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After the End

The Viking prophecy of the apocalypse and what came after

MY NOTES FROM THE summer I spent in Samsø, Denmark, are mostly about its picturesque beauty. The island appears untouched by human hands—all windswept hills, silent beaches, shallows filled with languid purplish jellyfish waiting to be pulled back out to sea. The villages that populated it in the Viking Age have been swallowed whole by the land on which they once stood. The only things to have evaded the open mouth of the earth are scattered stone dolmens and passage graves—monuments too big, I suppose, to be metabolized in a mere thousand years. Gone are the days when Samsø served as an important Viking meeting place. Today nature has reclaimed the island; no one can even reconstruct the etymology of its name. 

I was on Samsø to help excavate the remains left behind by ninth-century pit houses on a site called Endebjerg, a former farm whose owner noticed, decades ago, that his wheat grew best in patches of pitch-dark, fertile soil that looked like shadows cast by unseen homes. On an island occupied since the Stone Age, no doubt the shades and their spectral infrastructure far outnumber the 3,724 living Danes. Even in legendary times, people went to Samsø seeking ghosts: there, the shield-maiden Hervör met her long-dead father, Angantyr, and retrieved the cursed blade buried beside him. But for all our many hours of digging, we found no dwarf-forged swords—only iron slag, loom weights, pottery shards, animal bones. 

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It was on Samsø, too, that Odin—the mightiest of the Norse gods—was said to have learned the art of seidr, a prophetic knowledge that allowed him insight into Ragnarök, the Old Norse apocalypse that hovered on the horizon like a dark cloud. With Ragnarök would come the blinking out of the sun and stars, the three-year “Fimbulwinter,” and the deaths of men and gods alike. 

In 536 ce, a volcanic eruption sent enough ash into the atmosphere that the sun barely cast a shadow again until late 537 ce. This “dust veil event” triggered three years without a summer in northern Europe. What Roman commentators experienced as a troubling, prolonged eclipse, Norse and Germanic peoples experienced as a veritable apocalypse, replete with famine, disease, and war. Thousands of abandoned homes from the sixth century have been found on the Baltic islands of Öland and Gotland. One such village on Gotland had been ransacked and burned, with bodies left unburied on the floors. Dredged bogs have yielded countless sacrificial gold deposits dating to the sixth century, all of which failed to clear the dust veil, or ward off its crop-killing frosts. 

When those sacrifices proved futile, the pre-Norse seem to have renounced the gods who had failed them. Images representing the Indo-European deities that preceded the Norse gods were destroyed and mutilated; representations of a deified sun, once ubiquitous on stone monuments, ceased to be carved in the sixth century. In that sun god’s stead emerged the pantheon of Norse gods, with all their capriciousness, trickery, and cruelty.

Today nature has reclaimed the island; no one can even reconstruct the etymology of its name.

Perhaps the Norse thought Ragnarök was inevitable because a version of it had already happened: years of ceaseless winter, the disappearance of life-giving heavenly bodies, the total destruction of towns and villages, the bitter death of the deity that had abandoned them. And yet, out of these ruins, the world was born anew, with new gods befitting a new world. “The earth shall emerge out of the sea [again], and shall then be green and fair,” says Odin of Ragnarök’s aftermath to a despairing mortal king. He might as well have been speaking about the end of the Late Antique Little Ice Age. 

That we found so little in Endebjerg has stayed with me in the years since I left the island. I wanted to find things in the dirt there, expecting that with such things would come enhanced understanding. But perhaps the Ragnarök story, which I heard for the first time under Samsø’s great sheet of stars, is enough: a warning passed down through generations, never allowed to settle into the slumber of the earth, where it would have surely been forgotten. If indeed the theory that Ragnarök encodes the events of 536 ce is correct, then there is something remarkable in the sheer longevity of this tale: it would have survived orally for at least eight centuries before being transcribed in the thirteenth century—a story hurtled into the future like a projectile, with all the momentum a wounded world could muster. 

The shield-maiden Hervör would ultimately die in the same way her father had, doomed by having resurrected the past. Odin would seek the future on Samsø, but also find himself helpless to prevent it. I was confronted on the island with the insistence of the present: bracing wind, the chill of the North Sea, rolling hills from which miles of coastline come suddenly into view. There, in the distance, I could see the rows of wind turbines that have made Samsø carbon-neutral for the last twenty years—embedded in postholes drilled deep beneath the land and waves, to be excavated, perhaps, in some distant future when our descendants wonder how we transformed our own troubled present. After the apocalypse, the Ragnarök story tells us, there remains only one thing to be done: Reimagine the heavens and the earth, and start all over again.

Read more from Orion‘s Spring 2024 issue Rites of Nature here.

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Lauren Fadiman is a folklorist and writer based in New Haven, Connecticut.