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Origin of the Icelanders
the theories of Bari Gumundsson
Author is Gunnar Gunnarsson

In 1959 there were released a collection of essays by Bari Gumundsson. This book came out after his death and Skli rarson and Stefn Ptursson prepared the writings for printing. The book they named "Origin of the Icelanders", and it covers both the fyrst centuries after the settlement of Iceland as well as the ancient origin of those who settled the land.
In this short essay, it is my intention to try and explain that part of the book, which is about the ancestors of the Icelanders and discuss the newfangled theories, which Bari put forward about the origin of the nation. It is rather mild to believe his theories were newfangled; revolutionary is a word, that is more fitting, for with them the ideas which men had believed about the origins of the Icelanders and their society which they built, were turned upside down. Before these theories will be discussed, i must confess, that the lack of a bibliography with the book has caused that it is difficult to realise what writings Bari relied on. This comes especially bad on, when a person reads it that doesnt have a broad knowlegde of ancient literature. I in particular there mean the writings about the Goths and their history,for there also is connected the history of the Heruli, a tribe, which Bari believes made the most substantial share to Icelandic culture and societal development. They will be explained as the content reaches. I will finally have to acknowlegde my astonishment about, how little attention has been given to Baris theories in Icelandic schools, drastic as they are and will probably give a entirely new light to the origin of the Icelanders. If someone will continue where Bari stopped, it will hardly be other way than that he will come to conclusions, which will greatly change the ideas which the Icelanders have about their origin.

The most Norwegian of all Norwegians
The Saga of Hrur and the Saga of the Hlmverjar begin with these words: " In the days of Harald fair-hair most of Iceland was settled, for men did tolerate neither enslavement nor tyranny, and in particular those men who were from a large family and of great temperament, but had good merit, and they rather wanted to flee their estates, than tolerate encroachment and unfairness, not from the king nor other men." Those who thus fled the tyranny of Harald, appear to have been the most outstanding men. In the old manuscripts there is much data about this, both in genealogies and personal descriptions and according to them and other things, which have been thought as remarkable in the nations culture, men of later times have had big ideas about the origin of the Icelanders.
Foreign scholars have even researched further into these matters than Icelanders themselves. In support of that there can be named two references in Sigurur Nordals book "Icelandic culture"; After Ernst Sars he repeats: " the Settlers were of the stock of noble farmers and warlords. They were the most adamant and warlike men of these families. From the British writer E.R. Eddison, Nordal has the claim, that the settlers were the prime and creme of the Norwegian people. Eddison then adds: " To find something comparable, we would have to think about, that the Mayflower had not sailed from England in the days of Jacob I, but in the reign of queen Elisabeth, and that on the ship had not been pilgrim fathers, but that rather some ridiculous tyranny which no one had known before, had driven from England men with similar temper and talent as Raleigh and Drake,Sydney and Marlowe." With these and similar statements have we Icelanders warmed ourselves for centuries.

