Lorenz Frølich's creation of Sjælland (1880-1881), and a medieval plough from Álftanes

Lorenz Frølich's 'Gefion pløjer Sjælland ud af Sverige'  (1880–1881)

Depiction of Norse goddess Gefjon (Gefjun) and the ploughing of Sjælland from Sweden, by Danish artist Lorenz Frølich. 1880–1881. The Museum of National History, Frederiksborg Castle.

The ceiling painting by Lorenz Frølich at Frederiskborg Castle (1880–1881) depicts a story told in Snorri Sturluson's Edda and Ynglinga saga. A travelling woman arrives at the court of the Swedish king Gylfi, and, as a reward for her entertainments, is given as much of his land as four oxen can plough in a day and night. The king surely imagines that this gift will amount to a modest farm, until the woman reveals herself to be the goddess Gefjun. Fixing her plough to her four giant sons, who have assumed the shape of Oxen, she gouges out an enormous swathe of Gylfi's territory and places it in the sea. This lump of land becomes the Danish island of Sjælland, and the hollow it leaves behind becomes Sweden's largest lake, Lake Mälaren. Frølich's classicised rendition of this myth shows the creation of the very island on which Frederiksborg Castle stands.

She took four oxen from the north, from Giantland, the sons of her and a certain giant, and put them before the plough. But the plough cut so hard and deep that it uprooted the land, and the oxen drew the land out into the sea to the west and stopped in a certain sea. There Gefjun put the land and gave it a name, calling it Sjælland.

Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning, c. 1220.

Medieval coulter from Álftanes

A coulter, a part of a plough, found close to the shore at Álftanes in Mýrar in 1840. The National Museum of Iceland, Þjms. 22.

Similar stories about how early Icelandic settlers made claim to areas of land appear throughout the opening chapters of the sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur) and histories of the Icelandic settlement like Landnámabók. Prominent Icelanders may have assigned land to their followers in reward of exceptional service, as in the case of Hreiðar in Landnámabók (2.7), who is given as much land as he can encrircle within three days. These stories were important to medieval audiences because they emphasised the relation between the Icelandic landscape and its settlers, who may well have been the ancestors of that region's inhabitants. Artists and writers in the ninteenth century also used medieval tales about the land and those who possessed it to write their regional or national histories. This medieval coulter (the bladed part of a plough that cuts into the earth) was discovered on a farm on the Álftanes peninsula in western Iceland, and might be the kind of implement medieval audiences imagined when listening to the story of Gefjun's settlement.