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Reconstructing Old Iceland from North America - Part Two

Updated: Apr 14

Jakob Sigurðsson and his Melsted Edda


by Jason Doctor and Cathy Josephson

 

Editor’s Note:  You will recall Part One addresses the life, lineage, and education of Jakob Sigurðsson. Today, we present the continuation of Jakob’s story and his book Melsted’s Edda, a book that emigrated with his descendants to North America. If you wish to refresh yourself with Part One: Reconstructing Old Iceland from North America - Part One.

 


Melsted's Edda


How did one of Jakob's treasured books with beautiful illustrations make its way to North America and go unnoticed until the end of the 20th Century? The story begins with Elin Sigríður Magnúsdóttir (IR# I211288), the great-grandmother of Ken Melsted, the man who returned the book.  She emigrated as "ekkja" (widow) with six of her children and her new partner Ólafur Jónasson and their daughter Ásta and his daughter Una from a prior relationship. They departed via the port at Akureyri on the ship Verona, destined for Quebec in 1876.

 

Elin Sigríður Magnúsdóttir (1833-1904)
Elin Sigríður Magnúsdóttir (1833-1904)

I talked with Pat Melsted, Elin's great-great-granddaughter about the book and its history. I had been connected through some friends in Icelandic Roots who grew up with her in Wynyard, Big Quill RM, Saskatchewan, Canada.

 

"Back then, you know, you either left or you died. And, it really is something that she only brought two trunks and found room for that book. That tells you what it meant to her. " said Pat.

 

Pat described how the book spent roughly 30 years in Gardar, North Dakota before moving to Canada, "[Elin] ended up going to Mountain, North Dakota. Leo (Pat's grandfather) was born in Gardar, North Dakota.  Leo's parents divorced in 1912 or 1913... Jóhannes (Frímann Magnússon), Leo's father, brought the boys to Wynyard. Leo's mother was Jóhanna (Hólmfríður Jóhannesdóttir). She took the girls to California." 

 

"The Edda got passed down to the oldest male child.  Ken (Leo's son)  is 1-month older than his cousin Donald.  That is how my dad got the book", said Pat.  

 

I was curious about what her family thought of the drawings. Stories and illustrations of pagan gods in Norse mythology had been justified for centuries in Christian Iceland under the position called "euhemerism" — pagan deities were men who did great deeds but were mistaken as gods or their stories exaggerated. It is conjectured that under the euhemeric position, Icelanders were safe to tell and share these stories without concern for accusations of blasphemy. Even Jakob himself wrote, "High’s lies seen here (Hárs er lygin hérna sýn)" next to his drawings of “The Deluding of Gylfi” (pictured) revealing that he held that Óðinn was lying about his godliness in the story to fool Gylfi into belief in the pagan religion. The vanishing pagan tradition was kept alive this way by calling it a lie, or so it is believed. Elin certainly knew this, and even Jóhannes her son would likely know this, both born in Iceland; but, what did a mid-20th Century girl growing up on the Canadian Prairie in the 1960s and her relatives make of it?


The Deluding of Gylfi (Melsted's Edda)
The Deluding of Gylfi (Melsted's Edda)

"At 10 years old, I remember having the Edda out at Christmas. I was reading the book. Amma had a fit!  'No child should look at this book!', Amma said. Some years later, I had another look." Pat said sheepishly.

 

Pat's Amma was on her mother's side and did not understand the Icelandic tradition. Presumably, she thought the book lacked a Christian basis and was not appropriate for children.

 

Pat says, "As a child, I thought the pictures were strange."

 

And, without any context, Pat's reaction is understandable. For example, the creation myth in Snorri's Edda tells of the cow Auðumbla's udders gushing four rivers of milk, from which Ymir, the father of the giants, fed. The cow licked salty ice and stone for sustenance. Auðumbla once licked salts for three days, revealing Búri, the first god of the Æsir: The first day she licked free his hair, the second day his head, and the third day his entire body. This story is illustrated in Melsted's Edda (pictured).


