The March 2021 eruption of Iceland’s Krýsuvík volcanic system has led to the livestreaming of an eruption like never before. Yet in contrast to today’s information overload, the Icelandic sagas from 1000 years ago had little to say about lava, magma, or ash. Why not?
Not far from Iceland’s main international airport, a volcano is erupting. Nestled amidst the crater rows and shield volcanoes that enrapture first-time visitors to Iceland as they descend into Keflavik, a few small hills within the Krýsuvík-Trölladyngja volcanic system are spewing out neon orange lava for the first time since 1340, when the Black Plague was about to rear its head. The Icelandic media has taken to referring to the event as Geldingadalsgos, or the Geildinga Valley (dal) Eruption (gos). The excitable geology of Reykjanes (the ‘Smoky Peninsula’) that produces the tranquil, geothermally heated Blue Lagoon is now giving rise just 15 kilometers due east to its opposite: red-hot magmatism.
About a month ago, the Icelandic Met Office (IMO) warned of increasing seismicity in the area. Swarms of thousands of earthquakes worried residents in the nearby coastal town of Grindavik. Media reports, seismic charts, and satellite imagery were released in vast quantities.
Then, on March 19, when the volcanic system started to erupt, photographs of its hypnotic lava flows began filling news feeds everywhere. Fortunately, Geldingadalsgos doesn’t pose any immediate danger to residents since the valley is far enough away from any settlements. (In the Middle Ages, when Reykjanes was more geologically active, there appeared to have been more farms in the area, which would sometimes be destroyed.) Given the eruption’s small and contained scale, it also doesn’t threaten international aviation, or whatever remains of the industry at the moment, like the Eyjafjallajökull eruption did in 2010. So, all the more reason to enjoy the selfies and livestreams of the erupting volcano from behind the safety of one’s screen.
The silent generation
In contrast to today’s information overload—or rather overflow in this magmatic case—a thousand years ago when the Icelandic sagas were written, surprisingly little was explicitly said of volcanoes. Written around 1100, the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), which documents the Norse arrival in Iceland in 874, makes a handful of volcanic observations: There is mention of “earth-fire” (jaðeldr), for instance, and “mountain lava fields” (Borgarhraun, from Borg (a citadel, castle, or fortress-like hill) + hraun (meaning: a) lava; b) a cooled and hardened lava field; c) a crispy-creamy Icelandic chocolate bar).
Yet, as Oren Falk, a historian at Cornell, and other scholars have observed, on the whole there is an apparent “utter disinterest in volcanic phenomena” in not only the Book of Settlements, but in all the Icelandic sagas and poems that follow, too. What accounts for this silence?
In an article published in 2007 in the journal Folklore, Falk argues that in fact, much of the “geological upheaval” is present in the texts: it is merely hidden in metaphors and folk tales. A giant treading across the landscape, his footsteps leaving massive craters, could symbolize a volcanic eruption, whose cause lay beyond human control. Fire-breathing dragons could be metaphors for spewing smoke and gushing lava. Here are two examples from Vǫluspá, the Seeress’ Prophecy. The creation myth appears in the Poetic Edda, a seminal collection of Old Norse poems likely dating from sometime in the 10th century.
the rocky cliffs crack open and the troll-women areVǫluspá, or the Seeress’ Prophecy, in the Poetic Edda (translated by Carolyne Larrington, 1996)
men tread the Hell Road and sky splits apart.
The sun starts to turn black,Another excerpt from Vǫluspá (translated by Andy Orchard, 2011)
land sinks into sea;
the bright stars
scatter from the sky.
Steam spurts up
with what nourishes life,
flame flies high
against heaven itself.
Fantastic beasts and where they came from
All of these mythological creatures contrast with how, in the Icelandic sagas, nature typically “convulses under the lash of imperious humans,” according to Falk. In contrast, volcanic activity may be too mind-boggling to attribute to mankind’s doings. Despite living in the land of fire and ice, early Icelanders had not yet discovered plate tectonics or igneous theory. They explained the world around them using sociocultural rather than natural or scientific logic.
