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Snorri Plus Program - Lectures in Reykjavík, 2022

Editor's note: Laura Hackney wrote this report to give a sense of the valuable background information that is a part of the Snorri Plus program. To learn more about the program visit the Snorri website.

By Laura Hackney

Blindur er bóklaus maður

“Blind is a bookless man.”

The best way to learn about a country is through the lens of those who are most passionate about its history, language, literature, landscapes, and culture. Luckily for us, as members of the Snorri Plus program, we were invited to spend a few precious days in the middle of August learning from brilliant individuals who have an infectious passion for their work and for Iceland. We arrived in Hannesarholt, the former residence of one of the nation’s most acclaimed poets and politicians, Hannes Hafstein, in downtown Reykjavík. And over the course of three days, we heard seven different and fascinating lectures from scholars, researchers, filmmakers, and scientists.

Genealogy: We started our knowledge tour with an introduction to Íslendingabók, or The Book of Icelanders, with researcher Svava G. Sigurðardóttir. She explained the history of this vast database along with Icelandic traditions of tracking family lineages. Saga manuscripts, church records, the National Census from 1703, along with thousands of other documents contribute to the records collected to form this project. In 1997, the Icelandic genetic research company, deCODE, started the database that would become Íslendingabók, with the aim to trace all known family connections from the Settlement Age (870-930AD) to the present day. Today, Icelanders with a national registration card can sign up, see their family genealogies, and track their connections to other Icelanders. According to rigorous studies and tests of connections found on the site, the reliability and accuracy of maternal links found on the site are as high as 99.3%, and the rate of false paternities is around 1.49% per generation.

Literature: “[My novels] speak about the small things of everyday life and make them stand for something bigger—for something true,” said Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, an Icelandic author, on her method and writing style. There is an incredibly long and rich literary tradition in Iceland. When I returned from my trip, I compared an Icelander describing a book with how one might describe a fond memory with an old friend. I would also compare Icelanders talking about new books to the excitement some Americans have when describing an upcoming Super Bowl. Jón Yngvi Jóhannsson, a professor of literature at the University of Iceland (Háskóli Íslands), walked us through this long history of embracing literature, the vernacular, and everyday realism in the plethora of novels written in and about Iceland. Starting from the beginning, we discussed the Icelandic Sagas. We would later go see some of the Saga manuscripts at the Árni Magnússon Institute at the University and enjoy the Saga Museum in Borgarnes. I highly recommend both. Jón’s expertise was in 20th-century literature, and he discussed two of the giants, Gunnar Gunnarsson, and Halldór Laxness. We later traveled to Gunnarsson's home on our tour.

Edda by Snorri Sturluson (Judy Dickson photo)
Edda by Snorri Sturluson (Judy Dickson photo)

I highly recommend checking it out (there is a cake buffet! Five stars!). Laxness, in addition to being Iceland’s Nobel Prize winner for Literature, also helped shape some of the later literary movements that started in the post-war period. The rise of modernism and New Realism created forms of poetry and an eventual tension between traditional verse structure and modern inventions. Ultimately, both have continued to coexist, alongside a fierce commitment to the preservation of the Icelandic language itself. From the 1980s to today, Jón explained, Iceland has been in the Golden Age of the Novel. Many authors embrace other art forms and actively collaborate with projects in the fine arts and music scenes. Grants from the government also support these artists, with the recognition that it's generally the Icelandic crime authors who can really make a living off writing. That being said, Icelandic crime authors are great at their craft, and some of us shared stories about sleeping with the lights on after finishing Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s terrifying I Remember You. I hope to make it back soon for the Christmas Book Flood!

Language: Langar þig að læra íslensku? Do you want to learn Icelandic? Já! Is it possible to learn all of the fundamentals of the Icelandic language in a few days? Nei. However, there is no better introduction to the language, its history, and some survival phrases than classes with Sigrídur Kristinsdóttir. She took us on an amazing whirlwind tour of the Icelandic language’s roots in old Germanic and Norse languages, highlighting the fact that Icelandic preserves much of its vocabulary and syntactic structures. There is even a regulatory body that creates new words from older Icelandic words instead of taking on ‘loaner’ words from other languages. We discussed the new letters and sounds found in Icelandic. Fun Fact: there are over 46 different ways to say ‘snow’ in Icelandic. Another fun fact: there are at least 24 different ways to say ‘nothing’ in Icelandic, with each variation depending on the ‘nature of the void’. We briefly discussed the complex grammar of the language, but Sigrídur continued to emphasize that one should just keep practicing regardless of mistakes (read: the grammar has the complexity of nuclear physics). Despite the mistakes, it was so fun and the lessons definitely inspired many of us to start taking more classes. Flott! (Great!)

Western Icelanders: Next up! We got to spend time with Egill Helgasson, a journalist, documentary filmmaker, and television presenter with the Iceland National Broadcasting Service, Rúv. He came to Hannesarholt to show us excerpts from his amazing documentary Vesturfarar (Westward Bound, 2014). This project was a ten-part series on the wave of Icelandic emigration to Canada and the US from 1873 to 1914. The film series traveled across the landscape of Canada and the northern United States, tracing the paths and lives of Icelanders who left Iceland for new opportunities as well as their descendants, who built Icelandic communities and carried on Icelandic traditions in North America. Our Snorri Plus group was composed of individuals who were directly related to these “Western Icelanders”, and many were from the towns featured in the documentary. It was an incredibly moving presentation, and it was an honor to witness my fellow Snorris connect with their relatives and communities in Iceland.

