Embrace Our Heritage Part 7

Ragnaheiður Straumfjord Magnusson´s spinning wheel, thought to have been made in Canada, now in Lauga Magnusson’s possession (Winnipeg, May 2012) Photograph W. D. Valgardson


When our ancestors came to Canada, butter was still being used as currency. In 1878, Athony Trollope, the English novelist who comes to Iceland as a guest of John Burns on the yacht, The Mastiff, is amazed that there is no bank in Reykjavik. Where there is no currency, there is no need for a bank. Although sour butter could be kept for years without spoiling, no bank wanted to keep its vault full of butter.
Our ancestors, if they were share croppers, paid their rent and debts in June and July with the “wool which was washed and ready for sale; and in September and October by wether-mutton smoked and cured; by grease and tallow, and by sheep-skins and lamb-skins with the coat on.” They reserve the butter and cheese (skyr) mostly for household use. “…Besides supplying food, the animals yield material for local industries—coarse cloth, clothes, frocks and jackets, mittens, stocking and socks.”
The production of wool and turning it into clothes was an essential part of life in Iceland. In Iceland, Burton says “The principal occupation of the women is spinning yarn during the summer, and knitting and weaving in winter. A rude loom fixed and upstanding…stands in every farm. A good hand can weave three yards a day.”
This wadmal was sold by the ell. You can’t embrace what you don’t know or understand and I, when I first came across a measurement called an ell, had  never heard of it and didn’t know what it meant. What was an ell? It was two Danish feet and two Danish feet were two and three eighths English feet. Our ancestors had to be able to do these comparative sums in their heads. In some places, these measures were drawn on church walls so people could check to see that they were measuring correctly.
How important was all this making of coarse cloth, all this knitting? Mr. Consul Crowe (he was an English consul) in his report of 1870-71 reports that there were 76,816 two threaded stockings produced, one threaded, 1,092, Socks, 28,431, mittens, one fingered, 55,601, full fingered, 69 and wadmal, measured in yards, 280. Your ancestors and mine knitted and wove some of those stockings, mittens, wadmal.
In writing a book, you dishonour a people and a subject by making errors. It is your obligation as an author to get facts right. This is as true for fiction as non-fiction. To include errors because of casual carelessness insults the subject. However, even with the best of intentions, the closest attention to the material, errors crop up. Often an author is tripped up by the obvious because it is the obvious that isn’t checked and double checked. The devil in writing is always in the details. I had mentioned in an early draft of one story in What The Bear Said that a farmer was shearing his sheep. However, that detail was wrong and had to be changed. Fortunately, I kept researching and stumbled across the fact that sheep were not sheared. The wool was pulled off when it came loose.
During my childhood many homes in New Iceland had spinning wheels. They were essential to survival in Iceland. In the beginning, they were essential to survival in New Iceland. These spinning wheels, along with carders and combs were a common sight. These spinning wheels were part of the In Between World. However, what was called European cloth was available in New Iceland. There were North American fashions and clothes that more properly suited the climate with its hot summers and cold winters.
My great grandmother, Freddrika Gottskalksdottir had a spinning wheel in her living room. Our great grandmothers’ spinning wheels have pride of place in many of our homes but, today, they are not essential parts of our lives. They are treasures from the past. They are reminders of our families, bits of nostalgia.
In spite of the general poverty in Iceland with its one crop (grass) economy, caused by the cold summers that kept the grass from growing, Burton says “The peasant sells his cattle and sheep to buy for himself vile tobacco; “bogus” cognac; brenivin or kornschnaps,and perhaps even “port” and “sherry;” and for his wife chignon and crinolines, silks and calicoes, instead of the homely but lasting frieze cloth. His grandfather infused Iceland moss; he must drink coffee, while raisins…are replaced by candied or loaf sugar…The Althing has attempted to curb the crying evil of ever increasing drunkneness, the worst disease of the island because the most general”.
If we are going to embrace our heritage, we need to embrace all of it and that includes the Danish trading posts that sold 600 gallons of cheap brandy every year. That includes some Danish trade ships that, instead of bringing desperately needed goods such as horseshoes, metal bars, rye flour, they brought only cheap brandy because it gave the greatest profit.

