“Twisting like a flame in a slow dance, baby…”

Although no less a folklorist than Kermit the Frog wondered why there were so many songs about rainbows, someone once pointed out to me that there aren’t many songs about rainbows, really. Off the top of my head, I know only one or two others; few people can name many more. Such is also the case with volcanoes in medieval Icelandic literature: Given the relative size of the corpus, you expect to find far more of them than you actually do.

Norse myths smolder with the threat of fiery doom. According to historian Oren Falk, the great Sigurd Nordal perceived enough lava-flecked glimmers in the prophetic poem “Völuspá” to see in its portrayal of Ragnarok “a distinctively Icelandic apocalypse.” Falk also finds mountain-bound giants in the 12th-century poem “Hallmundarkviða” who watch as “glaciers blaze . . . coal-black crags burst; the curse of wood [that is, fire] unleashes storms; a marvellous mud begins to flow from the ground.” So where there’s lava there’s volcanoes, right?

Nope—these distant poetic wisps vanish when scholars get too close. Falk spots only four anecdotes in Landnámabók, the Icelandic Book of Settlements, that hint at medieval Icelanders’ perception of volcanic activity. He scours the late medieval Bishops’ Sagas and finds only two mentions of volcanic eruptions, while “[t]he entire corpus of Family Sagas, thirteen thick volumes’-worth in the standard modern editions, seems to know nothing of lava and ash plumes.”

Even if Icelanders didn’t work many volcanoes into their poems and sagas, the medieval world nonetheless responds with a low, subterranean rumble every time a flustered news anchor tries to say “Eyjafjallajökull.” Its name may look weird, and its proper pronunciation baffles the non-Icelandic ear, but as a simmering reminder of the relationships between Germanic languages, this billowing Aschenwolke of a word is very nearly English.

The first element of “Eyjafjallajökull” is familiar to English speakers as the suffix -ey. You see it in place-names like Orkney and Jersey, and it’s the related Old English ieg that gives us the first syllable of its modern descendant, “island.” (Eyja was the Old Icelandic genitive plural.)

The second element, fjalla, has mostly disappeared from English, but the OED points out that you can see it in northwestern England at Bowfell and Scawfell—the names of hills.

Jökull, the Icelandic word for “glacier,” is the diminutive of jaki, “broken piece of ice,” and had a cognate in Old English, gicel. When Anglo-Saxon scribes needed a homegrown equivalent for Latin stiria, they translated it as ises gicel. The original word became ikyl or ikel in Middle English, and you can still see it frozen in time at the end a modern noun that fuses all of these pieces: “icicle.”

Jóhann Sigurjónsson, one of the first Icelandic poets to write blank verse, foresaw an apocalypse both personal and cosmic in which jóreykur lífsins þyrlast til himna, “the steeds of life swirl their smoke to the skies.” The plume of the “island-mountains glacier” will eventually dissipate, but even if we can’t now see the volcanoes, we can at least watch the ash settle into craggy, unexpected places, and patiently look for the relevant words.

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