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The Patriarch: Myth and reality

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Chapter Summary

The average life-span has skyrocketed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which has led to the common misconception that very old people must have been rare before this. One scholar whose groundbreaking work has laid the foundation for this chapter is Lúðvík Ingvarsson who has done more work than most other Icelandic scholars in calculating the age of Icelandic chieftains. There is indeed a different myth afloat in twelfth- and thirteenth-century sources: that of a powerful old man or woman who dominates his or her surroundings. The chapter discusses this positive myth briefly and examines some cases of medieval Icelanders that seem to have reached extreme old age, some of whom continued to take an active part in society until their eighties or even beyond. It explores some cases of active old people, to ascertain whether the portrayals of Unnr and Njáll in some degree corresponded to reality.

Keywords: Icelandic chieftains; Njáll; old people; positive myth



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