Foremother Unn

Urmutter Unn. Geschriften um altnordische Frauen is the title of a small tome that is part of my own private book collection which featured in my previous post ‘A humble book collection’.

This book was written by Lydia Kath (b. 1906) and published for the first time in 1936 as part of the Trommler-Bücher series. Two years later, in 1938, a reprint came out in the same series with a different cover design.

Little is known about Lydia Kath’s personal life. In 1931, she graduated as a Doctor in Philosophy from the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany with a dissertation titled Persönlichkeit und Dichtung des jungen Wilhelm Raabe im Hinblick auf seine Frauengestalten (Schwäbische Verlagsdruckerei, Dillingen 1931). Her interest in the depiction of women and issues of gender was not restricted to the work of Wilhelm Raabe. In 1934, Die Frau im altnordischen Volksleben was published as the first installment in the series ‘Bagels Bücherei für deutsche Mädel’ (Düsseldorf: Bagel, 1934). As the title suggests, this work is concerned with women in Old Norse culture and literature.

Given the fact that Kath displays such a keen interest in both women and Old Norse literature, it comes as no surprise that she would write three more books on these topics. Between 1934 and 1936 three books written by Kath were published in the ‘Trommler-Bücher’:

  • Jomsburg. Eine Wikingergeschichte (Berlin-Steglitz: Junge Generation, 1934), Trommler-Buch [1].
  • Aud. Geschichte einer Wikingerfrau (Berlin-Steglitz: Junge Generation, 1934), Trommler-Buch [2].
  • Urmutter Unn. Geschichten um altnordische Frauen (Berlin-Steglitz: Junge Generation, 1936), Trommler-Buch [14].

The first book takes its cue from Jómsvíkinga saga, the second from Gísla saga  Súrssonar and the last one in the list from Laxdæla saga. The latter two center around women: Aud focuses on Gísli’s wife Auðr from Gísla saga, whereas Urmutter Unn. Geschichten um altnordische Frauen zooms in on the life of several female characters from Laxdæla and other sagas.

The first chapter in Urmutter Unn, bearing the same title as the novel, is a rendering of Unnr’s life story as told in the opening chapters of Laxdæla saga.

IMG_7947
Pen drawing of Unnr in “Urmutter Unn” by K. J. Blisch.

The pen-and-ink drawings that illustrate the story are are by the hand of the illustrator Kurt Jan Blisch (1902-1983). In all there are twelve drawings in this edition, some of which are coloured. The first illustration portrays the foremother Unnr or Auðr from Laxdæla saga as she sets foot on Iceland’s shore.

My copy has a provenance note, which is interesting in itself. I bought my copy from an Antiquarian bookshop in Kassel, Germany. On the flyleaf, there is a gift inscription that can be translated as:

My little friend Käthchen Landgrebe on her 10th birthday from your Christa Reiffenstein. Kassel, in April 1941.

IMG_7945
Gift inscription in “Urmutter Unn.”

The inscription is by Christa Reiffenstein, dated April 1941, who gifts the book to Käthchen Landgrebe in celebration of her tenth birthday. Closer examination revealed that in 1943 Christa Reiffenstein was a 16-year old tram conductress in Kassel working on the former Herkulesbahn. She appears in a film on the Herkulesbahn in Kassel shot in October 1943.

Christa donated the book to her friend Käthchen when she herself was 14 years old. For the 14-year old Christa, the book Urmutter Unn is a suitable gift for a young woman as the novel glorifies female power and achievement. However, Urmutter Unn also has to be seen in its proper contemporary context, namely that of German Nationalism which glorified the collective German and Nordic past. Within the framework of nationalist propaganda the Tommler-Bücher series were printed by the Junge Generation Verlag in Berlin-Steglitz between 1934 and 1944. The publishing house ceased to exist after the end of the Second World War.

Kath’s initial interest in Old Norse literature and its strong female characters waned quickly after the publication of Jomsburg, Aud and Urmutter Unn. After a decade of silence, she returns to the writing world in 1954 with a children’s book entitled Sisi und das Hamselkind (Stuttgart: Thienemann, 1954). She goes on writing children’s books well into the 1980s until she disappears into oblivion.

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