Erik the Red is coming home

May 9, 1997

A DANISH fisheries inspection vessel arrives in Reykjavik next week with 15 parcels of 300 priceless documents on board - the final consignment from Copenhagen University of the ancient Icelandic Sagas and related historic parchments.

Their return comes 50 years after a bitter dispute between Denmark and Iceland over their ownership. Iceland, a Danish colony since 1381, declared its independence from Denmark in 1944 after being occupied by the British during the second world war and in 1946 demanded the return of the legendary sagas - regarded as central to Iceland's cultural heritage.

At its height, the controversy resembled Greek demands for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain, and it was not until 1965 that the Danish parliament passed legislation calling for the irrevocable transfer of some 1,800 early Icelandic manuscripts to Iceland.

This process - the return of Iceland's national birth certificate - has now ended, with the manuscripts returned over the past quarter of a century at regular intervals after undergoing meticulous processing and photographing at Copenhagen University's Arnamagnaean Institute, where they had been kept since the 18th century.

Protests failed to stop the return of the sagas to Iceland and 24 years ago the first shipment began.

The sagas had been held by the University of Copenhagen since 1730, when the Icelandic scholar Arni Magnusson (born 1663), who held a chair at the university, bequeathed his collection of ancient manuscripts to Copenhagen. The manuscripts, which relate Nordic mythology in Old Norse, recount the Vikings' 9th century settlement of Iceland and Icelandic family feuds.

They include the Saga of Erik the Red, the founder of Greenland and Vinland and were written from the 12th to 18th centuries.

The first shipment in 1973 included the Codex Regius of the poetic Edda or cycle, a collection of mythological poems from the 13th century and the Flateyjarbok, a canon of prose sagas of the Norwegian kings. Njal's Saga, which describes a violent and tragic 50-year blood feud in an ancient copy - no original survives - is to be kept by Copenhagen along with some 1,400 manuscripts related exclusively to Danish and Norwegian history.

Some 300 legal documents relating to Iceland's past were among the last shipment to Reykjavik, where a ceremony to mark the end of the historic handover will be held in June and a symposium staged.

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