|Major Volcanoes in Iceland|
|Iceland Volcanic Landscape|
Then why is there little to no reference to volcanic activity in the Icelandic sagas? I highly admire the scholarship of Oren Falk, a fantastic scholar of Old Norse & Viking Age studies generally, and constantly pushes the boundaries of scholarship in the area. I was desperately searching for an article he wrote (but because I have graduated & maintain no access to the academic world - my anxieties are unusually high. Academic journals really should be open to the public. For example, "Open Journal Systems (OJS) is a journal management and publishing system that has been developed by the Public Knowledge Project through its federally funded efforts to expand and improve access to research." - when academic journals are open to the public it facilitates and expands education and research, and does not confine that privilege to an erudite few...)
So I finally got my hands on it - "The Vanishing Volcanoes: Fragments of Fourteenth-century Icelandic Folklore." In this article, Falk addresses a question which really has not been properly dealt with. As stated above, why and how, in a country so consumed by its volcanic identity could there be an absence of volcanic mention in the entire corpus of Medieval Icelandic literature. Oren Falk does not attempt to answer this question, but merely proposes thoughts and ideas as to why this is the case. He states that the lack of discussion of volcanoes in the sagas began as a footnote in his PhD dissertation; a question which he continually goes back to. Falk shows through a variety of sources that it was very much known across the Medieval world that Iceland was volcanic; the Chronicum Scottorum contains an Irish annal entry for the year 938, shortly after the land-take (landnám) period in Iceland, stating that "the sun was of the colour of blood...for a day and a half." Landnámabók [The Book of Settlements] c. 1100, also contains small traces of volcanic discussion. Additionally, an entry for Hrafn Hafanarlykill suggests that he removed his farmstead at Lágey because of a foretold "volcanic eruption" (eldsuppkváma).
Small instances of this kind only hint at an awareness of geologic activity which had the ability to affect living conditions, but what Oren Falk is intrigued by is the absence of a folkloric tradition. Oftentimes the natural environment is the foundation for folklore, stories and traditions which the Icelanders were highly keen on creating. Even in Norse Mythology, reference to lands of fire and destruction are highly commonplace. As Falk notes, the oddity really is because the Icelandic sagas are noted and revered by many scholars for their realism, (See Jakobsson, Ármann. "Beast and Man: Realism and the Occult in Egils Saga," Scandinavian Studies 83.1 (2011): 29-44) yet the absence of a very real occurrence in Iceland, is just missing.
Falk underlines a very small bit of literary evidence from Grettis Saga. Grettir is in Norway (a non-volcanic land) when he sees in the distance a burning fire. He inquires to a fellow Norwegian what he has witnessed, Grettir states,
"It would be declared," said Grettir, "if such a thing were to be seen in our country [Iceland], that it's treasure [that] is burning there," ("Þat myndi mælt," sagði Grettir, "ef slíkt sæisk á váru landi, at þar brynni af fé;" Grettis saga Ch18).The intriguing point is that Grettir claims that fire coming out of the ground indicates buried treasure. There are many motifs which fill the sagas of buried treasure in either hard-to-find, or fire-ridden locations. Egils saga is a great example. An older Egil toward the end of the saga tosses the box of gold which King Æthelstan of England had given him in friendship into what many translations of the text is either in an fire-ridden location. No one could ever locate the treasure again.
As stated, Oren Falk does not actually have a theory for this. The total absence of a folkloric tradition surrounding volcanic activity in the Icelandic literary corpus is too convoluted to explain. Yet, this is certainly a place for further research. I'm in.