The Fenris Wolf in the Nordic Asa creed in the light of palaeoseismics

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Fig. 1. Map of Sweden with areas of recorded palaeoseismic activity (black dots 1-26; further discussed in M6rner 2003, 2004, 2005). Nine high-magnitude palaeoseismic events are recorded in the Late Holocene. Their ages in Cl4-years Be are given in black outside the map frames. A few place names referring to noise or fractured rock are given (outside the map frames). 'Svealand' refers to an area from where much of the Asa Creed owes its origin. It seems significant that so many earthquakes and place names are located just within this region.

Abstract: The Nordic Asa Creed talks about a giant wolf, "the Fenris Wolf', that was trapped and chained deep in the mountains. When he howled, the ground trembled violently and fractured. With the discovery of frequent high-magnitude palaeoseismic events in Sweden not only in de-glacial time but also in Late Holocene time, it seems both natural and logical that the Fenris tale refers to frightening earthquake events in the past. Once again tales and sagas have been shown to be rooted in facts.

In ancient times, natural phenomena were usually explained in terms of actions by gods. Phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions were directly frightening; so too were ordinary phenomena like thunderstorms.

In the Norse mythology or the Nordic Asa creed, there are many examples of this. Thunderstorms were explained by the noise created by the god Thor throwing his hammer. The land uplift was explained by the giant Ymer slowly rising out of the sea. The end of our world--'Ragnarök" in the Asa crede--is described as a most terrible event when the ground fractures and rocks fragments are thrown higgledy-piggledy, like at a violent earthquake. Grant (2003) concludes that recent observations indicate that 'some of the tales were firmly rooted in fact'.

The Asa Creed originates in pre-Viking time. The mythological chronology given suggests that Odin and Thor arrived at Svealand in Late Iron Age and formed a new dynasty 'Ynglingaätten'. However, there is no discontinuity in the cultural evolution to account for this. On the contrary, there is continued cultural evolution back in time, to at least the Bronze Age and possibly even into the late Stone Age. The oldest place names owe their origin in the Bronze Age. The Asa Creed was written down in the thirteenth century AD by people on Iceland in their famous Edda (as recently reviewed by Grant 2003).

The Fenris Wolf
The god Loke had a son with the giantess Angrboda. The child took the form of a giant wolf--the Fenris Wolf--and became a threat even to the gods themselves (e.g. Grant 2003). Finally, the Fenris Wolf threatened to destroy the whole world. By magic, he was captured and chained deep in the mountains. When he howled, the ground and mountains trembled violently and deep fractures formed and rock fragments were thrown around.

Today, one might say; what a perfect description of a high-magnitude earthquake. Until recently, earthquakes above magnitude 5 on the Richter scale were not known from Sweden. Therefore, no one proposed a seismic origin for the story of the Fenris Wolf. It was simply sidelined as something less interesting. However, in recent years the situation has changed (Mörner 1994, 2003).

The new concept of a high palaeoseismic activity
During the last three decades, it has become increasingly clear that Sweden was subjected to strong seismic activity at the time of deglaciation some 9000-11000 radiocarbon years BP. From the notion that 'big earthquakes rather were the rule than the exception' (MiSrner 1985), there is an extensive palaeoseismic database (catalogue) including 54 magnitude 5-8 events (Mörner 2003). This catalogue even includes several magnitude 7 or 6-7 events in Late Holocene time, i.e. at times when they may have influenced not only the Norse mythology but also ancient place names (Mrmer 2003; M6rner & Strandberg 2003).

As Swedish palaeoseismicity has been presented elsewhere (Mörner 2003, 2004, 2005) this paper focuses on the Late Holocene events and their possible influence on place names, mythology and tales. In the last 5000 years, nine high-magnitude palaeoseismic events are recorded (Fig. 1). All these events are likely to have affected human life physically as well as spiritually. Effects such as faulting, fracturing, ground shaking, earth slides, tsunami waves, would have had considerable destructive effects. The 2000 Be event at Hudiksvall (site 9) set up a huge tsunami wave that washed in over land at least 20 m above sea level. The 2900 BP event at Forsmark (site 10) represents another huge tsunami that broke into lakes at least 25 m above sea level. The 3500 BP event at Marviken (site 12) caused a 5 km fracture, nine large slides (including the down-slope movement of a Bronze Age burial mound) and a local lake tsunami.

