The gyrfalcon, the largest of all falcons, was worshipped among Vikings and sought after by European kings and members of aristocracy. Its trade became an integral part of the Icelandic economy in medieval times and in many respect a predetermining factor that indicated the value of staple goods imported to the island.
Ethnozoologist Sigurður Ægisson’s recently-published book Icelandic trade with gyrfalcons: from Medieval Times to the Modern Era covers the topic from several academic perspectives, providing brief but capacious explanations as to why and how the precious flying hunter had gained the reputation of the nation’s symbol, where to find traces of its erstwhile glory and what eventually happened after portable guns were invented.
Falconry, as the author describes it, is the art of training birds of prey for the taking of wild game. This affluent killer’s art had spread around the world, losing its origins either in the shadows of antiquity or one of the ancient oriental civilizations—there is room for scientific debate.
But what is rather too clear to be debated, to which Sigurður gives eloquent evidence, is that while praised by prominent dynasties as their most desirable gift, the majestic raptor had achieved international recognition and put Iceland on the map as its homeland. Carta Marina (dated 1539) depicts the country’s northern territory proudly occupied by the gyrfalcon.
One might be curious about circumstances that paved for the falcon the road to oblivion, as Iceland’s contemporary beaked trademark is, seemingly, the puffin.
As the story goes, being in service to their Danish governors, Icelandic falcon captors experienced a gradual decline in demand for their skills after the Industrial Revolution in Europe, particularly because of the development of firearms.
Changes were even more dramatic for the gyrfalcon. In 1885, Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament, had declared that they could be lawfully destroyed, and the bloodshed began. It was not until 1930 that the gyrfalcon finally obtained the status of ‘protected species,’ retaining this ever since.
However, until the 1990s, gyrfalcons’ eggs and chicks were intermittently smuggled out of the country, mainly for Arabic oil sheiks keen to pay astronomical sums for this perceived attribute of prosperity. The activity then ceased due to strict legislation prohibiting the practice and increased surveillance of nesting grounds.
Even though the Icelandic gyrfalcon is perhaps not as commercially popular as before, fortunately, as Sigurður asserts, it is nowadays relatively safe from capture.
Obviously excited about his subject, the author presents a thorough review of specialized literature, sometimes accompanied with quite numerous citations and references which could be relevant for those interested in further discovery.
If you do not share his fascination, you might find long paragraphs dedicated to taxonomy slightly redundant and tiresome. On the other hand, the text is very well structured and does not oblige readers to familiarize themselves with the content in chronological order, as each chapter can pretty much be read independently.
Icelandic trade with gyrfalcons is a lively acquaintance with a charismatic winged survivor, which still can be seen in areas where it has been soaring for many centuries—mostly in the northern part of the island from the West Fjords to Northeast Iceland. The book will certainly inspire you to look around in anticipation if you are passing by.
Icelandic Trade with Gyrfalcons: from medieval times to the modern era is available for purchase on amazon.com.
Iaroslava Kutsai – iaroslava.kutsai(at)gmail.com
Iaroslava is a journalist focusing on environmental issues, intercultural dialogue and problems of threatened identities. Before she moved to Reykjavík to do her master’s at the University of Iceland, Iaroslava had been working mainly in Ukraine.
She started as a staff reporter in daily news program Time at 5 TV Channel specializing in politics and culture, then contributed to the local edition of National Geographic and several national newspapers such as The Ukrainian Week and Mirror Weekly. During the revolution of 2013-2014 in Kiev, she was Icelandic national broadcaster RÚV’s fixer.