By Becky Byerly-Adams
Iceland boasts a rich literary legacy with the Icelandic Sagas being hailed as a global treasure. Additionally, Icelandic folktales hold significant cultural value, offering more than mere entertainment during the long winter nights spent in the baðstofa. These tales provide insight into the beliefs and struggles of the people, reinforcing cultural values and highlighting traditions that helped Icelanders persevere through their harsh and impoverished lives.
So when we think about Icelandic folklore, the first name that comes to mind is our interesting Icelander of the month, Jón Árnason.
Jón Árnason (I39045) was born on August 17th, 1819 at Hof, Akàgaströnd, in Iceland. His father, Árni Illugason, a priest, died when Jón was seven years old. His mother, Steinunn Ólafsdóttir, became a housekeeper, and while she taught Jón to read, he was sent to Bessastaðskóli Learned School, at that time the most famous school in Iceland, for his education, graduating in May 1843. He married Katrina Þorvaldsdóttir in 1866 and they had one son, Þorvald, who died in 1883 at fifteen. Jón died on September 4th, 1888, in Reykjavík.
Jón’s interest in folktales began as a small boy listening to stories told at Hof and continued to grow at Bessastaðskóli, where he met Magnús Grímsson. They collected poems and stories and, in 1852, published the first printed collection of Icelandic folktales entitled Íslenzk Æfintýri (Icelandic Folktales). Magnús Grímsson died in 1860 which left Jón to continue their work. This collection, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur og Æfintýri (Icelandic Folktales and Legends), was published in two volumes in 1862 and 1864.
Story of prophecy by Sveinn Pétursson to young Erlendur Erlendsson.
Jón did more than collect folktales as he held many different positions in his life. He was a teacher and the custodian of the library at the Learned School, which moved to Reykjavík in 1846. Jón was an administrator of the Learned School in Reykjavík from 1867 until its closure in 1879. In 1848, he became the librarian of Stiftsbókasafn, which was in the attic of the Cathedral in Reykjavík. In 1881, it was moved to the Alþingi building and given the title Landsbókasafn Íslands (National Library of Iceland) and Jón became the first National Librarian of Iceland.
The Icelandic Antiquities Museum was founded in 1863 with Jón’s help after he acquired fifteen Icelandic items from Helgi Sigurðsson so “that they become the first pointer to a museum of Icelandic antiquities.” (1) Along with the painter Sigurður Guðmundsson (I180150), Jón was a curator at the museum until 1881. In 1911, the name was changed to the National Museum of Iceland.
In 1856, Jón became secretary to the bishop, Helgi Thordersen, a position he held until 1867. During this time, Jón arranged to have a letter sent from the bishop to the priests and provosts in Iceland asking for all the books in their parish written before 1781 to be inventoried. Today, this inventory is preserved in the National Library of Iceland.
Jón employed many ways to collect Icelandic folktales. Some he recorded directly from storytellers, while others were collected for him. Jón wrote to friends and scholars, asking them to collect stories to send to him. Many students from his time at The Learned School helped Jón in his collection of folktales. Later, this appeal was published in newspapers resulting in more folktales being sent to Jón. These letters have been preserved and most are found in the National Library of Iceland.
Jón Árnason was honored with a stamp on the 200th anniversary of his birth. The stamp features the legend of the elves in Tungustapi taken from illustrations of Icelandic Folktales by painter Ásgrímur Jónsson.
Jón Árnason: Author, teacher, librarian, folktale collector. An interesting Icelander indeed.
The Icelandic Roots database is full of interesting people from many generations. It is hard to choose just one each month, but we are up for suggestions! Do you have an interesting Icelander in your ancestral line? Are they someone you would like to share a story about? Send us your story. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.