Appeasing the fire god

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

Archaeologists working in Iceland have discovered what they believe to be burnt offerings to a fire god, read on for the story.

Hallmundarhraun lava field, quite close to Reykjavik in Iceland, was formed at the end of the ninth century AD, soon after the Norse (Vikings) arrived on the island. Fresh molten lava flowed through already existing expanses of cooled lava. Many of the tunnels collapsed partially to form caves. About 200 of these caves contain evidence of human occupation. The longest lava tube complex is Surthellir, which is over 3.2km in length (pictured above). The Norse named it after Surtr, the primordial fire giant of their mythology, the “blackener”, who would kill gods and humans at the end of time. Surthellir is enormous, what one author has called a “leviathan’s burrow”. The ceiling opens to the sky as a kind of skylight.

About 90m into the cave, a human-fashioned wall of massive ceiling blocks stands at 4.5m high, each block weighing up to 4 tonnes. Past the skylight, the cave branches. On the left is Vigishellir (“Fortress Cave”), dark, chill, and humid. Just inside is an oval, boat-shaped enclosure formed of small stones and only a few meters high. It may be the earliest Norse stone structure in the world.

Cattle, goat, sheep, horse, and pig bones lay inside the boat-structure, all of them burnt at high temperatures. There were also fragments of orpiment, a mineral from eastern Turkey, also 63 beads, three of them from distant Iraq. The researchers, headed by Kevin Smith of Brown University, believe that the offerings in the boat may have been placed there to appease Surtr. The last offerings, including a scale weight in the shape of a cross, were placed in the enclosure about 1,000 years ago, about the time the Icelanders converted to Christianity.