However, new Danish research suggests that people in Viking societies had a complex relationship with volcanoes and may indeed have been extremely wary of them.
New research hopes to shatter old assumptions
Academics and researchers of Viking culture and history have, up until recently, assumed that people in Viking societies had a relaxed and non-spiritual relationship with volcanoes.
This assumption, based largely on a single passage in an Icelandic saga, has been the focus of a doctoral thesis by Matias Nordivg at Arhus University.
The key to understanding (or misunderstanding, as Nordvig would perhaps prefer) the Vikings' relationship with volcanoes lies, like so much of understanding of Viking culture and society, in the old Norse sagas.
- READ MORE: What you need to know about Norse sagas
Yet before we get to the sagas, we must delve into the history of just how Vikings came to be in a land where volcanoes erupted (historically speaking) frequently.
The land of fire and ice
For millennia up until the mid-9th century CE, Iceland remained a solitary island cast adrift from human settlement.
From around 870 CE, this changed. The factors that saw peoples from Viking societies sail hundreds of miles across the treacherous and dangerous North Sea, risking life and limb to settle on what was hardly a tropical paradise, have been dealt with in better detail than The Viking Herald could ever wish to explain.
However, academics generally point to population pressure throughout the Scandinavian Peninsula (essentially a lack of farming land).
Contemporary sources point to a small family consisting of Ingólfr Arnarson along with his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttir and a stepbrother, Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson, as having founded Reykjavik in 874 CE.
Nonetheless, modern historians can agree that by the last decades of the 9th century CE, peoples from Viking societies had settled Iceland.
This isolated volcanic outcrop of human settlement saw the development of a sophisticated Norse settlement that the modern state of Iceland can trace its foundation back to.
Unlike other Norse settlements, the unique geology of Iceland means that Norse settlers lived amongst active volcanoes.
Iceland's volcanic activity
Without wanting to delve deep into geology, the reasons for the multitude of volcanoes in Iceland are due to the island's location where Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are slowly moving apart each year.
This creates a region where the earth's crust is, quite literally, being torn apart, and the result are volcanoes, which spew molten ash and lava when erupting.
According to the British Met Office (BMO), Iceland has over 30 volcanic systems dotted both on the land and in the sea nearby. Research has shown that, over the past 11 centuries, there have only been some 200 volcanic eruptions, of which some 75% were deemed "explosive".
- READ MORE: When volcanic activity threatened cultural monuments in Iceland, experts acted quickly to document the sites
The BMO states that, on average, there have been between 20 – 25 volcanic "events" per century.
So now that we (well, the BMO) have crunched the volcanic numbers, what does that mean for our Norse settlers in Iceland?
With, on average, 20 – 25 "events" per year, why do we only have one single passage in an Icelandic saga passed down to us about volcanoes?
Whilst tourists flock nowadays to witness these "events" (Iceland is both geologically and metaphorically "so hot right now"), one can only imagine what a pre-modern society, like the Norse settlers, would have thought about these volcanic eruptions and explosions.
The answer lies in the Icelandic sagas...
There is only one mention of volcanoes in the old Norse sagas. Illustration: The Viking Herald
An obscure reference in a saga
Nowadays, Iceland is swamped every year by thousands of tourists wanting to witness the sheer power and extraordinary beauty of its majestic volcanic scenery.
In recent years, Icelanders have seen a budding tourism industry explode thanks, in part, to shows like Game of Thrones using this stunning natural backdrop for a filming location.
About 10% of Iceland's Gross Domestic Product relies on tourism, meaning that its natural beauty, including volcanoes, is part of a big business for this small island nation.
However, if we wind back the clock around a millennium, what did the Norse settlers living there think of these volcanoes?
The first thing to understand is that Norse settlers – though they were scientifically advanced for their time (they managed to sail to the North American continent centuries before other European voyages of "discovery" with only the most rudimentary navigational tools) - lacked the basic scientific knowledge of geology that even a schoolchild learns today.
This is where Nordvig's research comes into light. For people that lived in a society that experienced, on average, some form of volcanic eruption every four years, there is very little written record of volcanic activity.
In fact, there is but a single mention of volcanoes in the old Norse sagas. In the passage, a Christian, recently arrived, is asked by a heathen if the volcanoes are a form of punishment from the Christian God.
The Christian retorts that the petrified lava was already there when the heathens arrived. Based on this rather obscure single passage, researchers and academics have assumed that the Norse settlers must have had rather non-plussed attitudes to these natural wonders.
For Nordvig, this is simply not the case. If we peer deeper into old Norse literature, we see a plethora of concerns about volcanoes disguised as metaphors.
In the poem that describes Ragnarök (the Viking end of the world), a giant (Loki) is bound up underground and is the cause of earthquakes.
Furthermore, the fire people of Sutr may be a metaphor for lava flowing underground, whilst Sutr himself is closely associated with fire and volcanic eruptions.
It is also worth remembering the time period of the beginning of the Norse settlement of Iceland. The early medieval period was a time of limited record keeping, especially for people from Viking societies.
In the beginning, the Norse society in Iceland was very much an oral culture, so what little we know about has been passed down, mostly through the sagas, over the centuries.
The use of poetic imagery and metaphors, according to Nordvig, is the key to understanding the Vikings' relationship with volcanoes.
Historians, academics, and even writers for The Viking Herald would all love to get inside the heads of people from Viking societies.
Understanding their fears, anxieties, and stresses is currently unattainable for academics and historians.
However, assuming that a whole society, which was plagued by volcanic activities, had a relaxed attitude to volcanoes because of just one single obscure passage in a saga seems wrong.
That is what Matias Nordvig is hoping to prove to the world with his recent (if you'll pardon the pun) explosive research.
The International Business Times has an article on the relationship between Norse mythology and volcanoes available to read here.
This deep-dive article was written thanks to the support of subscribers to The Viking Herald's Facebook page. Do you enjoy our work? You can SUBSCRIBE here or via our Facebook page. You'll get access to exclusive content and behind-the-scenes access.
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.