Hermann, Pernille, Stephen A. Mitchell, and Jens Peter Schjødt, eds., with Amber J. Rose. 2017. Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 3. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_HermannP_etal_eds.Old_Norse_Mythology.2017.
Creation from Fire in Snorri’s Edda: The Tenets of a Vernacular Theory of Geothermal Activity in Old Norse Myth
Volcanism in Iceland
This suggests that we can expect that the early settlers of Iceland, within the parameters of their worldview, would have attempted to exert some form of cultural control over the geo-activity that they faced. Old Norse mythology is a local cosmology in Iceland of the kind mentioned by Juneja and Schenk. It can therefore function as an entry point to the relationship between early Icelanders and the volcanic activity of the region. In light of this, and that millennia-old stories about geological events seem to occur worldwide (Vitaliano 1973; Barber and Barber 2004; Piccardi and Masse 2007; Cashman and Cronin 2008; Hamacher and Norris 2011), it should not be controversial to assume that the premodern Icelandic literary material may contain more data on volcanism than is commonly recognized.
Method of approach
Barber and Barber’s theory of linguistic modulation of geological phenomena in When They Severed Earth from Sky is very similar to that of Falk. They call it the Analogy Principle: “If any entities or phenomena bear some resemblance, in any aspect, they must be related” (Barber and Barber 2004: 34–40). In the case above, a glowing dragon, its gold hoard, blood, and poisonous fires all bear some resemblance to the products of an eruption. This principle of analogy is, in fact, expressed quite explicitly in context of Old Norse mythology. According to Snorri’s Edda, when the god Loki is bound in the underground after having caused the death of Baldr, it is said that he causes earthquakes. As Loki jerks his bonds whenever his wife Sigyn does not protect his face from the poison dripping from the venomous snake above him, he makes the ground shake. Hár, who is telling this story to King Gylfi, says “Þat kallið þér landskjálpta” (Gylfaginning p. 49) (That is what you call an earthquake).  This may be an example of a vernacular theory of earthquakes particular to Iceland, seeing as the medieval Norwegian Konungs Skuggsjá explains earthquakes as the result of winds entering caves in the ground and making the earth shake. This is a notion that has its origins in traditional classical literature, and can be found in, among other texts, Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Nordvig 2013: 166). The two explanations are quite different from one another, and it seems that the one including Loki may be of Scandinavian origin, whereas the other one is not. In the following, I will employ this interpretative strategy in connection with the creation myth in Snorri’s Edda, and address some inconsistencies in the myth, which Holtsmark found puzzling in her 1964 analysis.
The nature image in Snorri’s creation myth
In the following, I will concentrate on interpreting two important elements in this description of water and ice in the creation myth: eitr and the Élivágar. Initially, I will treat the term eitr, because this term has most potential to illuminate the vernacular theory of geothermal activity.
Holtsmark proceeds to attempt an explanation based on examples of the use of eitr in other instances. Eitr does not only mean “poison” but may also denote pus from a wound. It is also used in a word for a special type of glaciers in Norway and Iceland, which are called eitrár. The use of eitr can then be explained as a function that refers to a frozen waterfall coming over a cliff (Holtsmark 1964: 31). Holtsmark goes on to discuss the term sindr “slag”. Similarly, while she accepts the image of sindr as reasonable to anyone who has seen the process of iron ore smelting, she goes on to wonder:
The image projected is that of the rivers flowing from a cold source and freezing when they have flowed far enough from their well. From this flow of eitr, vapor rises and turns to rime that builds layer upon layer over Ginnungagap. This rime persists in Ginnungagap even though the region is mild as a windless sky. The flow of eitr is compared, not to water freezing over, but to the cinders flowing from a smelter. As Holtsmark points out, this does not add up—at least not if the terminology relates to water and ice. However, if we consider lava and ash ejected from an eruption, the nature image may become more palatable.
A volcano’s lava flows from a lake in its newly formed crater and advances upon an area where it quickens. This results in the creation of a hraun, a lava field. The rubbly pāhoehoe caused by pulsating discharges characterizes the most common basalt flow types of Iceland (Þór Þórðarson and Larsen 2007: 131).