Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Glacier, Trolls, Genealogy and Exotic Cuisine in Iceland (August 7, 2014)

This is actually a glacier near the 2010 volcanic eruption that brought European air travel to a temporary halt.  The black piles are volcanic dust from the eruption that filled holes and cracks and are now left to form a starkly beautiful black and white landscape atop the glacial ice as the ice continues to melt around the accumulated deposits.

I am still thinking back on our amazing trip to Iceland in July and so I am taking the opportunity to post just a few more photos taken on the trip, but in order to do so I am going to stretch a bit to make a genealogy connection.  

No, the couple above are not Icelandic relatives or typical of Icelanders in any way! They are large sculptures of trolls outside a store in downtown Reykjavik.  I avoided photographing them for days until we heard the stories about the role trolls play in Icelandic culture.  The Old Norse tales were used by J.R.R. Tolkien in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.  If you recall the scene in the recent Hobbit movie installments where three trolls capture Bilbo and his dwarf companions, they are saved when the sun comes up and turns the trolls into stone.  This is right out of Old Norse/Icelandic stories and legends.  In Iceland many of the lava formations are said to be trolls that were out partying or otherwise carrying on too long and got caught out of their caves when the sun came up and so were turned to stone.  An example follows . . .

While you might be excused for thinking that this is a photograph of rock formations just off shore, these are actually a family of trolls who got carried away partying and did not get back before the sun came up and turned them to stone!

With respect to the genealogy connection for this post, it is quite interesting that in Icelandic genealogy they have what to our family nomenclature is a different and perhaps more confusing system for surnames --patronymics.  It seems to me that their system would give an extra challenge to mapping out genealogies, but it clearly works for them and they are a very genealogy-focused culture. According to one of our tour guides, Icelandic genealogy is very different due to their naming conventions and is probably difficult and confusing for those of us used to consistent family surnames across generations down male lines.  The traditional Icelandic surname system works as follows . . . 

With apologies to any Icelanders out there who will notice my mixing of Scandinavian names and my departure from common Icelandic names . . . 

Traditionally in Iceland a son takes as his surname the first name of his father so that Bjorn son of Olaf would be Bjorn Olafson (Olaf's son), whereas his male first cousin Per, who is the son of Olaf's brother Kristian would be Per Kristianson. Even though both Olaf and Kristian are brothers and as sons of Sven share the same surname Svenson, their sons who are first cousins have different last names. And just to make it more confusing, Bjorn's sister Sigriour would not be Sigriour Olafson -- she would be Sigriour Olafsdottir (Olaf's daughter).

Greenland shark meat being "processed."

And this last photo brings us to the subject of Icelandic cuisine.  The photo shows part of the processing of what some have called the most disgusting food in the world. Molly and I tried some and came away convinced that it is the preparation of the food that gives this delicacy its bad reputation and the unappetizing name that some have tagged it with -- "rotted shark." The taste was not bad at all and in fact was somewhat disappointing -- not disgusting at all and not overwhelmingly "fishy" as one might have expected.

The photo shows slabs of Greenland shark in an open air shed.  After having been cut from the shark and set into slatted wood bins to sit outside for about six weeks (for the bacteria and elements to work on it while the weight of compression helps to drain off liquids from the flesh), the slabs are hung from nails on rafters in the open shed -- for four or more months!  The bacteria and elements continue to work on the flesh until it turns the leathery color you see.  After this processing the outer part is cut away and a soft yellow-colored flesh is left to be consumed.

Why all the trouble to process the shark meat in this way? Well because otherwise the flesh is poisonous to humans.  The Greenland shark does not have kidneys to filter toxins and so the toxins are absorbed into the flesh of the animal -- unprocessed meat contains the poisons and so can kill.  We were left to wonder who decided to come up with the brilliant idea of putting the uncovered slabs of shark meat outside for about six months and then decided to actually eat what was previously known to be deadly!?  And who volunteered for that job?? 

A 100-year old female Greenland shark caught about three days before
this photo was taken.  It was part of by-catch that a traditional shark meat processor obtained.

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All photographs by the author (July 2014)

For more information about patronymics in Scandinavian genealogy and for a very useful chart comparing the traditions and laws in the Scandinavian countries, see K.C. Reid's recent post here 
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Copyright 2014, John D. Tew
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