Pseudoscientific theories on viking religion and earthquakes

Fig. Map mainly showing paleoseismic events. Locality and chronology (yBP). From Mörner 2007.

I hope that David at History of Geology can take some critisism, because he is going to get it now from this former Swedish archaeology student at MA-level (even if he doesnt like it).

I really like his post on viking mythology and ancient seismic events connecting The Fenrir (Fenris) Wolf to earthquakes. I would really like it to be as cool as he (or rather Dr Mörner, the man behind the theory) theorizes. But Im almost completly sure that its impossible because of several facts.

Firstly. The “vikings” didnt exist as a culture or people at the time of any of the seismic events on the map. Absolutly not before 400 AD. They are a product of native iron age culture mixing with south germanic influences during what is called the “Vendel period” in Sweden (550-700 AD) but mainly of course with the Roman Iron age migrational period (400-550 AD) before that. The norse religion is mostly imported and somewhat transformed polyteistic germanic faith (and does not have its origin in the Svitjod/Svearike/Mälardalen area).

People in Scandinavia before the import most likely believed in some form of fertility and solar-religion – but no written sources exist describing it – only artefacts. It was anyway very different from the viking Asa-faith (norse religion), wich was much more focused on command and war just as all Germanic Wotan/Odin-worshiping religions were. Creatures like Fenris is seen all through all germanic religions. They are the thing in the night that scared people – the beowulf monster if you will, that someone must slay. We are talking about people living in dark forests of Northern Europe during the Iron Age – come on – theres no need to create fantastic and complicated theories on the origin of their beasts. Occham ftw! The connection theory is completly unnecessary and therefore unlikely by default.

Secondly - Connection with dated events. Without a seismic event at the time of the Viking age (or closely before it) you will have a problem with even assuming its a plausible idea even. As I said, there are no reasonable connection at all to earlier cultures and their possible experienced events – so thats hardly an argument. And even if Mörner can present paleoseismic events during the viking age – the principle of Occham still wins in my book. Its completly unnecessary to connect Fenris to earthquakes – and therefore complety unlikely.

So thirdly. Who is this Dr Mörner btw? Is the person behind the theory important when discussing it? In this case: Oh yes! He is anything but a respected scientist in Sweden. He is for example (and this is just one of many examples of why he cannot be trusted) working with the (in Sweden) famous troublemaker and pseudoscientist Bob G Lind (a militant nutcase that spawns crazy ideas on most archaeological sites in Sweden). So when Mörner comes up with a theory – all Swedish archaeologists and geologists knows that constant scepticism is required.

Something David of course could not be expected to know about (neither Mörners CV or the true history of Vikings). But I hope that he does now! :D

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13 Responses to Pseudoscientific theories on viking religion and earthquakes

  1. David says:

    Thanks for the info,

    I agree to the critics, at least in it’s major part, the paper by Mörner is very general (to say it nice) and the post is not to be considered to serious – evermore knowing now the information’s behind the paper and the author – nevertheless I have to add some considerations to your critics.

    I’m have to say that in part I´m referring to Geomythology in general, I have mixed feelings about this approach, however I consider it more than just pseudoscience – there are profound connections between geology and culture.

    Mörner refers mostly to strong earthquakes which also have left geological evidence, in theory we have to consider that the “Viking” culture experienced earthquake, but we have no traces of them (however this is an argument without evidence)

    Mostly I don’t agree to the second point: Most time it’s impossible to link a concrete natural phenomena or event to a specific myth (this is one of the major problems with geomythology), most myths came from a time when there simply was no written record or exact time measurement. But this is not necessary: A myth is not a chronological list, when a myth finally is recorded, it encompassed simply previous knowledge, there is no need for a specific earthquake on the time of recording or during the specific culture, the myth can encompass events happened previously, maybe long time before, experienced by an another civilization.
    – it’s not unusual to encompass old and new stories by a new population in a unique system.

    In this case, even assuming a long and continuous oral tradition (we know such examples from the Aborigines) I agree that it´s pose a very great problem for Mörner to explain how a story of “an earthquake” survived for 5.000 years (in the worst case) to became part of a completely new culture – in fact he didn’t explain it. However even if the Vikings are an imported culture, there is still the possibility of a mixing with the previous iron age culture (but even this period is to young for the seismic events proposed by Mörner).