Absolutely not Norwegians
Contrary to the view that Icelanders are exclusively descended from Norwegians, not to mention from the "most Norwegian of Norwegians", Bari Gumundsson said that from the beginning Icelanders were so different from Norwegians, that it can in no way be that they were a part of the Norwegian people. The culture and governance ways of the Icelanders were too different from Norwegian culture and governance. Now i will take the major pillars, which Bari laid under his theories and make them clear. Bari believed, that Icelanders had not formated their governance after the Norwegian one, on the contrary, it is clear from the sources, that our governance was so different from the Norwegian one, that it couldn't have been settled by men of Norwegian descent. If that would be right, that the settlers were all of the stock of the al(freehold property) born Norwegian nobleman class, it could be intended with good confidence, that the al right would have been adopted in Iceland in the settlement period, but no evidence is found. In our old laws the word al doesn't even once appear, and we will not find examples in older Icelandic literature, that landownership in Iceland was named al. Bari said that lands had in actuality been hereditary for a long while before they could be considered al according to Norwegian law and practice, but note should be taken that many Icelandic estates were around a half a century old, when comprehensive laws were adopted in the land, and it is important to have this in mind, for according to ancient Norwegian laws men could gain al right in an even shorter time. Thus it will be said that it is unlikely that the Icelandic settlers grew up with al rights and a Norwegian class structure. Now it should be noted that Bari doesn't say the settlers did not come from Norway and the view that they fled the land because of the tyranny of Harald fair-hair, is very well known from the Landnma(book of settlements) and other old sources. There is no reason to question this view, however it is necessary to realize well its presumptions. If the ancestors of the Icelanders dwelt in Norway for a few centuries, and were "interlopers" there before migrating to Iceland, and never harmonizing with Norwegian customs, but rather kept their ancient cultural practices, it is of course easily understood, that this ethnic group got driven from the country with the new ruling order of king Harald.
Their freedom was threatened by the increasing power of the state. They are still newcomers and don't have much in common with other inhabitants of Norway. They are mindful of ancient times, when their ancestors traveled all over Europe, but in the late 9th century there weren't many houses to turn to. The Norwegian colonies in Shetland,Orkney and the Hebrides have been mostly settled when news arrive about the new land to Norway, they are received by merry minds. The problem is solved by that this implacable and independent tribe, which refuses to obey Harald's power, sail their ships to Iceland. Snorri Sturluson says, that Hkon Athelstans foster had given farmers the al right anew and his old estates. Bari thus believed that Snorri was trying to save the theory that the settlers had fled Norway because, they didn't want to be the tenants of king Harald. This Bari thought didn't make sense, as Harald didn't try to remove people of their estates. For this view Bari gave the reasoning which is, that if Harald had tried to commit violence on the noble class of the land, his kingship would be over at the same time. If Harald had managed with the support of the Norwegian noble class, to unite Norway, the foreign families would have been treated worst. They were forced to give away those estates, which they had gotten there. Those families, which had the shortest stay in Norway, had of course gotten the worst treatment.
Contrary to Norway, there were no kings or earls in Iceland, but rather every freeman was equal before the law and shared the same rights. The foundation of the Icelandic constitutional laws were the Goi class and though all freeborn men were equal before the laws, there was a class divide in Iceland. Over the peasants stood the noble descended families and the Goi class, which appear to have ruled almost the entire land. The Gois were both the spiritual leaders of the people as temple priests and their headmen. Nothing suggests that such a caste ever existed among Norwegians. The word Goi is never used about Norwegians, and really never outside Iceland, except on two rune carvings in Denmark. Nowhere except in Iceland is there any examples of this kind of governance, which was erected on the Gois and the Goi priesthood. The Icelanders certainly didn't invent this after they came to the land, and obviously we have here something that was preserved from their forefathers. The establishment of a comprehensive state in Iceland happens quickly, and in itself can not be explained except, that the settlers had become used with the Goi priesthood ideas, which were prevailing in their homeland, before they moved to Iceland.

Part two

Funeral customs

From the Landnmabk it can be said that most of the settlers came from the western counties of Norway. For support of this philologists have sought to point to the comparison of the development of Icelandic language and Norwegian dialects in the western fjords of Norway. With this Bari thought that the scholars thought Icelanders to be of western-Norwegian origin. This theory he dismissed and to his support he pointed to the research of archaeologists on ancient funeral customs. A great deal of dead mens graves in various counties in Norway have been examined and it has been safely concluded, that cremation was common there in the Viking era. Cremation burials are thought to be in a greater majority. Bari then pointed out that in Iceland have also been found graves which have been researched in various parts of the country. Among these graves are no cremation burials. In Icelandic literature there is nowhere mentioned, that cremation rituals ever took place. Specialists say it is fully proven, that cremations did not occur among the settlers of Iceland nor their descendants. Bari asks, how it is possible to approximate, that most Icelanders came from Norway, but yet their funeral customs were radically different from the native funeral customs. He thinks no satisfactory explanation has been given and wont be found while people still hold fast around the theory of a Norwegian origin of the Icelandic people. In the eyes of Bari the answer is simple, that when the theory of western Norwegian origin is thrown away, the explanation comes. The radically different funeral customs have their roots first and foremost in the migration of foreign men to Norway, men, which came from a land which had rejected the ancient cremation rites. Cremation was common among, those who were before in the land, but the newcomers kept hard to the culture of their forefathers and buried their dead in the manner of their old fatherland. Thus it is clear, why there was such a difference in funeral customs among pre-Christian Norwegians and Icelanders. The majority of those men, who moved to Iceland from Norway were of the families of the newcomers there.

