For The Two Bishops of Trondheim, it seemed like a perfectly ordinary day. The wind blew, the snow fell, just as it had all week. But as the hours passed, something odd began to happen. The bishops sensed a sinister presence. By the end of that day, one thing had become horribly clear - Norway was in danger. Strange shapes appeared in the mountains, then scattered across the tundra, quickly spilling into the valleys below. Huge bands of marauders began swarming into the foothills, laying waste to the land. They marched into the fields, devouring corn and haystacks. The whole swaggering mass seemed to rise up in a moment of Nordic atavism, roving and raiding like a crazed troop of Berserkers then moving down into the fjords. This was an infiltration so wondrous and terrifying that when recalled later, it was likened to that Biblical plague of locusts. To the bishops, this was a most curious form of heavy weather. The only reasonable explanation for the sudden appearance of these deranged and pestilent creatures was that they had fallen from the sky, spontaneously generated from 'feculent' clouds. This belief was nothing new. The miraculous appearance of fish, frogs, toads and other animals was familiarly understood as an aberrant form of precipitation. When the account of this remarkable phenomenon was published some ten years later,in 1532, by that "natural philosopher" and cartographer Jacob Ziegler of Landau, it was The Two Bishops of Trondheim who were credited with the idea that the clouds were raining lemmings.
Wikimedia Commons - johsgrd
That's the perpetrator, the Norwegian Lemming, Lemmus lemmus, a winsome ball of fluff. Lemmings are part of that Superfamily which includes rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils. As herbivorous Arctic rodents, lemmings typically feast on shoots, leaves and grasses. They do not hibernate during winter but instead remain active, foraging for food. Like other rodents, they have a high reproductive rate and experience periodic population booms which seem to follow a three to four year cycle. It is during these "lemming years" that the mass migrations occur, phenomena to which observers have historically attributed various and colorful motives. First, it was the clouds. The clouds were responsible for disgorging from their wisps and billows the looming mobs of four-leggers who terrorized the frosted valleys. It is in his geographical masterwork known as Schondia, that Ziegler shares the speculations of the bishops and refers to the "four-footed insects" as a pestilence ushered in by storms or sudden showers. He describes them both as a plague in a moral sense which threatens to corrupt Norway, and as vectors for an infectious plague which physically undermines Norwegians. The biological plague Ziegler refers to here was known as Lemaensot or Lemming-fever, most likely tularemia, an infectious disease carried by rabbits and aquatic and other small rodents.
If anyone found this meteorological theory incredible, they needed to look no further than Swedish historian and geographer Olaus Magnus' 1555 work, History of the Nordic Peoples, for irrefutable proof of lemmings raining down from the sky. There it was, in a woodcut identified as The Migration of the Lemmings. The lemmings, which look suspiciously ratlike, are superimposed over storm clouds and shown falling to earth. Once on land, they move inland from the coast, and are immediately carried off by much larger predators with sharply pointed ears and long, striped tails.
The History, an otherwise invaluable source of information about the culture and customs of Scandinavians, added little to the lemming migration theories. Magnus, having purportedly plagiarized Ziegler's Schondia for a description of the creatures and their mysterious behavior, simply corroborated the lemming creation myth and confirmed the sense of unease brought about by their invasions. For their destructive ways with crops and generally foul temper, the lemmings were understood as a portent of evil, a divine punishment sent to make the sinful repent. They were so reviled that the Norwegian clergy devised a special curse in an attempt to exorcise the supernatural vermin. It was full of the usual hellfire sentiments.
I ban ye, pestilent rats, in the name of the Holy Trinity! (signs the cross.) Haste away then from these our fields, vineyards, and waters. March thither where ye are no man's bane. In the name of the Holy Trinity and the host of heaven, and the Church of God, I curse ye that in all your goings ye be cursed: Wasting day by day: waning till no remnant be found. May He who will judge the quick and dead by fire grant this. Amen.
It wasn't until the 17th century that the belief about lemming origins began to shift. New, and more importantly, accurate information was being appended to the current knowledge about the animals. After receiving the preserved body of a lemming from the Bishop of Bergen, Danish anatomist and naturalist Ole Worm published an anatomically correct drawing of the creature, providing convincing evidence that the lemmings were rodents who were produced by other rodents rather than clouds. The results were republished two years later in Worm's masterwork, Museum Wormianum, a scholarly catalogue showcasing his extensive collection of natural history specimens.
