Volcanic Eruption May Have Encouraged Icelanders To Become Christian - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Volcanic Eruption May Have Encouraged Icelanders To Become Christian

Published March 19, 2018

Photos by
Axel Sigurðarson

A new research paper contends that the 10th century eruption of the Eldgjá volcano may have encouraged Icelanders to take up Christianity.

According to the paper, published in Climate Change, the eruption is estimated to have taken place in the spring of 939 CE and continued until at least until the autumn of 940 CE. At that time, Iceland was newly settled, and Icelanders would adopt Christianity some time around the turn of the 10th century into the 11th.

The researchers believe the eruption, which created the largest known lava flood eruption of the Common Era, may have encouraged Icelanders to adopt Christianity. They cite the Völuspá, the first poem of the Poetic Edda, which has been dated to the 10th century. The poem, amongst other things, recounts how the Norse gods will invariably meet an end.

“Several lines of the poem describe dramatic eruptive activity and attendant meteorological effects in an allusion to the fiery terminus of the pagan gods,” the paper states in part. “We suggest that they draw on first-hand experiences of the Eldgjá eruption and that this retrospection of harrowing volcanic events in the poem was intentional, with the purpose of stimulating Iceland’s Christianisation over the latter half of the tenth century.”

Indeed, the Eldgjá eruption was devastating for the new arrivals to Iceland. The subsequent ash blocked a great deal of sunlight, sending temperatures plummeting and hindering agricultural development at this delicate stage of the settlement.

Two stanzas of the Völuspá in particular seem to elude to a devastating eruption:

“[The wolf] is filled with the life-blood
of doomed men,
reddens the powers’ dwellings
with ruddy gore;
the sun-beams turn black
the following summers,
weather all woeful:
do you know yet, or what?”

“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.”

Drawing from what scientists know about the timing and effects of the Eldgjá eruption, as well as the timing of the Völuspá and its contents, these researchers believe there is strong evidence the eruption itself aided the Christianisation of Iceland.

“In calling attention to experiences and memories of the Eldgjá eruption as signs that the old pagan ways were doomed, Völuspá suggests that the eruption acted as a catalyst for the profound cultural change brought about by conversion to Christianity,” the paper concludes. “While this was a gradual process over the latter half of the tenth century, and there existed a Christian population of Celtic roots even since the settlement of Iceland, the official date for conversion (kristnitaka) is 999/1000 CE. This followed a heated national parliament at Þingvellir (where annual gatherings had been held since 930 CE, before the Eldgjá eruption). In Kristni saga (‘the story of the conversion’), written in the thirteenth century, one of the key events is the sudden arrival of a man reporting a volcanic eruption. He claims that lava is threatening the land of one of the chieftains, Þóroddr of Ölfus, who was evidently on the Christian side. When the pagans noted that this was a sign of the gods’ displeasure, another powerful chieftain, pointing to the dramatic landscape of Þingvellir itself, asks ‘What were the gods enraged by when the lava we are standing on here and now was burning?’ (Grønlie 2006). Later traditions evidently associated the conversion with volcanic events, just as Vǫluspá does, in that case likely the Eldgjá eruption itself.”

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