Your family in 1772


1772. Think on it. One hundred years before our ancestors started fleeing Iceland for Amerika . Can you imagine it? The Vikings disappeared in 1066. Approximately, 700 years have passed. Generations upon generations, living and dying in isolated coves, on moors isolated by rivers and mountains, most of the people never seeing a foreigner, often never seeing anyone but their closest neighbours. Along the coast, ships from the Hanseatic League appear in summer—maybe–only maybe because the ships are sailing ships, and they travel according to the whims of the weather.

It is 1772 and Uno von Troil goes with Sir Joseph Banks to Iceland. That’s a hundred years before our ancestors began their pilgrimage to North America.

1773, when von Troil’s Letters On Iceland are published in book form the people of Boston defy the English king and dump the tea from the East India company into the harbour and refuse to pay the taxes on it. George III responds by passing an act that enrages the colonists and leads to revolution. In England, John Kay has invented the flying shuttle which will allow weavers to double production. In Iceland, small looms are being used to create that important Icelandic export: wadmal. Woven woolen goods and knitted goods are a critical trade good.

Improved transportation within the British Isles, within Europe, was making trade possible. There was a substantial network of roads and canals in various European countries and the first railway would appear in 1798.
For more than the next hundred years, though, in Iceland, goods would be transported on horseback, over trails that were often impassible and frequently dangerous.

Sir Joseph Banks was wealthy. He needed to be. There were no passenger ships to Iceland. If you wanted to go there, you needed to rent or own a yacht. That meant supplies and a crew had to be paid for. As well, Banks took various artists and scientists, cooks and Livery servants, but perhaps, most astoundingly, for the Icelanders, he took French horn players. He held elegant suppers.

Von Troile wrote a series of letters about the expedition. His book can be heavy going for the modern reader with its s’s that look like f’s. When I quote him, I take the liberty of modernizing his language. This is, after all, not an academic blog but an individual, eccentric one, meant only for those who might find it interesting.
The amazing thing to me is that what von Troile describes in 1772 is what is described time and again over the next hundred years right up to the time our ancestors left Iceland for Canada and the United States. Reading explorer and traveler’s accounts of Iceland over that period of time gives the reader a sense of country trapped in time like the wood and tree leaves in Icelandic suterbrand.

What is also surprising is that my long held impression of Iceland’s isolation from new ideas has been shown to be completely wrong. Travel did occur, particularly to Denmark, sometimes to Germany, sometimes to England. Visitors did bring knowledge of other ways of farming and fishing. Tradition, stubbornness and the selfish interest of the wealthiest group of farmers and clergy turned away any possible innovation. Iceland was not, as some travelers mistakenly state, a democracy of equals but a feudal society rigidly controlled by a small elite who got to make the laws and enforce them.

Much of Iceland’s grief and tragedy was imposed upon it by climate and lack of natural resources but that grief and tragedy was made greater by a society where a few clung to the past to preserve their privilege. For a long time, social conditions were blamed upon the Danes but an objective look at the Danish relationship to Iceland and the Faroes would, I think, make it clear that it was Icelanders who exploited Icelanders and held them in thrall. The kreppa, it would seem, is nothing new.

So, what is it that von Troile finds when he arrives with Banks in Iceland in 1773 when your lang lang lang lang lang afi and amma and mine were surviving in sod huts on the moors or tucked away at the foot of the mountains in some fjord?
He arrives on August 28, 1772. Not a propitious time. The summer season is coming to an end. Winter storms are going to commence soon.

He says their first view of Iceland is one of devastation, the results of volcanic eruptions past. Like many of the scientific visitors who would follow, the Banks’ party is overawed by the landscape.

He says that there are hot springs and attaches a story to them that is interesting. Poverty precludes an Icelandic groom giving his bride expensive gifts and the land does not provide bouquets of flowers so the groom to be cleans one of these pools and his bride comes to bathe there.

He describes the springs at Geysir and traveler after traveler will follow him with their own descriptions of this wonder of the world. The first visitors will be scientists making tests and trying to explain how these miracles of nature work.

However, with the appearance of steam ships, the scientists will be shoved aside by a stream of tourists visiting the Golden Circle. Just like you and me.

He says that Geysir spouted ten times a day. By the time that the Danish king came to visit in 1874, the great geyser did not spout during the entire time of his stay.
He tells us that he finds the Icelanders very superstitious and that they believe the great geyser to be the mouth to hell and they seldom pass by without spitting into it “or as they say, uti fandens men”, into the devil’s mouth.”