Death by drowning

There have been in our family since it arrived in New Iceland, three drownings. Alfred and Herbert Bristow, sons of Fredrikka Gottskalksdottir and William Bristow, drowned with three other young people when they were returning on a sailboat from a berry picking expedition. My father, in an old tradition, was named after them. My brother drowned when his front end loader went off the side of a barge into the Mackenzie River.
These drownings, while tragic, were part of an old tradition. Can we call it that? When something is done repeatedly over a very long time?
To drown was the fate of many men in Iceland. According to Richard Burton, in Iceland there was an “unusual loss of adult males, which is said to average forty per cent drowned.”
Every year, in a land where only one crop, hay, could grow, where arctic ice filling the bays, could lower the temperature enough that the ground would not thaw and the hay would not grow, producing enough food to last the coming winter was a struggle. Hay and sheep and cattle alone would not provide the food necessary. 
Fishing was essential. It provided the second part of the people’s diet but it also provided something to trade for the many products that could not be produced in Iceland.
To produce boats, a builder needs wood. Iceland, in the 1800s, had long ceased to have wood. What had been there had been used for building and fuel and, perhaps, more importantly, for charcoal. Iceland has little in the way of minerals but it does have bog iron and bog iron, to be smelted, requires charcoal.

What was available was driftwood.

When Richard Burton arrives in Iceland in 1872 he observes what he calls “the mosquito flotilla of fishing-boats”.
The largest of the fishing boats carry two masts, he says. They are clinker-built, high in the stem and stern with a high projection for the rudder. When the sun is hot, and the wood shrinks, the boats are exceptionally leaky. The boats are not well cared for and do not last very long.
He sees no decked boats. The decked boats that do exist, sixty-one or sixty-three, are nearly all used for shark fishing on the north coast. There are 3,092 open boats. These have two to twelve oars. These boats are preferred by the fishermen because they can hold a lot of fishermen. The problem is that when they sink and the crew drown, there are a lot of deaths.
The open row boats go out three to six miles to get to the fishing ground. Then they have to row back. Burton considers this arrangement a waste of both effort and time.
The crews have guts. If necessary, they’ll cross Faxa Fjörð which is around fifty miles broad.
Basalt blocks are used for ballast. The sails are just strips of cloth. He is amazed, even perplexed by how narrow the oars are. The locals say that narrow oars are necessary because of the strong currents. He doesn´t believe it and thinks it is just tradition and folklore. The oars fit into thwarts that are lined with hoop-iron or they are set between two wooden pins. 
Having rowed a skiff on Lake Winnipeg as a boy, I found the oarlocks we used that set into the thwarts worked very well. They would seem to have been more efficient than the hoop-iron or the wooden pins. Iron in Iceland was expensive and the wooden pins more readily available but without the equivalent of oar locks, oars are useless and I can’t imagine that wooden pins under the strain of the constant rowing did not often break. In a heavy sea, the loss of even one oar would be serious.
The Icelandic nets, he says, are ridiculously small. The floats are gourd-shaped bottles made in Denmark.
