Archeological News: Surtshellir (“Surt’s Cave), Iceland

May 10, 2021 | Filed Under History | No Comments

A group of archeologists from the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University have written a paper on their work at Surtshellir (“Surt’s Cave”) in Iceland. The paper is behind a paywall ($35.95 for 48 hours of access; not in this week’s budget, maybe next payday), but Live Science has a free article about it on their site, with some of the findings and a few photos.

Shortly after the Norse settled on Iceland, the Hallmundarhraun volcano erupted, the first major eruption in Northern Europe . The event was a traumatic welcome for the new residents, and was memorialized in a song called “Hallmundarkvida”.

The settlers created a boat-shaped area inside the cave, and made offerings of burnt animal bones to the Jotun Surt, the King of Muspellheim, to stave off Ragnarok. The academics also theorize that perhaps some offerings were made to Freyr, as the myths say that Freyr and Surt would fight in Ragnarok, and it would not go well for Freyr. The residents’ offerings to Freyr were meant to give him strength to defeat Surt and avert Ragnarok, and thus the destruction of their new homeland.

In addition to the animal bones, precious objects, including beads from Iraq, and traces of orpiment, a mineral from eastern Turkey, which was used to decorate objects in the period, and would have been considered a valuable gift to appease the gods.

Once Iceland converted to Christianity, the offerings were no longer made, and the locals viewed the cave as the place where Satan would emerge on Earth on Judgment Day. Similar idea, different names—myths across cultures have more in common than not, much of the time.

A photo of the boat-shaped area inside Surtshellir.

Image Credit: Kevin Smith

[Image description: A photo of the boat-shaped area inside Surtshellir.]


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