The 900 BP event on the Swedish west-coast includes a 1.0 m fault-scarp, rock shattering and liquefaction (with two Viking ships buried in sand by a possible tsunami). Our oldest place names are said to have originated in the Bronze Age. There are many names in Sweden that refer to sounds, noise or fractured rock. The Lake 'Marviken' name seems to refer to fractured rock which fits well with the effects of the 3500 BP event there. Lake 'Dunkern' refers to deep noise (an earthquake just at the spot is dated 8000 BP which seems too old to have affected the place name, but younger events may have followed in the same zone). Lake 'Hjälmaren' refers to 'the noisy' and it seems significant that the area is traversed by faults active in postglacial time (Mörner & Strandberg 2003). 'Päirve' in the far north is a Lapish name referring to noise from the underground. This area was struck by a violent seismotectonic even about 9000 BP (Lagerbäck 1979). This seems far too early for an imprint in the place name. However, there may have been subsequent activities on the fault. Much of the Nordic Asa creed seems to have originated in the region of 'Svealand' (termed 'Svenonian' by Tacitus, 79 AD, and 'Svitjod" in the Icelandic sagas), where the gods Thor and Odin were said to have emigrated and formed a new dynasty. Thus, it is interesting that we have so many traces of earthquakes just here (Fig. 1). All these facts make it highly likely that the tale of the Fenris Wolf owes its origin to actual natural phenomena; that is high-magnitude earthquakes in the Late Holocene (Fig. 1) and their associated effects (faulting, fracturing, shaking, liquefaction, tsunamis).

Until a few decades ago, we had no idea of the high frequency of de-amplitude earthquakes that struck Sweden in deglacial time. Therefore, no one had thought of the possibility that the tale of the Fenris Wolf could refer to actual earthquake events. With the novel findings of a high magnitude palaeoseismic activity in postglacial time including several high-magnitude events in the Late Holocene, it seems likely that the tale of the Fenris Wolf, in fact, provides a good description of palaeoseismic events in the past. This is further supported by a number of place names referring to sounds and fractured rock.

GRANT, J. 2003. An introduction to Viking Mythology. Quantum Publishing, Ltd.
LAGERBÄCK, R. 1979. Neotectonic structures in northern Sweden. Geologiska Frreningens i Stockhohn
Förhandlingar, 100, 263-269.
MÖRNER, N.-A. 1985. Paleoseismicity and geodynamics in Sweden. Tectonophysics, 117, 139-153.
MÖRNER, N.-A. 1994. The Fenris wolf and Swedish paleoseismicity. Bulletin of the INQUA Neotectonics
Commission, 17, 47.
MÖRNER, N.-A. 2003. Paleoseismicit)'of Sweden---a novel paradigm. A contribution to INQUA from its sub-commission on Palaeoseismology, ISBN-91-631-4072-1,320 pp., the P&G unit, Stockholm University.
MÖRNER, N.-A. 2004. Active faults in Fennoscandia, especially Sweden: primary structures and secondary effects. Tectonophysics, 380, 139-157.
MÖRNER, N.-A. 2005. An interpretation and catalogue for paleoseismicity in Sweden. Tectonophysics,
408, 265-307.
MÖRNER, N.-A. & STRANDBERG, S. 2003. Sjrnamnet Hjälmaren i geologisk belysning. Ortnamnssiillskapets i Uppsala Arsskrift, 79-82.

Oppidum of Bibracte

Tuesday, February 9, 2010



Plan of the fortifications of the oppidum of Bibracte. The grey area represents land over 700 m in elevation.

Bibracte was a Gaulish oppidum which, according to Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (‘Gallic War’) 1.23, was the capital of the Gaulish tribe known as the Aedui. It is located on Mont-Beuvray near Autun in Burgundy (south-east France). The oppidum covers 2 km2 and extends over three summits which overlook the central part of the Morvan mountains. Its prominent position dominating its landscape must have been even more impressive in antiquity since the mountain top would have been bare and enclosed by massive ramparts.

