Sigrid and Eirikr Magnusson Contributed Much to Iceland's Culture
Iceland's Flag - Wikimedia Commons
by Kathy Warnes
Sigrid and Eirikr Magnusson were native Icelanders who left their homeland to live in England, but returned to help their countrymen.
Both Sigrid and Eirikr Magnusson loved Iceland, literature, writing and travel and they practiced these loves their entire lives. Sigrid worked tirelessly to establish a girl’s high school in Reykjavik and other girl’s schools in Iceland and she traveled far from her homeland to raise funds and support for her dream. She participated in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 as a writer. Eirikr became an Icelandic scholar and Librarian at the University of Cambridge in Great Britain. He taught Old Norse to British poet William Morris, and they collaborated to translate many of the old Icelandic Sagas into English.
Iceland, The Magnusson’s Native Country
Iceland is a volcanically and geologically active island in the North Atlantic Ocean. Contradicting its name, Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and it has a temperate climate despite its high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital and largest city and Reykjavik and the surrounding southwestern region of the country are home to two-thirds of the national population.
Norwegian chieftain Ingolfur Arnarson settled on Iceland in AD 874, and over the centuries Norse and Gaelic peoples established small farms and settlements on the island. From 1262 to 1918, Iceland was part of the Norwegian and later Danish monarchies. Until the twentieth century, Icelanders relied on fisheries and agriculture for their living, but in 1994, Iceland entered into an agreement that established the European Economic Area which allowed Iceland to diversify from fishing to economic and financial services.
Sigrid Magnusson Strives to Improve the Lives of Iceland’s Women
Sigrid Magnusson was born Sigrid Somundsson in 1831 in Reykjavik, Iceland to Einar Somundsson and Gudrun Olafsdottir, descendants of Egill Skallagrímsson, a Viking warrior and anti—hero of the Viking sagas. After being educated in Reykjavik, Sigrid developed a special vocation trying to better the condition of women in Iceland.
Traveling in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Scotland, England, France, Germany, and America, Sigrid lectured about life in Iceland in the language of the country she visited. She raised support and funds for schools for girls in her homeland. In 1893, she lectured at the Congress of Women, World’s Columbian Exposition, Women’s Building in Chicago 1893. During this trip to America, Sigrid translated a small book she had written called “The Basket of Flowers,” from English to Icelandic-a North Germanic language- to give to the clergy widows' fund in Iceland.
Sigrid and Eirikr Magnusson Promote Iceland and Its Culture
Sigrid married Eirikr Magnusson and they left their native Iceland in 1862 to live in Great Britain where Eirikr accepted a position as a translator. Born in Berufjorour in the eastern part of Iceland, Eirikr was an Icelandic scholar who translated numerous Icelandic sagas into English. He played an important part in the Victorian England impetus to study the history and literature of the Norsemen.
The Icelandic Bible Society sent Eirikr to England in 1862 and he translated mediaeval Christian texts as his first scholarly work in England. Following in the footsteps of many Icelandic scholars in England, Eirikr gave lessons in Icelandic to supplement his income. Some of his first pupils were Sir Edmund Head in 1863, and George E.J. Powell. Eirikr and George Powell translated John Arnason’s Icelandic folktales and worked on an unpublished translation of Havaroar saga Isfiroings.
Eirikr collaborated with his most famous pupil, William Morris, an English poet, on translating a number of Iceland sagas. In 1869, they published their Story of Grettir the Strong and in 1870 they published the first English translation of Volsungasaga. Between 1891 and 1905, Eirikr and Morris published a six volume Saga Library, including Heimskringla and the first English translations of Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings, Hænsa-Þóris saga and Eyrbyggja Saga. Eirikr and Morris journeyed to Iceland where Eirikr introduced him to his friends and earned more support for his translation work. Eirikr published Volume 6 of the Saga Library, and volume 4 of the Heimskringla, in 1905 after William Morris died.
