From King Arthur to Newly Discovered Runes: The Year With No Sun

What do the death of the legendary King Arthur and the Norse Prelude to Ragnarok have in common?

They very well might have been inspired by the extreme weather events of 535-536 C.E.

To put this in perspective, the year 1816 was called the Year Without A Summer, because a volcanic event – or more precisely a cluster of volcanic events – coupled with the Sun being in its low output phase (like Earth, the Sun has its own ‘seasons’) – resulted in a summer of darkness for many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. It was an agricultural disaster – though it did give the world a literary masterpiece in the form of Frankenstein.

Two Men by the Sea, Caspar David Frederich, 1817, Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

It was the “incessant rainfall” of the “wet, ungenial summer” that forced Mary and Percy Shelly, Lord Byron and John William Polidori to stay in indoors, quite bored, overlooking a cold lake Geneva. Most of us are familiar with Mary Shelley’s classic, The Modern Prometheus (or Frankenstein as the cool kids call it), but Lord Byron had something to say as well, and he seems fixated on the weather:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day

-Darkness, Lord Byron

Pretty Epic, right? But this is the 1816 event, and it was just an faint echo of the roaring violence that occurred between 535-536.

A Year Without A Summer? Try a Year With No Sun…

Here are some eye witness accounts:

The Byzantine historian Procopius recorded “during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness … and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear”.

The Roman statesman Cassiodorus gives the following description in one of his letters:

  • The sun’s rays were weak, and appears a “bluish” colour.
  • At noon, no shadows from people were visible from people on the ground.
  • The heat from the sun was feeble.
  • The moon, even when full, is “empty of splendour”
  • “A winter without storms, a spring without mildness, and a summer without heat”
  • Prolonged frost and unseasonable drought
  • The seasons “seem to be all jumbled up together”
  • The sky is described as “blended with alien elements” just like cloudy weather, except prolonged. It is “stretched like a hide across the sky” and prevents the “true colours” of the sun and moon to be seen, nor the sun’s warmth.
  • Frosts during harvest, which makes apples harden and grapes sour.
  • The need to use stored food to last through the situation.
  • Subsequent letters discuss plans to relieve a widespread famine.

Michael the Syrian, a Syriac Orthodox Church patriarch states “the sun shone feebly for a year and a half.”

The Gaelic Irish Annals notes:

  • “A failure of bread in the year 536 AD” – the Annals of Ulster
  • “A failure of bread from the years 536–539 AD” – the Annals of Inisfallen

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Now, let’s jump ahead, so we can find King Arthur:

The mid 10th-century Annales Cambriae, a chronicle of Wales and much of the British Isles, contains an entry for the year 537:

  • “The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell, and there was great mortality in Britain and Ireland.

So this is Arthur’s final battle, and the Annales Cambriae places it squarely in the Year With No Sun…

And Now to the Norse!

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So, what did the year 536 bring for our pre-Viking era Norse?

Keep in mind Christianity hadn’t found a foothold at this point. These were people who actively worshiped the Norse Pantheon, led by the All Father, Odin.

Archeologists have uncovered hordes of gold in Scandanavia, apparently ritually buried, all dating to…

You guessed it: the Year With No Sun.

Very recently (relative to my writing this in the fall of 2021), an amateur treasure hunter serendipitously uncovered a stash of 22 pieces of gold (over 2 pounds heavy) in Denmark. These objects, mostly amulets, contain runes familiar (Elder Futhark), and unfamiliar to scholars. However, an image of Odin can be made out.

All dating to, (drum-roll, please):

536 C.E.

Some scholars speculate that the cultural memory of the Year With No Sun may have formed the basis for the myth of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, and the preceding 3 seasons of uninterrupted winter, Fimbulwinter.

(Fimbulwinter is most directly alluded to in the Poetic Edda, in the poem Vafþrúðnismál, where Odin discovers that while Fimbulwinter (and the wars that follow it) will kill off 99.999% of the world’s population, 2 humans, a female and a male, will survive).

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So what’s the take away?

Nothing shapes mythology like reality.

That being said, sometimes myth prepares us for the realities yet to come…

We don’t know for sure what caused the Year With No Sun. A few volcanoes have been implicated, as has the possibility of multiple comet strikes, though the betting academic money is on the volcanoes.

The Year With No Sun wasn’t the Apocalypse or the End of a Yuga, but for those lived through it, it must have felt like it.

Hopefully, when we face our own proverbial Year With No Sun, we’ll remember that (Odin and Arthur willing), It’s Not the End of the World…

Cotopaxi, Frederic Edwin Church, 1862. Detroit Institute of Arts

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