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Fimbul winter is not a myth

Half of the population in Norway and Sweden reportedly died during the mythical winter of Fimbul winter in the year 536. Researchers today believe that this was a real incident.

The Fenris vulture extinguishes the sun. The climate catastrophe, which began in the year 536, was certainly the most dramatic cooling people, animals and plants have experienced in the last 2,000 years. The scientists believe that two large volcanic eruptions took place, which every few years sent huge amounts of fine dust high into the atmosphere. The sun disappeared. In human imagination and myths, history became the Fimbul winter. (Illustration: Louis Moe)

»First came the Fimbul winter, which lasted for three years. It warned Ragnarok. Then all life on Earth ended. "
This is the story of the long winter, both in Nordic mythology and the epoch-making Finnish-language work 'Kalevala'.
But why are there stories of a very severe winter that heralds the end of the world in Nordic mythology?
Researchers in Norway and Sweden have in recent years found more and more traces of a catastrophe that hit the world 1,500 years ago, and which particularly hit the Norwegians and Swedes hard. In fact, the cold hit just as hard as the black death, and the same was true in the Baltic states, Poland, and northern Germany.

Moses researchers launched the theory

In 1910, the Swedish geographer and bog researcher Rutger Sernander was the first to launch the theory that the Fimbul winter was a real event.
He hypothesized that the very severe winter was due to a real climate catastrophe between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago.
For some years many people listened to Rutger Sernander, but then doubts set in, because archaeologists could not find traces of such an ancient catastrophe.
Today we know that the climate catastrophe hit the whole world - and especially the Nordic countries - 'just' 1,500 years ago. And we know that it was possibly followed by another catastrophe, which was perhaps just as great.

'Snorre's Edda' by Snorri Sturluson is a major work in Scandinavian literature and the most exhaustive source of Nordic mythology.
The book was written in Iceland and tells the story of the world's creation, wars, gods and heroes as well as the Fimbul winter and the ragnarok that will one day destroy the world. (Illustration: The Fimbul Winter drawn by Louis Moe in 1929.)

NASA and a Swedish archaeologist on the trail

The new hunt for the Fimbul winter began with the US space agency NASA in 1983.
The two NASA scientists Richard Stothers and Michael Rampino published a scientific overview of known historical volcanic eruptions.
A large part of the research was based on ice cores drilled from the ancient Greenlandic ice sheet.
Several archaeologists read the article and realized that a very dramatic event might have taken place in the year 536.

Bo Gräslund, now retired professor of archeology at Uppsala University, then became crucial to the hunt for the Fimbul winter by proposing that the Fimb winter was a real event and that it took place in the years after 536. He also pointed out that the Icelandic author Snorre in 'Snorre's Edda' was not only preoccupied with the very cold and snowy winter, but also with the fact that it was not summer for several years in a row.

Several years without summer

The Fimbul winter was thus several years in a row without summer with all the consequences it may have had for humans far to the north 1,500 years ago.
Bo Gräslund was also the first to estimate that Sweden's population was halved in the 5th century, but for several years not many people believed his hypothesis.
In 2007, he published the article 'Fimbul winter, Ragnarök and the climate crisis in 536–537 AD'. in the Swedish magazine 'Saga og sed'.
And then the researchers' hunt for the Fimbul winter began in earnest.

Meget peger efterhånden på, at der skete noget dramatisk med klimaet for 1.500 år siden. (Foto: Shutterstock)

Naturalists and archaeologists find evidence

In recent years, many findings have been made that clearly indicate that Bo Gräslund was right.
In Norway, pollen traces have been found in several places after a dramatic event in the peat soil, which subsequently clearly changed the cultural landscape for a long time. The rings of old trees are another important clue, and now that archaeologists know what to look for, they also find more clues in their material.
Today, archaeologists can see that something very dramatic happened to the agricultural holdings in Norway and Sweden 1,500 years ago.

People moved away. Or they disappeared. Grave finds are almost over. Fine jewelry is no longer made. The beautiful ceramic traditions of Western Norway disappear. It is pure misery, but more gold is sacrificed to the gods than otherwise.

People left the mountain

Per Sjögren works as a paleoecologist at Tromsø University Museum, and he is a specialist in looking for and reconstructing the life of the past.
It was in connection with the work on a large research project that examined changes in the cultural landscape of Norwegian mountains that Per Sjögren and his colleagues came on the trail of the Fimbul winter in Norway.

In pollen samples collected from the mountain's peat soil, they saw clear traces of a dramatic climate event 1,500 years ago.
»We first found traces of the Fimbul winter in northern Norway. After that, we also found traces in southern Norway, «Per Sjögren tells,'s Norwegian sister site.

