Magazine article Natural History

The Peopling of a Volcanic Island

Magazine article Natural History

The Peopling of a Volcanic Island

Article excerpt

Iceland lay beyond the horizon of humans until the seventh or eighth century, when Irish monks sought solace on the isolated island more than 500 miles away in the North Atlantic. They came, in their words, "to serve God untroubled by worldly affairs." The monks found an impoverished land--except for cabbages, it was unsuited for agriculture--and a violent one: the medieval inspiration for Hell is believed to have been Mount Heckla, an active volcano seventy-two miles east of Thingvallavatn. In about 874, Vikings from Norway and the British Isles began to survey the island. Complaining that they "did not want to live among heathens," the monks withdrew to Ireland.

In about 930, these new Icelanders established the Althing, an open-air parliament, the first in northern Europe, which convened on the northern edge of Thingvallavatn at the delta of the Oexara River. Orators mounted a low hill fronting a rambling wall of basalt, which, unknown to them, was the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate. The fractured wall reflected and amplified the voices of the speakers, giving the spoken word an almost supernatural dimension. The audience gathered on the Plain of Immunity--actually the subsided fissure zone between the North American and Eurasian plates. Here, in theory, anyone was allowed to express an opinion without fear of retribution.

Legislated immunity was not infallible, however. One legend tells of the hero Flosi, trapped by knife-wielding enemies and forced to leap to safety across one of the flooded rifts at the eastern side of the Plain of Immunity. …

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