Burton compares the boats and fishermen he sees with the images of Viking long ships and Viking sailors and finds the current fishermen and their craft deficient. He thinks the crews perform well in good weather but in poor weather, they often do not work as a crew or team effectively but all want to be in charge with the result that no one is in charge.
The fishermen have given up the old way of dressing and now dress much like English fishermen. However, they wear three or four pair of coarse woolen socks and the socks retain water. Burton thinks Icelandic fishermen must enjoy having wet feet.
I found most interesting that the fishermen were using the Icelandic glove with two thumbs. When the palm gets wet or worn, the glove can be flipped over and the other side used. Many years ago when I was giving a reading at a school on an island in Ontario, I was shown such a pair of mittens with two thumbs, not gloves, and asked if they were Icelandic. Apparently, around the turn of the century there had been some Icelandic people living in the area and these mittens had been kept and now were in a local museum.
Burton mentions, as do many others, that the fishermen take little in the way of food with them even though they may be at sea for twelve hours doing strenuous labor, working in a cold wind, often soaking wet. They do take a mixture of whey and water to drink and lots of snuff.
The fishermen, he says, rarely live for long. Poor food, fatigue, the tremendous hardship of the work and environment, constant wet feet, poor hygiene. The fishermen suffer from chronic rheumatism that is so severe that the fingers bend backwards. Death often comes from lung infections, gout or paralysis.
Since What The Bear Said was published with its fourteen folk tales, many people have talked to me about their families. Time and again, people have said, my great great grandfather drowned. It is a constant refrain. If forty percent of male deaths were by drowning, what family could escape such a fate?
When men were not needed for hay harvest, they rode or walked to the coast and joined a fishing crew. They lived in rudely built huts near the shore. No stove. Sometimes not enough fuel to cook their food. They were wet all the time. There was no chance to sit before a blazing fire or even close to a wood stove.
Fall fishing in Manitoba was often brutal with winds from the north, ice freezing on both men and skiffs but, at the end of the day, there was a stove and an abundance of wood. Both men and clothes could dry out and get warm. There was hot food. The waterproof clothes, the rubber boots, most of the time, kept the fishermen dry.
That Icelandic fishermen survived at all seems like a miracle. Each year when they went to the coast, they knew the odds, they knew the living conditions, but they lived in a world with no choice because they fished or died of hunger. As dangerous and difficult was the fishing, the greater tragedy was when the harbours filled with drift ice and there could be no fishing. Then there wasn’t much left to be done except pray and, sometimes, those prayers were answered with the stranding of whales. They must have seemed like manna from heaven. A gift of meat and fat from God.
Embrace my heritage? Yes, I embrace these men on their trek through the mountains, their nights on hard beds made of sand and seaweed, of dark winter days spent in open boats hauling in fish. They may, as Burton says, no longer be Vikings and their boats may be poor craft but they went to sea day after day to put out a line and what could be braver than that?
(With notes and quotes from Richard Burton’s Ultima Thule or A Summer In Iceland, 1875. Although the book was published in 1875, Burton was in Iceland in 1872 so he describes the Iceland of our immigrant ancestors.)

