Ancestry is a Privilege

Harald Harfagr statue
Harald Harfagr statue

When I was in high school, my family started getting into ancestry, and traced our lineage back to Harald Harfagr, the first king of Norway, on my mother’s mother’s side. On my mother’s father’s side, I’m descended from a Sheriff of Nottingham (though likely not the Sheriff of Nottingham of Robin Hood fame, and anyway, Robin Hood is more of an accretion of Green Man myths than an actual historical person). On my father’s father’s side, I’m descended from Pieter de Carpentier, Governer-General of the Dutch East India company in the 16th century. The de Carpentier family is where Carpenter Bay in Australia gets its name.

All this makes me exactly 0% special. All those Northern European genes add up to one very tall pale lady. And the further back you go in history, the more descendants these ancestors have. Harald Harfagr had upwards of a dozen wives, and children by all of them. My mom, a plant geneticist, did a calculation to find out how many genes I would share with Harald Harfagr, and after almost 1200 years, the answer is not many. If you have any Northern European ancestry, chances are good you are descended from Harald Harfagr as well.

Still, that connection to Harald Harfagr was what got me interested in his story, which led writing to The Half-Drowned King and its sequels, for that is the story of the rise of Harald Harfagr as told mostly through the eyes of his right hand man Ragnvald of Maer, and Ragnvald’s sister Svanhild. (Don’t google if you don’t want book spoilers.)

I always feel odd when I tell people about my ancestral connections, though, because an obsession with blood lines seems next door to an obsession with race. Also, the victors in historical struggles are much more likely to be able to trace their lineage than the oppressed. My husband, of Jewish ancestry, only knows the family history back three generations. His name is common, and the Jews of Europe were marginalized and displaced so often that it was hard to hang onto that history. The church records of the Scandinavian countries form an unbroken chain back to the coming of Christianity. Those countries suffered fewer destructive wars than Continental Europe.

These connections are also important to me, though. I love knowing my family’s history back that far, through the indigent Swedes, Dutch, and Irish who came to the United States at the turn of the century, to the more privileged ancestors, and back into legend, for if the Heimskringla (The Saga of Kings) is to be believed, Harald traces his ancestry back to Odin himself. I love knowing when I visit Norway, Iceland, and Ireland, that I am walking paths, and kayaking fjords, that my ancestors traveled upon a thousand years ago. I feel a greater connection to those places, knowing that my ancestors, suited to the cold weather, braved those hard winters and stormy oceans.

I try to walk the line of valuing my history without setting it above other people’s history. It is my history, the good and the bad. The vikings were pagan raiders who sacked monasteries and killed and tortured monks. They took slaves and sold them (often to Christian countries–not much moral high ground in Early Medieval Europe). They were also farmers and traders and settlers, men and women who had ambitions and loves, loyalties and enmities, like any other people. They were not particularly more violent than others of their age, but neither were they less. I find ancestry to be a useful connection to history because it reminds me that they were just people, that in a different age, I might have been very different, but still a person. It reminds me that who I am now is dependent upon and shaped by all these generations that came before.

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