The Crash of the Sun

Kaali Meteorite Crater on the island of Saaremaa.

Kaali Meteorite Crater on the island of Saaremaa. Source: Tina Gill.

You won’t find much if you search the Web for “the crash of the sun.”

Some of what you do find is less than palatable, unless you’re into the ambient/electronica/experimental music of the Italian band SBPS2. Down at the tail end of the nine Google results, you’ll find a link to Volume 23 of Estonian Folklore.

Estonia is a curious country. Snuggled up against Russia — if one can place such a cuddly word so near to that totalitarian nightmare —  with a frozen coastline on the Gulf of Finland, the country has been fought over by Poland, Germany, Denmark, Germany, Russia and Sweden. In the 1400’s it was part of Livonia, and despite the Christianization of the pagans the country still has its own curious identity.

The Livonian Confederation, 15th century

The Livonian Confederation, 15th century

In 1639, the characters from my novel travel by ship from Reval (present-day Tallinn) to Riga, and are forced to land on the island of Saaremaa to make repairs.

Ulf looked around at the crew members sleeping on the dry sand around him. Others had been sent for construction materials, food and water. From the west, borne on the soft wind, he could hear the bark of seals and the cries of birds. Master Jens turned the carcass of the dead bird over the open fire and continued the telling — the endless telling — of yet another boring story from the dying past.

“The island settlements to the east are ancient, and the place was known to the vikings as Eysysla. Eirik – a bastard son of the Norsk King Haakon Sigurdsson – invaded here 600 years ago, killing everyone he found and taking Danish ships as his own. But today it is a haven for healers. They say massive stones fall here from the sky, trailing fire and bringing magic elements. Don’t be surprised if witches appear to you out of thin air. And whatever they ask of you, don’t do it.”

Ulf wished the old man would just shut up.

As you can see, I am not Ulf. The story of the meteorite is real, and it fascinates me — as do the other stories that Master Jens tells. Volume 23 of Estonian Folklore tells what really happened.

The Kaali meteorite crash is the kind of unique and astounding event that must have become a topic of storytelling and singing for many generations afterward. As mentioned above, it evidently occurred around 2000 BC, on Saaremaa Island in the Baltic Sea. As recent scientific studies have established (Tiirmaa 1994), a meteorite of iron streaked from east to west over the Estonian mainland, broke  apart as a result of atmospheric friction, and hit the island in at least 9 places, leaving craters that can be seen to this day.

Tiirmaa (1994: 63) likens the event to a small nuclear explosion (minus radioactivity). … the amount of energy needed to form the main crater was equivalent to 1-4 kilotons (1–4 million kg or 2–8 million pounds) of TNT explosive. The largest fragment hit the ground and exploded with enough energy to create a crater 110 m in diameter, 22 m deep, with a rim 4–7 m above the ground.

It is hard to imagine what went on in the minds of the humans who saw flaming chunks of the sky fall to earth, heard the sonic boom of the streaking fragments and the ear-splitting crash, felt the ground shudder beneath their feet, and were engulfed by a great cloud of dust and ash. Trees, animals, and dwellings within a radius of 2–5 km from the site would have been destroyed, a forest fire would have been ignited, and the survivors would have had to run for their lives to avoid asphyxiation from the vaporized and pulverized matter and gases. This may have been the greatest meteorite impact ever in a populated area. It was truly a fearsome and spectacular event, more than enough to alter existing world-views and to inspire new tales and songs.

The long-tailed fireball would have been brighter than the sun, visible not just on Saaremaa but as far as 700 km (450 miles) away (Meri 1984: 55; Tiirmaa 1994: 65). Included in the area of direct observability are much of southern Finland and Karelia, the Novgorod area of Russia, the Polish coast, and lower Sweden.

At the end of the dissertation comes a song. The Kaali Meteorite Song. “Each song line is to be sung first by the lead singer [storyteller], and repeated by the chorus [listeners].”

Narrator: The night was dark. The sky-god Ukko decided to shed more light on earth.

Ukko struck to make a fire,
Struck a white-hot lightning fire.
From his flaming sword he struck it,
As the sparks did fly and sputter;
Fire hit against his fingers,
Sputtered sparks from sacred fingers,
High above aloft in heaven,
On the starry plains of heaven.

