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Volcanoes and Poems

In 2010, the ash clouds from the Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland disrupt European air travel. Thankfully, the effects of the outburst remain small and short-lived. So different the Eldgjá eruption in tenth-century Iceland. It lasts for months and has a severe local and global impact.

How do we know?

A group of scientists have published their research about this eruption in the journal Climatic Change.1 The scientific results are striking. Ice cores and tree rings from Greenland and Europe, and the Tianchi outburst of 946 in Asia, all help to date this outburst on Iceland to 939–940. The strength of interdisciplinary research shows when this date is compared to relevant medieval sources. Both European and Asian texts speak of severe weather, hardship and famine in this period.

After Ragnarök by Emil Doepler. (Source: Wikipedia).

The authors then zoom in on one text, the Vǫluspá. This Icelandic poem dates back to the tenth century, too. It is one of the most-studied poems of the Eddaic tradition. Scholars still debate which elements are pagan or Christian, or how to date it.2 The researchers now suggest two stanzas describe a volcanic eruption and that the poem, therefore, dates after the burst. This study concludes with the suggestion that the disaster may have accelerated the Icelandic conversion to Christianity.

The dating of the Eldgjá eruption is likely to become a benchmark for future research. However, this is certainly not the last that will be said about the Vǫluspá or the conversion of Iceland.3


  1. C. Oppenheimer, C, A. Orchard, M. Stoffel, et al. ‘The Eldgjá eruption: timing, long–range impacts and influence on the Christianisation of Iceland.’ In: Climatic Change. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2018), pp. 1–13.  ↩
  2. Anonymous, The Poetic Edda. Translated by Carolyn Larrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014 revised edition), pp. 3.  ↩
  3. Terry Gunnell and Annette Lassen, The Nordic Apocalypse: Approaches to Vǫluspá and Nordic Days of Judgement. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013).  ↩

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