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Ari the Wise: Our Interesting Icelander for March 2024

By Gay Strandemo


This month we continue learning about interesting Icelanders that were important to the settlement era of Iceland. As a chieftain, a priest, and an author, Ari the Wise was instrumental in capturing much of that era in script. His contribution lends much to what we know today about that period.


Ari "Fróði" Þorgilsson/Thorgilsson, (IR# I133667) born in the year 1068, was known as “Ari the Wise” (Ari Fróði) or “Ari the Learned.” He was the author of Íslendingabók, or The Book of the Icelanders.


Ari fróði Þorgilsson
Ari fróði Þorgilsson. (Photo credit: goodreads.com)

Ari was the son of Thorglis Gellison of Holeyfell, and the grandson of Gellis Thorkelson, a priest from the same area. Each of them had died prematurely leaving a young Ari on his own. At seven years old, Ari was adopted into the Haukdælir clan, which controlled Medieval Iceland during the Icelandic Commonwealth period. The clan’s name means “valley of the hawks” and the lineage is traced to Ketilbjorn Ketilsson who settled Mosfell in Grimsnes. The clan was prominent during the tenth to thirteenth century as chieftains during the Age of the Sturlungs Civil War and as participants in the promotion of Christianity throughout Iceland. Gissur Thorvaldsson, leader of the Haukdaelir during the thirteenth century, was made jarl of Iceland by the King of Norway.



Ari was a student of the teacher Teitur Isleifsson, who was the son of Ísleifur Gissurarson, the first bishop of Iceland. After Ari learned a classic education, he was ordained as a Christian priest in Staður, now known as Staðastaður


Íslendingabók was the first written history of Iceland detailing the conversion to Christianity, development of the legal system, and the protocol of the Alþingi/Althing. Íslendingabók also describes the settlements of Greenland and Vinland and includes the genealogies and histories of the first settlers to Iceland. Historians consider it the most reliable existing account of Icelandic early history.


The Íslendingabók manuscripts were copied from the original by the priest Jon Erlendsson and are now preserved in the Arni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavik. The information contained in the work relied on oral tradition, but Ari was meticulous about sources and in his prologue, invites amending to “that which can be proven to be most true.” In noting the origins of the first settlers, he records extensive lineage patterns that suggest much admixture of Celtic, Danish and Swedish parentage as well as the expected Norwegian settlement. In his writing he avoided bias toward both the supernatural and Christianity.

 

Íslendingabók is split into ten short chapters:

  • The Settlement of Iceland in the difficult time of Harald the First of Norway. The first permanent settler, Ingolfur Arnarson settled at Reykjavik

  • The bringing of laws from Norway first by a man named Úlfljótr who became Althing’s first lawspeaker

  • The Establishment of Althing on Thingvellir which becomes public property

  • Fixing of the calendar, which was to account for more synchronization with the seasons and, by law, one week is added to the calendar every seven years in the year 955

  • Partition of Iceland into judicial quadrants to standardize legal proceedings

  • Discovery and settlement of Greenland around the year 985. Erik the Red is mentioned as giving the country the pleasant name to encourage migration.

  • Conversion of Iceland to Christianity under forceful rule by King Olaf the First of Norway. The initial conversion efforts were met with resistance, and not until the summer of 999 or 1000 was conversion to Christianity mandated, although with concessions.

  • Bishops and lawspeakers in Iceland were listed in chapters eight through ten.



Ari Frodi Thorgilsson Memorial at Staðastaður Church, Snaefellsnes, Iceland
Ari Frodi Thorgilsson Memorial at Staðastaður Church, Snaefellsnes, Iceland

It is believed that Ari wrote much of the original version of Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), which lists the genealogies and histories of noble Icelandic settlers. The Landnámabók was used for many of the 13th-century Icelanders’ sagas and is still referenced by present day genealogists.


Ari was highly regarded as a learned man, an important author, and philosopher. He died at the very old age of eighty-one on November 9, 1148, at Stathastatharsokn, Snaefellsnessysla.


Author’s Resources:

  1. The Origin of the Icelanders by Barthi Guthmundsson, University of Nebraska Press 1967

  2. Icelandic Roots Genealogy Website, database



Note: For those interested in a translated portion of Íslendingabók from Icelandic to English, please visit the WeVikings website.

 

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