Further to our recent discussion of comparisons between the ‘New Vikings’ of the Icelandic economic boom and their medieval counterparts, I discovered that the Reykjavík Grapevine has published — entirely mischievously — the text of a speech given by former president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson in 2005. Ólafur comes right out and attributes some of the Icelanders’ success in business to their Viking character:
Eighth on my list [of factors explaining this success] is the heritage of discovery and exploration, fostered by the medieval Viking sagas that have been told and retold to every Icelandic child. This is a tradition that gives honour to those who venture into unknown lands, who dare to journey to foreign fields, interpreting modern business ventures as an extension of the Viking spirit, applauding the successful entrepreneurs as heirs of this proud tradition.
Ninth is the importance of personal reputation. This is partly rooted in the medieval Edda poems which emphasise that our wealth might wither away but our reputation will stay with us forever. Every Icelandic entrepreneur knows that success or failure will reflect not only on his or her own reputation but also on the reputation of the nation. They therefore see themselves as representatives of a proud people and know that their performance will determine their reputation for decades or centuries to come.
It’s easy to be wise after the fact, but in the light of recent events one wishes that somebody in Iceland had had the prescience of Njáll in these matters: when Ólafur Ragnar concluded by saying ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’, he clearly hadn’t. Perhaps Hávamál 75 is the verse we should remember in the current climate:
Even a man who knows nothing
Knows that many are fooled by money;
One man is rich, another is not rich,
He should not be blamed for that.
Or, even better, the second half of stanza 78:
Wealth is like the twinkling of an eye,
It is the most unreliable of friends.