Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Snorri and the Volcanoes

There’s a volcano erupting in Iceland again. They happen quite often—I saw one in 2010, when I took these photos, just before it shut down European airspace with clouds of ash.

Eruptions are a fact of life for Icelanders. A big one happened in 871 (plus or minus two years): The dark layer of ash it sprinkled over much of the country now helps archaeologists date the time of the first settlement of Iceland to just about that time, using a technique called tephrachronology. Another big eruption in 1104 laid down a layer of ash in a conveniently lighter color, which helps archaeologists bracket the Viking Age.

Geologists estimate ten volcanic eruptions per century took place between Iceland’s founding in the 870s and when the Icelandic sagas began to be written in the early 1200s. Then the frequency increased to about fifteen per century.

So why are eruptions essentially missing from the sagas?

Only once, in Kristnisaga, the Saga of Christianity, is an eruption a plot point. The chieftains were meeting in the year 1000 to debate whether Iceland should become Christian, as the king of Norway insisted. A rider broke into the proceedings to shout, “Earth fire! In Olfus!” A volcano had erupted on one of the chieftains’ farms.

“It is no wonder. The gods are angry at such talk,” people muttered.

“And what were the gods angry about,” said one chieftain, gesturing to the black, ropy lava all around, “when they burned the wasteland we’re standing on now?”

The great Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, subject of my book, Song of the Vikings, grew up in the shadow of a volcano. Hekla, the cloud-hooded mountain known in the Middle Ages as the Mouth of Hell, erupted twice during Snorri’s lifetime. Possibly three times, for the church annals record “darkness across the south” the year he turned five.

The annalist knew what caused that darkness. The Saga of Bishop Gudmund, written in the mid-1200s, contains this explanation (translated here by my friend Oren Falk of Cornell University):

“There are mountains in this land, which emit awful fire with the most violent hurling of stones, so that the crack and crash are heard throughout the country.… Such great darkness can follow downwind from this terror that, on midsummer at midday, one cannot make out one’s own hand.”

To the east of Snorri’s childhood home rose the ice cap of Eyjafjallajokull--from under which erupted the volcano I visited in 2010. Snorri would have seen only tier upon tier of vast blank whiteness, a glimmering dome mingling with the clouds so that on some days the horizon disappeared.

But Snorri’s contemporaries were aware that active volcanoes lurked beneath the ice. A thirteenth-century poet told how “glaciers blaze,” “coal-black crags burst,” “fire unleashes storms,” and “a marvelous mud begins to flow from the ground.” (Again, in Oren’s translation.)

Lava also spouted from the sea in Snorri’s lifetime, forming rugged black islands that rose above the waves only long enough for a few intrepid souls to row out and give them a name, the Fire Islands.

It is not surprising, then, that volcanoes also informed Snorri’s version of the creation of the world.

In the beginning, Snorri wrote in his Edda, there was nothing. No sand, no sea, no cooling wave. No earth, no heaven above. Nothing but the yawning empty gap, Ginnungagap. All was cold and grim.

Then came the giant Surt with a crashing noise, bright and burning. He bore a flaming sword. Rivers of fire flowed till they turned hard as slag from an iron-maker’s forge, then froze to ice.

The ice-rime grew, layer upon layer, till it bridged the mighty, magical gap.

Where the ice met sparks of flame and still-flowing lava from Surt’s home in the south, it thawed and dripped. Like an icicle it formed the first frost-giant, Ymir, and his cow.

Ymir drank the cow’s abundant milk. The cow licked the ice-rime, which was salty. It licked free a handsome man and his wife. They had three sons, one of whom was Odin, the ruler of heaven and earth, the greatest and most glorious of the gods: the All-father.

Odin and his brothers killed Ymir. From his giant body they fashioned the world: His flesh was the soil, his blood the sea. His bones and teeth became stones and scree. His hair were trees, his skull was the sky, his brain, clouds.

From his eyebrows they made Middle Earth, which they peopled with men, crafting the first man and woman from an ash tree and an elm they found on the seashore.

