Metaphors, Aphorisms, and Volcanoes

There is a metaphor and an aphorism for everything, including volcanic eruptions.

In thinking about the eruption of Iceland’s volcano, I was reminded of The Prose Edda, the 13th century Icelandic epic by Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda is a handbook for aspiring poets and, according to Snorri, by far the most important thing for poets to know is how to make a proper kenning.

A kenning is a metaphor that replaces a proper name with a poetic description of what that person, place or thing is or does. For example, in ancient Icelandic verse, a sword is not a sword but an “icicle of blood”; a ship is not a ship but the “horse of the sea”; eyes are not eyes but the “moons of the forehead”.

Though invented by ancient Icelandic bards, kennings are still quite common. We use them every day. Simple phrases such as ‘brain storm’ and ‘pay wall’ are basic kennings, as is ‘pain in the ass’ as in you are not you but ‘a pain in the ass’.

Kennings are often among the first metaphors children produce. I remember standing at a window with my eldest son, Gilles, when he was about two. We were looking at a rainbow. He pointed to the sun streaming from behind some dark clouds and blurted out “big sky lamp”, a classic kenning if there ever was one.

So in honor of the Icelandic volcano, it seemed only natural to come up with some appropriate kennings.

Pliny the Younger, writing about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, described the volcano’s plume as “a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long ‘trunk’ from which spread some ‘branches’.” So in kenning form, this eruption could be described as ‘a giant tree of smoke and ash’.

The thing about kennings, though, is that they inevitably reveal our true feelings. If you want to know what you really think of someone or something—your significant other, maybe, or your job—try coming up with some relevant kennings. You might be surprised.

The most appropriate kennings for this eruption, which is overwhelmingly seen in the context of personal inconvenience and financial damage, are good examples of this. So better perhaps than ‘giant tree of smoke and ash’ are kennings like ‘nightmare of air travelers’, ‘disrupter of business meetings and state funerals’, ‘bankrupter of airlines’ maybe, and ‘windfall for train, bus and ferry operators’ certainly.

For me personally, living as I do under one of the flight paths for Heathrow, the best kenning is: ‘silencer of the skies’.

Which is another interesting thing about kennings: They often highlight some seemingly insignificant aspect of an event that later turns out to be decisive. Who could have predicted that, for me at least, the biggest impact of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano would be a few days of peace and quiet?

The eruption of another Icelandic volcano in 1783 is believed to have been one of the causes of the French Revolution, because the ash cloud led to a poor harvest in France and that, in turn, led to even more public unrest. Who can say what the ultimate consequences of this eruption will be?

In all the commentary around the eruption, the most insightful comment I’ve heard came from an Icelandic meteorologist. I doubt he intended this statement as an aphorism, but it certainly is. “Something is happening,” he said, “but we don’t know what it is.”

(Presented at the TED Salon, London, 21 April, 2010)