A rather sentimental and slightly personal piece on ancestral veneration and pride in modern times.
By Einar Valur Bjarnason Maack, skáld at Hvergelmir International
A large part of the Heathen worldview and faith is that of loving where you come from. Ancestral veneration. Appreciation of your roots and the people whom have affected your life.
I am fortunate enough through my nationality to have access to genealogical records that go as far back as to the early “viking” ages on some branches (where upon legendary genealogy can be applied to stretch my family trees reach back to around the year 650, but legends are what they are, unprovable.).
This is not relevant to my life in any way.
I sometimes, for the fun of it, drag out the name of some famed viking I can trace my lineage to -but usually in order to illustrate the futility of distant ancestry via mathematics and poke fun at those whom have found out that they are the stuff of legend as their supposed 55th generation forefather was relevant enough at the time that their name lived on.
I must admit, besting people by logic and humour pleases me greatly, not because of malicious intent, I genuinely do not intend to hurt people, only provoke them to thought.
Because when looked at by purely mathematical eyes, each generation up (ignoring the possibility of inbreeding) doubles in number or rather, travels in powers of two, the 55th being 18,014,398,509,482,000 individuals. Given that the ancestor lived in a time when only about 200-210.000.000 people lived, the odds are that one could trace more than one branch of said tree to the new found source of pride, but even so, if they can not be proven they only exist in potentia and you are still only 1/18,014,398,509,482,000th Loðbrók, and so is more or less everyone else, in all probability.
It is not that I do not feel some weird sense of pride in some of my more renowned ancestry, it’s just the fact that it doesn’t define my existence today except by a very small portion, which is that they did the nasty with their partner back in the day and by off chance every subsequent generation did so as well up until my birth.
I may have immense admiration for the man and his work, but Snorri Sturluson is my 23rd ancestor (and yes, I can trace him on more than one branch) and he or his progeny were probably a couple of others on this 23rd generation, which marks 8,388,608 individual ancestors at a time when Icelanders were never more than around 50.000 people. But he is in no way defining of my life.
I happen to live in the 21st century. If I tried to emulate my ancestor Snorri or even further Egill Skallagrímsson, they’d put me away.
Although I sometimes try to imagine what those particular individuals would have thought and how they would have reacted to the world that I live in, I cannot follow their examples so closely as they are extraordinary examples of people from a world that is all but alien in it’s dissimilarity to modern times.
I’d rather try to learn from my recent ancestors.
I am going to talk about my grandfathers. Certainly my grandmothers are worthy subjects as well, but even though I try to learn lessons from them, as a man, I seek my rolemodels in being a man to my grandfathers, at least in part.
My maternal grandfather, Valdimar, died over a decade before I was born. Born at around the turn of the century, the death of his father made him the man and breadwinner of a household of himself, his mother and 9 sisters from his own childhood.
At the age of 9 he worked on an open boat in the middle of the cold Atlantic, dragging fish on board with grown, work hardened men.
He was not a big man. Only at about 160 or so cm, which is approximately 5’3″, and skinny all his life. But he was strong enough to save a mans life when the cargo bed of a truck fell upon him by lifting the load and cargo off the suffocating man. He had a motto of smiling whenever he could. He sailed the open seas the greatest part of his life. Through every hardship. He overcame tuberculosis, though he refused to allow the doctors to cut away ribs.
He sailed during WWII when war raged in the oceans surrounding our little isle. Through every storm he sailed back with a smile on his face to the loving embrace of my grandmother.
His greatest feat of strength was though the fact that he was a provider all his life. First for his mother and sisters, then for his wife and 7 children he raised to adulthood before passing away from cancer at the age of 70.
My other grandfather, Pétur, was nothing short of an adventure incarnate and since I was fortunate enough to share in the 25 last years of his life I can say far more about him than I can my maternal grandfather Valdimar, as I was fortunate enough to know grandpa Pétur personally.
Enterprising to say the least, fiercely intelligent, honest, sharp witted and humorous, artistic and musical and a great storyteller to boot. He was also friendly, kind and gentle, compassionate, generous and hospitable.
Born in the year 1919 he soon showed his exuberant character and fierce intelligence in everything he did. His contemporaries often talked of him building a car with his own two hands from scraps gathered from a GMC, a Ford, Chevrolet Overland and other brands, and it worked perfectly. His mother had taught him English and what she could in other languages.
Even though his father, my great grandfather, underwent financial decline when my grandfather was in his teens, he still went through and finished the School of Commerce through his own tenacity.
He also learned various languages on his own accord, played the organ, accordion and piano and painted.
He ran his own business, was a founder of the local Rotary club, a founder of the local savings bank as well as partaking in several formal and informal clubs and organizations grandpa Pétur was an exceptionally popular man among everyone whom got to know him.
