So earlier this year I read a pretty interesting book: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper. This book is a history of the end of Rome, but it takes a look at climate change and disease being contributing factors rather than merely being the fault of Christianity. It’s a rather fabulous book and it was very thought provoking especially from a modern lens of the moment we’re in with a pandemic and looming climate change, but that is not the point of this post. This book essentially broke me out of my current climate bias, essentially, it got me thinking and considering that the climate of yesteryear was not the same as the one we are currently accustomed to. Now, this was something I was well aware of, but I had never considered the religious ramifications for paganism. I’ll explain.
Roman Climatic Optimum
So there is this kind of climate trouble that we encounter historically when we’re dealing with the Mediterranean area. Essentially the issue is that our historical understanding of the ancient world both through archaeology and through the historical record do not match up with the current Mediterranean climate. When we think Italy today most people would consider it to be dry and kind of sparse. But Italy during the Roman Republic was wet and forested. It wasn’t some dry, semi-arid place but was instead wet and had extremely stable weather. This climate was not just in effect over Italy though but also stretched over North-Africa and Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean. The whole place was wetter and more stable climatically; this perfect bubble of climate is called the Roman Climatic Optimum. Egypt was wetter, Carthage was wetter, the Levant was wetter. And yet this came to a crashing halt about 200 CE and just happened to coincide with the rise of Christianity. But to put it succinctly: less rain equals less ability to grow food and everything got a whole lot harder and the area had trouble supporting its population.
Now, to take this into the modern era. These places, Italy, Greece, Egypt; we see a resurgence of worship of the gods of these ancient places. In many cases people imagine the world of those people living in those places and use that to build a mental image of how to see the gods. Unfortunately that mental image is wrong for the time period we are setting it in. Egypt wasn’t all sandy deserts. Greece wasn’t shrubby brush clinging to bare hillsides. Italy wasn’t parched. These places were wet and vibrant and full of life that we have a hard time comprehending because the climate is so incredibly different than it once was.
So why did it all come crashing to a halt, coming to a decline in the 200’s? Well essentially one of the main contributing factors was that the Romans and other Mediterranean civilizations logged so much timber that it quite literally changed the rainfall patterns. If you want to learn more about this bubble of perfect Mediterranean climate check out Harper’s The Fate of Rome.[i]
However all this was a mere prelude to the thought that I keep coming back to – this should affect our mental picture of the mythologies and religion of the time. To make matters even more interesting though, this was not the only climate bubble that affected the ancient world.
Medieval Warm Period
So for many people we read into the Norse myths a cold and frigid world, merciless and icy. Unfortunately for our mental image, but fortunately for the Scandinavians of that time period, the truth is a lot less so. There was this climatic time period known as the Medieval Warm Period that stretched from the 800’s through the 1300’s.[ii] How warm was it?
“Greenland ice sheets tell us there was a burst of warmer weather the far north between A.D. 600 and 650, followed by a more prolonged warm period that began about 800 and climaxed between 1150 and 1300. Norwegian farmers grew wheat north of Trondheim at an unprecedented sixty-four degrees north. English vintners planted grapes as far north as Herefordshire in western England at altitude of 200 meters above sea level. Landowners in the Lammermuir Hills of southeastern Scotland grew crops at 425 meters above sea level, during a golden age of Scottish history when interclan warfare was virtually unheard of.”[iii]
Just so you know, that’s really, REALLY warm. It means that you very nearly have to push the warmth up farther north such that most of Scandinavia wasn’t all that cold at all compared to the modern idea of what it is. So much for a land of Ice and Fire. England was warm enough for grapes, the northern reaches of Scandinavia being able to cultivate wheat, these are indications of an insane difference from modern times and indeed from our preconceived perception of what the climate should be.
Essentially, the entire Scandinavian area had undergone centuries of pleasant climate by the time the Norse myths had been recorded. To put it into perspective, by the time Snorri Sturluson had been born in 1179, the Medieval Warm Period had been going on for at least 300 years. Those myths we see as so cold? We should reimagine them. The landscape we paint as the backdrop for our mythological understandings? We need to warm it up significantly. The Norse people didn’t live in some Skyrim-esque frozen world, they didn’t live in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla with its wintery landscapes, our perceptions of their climate are way off base and if we do not right these perceptions they will continue to flavor our perception of the Viking age and indeed their mythology. We should not allow the icy thoughts to enter our heathen world-view because the world these people actually experienced wasn’t all that icy.
It is time we rethink our view of the myths of the North with the climate of the time in mind. For that matter, we should rethink the myths of Rome, Greece, Egypt and indeed Israel with the climate of the time as well.
[i] Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017).
[ii] Brian Fagan, Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
[iii] Brian Fagan, Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations (New York: Basic Books, 1999).