So Snorri explains the creation of the world in the beginning of his Edda. Partly he is quoting an older poem, the “Song of the Sibyl,” whose author he does not name. Partly he seems to be making it up—especially the bit about the world forming in a kind of volcanic eruption, and then freezing to ice.

This part of the myth cannot be ancient. The Scandinavian homelands--Norway, Sweden, and Denmark--are not volcanic. But there is nothing so characteristic of Iceland as the clash between fire and ice.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Save the Icelandic Goat

When the Vikings settled Iceland in the late 800s, they brought sheep, cows, horses, goats, pigs, hens, geese, dogs, cats, mice, lice, fleas, beetles … Archaeologists have found signs of all these in the detritus of a Viking Age house. 

Go to Iceland today and you can ride a Viking horse. You can buy a sweater made from Viking sheep's wool. You can eat cheese from the milk of Viking cows and--if you hurry--Viking goats. 

We could also talk about Viking dogs and Viking chickens, but it's the goats I'm worried about.

There's only one farm left in Iceland that specializes in raising Icelandic goats, and it's going on the auction block next month. Háafell in Borgarfjord--aka the Icelandic Goat Conservation Center, in foreclosure. Unless they can raise $90,000 in a month, their 400 goats will go to the slaughterhouse. That's about half the total population of Icelandic goats in the world.

If Háafell fails, we'll lose an important link to the Viking world.

Thor the Thunder god will not be happy. 

Goat is what Thor eats for dinner, according to Snorri's Edda. The two goats that pull Thor's chariot allow him to butcher and boil them every night. Provided that he saves every bone and wraps them up in the skins, unbroken, the goats will come back to life in the morning. 

The heroes in Valhalla will also not be happy. There, a magic goat produces endless vats of mead instead of milk for them to drink. 

And what, without goats, would make the goddess Skadi laugh? 

In one of Snorri's funniest tales, Loki was caught by a giant eagle who dragged him through treetops and bounced him on stony ground. "Stop!" cried Loki, "and I'll give you the goddess Idunn and her golden apples, source of the gods’ immortal youth." 

The gods began to grow old and gray. Forced to confess, Loki was ordered to retrieve Idunn. He borrowed Freyja’s falcon cloak and flew to Giantland. Learning the giant was out, Loki turned Idunn into a nut, clasped her in his talons, and took off for Asgard. When the giant came home to find his prize missing, he transformed into giant-eagle shape and went after Loki, "and he caused a storm-wind by his flying."

The gods stacked a great pile of wood in the yard of Asgard. As soon as Loki the falcon flew over the wall, they torched the stack. The giant eagle's feathers caught fire. He fell to earth, in giant form, and Thor killed him with one whack of his hammer. 

It's to compensate for this killing that the giant’s daughter Skadi was allowed to marry one of the gods. She also demanded they make her laugh; she considered it quite impossible. "Then Loki did as follows: he tied a cord round the beard of a certain nanny-goat and the other end round his own testicles, and they drew each other back and forth and both squealed loudly. Then Loki let himself drop in Skadi’s lap, and she laughed."

If that's not a reason to save the Icelandic goat from extinction, I don't know what is. Click here to go to the IndieGoGo site and get yourself a coffee mug:

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Names of the Week

Why did I write a biography of a 13th-century Icelandic chieftain who was murdered cowering in his cellar? Tonight I'm giving a talk to a book club in Burlington, Vermont, and I know that's one of the questions they'll ask me. Here’s one answer:

Have you ever wondered why Hump Day was named “Wednesday”? Or where the names Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday come from? These days of the week were named for the ancient gods Woden (or Odin), Tyr, and Thor, and the goddess Frigg or Freyja.

If it weren’t for that 13th-century Icelandic chieftain, Snorri Sturluson, we wouldn’t know much about these old gods. In about 1220, to impress a teenage Norwegian king—the same king who, 20 years later, ordered him killed—Snorri wrote a book of Norse myths called the Edda. Along with a collection of mythological poems (also confusingly called the Edda), Snorri’s book contains almost everything we know about the gods we still honor each week with the names Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

Tuesday is named for Tyr, the one-handed god of war. According to Snorri, Tyr stuck his hand in the mouth of a giant wolf. He was guaranteeing the gods wouldn’t double-cross the wolf when they bound him with a leash made from six things: “the noise a cat makes when it moves, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird.” Of course, the gods were lying to the wolf. They had no intention of freeing him again. So he bit off Tyr’s hand. Tyr “is not called a peace-maker” now, says Snorri, in the translation by Jean Young.