During an era of his life he came into money, but it never changed his sympathy for those less fortunate. He remembered the financial struggles of his family from when he was a teen (which were recovered from). My father and his brothers having joined grandpa on his Yuletide trips around the then small town they lived in to give families that grandpa knew were struggling food and presents to give the children.
And in a way, nearly everything he made, he invested again in his family and community.
Family was everything to him and he detested when people mistreated their own. He witnessed one of my favorite poets, whom I shall not name here, strike his own (the poets) mother onboard an airplane as said poet was on his way for treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. My grandfather stood up and made said poet apologize. Because in his worldview, you did not treat your mother like that.
And grandpa was also kind to people he never met.
In the mid 1960’s, my grandfather invented a solution for the car brand he had specialized himself in and was awarded with DM 40.000 at a convention, in a time when the average median income per annum was around DM 8400, my grandfather characteristically decided to skip the hassle and complications with bringing that money home and give his award to charities that assisted the poor in Germany.
Most of all I remember him as my grandpa with his warm embrace, his boiled sweets and wonderful disposition. I could go on for hours going into the details of my grandfathers reputable ventures and how I miss him sorely, and I miss looking into his smiling eyes garnished by his bushy eyebrows whilst he told me stories.
My grandfather was, as I said, a very popular man, and when he passed away at the age of 87, there were people waiting in a crowd outside during the sermon because they wanted to follow him to his grave as he had shared in his life. In one of the obituaries someone quoted Hávamál. Fittingly the 46th, about the importance of friendship. Although I think the 76th stanza would be just as fitting, a great reputation never dies.
But it is not the purpose of this piece of prose to brag of my good fortune in recent ancestry and even though I think both men lived lives worthy of a drápa, if not a saga, I know well that this is because these men hold interest to me. Not necessarily you.
But what I am getting at are the lessons and virtues I have been fortunate enough to learn and those I wish I was better at from learning from these mens example.
Kindness, perseverance, honesty, hospitality, strength and integrity of character.
Even though these men were born a 116 and 98 years ago, their world was vastly different from mine. The future is a foreign land, as someone said and the changes that the world has undergone during these passed years is immense. But I still try to apply these values and lessons to my life in the modern world as far as I can.
Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail, sometimes fantastically so. But I will keep on trying.
I do realize that not everyone is fortunate when it comes to which family they are born. This is sad and my heart goes out to you whom come from people who’s life have been devoid of good fortune or example, but even if your recent family was derelict and people of weak character there are still lessons to be learned from your recent ancestry.
You can choose to learn from those you may not hold in high regard. You can learn by going against the negative examples and wishing peace upon those you can forgive and forgetfulness of those you can not, and be the milestone at which your lineage turns it’s fortune.
My grandfathers, the stellar examples I have, were not vikings.
One was definitely a hero of the sea.
The other a widely loved man of activity.
But not vikings. Nordic people stopped going on viking expeditions many centuries before either were born.
Both were Icelanders of the 20th century, both born into simple life on the eastern coast.
A place vastly different from the far past of the late Iron Age. Society has evolved. Neither of my grandfathers shared my religious views.
They were both Christian.
But their faith is irrelevant to my respect for them. Because their virtues showed values that are above that and both their lives bore lessons to be learned from.
If I took veneration, remembrance and reverence of some Loðbrók (as an example of a legendary ancestor, one of 17,179,869,184 on 35th generation) that is historically questioned and never affected my life more seriously than these two aforementioned of the four most recent ancestors of mine, I feel as though I would simply be doing it wrong.
That is not to say that I speak against learning of the forefathers of ancient times. I am all for people learning and reading and trying to understand and appreciate the culture of pre-conversion Northern Europe. I think it is fantastic and interesting.
I am saying that under optimal conditions it is the ancestors you knew that you should venerate – as pre-conversion Northern Europeans did.
If you are adopted, you may not have knowledge or access to your most recent blood related family, but even if you do not, the people whom brought you up and their histories are important as well, if not more than at least equally.
Remember them and pass on their lessons.
Visit their graves if you can.
Alas. I do not live in my home country and I have not been to the Eastern Fjords for ten and a half years and thus not visited my grandparents graves there for 10.5 years. But I think of them often and their pictures have had a place on the wall wherever I have lived since.
My paternal grandfather is buried in the Reykjavik area and so I have visited his grave each of the years I have visited Iceland since my expatriation, and when I do, I sing one or two of his favorite songs and sometimes bring a boiled sweet to lay on his grave.
An offering, if you will. But mostly a token of appreciation and gratitude for the lessons learned. And definitely I would visit more often if I lived nearby.
It does not matter where you are from or whom your ancestors were.
The important part is that you remember them and how they affected your life.
And learn from them. For good or for bad.