“We see that the landscape is growing again. That humans and animals must have left the cultural landscapes they had used on the mountain. "

Who left Storesætra in Stryn?

Kari Loe Hjelle is a professor of natural history at the University of Bergen and is interested in how pollen and other traces from the past can tell us about human life at a time when there are no written sources that reveal anything about life in Norway.

Kari Loe Hjelle shows a diagram from the time when paleoecologists examined the amount of pollen and grass from the soil at Storesætra in Stryn; a manor by Jostedalsbræen in an area that people have used since the Stone Age.

The diagram clearly shows how humans used this landscape between year 0 and year 500; the amount of grass increases and the amount of trees decreases.
But then something happens in the early 500s: There is much less grass and the trees return.

Coal dust is another indicator of how humans use a landscape. It also disappears from Storesætra in Stryn in the 5th century.

Storesætra in Stryn (Sogn og Fjordane), as the area looks today. Humans have been using the landscape since the Stone Age. The pollen samples were taken from the ground approximately in the middle of the farm. (Photo: Kari Hjelle)

Massive destruction of farms in Norway

Frode Iversen is professor of archeology at the Cultural History Museum in Oslo.
“Ever since the 1960s, it has been known among archaeologists in Norway that a massive destruction of agriculture in Norway took place from the mid-500s. Especially in Rogaland, this is a well-known phenomenon. ”But why were the farms destroyed and abandoned?

Speculation has been that The Justinian Plague, which hit the world at the time, also reached all the way to Norway. »Several decades ago, it received a lot of attention among Norwegian archaeologists. But before it got renewed relevance again through Bo Gräslund's new theory about the Fimbul winter, we did not think much about it, «says Frode Iversen.

Now Frode Iversen and his colleagues have summarized most of what they know about the Fimbul winter in Norway in several chapters in the new book 'The Agrarian Life of the North 2000 BC – AD 1000'. The book is available free of charge as a PDF at Cappelen Damm.

"We see a huge drop in activity in Norway in the 5th century," says the professor at the Cultural History Museum.

Nearly 90 percent fewer finds

In Rogaland, thesis student Morten Vetrhus has handed in a new assignment at the University of Bergen, which looks more closely at what happened in the transition from the migration period to the Merovingian period (an archaeological term used in Norway for the period between the migration period and the Viking Age). That is, the time before and after about 550 years.

He reports a sharp drop in the number of sites where archaeologists find something interesting from that time. The decline in find locations is 70 percent.

The decrease in the number of archaeological finds in Rogaland from the migration period and the Merovingian period is even greater. It is as high as 87 percent. This is despite the fact that the Merovingian period lasted a hundred years longer than the migration period.

Even in a fertile area like Jæren, parts of the landscape are completely emptied of people. You can read Morten Vetrhus' thesis here. "It simply came to our notice then. What really became of the population? Why can we no longer find traces of them? ”Asks archeology professor Frode Iversen.

The village of Landa in Forsand in Rogaland lived continuously for more than 2,000 years - both in the Bronze Age and Iron Age - right up to the time around the disaster in the year 536. There were most inhabitants during the migration period, just before the area was depopulated. The Bronze Age house in the picture is from 1,500 years before the disaster, but the building customs did not change much at this time. (Photo: Hallvard Nygård / Wikimedia Commons)

Left the smaller farms

Frode Iversen believes that at that time they tried to counter the crisis by leaving the small and least fertile farms.
Large and more centrally located properties were instead divided into smaller production units.

Lack of labor made it difficult to maintain the agricultural business in Rogaland, and probably also in the rest of Norway, as it had been before the disaster in the middle of the 5th century. Frode Iversen also wonders if the mass death meant that there was more land that could be used by those who remained.

This may explain why archaeologists find traces of a farm in Norway with more livestock in the latter part of the 5th century. Other historians believe that something similar took place after the Black Death around the year 1350.

The disaster affected the structure of society

There are also examples of new centers of power being established in Norway after the disaster. The Nordic region's largest prehistoric burial mound Raknehaugen in the Akershus region in Norway is probably an expression of this.

There were fewer powerful people left in the country, but those who remained perhaps gained even more control and became even more powerful. Archaeologists believe they have found traces of something similar in Sweden.

Frode Iversen has no doubt that the disaster also had an enormous effect on the structure of society in Scandinavia. His theory is that the disaster hit the upper and lower strata of society the hardest. Instead, a larger 'middle class' and a society grew up after the disaster, where people were more equal than before.