While 16th and 17th century theories about lemmings addressed the problem of where they were coming from, theories developed during the 19th century focused on that other curious matter: where they were going. For a summing up, let's turn to a passage so richly purple it defies belief. It was published in 1883 by Moncure Daniel Conway, an American minister.
...nothing I have heard seems to me so suggestive of a literal lost Atlantis as a fact concerning the Norway lemming (Myodes lemmus, a sort of rat). The migratory instinct of these lemmings every now and then—every twenty or twenty-five years—leads them to plunge into the Atlantic, and swim till they drown. It is the teaching of evolution that no animal has any organ or instinct which either is not, or was not once, of use to it. It is difficult to suppose that the migrating instinct of the lemming was always simply suicidal. It looks as if they must once have found land where it exists no more. These little creatures would seem to be the last believers in that wonderful island the tradition of which allured the voyagers of the world for centuries, painted as it was with colours of the sunset, and whose last fabled enchantments are spiritualized in Bacon's New Atlantis and Shakspeare's Island of Prospero. The faith of man painted Atlantis with all the glories of a lost Paradise. To read the rumours of it is to know the sorrows which our race wished to leave behind when it made the sea-change into something rich and strange. There was the land of the lotus-eaters where men might eat a nectar which stilled all desire to return to their homes; and if they returned they were not to be recognized even by their own families. They were ever young and happy. It looks as if the medieval man was as eager as his humble co-voyager the lemming to migrate away from his wintry old world.
The "Atlantis Theory" was a popular one and it had a long list of adherents, including English entomologist and zoologist William Duppa Crotch who moved to Scandinavia and wrote extensively on lemming migration. In his paper, On the Migration and Habits of the Norwegian Lemming, published in 1876, Duppa Crotch begins to advance, somewhat cautiously, his suspicion that the lemmings are seeking an ancestral homeland. He first observes that the migrations are always directed westward rather than south, where there is an ample supply of food:
They are, however, always directed westwards; and thus the theory that they are caused by deficiency of food fails so far, that these migrations do not take place in a southerly direction, by which a larger supply might be obtained.
Then comes the explanation. The lemmings are driven to seek something more important than food:
There is, however, a solution of this difficulty, involving a subject that has always seemed to me of the deepest interest, and which led me to spend two years among the Canaries and adjacent islands. I allude to the island or continent of Atlantis.
Is it not then conceivable, and even probable, that when a great part of Europe was submerged and dry land connected Norway with Greenland, the Lemmings acquired the habit of migration westward for the same reasons which govern more familiar migrations?
I am therefore inclined to assume that in former days the lemming had a climatal motive for its migrations; and it may even be supposed that some, at least, returned to their northern home; otherwise it seems hard to account for the persistency with which they cling to a suicidal routine.
This is not the first stated connection between lemmings and suicide, but perhaps the 19th century date will put to rest the popular theory that Walt Disney's 1958 documentary White Wilderness is responsible for the lemming suicide myth. This Academy Award winning nature documentary was exposed as fraudulent in the 1980's. The lemmings, which can be seen hurling themselves from a cliff, were in fact herded onto a rapidly spinning turntable which launched them to their deaths. Here's the August 13, 1958 New York Times review of the film. The reviewer mentions the lemming sequence in which the audience is treated to a glimpse of the "traditional, mysterious 'death march' to the sea".
Since the vernacular view of lemmings as mindless conformists is wrong but persistent, let me do my part to end this benighted and disagreeable fiction. I return to Mr. Duppa Crotch and his lemming paper...
Nothing stops them, neither fire, torrents, lakes, nor morasses. The greatest rock gives them but a sight check; they go round it and then resume their march directly without the least division. If they meet a peasant, they persist in their course, and jump as high as his knee in defence of their progress. They are so fierce as to lay hold of a stick and suffer themselves to be swung about before they quit their hold. If struck, they turn about and bite, and will make a noise like a dog . . . They are the dread of the country.
For more current thinking on the matter, seek out Dennis Chitty's enjoyable and very readable Do Lemmings Commit Suicide: Beautiful Hypotheses and Ugly Facts, Oxford University Press, 1996.