He says that “at first sight of such a country one is tempted to believe it impossible to be inhabited by any human creature, if the sea, near the shores, was not everywhere covered with boats.”
And what does he think of our lang lang lang lang lang lang afis and ammas?

“The Icelanders are of a good honest disposition; but they are, at the same time, so serious and sullen, that I hardly remember to have seen any one of them laugh. Their chief amusement, in their leisure hours, is to recount to one another the history of former times; so that to this day you do not meet with an Icelander who is not well acquainted with the history of his own country; they also play at cards.”

When I read this, I thought of those Gimli fishermen who were inclined to be very serious until they’d had a drink or two. And I thought about how Icelanders in Gimli and Winnipeg loved to play cards.

Saving Viking History


Odinn riding Sleipnir by Gerhard Munthe in the 1899 edition of Kongesagaer

Okay, here’s the deal. We don’t really know much about the Vikings. How come? Because they didn’t write things down. They told stories rather than read them. They were travelling all over the place and telling stories about their adventures but when Christianity came along the Viking stories got tossed out as a bunch of pagan bumf. More than bumf, harmful, pagan, anti-Christian bumf.

Christians weren’t ecumenical. They weren’t into sharing. They weren’t big on tolerance. It was our way or death. There was none of this turn the other cheek. The result was that people got in line, did as they were told. They knew what was good for them. They dumped all that stuff that the pagan big shots had told them was the truth and adopted all the stuff that the Christians told them was the truth. The thing that made the Christian stuff stick is that it was written down. So much for all those poems about the great deeds of the Vikings. Or their social customs. Or their history. It was quickly forgotten.

Good thing Iceland was isolated. It got to do things its own way. Given the choice of warfare, they said okay, we’ll become Christians but we get to practice our pagan religions in private. That meant the got to hang onto their past at the same time as people were appearing who could and did write things down. The agreement reached at Thingvella meant there was an extended transition period. The past was not the enemy that had to be destroyed. That was why the agreement was so important, not because someone got to drink horse blood at home, but because Viking culture got to be preserved.

The Viking age was from around 793 to 1066. After that, because of climate change and politics, Iceland became a poverty stricken province of Norway and Denmark. As harsh as this was for people in Iceland in the following centuries, that isolation and poverty helped to preserve knowledge of the Vikings. Customs and beliefs endured. In the 1800s, Iceland was still, in many ways, a medieval society.

Trish Baer said in her talk at the INL convention in Seattle that

– in the late 16th-century a Icelandic scholar named Arngrímur Jónsson remarked, while he was in Copenhagen arranging for the publication of one his books, that Icelandic manuscripts contained information on the early history of Scandinavia.
– Arngrímur remarks led to the discovery that the emigrants from Scandinavia, who settled Iceland beginning in 870 A.D., had taken their cultural heritage with them. The Icelanders never lost the tradition of composing and reciting oral poems about the Viking gods. Moreover, they had written down a collection of the poems in the early 13th-century, and along with a description of the metres and the manner of creating “kennings,” or poetic metaphors, involved in composing them.

-The first of two manuscripts written in Iceland is now known as The Prose Edda and was created by Snorri Sturluson, who was an Icelandic poet, historian, and politician. He wrote his Edda as a handbook for poets so that they could continue to compose poems in the traditional style. I will refer to The Prose Edda as Snorri’s Edda throughout my talk.

– The second manuscript was created by an unidentified Icelandic scholar and is known as The Poetic Edda which consists of 34 poems about Viking gods and heroes.

That’s how crazy life is. An entire history of a people is lost and then is re-discovered on an isolated island in the North Sea, among a people who live largely in isolation not only from the outside world but from each other on farms situated wherever they can find pasture for their sheep and cows. The Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda were written down but the oral tradition continued. Education wasn’t in schools but in the home. Numerous generations lived together and the old passed on this material to the young in the badstofa.

Strange things worked to preserve this story telling. Some bishops, one gets the impression that on the whole they were not much fun to be around, got the Danish king to pass a law banning Icelanders from frivolous pursuits. They also managed to just about stamp out dancing. Throw in poverty and one can see why sitting around in the dark during the long winter, keeping warm by all huddling together in one room, storytelling became important. Think winter in Iceland. Horizontal rain. Snow. Ice. No roaring fires because there are no stoves and hardly any fuel. No TV. No radio. No movies. No internet. Having someone tell or read a story seems a pretty good way to spend ones time as you are knitting the required amount of mittens or socks if you want your piece of dried cod or bowl of skyr the next day.