History and Culture: Guðrún Laufey Guðmundsdóttir, a historian and Project Manager at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, gave us an overview of Icelandic history and the artifacts that inform our understanding of medieval Icelanders. We started with Flóki Vilgerðarson, the first Scandinavian to deliberately land and settle on the island (arguably, after the Irish monks), which led to the Age of Settlement and the founding of the Parliament (Alþingi) in 930 AD. The Alþingi was a gathering for chieftains and farmers to meet and trade as well as to hear the designated law-speaker recite all the land’s laws from memory. Beginning in 1200, the Age of Sturlungs introduced a time of warring chieftains, which culminated in the 1220 agreement to be a vassal of Norway (while also agreeing to equal rights, taxation in exchange for protection, and shared transportation routes). This led to the creation of Jónsbók, the Law of Iceland, but the Norwegian rule would come to an end in 1380 with the expansion of Denmark and the seizing of power by the Danish King. Iceland would then enter some *extremely* hard times. Volcanos, plagues, famine - you name it - contributed to low population rates and relative isolation. It wasn’t until the 19th century when Jón Sigurðsson and other intellectuals began leading a movement for independence from Danish rule. In 1918, under the Act of Union, Iceland became a sovereign state, and in 1944, Iceland achieved full independence as a new republic. That was an incredibly (and embarrassingly) short overview of Icelandic history on my part, and there were so many fascinating events in the 20th century and the start of the 21st century as well. I recommend Egill Bjarnason’s book, How Iceland Changed the World, for more stories (The Cod Wars, amazing!). Guðrún, in addition to covering so many historical topics, also shared some “hot tub topics” with us. Hanging out at swimming pools and hot tubs is a wonderful and ubiquitous cultural practice in Iceland. Not bringing your swimsuit during a visit is almost a criminal offense. Here were the topics of conversation on Guðrún’s list: the Health System (Heilbriðismál), House politics (Húsnæðismál), Inflation (Verðbólga), Tourism (Ferðamennska), Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions (Jarðskjálftar og eldgos), and the weather (Veðrið). And two parting expressions: Við erum saman í liði (We are all a team) and þetta reddast (It’s all going to work out). 🥰

Genetics: Agnar Helgason from the University of Iceland and deCODE, Iceland’s largest genetic research company, joined us for a fascinating presentation on using genetics to study Icelandic history. After a brief “How DNA Sequences Are Tracked and How DNA Mutations Occur 101” session, we jumped into learning about how scientists are learning about human migration, family genealogies, and medical anomalies from DNA. In collaboration with the National Museum of Iceland, deCODE was able to test DNA on 1000-year-old Icelandic teeth with mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y chromosomes thanks to preservation by enamel (the hardest tissue in the body, takk!). Once tested, the researchers confirmed that most Icelandic men can trace their genes (about 75%) to Norwegians while Icelandic women can trace the majority of their genes (65-70%) to the Celts. Due to the small population and cataclysmic events in Iceland over the past several hundreds of years, there has been a genetic drift, which showed that Settlement Age Icelanders were more closely related to contemporary Scandinavians and Celts than contemporary Icelanders. Excitingly, all of this research has contributed to advancements in medical treatments as well as technological breakthroughs. The group is fully sequencing the autosomal genome to give us a better picture of genetic history than with the tests on Y chromosomes and mtDNA, and scientists can now use strontium isotopes from bones to tell if someone was born in Iceland and raised there or not.

Geology: “Italians are crazy because they live next to active volcanos. We live on top of them,” said Kristinn Arnar Guðjónsson. That quote definitely made it into my top ten list. Kristinn is a geologist with a passion for teaching that became evident after about 30 seconds into his introduction. He spent more time hand-drawing diagrams of the Earth’s tectonic plates than relying on silly lecture slides. He told us about the importance of Iceland’s location along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This ridge is where new ocean crust is being formed by the basalt crust being pulled apart and magma under the surface filling in the gaps. Due to this pulling apart of the European and North American plates, Iceland grows 2 cm per year (yay! More Iceland!). Therefore, the oldest rocks in the country are found along the coast and the youngest are in the center of the country. Iceland is unique (for so many reasons!) because it is the only place where we can see the Mid-Atlantic ridge above sea level instead of on the ocean floor. Kristinn warned that if the hot rock under Iceland were to instantly cool, Iceland would immediately sink to the ocean floor (Noooo! Stay hot, rocks!). We also learned that 7 million years ago there was a land bridge between Iceland and Greenland and that Iceland was completely covered in ice during the Ice Age. There have been 20 glacial periods since the Ice Age, each one more cold than the previous. Once Kristinn was satisfied that we had an elementary understanding of plate tectonics, he decided we were ready to hear about the volcanoes. We learned about fissure volcanoes and “hot spots”, both of which exist in Iceland. When a fissure volcano erupts under a glacier, there will be an eruption due to the steam created, and the beautiful table mountains around the countryside are created when lava travels through ice, basalt deposits settle in the glacier, and then the ice around starts to melt. We also talked about some of the largest explosions in Iceland’s history. In 1785, the Laki eruption consisted of 8 months' worth of lava flows and explosions along a 23-km-long set of fissures and cones, creating the largest lava flow in the history of the Earth. In the 1918 Katla explosion, 200,000 tons of water per second were released and flooded the countryside. Katla is due to explode every 100 years or so, and ….. I tried not to think about it. All of this was an incredible backdrop to visiting the active volcano on the Reykjanes peninsula just a few days after. Iceland is truly extraordinary.

A heartfelt thank you to Pála Hallgrímsdóttir, the lecturers, and the Snorri Plus Program for such an amazing experience! Takk fyrir!


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