Icelandic Hell-broth

Krafla, Iceland. Photo © Land & Colors

In the Middle Ages, Iceland’s Mount Hekla was commonly thought of as a mouth of Hell, from whence one could hear the cries of the damned and even see their spirits haunting the peak — if the raging flames of hellfire weren’t blocking your view, that is. A few hundred years later, describing imagery as infernal or unearthly was still popular in travel accounts, as we saw in the case Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould’s thoughts on Námarskarð. Given the image above and those from the mud pits in the linked post, it really isn’t too surprising, especially after you consider that to reach these chthonic scenes the travelers had been riding ponies over a “tortuous and wretched” landscape of lava.

The Reverend Frederick Metcalfe, a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford and author of the very popular The Oxonian in Iceland; or, Notes of Travel in that Island in the Summer of 1860, with Glances at Icelandic Folk-lore and Sagas, traveled in Iceland just a couple years before his aforementioned countryman, and shares his taste for well-crafted descriptions of natural marvels that would shock readers at home. Metcalfe, or the Oxonian, as he was known in subsequent books by travelers to Iceland, displays more of a sense of humor in his writing than Baring-Gould, so I believe most of what I find funny in his text was actually meant to be amusing, which may not have been the case with Baring-Gould.

Moody weather over the moss-covered Eldraun Lava Field on the south coast of Iceland. Photo by Hans Strand/CORBIS © Telegraph Media Group, Limited.

I don’t think the humor detracts from the truthfulness of Metcalfe’s descriptions, however. Here’s one of them, written while traveling through the interior of the island by pony:

“The sprouts of lava, often protruding athwart the path, as sharp as quills of fretful porcupine, if they do catch horse or man, will rend and tear them as a gerfalcon does a ptarmigan. Not to mention, that amid the lava there are often small holes, the entrance to fearful caverns. The guide tells me that not long ago, when he was travelling, a horse slipped his leg into one of these holes, and in his struggles to get free, the limb was cut clean off above the hock; so razor-like are the edges of the lava.”

Looking at the photo on the left above, you might find the guide’s gruesome story hard to believe, but the next photo on the right gives a better idea of the type of sharp rock described. The Oxonian’s illustrations of Icelandic lava, as you can see from the description above and especially those below, have a dual nature to them created by his inventive figures of speech and the contrasting serious and humorous, as well as complex and simple, use of language. This makes his narrative vivid and engaging without seeming overly constructed or farcical, as much travel literature of the period can be, and instead it displays Metcalfe’s wit and skill as a writer. The grisly relation by the guide, quite likely a gross exaggeration meant to raise goosebumps on Metcalfe’s skin (it certainly did mine), is inserted both as an example of Icelandic guides’ typical storytelling that several authors emphasize in their negative portrayals of their incapable escorts, but also to shock readers with an idea of how sharp the lava might truly be.

Snow covered lava field at sunset. Photo by Shiv Verma

The following excerpts show that the “horrible lava” was not awful solely due to its keen edges:

“The twists and turns of the [lava’s] surface are here and there as sharp and fresh, as if it was only yesterday that the hell-broth had stiffened into stone, in the very act of waving and winding its tortuous eddies, and sucking up all in its hot embrace. Were it not for the bathos, I should liken parts of it to rolls of twisted tobacco; while the bits of igneous rock which bestrew the whole country in various places are exactly like fragments of Bologna sausage, speckled with white lard. In the crevices of the rocks a grove of stunted birch-trees have insinuated themselves, while Grass of Parnassus, dwarf heather, and other plants, seem bent on softening the rigour of the scene.”

Lava fields in storm in Landmannalaugar © Land & Colors

Here’s a description of the Krafla volcanic area (pictured above):

“Vapour-swollen caverns and deep crevasses yawn around; the latter hedged here and there by vast slabs of dusky lava, of various degrees of thickness—very boiler-plates to look upon; while black statuesque figures, and morsels of goblin tracery and sculpture, as if from the halls of Eblis¹, are grouped together in the wildest and most wonderful confusion.                                                                    …
“Dante, even, might have thrown into scenes of his Inferno a fresh touch or two, if he could only have seen what it was given to me to-day to witness. And Breughel—not ‘Velvet,’ but ‘Hell’—Breughel², as the Germans irreverently call him—could not but have profited by a peep at this Tartarean region.”

Over and over I see this type of description of Iceland’s nature (and references to Dante): wild wonders that are fantastic and terrifying to travelers at the same time, embodying the ideal Romantic picturesque combination of danger and pleasure in threatening, untraditionally aesthetic scenes. More to come!

¹ [The principal evil spirit of Islamic mythology]
² [Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Flemish painter]

2 thoughts on “Icelandic Hell-broth

  1. Pingback: Journey to the Center of the Earth, Via Iceland |

  2. Pingback: A Thesis Hypothesis |

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