Geomythology and the Fimbulwinter

Then snow will drift from all directions.
There will then be great frosts and keen winds.
The sun will do no good.
There will be three of these winters together
and no summer in between.

— Snorri Sturluson, Poetic Edda

The notion of a myth contains denotative undertones of untruth. Often, supernatural entities or events mold or explain the creation of worlds, societies, cities, or individuals. Yet, mythology does not necessarily exclude every trace of actuality. As it turns out, the genesis of many legends likely arises from real-world occurrences. The study of the intersection between physical events that transpire on Earth and the tales that incorporate them is called geomythology.

A geologist named Dorothy Vitaliano imagined and defined the term in 1968: “Geomythology indicates every case in which the origin of myths and legends can be shown to contain references to geological phenomena and aspects, in a broad sense including astronomical ones (comets, eclipses, meteor impacts, etc.).” She posited two separate types of the trope, writing, “there are two kinds of geologic folklore, that in which some geologic feature or the occurrence of some geologic phenomenon has inspired a folklore explanation, and that which is the garbled explanation of some actual geologic event, usually a natural catastrophe.”

Many of the most famous worldwide myths fit the latter definition, such as Noah’s Biblical Flood. According to Vitaliano, some scientists “hypothesize that postglacial melting elevated sea levels to the extent that the Mediterranean broke through into the Black Sea depression, drowning out so many settlements that a universal flood legend resulted.” 

Herbert A. Collins painting of Devils Tower

In past episodes, we have encountered a slew of examples of both types of geomythology.

The ursine painting of Devils Tower above hangs at the TMAC headquarters. It portrays a Kiowa and Lakota tale, in which young girls are pursued by giant bears. They climb atop a rock and plead to the Great Spirit to lift them to safety. Their prayers answered, Devils Tower rises vertically from the ground. The bears are so large, however, that they make an attempt to reach the girls. Their claws leave indelible marks on the side of the great tower. This story weaves a reason for the height of the rock and the signature columnar jointing that distinguishes it. The geology behind Devils Tower predates the Kiowa and Lakota by millions of years, so they crafted a legend to explain its bewildering existence.

Our 100th article chronicled Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Like Devil’s Tower, this memorable geological formation features columnar jointing, though on a more-horizontal plane. As you might intuit from its name, the Irish developed a myth involving giants to explain the creation of these hexagonal mysteries.

The remnants of the mythical causeway leave the mainland and head into the ocean - photo by Kyle Stout

Occasionally, geomyths are more than just great stories.

In our 200th article (we seem to love geomythology for the milestone issues), we investigated The Orphan Tsunami and the Ghost Forest. In this case, a tale from the Hoh in the Pacific Northwest helped point forensic geologists in the right direction to solve a tidal mystery hundreds of years old. Whale and Thunderbird helped the people of the time detail a catastrophic disaster, but their survival through the ages allowed us to discover the unlikely origin of a tsunami that blasted Japan in 1700.

In Norse mythology, Ragnarök is a series of apocalyptic events, where gods perish and the world ends up submerged in water. The preamble to these events is an occurrence known as Fimbulwinter. In Old Norse, the term is Fimbulvetr, which means “awful, great winter.” The prefix “fimbul” translates to “great,” so the term literally means “Great Winter.” Fimbulwinter is really three winters in a row without intervening summers. Snow enters the realm from all directions, extinguishing most mortal life on the planet. After Fimbulwinter, the events of Ragnarök can transpire.

Many scientists and historians believe Fimbulwinter is a geomythological retelling of a real period. 

Late 19th-century depiction of Thunderbird and Whale from Vancouver Island

In January 2021, as we crossed out of the nightmare that was 2020, we asked the question: what was the worst year to be alive? While the answer could certainly be subjective, some scientists have a definitive answer: 536.

Somewhere on the planet – modern discoveries point toward Iceland, though other origins have been put forth – a volcanic event produced the gnarliest period of climatic cooling in the last 2,000 years. Global temperatures dropped. Crops failed. Plagues ran rampant. Huge swaths of populations perished. The effect lasted (three?) years. Some estimates believe half the humans in Scandanavia died.

Though we missed it during our examination of 536, many scientists, including archaeologist Neil Price, posit that Fimbulwinter stems from a cultural memory of the bleak winters following that year!

Fimbulwinter landscape - image by Midjourney

Of course, geomythology is far from hard science. As Price puts it, “Geomythology is by its very nature an inexact concept: inherently unproveable, prone to confirmation bias, and hampered by a lack of precise dating in both textual and archaeological sources.” Still, as evidenced by the orphan tsunami, sometimes these tales offer clues that can lead to precision or breakthrough. At the very least, the marriage of legend and geology lends a relatability to the ancients who crafted the mythologies of the planet; though they lacked the capacity to scientifically explain some of the phenomena they encountered, in some instances, they were not merely inventing fanciful fictions, but attempting to make sense of the grand earthen fireworks of their lives. These stories can make more sense when we frame them in histories that actually happened.

Perhaps some of the other great stories from antiquity, such as Atlantis, which seem far-fetched today, have their roots in geological events lost to history. As Whale and Firebird showed us, conceivably one day we might stumble upon the real inspiration for these incredible stories.

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