And the cattle follow her, for they know her voice

And the cattle follow her, for they know her voice …
On communication between women and cattle
in Scandinavian pastures
Anna Ivarsdotter
In some Scandinavian regions, livestock (cows, goats and sheep) are
taken up to mountain and forest pastures for summer grazing. Ever
since at least the Middle Ages, such periodic settlements have been
of vital importance in these barren regions, where the cultivated land
around the villages was far too limited and meagre to feed even the
human beings. This particular type of herding culture reached its apex
in the 19th century. After a continuous decline today only a few of these
settlements are in use.
This paper mainly concentrates on the particular musical tradition
of these pastures - music as communication over long distances. The
music is both vocal (with a distinctive singing technique) and instrumental (using long wooden lurs and animal horns). Since herding is
women’s work in these settlements, the music is women’s music - this
in contrast to most other herding cultures of the world. It belongs to
a quite extensive soundscape and forms part of a specific ecological
system, involving close interaction between populations of human
beings, tame livestock and predatory animals. The music has several,
and in some ways quite polaristic functions. The herding girl summons
her herd by means of distinctive calls and songs, and she frightens the
bear and wolf away with intimidating blasts on the horn or lur. Using
commonly recognized, fixed melodic formulae, these women are also
able to transmit messages from one settlement to another. The music
also had the important magical function of guarding the cattle against
attacks by predators and against the supernatural denizens of the forests. Thus the music of the pastures forms part of a stable, autonomous
communicative system.
The musical structure, especially that of the vocal music, is flexible
and well adapted to its functions. It consists of phrases of varying
length freely combined into chains, the length of which reflect the
demands of the actual herding situation. Since the grazing areas are
vast, the music has to be heard over extremely long distances. And so
it is. The vocal style is singular, totally different from any other type of
Scandinavian folk music. This song as well as the sound of the horns
and lurs can be heard up to three/four kilometers through the deep
forests, echoing between the mountain slopes.
“The sheep hear his voice and he calls his own sheep by
name and leads them out. When he has brought out all
his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him,
for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow,
but they will follow him, for they do not know the voice
of strangers.” (The Gospel according to St. John 10:3-5)
This parable from the Gospel according to St. John
shows the importance of pecus and of herding in the
Middle East two thousand years ago - but also the
importance of the relation and vocal communication
between the shepherd and his flock. They were devoted
to a “good” shepherd, they knew his voice and followed
him safely.
Such a metaphor could however be relevant for other
continents and epochs as well. The organisation of
sheep- or stockbreeding and of grazing varies, according to geographical and climatic conditions. But the
herdsman’s tasks have always been the same: to keep
the animals together, to protect them from predators
and others dangers, and to take them to grass and water.
Whatever the grazing procedure, viable communication
between human beings and animals has been essential.
And for this purpose a majority of pastoral cultures have
depended on the human voice and wind instruments of
different kinds. Being able to communicate in various
ways with animals – calling, driving, frightening away
etc – must originally have been one of the most critical
requirements of human survival. Efficient communication was certainly an essential prerequisite of prehistoric
domestication as well.
In this paper I will concentrate on a particular herding
culture in the far-flung mountain and forest regions of
Scandinavia. Different forms of extensive cattle-farming
occur in many parts of the world, especially in mountain regions. In Europe, various kinds of transhumance
have existed, for example, in the Alps, the Pyrenees and
the Balkans. The Scandinavian shieling system once
covered large parts of Sweden, Norway and Iceland.1
In these barren regions the cultivated land around the
villages was far too limited and infertile to feed even
the human population. For this reason cows, goats and
sheep were taken up into the mountains every summer
to the rich grazing of the forests. Simple log-houses and
byres were erected there – for human beings and for
cattle – so that the pastures could be grazed all summer.
Every spring they moved up to these summer farms
with the light, warmth and vegetation and stayed there
late into the autumn. There the livestock were taken to
lush grazing after the meagre rations of the winter, and
there the family’s store of food was stocked up with
well-salted golden-yellow butter, and different types
PECUS. Man and animal in antiquity. Proceedings of the conference at the Swedish Institute in Rome, September 9-12, 2002.
Ed. Barbro Santillo Frizell (The Swedish Institute in Rome. Projects and Seminars, 1), Rome 2004.
Anna Ivarsdotter
of cheeses. These settlements were relatively enclosed
units, where a special culture and way of living developed. The women spent a great deal of their time there
- 3-4 months every year – and an appreciable share of
the annual work of the farm was done there.