Nobles and commoners

In his book " Graves and Buried treasure" Dr Kristjn Eldjrn explains this phenomenon. He says, that in all major respects that all of Scandinavia was one cultural area from ancient times and important elements in the culture of Scandinavia are shared. It causes wondering however, that in Iceland some of those things are not found, which strongly would have been suspected. That thing, which raises the most attention is exactly this difference in funeral customs. Dr. Eldjrn says that except the Faeroe isles and Greenland, Iceland is the only country in the whole viking area, where no cremation burials have been found. Then he says that cremations were rare in Denmark in the viking era, thought not unknown.
The majority of burials in Sweden are crematory and the same thing comes up in the boat in Norway that Bari builds a part of his theory on: "The portion between crematory burials in overwhelming majority. West of the mountains more burials with skeletons are found." Dr. Eldjrn doesn't try to solve this riddle thoroughly, but on the other hand he points to a thing, which may put pillars under Baris theory. Dr. Eldjrn discusses the preparation of burials and says, that the most flamboyant ones were where kings and nobles ruled.
" Readily it can be said, that here there were no burials of this glamorous sort, as here were no kings. The Icelandic graves must be compared to the graves of the commoners. This statement doesn't come badly with, as is mentioned above that in Iceland there were no earls or kings as were ruling in Norway, but here all freemen were equal before the laws and enjoyed one and the same right.

Struggle against Odin

One of the reasons for the migration of the forefathers of the Icelanders from Norway was of a religious nature. Harald fair-hair appears to have fought against the worship of Odin, or at least a certain part of it,seiur (sorcery). Among the Icelanders Odin was a god of poetry, but nowhere else. Seiur was an important part of the Odin worship of the Icelanders, and seiur was one of the things Odin committed and taught others and in Icelandic records seiur and poetry are found in certain families. It appears, that berserk behavior, Odin worship and poetry held hands, cf. Egill Skallagrmsson and other men of Borg. Sorcery was not liked by king Harald and he among other things sent Eirk bloodaxe to Uppland where he burnt inside his brother Rgnvald with 80 sorcerers.
In the days of conquest a new people of temple priests comes to Denmark and moves from there to Sweden. "Odin established laws in his land, those, who had been before with the Aesir." He taught most things to his sacrificial priests. They were closest to him in all lore and sorcery. "he taught with the runes and poems, which are called witchcraft. For that reason the Aesir are called Magic craftsmen." Odin and the temple priests are also called "poetical craftsmen", for poetry was introduced to them in Scandinavia". It is therefore Snorri Sturlusons intention, that the Nordic poetry and runes are an inheritance. In the reign of Harald such Odin worship was eliminated fully. It can be hardly expected that those who believed seiur and poetry fitted together, were content to live in Norway. Sorcerers and Skalds(poets) moved to Iceland in the settlement period. With them court poetry completely disappears from Norway, though a couple of poets dwelt in Harald fair-hairs court, who appears to have favored having skalds at his side.

Sacrificial priests and magic craftsmen

Bari Gumundsson cites Snorri Sturluson where he says, that the Aesir came to Scandinavia from the Black sea area under the leadership of twelve temple priests, which ruled "over worship and judgments between men." Odin is the supreme of the newcomers in Norway. Bari thinks remarkable, that Snorri assumes a special Nordic culture, which has roots in the distant Black sea areas at the estuary of the river Don and especially, that it is known that there once lived a Nordic tribe, the Heruli, which are mentioned in the writings from the great migration period. Thus it is appropriate to explain well the Heruli and the main sources for them come from Procopius and Tacitus.

The Heruli

The Heruli are noted living in the Black sea region in the year 267. And in 268 at the lower part of the Rhine. The western Heruli are thought to have left a rather poor trail seen from a historical perspective. They are mentioned as Roman mercenaries in the 4th and 5th centuries, but at the beginning of the 7th century they disappear entirely from history.
It is therefore the eastern Heruli, which Bari focuses on and in them he believes lies the roots of the Icelanders. He states, that the roots of the Icelandic stock did not seek their nutrients from Norwegian soil. Furthermore he says, that the solution to the riddle about the origin of the Icelanders is a heavier puzzle to solve. "Yet a solution shall be sought, and i even now see glitter a light, which may help us walk onward. It shall be traced as far as possible is into the dusk of the heathen past." This light Bari traced east to the Black sea, or more precisely the sea of Azov, where it is thought, that the Heruli ruled the entire area from Rosov to Odessa.