The truth is there isn’t much written material that describes Viking times. That’s why people have to go to Newfoundland and Labrador and dig and sift for fragments that might prove that the Vikings travelled there. That’s why a pin at Lans Aux Meadows is so important. That’s why charcoal remnants and bog iron are so important. We may not grasp at straws when trying to resurrect our Viking ancestors but we certainly grasp at pins and bits of wool and fire pits and post holes.

Just think, if Icelanders had not preserved The Prose Edda and The Poetic Edda, the Sagas, and other bits and pieces from Viking times what would disappear? Our knowledge of the Viking gods? Our knowledge of Viking values? What would we know, outside of archeological digs, of Viking life?

Strange are the ways of history and fate. Iceland’s history is a history of suffering. Death was everywhere. Icelanders fell before epidemics, before starvation brought about by climate change, before laws that kept them from getting the items necessary for their survival. Yet, each of things, in some way, contributed to the conditions that meant the knowledge of the Viking age that had been lost everywhere else was preserved.

What a terrible cost but what a wonderful treasure was preserved.

INL 2013

Getting to the INL conference in Seattle this year was easy. Participants could drive from Vancouver or White Rock. For those of us in Victoria, harbour to harbour on the Clipper was two hours and forty-five minutes and no having to deal with airports.

It rained. Let’s get that out of the way first. We’d had weeks of glorious sunshine but on Thursday when we stood waiting for the bus tour to begin, it started raining, it kept raining, and it was still raining when I was waiting outside the hotel for a cab on Sunday morning. As I write this, Monday morning, with the conference over, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, the apple trees have crowns of white blooms.

None of this mattered, except that as hosts, we’d like the weather to be glorious. However, the Icelanders who came are used to not just rain but horizontal rain and those arriving from the prairies are coming from unseasonal snow and cold and are returning to nineteen below. That assuages our guilt.

The heritage bus tour was sold out. We headed north toward Blaine, passing vineyards, snow-capped mountains, blooming trees, a welcoming countryside but as the miles passed, many thought about their ancestors in the early days, with no paved highways, no buses, continuing their trek that had started in Iceland, to Scotland or England, to Montreal, across half a continent to Winnipeg or Selkirk, from their across the prairies to the coast and, finally, south to Bellingham, Blaine, Seattle.

Jonas Thor lectured us on this migration, the names and places and dates as we sped along the highway.
We visited the Free Unitarian Church where many of our group were thrilled to read the names of the original founders, to see the pictures of people who were from the earlier settlements such as Gimli. The special moment was when Heather Ireland found Guttormur Guttormsson’s poems rendered as a hymn in the church hymnal. She played a bit of it on the piano.

The Blaine Icelandic Club welcomed us with open arms, sandwiches and cake and coffee (and fed my celiac body with cheese and grapes and coffee), entertained us with the Damekor chor and educated us with a slide show (Rob Olason) and a talk about Point Roberts by Joan Thorstonson.

We visited the local graveyard where the graves, ten percent of the total burials, testify to the size of the Icelandic community in Blaine.

We went to the Nordic Heritage Museum. It is huge and, at the moment, has a show on in cooperation with xx on Danish immigrant times. There is room after room of displays. Upstairs, each of the Nordic groups, including Iceland, has a room. I was amazed by the size of the museum but we were later informed that a new site has been chosen and fund raising is in progress and a new building will be built. These displays, alone, could have taken up a whole day. However, we had to be on our way.

The first day we heard from Julie Summers on home as a place of belonging and then Sunna (Pam Fursteau) presented a slide show and talk about her trip around Iceland visiting communities to tell them about our North American community made up of descendants of Icelandic immigrants. We had all heard about this epic voyage and it was a pleasure to share it, even the moment when Sunna lost her cell phone in the middle of an ice covered beach.

A panel of six representing Iceland, North Dakota, Minnesota, Ontario and Manitoba discussed ways that we might strengthen our community. Heritage tours came up quite a bit, that is visits among the various North American groups.

After lunch Ásta Sól told us that the Snorri program, after weakening for a couple of years, has now come back stronger than ever with 15 Snorris and 23 Snorri Plus participants. This program of visiting Iceland and meeting relatives and learning as much about Iceland as possible in the time available is praised highly by former participants.