Wednesday is named for Odin, "the highest and oldest of the gods," the one with the most names and the most stories. Odin owns the hall Valhalla. He directs the Valkyries, who chose the slain on the field of battle. He is the god of poets and storytellers, the god of beer and brewing. He has two ravens, Thought and Memory, that keep him apprised of the news. I've written about the God of Wednesday (obviously) a number of times on this blog.

See, for example, the story of Odin's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, here:

Or the story of the mead of poetry, here:

As Snorri says, "It will be impossible for you to be called a well-informed person if you cannot relate some of these great events."

Thursday is named for Thor, strongest of the gods. Thor drives a chariot pulled by two goats. He has three magical objects: a belt of strength, a pair of iron gloves, and a hammer called Mjöllnir, or "Crusher." "The frost ogres and cliff giants know when it is raised aloft, and that is not surprising since he has cracked the skulls of many of their kith and kin."

Friday is named for Freyja (or maybe for Frigg, but Snorri doesn’t tell us much about Frigg). Freyja is "the most renowned of the goddesses." She drives a chariot drawn by two cats and enjoys love poems. She cries golden tears, wears expensive jewelry, and is not particularly faithful to her husband. "It is good to call on her for help in love affairs," Snorri says.

Why should we care about these old stories? In 1909, a translator called the two Eddas “the wellspring of Western culture.” That may be an exaggeration, but the Eddas are the source of much of our modern popular culture.

The Marvel comic character Thor—and the blockbuster movies about him—are obviously based on the Eddas.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were inspired by the Eddas—and so, of course, were Peter Jackson’s films, not to mention all the fantasy-themed movies, books, and games that feature wandering wizards, fair elves and werewolves, valkyrie-like women, magic swords and talismans, talking dragons and dwarf smiths, heroes that understand the speech of birds, or trolls that turn into stone.

The Gothic novel, too, has been traced back to the Eddas.

Their influence is even felt in “high” culture, stretching from Thomas Gray (better known for “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”) in the 1750s to our latest Nobel prizewinner, Alice Munro.

And, of course, the names of these gods are on our lips four days out of every week.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Uig Chessmen

In 1831, "a number of figures carved in ivory, apparently chessmen" appeared for sale in Edinburgh. Ten were quietly bought by an antiquarian and now reside in the National Museum of Scotland, along with an eleventh that surfaced a little later. The other 48 face pieces, some pawns and plain discs (possibly counters for a game like backgammon), and an ivory buckle were sold to the British Museum, where these "Lewis chessmen" are among the most popular objects on display.

Carved of walrus tusk, several of the Lewis chessmen look like Viking berserks, biting their shields. Based on such details of design and dress, the chessmen are thought to have been made in Scandinavia around the year 1200. In my book-in-progress, The Ivory Vikings (to be published in the U.S. and the U.K. in May 2015 by Palgrave MacMillan), I examine the controversial theory presented by Gudmundur G. Thorarinsson (here: that the chessmen were created in Iceland by a woman named Margret.

But where they were made is not the only controversy surrounding the chessmen. They're called the Lewis chessmen, for everyone agrees they were found on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. But when I went to Lewis two weeks ago, I heard several different stories of how--and where--they were discovered.

They were “buried fifteen feet under a bank of sand” on Uig Strand, somewhere near here:

They were found six to eight miles away at the “House of the Black Women,” thought to be an ancient nunnery, somewhere near here:

There was a shipwreck—and a murder. They were dug up by a cow, or a cow fell into a hole, or a wild storm scoured the dunes and exposed a strange underground room out of which a bevy of elf faces peered.

