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Icelandic Eruption Spurred Christianity, Researchers Say

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Icelandic Eruption Spurred Christianity, Researchers Say

Holuhraun eruption

The Holuhraun eruption in 2014. Photo: Bernard Meric.

Researchers have accurately dated the Eldgjá eruption which occurred shortly after Iceland’s settlement, and suggest it was used to spur the country’s conversion to Christianity. A medieval poem may have recounted the event to purposefully stimulate the cultural and religious shift. RÚV reported first.

A team of scientists and medieval historians led by the University of Cambridge accurately dated the massive Eldgjá eruption, which devastated Iceland’s early settlers. Using ice cores from Greenland which preserve fallout from the eruption, researchers determined the eruption began around the spring of 939 and lasted at least until the fall of 940.

“This places the eruption squarely within the experience of the first two or three generations of Iceland’s settlers,” stated Dr Clive Oppenheimer of Cambridge’s Department of Geography, first author of the paper. “Some of the first wave of migrants to Iceland, brought over as children, may well have witnessed the eruption.”

The Eldgjá eruption is known as a lava flood, a type of eruption in which flowing lava engulfs the landscape over a prolonged period. Around 20 cubic kilometres of lava were released in the eruption, accompanied by a haze of sulphurous dust which spread across Europe.

“With a firm date for the eruption, many entries in medieval chronicles snap into place as likely consequences – sightings in Europe of an extraordinary atmospheric haze; severe winters; and cold summers, poor harvests; and food shortages,” said Oppenheimer.

“It was a massive eruption, but we were still amazed just how abundant the historical evidence is for the eruption’s consequences,” remarked co-author Dr Tim Newfield, from Georgetown University’s Departments of History and Biology. “Human suffering in the wake of Eldgjá was widespread. From northern Europe to northern China, people experienced long, hard winters and severe spring-summer drought.”

There are no surviving texts from the period which provide a direct account of the eruption. The celebrated Medieval Icelandic poem Vǫluspá (En. Prophecy of the Seeress), however, foretells the end of Iceland’s pagan gods and the coming of a new, singular god, describing an incredible eruption:

“The sun starts to turn black, land sinks into sea; the bright stars scatter from the sky.
Steam spurts up with what nourishes life, flame flies high against heaven itself.”

The researchers suggest these lines were used to revive distressing memories of the eruption and therefore stimulate the conversion to Christianity.

“Most striking is the almost eyewitness style in which the eruption is depicted in Vǫluspá,” stated Oppenheimer. “The poem’s interpretation as a prophecy of the end of the pagan gods and their replacement by the one, singular god, suggests that memories of this terrible volcanic eruption were purposefully provoked to stimulate the Christianisation of Iceland.”

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