View Full Version : Eddic Constellations

Sunday, December 11th, 2005, 10:10 PM
Eddic Constellations

By James Ogier

PowerPointSlides (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.roan oke.edu%2Fforlang%2Fogier%2FEddic%2520Co nstellationspp.htm) [PP1] The field of ethnoastronomy or cultural astronomy, that is, the study of a society’s knowledge and cultural usage of naked-eye astronomy has in its relatively short life-span opened many doors to understanding ancient cultures, especially in the cases of Ancient Egypt and the Maya. Unfortunately, its application to medieval Scandinavia poses far greater obstacles than its application to the two cultures just mentioned.

For one thing, the Viking age built no pyramids, no stone temples, no Stonehenge, in fact, very little in the way of the relatively permanent material culture that one finds everywhere in Egypt or Latin America. An ancient astronomical observatory on Esja or a even medicine wheel on the top of the Himmelbjerg would help mightily in determining the extent to which pre-Christian Scandinavians involved themselves with astronomical matters.

Alas, the archeological record is spotty. For another thing, cultural astronomy as a field is painfully aware of the conjectural nature of its results, and frequently debates the meaning of “objectivity” and “rigor” in its application. One might thus fear that little of interpretive utility could derive from a discussion of Viking astronomy. And yet, a culture that could navigate the North Atlantic must have had a fair grounding in astronomy, despite the Scandinavian climate. Zinner’s contention [PP2]: [t]he weather in the original habitats of the Germanic peoples … will hardly have been different from now.

Mostly overcast skies and frequent precipitation permit only under exceptional circumstances the observation of the sky and its phenomena from night to night, except for such a bright and noticeable heavenly body as the moon. The conditions of observation were thus particularly unfavorable for the Germanic peoples than for the other cultures, with the exception of the Chinese […] while perhaps meteorologically correct, fails to recognize that one does not need continuous nightly clarity to track planets, let alone constellations.

True, climate plays a role in answering why the Maya developed Venus tables and the Vikings apparently did not, but the North sky provides sufficient opportunity to group stars into recognizable and culturally transmittable constellations. Apart from their use as a pedagogical device in the transmission of astronomical and hence navigational lore, the constellations also become grist for the mill of catasterism, that is, the assignment of mythic material to heavenly bodies.If, as I shall claim, the mythology of the older Scandinavian cultures had an astronomical basis, one might expect to see signs of it in the cosmographic materials that incorporate its mythology.

With few exceptions, scholarship has sidestepped the issue. From Sophus Bugge’s suggestion that Ratatöskr the squirrel (that spreads discord along the world tree Yggdrasill, according to the Grímnismál) resulted from some medieval poet’s accidental observation of a squirrel running up a stone monument such as the Gosforth cross [PP3]; through Pipping’s discussion of why Yggdrasill (i.e., the porous Milky Way) had to represent a yew tree; to de Vries’ tentative and half-hearted association of Bifröst with the Milky Way, there have been only sporadic attempts to align Eddic structures, which, as the poems explicitly state, are in the heavens, with actual visible celestial structures.

However, the few works devoted to the idea are also to be enjoyed with caution. One, Reuter’s Germanische Himmelskunde [PP4], published in 1934 in Munich, has, as one might predict, an agenda, and the later, more thought-provoking work, Björn Jónsson’s Star Myths of the Vikings [PP5], too often sacrifices scholarship for inventiveness. But both works have much to offer and I shall refer to them in what follows. Björn’s book especially points out a methodological problem within cultural astronomy: the tenuousness of the direct assignment of mythic figures to celestial phenomena. Individual assignments, e.g., Björn’s equation of Cassiopeia [PP6] with the four deer that nibble on the leaves of Yggdrasill, are by themselves of as little value as Walter Hansen’s mapping of Eddic features onto the Icelandic landscape [PP7] unless they demonstrably stand in a systematic and recognizable relationship with other features described in the sources. [With regard to sources I shall here largely confine myself to texts of the Poetic Edda, as belaboring Snorri or the sagas at this point would take us too far afield.]

