Fimbul Winter and the Plague: The Horrible Mid-6th Century

The mid-6th century must have been a terrible time in the Mediterranean world, in Western Europe, and probably other places as well.

Raids on Britain following end of Roman ruleIf you look up “the plague of Justinian,” you will find that much has been written on a bubonic plague outbreak during the rule of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian, peaking around 540–541 CE. Apparently that is part of a larger disaster that started around 536.

David Keys, author of Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization, speculated that this plague, which spread from the Middle East to Britain (if not farther), might have contributed to the collapse of Romano-Celtic Britain in the face of Anglo-Saxon invasion, despite the best efforts of King Arthur (whoever he was). 1)Roman forces had been withdrawn from Britannia in the early 400s and that colony more or less written off, although Britain retained a lot of Roman culture for a time. That hypothesis is based on assuming that the Romanized Britons had more trade contact with the Mediterranean world, which exposed them to the plague, whereas the English were more isolated. But who can say for sure?

I was introduced to Catastrophe by my friend and mentor, the English witch Evan John Jones, who had bought it shortly before I visited him in Brighton, and I stayed up late a couple nights speed-reading it after he and Val, his wife, had long gone to bed.

All that concatenation of volcanic eruption-plague-and climate change was brought back to mind by this article, “The Long, Harsh Fimbul Winter is not a Myth,” subtitled, “Probably half of Norway and Sweden’s population died. Researchers now know more and more about the catastrophic year of 536.”

Reconstructed Bronze Age house in Norway, typical of houses built up until 536 CE (Wikimedia Commons).

In essence, massive short-term climate changes slammed Scandinavia, northern Germany, and the Baltic region in the 530s, leading to abandonment of farms and settlements and the projected deaths of up to half of the peoples there.

“First came the Fimbul winter that lasted three years. This was a warning of the coming of Ragnarok, when everything living on Earth came to an end.”

This is how the story of the long harsh winter, called the Fimbul winter in Norwegian, begins, both in Norse mythology and in the Finnish national work of epic poetry, the Kalevala.

But why are stories that warn of a frozen end-time found in Nordic mythologies?

* * *

[Swedish archaeologist Bo] Gräslund was first to suggest that the Fimbul winter was a real event, and that it took place in the years after 536. He also pointed out that the 13th century Icelandic historian Snorre in his book Edda was not only concerned that it was very cold and the winters were snowy — Snorre was also concerned because there were no summers for several years in a row.

Whereas David Keys looks toward a volcano in Indonesia as the culprit, the Scandinavians are suspecting an eruption in Central America or Mexico:

“This must have happened somewhere near the Equator. Maybe it was El Chichón volcano in southern Mexico,” [climate scientist Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist] said.

The tiny particles from the two volcanic eruptions remained in the atmosphere for several years, leading to strong cooling in the northern hemisphere. Ljungqvist points out that there are now a number of studies of annual rings in old trees that confirm this.

He points out that the cumulative effect of two huge volcanic eruptions in the years 536 and 540 was what made this cooling quite exceptional and very long lasting.

The archaeological evidence is chilling, no pun intended:

In Denmark, archaeologist Morten Axboe found that large quantities of gold and other precious metal jewellery were sacrificed right after the climate shock.

Axboe’s theory is that these sacrifices were actions of desperate people. They sought to mollify higher powers and asked them to bring the sun back into the sky.

* * *

In Rogaland and the surrounding areas, until the disaster 1500 years ago, there were many skilled goldsmiths.

Both they and their craft disappeared.

The same thing happened to the many talented potters who had lived in western Norway before the Merovingian Period, from Jæren in the south to Sogn in the north.

It would take another thousand years before equally fine pottery was made in Norway.

You can’t blame people for thinking that this was The End, or at least a good preview of what The End would look like.

And one more item: The inscription on this 6th-century runestone from south-central Sweden appears to have been influenced by the horrible winters.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Roman forces had been withdrawn from Britannia in the early 400s and that colony more or less written off, although Britain retained a lot of Roman culture for a time.

Playing Heathen Neo-folk on North Dakota Highways

I was on my way to a little town in North Dakota where a friend lives about at the intersection of Norway and Washington streets — can you get any more perfect than that? And every little town is dominated by a Lutheran steeple.

A friend in Poland and I were emailing about how the eastern Dakotas and eastern Canadian prairies line up with Russia, ecologically. Only this is what you see instead of onion domes.

I drive on by, blasting Hedningarna (The Heathens) or some other Norski neo-folk on the Jeep’s speakers. The poor immigrants— their pastors thought that even Hardanger fiddle music was devilish. So much left behind.

Trolls through Time

troll.jpg

Storybook troll by the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen, c. 1900.

