From Iceland — Origin Stories, Or: Why We Believe We Are Who We Think We Are

Origin Stories, Or: Why We Believe We Are Who We Think We Are

Published August 12, 2015

Origin Stories, Or: Why We Believe We Are Who We Think We Are
Photo by
Baldur Kristjáns

Every nation has an origin story. Unique about Icelanders in this regard, at least from the European perspective, is that we are one of the few nations where it is set in historical times, rather than some mythical past. The origin event has even been dated, to 874 A.D. or thereabouts. Iceland is one of the last places on Earth to be settled by human beings.

And yet, the history of Iceland, like other origin stories, has strong literary traits. Two brothers (“blood,” rather than “actual”) arrive in a new country, one dies, the other becomes a founding father. Even though the former is killed by his slaves, not by his brother, there are strong similarities to the story of Romulus and Remus and other founding myths. This has even led some recent scholars (Sverrir Jakobsson, Pernille Hermann, John Lindow) to suggest that Iceland’s founding tale isn’t actually “history,” but rather literature, inspired by the classics that the monks who wrote the Sagas had access to.

Whatever the actual history, historical writing both then and now draws a upon literary narrative to make its point. In fact, the Icelandic word “saga” refers to both story and history, and until fairly recently, people here did not really distinguish between the two (some would argue that they still don’t).

Us and them

So what then, precisely, is the point of the founding myth? In his book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that origin stories play an important role in enabling people to think as a group, and it is precisely this trait that has allowed us to become the dominant life form on this planet. He also claims that in a global world, we should abandon national narratives and concentrate on the history of our species.

Nevertheless, the national narratives still hold sway. These are intended to encompass the entire nation, but are more often than not actually far more exclusive. The origin of the United States is a case in point. Their founding narrative is actually the story of white, male landholders—and it took the Civil War and a decades-spanning Civil Rights movement for everyone to be included (in theory, at least).

Iceland’s origin story is, inevitably, also constructed around its ruling class. The two brothers, Ingólfur and Hjörleifur, are prominent slaveholders. Whereas revisionist historians in the US like to point out that Washington, Jefferson and other founding fathers were indeed slaveholders, here that fact takes centre stage. At the turning point of the narrative, the slaves rise up and kill Hjörleifur. Ingólfur avenges him by murdering the rebellious slaves, thereby consecrating the land as belonging to himself and his offspring, rather than theirs.

And yet, slavery did not become much of an issue in Iceland in the following centuries. It disappeared in a few generations without either civil war or much of a civil rights movement. Descendants of both slaves and freemen mixed freely; we are all descendants of both, and Ingólfur is a national hero to everyone.

Iceland was founded on the dream of individuals being independent of the state. But perhaps, now as then, this mostly applies to the chieftains.

Some are more independent than others

In many ways, the founding of Iceland has more similarities to the US than to Europe. In his book ‘Iceland: The First New Society’, Richard F. Thompson draws out some of the similarities. Both Iceland and the US appear on the surface to have been founded in order to create something new, but in fact, the aim was to preserve social systems perceived to be under threat in the old homeland. For the Icelanders, the independence of the chieftains was threatened by the unification of Norway by King Harald Fairhair; for the Pilgrims, their religious liberties were being threatened by the King of England.

This might go some way towards explaining why, for all their emphasis on newness, both countries seem to have a strong conservative streak. Iceland’s neighbours in Scandinavia tend to be dominated by social-democratic parties emphasising co-operation. In Iceland, however, the conservative party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn), is by far the biggest, and here the ideal is the individual, free from outside interference, both social and domestic. This is why they call it “The Independence Party.” Iceland was founded on the dream of individuals being independent of the state. But perhaps, now as then, this mostly applies to the chieftains.

Canada: a country without myths?

A similar difference can be seen in the United States vis-á-vis Canada. The latter, despite being a new society and an immigrant community, lacks a strong founding myth. In fact, it retains its ties with the British Monarchy and only settled on its own national anthem as late as 1982. They share no origin story of a group of settlers coming to found a new land and establish a particularly Canadian way of life. Canadians—unlike Americans, but similar to Scandinavians—seem to prefer co-operation over individualism.

However, societies within Canada tend to celebrate their own origin stories. New Iceland is a case in point., its founding narrative reminiscent of both Icelandic and American myths. Upon seeing Iceland, Ingólfur threw his seat pillars into the sea and decided to settle wherever they came ashore, to the chagrin of his men, who felt they had passed greener pastures in order to settle in the smoky bay that remains our capital.

Fate also drove the New Icelanders to settle where they did. Their boats were being towed across Lake Winnipeg to the mouth of a river, where Riverton now stands. However, a storm hit, they were cut adrift and wound up landing where the town of Gimli, the heart of New Iceland, now stands. A rock at a peninsula called Willow Creek marks the place they came ashore, much as one in Plymouth, Massachusetts, marks where the Pilgrims landed. None of this is to suggest that these events are made up, but when stories are told and retold, they tend to take on literary traits.

Meet the New Iceland, same as the Old Iceland

Much as the Norwegians in Iceland, Icelanders did not move to Manitoba to found a new society, but rather to replicate their old one, under better conditions. Despite facing a wildly different environment, New Icelanders tried their best to replicate the old one for over 20 years, and people conducted their affairs in Icelandic.

In 1897, the area was opened up to other immigrants. Ten years prior, its schools had been incorporated into the Canadian school system and English became the language of instruction. Those that mastered it were able to enter Canadian society and become journalists, doctors, politicians. Those that clung to the old language were doomed to remain on the farm.

The Icelandic immigrants became fully incorporated into Canadian society over time, but they still celebrate the old traditions a few times a year and are proud of their unique heritage. For them, as for most Canadians, the act of assuming twin identities brings little contradiction.

Inclusive exclusivity

Some origin stories eventually incorporate much larger groups than originally intended. Most Americans, whether descended from English Puritans or not, celebrate the Mayflower landing and the resulting Thanksgiving. In Iceland, Ingólfur Arnarson is the father of the whole nation, chieftains and slave-children alike. The Romans later made all their subjects citizens of the Empire, symbolic descendants of Romulus.

Sometimes, later additions become necessary. Lincoln freed the slaves and hence became something of an additional founding father—the same could be said of Martin Luther King Jr., whose statue stands alongside presidential monuments in Washington. In Reykjavík, Jón Sigurðsson, credited with initiating the liberation of the country from the Danes, looks sternly at Alþingi. Alongside him, we celebrate Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason, credited with instigating voting rights for women in Iceland a hundred years ago.

Perhaps Harari is right, and we must learn to outgrow our origin stories. Including more and more people in the ones we already have would seem to be a start, but ultimately, the origin of each separate group of people always means the exclusion of another to some extent.

Maybe one day, we’ll celebrate a species-wide origin story rather than the many national ones. Of course by that time, we will no doubt be deeply involved a war with Kepler-186f, and in dire need of mythologies to tell us why we are superior to those pesky Keplerians.

In the print version of this article the statue next to Jón Sigurðsson’s was erroneously said to be of suffragette Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, when it is in fact of Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason, Iceland’s first female MP. The mistake has been corrected in the online version.

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