In this same vein, the sagas may have prescribed certain social behaviors when volcanic catastrophic loomed on the horizon, bolstering societal resilience. In the Mead of Poetry, in which the sweet alcoholic beverage and lava are made synonymous, immediately after dwarves and giants go off sailing into the ocean (perhaps a reference to exploding rocks and debris flying into the water), the Norse god Odin (in disguise as “Evil-doer”) quickly carries out a harvest before going inside a mountain. This story may have helped teach Icelanders to gather up food, water, and farm animals before taking shelter indoors at the first sign of a trembling earth.
Falk refers to these latent geological descriptions as “submerged vernacular theory.” Another scholar, A. Mathias Valentin Norvig, calls it “mythical encoding.” However described, these oral and written histories arguably helped inure Icelanders to a constantly changing landscape, which had experienced its most tremendous eruption of the past millennium in 939-940 AD, when the Katla volcano awoke from beneath the heavy glacier sitting atop it. The associated Eldgjá eruption may have been so cataclysmic that not only did it turn much of southern Iceland into a “wasteland,” as described in medieval sources, and darken the northern hemisphere’s skies for months. The event may have also helped bring down the Norse gods and spur Iceland’s Christianization around 1000 AD.
Eldgjá may have been so earth-shattering that new myths were needed.
From mythical encoding to information overloading
Today, rather than whisperings of “earth-fire” (jarðeldr) and warnings about what to do when a troll rolls through, when a volcano erupts, a barrage of data is dumped upon us. Digital coding has replaced mythical encoding. There is little mystery anymore about earthquakes or volcanoes, but the average person is still helpless in the face of them. Case in point? When people feel an earthquake, the first thing they might do is check Twitter to see if others felt it too, rather than prepare for further tremors. And what happened when started to erupt? “Everyone here is getting into their cars to drive up there,” quipped Rannveig Gudmundsdottir, a Grindavik resident.
Yet oral history remains vital to our survival. I grew up in “Earthquake Country”—California—where there were regular earthquake drills at school. From a tender age, we learned to get under our desks or under our doorway as soon as the earth began to shake. When this happened in real life, as it did in several occasions, I would instantly jump under my desk (burying my tear-streaked faced into the burgundy sleeve of my Catholic school uniform, imagining the skyscrapers downtown in which my parents worked collapsing.)
Years later, as an adult working in New York City, a freak earthquake occurred. My colleague from California and I immediately got under our desks, but everyone else, who’d grown up on the tectonically inert East Coast, ran like chickens with their heads cut off into the hallway. Even if earthquake drills might not have been offered to them growing up, they might have benefited from some geological myths.
In all of this, I’m reminded of Indian writer Amitav Ghosh’s observation that in the 21st century, there is an unusual dearth of climate change novels. This has since been rectified by a few new high-profile publications, including Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. And yet, on the whole, explicit artistic engagement with climate change does seem lacking.
Yet could Ghosh’s observation just be misplaced? Could it be that climate change is already embedded within the novels and stories we are telling today, much as volcanoes are present throughout medieval Icelandic poems and sagas, if only one reads between the lines? Rather than there being a “crisis of imagination,” as Ghosh declares, are we just unable to see the forest for the trees in our own contemporary creations?
Like Icelanders 1000 years ago who attributed volcanoes to supernatural rather than manmade causes, humans still struggle to wrap their heads around the phenomenon of climate change. Scientists have reached a consensus that climate change is anthropogenic in origin, but many people still vociferously debate the notion. Perhaps climate change to humans in 2021 is akin to volcanoes in 1000 AD Iceland.
The sagas taught Icelanders how to act when nature behaves unpredictably. Studying them may teach us how humans interpret calamities and catastrophes, revealing something about human behavior, too. Rather than confront terrifying planetary phenomena head-on, we may prefer to bury them within the stories we tell.
For that reason, a novel directly about climate change may not be needed. If anything, it could be too on the nose for the fragile human psyche. To foster resilience, it may be more important to ensure that people keep creating art, literature, and music, and consuming it, too, for within these works may be buried important morals and lessons. Ironically, a thousand years of accumulated scientific knowledge may render society less rather than more prepared if we are unable to communicate it compellingly.
Now gather round the fire, children…