Many of the gates of Bibracte were constructed primarily for processional purposes, in which function was subordinate to appearance. For example, the northeastern gate, now called porte du rebout (gate of the limb), is the largest example of a gate in any Celtic oppidum yet excavated.

Bibracte was subdivided into several areas or quarters given over to specific activities and social classes. The quarters in the north-east and south-west were reserved for artisans and commerce respectively. The central residential quarter contained many elaborate houses partly imitating the Roman urban house-type with a central open area (atrium) and a garden enclosed by a small colonnade (peristyle; the so-called parc aux chevaux). Each quarter seems to have had a cult site or a temple (see map).

The artisans’ quarters show evidence of elaborate metallurgy, including gold, bronze, and iron working, as well as enamel production. The internal street-plan was comparatively regular in so far as the lay of the land allowed. It was dominated by a south-to-west axis, centred on a convex basin, whose orientation towards the summer and winter solstice implies a cult significance.

The ritual precincts were located in the south (la terrasse, the terrace), the north-west (le teureau de la roche, hill of the rock) and the north-east (le teureau de la wivre, hill of the serpent; these are dialect words: teureau, as theurot, from Gaulish *turra ‘hill’, and wivre, as vouivre, from Latin vipera, Old French vuivre ‘serpent’, cf. Welsh gwiber). In these locations the ritual area have been sited by prominent rocks, which seem to have played a part in the cult. At the site of the terasse a small chapel was built in the Middle Ages.

Three wells were located within the fortified perimeter of Bibracte, and there is evidence for ritual depositions in them, which implies the presence of the commonly occurring Celtic cult of spring deities. Pre-Roman coinage was found inside the walls. Bibracte was a mint, and a coin mould for casting 25 blanks was found on the site (Allen, Coins of the Ancient Celts 34). The name DUMNORIX, which is mentioned in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, and possibly his portrait, has been found on one of the coins from Bibracte. In Roman times, the population of Bibracte relocated to the newly founded town of Augustodūnum, present-day Autun. The name Bibracte has been explained as a Celtic collective in –axtā based on the root bibr- ‘beaver’, hence ‘place of beavers’ (Lambert, La langue gauloise 59, 188– 9). Modern Mont-Beuvray continues the ancient name.




Aberffraw was the royal site of the kings of Gwynedd from the 7th century (or perhaps earlier) until 1282. It is situated in the south-west of the island of Anglesey (Môn) on the estuary of the river Ffraw. Aber ‘river-mouth’ (< Celtic *ad-ber-) is common in place-names in Brittany (Breizh) and Scotland (Alba)—in what used to be the country of the Picts— as well as elsewhere in Wales (Cymru). Today, the name (locally pronounced Berffro) designates a village, the bay onto which the estuary opens, and the bay’s protected ‘heritage coastline’. The population of the community of Aberffraw according to the 2001 Census was 1293, of which 876 inhabitants over the age of 3 could speak Welsh (69.2%).  

Archaeology and History
Excavations carried out in 1973 and 1974 were interpreted as a Roman fort of the later 1st century, with refortification in the 5th or 6th century. Anglesey was first invaded by the Romans under Paulinus in ad 60, as described by Tacitus. However, it could not be immediately garrisoned, owing to the military disaster of the revolt of Boud¼ca. Therefore, the Roman fort probably dates to the subsequent activities of Agricola, who was Roman Britain’s governor in the period c. ad 78–85. The post-Roman re-defence may reflect the arrival at the site of the court of Gwynedd’s first dynasty, who claimed descent from the 5th-century hero Cunedda (Wledig) fab Edern. These early strata were heavily overlain by remains of medieval occupation attributable to the court of Gwynedd. That the site was already a royal centre in the 7th century is further indicated by the Latin commemorative inscription to king Cadfan (who died c. 625) at the nearby church at Llangadwaladr: CATAMANUS REX SAPIENTISIMUS OPINATISIMUS OMNIUM REGUM ‘Cadfan wisest and most renowned of all kings’. The church itself bears the name of Cadfan’s grandson Cadwaladr (†664), who also succeeded as king of Gwynedd.

Aberffraw remained a principal seat or the principal seat for Gwynedd’s ‘second dynasty’, which came to power with the accession of Merfyn Frych in 825.

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