Norwegian and Icelandic sources bear witness to an
advanced shieling system in these regions during the
medieval period and possibly already during the Viking
era. However, a more detailed picture of the extent and
organisation of shielings in Sweden does not really
emerge until the 16th century. Occasional references in
medieval sources do show, however, that various forms
of transhumance also occurred in Sweden during the
medieval period. This form of cattle herding culminated
during the 18th, 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
But then the thorough-going transformation of agriculture and cattle raising have brought about a steady
recession and now only few of the shielings are in operation. Consequently the distinctive music associated with
this pastoral culture – a music which has survived by an
uninterrupted tradition through centuries right down to
our own time – is now in a process of dissolution – but
also of revival.
In most of the world’s pastoral cultures, animals
at pasture are tended by professional herdsmen or by
children. On the Scandinavian summer farms, however,
herding and all other work are done by women. The men
stay down in the villages to tend the fields. The basis for
this was the traditional division of labour practised in the
countryside, where male and female areas of responsibility were - of necessity – clearly laid down. Since at least
the Viking Age women were responsible for all work
“inside the threshold” and the byres, for the care of children and cattle. The heavy labour in the fields, timber
cutting in the woods etc. were male duties. For a man it
was an awful shame to have to milk a cow or to work in
the barn. The stable was man’s world and the horse was
his work-mate. Consequently the particular culture of
these summer farms is women’s culture and the music is
women’s music. As such it is one of the oldest, richest
and most distinctive female music traditions in Europe.2
The music of the recurrent ceremonies and festivities
in rural life were - in accordance with these gender roles
- the task of male musicians with fiddle, bagpipe, keyed
fiddle and accordion, the special male instruments. The
fiddlers assisted at weddings and funerals, at feasts and
dances. They were the official musicians of the village,
“professional” in the sense that they were the trained
music specialists of their community and usually received some kind of compensation for their performances.
In contrast to this, the pastoral music was closely connected to daily labour, music with practical functions.
It was not a music for individual specialists, but music
for every woman in these mountain shielings. The basic
function of the herding song is that of communication
over long distances between the woman and her animals, but also between human beings. During the daily
wanderings over the expanses of the grazing grounds,
the voice and the special instruments of the summer
farm – the horns of cows, oxen or goats, and long lurs of
wood or birch bark - were the women’s most important
working tools. Sound signals were effective means of
communication in dense forest terrain. “The plain land
has eyes, the forest has ears”, says an old proverb.
These summer farms could be relatively large agglomerates and herding was a common concern of all
the households at the shieling. The animals were kept
together in one big flock, which was grazed all day and
taken home to the byre every evening for milking, but
also to be protected from predatory animals. The women
took it in turns to escort the cattle. Usually two women
would go together, the most experienced or the one with
the most beautiful voice going ahead of the animals,
calling them, while the other would drive them from
behind, keeping them together. The task of driving was
often given to the young girls and was excellent training
for them. By listening and imitating, they learned the
music, the special vocal technique and the use of the instruments. In this way the music was handed down from
one generation to the other over the centuries. And with
the tending work organised like this, herding song was
something which every woman had to master.
During the summer months the forests resounded
with the women’s herding calls. The sounds of the forest
itself – the rustle of the wind in the trees, the bubbling
of streams, the birdsong and the persistent whine of the
mosquitoes – mostly constitute a subdued soundscape.
Against this background the sharp noises of the shielings
- horn and herding calls, lur signals, cow bells, the
lowing of cattle and the bleating of goats – stood out in
prominent relief. These were sounds to which both human beings and animals responded.
Herding might therefore be seen as an all-day musical
event, where the singing was varied according to the different situations occurring in the course of the herding.
Usually the animals grazed peacefully and a few short
calling notes were sufficient to keep them together. But
sometimes they went wandering off on their own and
the women called them back by fast, shrill calls or by
names – just as Jesus said in the parable, quoted above:
“he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out”.
These were the times, when the domestic animals were
members of the family and given individual names to
which they reacted. Not as today, just numbers with
labels in the ears.
