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Year 536, heralding the end of the world

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  • Year 536, heralding the end of the world

    In Norse mythology the Fimbulvetr [Fimbulwinter] comes as the Fenrisulfr devours the sun. It might be that a real environmental disaster is the source behind the myths. Many sources speak of 536 as a strange year when the sun was obscured.

    The major climate catastrophe in 536 does not seem to be widely known. I heard it being mentioned, almost in passing, the way you mention something obvious while on the way to say something else, as I listened to a lecture by an archaeologist held for an audience of professionals a few months ago. Of all that I had heard, that was the part that echoed in my head when I left. What was it that happened in year 536?

    A week after the lecture I sit at a cafe in Uppsala together with Bo Gräslund, retired professor of archaeology, and his colleague Neil Price, professor of the same subject at the University of Aberdeen.

    "I always thought there was something strange about that time. So happened at once," said Gräslund.

    A variety of traditions are broken in the mid 500's, that has been known among Scandinavian archaeologists for a long time. Burial customs changed. Settlements were abandoned. Only relatively recently these events have been linked to climate change. It all began at NASA.

    In the early 1980s, two scientists at the Goddard Institute of Space Studies became interested in studying volcanic eruptions. They wanted to understand global climate change better. Large volcanic eruptions, like Pinatubo in 1991 and Krakatoa in 1883, emit huge amounts of ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Emissions are measured in cubic kilometers. The ash falls down within a few weeks, but the sulfur dioxide (which reacts with water and is converted to sulfuric acid aerosol) spread until it covers large parts of the world and can remain suspended in the stratosphere for years. Sulfuric acid droplets absorb and reflect the sunlight, which means that large eruptions may cause global temperature drops. 1816, the year after Tamboras erruption, has been called the "year without a summer".

    Such large eruptions are rare. The two scientists, biologist Michael Rampino and astrophysicist Richard Stothers began to study the ancient scriptures to find more of them. As an astrophysicist Stothers must have been something out of the ordinary: because he also mastered classical languages ​​and read the Greek and Latin source texts himself.
    Their article "Volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean before AD 630," was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, 1983.

    Stothers and Rampino noted that four writers from the classical era mentioned 536 as a year when the sun was powerless, like it was blocked. "We marvel as bodies do not cast a shadow at midday," wrote the Roman public servant Cassiodorus in a letter. The sun was "bluish" and the moon did not shine with his usual strength. It was not a temporary change, like during a solar eclipse, he commented, but had been going on for almost a year when he sent his letter. The warmth never came, the crops died on the fields before it was ready for harvest. air "has thickened by some sort of mix," continued Cassiodorus, "neither the heavenly bodies natural colours or their heat can penetrate, as if we saw them through a taut skins."

    Cassiodorus and the other authors mentioned nothing about any volcano, but Stothers and Rampino concluded that it could hardly have been anything else. They compared the source texts with ice cores from Greenland. For climate scientists working with the Greenland ice sheets is akin to studying global growth rings. When drilling into the ice, you also drill back in time. In this way one can study and date climate change.
    Around the year 540 - plus minus ten years - there was a sulfate layer that could be fallout from a volcanic eruption. Thus had the scientific community become aware of the previously unknown eruption in 536. Stothers wrote a separate article about it in Nature the following year: "Mystery cloud of AD 536". The ash cloud's size and its impact on climate appears to exceed all known eruptions in the last 3000 years, he noted.

    From ice to the wood: the study of tree rings have shown that the summers in the northern hemisphere, from USA to Siberia, during the period 536-45 was unusually cold. In northern Sweden, it is calculated that the average temperature during the summer fell by three to four degrees, which is equal to a dramatic climatic deterioration.
    And from dendrochronology back to archeology: The one that first coupled climate deterioration to the social changes that were known from the Scandinavian archaeological finds was the Danish archaeologist Morten Axboe. He interpreted the golden treasures that were buried at this time, such as the amulets in Söderby in Uppland, as an expression of a need for redeeming contact with higher powers. (Or did they just protect their treasures from looters during a troubled time?) Axboe also linked the Fimbulwinter in Norse mythology with the climate deterioration.

    Bo Gräslund continued on the same track. According to him, the Norse mythology preserved the memory of a great climate disaster. From Gylfaginning in the Edda we know that a winter called Fimbulvetr will come as a harbinger of Ragnarök, the end of the world. Gräslund thinks that the Edda might have been misinterpreted: it is not about a harsh winter but rather a loss of summer.

