Monday, 11 March 2019

Íslendingabók - The Book of the Icelanders

The past is something which human beings are all subject to. Everything we are and wherever we are from, has to do with all the decisions, histories and needs of our ancestors. That is why it is not uncommon that there is some interest and curiosity to know where we come from. In this case, we Icelanders are very lucky to have the Íslendingabók. Have you heard of it? Well, stay with us because today Iceland's Viking past takes center stage.

The Íslendingabók is the Book of Icelanders, which traces genealogy from the Vikings

If you are a bit hooked on the internet, you will have seen that one of the latest trends is the issue of genealogy. The truth is that I was equally surprised and pleased. Normally we are used to silly videos and meaningless challenges. And for once, something was tremendously interesting to me. I really enjoy watching hundreds of videos of people reading their genetic results. I don’t even know them! In short, everyone wastes time in the best way they see fit. The truth is that linking science and technology with something as basic and existential as knowing where we come from is pretty neat.

Now, as an Icelander, I must tell you that we did not have to wait for the genealogical studies to arrive to know where we came from. We have the great fortune of being such a small and sparsely inhabited island, that all migratory movements are registered. This includes the clans that colonized the island and all of their descendants. And all this we owe to the Íslendingabók. In English, it roughly translates to "the book of the Icelanders".

Íslendingabók - The Family Tree of a People


Iceland is a small nation, far away from the rest of the world. This includes its closest neighbors, Scandinavia and continental Europe. Because of this, the island had no indigenous inhabitants before the arrival of the first settlers. So all of us who are Icelanders know with certainty that we are descendants of people from outside the borders of our island. I guess that's where the curiosity comes from. When your whole family has lived in the same town for centuries, maybe you don’t think about your origins too much. Now, when you know that your ancestors were not from your land, questions arise. Where were they from? Why did they come? How did they do it?

In the case of Iceland, we have another problem that complicates things. Many of you read our Iceland travel blog from the United States, Canada, Australia, or the UK. In your countries, you inherit your father’s last name, who, in turn, inherited it from your grandfather and so on. Maybe you see it as natural, and you have not thought about it. But this fact allows you to have a marked genealogical line and a kind of thread that can easily be traced from generation to generation. In Iceland, it is not like that.

Icelanders do not inherit our father's or mother's surname. We simply form it by using the name of our father plus a suffix. It's -son if you're a man and -dottir if you're a woman. If you are a boy and your father is called Hálldor Thorsson, your last name would be Hálldorsson (or Hálldorsdottir in case of being a girl). It is a very logical and simple way to form last names. The problem? That you will not have the same family name of your parents, and your children will not have yours. So each generation of your family has completely different surnames, and they do not have a commonly identifiable line. This complicates the creation of a family tree for people like Icelanders. Fortunately, the Íslendingabók entered our lives to shed a little light.

The Íslendingabók is the family tree for Icelanders

Íslendingabók - An Old-Fashioned Icelandic Genealogical Database


The Book of Icelanders is a historical compendium that tells the most important facts of the history of Iceland in the form of prose. The book dates from the XII century AD, and its author was Ari Þorgilsson, an Icelandic monk. There were originally two volumes of this book, but only the newest version survived to this day. In spite of its antiquity, modern historians consider it a magnificent work of documentation and great precision. The supernatural and fanciful parts are put aside, and the facts of the history of Iceland are explored.

The importance of the book is that it narrates the process of colonization of Iceland, including first names and last names. From Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler who settled on the island, to the formation of the government and laws in the country. At the end of the book, even the genealogical history of the Scandinavian kings known as the Langfedgatal is detailed. The fact that Íslendingabók has survived allows us to have a solid genealogical foundation for each Icelander. And with the help of great modern historians and technology, we have the genealogical map of Iceland already plotted. It’s something of vital importance in our nation, and that is part of our day-to-day.

Íslendingabók - From Historical Books to Modern Apps and Websites


As I told you initially, Iceland is a nation of only 300,000 people. Your town or city probably has more people than all of Iceland together. We Icelanders essentially descended from the Vikings and a few Celtic settlers from the British Isles. The island has remained isolated given its remote location for many centuries. What is the problem with this? That having a small number of new people entering and having so few inhabitants, two Icelanders could be related and not know. And that's where the Íslendingabók comes into play.

The next step for moving from the twelfth century to the twenty-first was the creation of an app with a database of almost 810,000 files that trace the origin up to 1200 years ago. Awesome, right? This app has become quite popular in Iceland, as it is used to know if someone is a close relative or not. We jokingly call it the "incest alarm" because if you meet someone new, it will tell you if you have the green light to go for it or if on the contrary, you are close or distant relatives.

Many friends from abroad have asked me if it’s true. Do I really fire up the Íslendingabók website or app before going to bar and flirting? In my specific case, no. It can simply be used at home or at another more appropriate time to look up their name and see if we were related. Anyway, the app is not only to avoid possible uncomfortable situations when it comes to flirting. It also serves to make friends, and have a common theme if it turns out that there's something more than personality compatibility, etc. Genealogy is something very present in Icelandic society and we should thank the hard work embodied in the Íslendingabók.

The Íslendingabók website and app help Icelanders trace their genealogy

Íslendingabók - The Book of the Icelanders


As you have seen, we Icelanders are very lucky to have the possibility of knowing who all of our ancestors are. I guess we can save a few euros on genetic tests that say where we are from. And because we already have the answer to one of the most common questions of human beings (where we come from), do you think that an app will come out that tells us where we are going?

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