Through the centuries, a very special singing technique has been developed in the Scandinavian summer
farms – a calling song with an instrumental timbre, a
sharp attack and a piercing, almost vibrato-free sound
in a high register. If the cattle were far away, the woman
coax them in with long, drawn-out phrases – producing an arc of sound with a few strong notes, embellish
them with whatever rich ornamentation tradition and
her own musical fantasy offered. This vocal technique
– kula, kköla, kköuka, there are many dialect terms – gives
a sound, which carries up to 3-4 kilometres through the
And the cattle follow her, for they know her voice
These herding calls do not have the firm, self-contained
musical form otherwise so commonly associated with
both art music and folk music in the western world. Instead the phrases are knit together by improvised, functionally related addition, into longer or shorter dynamic
musical processes. In this way the woman can vary her
singing all through the day’s work, constantly adapting
it to the demands of the situation, giving it maximum
efficacy as well as musical variety.
Small animals – goats in particular - are often lively,
obstinate and difficult to control. For them special calls
are needed; highly distinctive phrases, playfully taunting, and sometimes imitating the sounds of the animals
The most difficult and critical of the women’s duties
was that of defending the cattle from the assaults of
predatory animals. Right down to the end of the 19th
century there were large numbers of predators in these
areas and the danger of attack was ever-present. An
encounter with a bear or a wolf could mean economic
disaster. The animals were the most precious possessions
of the farms and it was the women’s duty to return the
entire flock intact to the village in autumn. The loss of a
cow often led to starvation for the family. In the Scandinavian forests the women had no support of shepherd’s
dogs, nor did they carry arms. Their sole weapon against
predators were the wind instruments. By making as fearful noises as possible with their horns and lurs they tried
to frighten off attackers. In a situation like this sound
instruments were, literary, of vital importance, a question of life or death.
During the cold and snowy winters cattle were
kept indoors in the byres down in the village. Before
the grazing season began, certain magical rites were
performed to protect the cattle from evil forces. Early
in spring, before the animals were let out to grass, the
pastures were cleansed by the light of large bonfires, and
predators and evil spirits were chased off by the noise of
lurs, horns and cow-bells. Thereby the summer grazing
lands were blessed and the animals protected.4
Relations with supernatural beings were an inevitable,
exciting and sometimes frightening part in the life of the
old agrarian community. Quite understandably, supernormal experiences were intensified in the seclusion of
the shielings. The forests were supposed to be populated
with troll, who lived in the mountains, by vittror, small
subterranean people, and by the beautiful skogsrå,
å a
siren of the woods. In the shieling regions these supernatural beings were often imagined as cattle owners,
whose cows were unusually fine, with large milk yields.
Like human beings they migrated every summer to their
shielings, where they grazed their animals on the same
pastures as the humans. Myths tell about the sound of
their wondrously beautiful herding calls and about the
bells of invisible flocks of cattle. About unusually ornate
herding calls is sometimes said, that women had learnt
them from the siren of the woods or the small subterraneans. The relationship between human and supernatural beings was ambivalent. They could very well be
good neighbours, helping each other. But the amity was
fragile and people tried to protect their cattle by certain
magical signs and prophylactic rites.
Voices and instruments were furthermore used for
signals between human beings. The distances were long
in the road-less forests and the women were extremely
cut off in difficult situations. The lurs and horns were
the only efficient means of communication they had to
send messages between pastures and shielings. It might
be veritable SOS signals from a herdswoman being
attacked by a bear or needing help in searching for an
animal which had escaped. For all these occasions there
were specific, meaning-loaded melodic signals, which
everyone knew and understood well. It must certainly
have been a great relief, when a woman who had lost a
cow, could hear an answering signal: “Don’t search any
longer – the cow is here”.
In all its functional flexibility the music of the summer pastures obviously formed a rather complex communication system with quite contrary functions in the
contact between human beings and animals – on the one
hand that of attracting and gathering the cattle, on the
other that of frightening away the predators. In these farflung forest regions predatory animals, tame livestock
and human beings have lived together over the centuries
in close interaction, systematically utilising nature and
its benefits. You may also see these grazing grounds of
the summer farms as an extensive ecological system,
where human beings intruded into the territory of wild
animals, and where women and predators constantly battled with each other for the domestic animals.
It is interesting to see that in such ecological system
the herding music of human beings had the same basic
functions as the sounds of animals. Acoustic signals are
to be found among most species for calling their flock,
their partner or young, or for chasing off rivals or attacking predators. In just the same way, the women of the
summer farms marked out the territory of the grazing
cattle with their sound signals.
