Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Emigration and Mythmaking: The Case of the Icelanders in Canada

Academic journal article Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal

Emigration and Mythmaking: The Case of the Icelanders in Canada

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT/RESUME

The article examines the myth of the emigration of Icelanders to, and their settlement in, North America as it appears in recent ethnic histories of Western Icelanders. It analyzes in a systematic manner the three primary sources for the various components of the Western Icelandic social myth and discusses their significance and use. These three sources are: 1) the story of the settlement of Iceland itself; 2) the story of the discovery of North America by Norsemen; and 3) the biblical story (Exodus). It is argued that self-defense, self-justification, and the need to legitimize their reality in the New World were what motivated the Western Icelanders' social myth, the main function of which was to create a feeling of group cohesiveness among the immigrants and their descendants by giving them a sense of cultural identity in a place virtually devoid of any history and tradition. One form of identity that the mythic consciousness makes possible is heroism, and by drawing from the central myth of their culture, the settlement story, and the biblical migration myth, both of which were vividly paradigmatic as models, the Western Icelanders were able not only to demonstrate that their relocation was not so unprecedented as to be beyond comprehension, but also to provide a moral continuity from a heroic past and to legitimize contemporary assertions of the Viking archetype of Nordic heroism.

Cet article examine le mythe de l'emigration des Islandais en Amerique du Nord et leur peuplement subsequent tel qu'il ressort des recentes histoires ethniques des Islandais occidentaux. L'auteur analyse de facon systematique les trois grandes sources des nombreuses composantes du mythe social des Islandais occidentaux et discute leur importance et usage. Ces trois sources sont: I) l'histoire de la colonie de peuplement de l'Islande elle-meme; 2) I'histoire de la decouverte de l'Amerique du Nord par les Vikings; et 3) l'histoire biblique (l'exode). On peut faire valoir que la legitime defense. l'autojustification et le besoin de sanctionner cette realite dans le Nouveau Monde a motive le mythe social des Islandais occidentaux, dont la principale fonction consistait a creer un sentiment de cohesion du groupe chez les immigrants et leurs descendants en leur donnant un sens d'identite culturelle dans un endroit essentiellement vide de toute histoire et tradition. L'heroisme est une forme d'identite que la consci ence mythique rend possible, et en s'inspirant du mythe central de leur culture, de l'histoire de la colonie de peuplement et du mythe de la migration biblique, tous les deux etant des modeles tres paradigmatiques, les Islandais occidentaux pouvaient non seulement demontrer que leur peuplement n'etait pas vraiment sans precedent au point de ne pas le comprendre, mais ils pouvaient aussi donner une continuite morale a leur passe heroique et sanctionner les affirmations contemporaines de l'archetype viking d'heroisme nordique.

The facts of the emigration of Icelanders to, and their settlement in, the New World in the last quarter of the nineteenth century are well known. The emigration was part of a more general movement taking place in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and as such the Icelanders were but following the example of their Scandinavian neighbors. More directly, perhaps, the emigration was a result of unfavourable economic conditions caused, among other things, by the eruption of the volcano Dyngjufjoll in 1875, which damaged grassland over a considerable area of north-east Iceland and drove many people from their homes, and by the climatic downturn in the 1880s, which resulted in insufficient pasture for livestock, especially along the northern and eastern coasts of the island, and subsequent poverty. Not to be underestimated are the propaganda of emigration agents, who were offered a generous commission for every approved emigrant, and who, accordingly, greatly promoted the idea of relocation, and not least the availability of steamship connections from Icelandic ports to Quebec City, Halifax, or New York (Gislason 21-22). …

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