Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Book of the Icelanders App

The press calls it the Incest App. It's the winner of a contest sponsored by DeCode Genetics, which oversees the Icelandic genealogy database called Íslendingabók, or "Book of the Icelanders" (also the title of the first history of Iceland, written in about 1120 by Ari the Learned).

The database was set up in the 1980s using Iceland's extraordinary genealogical records. DeCode matches it with health records and genetics data to research the causes of disease. As payback to the nation for using its heritage in this way, DeCode has made Íslendingabók freely available to anyone with an Icelandic kennitala, the equivalent of a Social Security number, to use to trace his or her ancestry back to the first settlers of Iceland in the late 800s.

Several of my Icelandic friends have shared their results with me. I have been warned (tongue-in-cheek, I hope), "Be careful what you say about Snorri Sturluson. He was my ancestor," for example.

The new app doesn't go back that far. If two Icelanders bump phones, it finds each kennitala, pulls up the records of their grandparents, and beeps if there's a match. (A future version might search back to great-grandparents.)

It's the bump and the beep that have the press excited. The app developers named it the "Incest Spoiler."

That provoked a bit of a rant from Icelandic writer Alda Sigmundsdottir on "The Iceland Weather Report" Facebook page. "I suppose it was a clever ploy to add the incest dimension--the guys who wrote it [the app] did that, and the international media gobbled it up, swallowed it whole, and are now ravenous for more," she wrote. "I probably shouldn't let it get on my nerves, but it totally does." If you don't know who your cousins are, she points out, it means you--and the record-keepers at Íslendingabók--don't know who your father is, and no app is going to help you.

What Is Incest?
But there's another question to ask. Is sleeping with your cousin incest? It depends who (and when) you ask. Incest is a cultural phenomenon.

Sex with your father, mother, brother, or sister is uniformly considered incest--and wrong.

But in much of the U.S. today, you can not only sleep with your cousin, you can marry him or her: It's legal in 25 states. It's not even thought to be a bad idea for cousins to have kids. According to a 2009 article in the New York Times"For the most part, scientists studying the phenomenon worldwide are finding evidence that the risk of birth defects and mortality is less significant than previously thought." Laws preventing cousin-marriages, says one researcher are "rooted in myth" and amount to "genetic discrimination akin to eugenics or forced sterilization."

Those myths go back to Roman times, but they took a bizarre turn in the Dark Ages when the Christian Church decided to take control of marriage and make it a sacrament, not just an economic transaction between two families.

Through the 700s, the Church followed Roman law: Marriages "within four degrees" were incestuous, and so forbidden. You counted the degrees by counting up from the bride to the common ancestor and then back down to the groom. First cousins equal four degrees.

In the early 800s, the Church changed the definition of incest from four degrees to seven. It also changed the way degrees were counted. Now you counted in only one direction: from the bride (or groom) back to the shared ancestor. Seven degrees meant that it was incest if the couple shared a great-great-great-great-great-grandparent. In the late 900s, this caused a crisis for King Robert the Pious of France: Under these rules, there was no woman of sufficient rank in Europe whom he could legally wed. So he ignored the rules, married his second cousin, and was excommunicated. He ignored that too.

Snaelaug's Story
In Iceland, the Church's rules on incest were not enforced until the late 1100s, but by then they were even stricter. I give one example in my book Song of the Vikings, a biography of the chieftain and writer Snorri Sturluson.

One of Snorri's mistresses was Gudrun, whom he called in a poem "lovely as a swan." Gudrun was the illegitimate daughter of a woman named Snaelaug, who had been happily married to Snorri's uncle Thord Bodvarsson—until Bishop Thorlak of Skalholt intervened.

Snaelaug had given birth to Gudrun quite young, saying the baby's father was a cowherd. Her own father, a priest, forgave her and sent her away to a relative's, where she met young Thord, who was the future chieftain of Gard and Snorri's uncle on his mother's side. Thord and Snaelaug fell in love. Thord sued for her hand in marriage, and with their families' approval they were wed. They were very happy and had three sons.

In 1183, when Snorri was five and Gudrun at least three, news came from Norway that a young man named Hreinn had died, and Snaelaug let it slip that Hreinn, not the cowherd, was really Gudrun's father.

Hreinn and Thord were third cousins: They shared a great-great-great-grandfather. Even in a culture as obsessed with genealogy as medieval Iceland's, this did not set off alarm bells in Snaelaug's head. Yet according to the Church's byzantine incest laws, it meant that she and Thord could not be married. Their relationship was incestuous because of her previous one-night-stand with her husband's third cousin.

Snaelaug's father, a priest who should have known these laws, did nothing about it. For this he was called on the carpet by Bishop Thorlak. The soon-to-be-sainted Thorlak "was so inspired by faith in God," a saga says, that he marched up to the Law Rock during the yearly parliament at Thingvellir "with all his clergy and swore in public that this marriage contract was contrary to the Law of God. He then named witnesses, declaring the union null and void." He excommunicated "all the parties to the contract" and declared that any children Thord and Snaelaug had after that moment would be illegitimate.

They argued. They pleaded. They ignored the bishop. But finally they had to part. Thord went home to his family farm of Gard, while Snaelaug raised her children at her family farm of Baer. From Baer to Snorri’s estate of Borg was about ten miles. Since his uncle Thord had given Snorri half his chieftaincy, the two men were in close contact. Snorri had ample occasion to travel to Baer to meet with his uncle—and to be smitten with love-sickness one day when he walked in upon slender Gudrun combing her hair.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And don't forget to enter the raffle for a free, autographed copy of Song of the Vikings. I'll be announcing the winner on May 1. For details, click here.


  1. There was discussion about this a few days ago on an international children's lit listserv. The Brits were surprised that Americans consider first-cousin relationships incestuous!

    1. Interesting! Not where I'd expect a discussion. But only some Americans consider it incest--in half the country, it's legal. I guess it's the half that's writing the press reports.

  2. A young woman I correspond with asked me to give her some names of my relatives to see if we were related since our families were from north of Akureyri. About five minutes later she wrote back and showed me where our families diverged about 1750. If I wasn't married we could have dated! I doubt we would have gotten approval from our spouses, however.

  3. Hi, I read, "Hreinn and Thord were third cousins: They shared a great-great-great-grandfather." I don't think that is right. If first cousins share grandparents, then second cousins share great-grandparents and third cousins share great-great-grandparents. So my question is: were Hreinn and Thord really third cousins (as stated) or fourth cousins (by sharing a 3rd g-grandfather? And perhaps it is both...I have Norwegian cousins that I am related to seven or eight ways...I would like to see the lineage back to their common ancestor.