Once found, the chessmen were taken to the minister at Baile-na-Cille. He kept them here at the manse, before sending them on to Edinburgh to be sold:

In Ardroil, at the head of Uig Bay, the locals have erected a wooden chessman to mark the spot where the chessmen were found:

In Mealasta, site of the "House of the Black Women," archaeologists have dated a grain of barley to about the year 1200, when the chessmen were likely made:

The stories will never permit us to choose between Ardroil and Mealasta. All the accounts do, however, link the chessmen with Uig. The name--pronounced OO-ick--comes from the Old Norse word for bay, vík, from which we get our word Vikings.

"Uig" in the 1830s referred to the parish, not just to the bay, an area of over 200 square miles. Dave Roberts, a former schoolteacher who lives on a croft here, explained to me that adventurers who came no further than the Standing Stones at Callanish would say they’d been to Uig. And they had, indeed, crossed into the parish. But to reach Uig Strand took a fifteen-mile ferry ride down Loch Roag, then a four-mile walk along the boggy banks above Valtos Glen.

At low tide, the find spot at Ardroil would be a half-hour from there across the sands. The House of the Black Women would be a half-day’s hike over rather challenging terrain.

So where did the Lewis chessmen come from? We can all agree they came from Uig. Maybe we should start calling them the Uig chessmen.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Living Stones

Last year I wrote about a thin place, a place where the barrier between worlds--of ordinary and divine, of reality and story--are permeable. My place is Helgafell, a hill in Iceland. Its name means Holy Mountain.

I'm there now, wandering about in the fog and drizzle and occasional brief patches of brightness, and looking down more often than around at the mountains for the basic reason that I'm not wearing my Wellington boots and it takes a lot of concentration to hop through the marsh and mire and along the waterline without getting my feet wet.

So, of course, I came home with wet feet. But also with a hundred photos of what I saw while attempting to pay attention to my feet.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Horse Heaven

This week I'm leading my second tour for America2Iceland, this one with a theme borrowed from my first book, A Good Horse Has No Color. Not everyone on the tour read my book in advance, some are reading it here in Iceland and discussing it with me. But this morning, before we tacked up our horses, Debby gave me a big hug. "If you hadn't written that book, I wouldn't be here," she said.

Well, Debby, neither would I! And isn't it just horse heaven?

This tour is centered around a riding clinic led by Guðmar Pétursson, and is based at his own farm of Staðarhús, near Borgarnes in western Iceland. Here are some photos from my morning's walk:

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

At the Foot of a Volcano

Four years ago I had the adventure of a lifetime when a volcano erupted in Iceland and a friend and I took a jeep right to the crater's feet. I wrote about it in one of my first blog posts: "It sighed and breathed like a magical being, sending up mesmerizing red fountains of molten rock." It made me dream of dragons. 

Two weeks later a bigger eruption, of the famously hard-to-pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, shut down air traffic all over Europe.

Since then, I've been hearing at regular intervals that Hekla, or another one of Iceland's big volcanoes, is going to blow its top.  Here's the latest one, as reported in the Reykjavik Grapevine: "UK Govt: Icelandic Volcano As Great A Threat As Nuclear Terrorism."

It's true that Hekla is overdue for an eruption. Scientists can tell that the magma chamber is full. Warning signs are posted at all the roads and hiking trails in the vicinity of the mountain, with a QR-code you can use to access the latest safety warnings. Last time Hekla erupted, there was only 30 minutes' warning. (Read about the QR codes at Iceland Review.)

Iceland's volcanoes are already heavily monitored, and Icelandic scientists, including my good friend Kristín Vogfjörð, have organized a huge EU-funded research effort, FutureVolc, to try to improve their eruption predictions. (See for more on that project.) 

But sitting where it is, right over a hot spot where the European and American tectonic plates are spreading apart, Iceland is guaranteed to have another big eruption sooner or later. It might be an inconvenience, like the eruption in 2010. Or it might be a disaster.

One eruption of Hekla in 1104 wiped out the medieval farm called Stöng. Archaeologists call it Iceland's Pompei--though they found no preserved bodies. There's a beautiful reconstruction of the medieval longhouse near where the original farm stood.