All these practical functions do not, however, exclude
aesthetic values for listeners as well as singers. Just as
the everyday working tools – churns, cheese tubs, rakes,
etc – are decorated with beautiful ornaments, so the
women adorned their labour music with rich embellishments. To hear at a great distance their singing and
horn signals resounding between the mountains was an
experience of rare beauty: “She kulade so beautifully
that men would lean on their scythe handles and women
on their rakes – just listening. They were so enchanted
by the grace of her trills that they couldn’t work.”5
The last century has been a period of inexorable decline for the shieling system. Rationalisation of agriculture has made transhumance and forest grazing superfluous and today very few of these summer farms are
still in use. And indeed, the dissolution of the shieling
system has changed the music. As predatory animals
were exterminated at the end of the 19th century, the
herding instruments became less common. Everywhere
they disappeared before the singing, which can still be
Anna Ivarsdotter
heard resounding between the mountains around a few
summer farms.
During the last decades the Scandinavian herding
music has however undergone a remarkable revival.
While leaving the forest pastures it has instead moved
over to folk music festivals and concert stages. Many
Swedish composers have built various compositions on
the particular kulning sound and its music material. In
Tarkovskij’s last film The Sacrifice we can hear subdued pastoral calls shimmering over the waste land. At
official celebrations the impressive tone of the wooden
lurs often resounds as opening fanfares, but then usually
played by men. Thereby this women’s labour tool has
changed into a public mail instrument.
The vocal pastoral music - so strongly adapted to the
female voice - is however still a women’s music and has
during the last decades undergone a manifold, almost
explosive revival. Young girls are eager to learn the particular kulning technique and thereby enrich their means
of vocal expression. With its unique timbre it gives a
characteristic sound to Scandinavian folk music and jazz
groups on their tours all over the world. The once so secluded pastoral music of the Nordic mountains has truly
crossed both geographic and genre borders. But in this
process it has totally lost its basic function as communication between human beings and animals.
Anna Ivarsdotter
Department of Musicology
Uppsala University
Övre Slottsgatan 6
S-753 10 Uppsala
[email protected]
A thorough overview of the Scandinavian shieling system,
its history, organisation and geographic extension is presented
by Michel Cabouret in his magistral, seven volume dissertation
(1980). The first thorough study of Swedish herding music was
presented by professor Carl-Allan Moberg in two articles ‘Om
vallåtar’, 1955-59, published in German translation in Moberg
1971. Very little is published in English about Scandinavian
pastoral culture and its music. For an introduction, see for
instance the English Summery in my dissertation [Ivarsdotter]Johnson 1986 ,or my booklet text [Ivarsdotter]-Johnson 1995.
In his dissertation (1975) Paul Helmer draws interesting
connections between pastoral calls and Gregorian chant.
For some aspects of gender roles in Swedish folk music, see
my article [Ivarsdotter]-Johnson 1990.
Investigations of the particular vocal technique and the
acoustic qualities of the pastoral song are published in my
article [Ivarsdotter]-Johnson 1984.
The cow-bell played an important role in magic rites in order
to protect the cattle. For interesting information about this, see
Emsheimer 1977.
Quotated from [Ivarsdotter]-Johnson 1986, 198.
Cabouret 1980
M.M. Cabouret, La vie pastorale dans les montagnes et les forêts de la péninsule scandinave I-VII, Paris
1980. (Diss. Université de Paris IV).
Emsheimer 1977
E. Emsheimer, ´Schwedische Schellenmagie’, Studia instrumentorum musicae popularis V, Stockholm
1977, 10-19.
Helmer 1975
R.P. Helmer, European pastoral calls and their possible influence on Western liturgical chant, Ann
Arbor, Michigan 1978. (Diss. Columbia University 1975).
A. [Ivarsdotter]-Johnson, ‘Voice physiology and ethnomusicology:
physiological and acoustical studies of the Swedish herding song’, Yearbook for traditional music 1984,
A. [Ivarsdotter]-Johnson, Så
S ngen i skogen. Studier kring den
svenska ffäbodmusiken, Uppsala 1986. (Diss. Uppsala University).
A. [Ivarsdotter]-Johnson, ‘The sprite in the water and the siren of
the woods. On Swedish folk music and gender’, Music, Gender, and Culture, Wilhelmshaven 1990, 2740.
Ivarsdotter 1995
A. Ivarsdotter, Ancient Swedish pastoral music, Stockholm 1995, 17-27. Booklet to CD-record Musica
Sveciae, Folk Music in Sweden, CAP 21483, Caprice Records 1995.
Moberg 1971
C.-A. Moberg, Studien zur schwedischen Volksmusik, Uppsala 1971.