The hit of the conference, though, was a complete surprise. To my shame, I did not know who Alene Thorunn Moris was. Seeing her sitting at a table, unpretentious, unassuming, elderly, it would have been easy to mistake her for a vinarterta granny visiting to hear a few words of Icelandic. Boy, would that have been a mistake. She took the stage and delivered one of the most powerful speeches I have ever heard. She has spent a lifetime fighting for women´s rights, human rights, and she doesn´t mince any words.

She compared the gains made by Icelandic women,the results, with those of American women and summed up by saying Icelandic women turn up, American women don´t. She never once blamed American men. The fate of women has to be in their own hands. The crowd reacted to Alene´s impassioned speech by rising to their feet and applauding long and loud. If there had been a Bastille to march to, I think they´d have been out the door ready for battle.

Patricia Baer, after the aroused mob had settled down, gave an academic talk on how mainland Europe lost its knowledge of the Viking gods. And, how those Viking gods were found by an Icelander. Because of Iceland, misconceptions about the gods were cleared up and the times of the Vikings better understood. As her part in this, Trish has created a digital repository of images from the Eddas.

In the evening we heard from INL president, Ron Godman, Halldor Arnasson for INL Iceland, and Ambassador Þorður ægir Óskarsson. After the awards ceremonies, Lowry Olafson entertained. Those Snorri graduates met at the Regetta bar and partied away the night.

Saturday, Prof. Fred E. Woods, of whom I had often heard, but never met, gave a highly informative talk on the conversion in Iceland of Icelanders to Mormonism. His slide show of photographs and documents was fascinating for it provided details about an incident in Iceland´s history that most of us have only known about in the vaguest of terms (or, if you are like me, from reading Halldor Laxness’s novel, Paradise Reclaimed).


After a break, the hippest of the hippest among us, gave a knockout presentation on “Iceland Airwaves: The Hippest Event on the Planet”. Only Donald Gislason, musicologist, Icelandic music fanatic, could have given this talk. It was a Hunter Thompson special. We were besieged, entertained, informed, overwhelmed with music and musicians and I, for one, finally understand many things about Icelandic music that had been mysteries to me. Like how come 320,000 people can produce one successful music group after another? Simple. Every kid gets music lessons. How come they constantly produce new kinds of music? Simple. They don’t have big corporate music companies telling them what to do.

I skipped the AGM meeting and even the walking tour of Seattle. When you are filling in for the editor of Logberg-Heimskringla, it isn’t all party party. Writing doesn’t happen by itself. I did make the banquet but only stayed long enough to hear Ambassador Guðmundur Stefánsson (USA).

The computer and deadlines called. So did the fact that I had to be up at 6:30 a.m. to catch the Clipper back to Victoria. The seas were rough on the return back but not as bad as Lake Winnipeg in a storm. If we’d sunk, I could have said, too bad, but there are worse fates than to sink beneath the waves after a great party.

See you in 2014 in Winnipeg.

Icelanders To The Rescue


In her talk at the INL conference, Trish Baer discussed the work she has done over the last five years on images from the Eddas.

Old Scandinavian history from the time of the Vikings was lost in Europe after Christianity took over. The lack of understanding of that earlier time can be seen in many of the illustrations about the various pagan gods. We’d still have no real idea what people believed if it wasn’t for the Icelanders.

The Icelander who rediscovered, for Europe, knowledge of pagan times was Arngrimur Jonsson. He was in Denmark and mentioned that there were manuscripts in Iceland that contained information about the early history of Scandinavia. These were the Poetic and Prose Eddas.

Trish chose to study images in the Eddas with the purpose of creating an international database for scholars and others. In her years of study, she increased her knowledge of Icelandic, of the sagas, of Icelandic history and digital editing. These images, with the names of their creators and the times they were created, reveal much about the misunderstanding of people with regard to the gods and goddesses of Viking times.

Many people celebrate their Icelandic heritage by wearing Viking helmets with horns, drinking an Icelandic beer and eating a piece of hakarl. Some do all three things at once. They’re all good. However, it is people like Trish who expand our knowledge of Icelandic history and myth. The work is painstaking. It requires the development of research skills. Its rewards are few. There aren’t a lot of companies out there offering jobs for Medievalists, never mind jobs that pay like those offered to bankers.

