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.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Saga of Oddny Island-Candle

I'm thinking about riding horses today--in Iceland. With my friend Guðmar Pétursson and the company America2Iceland, I'm leading a trek this June based on my book Song of the Vikings. We'll be riding tracks known to the 13th-century Icelandic chieftain and writer Snorri Sturluson, from his estates of Reykholt and Borg.

One place we might go is the island of Hjörsey, across the tidal sands from Borg. There's a great story about Hjörsey--one of those medieval Icelandic tales that's just begging to be turned into a psychological novel. It's the story of Oddny Island-Candle, the heroine in The Saga of Bjorn the Hitardal-Champion.

In the days of King Olaf the Saint, who reigned from 1015-1030, there was a man named Thordur. He lived at Hitarnes, a little north of Borg in the west of Iceland. Thordur was a great skald, or Viking poet, the saga says, although his verses tended to be mocking and spiteful.

At Borg itself lived a young man named Bjorn. He was the great-grandson of the first settler of Borg, Skalla-Grim, whose father was reputed to be a werewolf. Skalla-Grim's famous son, the poet and berserk Egil, has a whole saga of his own (probably written by Snorri Sturluson). Bjorn was descended from Egil's sister, Saeunn.

Horses play a major role in this saga, as they do in many of the Icelandic sagas. The sagas, which take place between the settlement of Iceland in 870 and about 1050, but were written down in the 1200s and 1300s, create a quirky but believable picture of a country in which complex laws, a convoluted sense of duty to one’s family and friends, and a strong sense of personal honor let people live with a good deal of freedom and comfort in a harsh environment.

Feuds are a common occurrence, and often horses are involved in one way or another. Such is the case in The Saga of Bjorn the Hitardal-Champion.

Bjorn, the saga says, was a tall youth, freckle-faced, with curly hair, a red beard, and handsome features, a good fighter even though his eyesight was weak. He was in love with a girl named Oddny, who lived nearby on the island of Hjörsey. She was so beautiful she had the nickname Island-Candle.

Bjorn asked Oddny Island-Candle to marry him and, with the consent of her father, they were betrothed. Bjorn then went off to Norway to seek his fortune, as did many young Icelanders in the Saga Age, with the promise that Oddny would wait for him for three years.

In Norway Bjorn fell in with Thordur, the poet from Hitarnes. He was about fifteen years older than Bjorn. One night just before Thordur left to go back home to Iceland, he and Bjorn sat up late drinking, and the subject of Oddny Island-Candle came up.

Two years passed. Thordur, in Iceland, learned that Bjorn had been wounded in a duel. He paid some Norwegian merchants to spread the news that Bjorn had been killed, then he went to ask for Oddny’s hand in marriage. Her father, a wealthy man, put him off. But when Bjorn didn’t arrive at the appointed time for the wedding, Oddny and her father assumed he must truly be dead. Saddened but practical, Oddny married Thordur instead. She was content with her choice until Bjorn turned up, a year too late, having recovered from his wounds. “I thought you were a good man,” she said to her husband, “but you are full of lying and falsehoods.”

Bjorn’s joyful father gave him a stallion called Hvitingur (White One) and his two white colts—a great treasure, the saga says—to take his mind off the loss of his beloved Oddny. Bjorn pastured one colt with a herd of black mares and the other with all chestnuts to see what mix of colors might result. But horse breeding couldn’t keep him away from Oddny. Year by year, the insults and attacks escalated between the two men.

At the height of the feud, Thordur invited Thorsteinn Kuggason, a rich and well-respected man from northern Iceland, to a midwinter feast. On his way, Thorsteinn was caught in a blizzard and forced to take refuge at Bjorn’s house. By the time the weather broke, he had agreed to try to make peace between Bjorn and Thordur. To seal this agreement, Bjorn gave Thorsteinn a magnificent gift of four horses: a white stallion (one of Hvitingur’s colts) and three chestnut mares. Thorsteinn asked Bjorn to keep the horses for him until he saw how the peacemaking went. Ironically, it was in the springtime, as he was trimming the white stallion’s mane to present him to Thorsteinn Kuggason, that Bjorn was set upon by Thordur and killed.

