Why Is Iceland a Portal to the Moon?

by Justin E. H. Smith

There is a trite and obvious thing to say about Iceland, and that is that it looks like the moon. Descending into the Keflavik lava fields the other day, on an Icelandair flight from Paris, I was permitted to feel annoyed and a bit superior when I overheard the virgin French tourists behind me exclaiming as they gawked at the land below: Mais il n’y a rien là! By ‘nothing’ I thought perhaps they had meant ‘no Michelin stars’, but then one of them added, as if on cue: C’est comme la lune! Yet if there is an association between the earth’s only satellite and this basalt outcropping of the mid-Atlantic range that is too obvious to mention, there is another that remains to this day far too occult, and that is as deserving of notice as the other is of suppression.

The great German astronomer and natural philosopher Johannes Kepler, most famous for defending the Copernican system and for establishing the elliptical orbit of planets, began his 1634 Somnium (sometimes subtitled A Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy) as follows:

My name is Duracotus. My country is Iceland, which the ancients called Thule. My mother was Fiolxhilde. Her recent death freed me to write, as I had long wished to do. While she lived, she carefully kept me from writing. For, she said, the arts are loathed by many vicious people who malign what their dull minds fail to understand, and make laws harmful to mankind. Condemned by these laws, not a few persons have perished in the chasms of Hekla.

The narrator goes on to describe his mother’s commercial undertakings in what might be euphemistically called ‘folk medicine’, or, slightly more bluntly, ‘natural magic’:

In the earliest years of my boyhood my mother, leading me by the hand and sometimes hoisting me up on her shoulders, often used to take me up to the lower slopes of Mt. Hekla. These excursions were made especially around St. John’s Day, when the sun is visible all twenty-four hours, and there is no night. Gathering some herbs with many rites, she cooked them at home. She made little bags out of goatskin, which she filled and carried to a nearby port to sell to the ship captains. This is how she earned her living.

That Kepler decides to preface what turns out to be a fairly serious work of lunar astronomy –to wit, a theoretical reflection upon the conditions on the still-mythical dark side of the moon– with this narrative set-up is peculiar, not least because we know, and his contemporaries knew, that it reflects Kepler’s own life in significant ways. Kepler’s own mother, Katharina Kepler, née Guldenmann (1546-1622), was in the years leading up to the Somnium‘s composition being held in prison in Stuttgart on suspicion of witchcraft, under threat of imminent torture and execution. The son fought for years for his mother’s release, and eventually won it, but much of their life was spent in the frenetic uncertainty of the Hexenjagd. Kepler was concerned with witchcraft not only as a source of fanciful characters for his thin fictions.

And yet, this bit of biography in no way helps us to answer the question: Why Iceland?

Duracotus cuts open one of his mother’s little bags, and the herbs and runes come falling out. In a rage, she sells the little boy to a ship captain, and he sails off to the Danish island of Hven, where he eventually falls into an apprenticeship under the great Tycho Brahe, who instructs Duracotus first in Danish, then in astronomy. From the beginning, the displaced Icelander notices the similarity between his new learning and the traditions embodied by his own mother:

I was delighted beyond measure by the astronomical activities, for Brahe and his students watched the moon and the stars all night with marvelous instruments. This practice reminded me of my mother, because she, too, used to commune with the moon constantly.

Duracotus eventually returns to Iceland and is reunited with Fiolxhilde. Upon reuniting, they engage in an exhaustive exchange of information about their respective traditions. The Icelandic witch is happy to learn the latest science from the continent, and her son, in turn, is just as pleased to finally be indoctrinated into native secrets, “those arts among a people so remote from all the others.” Fiolxhilde relates her wisdom as follows:

Advantages have been conferred, Duracotus my son, not only on all those other regions to which you went but also on our country, too. To be sure, we are burdened with cold and darkness and other discomforts, which I feel only now, after I have learned from you about the salubriousness of other lands. But we have plenty of clever persons. At our service are very wise spirits, who detest the bright light of the other lands and their noisy people. They long for our shadows, and they talk to us intimately. Among them there are nine chief spirits. Of these, one is especially known to me. The very gentlest and most innocuous of all, he is evoked by one and twenty characters. By his help I am not infrequently whisked in an instant to other shores, whichever I mention to him… Most of the things which you saw with your own eyes or learned by hearsay or absorbed from books, he related to me just as you did.