Translating the Chanson de Roland — the epic poem about Charlemagne’s campaign against the Muslims in Spain in 778 — for a Norse audience,1)In Norse, Karlamagnús saga. the Norse poet describes one Muslim emir thus: “The man was full of magic and sorcery and fraud and would be called a troll if he were to come up here to the northern part of the world” (33).

And you thought trolls lived under bridges? And how did we get from that to ugly-cute plastic dolls and Moomintroll?

“Troll” is an elusive category, but John Lindow does his best to sort it out historically and thematically in Trolls: An Unnatural History (160 pp.)

This short but well-researched book tells how troll in the old sagas overlapped with giant, witch, land-wight (landvaettir) and people — not just fierce warrirors but shape-shifters, Saami shamans, and even Greenland Inuit, whose lifeways seemed so unusual to the Norse settlers there (43).

One 14th-century saga describes trolls encountered in Helluland, usually taken to mean Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic (35). Were these indigenous trolls?

To “give someone to the trolls” meant to kill them.

The word’s origin is uncertain. It might have come from verbs meaning “to enchant” or “to tread” or “rush away,” with Lindow himself leaning towards an origin connected with magic.2)In the Norwegian translation of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a trollmannen (51). It was “an all-purpose word for supernatural beings” (51).

A troll transformation occurred in the 19th century with the rising interest in folklore-collecting. Still huge, trolls were depicted affectionately by a variety of Scandinavian artists.

Trolls (by that name) entered in the English-speaking world only in the 1850s, notably in George Webbe Dasent’s Popular Tales from the Norse, published in 1859, which familiarized Anglosphere children with the Three Billy Goats Gruff (100).

The movie Trollhunter (which is a lot of fun) invokes and tweaks all the old images — giants, bridges, goats, hostility to Christianity. In Lindow’s opinion, it is the best modern troll-flick. “Trolls have some way to go before they catch up with zombies, but they are certainly a presence in film and media” (122).

Notes   [ + ]

1. In Norse, Karlamagnús saga.
2. In the Norwegian translation of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a trollmannen (51).

A Viking is Nothing without his Oar

nydam
The Nydam ship was found in southern Jutland in 1863. It has recently been dated via dendrochronology to 310–320 CE, and the deposition in the bog where it was found is likely to have taken place 340–350 CE. The picture shows a German replica of the ship, built in 1935.1)Harald Åkerlund, Nydamskeppen: En studiei tidig skandinavis kskeppsbygnadskonst (Göteborg: Sjöfartsmuseet, 1963). (Photograph in Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landsmuseum.)

Norwegian scholar Eidar Heide tracks down the origin of the term “Viking” in an etymological article. Like a lot of people, I had thought it came from a word for “bay” or “inlet,” the first proposed word origin that he examines.

Not so, he argues, it’s all about the rowing — and the word itself actually predates the era of “the Vikings” as we typically think of them (PDF file, in English).

Note to readers: the abstract is at the end of the paper, not the beginning.

Scroll down here for a link to others of his articles on the history and archaeology of Viking ships, some in English and some in Norweigan.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Harald Åkerlund, Nydamskeppen: En studiei tidig skandinavis kskeppsbygnadskonst (Göteborg: Sjöfartsmuseet, 1963).

Ancient Precedents for a Norwegian’s Pro-Psychedelic Campaign

berserkers

This cartoon was not part of the New York Times story, in case you wondered.

A campaign to legalize LSD, MDMA, and other psychedelics in Norway reaches for ancient precedents. Didn’t the Sami (Lapp) shamans maybe use entheogens? What about those Viking who allegedly chewed on Amanita muscaria?

(Via law-blogger Ann Althouse)

Pentagram Pizza for April 21st

Week-old pizza from the back of the refrigerator …

• Here’s an idea for a novel: “two down-on-their-luck entrepreneurs who stumble upon the idea of reviving for-profit idolatry. Selling statues of household gods to the masses, and building a neo-pagan religion around it.” Um, I think that people have been doing this for some time.

Circus Breivik. Norwegian scholar of esotericism Egil Asprem analyzes the trial of Anders Behring Breivik. (He wrote about the shootings for the current Pomegranate.)

This trial will be about two things: psychiatry and ideology. Two drastically conflicting reports on Breivik’s mental health have already ensured this. Added to this, of course, is Breivik’s own clearly stated wish to be judged as sane, and have his actions confirmed as ideologically motivated.

Teaching classical philosophy to Brazilian schoolchildren:

I assured the students that until the nineteenth century hardly any philosopher was an atheist. Plato’s Euthyphro—with its argument about the relationship between ethics and the will of the gods—gets us into a lively discussion.

* This is called “edgy, irreverent outreach” by some of today’s Christians Jesus Followers. I think the pastor needs to look up “pathos” in the rhetorical dictionary, because he is doing it wrong. But to be fair, some long-ago saints would have agreed with him.

• Alcohol  “sharpens the mind.”  But “beer goggles” are real too.

Canada braces for more Danish aggression.