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.


  1. Beautiful evocation of the role of volcanoes, past and present, in Iceland's story, especially as conveyed to us by Snorri. I am currently enjoying Katharine Scherman's 1976 classic Daughter of Fire: A Portrait of Iceland, which has pictures of Heimaey, before and after the 1973 eruption there. It is amazing to see the island change so dramatically--and so consequentially for people living nearby--in our lifetime. Still a question mark around the current activity, which could go either way! Thanks for your insights and perspective on it.