Fimbulwinter 536 AD: Ragnarok as ecological disaster and the demise of Proto-Norse

The gods have abandoned you. The sun's rays are fainter than they used to be. Dim and barely discernible behind a misty veil that stretches across the sky in all directions, reaching far beyond the horizon. You are weak and sickly, your stomach grumbles but there is nothing eat. The pantry is empty and the crops won't grow. It should have been summer by now in this year of constant twilight, but the soil is still frozen. The year is 536, and in Byzantium the chronicler Procopius writes:
It came about during this year that a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death. And it was the time when Justinian was in the tenth year of his reign.

Crisis on a cosmic scale

Irish annals attest to famine, of crop failures and shortages of bread. A dense expanse of fog is described in both Europe and the Middle East. Summer snow is reported as far away as China, where witnesses claim to have heard a powerful boom emanating from the South the year before. In Scandinavia, researchers will later find evidence of severe retardation in tree growth at this point in time owing it to climactic instability, with tree rings bearing tell-tale signs of frost damage in the summer of 536. In the district of Jæren, South-West Norway – a comparatively fertile area by Norwegian standards, archaeologists see indications of agricultural collapse. There must have been famine, pestilence, social and political turmoil. Generations of accumulated power must have poured like sand between the fingers of ancient dynasties and prestigious families. Winter followed winter, without the pleasant respite of summer. Beneath the seemingly dying sun a wolf and axe age erupted. Brothers clashed against their brethren, spawning a militant reorganization of society.

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

We are not entirely sure what caused these terrible and cataclysmic events, or where it all started. Most scholars argue in favor of a super-volcanic eruption. Others suggest it could have been caused by a bombardment of meteorites, which would have flung dust high into the atmosphere, causing a global cooling event. There is also some evidence to suggest an unlucky combination of both. The eighteen kilometer wide Grendel crater, which lies at the bottom of the sea in Skagerrak, betwixt Norway, Sweden and Denmark, may have been created at this time. A meteorite this size would certainly have unleashed a massive tsunami as well, eradicating nearby coastal settlements. Whatever the origin, we may all agree on one single thing: This must have been a terrible time to be European.

But it didn't end there. Just when the North was getting back on its feet, Mother Nature threw another punch: Only five years later, between 541 and 542, the Justinian plague spreads across Europe, «by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated» Procopius states. Historians speculate it might have killed off just about 50% of the European population at the time. The bacterium in question was the dreaded Yersinia pestis, a pathogen of the same breed as the Black Death that swept across the world in the mid-1300's.

J.C. Dahl, Eruption of the Volcano Vesuvius, 1821

From the ashes came a new language

As grim as it must have been to live through, it's an exciting period from the viewpoint of historical linguistics. We may identify and reconstruct ancient linguistic shifts, but we are often clueless about their exact causes. However, the extreme conditions of following the 536 crisis may have given rise to one of the most prominent linguistic transitions in Scandinavian history, comparable only to the changes caused by the black death some 800 years later. The 6th century climate crisis coincides with the demise of the Proto-Norse language, which in turn gave rise to an early form of Old Norse.

Proto-Norse, originally a dialect of North Germanic, is the language of the oldest runic inscriptions, and you could say that Proto-Norse is the grandfather of all the North Germanic languages. This metaphor is striking for a somewhat bleak reason: Judging from runic inscriptions, the language developed so rapidly that the younger generation must have spoken a distinctly different language from their grandparents. But not due to an external linguistic influence. It's indicative of a demographic crisis: Vast portions of the population was dying, and they died young.

I'll use my name as an example: Had I been born around the middle of the 6th century, my Proto-Norse speaking peers might have known me as *Aiwaríkiaʀ, or “Eternal Ruler” in modern English. Had I, on the other hand, been born in the second half of the 7th century, my name would have been something akin to *Ęiríkʀ. Easily recognizable in the modern variants Eirik and Erik. If I was proficient in runes, I would could still discern the phonological content of centuries old inscriptions carved in the elder fuþark script, but I would not understand their contents. 

From Louis Moe's "Ragnarok, en billeddigtning", 1929

Ragnarok as collective trauma

1500 years later, historians would start using words like the late Antique little ice age and the crisis of the sixth century to describe these events. In Scandinavia a handful of researchers, notably the Swedish archaeologist Bo Gräslund, would begin to see these events in light of the Eddic poems and Norse mythology. Suddenly, the words Fimbulwinter and Ragnarok are featured in conference presentations about frost damaged growth rings, an increase in votive sacrifices in the late migration era, and extraterrestrial particles in Greenlandic ice cores.

It's been speculated that Ragnarok, the mythological end of the world, is a cultural recollection of the 6th century crisis. Sources forebode it by social conflict and ecological disaster, including three winters with no summer between them, stars falling from the heavens, societal collapse and extinction. The fact that Norse religion had such a prominent eschatological myth sets it apart from most other ethnic and polytheistic religions. Perhaps the story of Ragnarok was really a fossilized, metaphorical account of the traumatic experiences of their migration era ancestors.

I suppose we are all children of our time in one way or another, and this is mirrored in our interpretations of the sources. Many German philologists in the 1930's were conspicuously focused on societies of ecstatic warrior-initiates and cultic male bonding. The 1970's gave rise to a more eroticized view of the myths, as well as feminist revisions that must be seen in light of the prior sexual revolution. The study of Indo-European mythology became a decidedly unsexy topic for decades after the post-war period. From this it should be clear that we always ought to stop and question the scope and agenda of current antiquarian sciences. Popular research topics may reveal as much about our own age as they may about the past. Ecology and pluralism are both strong features of public discussion today, and is inevitably reflected in archaeology and historiography. Climate change as a doomsday scenario deeply affects our view of the world, therefore it provides a reasonable trigger of application to the soft sciences. Critics of this theory may think it a little far out, and I agree that the 536-event can't account for the entirety of Norse eschatology. Regardless, the disastrous events have left a significant mark on Scandinavian iron age society.

I wonder what myths will come of us.


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