Let us then ask what evidence exists for the claim that Nordic poetry contains references to a systematic description of the skies. Before displaying the Scandinavian evidence, I would like to cast a glance at a very different culture to demonstrate what such evidence can look like. Since Linda Schele’s 1993 Maya Cosmos, Mayanists have generally accepted the equation of the Maya World Tree [PP8] (seen here on a Classic era ceramic piece) with the Milky Way. It would take too long to adduce the argument for this here, but the determinant features include the bird (Wukub Kaquix or Seven Macaw) at the top of the tree and the scorpion at the bottom. Like the Sumerians and, consequently, classical and medieval Europe, Pre-Colombian peoples saw a scorpion in the constellation Scorpio but interpreted the Big Dipper as a bird.

Consequently, Schele claims that the scene depicted here shows the Big Dipper/Macaw being shot out of its tree by one of the Hero Twins, i.e., the Big Dipper/Macaw dipping below the horizon, which happens occasionally in tropical climes. In order to ask the same questions of the northern sky, one must ask to what degree the medieval Northmen saw roughly the same shapes in the constellations as those handed down by classical antiquity.

First, as heirs to an Indo-European cultural system, they divided the zodiac into 12 sectors (as suggested by the Vafþrúðnismál), they associated Venus with a goddess of love (i.e., as the Friggjarstjarna) and they interpreted the constellation Orion as a male human figure, rather than, for example, as a turtle, as did the Maya. Secondly, as this audience knows best, the Northmen had access to European culture through travel, trade and tribal ties. Yet, just as Scandinavian mythology differs from that of other IE groups, so too must one expect a Northernization of astronomical terminology.

It should come as no surprise, for example, that the constellation Scorpio [PP9] should turn into Niðhöggr the serpent at the base of the world tree, rather than a more southerly critter not native to northern climes. Finally, as DuBois takes great pains to point out, one must not neglect the influence of the Finns, the Sámi and circumpolar shamanism, all of whom have their own version of, e.g., the world tree mythology which spans Eurasia and has been most extensively documented in Siberia.

So much for the framework. Now to the evidence.In a justly famous passage of his Germania, Tacitus reports that the Germanic peoples worship Mercury, Mars and Hercules [PP10]. Scholarship has normally understood this as an interpretatio romana and argued for an equation with Germanic gods on the basis of common Indo-European traits, with much ingenuity going into the identification of Hercules (Thor? Freyr?). Remembering the late Classic correlations of Mercurii dies with WodansdægMartis dies with Tiwsdæg, I not only agree with the equation of Mercury with Óðinn and Mars with Tiw, but I go one step farther and take Tacitus’ assertion at face value; the Germanic peoples worshipped the planetsconstellation Hercules.

We “moderns” (“post-“ or otherwise) tend to divorce mythological figures from their celestial namesakes and seek sociological parallels à la Dumézil or psychological ones à la Jung and Campbell. Let us not forget the ubiquity of star worship, the prerequisite for catasterism, among pre-civilized peoples and its concomitant shamanist rituals. I would posit that the mythology (Óðinn as the quickly moving “wanderer” who pops up unexpectedly, apparently erratically and furiously “wodand”) postdates the astronomical observations (Mercury with its quick and apparently erratic movement and its frequent and dramatic retrogrades).

In fact, if one accepts this interpretation, one may take one more step and read Tacitus’ assertion as a pars pro totum, i.e., rather than merely Mercury, Mars and Hercules, the Germanic peoples worshipped planets and constellations in general. Tacitus further reports [PP11] of another tribe which worships Castor and Pollux, by which he seems to mean the constellation Gemini rather than its two prominent stars, and again reports of a Germanic tradition of fixing meeting dates by means of lunations.Given the debate over Tacitus’ sources and intentions, I am certain that the preceding has done little to counter anyone’s skepticism, but it does demonstrate an interest in astronomy among the Germanic tribes. I shall now present two examples based largely on the Grímnismál which will provide a firmer basis for the possibilities of this line of research. First we turn to the description of the World Tree Yggdrasill [PP12]. According to the Poetic Edda, it has inter alia the following features: three roots, each of which bears one of the three worlds; at the top, an eagle with a hawk between its eyes; at the bottom, a serpent that gnaws its roots; a squirrel that dashes up and down the tree sowing discord between the serpent and the birds; and, finally, four deer which nibble at the leaves of the tree. The only known MS representation of it comes from the 17th century (AM 738 4to) and contains all the animal features just mentioned.

