When the first setters came to Iceland in the 10th century they were clever enough to keep very accurate documents about the family of each settler.
This book was called Íslendingabók (“The book of Icelanders”) and was updated regularly by the Viking settlers for the first century or so, but then the church took over and kept its own books to record people’s relations.
Luckily for us, those old documents, The Book of Icelanders and the church books, somehow survived volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and famine. (Documents which were written on calf skin were sometimes eaten during the harshest winters.)
Now in the 21st century, The Book of Icelanders has been established once again. This time it is not written on calf skin, like back in the days. This time it is done the hi-tech way in the form of a database on the internet.
It keeps records of over 730,000 people who have lived in Iceland through the centuries (Iceland currently has 300,000 inhabitants). Icelandic residents can look their name up in this database and trace their roots all the way back to the 10th century.
So, yesterday I decided to see where my real roots were. In my mind I had already decided that my great grandfathers were all mighty Vikings and that I was related to all the heroes in the Icelandic sagas. Unfortunately this was not the case.
My great-grandfather through 14 generations was called Bjálfi. That means idiot in modern Icelandic, so I could say I derive from a line of idiots. Not exactly what I had imagined.
Things got a little better when the database told me that the grandchild of Bjálfi, and therefore my great-grandfather through 12 generations, was a man called Egill Skallagrímsson. He was one of the greatest Vikings of the 10th century and is the main characters of one of the sagas.
Egill, however, is not a typical saga-Viking. Most of the Vikings of the sagas were heroes - beautiful, generous, well-built men, who always did the right thing but got caught up in the web of fate and died in a tragic way.
My ancestor, Egill, was not like this. In Egils Saga, Egill is described as remarkably ugly and dangerously violent. At the age of seven he killed his playmate in a hockey game. Unlike most other Vikings in the sagas, Egill had trouble finding a girl to marry because of his looks. On top of it all, Egill had a big problem with alcohol. (Ironically, the biggest brewery in Iceland is named after him).
So, my dreams of fancy ancestors were crushed. I can trace my roots to a man called Idiot, and to his grandchild, who was an ugly criminal with a drinking problem.
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Click here to read more about Egill Skallagrímsson.