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Fimbulwinter: mythology meets climate science


I grew up with the stories from Norse mythology. The sagas, the pantheon of gods, their fights, petty arguments, and underhand murders. How to keep them happy by offerings, how the vikings saw themselves and ordered their society and solved conflicts – which was not as bloody and brutal as you might think. The mythology also tells about the end of the world, when everything goes to rat-shit. It is perhaps worth noting that this “end of the world” is not the annihilation of the world: but there will only be two human survivors, Liv and Livtrase*. Everyone else, humans, trolls, goblins, dwarfs, and indeed most of the gods will perish. Liv and Livtrase will repopulate the world after the end of the world as we know it, so to speak.

So this is how the end of the world comes about: first, there will be the Fimbulwinter, three whole years without summer. In Voluspå, it is described:

It sates itself on the life-blood
of fated men,
paints red the powers’ homes
with crimson gore.
Black become the sun’s beams
in the summers that follow,
weathers all treacherous.
Do you still seek to know? And what?

There will be numerous wars, strife, and suffering, and it will end in a horrific battle between good and evil. The world will sink into the oceans. New land and life (Liv and Livtrase) will emerge eventually, and you could say it would be the equivalent of “age of man” in Middle Earth when all the other races are gone.

Ash from Grímsvötn blotting out the sun. Photo Úlfur Björnsson

Ash from Grímsvötn blotting out the sun. Photo Úlfur Björnsson

So what is this thing about the fimbulwinter? Of course, living this far north in Europe, the summers were immensely important for survival, and just small variations could mean death. But here is the thing; new research shows: in the years 535-536 there were volcanic eruptions in – they think now – the Americas, possibly Mexico. Records from all over the ancient world describe that the “sun shone like the moon”; and this makes perfect sense if the atmosphere is covered in sulfuric particles. Temperatures dropped, and indeed, there was no summer. Of course, crops failed, people died. Few resources. Desperate people, desperate times. And as the Norse sources predict of fimbulwinter:

Brothers will fight
and kill each other,
sisters’ children
will defile kinship.
It is harsh in the world,
whoredom rife
—an axe age, a sword age
—shields are riven—
a wind age, a wolf age—
before the world goes headlong.
No man will have
mercy on another

Analysis of the ice cores of Greenland shows a layer of sulfate deposits and tree rings shows that trees simply did not grow. It was a year (or more?) without summer. Pretty much globally. Interestingly, there also seems to be an increase in offerings during and after this time. Gold, to make the gods smile and give us back the sun.

Of course; we should be careful attributing a single event as being the source of the idea of the fimbulwinter. But on the other hand,  this has the benefit of being a logical explanation. Much, much to be preferred over the visions of a mushroom-tripping, shamanic seeress. And in fact: we can learn from it. When that supervolcano blows, we have records from all over the world, from what happened in 535-536. That in itself is very, very cool.

Keel of the Oseberg ship, vikingskipmuseet, Oslo

Keel of the Oseberg ship, vikingskipmuseet, Oslo

*Liv and Livtrase, or in old Norse, Líf and Lífþrasi. Liv is an ordinary female name, and means simply “Life”. Livtrase is trickier; it means “one who relishes life / lover of life”. In this sense, it could mean that the man is the lover of the woman named Liv, but since the word “liv” means life… she is life, he is the lover. And / or he is a man that relishes life in general. Typically Norse double entendre.



“Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is”. All-round nerd with a tendency to poke things with a stick to see what happens. Doodler, artist, bookbinder, photographer, illustrator, graphic designer, web developer.

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