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Depiction of Surtr – a powerful fire giant mentioned in the Viking age.

A Viking Flame Reborn: Myths and History Hidden in the Depths of Blackener's Cave

Forged by the mythological fires of Muspell, the Blackener's Cave lives up to its name as a cavern of fiery mystique. The volcano to which the cave is attached has long been silent, but Blackener itself has been patiently waiting for the chance to tell its own story. At last, due to the work of Kevin Smith and Guðmundur Ólafsson, Blackener has a voice again, albeit somewhat hoarse from waiting so many centuries.

An Important Cave from Viking Times

The Blackener's Cave, as it is called in the vernacular, is officially referred to as Surtshellir and is located in the Hallmundarhraun lava field in Iceland. A cave of volcanic origins, one is reminded of Jules Vernes' Journey to the Center of the Earth upon an examination of the cave and its significance in Viking times.

Surtshellir has been linked to the Vikings

Surtshellir has been linked to the Vikings. ( Surtshellir)

It was the Vikings who colonized Iceland in official records, the previous occupants of the solitary Atlantic island mere Irish monks—some of whom were "conquered" and enslaved when the Norsemen decided to settle on the island. (Irish slaves were a common feature of certain Norse settlements.) While at Iceland, Surtshellir was discovered—a collapsed "lava tube" forged in Hallmundarhraun by natural means. Surtshellir is significant, however, not only because it resides in one of Iceland's longest lava tubes, but because of the name it was given.

Typical passage shapes in the Surtshellir-Stefanshellir lava tube system, showing intact walls and pahoehoe floors.

Typical passage shapes in the Surtshellir-Stefanshellir lava tube system, showing intact walls and pahoehoe floors. (Dave Bunnell / Under Earth Images/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

The Fire Giant That Inspired the Cave’s Name

Surtr was one of the powerful Norse fire giants ( jötunn in Norse), one of the many enemies of the ancient gods. In fact, the Æsir and Vanir (themselves sometimes rival divine cohorts) united against the god Loki, the monsters of Hel, and the giants in the final battle of the gods: Ragnarök. Surtr played a prominent role in this battle; he would eventually summon the flames that engulfed that world, leading to an inevitable end to the world of gods and a new beginning for mortal men.

An artist’s depiction of Surtr.

An artist’s depiction of Surtr. ( Surtshellir)

Surtshellir was so named due to its blackened appearance. Forged from lava flowing through volcanic tubes, the cave walls and ceiling appear scorched as if by raw fire. As newcomers to this cold land, who themselves much preferred the fields and the seas, such a large and overwhelmingly vast dark pit likely felt god-like to the Vikings. Research has indicated Surtshellir is initially hidden, until the viewer is "almost directly on top of…the entrance", and the interior is "giant-scaled, a leviathan's burrow up to 40 feet [12.19 meters] in diameter…with massive, angular block of basalt calved from the ceiling". Any doe-eyed Norse newcomer was likely so flummoxed by the sheer size of the cave that an assumption that only a jötunn could reside there must have seemed like common sense.

Archaeological Significance of the Viking Age Cave

Of further interest to modern archaeologists is that, in spite of the alleged jötunn formation of the cave, the Vikings chose to make Surtshellir one of many caves within which to settle. The cold of Iceland would not have been a factor in such a choice—the Vikings themselves were from similarly cold regions in Scandinavia. Archaeologist and curator Kevin Smith and historian Guðmundur Ólafsson, who together completed the first archaeological survey of the site in 2000, put forth the theory that the cave was used for occupation. Though this theory seems simple, the vast amount of evidence for it still raises the question of why a cave; why this cave, in fact?

Viking Age structure, deep inside the cave

Viking Age structure, deep inside the cave. ( Surtshellir)

Smith's team uncovered two separate piles of sheep and goat bone fragments—one burned, one not, a large collection of beads (valuable during the Viking era), and stones that likely served as indications of weight. As a large portion of these items are dated to the late 9th and early 10th centuries, these finds coincide with the earliest settlements of Iceland: i.e., the need for an already formed shelter would have been valuable.