Auðhumbla releases Búri from a salty block of ice (Melsted's Edda)
Auðhumbla releases Búri from a salty block of ice (Melsted's Edda)

In 1971, Pat was 17. An Icelandic theater group came through Wynyard.  Her father had been asked if members of the dance company could stay with them. He agreed.  One evening after supper they were talking about Icelandic books.  Ken Melsted was an avid reader and collector of Icelandic books and stamps.

 

"My father said 'Well I have a book from Iceland.  Would you like to see it?'", Pat said.

 

They came out and looked at it. No one said anything. They were silent and looked at each other.  The visiting Icelanders, Baldvin Júliússon and Magga Sveinbergsdóttir, closed the book and it sat on the table. 


The death of Balder (Melsted's Edda)
The death of Balder (Melsted's Edda)

"Apparently, they could not wait to call the University of Iceland.  Dad got a call from somebody at the University who wanted to take a look at the book. The University faculty were astonished!  Dad offered it to some officials who visited him to take a look. They said no 'The book stays here until we get a diplomatic pouch for it.' Some diplomats came later and took it with a diplomatic pouch so it would not go through Customs...That is when the importance of it was realized," Pat said.

 

The book was kept in the basement for decades, with minimal light and higher humidity which helped to preserve it.  There are two copies of this Edda, the other by priest Ólafur Brynjúlfsson, Jakob's mentor. Many believe the illustrations are by Jakob.  Denmark took the other Edda and has yet to return it. 

 

The question came up about how the Melsteds came to own this book. This was discovered when the book needed some work and once it was in the hands of the Icelandic government. A bookbinder undid the binding and there was the history of the Edda by the people who bound it. It explained that one of its owners was Elin's father, who had worked on several farms in S-Þingeyjarsýsla, including Hóli at Tjörnes and Sand in Aðaldalur.

 

"The next time I saw the Edda was in August 1989 when Iceland's President Vigdís,  came to Winnipeg and it came with her. It was at a museum in Winnipeg then it went to New York to a museum. Then went back to Iceland. I am glad it is where it belongs.", said Pat.


 

Who are Jakob's descendants who went West?

 

There are Western Icelanders whose names reflect the folk customs described by Benedikt Gíslason as "shimmering through the ages" that are Jakob's family. They are the Ingibjörgs, the Margréts, the Runólfurs, and the Steinnuns. We see these names repeated over and over in the Icelandic Roots database among Jakob's descendants. Even living people today with these names can trace their ancestry to Jakob and his family. 


Jakob's children stayed at Fell, but one son, Runólfur was offered schooling at Hólar by a family member. Nothing became of that, but he did marry and farm in Skagafjödur.


One of Jakob's granddaughters, Salný, whose mother is Margrét Jakobsdottir, left Fell and landed in Skagafjördur, presumably, with the help of her uncle, Runólfur.


Salný's daughter Maria Ólafsdottir would go West with the Kinmount group. When things fell apart during the smallpox epidemic, she brought her family to Lyon County, Minnesota where many of her 2nd cousins from Vopnafjördur lived. These 2nd cousins were grandchildren of Jakob's other daughter Ingibjörg.


Descendants of Jakob's daughter Steinnun mostly went to Mountain, North Dakota, and those of Jakob's daughter, Ingveldur, mostly to Gimli, Manitoba. Still, about half of Jakob's descendants live in Iceland. When the farm system collapsed, many went to Reykjavik. Yet, some still reside in East Iceland.


Perhaps it is fitting that a curious and prolific artist devoted to preserving ancient knowledge would find an international audience today, 240 years after his death. And, that his descendants would stretch across North America and Iceland. Though he faced dire poverty, his intellectual contributions were large for his time and he has helped us understand the past better. His spiritual strength still emanates through his artwork, which we all enjoy. We are all better off for his cultural contributions and should be grateful for his role in keeping ancient stories alive.

 


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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