If we compare this image with a map of the Milky Way, a number of interesting parallels emerge. First [PP13], the constellation Scorpio lies at the bottom of the supraecliptic section of the Milky Way in exactly the position displayed in the MS for Niðhöggr the serpent. Corresponding to the spot where the squirrel Ratatöskr climbs the tree [PP14], one finds a prominent curve in the western edge of the Milky Way that with little imagination resembles a squirrel surmounted by its tail and facing upward as portrayed in the MS. The four deer that nibble the leaves of the tree present more of a problem, and point to a conflation of two traditions. The Grímnismál (34) describes the deer as eating the shoots from below with their heads thrown back (gaghálsir), again as portrayed in the illustration.

The names assigned to the deer (Dáinn ‘deceased’, Dvalinn ‘the loiterer’, Dúneyrr ‘downy ear’ and Dýraþrór ‘the waxing of deer’) suggest four moon phases. Granted, two of the names pop up in the “dwarf catalogue” of the Völuspá, but in a context strongly suggestive of celestial events (i.e., following the cardinal directions). Many cultures the world over see an erect quadruped in the shapes on the lunar surface; the Chinese, for example, see not our “man in the moon,” but rather a rabbit standing on its hind legs. [A Mexican colleague of mine assures me that not only was she brought up to see the rabbit, but that he also carries a plate of tortillas in his paws.] From this image it is a short step to interpreting the lunar features as a standing deer with its head raised to nibble on the shoots of the Milky Way as the moon passes over it in each of its four main phases (corresponding to “deceased,” “waxing,” “loitering,” and “downy eared”).

Alternately, it is possible that the various tendrils of the Milky Way reminded observers of deer antlers, which would incorporate the deer into the tree much as we did with the squirrel. Because the lunar and stellar interpretations seem to me more compelling, I reject out of hand Björn’s identification of the deer with Cassiopeia. Finally [PP14], the two birds at the top of the tree present an even larger problem. Björn’s emphatic equation of the eagle with the constellation Aquila and the hawk Veðrfölnir with Altair contains a number of blemishes, chief among them the fact that Aquila lies far from the top of the tree. If the base of the tree lies in Scorpio/Sagittarius, one should seek the top of the tree either 180° away in Taurus/Gemini or in the area around the pole star, where the constellations that we see as the dippers suggest themselves as candidates. Gemini has much to recommend it, especially in light of Tacitus’ report that at least one Germanic tribe saw it as a deity (named Alcis).

Even if the above held true in medieval Scandinavian culture, extending into the 17th century and our MS illustration, one must also expect a degree of polyvalence as regional traditions coalesce. The name “Yggdrasill” means ‘Óðinn’s horse’, and helmet iconography [PP15] shows Óðinn astride his eight-legged steed Sleipnir, frequently, as in this example, with two birds above (I have a hard time identifying them as ravens) and a serpent appropriately placed below. Rather than contradicting the Milky Way / World Tree interpretation, this class of image strengthens it through the common links of Óðinn’s horse and the tree-name Yggdrasill. Furthermore, the Fjölsvinnsmál deliver yet another name for the tree (Mímameiðr) and another bird variant, this time a rooster (Viðofnir), suggesting that the images transmitted by the Edda were hardly standardized, but picked and chosen from a stock of common elements, where both tree and horse associate with some kind of bird.

That at least the concept of the world tree comes from common Germanic and not exclusively Scandinavian tradition is evident also from Adam of Bremen’s tale of the Saxons’ Irminsûl, a sacred wooden column felt to “sustain everything” like the world tree, and which has cultural echoes across the centuries in the European Maypole. In sum, the Milky Way presented to the ancient Scandinavian the sustaining tree, the axis mundi that was also the horse of the principal deity, with a threatening serpent below (Scorpio, through whose precinct Mercury/Óðinn has to pass), various noxious fauna at its flanks and a bird or birds above (probably Gemini, through which Mercury would also have to pass). One more example will, I hope, demonstrate the validity of this line of study. The Grímnismál give the following context for Valhöll: vargr hangir a wolf hangs fyr vestan dyrr to the west of the door ok drúpir örn yfir (10) and an eagle droops its head above it Björn equates the door of Valhöll with the constellation Ophiuchus [PP16], which does indeed have the shape of a door.