Narrator: He entrusted the care of the fire to the maid of air, for her to form and shape.

Into a new moon to form it,
Into a new day to shape it.

Narrator: But this did not turn out well.

Imbi rocked the baby fire,
Back and forth the little white one.
On her hands she held the fire,
Put the spark up on her fingers:
Fire fell from butterfingers
From the fingers of the guardian.

Narrator: The catastrophe followed

Heaven torn and lacerated,
Skyvault became perforated;
Fire tore through sky like blizzard,
Sped and crashed along the cloudline,
Through nine heavens it descended,
Through six spangled vaults of heaven.
Evil deeds it then accomplished,
Cruel deeds it perpetrated:
Burning up the daughters’ bosoms,
Tearing at the breasts of maidens,
And the knees of boys destroying,
And the master’s beard consuming.
And of all its deeds most evil:
Burned the baby in his cradle.
Went on burning many uplands,
Many uplands, many boglands,
Crashed at last into the water,
In the waves of Lake Alue:
And the fire rose up flaming,
And the sparks a rose all crackling.
Three times in a night of summer,
Nine times in a night of autumn,
Roared up to the height of spruce trees,
Sprang up high against the shorebanks
With the strength of furious fire,
With the might of angry white heat.
Even threw the fish on dry land,
Heaved the perch across the beaches.

From Istanbul to Gottorp: Maps for the Journey

“Mina stared at the rough men across the fire, felt the eight hundred miles of darkness at her back, and wished she could be a girl again. She unconsciously rubbed her calloused fingers together in a nervous rhythm. Fifty hard days ago in Ankara, Pococke’s caravan had veered south for Aleppo while her map insisted that she go east. Since the roads overflowed with soldiers aiming for Erivan Fortress, since Erivan lay between her and the Caspian Sea, and since traveling alone meant a quick death at the hands of bandits or worse, she had joined the camp followers on the road to war.”

— From Empires of Truth, Chapter Two, “Out of the Faithful Nation.”

Eight hundred miles have fallen behind her, and the journey has only just begun. In her pack, a stolen manuscript of uncertain origin might make her fortune or seal her fate. Ahead lay an uncharted path through the Caucuses to the Caspian Sea, where, if God or Allah wills it, she will be allowed to join a caravan bound for the Baltic.

It has been almost five years since I set out on my own journey of creation. Six drafts later, after countless hours of research, the story is coming to its end. Below are some of the old maps I’ve used for routes and place-names. Some of the cities along Mina’s route include Istanbul, Ankara, and Erzurum. Crossing into Armenia, under the watchful gaze of Mt. Ararat, she travels through Erivan, Berdkunk and Kot. At the eastern end of Lake Gokcha (now called Sevan) the pass of Zodsk leads her into Persia, and the city of Berdaa. Turning south, she travels to Ardebil, known today for its carpets but famous in the 1600’s for its cats. A day’s journey takes her to Astara, on the western shore of the Caspian. Northward she crosses the Volga River into Astrakhan, where sturgeon, melons and rock-salt are staples of trade. Two thousand miles to the northwest, the Neva River links to the Baltic Sea, the location of modern-day St. Petersburg. Along the Baltic coast to Reval, Riga, Stralsund, Lubeck, and finally Schloss Gottorp where the journey ends.

I hope you enjoy these maps as much as I do.

English language ‘originated in Turkey’

The headline of the BBC article overstates it just a tad — they’re talking about the Indo-European family of languages — but the news is still exciting.

Modern Indo-European languages – which include English – originated in Turkey about 9,000 years ago, researchers say.

Their findings differ from conventional theory that these languages originated 5,000 years ago in south-west Russia.

Reading this, I was immediately reminded of The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales, which I read a couple years ago.

… readers will discover how Vinci, working from the evidence of place-names and geographical features … comes to agree with these early social scientists and to conclude that “the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans lay in the northernmost part of Scandinavia …”

Trying to write anything else here would add less than nothing to a topic that is so fascinating to me that it defies description. If you haven’t read Felice Vinci’s book, go out and buy a copy today. You won’t be disappointed.