Invasions and defeats

The Heruli caused great havoc in the Roman empire in the third century A.D and harried with the Goths. In 267, when they are first mentioned, was a remarkable year in the history of the Heruli, at least from a military point of view, for that year they captured Byzantium, sailed down the Aegean, and caused great havoc among the Greeks, sacked Athens,Sparta and Argos. They made a great campaign against the Romans in 269, but unsuccessfully, for emperor Claudius II crushed them at the battle of Naissus (modern Nis in Yugoslavia) and it is believed that a great part of the Heruli was slain there by the Romans. Around the 4th century the Heruli came under the control of Ermaneric king of the Ostrogoths, but when the Huns invaded the Black sea region, the Ostrogoths were conquered and the same was the fate of the Heruli.
When the Hunnic empire came to an end, the Heruli established a mighty kingdom in the latter part of the 5th century in Hungary. The Lombards vanquished the kingdom of the Heruli shortly after the middle of the 6th century and killed their king Rodolf or Hrolf. After that the Heruli disperse. Many of them go into the service of the eastern roman emperor, but others go northwards.
It can be certainly said, that they mainly made their way to Denmark, for it is the opinion of men that in the beginning the Heruli were driven south by the Danes.

Part 3

Incurable age

In his account of the Gothic wars Procopius discusses the Heruli, their history, traditions and customs. He says among other things that among them was the custom, that when men were decrepit from old age or sick, that then they were not allowed life. A funeral pyre was then built and then the one not deemed fit to life was laid on it. Then they sent after someone not related to him and it was his task to kill the one lying on the pyre. It was not thought fitting to let his kinsmen be the executioner. After the killing the kinsmen of the dead person rushed towards and pyre and put fire to it. When the fire died out, the bones of the dead one were picked up and put in a grave. Procopius also says, that it was thought fitting for a widow of a deceased Heruli, if she wanted to keep her honor and dignity, that she committed suicide shortly after her spouses death by hanging herself by his grave. That custom, that women hanged themselves with their husbands dead is reminiscent of the telling from the Saga of Hervr about the woman, who was so furious after her fathers fall that she hanged herself. This custom of the Heruli to kill condemned men is consistent with Snorris account: "Odin died in his bed in Sweden. And when he was about to die, he had himself marked with a spear and made all men who died from arms his."
About Njord Snorri says similar: "Njord died in his bed. He had himself marked with Odin, before he died. The Swedes cremated him and wept over his grave." The custom that old men were killed and then cremated, is unique among the Heruli and points to, that Snorri used the ancient tales of this tribe. Thus are here also strong arguments for, that Icelanders are descended from the Heruli.

Limited favor of kings

One more thing from Procopius is interesting, when you keep in mind Icelanders lack of kings. He says that Heruli kings were considered no better than other freemen. Once the Heruli killed their king (this king Procopius names Ochus), not because he had done anything wrong, but rather because they didn't want to have a king over them any more. The Heruli regretted this deed and sent for a new king. Procopius says that a voyage was made to "Thule" to find a new king. With this acquisition of a new king, follows a description of Thule, and its inhabitants lifestyle and customs, but it is so peculiar,that it is unnecessary to include it here. About the Heruli wishes for no kings, they would not be fulfilled until the ninth century north in Iceland.


