Volcanic Blast Drove Icelandic Pagans to Christianity

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
The floor of the Eldgjá ("fire canyon")
The floor of the Eldgjá ("fire canyon") Credit: Andreas Tille
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A terrific volcanic blast lasting over a year seems to have convinced the suffering pagans of Iceland that their gods were dead and they’d be better off embracing Christianity, a new study dating the eruption postulates.

The eureka moment was conclusively dating a colossal eruption by the volcano named Eldgjá, based on information in ice cores and tree rings (which in turn is based on the postulation that “volcanic winters” interrupt tree growth).

The research was done by a team of scientists and historians led by the University of Cambridge, reporting in Climatic Change.

They then connect their finding with the most famous of Icelandic poems, the Voluspá (‘The prophecy of the seeress’), which is clearly describing a horrible eruption.

The Eldgjá erupted roughly a century after the island was first settled (insofar as we know). Vikings and Celts seeking new land to farm arrived from the North Atlantic in roughly the year 874, says the team.

Eldgjá, IcelandCredit: Google Maps

Being newcomers, they presumably wouldn’t have been familiar with, let alone inured to, Iceland’s long-term geological pattern, which includes frequent volcanic upheaval. The Cambridge team and others now suspect their terror at the blast, and Thor’s inability to help, drove a mass conversion to Christianity – formally dated at about 999 C.E. (or a year later), which was within decades of the massive eruption.

It isn’t exactly contemporary, but the 12-century Landnámabók (“Book of Settlements”) says that among the earliest settlers in the area of the eruption was one Ásbjrn Reyrketilsson, follower of Thor.

This is Codex Regius, an Icelandic codex which contains the VoluspáCredit: Clive Oppenheimer

Ankle-deep in England

When the Eldgjá blew in the 10th century, it didn’t produce some feeble burp of magma but a lava flood, which is when fissures in the crust keep pumping out more and more molten rock, engulfing the land. Typically this protracted flow is accompanied by toxic, corrosive gas emissions. In the case of Eldgjá, which means “fire gorge” in Icelandic, the magma spilled out of a rift 75 kilometers long.

Putin ahorse in Siberia's Tuva region: Note the interesting geological formations behind his bare torsoCredit: REUTERS

A famous example of lava flood happened in Siberia, to an extent that dwarfs even this Icelandic drama. In Siberia the lava is believed to have flowed for a million years, creating the “Siberian Traps”, but that was 250 million years ago. Icelandic volcanism is prone to floods of thin lava, but they thankfully don’t last as long.

Even so, the last lava flow in 2015 darkened the skies as far away as Ireland, the team points out. In the vicinity, a flood of molten rock accompanied by sulfuric gas would have made life nigh-unbearable.

Eldgjá’s output may have covered only southern Iceland but the volcano emitted around 20 cubic kilometers of lava, which (the team calculates calculates) could “cover all of England up to the ankles.”

Based on ice cores, the team estimates that the eruption began in spring 939 and lasted through to autumn of 940. A year and a quarter, roughly.

“This places the eruption squarely within the experience of the first two or three generations of Iceland’s settlers,” says first author Dr Clive Oppenheimer of Cambridge’s Department of Geography, adding: some may have witnessed it.

Europe sees red

Eldgjá’s eruption would shroud the entire northern hemisphere. It created a haze of sulphurous dust across Europe. Records in Ireland, Germany and Italy of the time describe blood-red, dim sunshine. A volcanic winter in the northern hemisphere ensued, according to evidence seen in tree rings.

When Eldgjá ("fire canyon") erupted in medieval Iceland, the lava floodlasted over a year and spewed out enough to cover all of England ankle-deep, say scientistsCredit: Clive Oppenheimer

“From northern Europe to northern China, people experienced long, hard winters and severe spring-summer drought,” the team wrote. “Locust infestations and livestock mortalities occurred. Famine did not set in everywhere, but in the early 940s we read of starvation and vast mortality in parts of Germany, Iraq and China.”

And that’s far afield. In Iceland itself, the newcomers must have suffered very badly, which brings us to the poem.

No texts survive in Iceland itself about the eruption per se, yet the Voluspá seems to be describing that very thing:

“The sun starts to turn black, land sinks into sea; the bright stars scatter from the sky. Steam spurts up with what nourishes life, flame flies high against heaven itself.” - Voluspá

Dating to 961, the poem goes on to predict the death of Iceland’s gods and the rise of a monotheistic deity. In other words it’s describing an abrupt conversion away from Thor and his ilk to Christianity.

The poem also describes cold summers, which is another reason the scientists suspect it’s referencing none other than the Eldgjá eruption, which is still the biggest Iceland has experienced since those sailors arrived over a millennia ago.

Fast-forward to now: the researchers suspect that then, missionaries purposely embraced the memory of the terror to push the Christian agenda. They think the poem was designed precisely to rekindle harrowing memories of the eruption, to drive a religious shift en masse.

Thus it seems the old gods died in fire as the priests deliberately evoked the memory of the terror to spur the Christianization of Iceland.

Even so, Iceland's volcanoes still erupt all the time, probably less because of the locals’ history of idolatry and more because the island sits smack on the mid-Atlantic ridge, which is a tectonic boundary.