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Bringing the Manuscripts Home

Árni Magnússon (1663-1730) was an antiquarian, an historian interested in Iceland’s past, and a collector of manuscripts. He collected every manuscript and text which he came across. He moved his collection to Copenhagen, part of which was lost in the fire of Copenhagen in 1728. Árni bequeathed his collection to the University of Copenhagen. Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum  (The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies) and the Arnamagnæanske Kommission in Copenhagen are named after him.

    Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenskum fræðum works in connection with Háskóli Íslands (The University of Iceland). Among other things the institute preserves and has the supervision of the manuscripts and texts which have been brought back to Iceland from Denmark.
    Icelanders considered the manuscripts to be Icelandic national treasures and have worked hard to get them back to their home in Iceland. At first, the Danish refused completely but negotiations between the countries about the return of the manuscripts took place in 1961. The delivery of the manuscripts began in 1971, when a frigate from the Danish fleet sailed to Iceland with two of the most prized Icelandic manuscripts, Flateyjarbók og Konungsbók Snorra Eddu. These manuscripts are now preserved at The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, together with other Icelandic manuscripts which have been returned home from Denmark.
   Konungsbók eddukvæða preserves poems about the ancient gods and heroes. The first of them is the poem (in Icelandic, kvæði) Völuspá, a saga of the world which describes the fate of the world and of man. The poem is spoken through the words of a prophetess who tells of the creation of the world, of war in the world of the gods, and the events which lead to the destruction of the gods and the world, the so-called Ragnarök which reaches its climax when the world burns. The final chapter of the poem describes how the world rises anew. After Völuspá comes the great ethical poem Hávamál. The first part of the poem has been called the Gestaþáttur, (literally the guests’ story), which describes a man who makes a unannounced visit and how best he should behave. Then the poem discusses the importance of wisdom and friendship, and other things.

From Hávamál

Young was I once, I walked alone,
and bewildered seemed in the way;
then I found me another and rich I thought me,
for man is the joy of man.
(Translated by Olive Bray)


The delivery of the manuscripts ended in 1997. With the successful release of the manuscripts, animosity towards the Danes did, for the most part, disappear. The manuscript issue has created a precedence for nations who have tried to get their own cultural artefacts and relics out of the hands of former colonial rulers.