Trish started her talk by saying that the gods belonged to a dysfunctional family. I’d never thought of them like that. When someone who actually knows the Eddas and the Sagas talks about these characters and their relationships, that’s when I realize just how little I actually know about the pagan gods.

Trish’s work on the images of the Eddas is ground breaking. It is not just that she has set up a digital website so these images can be studied from a distance but that the images reflect the ways the gods were seen, how those images changed over the centuries.

She didn’t carry her topic forward into the present day but I hope she will or that someone else will take what she has done and show how those individuals that our ancestors once worshipped have become comic book and movie heroes who still stir the imagination.

What does it mean, actually, to be called Thor? How much history, how many events, how many images are embedded in that name?

And who, actually, created these images that underpin our ideas of the Vikings? Trish dealt with this by showing the dates and the creators of various images. How exactly did all this feed into the Icelandic bankers being called Vikings?

Imagery that helps relate the stories we all know rather vaguely has been neglected. Perhaps, if we look at them more carefully, we may understand ourselves better. Like how come, I wear that plastic Viking helmet from Tergesen’s, chomp on hakarl and wash it down with brennevin? What is it that I celebrate at August the Deuce and Islendingadagurinn? What is it that I want to emulate or invoke when I buy a grandkid a Viking helmet and plastic sword?

Most of us will stick to eating vinarterta to celebrate our Viking heritage and maybe add a bit of dried fish but the more scholars like Trish (soon to be Dr.Baer)explore, understand and share the details of our heritage, the more there will be for us to know about who we are and why we are that way.

On To Victory: Alene Moris


You could be forgiven if, seeing Alene Moris for the first time, especially at something like the Icelandic National League annual conference, if you dismissed her as another little old lady who spent her life making ponokokur. We’re all entitled to mistakes. Even doozies like this one.

Alene Moris was the hit of the conference. The title to her talk, “Women in Iceland are Unusual and Happy” seemed motherly. Wrong again.

Alene Moris had the crowd so revved up by the end of her talk that I thought the audience was going to jump out of their seats and march through Seattle in support of women’s rights. What a speaker!

The theme of the conference was “There’s No Place Like Heima (home)”. Could have been a maudlin look back at earlier times. It looked back all right but it was anything but maudlin.

When she said that she babysat Tommy Douglas’s children when she was young, Canadian listeners knew this wasn’t going to be a mom in the kitchen making apple pie speech. The reference, I expect, went over the heads of the American part of the audience.

“Home”, she started off saying, is loaded with mixed emotions. And, going back to the settlement of Iceland, she didn’t rah rah those Viking men but rather looked at the fact that the majority of women were Irish/Scots slaves. She pointed out they were taken by force from their families and communities, must have been incredibly lonely, had no choice about having sex, and were pregnant and had to raise children without the normal family and community support. Their masters, maybe husbands, went away for long periods of time and the women had to survive and see that their children survived.

Throughout her speech, she compared women’s situation in Iceland, historically, and I the present, with the situation of women in the United States.

In Iceland there is a much better safety net and when you say safety net, you’re talking about women. It’s women and children who dis-proportionality need a safety net. Women often earn minimum wage. There has been an orchestrated attack on women’s freedom and rights. A major problem is that women in the USA don’t stick together. In Iceland a one day strike brought widespread support. IN the 1975 million women march, only one woman out of 150 came out.

Two years ago, Iceland was chosen as the best place for women. In the USA there is a large pay difference. There is widespread domestic violence. IN 12 years, 12,000 women were killed by male partners.
In Iceland women seldom respond with anger but with a pragmatic insistence that there be justice for everyone.

A striking image she presented was that women don’t want half of a bad pie. They want a pie that is worth sharing.

She praised Iceland’s response to the kreppa and said that the USA needs to find the courage to do the same.

According to her, women need to be in positions of power because they value independent thinking instead of group thinking. They want to treat all people well. Most women think in terms of a circle and community.

She inspired many with her speech and there was much more to it than I can include. Her mother was born and raised in Mountain, ND. Her father was a Norwegian from Minnesota. Alene majored in music and married a Lutheran minister. Now of these things, outside of long conversations with Tommy Douglas about universal health care, would seem to be the makings of someone dedicated to social justice.

She and her husband went to Borneo in 1965-69. She sent for three books and reading them created an epiphany for her. She learned that all the war decisions about Vietnam had been made by men. There was no woman there to ask why do we need to win? Why are we in Asia?

