Lady of the Mountain

Jenna Boholij

The history of the Fjallkona (Lady of the Mountain) in Icelandic culture has been celebrated and honoured for hundreds of years. While references to the Fjallkona have been found as early as the 17th century, she became a more common theme in Icelandic poetry in the 19th century after appearing in “Eldgamla Ísafold” by Bjarni Thórarensen. The German painter Johann Baptist Zwecker drew inspiration for the image of the Fjallkona from the beautiful and dramatic Icelandic landscapes, with specifications provided by Icelandic folklorist, translator, and scholar Eiríkur Magnússon:

“Konumyndin á að tákna Ísland, því hefur hún ískórónu á höfði, sem eldar gjósa upp úr. Á öxl hennar er hrafninn, Íslands einkennilegasti fugl, Óðins forni vin og skáldanna eftirlætisgoð, fréttafugl mikill og margkunnugur. Yfir sjónum flögrar már, en yfir brimsævi tíma og sögu berast rúnakefli að landi eða upp í fang konunni, og hefur hún þegar náð einu þeirra. Þetta átti svo sem að vera symbolum (tákn) bókmenntalandsins og sögulandsins okkar. Yfir er nótt og stirndur himinn og máninn uppi. Á bak við eru fjöll, tunglroðin á eggjunum.

In English: “The picture of the woman is to represent Iceland, thus she has a crown of ice on her head, from which fires erupt. On her shoulder is the raven, Iceland’s most characteristic bird, Óðinn’s ancient friend and the favourite of poets, a great and knowledgeable carrier of news. Over the seas flutters a seagull, but across the surf of time and history are borne rune-staves to the land and up into the embrace of the woman, and she has picked one of them up. This is intended as a symbol of our land of literature and history. It is night, with a starry sky and the moon up. Behind are mountains, moonlight on the ridges.”

The spirit of the Fjallkona followed the Icelandic settlers to Canada and, in 1924, the tradition began of selecting a woman as Fjallkona of the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, Íslendingagurinn. The idea of the Fjallkona says as much about Icelandic culture back then as it does now. Iceland has always strived to be at the forefront of gender equality and proudly celebrates women and feminism. From choosing the world’s first elected female head of state, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, in 1980, to pledging to close the gender pay gap by 2020, it’s no surprise that in 2017, for the seventh year in a row, Iceland topped the World Economic Forum’s survey for gender equality.

On May 6, 2018, at Johnson Hall in Gimli, Manitoba, multiple generations of Icelanders, friends, and festival supporters gathered for the annual Fjallkona announcement. The sun was shining in through the windows, the ice was making a slow retreat of off Lake Winnipeg, and the fresh flowers on the tables signified a change in the season – and a changing of the guard. Grant Stefanson, president of Íslendinadagurinn remarked, “Many events and aspects of the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba have changed over time; however, the Fjallkona tradition has remained constant for 95 years now. This is largely due to the respect that our community has for this tradition. It is a celebration of women and a time honoured tradition.”

Tami Mia Schirlie (née Jakobson), 2017 Fjallkona, took her place at the podium, along with a Rubbermaid container, which she explained was “filled with all things that will transform you into the Fjallkona.”

Past Fjallkonur from several decades listened as Tami spoke, and there was of an understanding that the elaborate physical transformation that one undergoes to become the “Lady of the Mountain” is only a slight reflection of the transformation that takes place within, when one is honoured to represent an incarnation of Iceland.

Forks stood poised over quiche and coffee cups hung suspended in mid-air as everyone waited for the announcement. It was with great honour and excitement that the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba named Wanda Josephson Anderson, a third-generation Canadian-born and raised in Gimli, as the 95th Íslendingadgurinn Fjallkona. Her nieces, Stephanie Johnson and Willow Josephson, will serve as her attendants.

Wanda is the daughter of Walter Josephson and Margaret Isfjord; the sister of Linda, Carol, Cindy, Mona, and Steven; the granddaughter of Oli and Rosa Josephson (née Thompson), Sigmundur and Margaret Josephson, and Norman and Katie Isfjord (née Slywka). Her family first settled in New Iceland in 1876.

After graduating from Gimli Composite High School in 1977, she was employed in the Treasury Department at Manitoba Hydro in Winnipeg and then the Evergreen School Division, after moving back to Gimli. In 1981, she married Tim Anderson and they currently reside at Skallastaður, their family farm west of Riverton, where they have made their home and worked as farm partners for the last 38 years. She and Tim are the very proud parents of two sons, Brett (Chelsea) and Drew (Brenna).

Wanda’s passion for Icelandic culture and heritage was heavily influenced by her close friend, Helga Guðmundsdóttir, an exchange student who visited Gimli in 1975. Wanda made her maiden voyage to Iceland in 1970 and, during the last 40 years, she has travelled back countless times to research her family genealogy. Poised with grace and class, common in all Fjallkonur, she told of her deep connection to her Icelandic heritage: “It’s hard to explain the feeling you get when you walk up to your family homesteads knowing your great-grandparents left from the very spot you are standing on.”

Through her involvement as program coordinator with the Snorri West Program, she helped to introduce 60 young Icelanders to the province of Manitoba between the years 2001 and 2010, and she is still in contact with many alumni. In 2006, she was asked to be a member of the Icelandic River Heritage Sites and, together with a group of dedicated volunteers, she works to preserve and promote the culture and heritage of the Icelandic River district.

Wanda stood elegantly in front of the packed room and concluded her speech with a reference to our Icelandic ancestors, who started this all, over one hundred years ago: “In 1875, our ancestors landed upon these shores on Lake Winnipeg. They came to this county with the hope of a better life for their families, while preserving their language, culture, and traditions, and above all maintaining ties with their homeland. One hundred and forty-three years later, we are achieving the dreams of our ancestors.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Guide to Iceland, and notes from Wanda Anderson’s acceptance speech.

Originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla

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