The volcanic eruption at Iceland's Fagradalsfjall volcano. Photo by Toby Elliott on Unsplash

Mythmaking for Burning Ground

In 19th century Iceland, reframing aggressive nature as a source of belonging shaped a myth that built a more resilient future. We can do the same.

Iceland is erupting again. Since August 3rd, the Fagradalsfjall volcano has been weaving sulfur, steam, and lava into the planet’s newest stretch of land. Just sixteen miles from Reykjavik and nine from Iceland’s major airport, magma throbs from a fissure the length of three football fields, filling the surrounding valley with rivers of liquid rock and burning flumes. Tens of thousands have flocked to the site in the past month, hiking over old volcanic flows through slashing summer rain, to watch the earth’s molten insides transform into future ground.

The eruption was expected. Thousands of earthquakes tore across the region in the preceding days, activating Iceland’s early warning systems and hazard management teams. Within a day of its appearance, government workers set up informational signs and trail markers. Scientists collected lava samples for testing. The national meteorological office provided regular updates on wind patterns and rates of toxic gas emissions. That the fissure is relatively small, far from crucial infrastructure yet still close enough to the capital that visiting is a feasible day trip, makes the event what Icelanders call a “tourist eruption.” Locals and visitors alike are making the multi-mile hike, traversing slick gravel and fragile magma-laced land as neon-suited search and rescue forces1 patrol nearby, ready with information, supplies, and support.

It’s a level of preparedness Iceland has cultivated in part through mythmaking and story. One of the most volcanically active places on the planet, the island’s recorded history has been stacked with explosions since people first arrived in 874. Yet it was close to one thousand years later, in the shadow of the deadliest eruption to hit the country, that Icelanders began to develop a more proactive management approach to the ground beneath their feet. Known as Laki, the eruption’s devastation struck so deep that it sparked a fundamental shift in Icelanders’ stories about control, landscape, and change. Recovery involved developing a new myth about what it meant to be Icelandic, one that embraced rather than tolerated the island’s volatility, and expanded definitions of what safety in such a place entailed. By reworking shared fictions of identity and land, 19th century Iceland told a different story about its future, one that set the stage for new resilience.

Laki exploded in fire, smoke, and poisonous fumes in June of 01783. Witnesses described how “the earth swelled up, with a chorus of howls, filled with an uproar that made it explode into pieces… like a rabid animal rips something to bits.”2 Drizzle mixed with clouds of ash, creating black streams of airborne sludge. Acid rain began to fall, tearing exposed skin into open wounds. By the time it finally stopped eight months later, Laki had emitted two hundred and eighteen square miles of lava, enough to smother the city of San Francisco five feet deep. One hundred and twenty two million tons of sulfur dioxide, fifteen million tons of fluorine, and seven million tons of chlorine leached from the volcano, subsuming the lower stratosphere, blocking out the sun, and cooling temperatures in places as far afield as North America.3

As deadly as Laki was, the real devastation stemmed from what came after. Icelanders call the event Móðuharðindin — 'the famine of the mist'4 — because subsequent famine was the true killer. Gases released in the eruption clung to moisture in the air, decimating crops and killing over half of the country’s cattle and three quarters of its horses and sheep. The island was suddenly gripped in a food crisis so great that a fifth of the population succumbed to starvation and disease. Trade with neighboring countries might have alleviated the crisis, yet Iceland was a colony of Denmark at the time and prohibited from exchange outside the Danish system.5 It took Denmark until 01785 to send substantial food stocks and support, leaving Icelanders to die in record numbers.6  

As the decades passed, Laki’s legacy became an emblem for the failures of Danish rule. It was an indelible, traumatic reminder that the Danes didn’t understand what living in such a hostile land required,7 and enacted avoidable devastation as a result.8 Being Icelandic, a growing contingent insisted, was fundamentally based on hardship and struggle. Keeping another Laki from occurring depended on the island being controlled by people who not only understood Iceland’s harshness but welcomed it.

Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, a cadre of politicians, poets, writers, and painters began to push a new myth of Icelandic identity, one that reframed the intensity of its nature as a source of shared connection and empowerment. Writers Brynjólfur Pétursson, Konráð Gíslason, and Tómas Sæmundsson crafted texts praising the island’s pounding rivers, raging mountains, and deep moors. Painters like Finnur Jonsson depicted the country’s stark, jagged volcanoes alongside bright horizons.9 Poets and political leaders like Jónas Hallgrímsson described in detail “the outcrops of lava”10 that shape the island, openly celebrating its pyrotechnic precarity.

Illustration by Casey Cripe.

The emerging narrative was the kind of mythmaking that underpins all nation-building efforts. To borrow the words of writer Christian Salmon, myths and traditions are types of stories, used as “communication, control, and power technique(s),” for managing opinions, nationalist ones included.11  Philosopher and theorist Roland Barthes takes the sentiment a step further, declaring “there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative; all classes, all human groups, have their stories.”12 Building new futures depends as much — if not more — on creating shared stories of what’s possible and desired, as it does on access to capital, natural resources, and technical expertise. The stories a given group tells about itself — whether at the community or nation-state scale — dictates that group’s ability to inspire, guide, and execute collective action.13

Notions of nature have shaped the shared myths of societies for millennia, myths which in turn influence how those societies find shelter in shifting ground. Ancient Egyptians saw the Nile River as a source of life and death gifted from the gods, and structured development around its floods accordingly.14 19th century Romantic ideas of sublime nature infiltrated American nationalist narratives, burnished through landscape paintings and poetry that hinted at the limitless plenty of a seemingly untouched continent.15 The concept of Manifest Destiny developed in concert with that narrative, enabling an agenda of westward expansion and conquest so effective that it remade the country within a few generations. While Romantic views of nature influenced 19th century Iceland as well, Icelanders adopted a humbler interpretation. By accepting that some forces, like volcanoes, can never be brought to heel, the country created a new myth, one that positioned its people as uniquely competent in working with the unworkable, making them the undisputed experts of their land.

Celebrating its untamable nature eventually made Iceland independent, more resilient, and increasingly rich.16 Independence from Denmark came first, with home rule achieved in the later 19th century, followed by full recognition as a sovereign state in 01918.17 The end of WWII severed all latent colonial ties. Growing independence coincided with more organized responses to continuing environmental hazards, including new campaigns to combat rampant erosion and soil degradation. A formal department of civil protection and hazard management coalesced in 01962.18 When a surprise volcanic eruption hit an island off the southern coast in 01973, Iceland’s burgeoning proactive protection system helped residents to not just return to the island but improve the local fishing harbor and harvest free geothermal energy in subsequent years.19 Problems reimbursing affected residents in the eruption’s wake led to a national catastrophe fund to compensate future victims.20 A series of deadly avalanches in the 01990s inspired more investment in early warning strategy.21

Improvements in contingency plans and risk assessment models have increased in the decades since, paving the way for the country’s current tourism boom. In 01999, just 250,000 people visited Iceland. By 02009, that number spiked to 1.3 million. By 02016, it was 1.8 million.22 Encouraging people to tour the land of fire and ice has become increasingly profitable, so much that it comprised nearly one third of the country’s GDP in 02019.23 A century ago, Iceland was among the poorest places on the planet. Today, standards of living regularly rank among the highest in the world.24 Reframing aggressive nature as a source of belonging and power created a myth that built a more resilient future.

That myth shapes national discourse to this day. As anthropologist Kristín Loftsdottír notes, it has created “a general and reified sense of an Icelander as a subject capable of enduring… as good at persevering through crisis.”25  The myth isn’t static, however. Its shaping is an ongoing process, one that Loftsdóttir insists “is not simply imposed on docile subjects,” but conducted through a “back and forth, involving active subjects and a diverse group of actors.”26 Like all societies, conversations about what it means to be Icelandic are intrinsically tied to what it means to live on hostile ground.