Sheep make you rich

Without sheep our Icelandic ancestors would have been driven from Iceland or died. Sheep, more than any other animal, fed and clothes our people. From such a humble animal came life. Today, sheep are no longer the centre of existence for Icelanders or for Icelandic North Americans. While sheep are still often seen in Iceland, they are only seen in Canada occasionally. Their breeding is specialized. Their wool has been replaced by synthetics. Their milk is seldom used. Mutton is seldom seen in stores and when lamb is found, it is usually from New Zealand and Australia.
Icelandic lamb is universally praised. However, it is no longer the staff of life. Here, on the West Cost of Canada, there are Icelandic sheep being raised. The wool from them is processed at a mill on Salt Spring Island. What once came from Icelandic sheep, wool, meat, milk is exotic, specialized, no longer the products necessary for life.
It seems a hard fate for an animal that was central to the survival and prosperity of our Icelandic ancestors.
Wealth in Iceland was measured in the number of sheep a farmer owned.
In 1772 when von Troil visited Iceland, he had much to say about the importance of sheep.
“There is no breed of cattle so much attended to in Iceland as that of sheep. As these can easily find subsistence there, the Icelanders look upon it as less troublesome and less expensive to breed them; and there are many peasants who have from two to four hundred sheep. Before the epidemical disease which raged among the sheep from 1740 to 1750, it was not uncommon to see flocks of one thousand or twelve hundred, the sole property of one person.”
By 1863 Burton says, “Paijkull assigned 350,000 sheep and 22,000 head of black cattle to 68,000 souls. In 1871 the official numbers are Milch ewes and lambs, 173,562; Barren ewes, 18,615; Wethers and rams above one year old, 55,710; Yearlings, 118,243.” This was a total of 366,130.
Those numbers seem impressive until you compare them with John Barrow’s report that in 1834-35 that there were 500,000 sheep. In 1845 M. Eugene Robert gives the total as 617,401. But then in 1855 scabies appears and kills 200,000 sheep. When Burton is writing in 1874 scabies is still raging.
Sheep were the major food supply. In two years, 200,000 sheep are killed by scabies. No wonder there was hunger. 200,000 sheep not producing milk, wool or meat.
“The Icelandic sheep differ from ours in several particulars; they have strait ears standing upright, a small tail, and it is common to meet with those that have four or five horns: in some places they are kept in stables during winter; but they are generally left to seek their food themselves in the fields.”
Von Troil says that the sheep like hiding in caves. That’s not surprising given the dreadful weather on the heaths. He says that some people believe that there are wild sheep but it is not true. The Icelanders mark there sheep and when they are driven into the mountains to grave, they are scarcely ever without a shepherd.
He admires Icelandic sheep for being fat. The farmers figure that it requires one kapal of hay grown on the tún but two kapals if grown from unfertilized meadows. Like the cows, in a bad year with not enough grass harvested, the fodder is made of chopped fish bones mixed with hay.
The value of a sheep is greater alive than dead for the milk it produces is a greater source of food than its flesh. “Good sheep give from two to six quarts of milk a day…it has likewise a good taste when boiled.”
But the principal benefit from the sheep comes from the wool. It is not shorn but stays on the sheep until the end of May. At that time, it becomes naturally loose and is stripped off. This is called Ultafat. If there is a cold, wet spring, a piece of wadmal is cinched around the stomachs of the weakest sheep.
A good sheep, he says, is defined by by-laws as a sheep that provides four pounds of wool. Many sheep produce more.
The ewes often have twins and sometimes three lambs. When they do, the farmer takes one lamb and gives it to a mother who has lost her lamb. If lambs are too weak to follow their mothers, they are fed milk using a quill and a wet piece of skin.
How valuable were these sheep? What was the calculated wealth of a farmer’s herd? According to von Troil, “The price of six ewes, from two to four years old, together with their lambs and wool, is four dollars in autumn….a weather of four years old is sold for one dollar.” It is interesting that if someone butchers a lamb, its value is determined by the amount of fat it has. The meat, without the head, feet, entrails, fat, skin and wool is valued at twenty yards of wadmal. The law says that a pound of dried mutton is worth half a yard of wadmal. The skin is sold by weight.
Wadmal, the coarse woolen cloth that the Icelanders wove, was supposed to be produced at three yards a day. So the meat of a lamb by itself is worth 20/3 = 6 2/3 day’s labor. One pound of dried mutton is worth 1/6 of a day’s labor.
However, the yearly wages of a man were fixed by municipal law at four dollars and twelve yards of wadmal and those of a woman at two dollars and five yards of wadmal. A laborer who wanted to buy a lamb, meat only, would need to work two years to get enough wadmal.
It is no wonder that von Troil says “Their food principally consists of dried fish, sour butter, which they consider as a great dainty, milk mixed with water and whey, and a little meat. They receive so little bread from the Danish company, that there is scarcely any peasant who eats it above three or four months in the year.”
To understand value today is difficult for as von Troil says, “Their accounts are not all kept in money, but according to yards and fishes. In 1878, 106 years later, Anthony Trollope comments on the fact that there is no bank in Iceland. It would be difficult enough to compare value in Iceland in 1772 or, in 1884, even if there was enough silver coin in the country to cause a bank to be established. Everything financial is comparative, after all. If you put a dollar on the table, its value is what objects can be purchased with it.
To make matters more difficult, there were constant new issues of money in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Money was being debased by inflation.
“In the late 18th century coins were issued in denominations of ½, 1, 2, 4, 8, 24 and 32 skilling, 1/15, ¼, 1/3, ½ and 1 rigsdaler.” (Wicki) Those, travellers changed into English sterling. Complicated? You bet. Especially without any computer but your head. The best way to figure out what your sheep were worth was how much wadmal, butter, or fish you could get for one sheep.