In 1871, Sir Henry Holland and Alexander Beresford-Hope, MP for Cambridge, helped Eirikr become a librarian at the University of Cambridge and in 1893, Eirikr became a lecturer in Icelandic at Cambridge. In 1875, Eirikr and Sigrid organized famine relief for Iceland.
Eirikr’s honors included winning a gold medal in Paris for a plan for a library building that could be expanded limitlessly and being appointed a lecturer at Trinity College. The King of Denmark knighted him and the “Academic parisienne des Inventeurs” made him an honorary member and awarded him a gold medal.
Sigrid and Education in Iceland
Although they lived in England, both Sigrid and Eirikr made numerous trips back to Iceland to help their people. She described the state of women’s education in Iceland at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. She said that because of the poverty of the people and the lack of communications in Iceland there had been very little progress in education for girls. She pointed out that a few private attempts had been made to establish schools for girls over fourteen years old, but the schools were small and inadequate.
Sigrid explained that the mother in Iceland had been the universal schoolmistress for girls, giving them instruction in reading and religion. Boys followed a very different educational path. The Icelandic government provided a Latin school or college for them at Reykjavik where they received six to seven years of good training from scholarly European teachers. When the boys left the Latin college they could attend a medical and theological college in Reykjavik to continue their studies.
The boys who wished to take a higher degree and students of philology and law went to the University of Copenhagen where they would also receive a stipend, a provision that was generations old. All of the institutions for boys in Reykjavik were endowed so that most of the students could receive a stipend to help with their expenses.
She told her audience that for some years she had been trying to establish a school in Reykjavik for the “higher education of women in the country.” Friends in England had helped her start at school with fifteen female pupils in 1891, but most of them couldn’t afford to pay the modest fee of one krone or about 27 cents a day for board and lodging, she exhausted her small finds at the end of the first year. She had to reject many girls who desperately wanted an education. She said that she came to America with the express hope of raising money for her school by selling antique Icelandic silver, silver-gilt ornaments and spoons. She said, “I feel perfectly sure that, coming to this country with all its wealth, philanthropists and love of education, my most sanguine hopes will be realized.”
The Icelandic exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exhibition won two medals, one of the “woolen goods,” of the home industries and the second for the “silver and metal work”, the collection.
In a story in the Brooklyn Eagle, dated November 8, 1896, Sigrid chronicles how she and Eirikr helped Icelanders survive the effects of two earthquakes. In another story dated November 15, 1896, Sigrid details her continuing efforts to finance her high school for girls in Reykjavik. She wrote that she had her collection of antique Icelandic gold, silver, and silver gilt ornaments and spoons exhibited in the gold room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park in New York City which she hoped to sell for the benefit of the girl’s high school. Her efforts contributed to Reykjavik’s several secondary schools that exist today.
Sigrid and Eirikr significantly advanced Iceland’s education and culture with their literary, linguistic, and educational contributions.
Karlsson, Gunnar. The History of Iceland. University of Minnesota Press, 2001
Krakauer, John and Roberts, David. Iceland: Land of the Sagas. Villard, 1998 Magnusson, Eirikr, The Sign of the Bolsungs, Digireads.com, 2005
Magnusson, Eirikr, Odin’s Horse Yggdrasill, Kessinger Publishing’s Photocopy Edition, 1895 Sketch of "Home-Life in Iceland." by Madame Sigrid E. Magnusson (1831-).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 521-525.
The Poetic and Prose Edda and the Volsunga Saga
During the thirteenth century, medieval people in Iceland wrote down the Old Norse Poetic Edda and Prose Edda that contained stories from earlier traditional sources that dated to the Viking Age. These Eddas were the main sources for oral court poetry called Skaldic Poetry and Norse mythology.
The Volsunga Saga was a late thirteenth century Icelandic prose story of the Volsung clan, largely based on epic poetry. The Eddas and the Volsunga Saga first became known outside Iceland in the nineteenth century. As word of the Eddas and Saga spread outside of Iceland in the nineteenth century, scholars realized that many of the characters and events in the story didn't come from Icelandic or Norse history, but from Dark Age Europe. The Volsunga Saga contains oral documentation of European events including the death of Attila the Hun, and the fifth century defeat of the Burgundians and their king Gundahar.
