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  • Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson (1927-2010)
  • Merrill Kaplan

Prof. Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson, the first Icelandic Professor of Folklore (þjóðfræði), passed away on March 2, 2010, aged 82. His accomplishments include a great legacy of books, articles, and lectures on folklore. It is thanks to his efforts that Folklore is an independent field of study in Iceland today.

Jón Hnefill was born on March 29, 1927, in Hrafnkelsdalur, a valley in eastern Iceland familiar to every beginning student of Old Norse as the setting of The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey's-goði. Jón Hnefill held degrees in religious history and philosophy (BA 1958 Stockholm University), theology (Cand. Theol. 1960 University of Iceland), and folklore (Ph.Lic. 1966 and PhD 1979 University of Uppsala). His doctoral dissertation was translated and published as Under the Cloak: A Pagan Ritual Turning Point in the Conversion of Iceland (University of Iceland Press, 1979, rev. 2nd ed. 1999). There, Jón Hnefill argued that a shamanic-type consultation with the Otherworld lay at the center of the remarkable and peaceable acceptance of Christianity described in medieval Icelandic sources. Many of his articles have been collected and published in English in A Piece of Horse Liver: Myth, Ritual, and Folklore in Old Icelandic Sources (University of Iceland Press, 1998).

Jón Hnefill's work is required reading for any interested in the supernatural episodes in the Icelandic sagas, the cultural negotiations between Christianity and paganism around the time of the Icelandic Conversion in the year 1000, and the workings of oral tradition upon accounts of historical events. This last he had investigated specifically in connection with his home valley and the events behind the Saga of Hrafnkel Freys-goði. His research is important for both folklorists and medievalists. It stands at the crossroads of folklore and philology, or rather, belongs to the venerable tradition of scholarship in the Nordic countries, where the two fields spring from the same source. This tradition was important to Jón Hnefill, and he was proud to have studied with Dag Strömbäck, Professor of Nordic Studies and Comparative Folklife Studies at Uppsala University.

Jón Hnefill Aðalsteinsson was teacher and mentor to a generation of Iceland's folklorists, among them Valdimar Tr. Hafstein, the present Associate Professor (dosent) in Folklore at the University of Iceland; Jón Jónsson, independent scholar and Director of Sögusmiðjan, the company behind numerous public folklore projects in Iceland; and Rósa Þorsteinsdóttir, Research-Lektor in Folklore at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies and Lecturer in Folklore at the University of Iceland. Jón Hnefill is dearly missed by his friends, colleagues, and students. [End Page 318]

Merrill Kaplan
Ohio State University


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