Intergalactic Resurrection



The title of this edition which is called Under the Glacier instead of Christianity Under Glacier offends me.
It offends me in the same way that the White House calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree offends me. The titles of books are usually chosen by marketing departments. The author has little, or even, no say in the title. Nor do his descendants. I assume that Kristanhald Under Jökli was renamed with the idea that dropping the word, Christian, from the title would increase sales. Since the entire book, from the first word to the last, is about the condition of Christianity in Glacier and, by implication, in Iceland, leaving Christian out is both misleading and absurd. Like, we´ll leave Christian out of the title and trick people into buying this book because they´ll think its about glaciers.
As for the book itself, I often found the satire hilarious. As a Lutheran with an Icelandic background, I frequently recognized the foibles and pretensions of myself and my community.
But there´s the rub. A satire, to be appreciated, needs readers who know intimately what is being satirized. Unlike previous novels of Laxness´s that I have read, that contain within them all the necessary information for understanding and appreciation, this novel does not.
The novel begins with Embi, a not particularly committed theology student who isn´t much interested in becoming ordained, being chosen to investigate the state of Christianity at Glacier. With Embi being chosen for a task that should rightly belong to a devout theologian, the satire has begun.
What has sparked the investigation are rumours of odd happenings at Glacier. Burials are often delayed, baptisms and confirmations not performed, and there supposedly has been a strange burial on the glacier instead of in hallowed ground. The church building itself is reported to be in disrepair and a much larger secular building has been built next to the church so the church is overshadowed.
Embi travels to Glacier. On his arrival, he notices a sign that says ‚ “PIMUSES REPAIRED HERE.” Embi discovers that the local pastor, called Jón Primus, has a stellar reputation, not as a theologian, but as a repairer of primus stoves.
The irony and satire of Jón Primus and his many technical skills would be lost on a non-Icelandic audience. The wry smile and laughter would come from the knowledgeable reader who knew how they needed to raise sheep and go fishing to survive. Religious duties for such men had to come second to getting in the hay for without hay their sheep would die and without sheep, the pastor would die. Although there were tithes of sheep and fish for the pastor at some times, by some people, many pastors depended on their secular skills to survive. It is no wonder that it is their secular skills for which they are named and appreciated. 
Henderson, when he traveled in Iceland in 1814-15 distributing and selling Bibles, commented extensively on the condition of the clergy.  “The total number of parishes in Iceland amounts to 184; but as many of them occupy a great space of ground, it has been found necessary to build in some parts two or three churches in a parish, which has increased the number of churches to 305.” The ministers are “all natives of the island, and are maintained partly from certain tithes raised among the peasants. The provision made for their support is exceedingly scanty. The richest living on the island does not produce 200 rix-dollars; twenty and thirty rix-dollars are the whole of the stipend annexed to many of the parishes; and there are some in which it is even as low as five.
Ministers needed, also, to perform many other duties. Henderson says that “besides attending to the spiritual wants of his people, Sira Jon (Jón Jónson of Audabrecka) devotes a considerable portion of his time to the healing of their bodies, and is celebrated all over the north for his skill in medicine. Since last new year, he has had more than two hundred cases.”
In 1872 when Burton is in Iceland, conditions hadn’t changed much.  He says in Ultima Thule that while the bishop’s salary is $3416.33 Danish dollars, thirty-nine ministers make only about 300 rigs dollars a year. This is a very small amount of money and while he says the ministers have some other sources of income, he admits that the clergy are “compelled to be farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen.”
The naming of Jón Primus is an occasion for a smile or a laugh for the tradition of naming people according to their work was so strong that it survived the emigration to Ameríka. In Gimli, Manitoba, and elsewhere in New Iceland, there were many Valdis and Helgis and so the butcher became Valdi Butch and the garage man, Helgi Highway. Much of the naming was, and still is, ironic.
When Embi asks Tumi Jónsen for the whereabouts of the pastor, Tumi says that he has gone to Ness to shoe a herd of horses. Jón Primus also does electrical work. He´s handy to have around. However, when Embi asks about the pastor´s doctrine, Tumi says, “We’ve never been aware that Pastor Jón had any particular doctrine.
Poor Embi, hopeless, hapless, making notes and tape recordings, he tries to make sense of Christianity at Glacier. The answers to even his simplest questions are convoluted and evasive. The rumour that a burial has taken place on the glacier turns out to be true. 
A local Icelander, Gudmundur Sigmundsson, has made a great deal of money abroad, and is the owner of the secular building on church property, a building much larger than the church. He returns. He now calls himself Godman Singmann. 
Although this book was published in 1968, the Occupy protesters would recognize someone who thinks he’s Godman and belongs to the one percent. Today, he would definitely be an Icelandic banker. Godman espouses a new religion that believes in biotelekinesis and intergaltic communication and intergalactic resurrection. Pastor Jón, in spite of his secular activities, has literally nailed the doors of the church shut against such things and refuses its use for an experiment in secular resurrection.
Jón Primus, in reply to Godman´s theories, replies , “That water is good.” He sticks to simple truths instead of bafflegab mixed together from an assortment of religions.
Great fun is made with the stereotypes in the novel, with the theories and fads, with the quirks of Icelandic society. This novel contains the famous scenes of Embi never being offered anything but cakes instead of meals. Many a host both in Iceland and North America has said “There are good treats here but not seventeen cakes.” Icelanders and Icelandic North Americans alike know that it is Pestle-Thóra , Jón Primus´s housekeeper and her many cakes that is being referred to .
I would put this book under the Christmas tree but only for someone who knows Iceland and some Icelandic history. Otherwise, the reader is likely to stop reading among the conversations Embi has with people when he first arrives at Glacier. It would also help if the reader cared about Christianity in Iceland (and elsewhere) for beyond the irony and satire there are serious points made and questions raised. For the knowledgeable reader, this book is as relevant today as it was when it was first published.