Even closer to the volcano lies the modern farm of Leirubakki. Driving the long way around from Stöng last year, I went an hour without meeting any other cars. The mountain of Burfell looked like a sugar cube. The greenish glacial river Thjorsá rushed by. Across it, Hekla sat with her head wrapped in black clouds--as usual. "Hekla" means "Hooded One." 

Over the bridge and heading back south, I passed tumbled heaps of cold lava lying picturesquely along the roadside, interspersed with patches of black sand. Here and there grasses and spindly birch were reclaiming the desert. 

Finally, I turned down a lane, passed a hedge of trees, and found an endless meadow filled with horses. A half hour later, after checking into the Leirubakki Hotel, I was on a horse taking an hour's ride through a lava field. Then I treated myself to a long soak in the hot-tub and a delicious fish dinner, complimented by a local beer, in the restaurant of the Hekla Center, the volcano museum on the grounds.

Initially Leirubakki looked to me like a village, a jumble of buildings in vastly different styles. But when I saw it from a different angle, the strange combination of rooflines matched the foothills of the mountain behind them and it all made sense: the main house, the museum and restaurant, and the hotel all fit into the landscape. 

The windows of the restaurant look out onto the volcano, Hekla. The only complaint I had about dinner was the constant noise, like someone idling a big diesel rig outside the room--then I realized it was the soundtrack of the museum next door. A fake eruption was in progress. That put a different spin on things and I began thinking how vulnerable this farm was, sitting at Hekla's feet.

The farmers think about it all the time--which is why they built the museum (with professional help). The next morning I took the tour. It's a wonderful display, very scientific and with lots of educational content presented in an entertaining way. 

Big TV screens show loops of various kinds: aerial shots, eruptions, seismometer readings, a simulation of a magma chamber, paintings and photos of the volcano in action. The walls are filled with quotes about the volcano, including one that names it "the mouth of Hell." A timeline describes the 23 known eruptions since the settlement of Iceland, the first being the big one in 1104. The longest eruption lasted two years. The most recent was in 2000. The next one? It could be tomorrow.

If you want to learn more about Iceland's volcanoes, I recommend Island of Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned Europe dark, by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe (Profile Books, 2014). Read about it here:

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Lewis Chess Queen

What is she thinking? Let me know at and I'll put the best responses in my next book. If you give me your real name, I'll also include you in the acknowledgments.

As I announced in January, my new book-in-progress is a biography of a set of objects, the Lewis chessmen. These seventy-eight walrus-ivory figures, each under four inches tall, are the most famous chessmen in the world. Found in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, the Lewis chessmen are the most valuable archaeological treasure ever found in Scotland. At the British Museum in London, where most of the chessmen reside, they are one of the most popular exhibits. Several of them feature prominently in the current Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the museum--even though scholars agree they were made well after the Viking Age (between 1150 and 1200).

One reason they are so popular is the expressiveness of their faces--and how hard those expressions are to interpret. The queens, particularly, mesmerize me. All have one hand pressed to their cheeks. There's a beautiful 360-degree interactive video from the British Museum in which you can turn one of the Lewis queens all the way around as if holding her in your hand. [Click here to access the video.]

The caption says, "This chess queen resting her face on her hand in an expression of gloom was probably left on Lewis by a merchant sailing to Dublin, a Viking colony. Why's she so sad? Is she contemplating the vast Atlantic?"

I never thought this queen's expression was sad or gloomy.

I asked a friend of mine to look at the British Museum video. She commented, "I'm not sure I think the expression on the queen's face is sadness. Both the king and queen seem pensive, as if the weight of their responsibilities is paramount."

Sad, gloomy, pensive…

There are eight Lewis queens extant. When I used a photograph of this one as an illustration in Song of the Vikings, I called her expression "aghast."

What do you think?

The Ivory Vikings will be published in New York and London by Palgrave Macmillan in Spring 2015. My writing deadline is September 2014--which gives me six months. Odin's ravens, Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory), are going to be very busy with this new project, so they may not be visiting this blog as frequently as in the past. They'll stop in now and then, however--always on a Wednesday--at