Intense Volcanic Activity In Iceland During The Middle Ages Inspired The ‘Völuspá’ Epic And Ended Paganism

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According to a new study, a volcanic eruption in Iceland 1,000 years ago not only inspired an epic poem, but it also spelled the end of the country’s belief in different gods and paganism and helped to usher in a new era of Christianity.

The Icelandic poem Vǫluspá was written in 961 AD and in it can be read verses with decidedly apocalyptic scenes featuring skies that grow ever darker while surrounding lands are devoured by the sea, according to Live Science.

“The sun starts to turn black, land sinks into sea; the bright stars scatter from the sky and flame flies high against heaven itself.”

While Iceland was first peopled with Celts and Vikings in different waves around 874 AD, up until now scientists couldn’t quite pinpoint the date of the giant volcanic explosion which resulted in the Eldgjá lava flood. This eruption was so intense that it is considered the largest by far to have affected Iceland in over several thousand years.

Scientists were interested in the exact date of this Icelandic eruption because they were curious to know whether the explosion and resulting lava flood would have affected people living there at the time. To that end, scientists took a look at Iceland’s ice core records, which showed that the deadly eruption would have occurred less than a century after Iceland’s first Celt and Viking settlers had arrived.

During Iceland’s spring of 939 AD, huge amounts of lava began flowing after a massive volcanic eruption, and this continued on and off until the following year, only stopping at some point during what would have been the fall of 940 AD.

As University of Cambridge professor Clive Oppenheimer explained, this eruption has now been shown to have occurred within just a couple of generations of Iceland’s first settlers, and this catastrophe left its mark forever upon these people.

“This places the eruption squarely within the experience of the first two or three generations of Iceland’s settlers. Some of the first wave of migrants to Iceland, brought over as children, may well have witnessed the eruption.”

Scientists also looked elsewhere in Europe for evidence to support this volcanic eruption in Iceland and came across stories from Italy, Germany, and Ireland that described what would have been a thick haze obscuring the skies in 939.

Scientists also found further evidence of the eruption by examining tree rings, which showed clearly that the year 940 was unexpectedly freezing for those living in the Northern Hemisphere. This is something that is to be expected after so much volcanic sulfur was released into the atmosphere in this region.

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University of Geneva professor Markus Stoffel described the cooling effect that took place over much of the world in the year 940 AD.

“In 940, summer cooling was most pronounced in Central Europe, Scandinavia, the Canadian Rockies, Alaska and Central Asia, with summer average temperatures 2 degrees Celsius lower.”

Other lines from the poem tell the sad tale of the change in weather brought on by the volcano, as Science Alert reports.

“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?”

While some regions of the world suffered more than others, there can be no doubt that this volcanic eruption in Iceland affected many different areas of the world and also resulted in the death of livestock as well as the arrival of locusts, as Georgetown University’s Tim Newfield noted.

“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.”

When reading the Icelandic epic Vǫluspá, it’s easy to see that when it was written it was done so looking back at the obvious death and destruction that was caused by the volcanic eruption that had occurred in the previous decades. The poem’s other purpose, according to researchers, was to find the best way of “stimulating Iceland’s Christianization over the latter half of the 10th century.”

The new study on how Iceland’s volcanic eruption inspired an epic poem and also helped to bring in Christianity can be read in the journal Climatic Change.