This spirit, it turns out, specializes in organizing trips to ‘the island of Levania’, which lies ‘fifty thousand German miles up in the ether’, and which is, evidently, nothing other than the moon. Fiolxhilde goes on, channeling the spirit, to explain how the lunar voyage unfolds:

The road to it from here or from it to this earth is seldom open. When it is open, it is easy for our kind, but for transporting men it is assuredly most difficult and fraught with the greatest danger to life… Great as the distance is, the entire trip is consummated in four hours at the most… Because the opportunity is so fleeting, we take few human beings along, and only those who are most devoted to us. Some man of this kind, then, we seize as a group and all of us, pushing from underneath, lift him up into the heavens. In every instance the take-off hits him as a severe shock, for he is hurled just as though he had been shot aloft by gunpowder to sail over mountains and seas. For this reason at the outset he must be lulled to sleep immediately with narcotics and opiates. His limbs must be arranged in such a way that his torso will not be torn away from his buttocks nor his head from his body, but the shock will be distributed among his individual limbs. Then a new difficulty follows: extreme cold and impeded breathing. The cold is relieved by a power which we are born with; the breathing, by applying damp sponges to the nostrils. After the first stage of the trip is finished, the passage becomes easier. At that time we expose their bodies to the open air and remove our hands. Their bodies roll themselves up, like spiders, into balls which we carry along most entirely by our will alone, so that finally the bodily mass proceeds toward its destination of its own accord. But this onward drive is of very little use to us, because it is too late. Hence it is by our will, as I said, that we move the body swiftly along, and we forge ahead of it from now on lest it suffer any harm by colliding very hard with the moon When the humans wake up, they usually complain about an indescribable weariness of all their limbs, from which they later recover well enough to walk.

Fortunately, like some Laurence Sterne or DFW who can never be happy or finished with his work, Kepler provides us with his own explanatory notes on the Somnium, which are significantly more lengthy than the work itself. And he does not shy away from the question we’ve been circling around, Why Iceland? He begins by noting that “in our German language,” ‘Island’ means ‘Ice Land’.” But, he continues, the real reason for choosing it is the power it seems to hold of inducing a state of rêverie:

In this remote island I perceived a place where I might fall asleep and dream, in imitation of the philosophers in this branch of literature. For Cicero crossed over into Africa when he was getting ready to dream. Moreover, in the same western ocean Plato fashioned Atlantis, whence he summoned imaginary aids to military valor.

But still, why Iceland in particular, rather than the distant lands selected by his classical predecessors? Kepler supposes Plutarch had already discussed Iceland in his On the Face of the Moon from the 1st century CE, though he insists that this had nothing to do with his own choice. This choice, if we are to take Kepler at his word, turns out to be fairly uninteresting, a contingent result of a contingent choice of an obscure publisher to collate the plots of unrelated stories into a single volume. He writes of his sojourn in Bohemia:

At that time there was for sale in Prague Lucian’s book about the trip to the moon, as translated into the German language by Rollenhagen’s son; bound with it were the stories of St. Brendan and St. Patrick’s Purgatory in the earth beneath Mt. Hekla, the Icelandic volcano. Moreover, since Plutarch, in accordance with the belief of pagan theology, located the purgatory of souls on the moon, I decided that when I set out for the moon I would most prefer to take off from Iceland.

My thesis here, if I must have one, is that there is more to the story than this. The association between Iceland and lunar voyages runs deeper than some editorial caprice of Georg Rollenhagen fils. For one thing, we know that Kepler was reading other books, which can be shown to have had a significant influence on the content of the Somnium. In particular, the 16th-century Swedish minister and polymath Olaus Magnus’s Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (Rome, 1555) seems to have been particularly important. Magnus refers to the “artem magicam apud septentrionales populos” (Bk. 3, Ch. 15, 117), a phrase which Kepler subsequently picks up virtually unaltered. According to Edward Rosen, “Kepler’s use of the words montis… ignivomi to describe Mt. Hekla as the site of Purgatory strikingly echo” the terminology of the 1599 abridgement of Magnus’s Historia.

In fact, when we look at the entire passage on Iceland to which Rosen refers, we can plainly see that Kepler is relying on Magnus not just for his picture of Mt. Hekla, but also for much of Fiolxhilde’s later account of the Icelandic spirits that, as she puts it, ‘love the shadows’. Allow me to cite the passage at some length:

Islandia terra est subiecta polo Arctico, vento praesertim Circio opposita, ac mari Glaciali propinqua: atque ob id dici meretur terra glacialis, seu ultimum Tyle, nulli veterum non celebrata… Pro maiori parte montosa, & inculta, praesertim versus plagam Septentrionalem, ob austera spiracula praedicti venti Circii, qui nec frutices elevare permittit. Insula est insolitis miraculis praedicanda. Rupes etenim, sive promontorium in ea est… quod instar Aetnae perpetuis ignibus aestuat. Ibique locus esse creditur poenae, expiationisque sordidarum animarum. Illic nempe spiritus, seu umbrae, comperiuntur se exhibentes manifestos humanis ministeriis submersorum, sive alio violento casu enectorum. Spectra sese offerunt congressibus notorum hominum tam manifesta, ut tanquam viventes accipiantur ab ignaris mortis illorum, data dextra. Nec deprehenditur error prisquam disparuerint umbrae. Incolae plurimum praesagiunt fata principum, quiduc remotius in orbe peragitur, revelationibus apparentium spectrorum non ignorant, prout inserius cap. de magicis praestigiis lucidius aperietur.