Bjorn’s is a classic saga, spun of honor and friendship, love and betrayal, all set against the harsh reality of medieval life. I am always particularly moved by Oddny’s role: When she learned of Bjorn’s death, she fell down in a faint. From then on, though she lived many years, she was out of her wits. She was only happy on horseback, the saga says, with her husband leading her about.

This story appears in my book A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse and, in 1998, I published a version of it in The Icelandic Horse Quarterly, the official magazine of the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress. Visit the congress’s website ( to read a free copy and learn more about Icelandic horses today, or take a virtual ride on my friend Stan Hirson’s video blogs, and Life with Horses ( If you're really adventurous, come riding with me in Iceland this June. You can book the trip online at either or

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Real Ragnar Lothbrok

Floki: "Ragnar Lothbrok challenges you to meet him in single combat."
Earl Haraldson: "Ragnar Lothbrok has a very high opinion of himself."
Floki: "Well, he is descended from Odin."
     --from "The Vikings," episode 6, as reviewed on

Ragnarr Loðbrók, to give his name the proper spelling, has become America's favorite badass Viking, thanks to the History Channel's exciting series, "The Vikings." But who was he really? Dr. Elizabeth Ashman Rowe has the answers. Rowe is University Lecturer in Scandinavian History of the Medieval Period at the University of Cambridge in England and author of a scholarly study published in 2012, Vikings in the West: The Legend of Ragnarr Loðbrók and His Sons

In the preface, she writes: "The Viking king Ragnarr Loðbrók and his sons feature in a variety of medieval stories, all of them highly dramatic." In a French version, he is a noble king in Denmark, father of a fearsome Viking who ravages France. In an English story, he "wickedly inflames" his three sons with envy for the English King Edmund, provoking the Danish invasion of England and Edmund's martyrdom.

Snorri Sturluson, subject of my book Song of the Vikings, wrote one of the 32 known Icelandic tales about Ragnarr. To Snorri, Ragnarr was famous as the first Norwegian king to keep a court poet, or skald. He was "the conqueror who established the definitive boundaries of the Scandinavian kingdoms," Rowe writes, "and the symbol of the ancient heroism that would be eclipsed by the new heroism of the Icelanders."

Concludes Rowe, "In short, Ragnarr and his sons were ciphers to which almost any characterization could be attached"--as the History Channel has effectively proved.

Was there a real Ragnarr Loðbrók? Rowe says no: "I do not think that there was ever a historical figure known as 'Ragnarr Loðbrók.'" Mostly it's the nickname she's leery of, noting that "the deeds and fate" of an "extraordinarily ferocious" Danish Viking known as Reginheri, who attacked Paris in 845, hanged 111 Christians, and died of illness soon afterwards, "may have given rise to stories about someone named Ragnarr, but there is absolutely no contemporary evidence that he was nicknamed Loðbrók."

He didn't get his nickname until after he died--Loðbrók first appears in two sources, one Icelandic and one from France, in about 1120--and there are several explanations of what it means.

An English writer in about 1150 said it meant "loathesome brook"--just what it sounds like.

But in Old Norse, the nickname would have been understood as "hairy breeches" or "shaggy trousers." The Icelander who wrote Ragnar's Saga in the 13th century explained that Ragnarr got his nickname from the pants he put on to protect himself when fighting a poison-breathing serpent (or dragon): cowhide pants boiled in pitch and rolled in sand.

Professor Rowe has a better explanation. As I've mentioned, the real Ragnarr Loðbrók, the ferocious Reginheri, died of illness soon after attacking Paris in 845. And not just any illness. Reginheri died of dysentery. As one account in Latin explains, after Ragnarr returned to the Danish court of King Horik he suffered terribly from diarrhea: "diffusa … sunt omnia viscera ejus in terram" (which Rowe helpfully translates: "all his entrails spilled onto the ground.")

