What’s in a Name? – Part 1: Naming and Historicity


In just the first few pages of Egils saga I have met a keyboard player, a DJ and a Japanese violinist.

Mid-term resident, first time reader—I am not sure I recommend the Icelandic Sagas as post emigration experience. It makes for too much confusion; the collision of past and present and an all-muddled sense of reality.

Ok, that’s an overstatement—and you should certainly make the effort to read the sagas the moment opportunity presents itself—but once residing it is impossible to flick through even a page without a host of nominative associations springing forth unbidden.

I come from one of those countries with horribly conventional names, Christianity and any other cultural source we can get our hands upon. Most labels you encounter a thousand times over, both in person and in reference. TV, literature, politics and every other cultural, societal structure, they all provide countless counterparts.

Icelandic names are of a different breed. An appellative distinction marked out by unique cultural context, protected under fierce law and regulation.

The Mannanafnanefnd (Naming Committee) was established in 1991, governing the introduction of new names to the culture. Grammar rules are their primary concern but historical precedent is crucial too.

And that was hardly the beginning, dictates date back further. In 1925 non-patronymic second names were banned. Between 1952 and 1995 foreigners had to take Icelandic names.

All old news for the curious Iceland buff, linguist or even trivia blow-hard, but for the newly resident struck with cultural curiosity, significance abounds.

For previously illiterate útlendingar like myself, the first Gudlaugur or Thorbjörg, Gardar or Rannveig met on the island quite possibly represents a first encounter with the name. Let alone anyone so designated. This occurrence leads to inextricable association between name and character.

Something new to me.

I expect everyone to associate the name Simon with what, little or large, they know about me, but I must admit that this is unlikely to be the case. Where I come from a name is just a name, it carries no meaning—and this is where my difficulty lies.

The historical singularity of those first meetings brushes reference with meaning and compounds with cultural consistency by law—all leaving me literally confused.

Which is all just to say that my reading of the sagas is particularly colorful, not to mention personally and topically relevant.

Njála is the epic back-story of a philosophy student and coffee champion, whilst in just the first few pages of Egils saga I have met a keyboard player, a DJ and a Japanese violinist (no explanation for that one). It is not too long before my old boss and a couple of friends join the party.

In Grettis saga another friend spends time with a bear and in Laxdaela it is a fine-dining manager who sees sense in the face of feud.

Perhaps, though, this is the point—the real fun of the texts is supposed to be found in this personal relation—and my time-collapsed version, confused and amused, is exactly as things should be.

Simon Barker – [email protected]

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