Rooted: The deepening world of Icelandic genealogy
Words by KT Browne
Photography by Golli
When Sunna Furstenau, president of Icelandic Roots – a US-based genealogical organisation committed to the pursuit of collecting detailed information about Icelanders throughout the world – brought her granddaughter to Iceland for the first time, she was not expecting to see her get off the plane and suddenly say, “Amma, I’ve been here before.” Sunna Furstenau and her granddaughter are two of many individuals of Icelandic descent who feel a certain connection to Iceland, despite being born elsewhere. Like many Icelanders scattered throughout the world, Sunna maintains connections with her blood relatives thanks to a vast and extensive genealogical database that she works hard to maintain.
Genealogy has long been practiced and celebrated in Iceland, whose small population and strong sense of community have paved the way for a desire to preserve one’s lineage. Databases such as Íslendingabók – an extensive genealogical index of all Icelanders who ever lived – have facilitated access to this type of information and encouraged many to engage more deeply with their often vast (and sometimes surprising) history. Great-great-grandparents are discovered to have once been famous, or a former lover is revealed to be a fourth cousin once removed. A television commercial for a cell phone carrier in Iceland once touched on this cultural obsession, humorously illustrating a new couple’s embarrassment after finding out that they were, in fact, related.
Yet while interest in genealogy is common throughout the world, Iceland has taken theirs to new heights. For a small country, there are a wealth of organisations dedicated solely to the pursuit of genealogy and the preservation of heritage. The ORG Genealogical Institute in Reykjavík is one such example. “We are steadily working to gather information about every person born in Iceland,” explains Jóhann Diego, a researcher at ORG, which collects highly detailed histories of family lineages and genealogy. “We leave no stone unturned. Genealogy is a truly Icelandic sport, after all, and we strive to know as much as we can about our forefathers.”
With so much emphasis placed on genealogy in Iceland, it is difficult not to wonder what might be at the heart of this tireless quest. Is the driving force behind it simply the excitement of discovering one’s roots, or is there more to this “truly Icelandic sport” than meets the eye?
In a time characterised by deep political uncertainty and increasing migration, it is plausible that the efforts made to preserve family lineage in Iceland are also an attempt to preserve a vulnerable culture and language that are at risk due to globalisation. “A lot of people are leaving Iceland, and at least 12% of the population are now immigrants,” Sunna explains. “Over time, Icelandic heritage will become more and more dispersed, and our language and culture are in danger of being lost.”
While there is some truth to this concern, Iceland is also at an advantage with regards to preserving family lineage; its use of patronyms rather than family names facilitates the process of discovering links between generations. It is also possible that the future of Icelandic culture is additionally protected due to the country’s strong family-oriented mindset. In small communities across the country – places often inhabited by only a few families – the importance of knowing who and where you come from is reiterated and often even seen as an essential criterion for belonging.
It might be easy to conclude that the great search for one’s lineage is simply that – a search for one’s forebears; or a way to better understand the family you never knew. Yet alongside this curiosity is often something deeper: the struggle to build an identity, and the promise that one’s heritage holds as a way to assist in this process. If you do not know where you come from – or who you come from – who are you, anyway?
Especially apparent in youth, the desire to “discover yourself” often manifests in a heightened interest in one’s origins. The youth-focused Snorri Program merges genealogy with the opportunity to learn a bit more about where you come from. Bringing groups of adolescents of Icelandic descent from North America to Iceland each summer, the Snorri Program holds an important place in the world of Icelandic genealogy as an organisation that not only fosters new connections among blood-relatives throughout the world, but promotes the importance of family in the context of place and selfhood.
Gabrielle Johnson, a Snorri Program alum, is one of many young adults who followed their curiosity about where they came from, with profound results. “I can’t even describe how amazing the experience was,” she says. “That little town I stayed in [Borgarnes] made me feel so much more at home than any other place I’ve ever lived in.”
But does the sense of belonging that so many feel in Iceland arise from its welcoming community, or is there something else at play? For those who have blood ties to Iceland, this sense is often deeply rooted – in history, in family, but perhaps most importantly – in community. “When people ask me what I love about Iceland, they expect me to say the geysers and the volcanoes and the glaciers. Those are all really nice and interesting to see, but I really just love being there. I love how the people in Iceland make me feel like I belong,” Gabrielle explains.
Icelanders’ welcoming and open mindset may play a substantial part in this sense of belonging that Gabrielle, and so many like her, feel. Yet even across the Atlantic, Icelanders are proving that distance does not hinder connection among people who share family and history. They lay claim to the fact that no matter where you come from, it is fundamental to remember your roots – this is the groundwork for a country’s future.
As for maintaining the importance of genealogy in Iceland, endeavours like ORG, Icelandic Roots, and the Snorri Program need only to continue what they’re already doing – the results are clear. “I realise now that it’s really important that we keep in contact with everyone,” Gabrielle explains. “We need to preserve our genealogy. We want our kids and grandkids to know about who we are and where we come from. In Iceland, your family isn’t only the family you know of – it’s who you choose to share your history with.”
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.