Compared to many other western countries, Icelanders have developed a very different story about what navigating hostility entails. Because while an embrace of wild nature is deeply embedded in Icelandic identity, it doesn’t follow that Icelanders aren’t interested in trying to control their island. They are. Domination, however, isn’t the goal. As geographer Gunnar Thór Jóhannesson puts it, Icelanders “have a desire to manage and control nature. We just don’t let it go to our heads.”27 That framing has allowed a culture of responsive, scientifically informed risk management to grow.28 Continually preparing for the worst and sourcing opportunity in struggle, practices supported by national myth, are now the Icelandic way of life.29

The black steaming ground around the Fagradalsfjall eruption is among the planet’s most closely monitored pieces of land. Work crews take repeated measurements on air quality, ground composition, and lava movement. Others reconfigure hiking paths as needed, setting up lookout points so tourists who can’t make the walk from the closest highway can still see something of the molten rock. Visitors squint against slashing gravel and sulfuric stench as they make their way towards the magma’s heat, while teams of engineers scope out sites for earthen dams and diversion dikes nearby. The eruption’s high flow rates make it all but guaranteed that, without some form of intervention, lava will quickly subsume the highway’s route. Hence the dams and dikes, intended to guide the flows towards more preferred directions.30

It’s a proactive, organized system difficult to replicate elsewhere. Volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, and freezing winters have shaped Iceland’s collective memory for over a thousand years, creating an ingrained understanding of what it takes to negotiate hardship, and to have faith when challenges arise. Cultural context plays a critical factor in Icelandic narratives around control and change as well.31 The society is so small and homogenous that a group of students once created an app to prevent accidental dating between relatives.32 Generations of shared history, genetics, and a language spoken nowhere else in the world make for profound degrees of trust and connection — intrinsic aspects of resilience — that can’t be easily reproduced.

Yet Iceland’s evolution over the past two hundred years still provides lessons for other places looking to navigate increasingly uncertain ground. For one, continual learning, investment, and preparation is valuable. With each eruption, earthquake, flood, and windstorm, the national government invests in improving management tactics, monitoring tools, early warning systems, and response plans. Those improvements have made the country increasingly capable of handling the unexpected and profiting from intense events. While Icelanders acknowledge that total preparation against catastrophe is impossible, their widespread culture of proactive planning helps. With more familiar hazards, like volcanoes or avalanches, response plans account for ranges of possible scenarios and develop tiered arrays of backup plans.33 Officials use similar tactics to prepare for new hazards. Climate change, for example, is rapidly melting the island’s glaciers, forcing an exploration of life in Iceland without ice. Because glaciers help to keep volcanoes cool, scientists are anticipating far more frequent eruptions in coming decades. The government is creating new models on volcanic impacts, updated response plans, and revised hazard management systems to prepare.34 Having the resources to enable that learning, investment, and preparation is likewise key. Without certain degrees of socio-economic stability, committing to the continual refinement and adaptive response that resilience requires becomes increasingly hard, if not impossible, to do.

Whether those factors flourish is dictated in large part by underlying social attitudes towards environmental change. Abilities to proactively, and equitably, adapt are shaped by stories of whose security and safety is deemed important, what safe and secure conditions look like, and how much control is required to make them real.

As 19th century Icelanders showed, shifting those stories of security and change is possible. Collective myths spur and shape collective action. Fiction and imagination are extraordinary shared tools, ones that allow us to craft new identities and ideas about what we value most. Regardless of age or size, all nations, cities, and communities are the product of shared fictions. Those fictions are both constantly re-written and fundamentally shape the directions we choose to take. Challenging ideas of identity and land can be a powerful means of telling new stories about the paths we want to take moving forward.

For some, the trail to the Fagradalsfjall fissure offers a version of what those new stories could be. Getting close to the lava makes many hikers cry. Groups stand with mouths agape, hands pressed against their cheeks. They sit, sometimes for hours, mesmerized as the lava unfurls. Maybe it’s the force of the planet revealing itself that sparks their awe. Maybe the magma pulses remind them of the bigger geological picture, that human life exists on thin crusts of rock and soil floating on molten metals burning nearly as hot as the sun. People cling to each other as they watch, reaching out as the earth flames and shifts before them, making itself anew, building its future from its past.

