‘Now Flying over the Hell-mouth’: The Gap Between St Guðlac and Nordic Volcano Imagery

If you search for hell in your satnav you probably won’t get very far, but in the Anglo-Saxon literary imagination, hell appears to have been located around the North Sea. Michael Baker directs readers in a new article in our Postgraduate English journal. 

This investigation into the effects of landscape and place on apocalyptic literature constrasts the portrayal of demonic flights over a hell-mouth (in the 8th-century Latin Vita Sancti Guðlaci and 10th-century Old English Life of St Guðlac) with Norse volcanic imagery (in the possibly-early-as 10th-century Völuspá and later Hallmundarkviða). Proposing that Guðlac’s vision borrows Hell’s traditional location in the north but instantiates it north of East Anglia, the article discusses how the Guðlac narrative combines patristic hell-mouth imagery with an Anglo-Saxon social imaginary.

In the Dialogues of Gregory of the Great, immensely popular in Anglo-Saxon England, a volcano is described, functionally, as the mouth of hell. Guðlac’s vision of hell is difficult to relate to its more proximate visionary influences (Vita FurseiVisio St PauliVita Antonii), being much less concerned with pedagogical descriptions of hellish torments due the sinner in favour of an atmospherically elaborate apocalypticism. In contrast, Icelandic literature demonstrates a different conceptual organisation of hellishness and volcanic dynamism. The apocalyptic Völuspá, and the Hallmundarkviða episode from Bergbúa þáttr, offer an alternative to the moralisation of their lived environment. For Icelanders, environmental hazards like eruption can be associated with the actions and conflicts of supernatural agents on a spiritual plane, but the physical events themselves have an impersonal, if highly destructive, quality. Fascinatingly, the 13th-century Norwegian text Konungs skuggsjá addresses the validity of various perspectives on volcanic activity and its meaning, suggesting an encyclopaedic plurality of views. Later evidence from the Lanercost Chronicle would offer a complete conceptual mapping of hell and hellishness onto Iceland specifically: the Bishop of Orkney, on a visit to Iceland, reports that the souls of the damned can be heard in the fires of eruptions there.

Michael Baker’s full article is available to download free in issue 38 of our open access Postgraduate English journal, where you’ll also find a complete archive of research dating back to 2000. If you want to submit your own work to the next issue, see the current Call for Papers.

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