There’s medievalism everywhere, even in the midst of an Icelandic banking crisis.
Iceland’s three largest banks have amassed a combined debt that’s nine times more than the country’s $19 billion GDP. On Friday, the Icelandic government intervened and bailed out the third-largest bank, the curiously named Glitnir.
Glitnir hasn’t always been Glitnir. Founded in 1904 as Íslandsbanki, the bank was renamed in 2006 “to reflect our wider Nordic tradition and to distinguish a new era of growth and expansion,” according to the Glitnir Web site. To the Icelanders’ Norse forefathers, Glitnir was one of several splendid places high above. In the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, Gangleri is impressed by how much knowledge an Æsir king can offer about these places: Mikil tíðindi kannþú at segja af himnum, he tells him. You can see the relation to English there if you squint: “Much tidings can you say of the heavens.”
Here’s what the Prose Edda says about Glitnir:
Forseti is the name of the son of Baldr and Nanna Nep’s daughter. He has a hall in heaven called Glitnir, and whoever comes to him with difficult legal disputes, they all leave with their differences settled. It is the best place of judgment among gods and men. Thus it says here:
There is a hall called Glitnir, it is held up by golden pillars and likewise roofed with silver. There Forseti dwells most days and settles all disputes.
“Forseti,” formerly the name of a Norse god of justice and peace, is now the Icelandic word for “president,” a choice that suggests optimism among the founders of the modern Icelandic republic. No journalist has yet alluded to Ragnarok in stories about the economic meltdown, but that’s understandable, because a failed bank named after a gleaming hall of divine judgment harks back to a concept far more timeless than anything medieval: good, old-fashioned irony.