Sveinbjörn Egilsson

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Sveinbjörn Egilsson. Sketch by Norwegian historian Rudolf Keyser (1803-64).

Sveinbjörn Egilsson (24 February 1791 – 17 August 1852) was an Icelandic theologian, classicist, teacher, translator and poet. He is best known for the work he did during his time as the rector of The Learned School of Reykjavík (Lærði skólinn í Reykjavík), particularly his translations of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad into Icelandic.


Sveinbjörn was born in Innri-Njarðvík in Gullbringusýsla, Iceland. He was the son of Egill Sveinbjarnarson, a little-known but wealthy farmer. Sveinbjörn was fostered by Magnús Stephensen and was educated by a number of different individuals. In 1810 he graduated from the tutelage of Árni Helgason and started his studies in theology at the University of Copenhagen in 1814, completing his degree in 1819. Returning to Iceland, he received a position at Bessastaðaskóli, and when the school moved to Reykjavík he was made rector. He was a founding member of Fornfræðafélagið, a society of ancient studies.

When troubles arose in the school, with students protesting their treatment ("The Pereat"), Sveinbjörn left for Copenhagen to seek the assistance of Danish educational authorities. Although he received their support, he left his position as rektor in 1851 and died a year later.

Sveinbjörn was married to Helga Gröndal, daughter of high judge Benedikt Gröndal the elder.



His main subject as a teacher was Greek. During his position at the school, he worked on a number of translations, translating amongst other things Plato's Meno and Homer's Odyssey and Iliad into Icelandic.

In his capacity as a member of The Society of Ancient Studies, he translated the Icelandic sagas into Latin -- Scripta historica Islandorum. Later he compiled a dictionary of Icelandic skaldic language, Lexicon Poëticum, which formed the basis of future scholarship concerning ancient Icelandic poetry.

He also translated Snorra-Edda into Latin and published the original text along with clarifications and comments.

When Sveinbjörn died, he was working on a poetic translation of Homer's Iliad into Icelandic. His son, Benedikt Sveinbjarnarson Gröndal the younger, finished the task. His prose translations are still the only readily available Icelandic versions of the Iliad and Odyssey.

Original works[edit]

Sveinbjörn wrote a number of well-known Icelandic poems and hymns, including the lyrics to the Icelandic christmas carol Heims um ból.


Skólaræður Sveinbjarnar Egilssonar. Almenna bókafélagið. Reykjavík, 1968.

Other sources[edit]

  • Gudmundson, Finnbogi (1969) Sveinbjörn Egilsson og Carl Christian Rafn (Odense Universitetes forlag)