Black Sun, High Flame, and Flood: Volcanic Hazards in Iceland
By Andrew Dugmore and Orri Vesteinsson
Surviving Sudden Environmental Change Answers from Archaeology, eds. Jago Cooper and Payson Sheets (University of Colorado Press, 2012)
Introduction: Iceland is one of the most volcanically active areas on earth, but were it not for the description of the end of the world in the poem “Völuspá,” one might think volcanic activity made little impression on Medieval Icelanders. Volcanic eruptions are duly recorded in annals from the early twelfth century onward, but as a rule they are noted with terse one-line accounts such as “1158: second fire in Hekla” or at most with minimal amplifications like “such great darkness that the sun was blocked”. The most detailed surviving description is given for events in AD 1362:
Fire erupted in four places in the South and lasted from early June until autumn with such enormities that the whole of Litlahérað was deserted, and much of Hornafjörður and Lónshverfi. It devastated a nearly 200 km stretch [along the coast]. In addition Knappafell glacier burst forth into the sea with falling rocks, mud and dirt so that there was flat sand where before the sea had been 50 m deep. Two parishes were completely destroyed, those of Hof and Rauðalækr. The sand stood at mid-leg on flat land but was driven into dunes so that the houses could hardly be seen. Ash was blown to the North so that steps could be traced in the fallout. Also pumice was seen drifting on the sea off the Vestfjords, so dense that ships could hardly sail through.
With the possible exception of the pre-literate period Eldgjá eruption in AD 934–938, the events of AD 1362 were by all accounts the greatest volcanic calamity in Iceland in the Middle Ages. Several other major volcanic eruptions occurred during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD, a period when Icelandic scholars wrote copiously about both recent history and contemporary developments, but it seems that even if they had an appreciable impact on the environment and the economy, the eruptions were not considered significant enough for comment. Nature, let alone volcanic eruptions, is firmly in the background of these writings: there is not a single unequivocal reference to a volcanic eruption in the entire corpus of Icelandic Family Sagas.