    However the most important point that I think you overlooked is to consider what came first, despite the claims of Mörner: the phenomenon or the myth – I think this question can not be answered because of exact dating problems, nevertheless it doesn’t diminish the geological content of a myth.
    It’s reasonable (not proven!) that a myth can be influenced by geology, however it is also reasonable that even a pre- existing myth can be modified to encompass also for geological events (it happened in other cultures), and that’s I think the only reasonable content that we can find in this story.

  2. ArchAsa says:

    Oh noes! Not Mörner again.

    Seriously though, good runthrough of the weaknesses in the theory. My problem, having a background in anthropology and history of religion is this basically very common and old practice of seeking “rational” and realistic foundations for religious myths. This has plagued biblical archaeology and turns everything from Aztec religion to Shinto into Just So-stories. It fundamentally misunderstands the cognitive and psychological reasons for both myths and rituals. It is true that the natural world and to some extent natural catastrophies influence human perception and storytelling, but we cannot distill everything into a single event of causation. I think your earlier exposé of the meteorite theory put forward to explain certain greek myths is an excellent case in point.

    Take the birth of Jesus for instance. There may or there may not have been a super nova visible at that time, but the story of the birth is not dependent on whether or not it was an actual supernova at that time. There have been supernovas that have inspired sotries. There have been meteorites. There have been earthquakes. But mythologies aren’t born in the moment of the natural event. They are born out of the cultural and religious framework present at the time, which will make use of some phenomena but not others. Or make use of the distant memory of a phenomenon that suits the mythos – not the other way around.

  3. Daniel says:

    David: The problem with “mixing with previous culture”-argument is that we are not talking about mixing a germanic import with one native culture stretching back all through the ages… Scandinavia have seen several imported cultural influenses during the stoneage alone. So if there was an event around lets say 5000 bc that would have been something that would have to be remebered through several major cultural migrations/shifts. I just dont find that plausible at all. I stand with my original view that the easy answer most likely is the right one.

    ArchAsa: Thanks four your comment. I agree.

  4. David says:

    Thank´s for the response, nevertheless I have to point out some general misunderstanding that arose here – I stated that I agree that “mixing with previous culture” over such vast times and different migration waves is an highly improbable/impossible statement.
    I also said that a myth is not to be referred to a single – to a specific and unique cause or geological disaster.

    Despite Mörner and his reputation the specific parts of the “Nordic myth” hasn’t to be born 5.000 years ago (beside much younger events in the map) from a single heavy earthquake in a pre-Viking culture. Mörner, despite his reputation, focused strongly on these prehistoric events, maybe he relly wants to prove his point, or there are no evidence for recent earthquakes, or in fact there are no more recent earthquakes. But anyway…

    The migrating pre-viking population and then the Viking culture can have experienced earthquakes, even of minor entity with no scientific evidence, that found way in a their larger religion system, even if this system already existed.
    The Fenris/Loki myth for example is clearly not a myth to specific explain earthquakes, but it is possible that in a marginal way the story has encompassed experienced or told earthquakes to explain them, for example there is the statement that the trapped Loki causes earthquakes.

    Said that, I have also to agree to the response of ArchAsa that the geomythological approach is problematic, it´s true that most geomythological approach is an “ad hoc” reasoning, we have a myth that resembles something geological – let’s search for such an anomaly.
    However that’s an important problem, can we say it´s always the approach of geomythology?
    There are some examples were geological phenomena’s seems really to came before the stories, but in most cases there were used to enforce the preexisting myth/stories (f.e. fossils), however to prove a direct connection in the first case is in most cases very problemati because anyway myths are a system that has not to be rational, they are not intended as a natural history or a chronology, and give us no exact data.

    However, even if I´m here oversimplifing the point, there is I think also the problem of Occams razor, could it be applicated to something so unrational like human phantasy: can there be made a distinction of likeness between the notion that an earth shaking monster came from the darkness of woods or from an experienced geological event?

