Sepac 2017 - Faroese Knife
A knifeless man is a lifeless man
Associations can be quite fun. Sitting here, having just written the heading of this article, an early childhood memory enters my mind. I must have been about 4 years old, standing on a stool in the kitchen with a pocket knife in my hand. My father, who at the time was in Canada instructing local fishermen in need of a modern fishing boat, had sent a package home which, among other things, contained small gifts to us children. For me he had bought a splendid red pocket knife with a coat of arms engraved on the handle. This was the one I had just taken out of a kitchen cabinet. I do not remember much more about the knife or what became of it. At any rate, it was taken away from me on that day because I had used it to transform one of my older brothers' formidable wooden swords to a bread knife - and that gesture was not well received, to say the least.
It may seem a little strange to give your four-year-old son a knife but considering the time, culture and circumstances, it was the most natural thing in the world.
The knife has always been the most important tool of the Faroese. This is signified by the old saying: "A knifeless man is a lifeless man" which indicates the need in everyday life to have a knife handy at all times. The knife was used in almost all activities undertaken in the old farmer-hunter society, by men and women, children and adults.
The knife was used as an eating utensil - almost all traditional Faroese foods require a sharp knife - and it was used for everyday chores as well. It was used to slaughter sheep, cattle and whales, and for the subsequent gutting. It was utterly indispensable at sea - the fisherman who forgot his knife at home inevitably became the butt end of teasing and sarcastic remarks from his mates. It was used to fashion daily tools and repair things, for construction, processing of leather and the manufacture of clothing and shoes. In their spare time men were wont to take up their knives - a part of our archaeological heritage consists of toys and ornamental objects carved in the glow of the whale oil lamps in the long North Atlantic winter evenings.
The knife, in short, was the Faroese universal tool.
The traditional Faroe knife is a utility knife used for general purposes which is why it has a relatively short blade. In addition, the Faroese knife is known by the characteristic bend on the blade's spine, causing the blade to slope slightly down towards the point. This slope is probably the result of ages of experiences, indicating that the knife was used for stabbing at the time of slaughter. The balance point is at the centre of the blade, so that it does not slip sideways during work.
In the days of old blades were often forged of iron in the Faroes - with an inlay of steel in the edge of the knife. It was important that the blade be not too hard because then it would then become more difficult to sharpen. The knife's handle was made of wood without any kind of decoration, and the sheath was made of wood or leather.
In the mid-1800s, the skilled craftsman Jákup Andrias Andrasson, born in 1819, began making knife handles and sheaths of mahogany and ebony with small carved icons from everyday life, such as boats, pilot whales and various hunting tools The icons were made of copper, silver or mother of pearl. This craft quickly spread among skilled artisans and is still popular. There is hardly a house in the Faroe Islands where you would not find an ornamental knife or some other traditional tools with meticulously inlaid icons.
The knife that is featured on the stamp has the same proportions as a common utility knife, but the beautifully decorated knife handle and scabbard, with boats, pilot whales and whale hunting tools of brass, suggests that it has served as an ornamental knife. According to its pedigree it was supposed to have belonged to the Faroese national hero, Nólsoyar Páll (1766 - 1808/09). This places it at an earlier period than has traditionally been associated with ornamental knives of this kind. Whether it has been fitted with a new handle at a later time, or, as the knife's pedigree suggests, was made by a contemporary of Nolsøe, a blacksmith in the village of Porkeri - remains a mystery. It is certainly one of the oldest and best preserved ornamental knives in the Faroe Islands today.
Anker Eli Petersen