‘Now Flying over the Hell-mouth’: The Gap Between St Guðlac and Nordic Volcano Imagery
By Michael Baker
Postgraduate English Journal, Vol.38 (2019)
Abstract: This investigation into the effects of landscape and place on apocalyptic literature contrasts the portrayal of demonic flights over a hell-mouth (in the 8th century Latin Vita Sancti Guðlaci and 10th century Old English Life of St Guðlac) with Norse volcanic imagery (in the possibly-early-as 10th century Völuspá and later Hallmundarkviða). Proposing that Guðlac’s vision borrows Hell’s traditional location in the north but instantiates it north of East Anglia, the article discusses how the Guðlac narrative combines patristic hell-mouth imagery with an Anglo-Saxon social imaginary.
In the Dialogues of Gregory of the Great, immensely popular in Anglo-Saxon England, a volcano is described, functionally, as the mouth of hell. Guðlac’s vision of hell is difficult to relate to its more proximate visionary influences (Vita Fursei, Visio St Pauli, Vita Antonii), being much less concerned with pedagogical descriptions of hellish torments due the sinner in favour of an atmospherically elaborate apocalypticism. In contrast, Icelandic literature demonstrates a different conceptual organisation of hellishness and volcanic dynamism. The apocalyptic Völuspá, and the Hallmundarkviða episode from Bergbúa þáttr, offer an alternative to the moralisation of their lived environment. For Icelanders, environmental hazards like eruption can be associated with the actions and conflicts of supernatural agents on a spiritual plane, but the physical events themselves have an impersonal, if highly destructive, quality.
Fascinatingly, the 13th century Norwegian text Konungs skuggsjá addresses the validity of various perspectives on volcanic activity and its meaning, suggesting an encyclopaedic plurality of views. Later evidence from the Lanercost Chronicle would offer a complete conceptual mapping of hell and hellishness onto Iceland specifically: the Bishop of Orkney, on a visit to Iceland, reports that the souls of the damned can be heard in the fires of eruptions there.
Top Image: Volcano in Iceland – photo by Global Panorama / Flickr