Concludes Rowe: "I suggest that it was a similar report--one describing his diarrhea in terms of his feces-stained breeches--that gave rise to the posthumous nickname loðbrók. Ragnar's Saga's explanation ot the nickname loðbrók as derived from garments boiled in pitch comes startlingly close to reality, for one can imagine an onlooker at the court of King Horik telling someone later that Reginheri's breeches looked black and sticky, as though they had been boiled in pitch."

So alongside my favorite Viking name, Eystein Foul-Fart, we can now place Ragnar Shitty-Pants. And that's what their friends called them.

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.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wagner and Iceland

Wagner's grand opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen returns to the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Saturday in Robert LePage's excitingly technological production. We all know the story, with its stirring Wotan, evil dwarf Alberich, tragic valkyrie Brünnhilde, heroic Siegfried and the cruel dragon he slays. It's the German National Epic.

Even if Wagner's main sources were not ultimately German.

They were Icelandic.

Who is Wotan? None other than the God of Wednesday, Odin. And if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you'll know that the main source for stories of Odin is the 13th-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson.

In a well-known letter from 1856, Wagner jotted down the names of ten books that inspired him to write The Ring. 

Number three was Jacob Grimm’s German Mythology of 1835, which cites Snorri Sturluson's Edda, the Poetic Edda, Snorri's Heimskringla, and other Icelandic sagas. (In fact, if you take the Icelandic sources out of German Mythology, all that's left is an empty shell.)

Number four on Wagner's list was "Edda" (like most people at the time, he didn't discriminate between Snorri's Edda and the Poetic Edda).

Number five was the Icelandic Volsunga Saga, which Snorri did not write, but which was written in Iceland at roughly the same time Snorri was active. (Some scholars say it is earlier than Snorri's sagas, some say later.)

Number ten on Wagner's list was Heimskringla, Snorri's collection of sixteen sagas about the kings of Norway.

Wagner made this list just after completing Das Rheingold and Die Walküre; he wouldn’t finish Siegfried until 1871 and Götterdämmerung until 1874. The first full performance of the four-opera cycle was in 1876.
It was twenty-five years in the making. The idea for a cycle of operas based on Siegfried—or Sigurd—the Dragon-slayer and the accursed gold ring of the dwarves came to Wagner in 1851. A German translation of the Poetic Edda and some tales from Snorri’s Edda, he wrote, “drew me irresistibly to the Nordic sources of these myths,” the most expansive being the Icelandic Volsunga Saga.

Wagner had, three years before, written a libretto called Siegfried's Death based on the medieval German Nibelungenlied, or "Song of the Nibelungs." This libretto, according to Edward Haymes in his book Wagner's Ring in 1848, is quite similar to Götterdämmerung; "in fact," Haymes told me, "some of the scenes are taken over verbatim."

But Wagner wasn't satisfied. Only after he had discovered what he called "the Nordic sources," Wagner said, "did I recognise the possibility of making him [Siegfried] the hero of a drama; a possibility that had not occurred to me while I only knew him from the medieval Nibelungenlied."

The German "Song of the Nibelungs" was written at about the same time as Snorri was writing his Edda in Icelandic (c. 1220-1241). Some of the same characters appear: Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer (Wagner's Siegfried), Brynhild (Brünnhilde), Gudrun (Gutrune). But half of the "Song" takes place after their deaths; it has no counterpart in Wagner's Ring.

And much that Wagner loved about the Sigurd story exists only in the Icelandic sources: the dragon, the ring, the valkyries, the sibyl; the characters of Odin and the other gods, the giants, the dwarfs, Idunn’s apples, the rainbow bridge, the magical helmet, Valhalla, the Twilight of the Gods.

In his 2003 book, Wagner and the Volsungs: Icelandic Sources of Der Ring des Nibelungen (which is online here:, Icelandic scholar Arni Björnsson concludes that 80 percent of Wagner’s motifs are Icelandic. Five percent are German. Most of the remaining 15 percent are shared, appearing in both the Icelandic and German sources, though some—like the Rhine Maidens—are Wagner’s own invention, for he was nothing if not creative.

Like Snorri, Wagner took bits and pieces of myth and made of them something magical.

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. For details, click here.