Of Cows and Courage: New Picture Book Celebrates Heroic Heifer Skip to content

Of Cows and Courage: New Picture Book Celebrates Heroic Heifer

By Larissa Kyzer

Photo: Illustration by Freydís Kristjánsdóttir.

A new picture book celebrates the heroic feats of a brave cow and the kindness of strangers, RÚV reports.

In October 1987, it looked like Sæunn the Cow’s life was quickly coming to its end. Known then as Harpa, she and two of her compatriots were being led to slaughter in the Westfjords village of Flateyri when she decided to take fate by the reins and make a daring escape. Rushing toward the sea, Sæunn flung herself into the fjord of Önundarfjörður and swam three kilometres across it. Many cows would have simply given up mid-swim or turned back around, but not her. Instead, she paddled on and, reaching the shore at Valþjófsdalur farm, was met by a friendly couple who rechristened her with a name befitting her feat (Sæunn, ‘sæ-’ meaning ‘sea’) and gave her safe haven for the rest of her days.

Screenshot from a 1987 program on RÚV about Sæunn’s sea swim to freedom

Sæunn’s story has now been memorialized in a picture book written and published by Eyþór Jóvinsson, a bookseller and filmmaker who lives and was raised in Flateyri. The book, Sundkýrin Sæunn (‘Sæunn the Swimming Cow’), is illustrated by Freydís Kristjánsdóttir.

Eyþór was only two years old when Sæunn made her great escape, but the story of this “Fjord Hero” quickly became the stuff of local lore and is very dear to him, not least because there’s a twist—Sæunn was pregnant when she swam across the fjord, which Eyþór thinks likely contributed to her tenacity. To make the whole adventure even more narratively perfect, Sæunn gave birth to her calf on Sjómannadagur, the Fishermen’s Day holiday. Her calf was given an equally seaworthy name: Hafdís, or ‘Sea nymph.’

Stories of Sæunn’s exploits made her famous not only in Iceland, but also travelled as far as India. The couple who adopted Sæunn after her escape received letters from all over the world, thanking them for their kindness and sometimes including donations. (Conversely, the farmers in Flateyri were known to have received some threatening letters for having attempted to slaughter the cow.)

Sæunn ended her life on the same beach that she came ashore on the day of her amazing swim. “She was old and very ill, so the farmer led her to the seashore. She was buried with a view of the fjord and the sea that had saved her,” explained Eyþór.

Sundkýrin Sæunn is available in bookstores around Iceland and is perhaps preamble to even grander horizons. Eyþór says he hopes to one day make a film about Sæunn, so her fame will once again go global.

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