Another theory of Smith and Ólafsson's team is that the cave might have been a hideaway for outlaws. Though the above argument is strong, there are certain issues that would have made living in the cave willingly difficult to understand. First, there is no water in Surtshellir—anyone living there would have had to leave the cave repeatedly to acquire it. Second, natural light and heat would have been literally out of reach due to the location of the cave. Fire for "heat, light and cooking" would have been paramount. Third, the Iceland saga Landnámabók, written in the 13th century, directly discusses a group of outlaws who lived in the cave before the arrival of the Vikings and the story of Thorvald Thordarson, who traveled to Surtshellir itself to "recite a…laudatory poem, to the giant who lived there."

Landnámabók, written in the 13th century, directly discusses a group of outlaws who lived in the cave before the arrival of the Vikings and a story of Thorvald Thordarson traveling to Surtshellir.

Landnámabók, written in the 13th century, directly discusses a group of outlaws who lived in the cave before the arrival of the Vikings and a story of Thorvald Thordarson traveling to Surtshellir. ( Public Domain )

Difficulties on Discerning the Usage of the Viking Site

It has also been theorized that Surtshellir was used as a ritual site where Vikings made offerings and incantations to the giant they thought lived there. A scorched cave carved out of an earthen tube would have been an ideal place to set up a ritual shrine to the giant who lived in the fiery pits of Muspell (also called Muspelheim). The evidence of this thought comes from the location and the discoveries of burnt animal bones and beads—the latter sometimes used in certain rituals.

Some of the beads found in Surtshellir.

Some of the beads found in Surtshellir. ( Surtshellir)

Though there are many theories as to the exact purpose of the caves, unfortunately the Norsemen themselves kept few records. For a similar reason, little concrete evidence of their pre-Christian religion is understood. The Icelandic sagas and Eddas were written by Christians reviewing and examining a pre-Christian mythos and therefore can only be trusted as "evidence" to a certain extent. The archaeological data Smith and Ólafsson have uncovered paint a secure picture of a cave used by Viking newcomers; however, the reasons for use, worship, or—if the folktales are true—escape, are shrouded in a cloud of mystery as black as Surtshellir's scorched walls.

Top Image: Depiction of Surtr – a powerful fire giant mentioned in the Viking age. Source: Surtshellir

By Ryan Stone

References

Abram, Christopher. Myths of the Pagan North: the gods of the Norsemen (Continuum International Publishing Group: London, 2011.)

Batey, Colleen, Helen Clarke, R.I Page, and Neil Price. 1994. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World Oxford Limited: Oxford.

Colum, Padriac. Nordic Gods and Heroes (Dover Publications: New York, 1996.)

DuBois, Thomas A. 1999. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age . University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia.

Guerber, Helene A. Myths of the Norsemen (Barnes & Noble, Inc.: New York, 2006.)

Hudson, Benjamin. 2005. Viking Pirates and Christian Princes: Dynasty, Religion, and Empire in North America . Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Kellog, Robert. 2001. The Sagas of Icelanders . Penguin Classics Deluxe: US.

Patel, Samir. 2017. "The Blackener's Cave: Viking Age outlaws, taboo, and ritual in Iceland's lava fields." Archaeology Magazine. Accessed May 26, 2017.

http://www.archaeology.org/issues/255-1705/features/5468-iceland-surtshellir-viking-cave

Palsson, Herman and Paul Edwards (ed.) 2007. The Book of Settlements: Landnamabok . University of Manitoba Press.

Price, Neil. 2008. The Viking World . Routledge: London.

"Surtshellir Archaeological Project." Brown University- HMA . Accessed May 26, 2017.

https://www.brown.edu/research/facilities/haffenreffer-museum/collaborative-projects/surtshellir-archaeological-project

Unknown. The Poetic Edda . trans. Lee Hollander (University of Texas Press: Austin, 2011.)

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