The Iceland family tree

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So, it’s official. Everyone in Iceland is related. Every member of the 300,000 population derives from the same family tree, according to genealogy website islendingabok.is.

“I am not related to my boyfriend,” I stubbornly insisted the other day, having carefully made sure we weren't before we started dating. I was having a debate with my brother about his theory that all Icelanders were related to each other. He offered to prove it to me.

The next day there was an email from him waiting in my inbox. I opened it and discovered a list of names and dates of birth – a family tree. I recognized some of the names and soon realized that this was a list of my ancestors and my boyfriend’s ancestors, all the way back to the 18th century.

Apparently we share a great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, whose name was Gudrún Einarsdóttir. She was born in 1742 and died in 1784. I derive from her son, Einar (born 1762), and my boyfriend from her daughter, Hallfrídur (born 1770).

My brother found this information on the website islendingabok.is, which hosts the online registry Íslendingabók (“The Book of Icelanders”). In it one can find information about the families of about 720,000 individuals who were born in Iceland at some point in time. Anyone who is registered in the database has free access to it. I had heard about this phenomenon, but never actually browsed through it.

Íslendingabók is the product of a cooperation between Icelandic company deCODE Genetics and Fridrik Skúlason, who first began registering genealogy information in 1988 into a program called Espólín. In 1997 Skúlason and deCODE began cooperating on registrations for genealogy research and Íslendigabók was born.

Íslendingabók claims to be the only genealogy database in the world that covers a whole nation. More than 95 percent of all Icelanders born since 1703, when the first national census was taken, are registered into the database and half of all Icelanders who have lived on the island from the settlement in 874 and until 1703.

The registrations in Íslendingabók are based on a whole range of sources, such as censuses, church books, the national registry, ancient scripts, annals, obituaries etc. These kinds of documents were more accurate and better preserved than comparable documents in other countries, according to islendingabok.is, probably because Icelanders have always been interested in genealogy.

Genealogy can in fact be considered a national sport in Iceland. When people introduce their partners to the elderly members of their family for the first time, they usually ask: “Hverra manna er hann (eða hún)?” which translates to: “Who are his (or her) people?” In the Icelandic sagas each character is introduced by a long listing of his or her ancestors.

A lot of people are hobby genealogists in Iceland, including my father. He has discovered that his great-great-great grandfather was a French seaman who sailed to Iceland from Belgium, named Louis Henry Joseph Vanerouis, and was washed ashore an Icelandic beach in the early 19th century. He was rescued by Valgerdur Jónsdóttir, my father’s great-great-great grandmother.

They have many descendants, including the most famous captain of the Westmann Islands, Binni í Gröf, who was featured in an article on icelandreview.com last week. “Why didn’t you explain to your readers that he was your relative?” My father asked after reading my article. Well… “I didn’t consider it appropriate to include that information in a news item,” I said, but, now you know.

I typed the name of Binni í Gröf into Íslendingabók to confirm my relations to him. I quickly became fascinated by this online genealogy database and decided to try and disprove my brother’s theory. I typed in the names of all my friends, their mates, my colleagues and just random people I could think of, only to discover that we all had common ancestors somewhere along the line.

I am related to Iceland’s most famous singer, Björk; we share ancestors who were born in the early 19th century. I and the president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, both derive from a couple born in the early 18th century. I am also related to Icelandic painter Jóhannes Kjarval, handballer Gudjón Valur Sigurðsson and to the modern “witch” Adalbjörg Thorsteinsdóttir, who I interviewed last week.

I am also related the hero Grettir “the strong” Ásmundarson from the Icelandic saga Grettissaga, who, funnily enough, may have been a fictional character. Snorri Sturluson, who probably wrote most of the sagas in the 12th and 13th century is my ancestor, as is the first settler in Iceland, Ingólfur Arnarsson, who moved to the island from Norway in 874.

Now, one can obviously debate about the accuracy of the database’s information, at least about people who were born before 1703, before the names of Icelanders and their relatives were registered in the first national census. But none the less, browsing through Íslendingabók is a fascinating experience.

Genealogists in Iceland say all Icelanders are descendants of the bishop Jón Arason and according to islendingabok.is, I certainly am. Ararson (born 1484) was executed in 1550 for refusing to progress Lutheranism in Iceland.

Arason and his partner, Helga Sigurdardóttir, had at least nine children who were all quite fertile, while many of the other members of the then 65,000 population weren’t. So experts argue all Icelanders alive today probably derive from the good bishop. On the website of the University in Iceland this argument is supported with a mathematical formula, which is far too complicated for me to explain to you (numbers have never been my strong suit).

In light of the fact that all Icelanders share the same family tree, I imagine we could do with more people from the outside to stir up the gene pool. So why are people so negative towards the increasing immigration, I wonder.

ESA – eyglo@heimur.is 

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.