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On the amazing survival of the Icelanders in centuries past

There has been some discussion in Iceland lately about the alleged “classlessness” in this country throughout the ages. A ridiculous assertion at best, since everyone who knows the first thing about Icelandic history knows that the class system was alive and thriving in centuries past. Granted, there was extreme poverty, so the majority of the population was in the same boat, but nevertheless there was very discernible social stratification, and the authoritarian rules and regulations imposed on the proletariat were extreme.

Neðri Núpur MiðfirðiIn the flurry of blog posts and Facebook statuses on the subject, one post has stood out, and has received deserved attention. It is by Ómar Ragnarsson, a well-known journalist and entertainer in this country. In it he details the story of some of the people he knew as a child, including five women who were dependents of the state – the so-called niðursetningar [put-downers], who for some reason had been placed at farms that were not their own because they’d fallen on hard times. Sometimes those hard times were nothing more than their husband having died, and them being prevented by law from continuing to farm their own [albeit usually leased] land, even if they were able to. They thus became the lowest of the low in the class system, apart from maybe the vagrants. The cruelty that they suffered, and which Ómar describes, is astonishing.

I want to translate a few paragraphs from the denouement of his blog post, because I think it may be of interest to some readers. He writes:

In 1976 I drove a couple of Icelandic descent, who had come from Manitoba to visit the land of their ancestors and wanted to see where their grandparents had lived.

When they stood on the ruins of the farmhouse on Aðalbólsheiði, with Eiríksjökull glacier rising high above the heath in the sparkling distant sunshine, they cried openly, their tears falling on the ruins of the small farm.

When I asked them if they were crying because they were so moved by these incredible surroundings that their forebears had lived in and left behind, they replied:

“No, quite the opposite. The suggestion in the West [North America] was that they had fled without cause from such a magnificent and beautiful country, and the tone of the discourse was that they had wimped out and betrayed their country and their people. Now we see what their living conditions were really like. That is why we are crying.

In our minds, they have been vindicated. We see their life and their conditions in a new light, we see why they were forced to pick up and travel a vast distance to rise above the shackles of poverty, and we are proud that they should have had the strength and the courage to do so.”

You can read Ómar’s full article here.

The story of the Icelanders’ survival throughout the centuries in a harsh and unforgiving climate is at once fascinating, horrifying and awe-inspiring. For the last couple of years I have been studying ethnology and folkloristics at the University of Iceland, and the more I learn about this aspect of the life of my forebears, the more amazed I become. I’m going to be writing more about this … I you are interested, please join my mailing list and I’ll send you updates when they are available.

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