In his "Germania" Tacitus discusses the gods of the Germanic tribes. He believes Mercury (Odin) to have been the supreme god and that human sacrifices were given to him. This fits Procopius accounts of the gods of the Heruli, but he says, that they worshiped many gods and sacrificed men to them. Next to Mercury Tacitus says is Mars (Tyr) and the third he names Hercules (Thor). Mars and Hercules were pleased with animal sacrifices. He also mentions the godess Nerthus, which is the same name as Njord, only an older version, and after Tacitus description Njord/Nerthus is clearly a fertility god. In the settlement period, Thor, Odin and Freyr were the main gods of Scandinavia. Njord appears to have been worshiped considerably, although less than once. In Iceland there is nowhere mentioned any worship of Njord, but it shall be kept in mind, that in the oath staff of the Icelanders, which each man who made a law oath, had to say, the gods were thus invoked: "So help us Freyr and Njord and the almighty ss" here appears the Heruli worship of Njord.
Now it does not really matter, thought we wont be able to show the Heruli worship of Nerthus in the form of Njord in Iceland, for the Vanir gods Freyr and Freyja are the successors of the fertility goddess in our ancestors religious life. Tacitus says: "we find it washing the country of the Aestii, who have the same customs and fashions as the Suebi, but a language more like the British. They worship the Mother of the gods, and wear, as an emblem of this cult, the device of a wild boar,which stands them in stead of armor or human protection and gives the worshiper a sense of security even among his enemies."

Swine and fertility

Among our ancestors swine worship was well connected with the worship of the Vanir gods. Freyja and the sow have the synonym Sr, but Freyr and the boar the synomyn Vaningi. Following both of the gods are the boar Gullinbursti or Hildisvn. Remnants of the ancient fertility worship Bari Gumundsson believed came out in farm names in Iceland,Saurar(Saur means dung in modern Icelandic but meant seed or sperm in old Icelandic),Saurbr, Srstrnd, Srnadalur. Bari cites this from Gubrandur Vigfsson in his essay "Chronology in the Icelandic sagas", when Gubrandur talks about the coming of orbjrn sr from Srnadal: "We know, that wherever in Iceland and Norway those place names are found, there was in antiquity a worship of Freyr and Freyja more than in other places." Saur. a synonym for plant seeds and the sperm of men, is apparently spun from the same kind. Where the life force and the grower made their presence felt, our ancestors would have presumed, that was the wight of fertility. That wight would have once carried the name Saur and was worshiped. The meaning of the word Saur as physical or spiritual uncleanliness Bari believes is from later influences of the Christian church, that is the gross fate the word saur had gotten in the linguistic development. The ancient Saur religion was closely connected to sexual life and thus was greatly despised by Christians. To "worship holy gods" is intercourse between man and woman says in a stanza in Ragnars saga. The wording points to the ancient connection between worship and "saurlfi". At the worship of Freyr among the Swedes knowledgeable men believe, that sexual intercourse took place as some kind of rite.

Temples and churches

If the word saur had been so bad to the ears of heathen men as to Christian descendants, no one would have named their homes after such wickedness, and Bari suspects that sometimes men effaced saur names from their farms.
Then he says it is often the intention of leading scholars, that churches were often built on the sites of pagan shrines or near them. The Icelandic hof (temple)farms are a fine example. Bari quotes lafur Lrussons study of the number of old church places among various farm name groups. Of the hof farms 37.5% were church places. The second most common of the church farm were in the group of Fell farms, but interestingly the number of church locations which are of the Saur group, is 26.4%, or a half more than the Fell farms. It may be noted that most of the Saur farms, which are not known to have been church farms, lie very close to old churches, and it is well known that there was a chapel once. Many more examples about swine and fertility worship and belief in Freyr and Freyja Bari brings to his support.
In his chapter about the worship of Freyr "Heathen custom in Iceland", lafur Briem supports Baris theory. Thus it can be said, that the ancient religion which can be traced from the Black sea to Iceland, from our forefathers the Heruli to the Icelandic settlers, have been defined.

It is hard to explain adequately Baris creative theories in a brief article and this will have to suffix.
While reading Baris book you can hardly avoid beliefing his allegation that "the nation is older than the settlement of Iceland", as he brings forth to his support numerous other theories than those that have been mentioned above. It can be said that even though his theories have usually been neglected, Bari Gumundsson has had an impact which will barely disappear quickly. For evidence of that are the writings of dr. Kristjn Eldjrn and lafur Briem, like is mentioned above, and while reading Sigurur Nordals book "Icelandic culture", Baris influences are found. Likely we will have to wait a while until Baris theories gain common favor at least not while men let the belief in a Norwegian origin of the Icelanders blind themselves so that they cant see beyond their nose. It will hardly be evaded however that the light path, which Bari saw glitter in the dusk of heathen antiquity, will be more travelled when times go by.