More importantly, the constellation Sagittarius, which I take to represent Fenrir the wolf, hangs just to the west of it, and the constellation Aquila (and this time, I shall accept Aquila as the correct eagle) hangs its head just above it. Valhöll [PP17] also has, according to the subsequent stanzas, 540 doors through each of which 800 warriors will pass at Ragnarök. Reuter offers two connections for these numbers. 540 has the factors 27, the length of the sidereal lunar cycle, that is, the time it takes for the moon to reach the same spot in the zodiac again (as opposed to the 29.5 days from new moon to new moon), and 20, the standard “score” used for bundling units. Furthermore, as both Reuter and Santillana have pointed out, multiplication of 540 and 800 results in 432,000, the number of years in the so-called Babylonian Great Year or the time it takes for the planets to cycle back into exactly the same position. It is also, according to Santillana, not coincidentally the number of syllables in the RigVeda. This non-arbitrary number, known to astronomers for millennia firmly establishes the poet of the Edda as knowledgeable in astronomical lore and the Edda itself as part of an ancient astronomic tradition. Returning to Björn’s equation of Ophiuchus with the door of Valhöll, we can localize the goat Heiðrún, described in the Grímnismál (25) as also nibbling at the tree’s leaves, as the constellation Capricornus which sits exactly opposite Ophiuchus on the other side of the Milky Way, resting its muzzle on the edge of it as if feeding on it. I suspect that the deer Eikþyrnir lurks somewhere in the vicinity, either as yet another lunar representative or as the constellation Andromeda. Even if I have at least persuaded rather than convinced with these few examples, I hope that we can build on the groundwork of cultural astronomy to demonstrate a pattern of celestial imagery in the Nordic texts. Snorri’s Edda and the sagas contain much pertinent supporting material, as do, to a lesser extent, the kings’ lives. We must learn to see the mythological images such as Yggdrasill as systems of shapes that relate to observable phenomena. Even if one cannot decide among moon phases or galactic tendrils or Cassiopeia as the source of the leaf-nibbling deer, having narrowed the field and shown the relationship of other elements in the complex can count as progress. [Alternate conclusion:]

Scandinavian studies has much to learn from the application of ethnoastronomy to its texts. Much will perforce remain speculative, but, as I hope to have demonstrated, there are suggestive patterns that link the images of the oldest pre-Christian Nordic poetry with the western traditional constellations. Even a cursory investigation of the material, such as I have presented here raises myriad tantalizing questions. Why, for example, do the Æsir correspond to planets while the Vanir do not? Does the scene in the Hrafnkatla in which Hrafnkell’s horse Freyfaxi rolls over twelve times to purify itself represent the passing of twelve lunations and thus a return to its earlier, pure state? Did the goðar perform calendrical functions? To what degree did the connection between astronomy and mythology survive christianization, e.g., in the images of our MS from ca. 1680? Since Scandinavia covers a wide territory and many peoples, to what degree do cultural syncretism and contradictory traditions color our evidence? Perhaps someday we can filter through these problems and arrive at a consensus on mapping the figures of Scandinavian mythology onto the skies. Doing so will necessitate a careful analysis of works such as Björn’s, which, even if one disagrees with the details and the methods, provide a broad platform for discussion.

link (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.roan oke.edu%2Fforlang%2Fogier%2FEddicConstel lations.htm)

Monday, December 12th, 2005, 01:52 AM
You have me daydreaming now...

I know there are a few good theories on Jormungandr, but I wonder if they saw the Milky Way, as it wraps across the sky, as the body of the Serpent.

To think they looked up at the sky and recognized their own constellations such as Odin riding on Sleipnir, or Yggdrasil, I find tantalizing.

Really awesome post, already printed, still reading through it now

Tuesday, April 18th, 2006, 01:17 AM
Ignore post