Johanna Hoffman is an urbanist, researcher, and writer working in the space between design, planning, fiction, and futures. Her first book, Speculative Futures: Design Approaches to Navigate Change, Foster Resilience, and Co-Create the Cities We Need (02022), is distributed by Penguin Random House.


1. The search and rescue teams are part of ICE-SAR (Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue).

2. A priest named Jón Steingrímssonar documented much of Laki’s impact.

3. Thordarson, 01993; Jacoby, Workman and D’Arrigo, 01999; Klemetti, 02013.

4. Oslund, 02002.

5. Gunnarsson, 01983; 01980.

6. The Danish government was hesitant to provide foodstuffs and support without significant documentation of Icelandic conditions, population statistics. Much of the famine was mitigated thanks to improving weather in Iceland in the summer of 01785 and resulting harvests (Weiners, 02020; Gunnarsson, 01983).

7. A multi-year Danish study of the Laki event argued that the most effective, long-term means of helping Icelanders depended on permanent relocation to a Danish peninsula, away from their inherently wild and dangerous island (Weiners, 02020; Gunnarsson, 01983; Oslund, 02011).

8. Oslund 02011.

9. Oslund, 02011.

10. A 01835 Hallgrímsson poem of mentions deadly blizzards casually, as a basic context for finding and taking care of a lover: “Hingað gekk hetjan unga heiðar um brattar leiðir, fanna mundar að finna fríða grund í hríð stundum” [The young warrior went here over the steep paths of the heath, in a blizzard sometimes, to meet a lovely “ground of the ‘snows of the hand] (Ringler, Hallgrímsson and Ringler, 02002).

11. Salmon, 02010, p. 34.

12. Barthes, 01975, p. 237.

13. Smith, 01986.

14. Badawy, 01967; Wilson, 02013.

15. Madsen, 01998; Miller, 02007.

16. That the country is filled with white-skinned people and likely benefited from European and American support as a result, arguably shaped Iceland’s development into the wealthy, educated and technologically advanced society it is today. In contrast, within the Danish colonial system, the people of the West Indies had a much harder time moving into the modern era, possibly because they did not benefit from white privilege in the same way Icelanders did (Loftsdóttir and Jensen, 02016).

17. With World War II and Denmark’s occupation by Nazi Germany, Iceland finally severed all latent colonial ties.

18. While the department was initially created as a response to rising nuclear tensions from the Cold War, the government quickly complemented military defense plans with defense from natural hazards, creating a uniquely Icelandic definition of civil protection (Grzela, 02020).

19. McPhee, 02011.

20. Torfason, 01998.

21. Keylock, McClung, and Magnússon, 01999.

22. Fer ðamálastofa 02016.

23. World Data Atlas, 02022.

24. World Population Review, 02022.

25. Loftsdóttir, 02019.

26. Loftsdóttir, 02019.

27. Johannesson, 02022.

28. Much of the work is conducted by government officials in the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management, who conduct ongoing scenario planning efforts to fine-tune response strategies for ranging hazard impacts. Those scenarios are formed in concert with findings from the Icelandic Meteorological Office, which tracks shifts in Icelandic weather and volcanology.

29. Dugmore, 02022.

30. Kyzer, 02002.

31. This isn’t to say that Icelandic attitudes towards disaster and change are monolithic. They’re not. Differences in educational access and social outlooks create wide ranges of understanding across sectors of the population when it comes to ideas about vulnerability, exposure to natural hazards, and what to do during emergency situations (Elíasson, 02014).

32. Subbaraman, 02013.

33. The majority of response plans in Iceland are developed by professionals, primarily in government agencies. Experts may work with local communities but this is not always the case, creating situations where some residents know less about adaptation plans and can feel unprepared when hazards occur (Alderman, 02016; Elíasson, 02014).

34. Although the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management develops the bulk of the country’s response plans, it works closely with the Meteorological Office, taking its scientific information into consideration.


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