It’s not, she says, that women are more virtuous than men. It is just that they see things differently. Think back to those first comments about Vikings and the women they kidnapped to take to Iceland. Their view of what was happening had to be radically different.

She said something that for me was profound. She heard it at the Women As A Resource For A Changing World. The speaker said “Power comes to those who know and know they know.” She then gave a historical list of all those who those who know and know they know. Except, of course, that doesn’t mean they are right. But they do get to impose their will on the rest of society.

Toward the end, she said “Icelandic women show up.” American women, don’t.

Her speech was so packed with information that even though I took notes as quickly as possible, I could only get down a small part of what she shared with the audience. Anyone who wants to hear her whole speech, and I would hope that every woman who hears about it, will log in and listen, can go to the Icelandic National League website. If her speech is not already up, it will be, soon.

INL Convention Seattle: Day 3

I’ve never been to an INL convention like it. It’s been all over the place re types of speakers and topics. I think people are discombobulated in a good way. They’ve had their conceptions un-concepted, they’ve heard and seen things that have left them puzzled, curious, excited. It is hard to capture the excitement that has been generated. I am so grateful, happy, that I decided to come to this convention. I’m not a great enthusiast but I’ve found myself being amazed, amused, bewildered.

David Johnson is the Co-Chair of this Convention. He has been everywhere, checking on everything, making sure that we all stay on time.

David is Mormon and he introduced the first speaker, Prof. Fred E. Woods. Fred is highly personable, an experienced teacher and public speaker. He presented a slide show with commentary. Some of his slides were pictures of Icelanders who went to Utah in the early years. Other slides were of documents from that time, often letters, that have been translated into English.
I have read quite a bit about the Icelandic Mormons but Fred’s lecture made me aware of how much more material there is that I did not know about. I, and I expect, many others, will be going online to read the work that has been translated.

He is working with the Icelandic scholar Kári Bjarnason, head of the Vestmannæyjar Folk Museum. Together, they are collecting and publishing Icelandic materials which are in Utah. You can read much of this material on the “Mormon Migration“ website hosted by BYU.

We went from this rather conservative individual who describes happy things as “sweet“ to Donald Gislason. Now, I have to confess that I‘m a great fan of Donald. That‘s because when I was editor of Logberg-Heimskingla, Donald provided marvelous interviews about the music and cultural scene in Iceland. I remember telling him at the time that he was the best interviewer I‘d ever worked with.

He has a Ph.D in Music History from UBC. He‘s made six trips to Iceland but given his knowledge of the music and cultural scene, you‘d think he‘d spent a lifetime there. I certainly did. He says he is a hopeless “miðbærritta“, that is a guy who thinks the whole world revolves around 101 Reykjavik.

It would be impossible to do justice to Donald‘s lecture, slide show without writing like Hunter S. Thompson.

We saw bands of every kind. And, in Iceland, there are bands of every kind. I‘ve always wondered where Bjork, Monsters and Men, Siguros, etc. Etc. Etc. came from. How come, with a population of less than 320,000 that there are musicians of very kind, playing multiple instruments, old instruments, space age electronic instruments, playing multiple styles?

Donald provided the answer. The system in Iceland provides funding for every child to have music lessons. The child in Reykjavik and the child on the most isolated farm. The cost is split between parents and state. I wish I could have hauled all those people into the auditorium with us, those people who want to fund nothing in the education system unless it leads directly to a job, to a trade, who think things like music lessons are a waste of the taxpayer‘s money.

Donald told us about Icelandic music culture. About the Airwaves festival which he describes as the hippest event on the planet. Five days of musical mayhem. He credits some things that Iceland doesn‘t have for the creativity and productivity of musicians and, remember, everyone is a musician.

What don‘t Icelanders have? They don‘t have the powerful influence of marketing companies. They don‘t have corporations telling them how they ought to be. They don‘t have fear of failure. They are playing among friends for themselves and their friends instead of for paid audiences of strangers.

Everyone, no matter what age, listens to the same music. Parents, teenagers, kids listen to the same music. Part of that has to do with demographics. Iceland‘s population is young. There is a lot of support for young parents and young children. Parents take kids to rock concerts. Musical events, a lot of the time, are family events.

I saw this when I watched a video about Of Monsters and Men. Crowds were streaming into an open area to listen to them. There were young parents with babes in arms, kids in strollers, kids holding their parents’ hands. There were even some people who might have been grandparents in the crowd.

