The 100-year-winter and the coming of Ragnarök
Pagan Scandinavia's beginning and end
Related: After the Ice: how foragers and farmers conquered Scandinavia, Chariots of Ice, Coursers of the Sun and Fury out of the North: from pagan slavers to Christian kings.
Scandinavia today is a very clear and distinct region of the world, a geopolitical and cultural zone sharply demarcated by its geography. Shared history also drives many of the region’s commonalities. From 1397 to 1523 AD, Norden, “the North,” was bound together in the Kalmar Union. Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland, as well as what became Finland, were ruled by the same monarch (after the Union’s dissolution, Norway was under Danish and then Swedish rule until 1905, while Finland’s domination by Sweden ended in 1809 with its integration into the Russian Empire). But more than 2,000 years ago, Greek geographers were so vague about the peninsula’s shape that they thought it was an island entirely detached from mainland Europe. In fact, Scandinavia’s connection to the rest of the continent was through the unexplored and bleak taiga forests of northwestern Russia. But while frigid seas separate Sweden and Norway from the lands to the south, Denmark’s Jutland reaches out to the rest of Scandinavia from its broad border with northern Germany. But here, simple geography is misleading. Denmark may abut Germany to the south, but as early as 650 AD, its rulers constructed a system of dykes to interpose land barriers to discourage invaders who might march northward.
The deep phylogeny of these nationalities reflects this geographical, historical and political regional unity and difference from mainland Europeans. Any quick genetic survey of samples from across Europe will show that modern Scandinavians are distinctive from other populations on the continent. These analyses also reiterate why Finland is not part of Scandinavia while clearly being part of the Nordic region. Pulling together 932 Europeans and plotting their relatedness through principal components analysis (PCA), you see in the figure above that they geographically array in a predictable pattern. Swedes, Norwegians and Danes, the three Scandinavian nations, cluster on the PC plot, where the x-axis defines the largest dimension of variation in the data and the y-axis the second largest (in this sample, the x-axis explains about 3.5 times the variation of the y). The position of Finns along the bottom right of the plot is a function of their East Asian ancestry. Though only about 5% of the average Finn’s heritage is Siberian, the genetic distance between East Asians and Northern Europeans is about 150 times greater than between any two random Northern European populations. This exotic Finnish ancestry component means many genetic variants distinguish them from their Scandinavian neighbors and other Europeans more generally.
The results show a high level of correspondence between biological relatedness, geographical proximity and ethnolinguistic variables. The Danes are closer to the English than Norwegians and Swedes are due to Viking-era migration to the Danelaw, the regions of England’s east and north under Scandinavian rule for more than a century. In addition, we see the impact of the fifth and sixth-century emigration to Britain of Angles and Jutes from Denmark. Germans exhibit a stronger affinity to the Scandinavian populations than to the nearby Slavic populations to the east or the Romance-speaking French to the southwest, mirroring their linguistic relationships. These patterns are clear on the neighbor-joining tree inset within the figure; this visualizes pairwise genetic distances graphically. Swedes and Norwegians are so close as to almost be undifferentiable, with Danes are skewed towards continental Europeans. Again, Finns are the outliers because of their Siberian heritage, reflected in their Uralic language, a non-Indo-European tongue, the most distant branch of which can be found in the Taymyr peninsula 1,600 miles to the east.
Scandinavians’ affinities to various European peoples reflect the Bronze-Age coalescence of this ethnolinguistic configuration. But ultimately, geography still separates Scandinavians from even Germany, which is ensconced in the heart of Europe, and so drawn away from the north. The Nordic region’s remoteness and its harsh local climatic regime have even put their own imprint on the physical characteristics of Scandinavians.