Ingunn Røstad, who is also a researcher at the Museum of Cultural History, has in a new study shown that the clothing and jewelery that the Iron Age people wore in the 600s and 700s were of a simpler quality than before the beginning of the 500s. century.

»It is becoming less common with beautiful gold and silver jewelery. The jewelry that is made is simpler. They look almost 'homemade', "says Frode Iversen.

Climate or plague?

Frode Iversen now wonders whether it was solely the climate catastrophe that almost wiped out the people.
Or was it - as several researchers now believe - a combination of climate and a serious epidemic?

The Justinian plague struck southern Europe in the year 541, but there is no evidence that it reached all the way up to the Nordic countries.
Recently, researchers through grave openings have been able to establish that the plague reached Germany, so it is not unlikely that it also reached us in the Nordic countries. The bacteria from the 5th century are the same - Yersina pestis - that hit Europe during the Black Death in the 14th century. It is estimated that 40 percent of Constantinople's population died during the Justinian Plague in 541 and 542.

Did the Justinian Plague Reach Northern Norway?

One of the world's leading research groups in plague is today found at the University of Oslo under the leadership of Professor Nils Christian Stenseth, and here the researchers have established that the plague bacterium was imported to Europe several times.

Researchers have also observed that the climate has a lot to say for the development of plague, because when the climate got colder, the rats died, and then the plague-carrying fleas settled on humans.

"If we are to find traces of plague on humans as far back as the 5th century, then I think we must investigate skeletons in northern Norway," explains Frode Iversen.
In northern Norway, the climate is cooler and the skeletons are better preserved. In addition, one can find bone remains that have been in calcareous shell-sand.
However, the archeology professor warns that scientists must be lucky if they want to find plague bacteria among people who lived 1,500 years ago.

The whole of Norrland was depopulated

To find more pieces in the Fimbulvinter puzzle, we go to Sweden. In recent years, several researchers have taken an interest in what in Sweden is called 'The incident in 536'.
Now. since the Swedish archaeologists know what to look for, they also find many traces of the disaster.
Archaeologists can see that a large number of farms were abandoned in the middle of the 5th century. Large, uncultivated areas where animals once grazed grew again. Just like in Norway. The northern part of Sweden - Norrland - was probably completely depopulated.

Half of Swedish agriculture was closed down

Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist is both a historian and climate scientist at the University of Stockholm.
»On the basis of Swedish archaeological research, it is now quite clear that up to 50 percent of the population disappeared from, among other places, Mälardalen, Öland and Gotland. Almost half of all dwellings were abandoned, "he says. He believes there must have been a huge volcanic eruption in the year 536.

'The volcanic eruption probably took place in the non-tropical part of the northern hemisphere. The eruption led to large amounts of aerosols (small particles or drops of a substance, distributed in air (or in a gas) for example smoke, mist or spray, ed.) Being transported high into the atmosphere. And then an even bigger volcanic disaster took place in the year 540, "explains Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, who adds:
'It must have happened somewhere near the Equator. Maybe it was the El Chichón volcano in southern Mexico. "

Annual rings in trees confirm the theory

The particles from the two volcanic eruptions remained in the atmosphere for several years, leading to a strong cooling of the northern hemisphere.
Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist refers to a number of studies of annual rings in old trees that confirm the theory.

He points out that it was the cumulative effect of the two major volcanic eruptions in the years 536 and 540 that together made this cooling quite unusual and very long lasting. "Today we know that this is probably the worst cooling that the Earth has experienced in more than 2,000 years," says Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist.

Frost in the trees in mid-summer

During the incident, it became so cold that frost formed inside the trees in the middle of summer. Traces of this have been found in Russia, among other places. It is extremely rare for trees to freeze indoors in the summer. »The cooling was possibly 3-4 degrees on average in the summer of the year 536 and somewhat less in the years that followed. The cooling in the year 540 was again about as strong. It may not sound like much, but the cold probably did not spread evenly over the summer, so certain periods during the summer were probably extra cold, while others were reportedly normal in terms of temperature. "

It was different with the sunlight, which did not manage to penetrate the ash layer in the atmosphere. And without sunlight, plant growth failed. Eventually there was no food, nor was it possible to find hay for the animals. According to Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, the cold summers after the year 536 also seem to be very rainy in certain places. The grain did not ripen, but instead went into decay in the fields.

Then came the plague

We have no written sources from the Nordic countries as early as the 5th century. But in Italy, the historian Flavius Cassidorus in 536 reports a sky filled with dark clouds and sunlight just a few hours a day.

  • In Constantinople, the historian Procopius tells of a constant solar eclipse.
  • From Ireland there are depictions of famine.
  • From China, there are written sources that tell of snow in the middle of summer.

