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Reconstructing Old Iceland from North America - Part One

Updated: 5 days ago

Jakob Sigurðsson and his Melsted Edda


by Jason Doctor and Cathy Josephson


Today if you want to see pictures of the Norse gods, an internet search will return those that were illustrated by Jakob Sigurðsson (IR# I36361; 1727-1779) often called "Jakob the Historian". With a few clicks online and a credit card, you can purchase copies of his artwork in different (often functional) forms. A framed print of "Deluding of Gylfi", a coffee mug of Thor battling the Midgard serpent, a canvas tote with Jakob's rendition of the "Death of Baldur", or a t-shirt depicting how Odin brought the mead of poetry to Asgard, thereby giving the gift of poetry to humankind.


His drawings of the figures of Norse mythology are not only popular among the general public but also among Icelandic scholars. His work appears prominently in academic conference proceedings, pamphlets, and book covers such as The Routledge Research Companion to The Medieval Icelandic Sagas by Ármann and Sverrir Jakobsson which displays his illustration of the wolf Fenrir biting off the right hand of the god Tyr. Just as we most associate Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling with the image of the Judeo-Christian god in the Old Testament, it is Jakob Sigurðsson's illustrations that we most associate with the mental images of Thor, Odin, Loki, Heimdal the god of war, Tyr and other Norse mythological figures. There is an energy to his artwork and the right balance of realism and symbolism to evoke the underlying meaning of the Snorra Edda without drowning out what our own imagination brings to the story.


I asked Old Norse scholar, Ármann Jakobsson "What makes Jakob's images so appealing?" He said, "One reason is that we don't really have many such illustrations from pre-1850 Iceland. But, they are also quite good. And by now they are easily recognized so using them is a clearer statement, people look at them and think 'Old Iceland'."


Professor Jakobsson also noted, "They have great vitality, I used one myself as a book cover!" (pictured).


Although his art has been digitized and monetized, Jakob Sigurðsson ironically had no interest in money or fame. He was a poor tenant farmer in Vopnafjördur who embodied the essence of Icelandic folk culture. He was one of the last to preserve the ancient pre-Christian stories of the Norse gods in a traditional form. His work survived because of the great care his readers took in preserving his books. These are people who lived in desperate poverty and lacked the resources to do so. So it is bittersweet that his illustrations are popular today but without much knowledge about their origin.


Jakob Sigurðsson's legacy sits between Iceland and North America. His surviving books are mostly kept in Iceland. But, he is also the author of Melsted's Edda, a precious Icelandic manuscript that was brought over to North America by Elín Sigríður Magnúsdóttir (IR# I211288; 1833-1904) in 1876 and later returned to Iceland in the late 1990s by her great-grandson Ken Melsted (IR# I549625). That book is part of the Western Icelandic story. Not only did Melsted's Edda end up in North America, but so did several of Jakob's descendants. Some of them include one of the two authors of this post (Jason Doctor, IR# I618453), as well as Icelandic Roots volunteer Blair Swanson (IR# I610081), and American poet and essayist Bill Holm (IR# I549625). A search of the Icelandic Roots database reveals that about half of his living descendants reside in North America and the other half in Iceland.


Benedikt Gíslason from Hofteigi is one of the few to write about Jakob Sigurðsson. In describing Jakob's descendants, whose names are eponyms for Jakob and his children, he notes "This is how folk customs bind the generations together, and you can see the threads shimmering through the ages." That culture is long past but you can still see a glint and a glimmer here and there. The remnants of old Iceland are sometimes right here under our noses in the United States and Canada, if you look carefully enough. So that is how we will tell Jakob's story, from the standpoint of his Western relatives and readers of his work.



Jakob Sigurðsson


Jakob came from a long line of priests and prominent educated individuals in North East Iceland stretching the region between modern-day Þorshöfn and Bakkafjörður. He was the son of Sigurður Ketilsson, the priest at Skeggjastaðir on Langanesströnd in N. Múlasýslu. His paternal grandfather, Ketill Eiríksson was a priest at Desjarmýri from 1661 to 1670, then Eiðar from 1670-1671, and Svalbarð in Þistilfjörður. His paternal great-grandfather was Eiríkur Ketilsson was the priest at Skriðuklur from 1630 to 1632, Eiðar from 1632 to 1636, and Vallanes from 1636 to 1647. His paternal second great-grandfather Ketil Ólafsson was a priest at Kálfafellsstaður. His paternal third great-grandfather Ólafur Gudmundsson was a priest and poet at Sauðanes on Langanes from 1571 to 1608. For roughly 200 years leading up to Jakob's birth, Jakob's family led the spiritual and intellectual life in North East Iceland.


Jakob's mother's family was equally accomplished. Her name was Ingibjörg Jakobsdóttir. Her father was Jakob Bjarnason, Jakob Sigurðsson's namesake. He was a Priest á Kálfafellsstaður. Jakob Sigurðsson's great-grandfather on his mother's side was, Bjarni Gissurarson a Priest at Þingmúla. Jakob's 2nd great-grandfather on his mother's side was Gissur Gíslason a priest and poet also at Þingmúla. Jakob's third great-grandfather on his mother's side, Gísli Örnólfsson was also a priest at Söndum í Dýrafirði. Though Jakob Sigurðsson was a poor tenant farmer, education was important to his family for many generations.

A verse about Jakob is preserved in “Ættir Austfirðinga" by Reverend Einar Jónsson á Hofi on page 854.


In quiet repose, Jakob now lies,

Freed from hard times under peaceful skies.