The land of Iceland is situated beneath the Arctic pole, oriented principally toward the northwest, and close to the glacial sea: and this is why it merits the name of ‘Ice Land’, or ‘Ultima Thule’, celebrated among the ancients… For the greater part it is mountainous and wild, above all towards the northern coast, for nor does the austere vent of the aforementioned northwesterly wind permit anythng to grow. The island is known for its unheard-of wonders. And indeed the rocks, or the promontory in them, … are seething with a perpetual fire like Mt. Etna. And it is in that place that the punishment and expiation of besmirched souls is believed to occur. One finds there spirits, or shadows, that are manifested through the conjurations of men. The specters of drowned men or of men who died a violent death appear so real that, like living men, they shake hands with men who don’t know they are dead, and the error does not reveal itself until the moment when the specters have disappeared (‘De apparentibus umbris submersorum’, Bk. II, ch. 3, 62).

It is, in short, even more clear than it had been for Rosen, when we look at this entire passage, that Kepler is greatly indebted to Magnus, and not just for his appreciation of Hekla as a point of entry to a nether-realm, but also as an inspiration for the idea that Iceland is a place of commerce with spirits.

But we are still missing something very important: the sort of transit Kepler describes as happening from Iceland is not a descent into a dark nether world. Iceland as a point of entry to the center of the world is of course a familiar trope, as for instance in Jules Verne, whose 1864 Voyage au centre de la Terre begins with the deciphering of a supposed runic manuscript that describes where the volcanic points of entry lie. The idea that Iceland possesses such points of entry appears to be rooted both in the geology of the mid-Atlantic range, as well as in Norse mythology itself. Thus in the Gylfaginning, which makes up the first part of Snorri Sturluson’s 13th-century Prose Edda, there is mention of the Gjallarbrú, a bridge across the River Gjöll into Hel (a place that is what it sounds like). But the Gjallarbrú has its symbolic inversion in the Asbrú, or Æsir Bridge, which does not descend into the bowels of the earth, but rather extends from this world into Asgard, the realm of the gods. An alternative term for ‘Asbrú’ is ‘Bifröst’ (as found in the Prose Edda) or ‘Bilröst’ (as found in the Poetic Edda). These terms can all serve, even in contemporary Icelandic, as poetic or elevated ways of saying ‘rainbow’: a bridge that leads to the æsir, the gods. Thus in the Grímnismál, a component of the Poetic Edda, we find a concealed Odin revealing cosmological knowledge to Agnarr, who learns that the Asbrú is the best of all bridges, even if it is constantly burning up those who cross it:

Ka/rmt oc Avrmt
oc Kerla/gar tver,
þer scal Þorr vaða
dag hvern,
er hann doma ferr
at asci Yggdrasils;
þviat asbrv
brenn a/ll loga,
heilog votn hlóa.

Or, in Benjamin Thorpe’s 19th-century translation: “Körmt and Ormt, and the Kerlaugs twain: / these Thor must wade each day, / when he to council goes / at Yggdrasil’s ash / for as the As-bridge is all on fire, / the holy waters boil.”

There is no sign in Magnus, or any of Kepler’s known sources, of an understanding of the commerce wth spirits in Iceland as initiating a flight rather than a descent. There is little indication of any interest in the Historia in the arcana of Norse mythology, and if it is to this latter that we ultimately wish to trace Kepler’s Somnium, from the lunar voyage back to the burning bridge of the Æsir, scholarly prudence requires us to concede that we have yet to discover the path by which this trope was transmitted from medieval Iceland to early modern Germany.

What can be established is that in Iceland, as a result of the coincidence of its geological features with its geographical situation, we find the confluence of two widespread and ancient mythological tropes. Its vulcanism marks it out as a site of access to Hades or Hel, while its Arctic location causes it to be associated with another world not beneath but above or beyond this one– we see the Arctic being used for exactly this purpose in, e.g., Margaret Cavendish’s conception of a ‘blazing world’ that attaches to this one at the North Pole, and in the many subsequent iterations of the idea that ‘Nova Zembla’, as it was long called in quaint misunderstanding (and where, good maps show, there is a river called ‘Nabokov’), is a site where the ordinary laws of nature break down. Remarkably, both of these tropes are found already in the medieval Eddas, narratively represented by the two bridges, Asbrú and Gjallarbrú, burning and scintillating, dissuading the common lot of men from crossing them.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website