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Phone App that Prevents Incest?

Bill Benson, In Retrospect

by William H. Benson

June 12, 2013

Recent news tells of a cell phone app for Iceland’s 325,000 residents. Because nearly all are descendents of about 15,000 Vikings who settled there late in the ninth century, the chances for incest are high. Software engineers designed the app so that a young Icelandic boy or girl can bump his or her cell phone with another’s and know how close or distant the two are related. If too close, the Incest Prevention Alarm sounds off.

It is a high tech method for preventing an age-old difficulty, that of marrying far enough away from one’s immediate family to avoid birth defects.

A problem for the Icelandic people is that they do not have a uniform system of last names needed to track relationships.

A person’s last name is his or her father’s first name followed by the suffix “son,” if you are a boy, or “dottir,” if you are a girl, a system that has remained fixed for centuries. One source said that Iceland’s phone book lists people’s names in alphabetic order, but by first names.

Iceland was not inhabited in 874 A.D. when a Norseman named Naddoddr landed there. Although he did not stay, others followed him, and by 930 A.D., those first settlers claimed all the good land. Iceland’s colonization was part of a wider migration out of Norway that lasted for three centuries, from the eighth through the tenth.

Because of a lack of arable farm ground in Norway, as well as the snow, freezing temperatures, and foreboding mountains, many departed their native Norway for other locations.

To the west they settled Iceland, Greenland and Vineland; to the east they marched across Russia and down to the Caspian Sea; and to the south they invaded England. They were Vikings.

Most scholars agree that on June 7, 793 A.D., it was the Vikings who raided the monastery at Lindisfarne, an English island along Northumberland’s coast. This raid “never fails to capture the imagination,” because the Vikings inflicted terrible slaughter and injury upon the Christian English people.

The only items saved were Lindisfarne’s Bible, now stored in the British museum, and the coffin that contained St. Cuthbert’s relics. All else was destroyed. The English never forgot that day.

Another migration out of Norway occurred centuries later. During the hundred years between 1825 and 1925, some 800,000 Norwegians, one-third of the population at that time, migrated to the United States to settle in Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Iowa.

One of those was my paternal great-grandfather, Ben Benson. Because his father was named Ben Davidson, he was given the last name of Benson, but once in America, that last name stayed with the family.

When growing up, I heard the stories of how Ben had worked on a fishing ship that sailed out of Tromso, Norway, some two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. In America, he settled first in northwest Iowa, near Sioux Rapids; then in Niobrara, Nebraska; and finally on a farm in Colorado, in southeast Logan County, where he built a sodhouse, farmed, and raised his three sons.

An uncle explained Ben Benson’s life best: “He fished for a living the first half of his life, but dreamed of farming. He farmed the second half of his life, but reminisced of his days when he fished.”

That is the conundrum that perplexes every immigrant. Regrets and second guesses.

Was it wise for him to leave Norway?

I think so. Even though a life on that dry-land farm meant constant wind, and dried up or hailed-out crops, and vermin crawling out of the kitchen walls, he found a life there.

National Geographic magazine’s June 2013 edition describes the difficult life that the fishermen tolerate on the Lofoten Islands near Tromso, Norway.

The work on the sea is arduous and dangerous, the cost to buy a boat is “typically three-quarters of a million dollars,” and then the large seafood companies buy up the quotas for the millions of cod that arrive to spawn among the islands each year.

First, the history books tell us of the Viking Age; second, my family’s stories tell me of another age and time when my great-grandfather left Tromso, Norway; and third, that app for the young Icelandic boys and girls tries to circumvent what their geography and history gave to them: a small closely-related population with little migration into the island.

We celebrate the Vikings when we cheer Minnesota’s football team, and for two days each week we pay homage to two of the Norseman’s gods: on Thursday it is Thor, the thunder god, the god of war; and on Friday, it is Freya, the goddess of beauty and love, and Odin’s wife. They all live in Valhalla, the most gorgeous mansion in all of Asgard where the gods feast with slain soldiers.

Sunday is Father’s Day, the day when we recognize our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and great, great-grandfathers, and so on. My last name is fixed, and has not changed for five generations, and by it people know that my paternal great-grandfather was a Norwegian. No need for an app.

(Bill Benson, of Sterling, is a dedicated historian.)