Scholars studied the Volsunga Saga and the Eddas for clues to Germanic pre-history. The combination of real history with mythical characters like dwarfs, dragons, and magic potions placed the Volsunga Saga on a Greek Mythology level.
Eirikr Magnusson and his friend William Morris were the first two scholars to translate the Volsunga Saga into English. This is the paraphrased story of their translation Of the Tale of King Volsung and His Sons.
King Siggeir commanded King Volsung and his sons to travel to Gothland. They sailed in three ships, all well equipped and manned, and after a pleasant voyage they arrived at Gothland on the evening tide.
That same night King Siggeir’s Signy wife who was King Volsung’s daughter, called King Volsung and his sons to a private talk. She told them what she thought King Siggeir planned to do and how he had gathered a strong army. "He is minded to guilefully by you," she warned them. She begged them to go back to their own land and assemble a mighty army and come back to Gothland. She warned them to be careful of King Siggeir’s wiles.
King Volsung said that he had taken a vow never to flee in fear from anything or anyone. He said that he would never run away from a fight or pray for peace.
Signy wept and begged King Volsung not to send her back to King Siggeir, but King Volsung said, "Thou shalt surely go back to thine husband and abide with him, howsoever it fares with us."
Signy went back home to her husband King Siggei and King Volsung and his men spent the night on their ship. As soon as daylight came, King Volsung ordered his men to get up and prepare for battle. They went ashore brandishing their weapons, and it wasn’t long before Siggeir fell on them with his entire army. King Volsung and King Siggeir’s men fought fiercely. The tale tells that King Volsung and his sons hacked through King Siggeir and his men at least eight times that day, but when they started on their ninth skirmish King Volsung fell dead after saving the lives of his sons.
King Siggeir captured King Volsung’s ten sons and they were laid in bonds and led away. King Siggeir’s soldiers told Signy that her father, King Volsung, had been slain and her brothers capture and doomed to death.
Signy called her husband King Siggeir to her and said to him, "This will I pray of thee, that thou let not slay my brothers hastily, but let them be set awhile in the stocks, for home to me comes the saw that says, "Sweet to eye while seen": but longer life I pray not for them, because I wot well that my prayer will not avail me."
King Siggeir told her that the more he could make her brothers suffer before they died, the happier he would be.
Even as Signy prayed, King Siggeir ordered a mighty beam to be brought and set on the feet of her ten brothers in a certain place in the woods. He had them put in the stocks and they sat all day and night. At midnight as they sat in the stocks, an old she wolf came out of the woods. She was large and evil looking and the first thing the she wolf did was bite one of Signy’s brothers until he died and eat him. Then she went on her way.
The next morning Signy sent a trusted messenger to see how her brothers were doing. The messenger came back and told her that one of her brothers was dead. She mourned and she knew that the same thing would happen to the rest of her brothers, but she couldn’t think of any way to help her remaining brothers.
For the next nine nights the she wolf came at midnight and killed and ate one of Signy’s brothers until only one, Sigmund, remained. Before the tenth night arrived, Signy sent her trusted message to Sigmund. She gave her messenger some honey and told him to spread it on Sigmund’s face and put some of it in his mouth. The messenger went to Sigmund and spread honey all over his face and put some in his mouth and then he returned home.
The next night the she wolf came and attacked Sigmund, but suddenly she stopped. She sniffed the breeze from him and since he was anointed with honey, the she wolf licked his face all over with her tongue and thrust her tongue into his mouth. Sigmund wasn’t afraid of the she wolf. He caught her tongue between his teeth and she backed away so hard and pulled herself away so forcefully that her feet hit the stocks and they collapsed. Sigmund held on so hard that the she wolf’s tongue was torn out by the roots and she died.
Some people say that this same she wolf was King Siggeir’s mother who had turned herself into a she wolf by troll’s lore and witchcraft.