    I consider the geological approach to myths interesting, however not to serious.

  5. Daniel says:

    David: “However, even if I´m here oversimplifing the point, there is I think also the problem of Occams razor, could it be applicated to something so unrational like human phantasy: can there be made a distinction of likeness between the notion that an earth shaking monster came from the darkness of woods or from an experienced geological event?”

    Yes, possible, but still speculative. Archaeology has seen too much speculative approaches imo. It needs badly to start presenting theories based on facts, not possibilities. I think that you will find this viewpoint with a growing number of archaeologists nowdays.

  6. David says:

    Mmmhh… After rereading more carefully the paper by Mörner and having in mind both your considerations I noted that in fact he simply affirms in the introduction of the paper the previking-origin of the myths, also a continuous culture from the Bronze Age, even Stone-age period, without really presenting a chronology or archaeological explanation.
    Can I ask did you know also the content of the paper, and by the way is Mörner from his background a geologist (he cites many tectonic papers)?
    Also I noted a bias in the data and the map – he states that he compiled a list of 45 events, 9 of them of major magnitude (not providing exact values but only a relative scale), but the map displays only 20 – could be cherry picking of data to prove spatial connections of earthquakes to presumed localities of mythological significance.
    You were right, it’s easy to get caught in wild speculations – so thanks both to you to pointing out the flaws and discussing it– was very instructive to me.
    A last questions to go back to geological facts – regarding earthquakes are there historic or recent events in Sweden?

  7. Daniel says:

    Can I ask did you know also the content of the paper, and by the way is Mörner from his background a geologist (he cites many tectonic papers)?

    Havent read it. This is a bio of Mörner: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nils-Axel_M%C3%B6rner But it doesnt contain info on all of his stupid activities unfortunatly. The man actually believes in dowsing…

    A last questions to go back to geological facts – regarding earthquakes are there historic or recent events in Sweden?

    Yes. We have some minor but still noticable quakes in my region from time to time. Around 3-5 at the Richter scale. Last time was 2008. They dont come at any specific interval, but around every 50-100 years. They are the result of movement in the Tornqvist zone. I have an old post on that zone: http://sandbian.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/the-geology-of-scania/

    We also have some minor quakes in more northern parts of Sweden because of land rise after the ice age.

    But in general – Scandinavia is a quite peaceful place when it comes to quakes.

  8. BoNo says:

    [quote]Firstly. The “vikings” didnt exist as a culture or people at the time of any of the seismic events on the map. Absolutly not before 400 AD. They are a product of native iron age culture mixing with south germanic influences during what is called the “Vendel period” in Sweden (550-700 AD) but mainly of course with the Roman Iron age migrational period (400-550 AD) before that. The norse religion is mostly imported and somewhat transformed polyteistic germanic faith (and does not have its origin in the Svitjod/Svearike/Mälardalen area).

    People in Scandinavia before the import most likely believed in some form of fertility and solar-religion – but no written sources exist describing it – only artefacts. It was anyway very different from the viking Asa-faith (norse religion), wich was much more focused on command and war just as all Germanic Wotan/Odin-worshiping religions were. Creatures like Fenris is seen all through all germanic religions. They are the thing in the night that scared people – the beowulf monster if you will, that someone must slay. We are talking about people living in dark forests of Northern Europe during the Iron Age – come on – theres no need to create fantastic and complicated theories on the origin of their beasts. Occham ftw![/quote]

    I think your conclusions about Mr. Mörners theory is quite ok, but along the way you too do present a number of speculations about iron age Scandinavia, as if they were proven facts.

    What proves are there that the Scandinavian population at, say, 400 AD were not part of the “European culture” already, but had to learn of it during a so-called “Vendel-period” – as of 600-800 AD?!

    What proves are there of a change in culture and philosophy (“religious beliefs”), during the later half of Scandinavian iron age?

    What proves exist for other changes, such as geneaological, happen to the ironage-population, to explain the last part of it – a period today labeled “Viking time”?!

  9. Daniel says:

    I think your conclusions about Mr. Mörners theory is quite ok, but along the way you too do present a number of speculations about iron age Scandinavia, as if they were proven facts.

