Catastrophe, cultural memory, and the ‘dust veil’ of 536

What can Old Norse accounts of Fimbulvetr (‘Great Winter’) tell us about cultural memory of the ‘dust veil’ of  536 throughout Europe? In his new article (now live on the Cerae website), Andrea Maraschi explores just that; he introduces his research for us here. But more than that, writing from Italy in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Andrea reflects on the nature of catastrophe and the fragility of society…

I have long been intrigued by history’s innate need to repeat itself, and I often find myself telling my students that mythological tales have been preserved for centuries, sometimes for millennia, to perpetuate the memory of invaluable teachings. Among my other research interests, such as food history in the Middle Ages and medieval magic, my experience as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Iceland in the past years gave me the opportunity to get involved in the field of cultural memory studies. Old Norse mythology is an incredible receptacle of stories which have been told and retold for generations. The story of the collapse and of the subsequent rebirth of the world – the myth of Fimbulvetr – is one of the better known, and one that certainly elicits reflections. Given my interest in cyclical historical patterns (economic, social, political, cultural, environmental, etc.) and in the ever-more-spreading reinterpretation of human history in catastrophist terms among scholars, Fimbulvetr caught my attention by virtue of its apparent message: civilization was destroyed in the past and then it rose anew, and this may happen again. Despite the fact that – as I propose in the article – the northern peoples may have used Fimbulvetr to fix in their mythical memory an actual catastrophe they witnessed (the “dust-veil event” of 536 AD), the core message of the story proves ominously topical.

It’s March 20th, 2020, spring equinox that marks the start of a spring none of us is really going to enjoy. I am writing from Italy, and my country is one the most hard-hit by COVID-19. Many people here, as well as all around the world, are being shaken by primordial fears, some piling up in supermarkets, some still behaving as nothing has happened, some losing their hope. As Plato stated in the Timaeus, we, as a species, are bound to make always the same mistakes, to believe we are invincible and untouchable, to give in to pride and arrogance. And then one day, out of nothing, the ‘butterfly effect’ kicks in, and we discover that even the existence of such an advanced society is constantly hanging by a thread. We discover it, just because we forget to read. Many, before us, tried to tell us that catastrophes happen, and will always happen, and we’ve got to be prepared. But don’t get me wrong: these were not pessimistic prophecies. They look rather like good parents’ words to their beloved sons, as if to say: life is going to be hard, many a night you will find yourself crying, but in the end everything will be alright.

Medieval sources often remind us that life was hard indeed, even in ordinary days: much harder than it is now (or, should I say, until a few weeks ago). The study of food history in medieval times allows me to understand, among other things, how common the anxiety for hunger was for centuries, while research in medieval magic suggests that people constantly needed the aid of ‘supernatural’ forces and powers to survive the tragic nature of existence. Even if from another angle, my article was just another way to confirm that we are not free from this hard – and yet fascinating – destiny.

Just a final word, if I may: it will be over soon. And I know it, because our ancestors told me.  

Andrea Maraschi

University of Bari

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