And in the year 541, The Justinian Plague Comes to Europe »We know that in Southern Europe an epidemic became as brutal as the Black Death 800 years later. There is much to suggest that the plague in the 5th century also reached us in Northern Europe, even though we do not have written sources that describe it, "says Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist. In 2013, German researchers were able to establish that three people buried at this time in present-day Germany were infected with the plague bacterium Yersina pestis.

The plague has probably reached Scandinavia

According to Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, if the plague managed to make its way north of the Alps, it is likely that it also reached Scandinavia.
"Together, the dramatic cooling of the climate and the Justinian Plague may have created a catastrophe that was even greater than the black death of humans," says Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, who recently published the popular science book 'The Climate and Man Under 12,000 Years'.

In 2016, Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist also co-authored a research article in the journal Nature Geoscience. Here the researchers launched the name 'Late Antique Little Ice Age' about the time period from the year 536 to 660.

What volcanoes were they?

The clearest indications that it was two different volcanic eruptions in a row that created the Fimbul winter, we have from drilling cores from the landing ice in Greenland. Several scientists have pointed to the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador as the cause of the first disaster in the year 536. Another possibility is Krakatau in Indonesia.

Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, on the other hand, points to El Chichón in southern Mexico as the most probable cause, based on what researchers know today. In 1982, it turned out that El Chichón is still a deadly volcano. An eruption cost 2,000 lives. Before 1982, the volcano had not erupted since 1360, and no preparations were made for the sleeping giant to wake up.

Today, there is no doubt that volcanoes can spew large amounts of particles into the atmosphere, which can have a major effect on the Earth's climate. The higher up the aerosols reach, the longer the effect. It is probably crucial whether the aerosols reach the stratosphere, that is, above 10,000 meters - the altitude where most of the air traffic takes place.

Huge volcanic eruptions are not uncommon

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) writes in its latest main report from 2013 on how volcanoes can have an effect on the last 2,000 years of climate change. Much of the knowledge that scientists have today about the effects of volcanic eruptions in the past comes from ice cores drilled in Greenland and Antarctica.

The researchers behind the IPCC's main report note that since the Viking Age, there have only been two or three centuries without huge volcanic eruptions that have had a devastating effect on the climate. There were no giant volcanic eruptions throughout the last century - the 20th century - which has made few of us imagine that it will happen again. But it will no doubt. For gigantic volcanic eruptions that have a long-lasting effect on the climate are thus not very rare.

People 1,500 years ago were in a bad place

A large volcanic eruption usually has an effect on the Earth's climate and temperatures for one to three years, depending on the amount of particles that reach far into the atmosphere. With several giant volcanic eruptions, such as those that probably took place in the year 536 and the year 540, the climate effect is even greater.

If it happens again, there will be even more people on Earth to be fed. On the other hand, we are much better prepared for the disaster. Today we can transport food and everything else necessary over long distances. They did not know the people who lived in the cold Nordic countries 1,500 years ago. They were totally dependent on the food they themselves grew and the animals they raised themselves.

The year 1816 is called 'The year without summer'. Here famine and cholera ravaged Europe and North America as a result of the Tambora eruption in Indonesia in 1815. The eruption was caused by particles in the atmosphere over large parts of North America and Europe, resulting in less sunlight, colder weather and poorer harvest yields. (Photo: Jialiang Gao / Wikimedia Commons)

1816: 'The year without summer'

The year 1816 has been described as the 'year without summer'. It was an unusually cold year in Western Europe and the eastern part of North America. There was also unusually much rain. The following year - in 1817 - grain prices in parts of Europe increased tenfold.

The main reason for the unusually cold summer of 1816 was the Indonesian Tambora eruption. And in the years before the Tambora eruption, four other major volcanic eruptions took place, all of which had spewed large amounts of dust into the atmosphere.

The natural disaster of 1816 had hardly the same extent as in the year 536, but it was still serious. Therefore, it is worth noting that the consequences were far from the same, for the world was becoming modern 200 years ago.

In 1816 there was extensive international trade. Ships could carry a lot of food. People in need could go to America, and many left.

Several countries had some kind of welfare administration in place that could help the poorest. Both the health care system and the population had become much better at preventing a plague epidemic.

Fimbul winter will hardly hit again

Should we again be hit by a catastrophe like in the 5th century, we will be much better equipped to face it. A number of scientific articles will be written about what is happening. Many will write books. Millions will write on twitter and Facebook.

Many of us still believe in myths. But we will hardly experience a Fimbul winter again.

© Translated by Stephanie Lammers-Clark

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