Once a scribe and poet, his words in flight,

Vopnafjordur's heart holds his memory bright.


Benedikt Gíslason speculates this poem was written by Jakob's lifelong friend and cousin, Reverend Guðmund Eiríksson, the priest at Refsstaður who outlived Jakob by two years. The poem is powerful and manages in only four lines to describe the desperation in North East Iceland and the joyful spirit of Jakob and his contribution to community life.


Gaseous haze after the August 2022 volcanic eruption in Iceland
Gaseous haze after the August 2022 volcanic eruption in Iceland

The "hard times" noted in the poem started before Jakob was born. In the 1680s his grandfather Ketill ministered to the community during a “móðuharðindinum” event, which means "misty skies" and most likely refers to a volcanic eruption that released toxic gas killing livestock and people in the surrounding parishes. I asked Dr. Julian Lozos a scientist and expert on volcanoes about this and he said, "This is likely Grímsvötn 1684 which released deadly volcanic gas." He referred me to a Tweet that shows the misty skies likely from gas released between the rocks from the August 2022 eruption in Iceland, much lighter and less deadly than the eruption in 1684.


About 6 years later in 1690, Reverend Ketill died while traveling. His wife is 40 years old and she has 11 children. The oldest is 15 years old and she is pregnant with the youngest of their children. Jakob's father was 1 year old and was sent to live with Reverend Bessa Jónsson and Sigríðar Jóhannsdóttir at Egilsstaðir in Vopnafjörður. Magnús, one of the oldest boys, worked and saved his money so that his brothers could get an education. All 5 boys became priests. Jakob's father Sigurður was the youngest boy in the family. His first job was as assistant priest to Sera Þorvaldur Stefánsson at Hof in Vopnafjörður 1724. Then he was assigned to be the head priest in Skeggjastaðir and married Jakob's mother. It is written that Sigurður was a good poet and entertaining. However, he would die young at age 41 in the year 1731.

The death of Jakob's father meant that Jakob was fostered by one of Jakob's aunts, Sigríður Ketilsdóttir (IR# I11166). She was 45 years old when Jakob was born, but was a hardy and long-lived woman believed to have died at or near 100 years of age. Sigriður had married Brynjólfur Halldórsson who was a priest at Kirkjubær (north of Egilsstadir out toward the sea). Rev. Brynjólfur drowned when Jakob was around 12 years old and Brynjólfur's son Ólafur became the priest at Kirkjubær. Gíslason (1967) notes that Ólafur was an accomplished craftsman, calligrapher, and painter. It is through the mentorship of Ólafur that Jakob learned to read, write, and draw. Ólafur was formally educated in Latin grammar and composition, theology, arithmetic, and music at Skálholt. He passed on much of his knowledge to Jakob. It is through Ólafur that Jakob sharpened his artistic and intellectual skills.


While it appears that Jakob mostly copied books for distribution, there is recent evidence that he was responsible for original illustrations. It was long thought that illustrations of the Prose Edda in manuscript NKS1867 found in the Danish Royal Library were by Ólafur Brynjólfursson and that Jakob later copied these. But Norse scholar Dr. Patricia Baer makes a convincing case in her dissertation that Jakob is responsible for the illustrations in both manuscripts and that they are original drawings. As a young adult, Jakob went to Breiðdalur in Southeast Iceland most likely to receive further education. Sadly, his hopes were dashed as the person he went to study with, Reverend Sigurður Sveinsson, suffered from alcoholism. Sometime around 1758, there were funds to assist farmers in Vopnafjörður to help build up that area. It is around this time that Jakob moved to the farm Fell.


It was from this small farm, Fell, visible from Highway 920, Hofsárdalsvegur, alongside the Hófsa river that empties to the black sand beach adjacent to Vopnafjörður, that Jakob wrote many of his books. To understand how a busy farmer might produce hundreds of manuscripts and illustrations, realize that most secular manuscripts were hand-copied in the 18th Century. The Church did not condone using the one printing press in Iceland for secular material. There was tremendous demand for these hand-copied books both among the impoverished and the wealthy. This was something Jakob worked on during the long and dark winter. While many of his books were lost, the National Archive retains 15 different books of Jakob Sigurðsson listed below (Adapted from Gíslason, 1967): 1. The story of Þjalar-Jón.

2. The story of Sigurd and Valbrand.

3. The story of King Florence and his sons. 

4. The story of Florence and Blanzeflúr.

5. The story of Sigurð the Silent.

6. The story of Saulor and Nikanor the Duke.

7. The story of Ásmundi the Viking.

8. The story of Sigurgarði the Bold.

9. The story of Fertram and Plato.

10. The story of Vilmundi outside.

11. The story of Jallmanni and Hermanni.

12. The story of Viktor and Bláus.

13. The story of Agli one-handed and Ásmund berserker. 

14. The story of Samson the Fair.

15. The story of King Gideon and his son Abimelech.


The listed stories are well-known and were copied. This brings us to Melsted's Edda. One of Jakob's most famous books with illustrations and one that made its way to the US and Canada with a family of Western Icelanders... (Part Two to follow)


Editor's Note: Read Part Two of Reconstructing Old Iceland from North America in our next edition of Roots News. Here you will learn about the fate of Melsted's Edda and the families that have held this treasured book.



References


Baer, P.A. "An Old Norse Image Hoard: From the Analog Past to the Digital Present", 2013, Doctoral Dissertation in Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Victoria, , British Columbia, Canada.


Gíslason, Benedikt. “Jakob sögu-skrifari.” Þjóðviljinn. Reykjavík. 24 December 1967, Jólablað sec.: 40-45.


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