What a contrast this morning, from Fred who is dedicated to preserving Mormon history to Donald with Reykjavik 101, party, party, dance all night, drink all night, listen to music all night, and then eat Subway type sandwiches for breakfast.

It’s all Iceland. It’s all part of our history. I know that I’ll be looking up those Mormon sources. Some of the letters we got to read were surprising, even shocking. I know that I now understand more about the Iceland of our ancestors. I also know more about the Iceland of the present.

Before I forget, did I tell you about breakfast? Before we listened to these lectures, about the scrambled eggs, the bacon, the scones, the jams, the fruit, the yogurt, the coffee black as the devil’s soul but, I’m sure, much better tasting?

Did I tell you that next year this party is going to be in Winnipeg?

Did I tell you…? Never mind. Later. I’ve got to get dolled up for the banquet tonight. Comb my hair, try to look respectable. More food, more talks. More surprises. I’m glad the Clipper doesn’t charge passengers by weight. It would cost more to go home than to come to Seattle.

Carving the future

Jón Adólf Steinólfsson was born in Reykjavik. He has studied wood carving in Icelandic, Germany and England.

Jón follows an old tradition for he often works with driftwood. Driftwood from Siberia is caught in ice and gradually brought by the ocean currents to Iceland. Wood also comes from other parts of the world, ending up on Iceland´s beaches. Some historians have claimed that without driftwood, Iceland would not have been habitable.

Driftwood was so precious that a host of laws regarding its ownership were passed and enforced. Traditionally, driftwood was used for building nbut also for fuel, to make boats, furniture and to create charcoal. Imported wood was so expensive that it was only available to the foreign traders and to the wealthiest Icelanders.

Given this history, it´s not surprising that Jón carves driftwood.

In his show at the INL 94th convention, there are a number of pieces which reveal both his techniques and his interests.

Many of his works , if you look at his website,, are well done carvings and include things like picture frames or masks. However, he steps away from that role with pieces like Lif (Life), done in lime wood and birch. Here, he becomes the sculptor and, interestingly, for me, at least, I see in this piece influences of Iceland’s religious past.


Not only is a child being born from wood but given the texture of the wood on which it sits, it appears to be being born from a chaotic environment and even hell.

The other piece that caught my eye was Leit að Takka (Looking for any key). The face in the wood made me think immediately of the carvings of the West Coast aboriginal art. Often this West Coast art is obvious, representative of totems and myth but sometimes It goes beyond that and keeps within itself some mystery below the surface of the wood. Leit að Takka is like that. Or like, perhaps, like an iceberg where the tip only reveals a small part of what lies beneath the surface. Here, where the obvious is not invoked, mystery brings the viewers eye and mind back to look time and again.


Odin’s Eagle


For a very long time in Iceland there was little art. It wasn’t because Icelanders were not creative or artistic but grinding poverty where people lay in bed because there was nothing to eat, did not allow for money to be spent on art supplies.

There was very little silver coin. Financial transactions were mostly done in trade. The Icelandic land owners would trade their wool, meat, fish, feathers, skins, knitting, sheep, horses, with Danish traders and the Danish traders would, in return, provide all those necessities Iceland could not provide such as nails, horseshoes, European cloth rather than wadmal, needles, brandy, tobacco, sugar, rice, rye flour. The list of items needed from Europe was large, seemingly endless. The traders set the prices for both buying and selling.

There was woodcarving because there was driftwood available. It can be seen in askar, bed headboards, trunks. Therefore, it seems particularly appropriate at this INL convention that the two artists who have their work on display are both sculptors working in wood.

One is Tryggvi Thorlief Laram. His sculpture, one cannot really call it carving, is based around Germanic and Icelandic history and myths.


His piece called “Beast of Prey” is derived from an archeological find in Upsalla, Sweden. The original was a small limestone carving used for a mold to make decorated dress pins. It is believed to date from the 9th to 10th C. His notes with the sculpture say that “To date no full sale dragon heads carved for a Viking prow have been unearthed” and that “the dragon heads were meant to transform war ships into writhing dragons or sea steeds but were not permanently fixed to the war ship prows.”

A second piece called “The Horsemen” is based on a picture from the Europen migration period. Although the original is not a Viking artifact, it looks similar to images from Viking timesl

A three dimensional piece from Icelandic arctic birch with a base made from American black granite is called Odin’s Eagle.