    What proves are there that the Scandinavian population at, say, 400 AD were not part of the “European culture” already, but had to learn of it during a so-called “Vendel-period” – as of 600-800 AD?!

    What proves are there of a change in culture and philosophy (“religious beliefs”), during the later half of Scandinavian iron age?

    What proves exist for other changes, such as geneaological, happen to the ironage-population, to explain the last part of it – a period today labeled “Viking time”?!

    Hm, not sure what you mean here.. The religion of the early iron age and the late is quite similar. However – If you examine the period from let say 500 bc to 1000 ad, there will be a change in the archaeological material (we have very few written sources so archaeology is the tool to use). From around 200 AD to 400 AD the first signs of norse religion (asa religion) is detectable in excavations. And since we know that those things first arose in southern Germany, we then by simple logic can connect the development in scandinavia to germany. But some changes arose on the way – we didnt directly import their culture and religion, we took some parts and integrated it with ours, that already existed. Basically – at 400 ad we have a pan-european religion that only differs some in different regions. And its not difficult at all to trace the origin of these religions – or at least narrow it down to a region.

    The asa faith is an import of germanic beliefs which in turn was integrated with native ideas (such as Balder, a relict of sunworship) – theres very little to debate about this since we can see a change in the material culture. Yes a theory – but a solid one that to my understanding noone question.

    But, im not quite sure if that was your question?

  10. Pingback: Geomythology – Geomythology – Pseudoscientific theories on viking religion and earthquakes … – and more « Myths and Legends

  11. chris says:

    toooooooo muchh

  12. BoNo says:

    Perhaps your article will become a bit more trustworthy if you could clearify where and when this “Asa-religion” appeared?

    Further you may explain the difference between the symbols exposed by Skandinavian petroglyphs, stone-carvings and paintings from stone-age and bronze-age – with the figures described by the norse myths and a few pricture-stones from Gotland. How do you prove that the bronze-age items from Denmark and Sweden have “nothing to do” with the fertility-cultus you call “Asa-religion”?

    Good luck!

  13. Daniel says:

    BoNo: This is Sandbian commenting.

    1 This is not an article. Its a blogpost with a comment on another blogpost. Expect quality there after. I dont have the time or energy to put in elaborate references for example.

    2 I already stated when the Asa religion appeared here in Scandinavia -around 400AD. It is thought to originate in Southeastern Germany from the second century AD and in a line to the Black Sea. Thats the region where we find the oldest archaeological material of Asa. Thats where many germanic cultural attributes seems to originate from. It could peossibly be as old as the oldest iron age cultures, but hardly older. The bronze age cultures where very different in many ways thats its illogical to claim a continuation. Especially without any proof…

    3 Asa is not a fertility cultus. Why do you claim that Ive said that? Its a typical polyteistic germanic power and war-oriented religion with its roots attributes to roman/greek religion both in deities and in practise. All similar across all of Europe at this time. Some gods like Odin even have the same name all across Europe (Wodan, Oden, and so on)

    These religions have some influences locally from older religions like elements of fertility-deities. But theres absolutley no major similarity between the archaeological material of the bronze age and the viking age. Thats proof enough that the religion isnt old or even originated here in Scandinavia. There are no examples of the iron age war gods in the bronze age material. The bronze age material however includes lots of pictures of strange stuff that totally disapears in the iron age. Like footsteps and circles (sun/wheels). Something major def happned in the societies around the time of 500 BC-500 AD where so much new stuff came to the germanic peoples attention and knowledge. Mostly thanks to the greeks and romans, but also because of migrations and threats from huns and so on.

    I have really no further burden of proof in this matter. If you claim a continous connection of religion and culture between the stone age Scandinavia and its Viking counterpart, you need to give some examples of material matching from both ages. Its as simple as that really. Show me a stone age asa-god and you have a point. The only god I know of that seems to have survived from the bronzeage is Frey. And possibly also Balder. But other than that, Ive never heard of any.

    And of course, you also need to explain how there can be older clear Asa-material in southern Germany if the religion originated here in scandinavia where we have no such material.

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