    "Harsh winters have never been a big problem at northern latitudes," he writes ["Fimbulwinter, Ragnarök and the climate crisis years 536-537 AD" in Saga and practice 2007], but if this summer's crop failed to materialize, it meant starvation.
    In Gylfaginning the Swedish king Gylfi visits a hall where three Norse gods are seated in their seats of honor. What can they tell us about Fimbulwinter he asks. "There will be three winters in a row and no summer in between," they replied. Fenrir will escape his shackles. "Then something exceedingly strange happens: the wolf gobbles up the sun, and the people will find that it is a great detriment to them."

    Gräslund focuses specifically at a sentence of the original text (Codex Regius in Reykjavík), it reads "Ekki nýtr sólar." This is usually translated as "The sun does not shine," but that is very free interpretation, he says. He reads "Ekki nýtr sólar" as a description of something that has happened to the sun. It shines, but the sunshine has no effect.
    According Gräslund, stating that the sun does not provide heat in the winter, would be needless, so that sentence should be read as a description of the sun providing nothing during the summer - that is the same thing as Cassiodorus described.

    In the Völuspá [the divination of the Valar] the moon is violently taken away by one of Fenrir's siblings: "He blodies the abode of power; sunshine dims, the coming summers the weather gets hard to handle ".
    The sky, the abode of the gods, stained red, Gräslund to associate to the spectacular red sunsets that ash clouds after large volcanic eruptions usually cause.
    It was such a sunset that Edvard Munch saw when he walked outside Christiania, one evening after Krakataus eruption. "The sky suddenly turned blood red," he wrote in his diary. "I felt there was a great endless cry through nature" - an experience that later led to him painting "The Scream".
    Gräslund also looked found references in the Kalevala: "There goes the sun and moon, after which the seed froze in all fields". Causing the God Ukko wondering "what kind of cloud is covering the moon, what kind of vapor hides the sun".

    It has long been known that a large part of the agricultural land in northern and central Europe, returned to forest at this time, writes Gräslund and Neil Price in the British journal Antiquity ( "Twilight of the Gods?", Antiquity 86, 2012).
    It took four to seven generations before farmland regained its former extent. They estimate that half of the population in Scandinavia starved to death in the space of ten years. In many cases, they had places that had been inhabited for thousands of years were abandoned. "This represents the biggest change of settlement patterns in Sweden over the last 6000 years," they write.

    According Gräslund the period before the climate catastrophe was a prosperous time. The agricultural land reached perhaps its greatest extent before the 1700s. Archaeologists have found plenty of gold and other prestigious objects in the ground, suggesting that the Nordic countries was not an isolated backwater but rather a network of trade routes that stretched far down on the continent.

    All this was abruptly interrupted in the mid 500s. Ancient findings dwindle throughout Scandinavia. Sun discs - assumed to be an expression of the sun cult - disappears from the Gotland picture stones. Gräslund and Price speculate that the religious beliefs changed, "the Sun fell out of favor." Instead the picture stones are being filled with figures that have been interpreted as the Norse gods and warriors. The time after the climate catastrophe exhibits communities with a much clearer social stratification, with power concentrated to a landowning elite. Judging by the archaeological remains they left behind it was a distinctly military elite, according to Neil Price.

    In our time, we are obsessed with post-disaster stories, the 1900s popular culture is full of stories about how mans true nature is revealed when the society she got used to is razed. How did the people react during the 500s? Did they collaborat or was it a war of all against all? The Edda speaks of an "axe time" when even parents and children did not spare each other's lives, however we can not know how it really was.
    Gräslund says: "I can not say much about it. The written historical material is too sparse and the archaeological material hardly gives a basis for any conclusions."

    According to Anders Andren, professor of archaeology at Stockholm University, whose lecture inspired this article, several of the figures in Norse mythology are originally historical figures, all of which have in common that they lived before the year 536.
    Sigurd is Sigebert King of the Burgundians, dead 439;
    Tjodrik from the Rök runestone is the Ostrogoth King Theodoric, dead 526.
    It is possible that the time before year 536 is viewed as a lost golden age, whose kings, with time turned into mythical heroes.

    Where did the eruption take place? The latest consensus is that the ash cloud came from a volcano in Ilopango in El Salvador. The caldera collapsed during the outbreak and all there is to see on the satellite images in Google Maps, is a lake that innocently reflects the sky.

    Should something similar happen today, we will at least have the small advantage that we understand what it is that has befallen us. We can even estimate how many years we have to endure before the climate returns to normal. That was not known during the 6th century. Michael the Syrian wrote "All declared that the sun would never regain its original luminosity," one of the historians who Gräslund quote.

    I ask a couple of Swedish geologists whether there are any known, currently dormant volcano whose eruption could have similar effects on the global climate. All reply Yellowstone USA.
    Translated by me from
    Sorry if it was a bit hard to read, the source text was written like shit. Still interesting though.