Tryggvi informs the viewer that a Scandinavian name for an eagle was corpse-gulper and, it was believed, that at the birth of a prominent hero, an eagle would scream. That same eagle would later feast on the bodies of the enemies of the hero.

Tryggvi’s biography says that he was born in 1956 in Hafnarfjordur, Iceland to a Norwegian-American father and Icelandic mother and at three years of age he immigrated to California. .

In 1975, following in his father’s footsteps, he served as an American soldier in Northern Italy. Then, in the 1980’s, he returned to Iceland to retrace his ancestry while serving aboard Icelandic fishing trawlers.

Currently, he lives in California.

His work is impressive because there is a solidity about it that evokes the ages. It is not just that his subject matter is taken from ancient times  but also the way he treats the medium. The solidity of the wood gives a sense of age and permanence and quickly draws a viewer’s attention.

His art work has brought him recognition and awards. Further examples can be viewed at



INL Convention Seattle: Day 1


After weeks of beautiful, sunny weather, it rained today just as the INL convention in Seattle was getting started with a bus tour. It turned out that it didn’t matter.

Jonas Thor was our tour guide and since he does tour guiding for a living, how could the job he did be anything but good. He lived in Winnipeg for ten years and since his return to Iceland he has bought thousands of people on Heritage tours. If you don’t think that is a big accomplishment, Iceland only has approximately 320,000 people. When you’ve brought thousands of people, you’ve brought a good percentage of the population.

His lecture, as we drove from Seattle to Blaine was chock a block with facts, as one would expect from a historian. However, he peppered his talk with humorous anecdotes from his years as a tour guide. People really do say the funniest things, especially when they’re trying to speak Icelandic. One woman knew some Icelandic but not all the latest words. When she was at a hotel, she called to the desk to say that she needed a wakeup call at seven. The Icelandic came out, though that she needed a man in her bed at seven.

Immigration to Washington State, Bellingham, Blaine, Seattle, was not like immigration to New Iceland. People didn’t come in groups. They came as families and as individuals. As usually happens, letters to friends and relatives encouraged others to follow.

Victoria drew a lot of settlers, but because of a depression and a smallpox outbreak, a number of people moved to Point Roberts. Because there was no group settlement, there was no attempt to create separate Icelandic communities on the West Coast – except for Osland on Smith Island in BC.

Jonas packed a tremendous summary of the history of the Icelandic settlers who came to the West Coast, everything from the early canneries that provided well paid employment to a history of how Point Roberts managed to capture the interest of a United States President.  President Roosevelt signed the document for the land at Point Roberts to be made available to the Icelandic settlers after they had been there for eighteen years.  In appreciation, they sent him a rug made from a sheepskin.


We stopped at the Unitarian Free Church where displays were set up for us. There was some excitement when people from Gimli saw a picture of Albert Kristjansson. Past and present connected since he was a brother of Hannes Kristjansson of Gimli. One of those special moments I’ve come to expect on these tours happened when Heather Ireland noticed that one of her grandfather’s  (G. Guttormson) poems was set to music in the hymnal and she sat down a played a few  bars.

We went to the Blaine cemetery where ten percent of the graves are of people of Icelandic background.

Lunch was served by The Icelandic Club of Blaine. Rob Olason gave a slide show about the Blaine Icelanders. The Bellingham Damekor serenaded us and Joan Thorstonson gave a talk on Point Roberts.


Food and music soothes the savage beasts.

Fed, kaffied, our heads aswirl with all we had heard, we raced away to the Nordic Heritage Museum. If I did nothing else on this trip except go to the NHM, the money and time spent would have been worthwhile.    The Exhibition The Dream of America, The Immigrant Experience, 1840-1920 is an exhibition in cooperation with the National Museum of Denmark and the Moesgard Museum, Arhus, Denmark. Comprehensive, detailed, beautifully constructed, it could easily occupy an entire day. It is the most complete description and illustration of the immigrant experience that I have seen.


Many Icelanders became involved in logging. This was completely foreign to them. In a very short time, they had to learn how to do dangerous jobs with dangerous equipment such as this saw and these axes on display at the museum.


Proving that rain, a long day, a lot of facts, an avalanche of conversation can’t keep a bunch of Icelanders down, there was a meet and greet in the evening. No one needed to know the address of the room. They just needed to follow their ears to the roar of the conversation.