn" was part of the interactive popular publicity. The tradition is on the wane but still occurs sometimes.

Ignoring the fact than nowadays some of the guests may think of fiddling with the newly wed couple's bedroom and fill the bed with various junk, the question when the couple goes to bed is their own private decision in which the guests do not interfere. Some prefer to spend the wedding night at an hotel the first night to be left alone; and some go on a honeymoon.

Previously this was very different because the leading to bed was one of the traditional popular wedding rituals that all could witness; the couple was undressed during admonitions and the singing of hymns and put to bed together. They literally acquired their new position as husband and wife. In this role they met the guests carrying the wedding gifts early the next morning and expecting to be treated amply with wine and brandy or other kinds of spirits by the couple. Here we can trace an interesting cultural historical development that connects Faroe to a wider European cultural community because the same customs existed on the continent earlier on.

The leading to the bed and especially the meeting with the newly wed couple on the next day communicated the wide publicity of the marriage by the couple lying scantily clad in bed receiving the guests. In the passage of time this part of the couple's life changed according to a changed sense of decency and was placed within the private sphere to which the guests had no access any more. This was called the Bridal House and in modern times a totally different function has been attached to it because it was reduced to some of the guests visiting the newly wed couple the next day to eat what was left over and to look at the presents. Formerly the presents normally consisted of money and for a period they had taken the form of various "gift things".

Today weddings are at least as important as they were in the old days, but the difference is that while previously it was the society and the social order that required a marriage if a couple was to live together, nowadays the opposite is often the case for most people. Today it is the newly married couple itself that is interested in demonstrating to others and to the community at large that they belong together. They are willing to confirm this by a voluntary rite de passage, chosen by themselves, where they can have the opportunity of being the centre amongst relatives, friends and acquaintances that they do not see so often otherwise. This is regardless of whether they have lived together for several years or not.