Text by: Oddur Sigmunds Báruson
I went to a family reunion last weekend. In Iceland, we have loads of them, especially in the summertime. The concept is fairly simple: A large group of people, who all share a common ancestry, meet up somewhere – usually in the countryside where the ancestors lived – and enjoy each other’s company over one weekend.
In my case, the common ancestor was a man called Guðmundur Pétursson, a shark hunter born in 1851. The reunion was held where he lived his entire life, in Ófeigsfjörður, a small valley located in the Westfjords region.
Ófeigsfjörður is a remote place – it is the farthest inhabited area of the rural district Árneshreppur, which is the least populated one in Iceland, consisting of 43 people; some farmers and inhabitants of teeny-tiny villages. Despite its thin population, Árneshreppur is surprisingly rich in history, culture and interesting things to see; including some of the greatest countryside pools in Iceland.
After a fun drive through Árnesshreppur, we reached Ófeigsfjörður. Not only because it was our destination, but also because there was no option of continuing – the road literally ended there, further there was nothing but the vast wilderness of the Vestfjörds.
As soon as I stepped down in Ófeigsfjörður I could tell this place was not used to receive any visitor. The surroundings were pure and freely vegetated and you could sense some deep stillness in the air. Well, apart from the artic sterns who were going insane over this sudden flow of guests.
There are two houses in Ófeigsfjörður: The home of the last inhabitant, an elderly man who nowadays only has a summer stay in Ófeigsfjörður and the house the patriarch himself, Guðmundur build and lived in over the last part of his life. The house is deserted now but maintained well by some of the more conscientious members of the family.
Guðmundur had 17 children with three women, 11 of them grew up and had children of their own, so we are pretty many of us who have descended from this man, probably close to one thousand.
According to the guest book some 264 people showed up, spouses included. Apart from the close relatives I arrived with, I wasn’t familiar with a single face there! In that respect, it may have felt a bit like any other outdoor festival, with some random people. And perhaps that is how some people experience family reunions. But I decided to take this thing a little more seriously.
I actually had a head start, as a holder of a family heirloom: A whale tooth that Guðmundur himself acquired in his hunting. He gave it to his son and thereafter it passed on through the male line all the way into my hands.
So I was well aware of the patriarch beforehand. I also took advantage of a great tool we Icelanders have for genealogical studies: Íslendingabók. It’s an online database, containing all known family connections between all Icelanders since the settlement. One can look up any Icelander and see exactly how they are related to each other. I could trace my family tree back to Guðmundur and his people. I can actually trace it back to Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler in Iceland, born in year 884. Apparently he is my 29th great grandfather.
At the beginning of the family reunion, everyone received a chest name badge indicating which of Guðmundur’s children one was descended from, that is, of which lineage one was. That gave a rough but good framework for the whole thing. I could walk around, spot a person of the same lineage and give him or her a thumbs up! Sometimes I could even spot a slight family resemblance.
The whole thing was just nice. A good car ride out of town, some hiking, campfire and party. But it was definitely more than just an outdoor festival. It was a family reunion. Which brings me to the question of what the purpose of family reunions really is. Some might say it is to celebrate the common origin and the life of the ancestors, maintain some heritage and keep in touch with some distant relatives …
Now, those kinds of things might not appeal to everybody. The common origin is often quite distant and irrelevant in people’s lives. The heritage is often none or merely subjective and the family relations are too distant to even bother.
Well, that might all be true, in a way. But sometimes you just have to decide which things matter to you. And I decided to be interested and let those things matter to me over the weekend. I honoured my origin, I explored the land of my forefathers and foremothers and I dug into my family history. And it was just lovely – I would definitely recommend it to a friend!