Month: April 2020 (Page 1 of 2)

Carved under a Red Star: Why were the runes carved red?

Runic inscriptions were often carved in a red color, sometimes even colored red with blood. Odin’s Rune Song shows us that Odin wounded himself with a spear before taking the runes. There is new evidence that shows that this reddening of the runes may have a connection to the stars above.

In the previous parts of this series we have seen all the evidence that shows how Odin’s hanging is a myth that is written in the constellations. The more evidence we find, the more we realize that there is no way around the fact that the myths have a celestial basis. 

The examples from the Norse myths make it clear that the runes are connected to the Well of Urd, where the Norns dwell, the goddesses of Fate. The runes are an old force, which likely predates the Elder Futhark alphabet, from which the later runic alphabets were derived. The runes are connected to the life force itself, which is distributed by the Norns, and as magic signs, runes represent the invisible forces of nature that form the divine and natural order of things. In the constellation Scorpio, we have found the nine twigs on which he carved the runes.

Scorpio, which we usually associate with a scorpion or a serpent, can represent many things in myths from around the world. I have presented evidence that Scorpio can also be seen as a branch that grows out of the World Tree Yggdrasil. The multiple “heads” that come out of its slender body can be seen as the twigs on which Odin carved the runes. 

In this myth, the tree Yggdrasil can be linked to the Milky Way itself. The brightest part of the Milky Way band, which is the luminous core of our galaxy, is linked to the Well of Urd. The Tree has one of its roots in this sacred well, and the Norns sprinkle snow-white clay onto its bark every day to prevent it from rotting. It is from this brightest cluster of stars and nebulae that we can envision Scorpio growing like a branch of the Tree in the image below:

The constellation Scorpio with Antares
The constellation Scorpio with the bright red star Antares.

The runes are not only found by the waters of Urd’s well, they also have a connection with another vital fluid: blood. To truly understand the mystery of the runes and its celestial basis, we need to take a look at this essential component in the carving and cutting of the runes.

Carved and Cut with Blood

Now that we know that Scorpio represents the runes, let’s take a look again at two lines from stanza 137 of Odin’s Rune Poem in the Hávamál. These lines tell us that Odin wounded himself with a spear in his sacrifice of himself to himself:

stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,

myself to my own self given…

The fact that Odin stabbed himself with a spear becomes of more significance when we consider that the blood that flowed from his wound may play a crucial part in his taking of the runes. There is an abundance of evidence in Icelandic literature that the runes were often colored red with blood. In the Lay of Hymir in the Poetic Edda we find the following lines:

Of old the gods made feast together,

And drink they sought, still unsated they were;

Twigs they shook, and blood they examined:

Rich fare in Ægir’s hall they found.

Hymiskvitha : 1[1]

These lines describe the gods themselves performing an act of divination by throwing lots in the form of twigs, combined with blood. It is clear that the gods themselves are subject to higher Powers, and don’t have complete control over their own destiny. It is still the Norns that pull and weave the strings of Fate.

Runes were also used to give special powers to an object and make it into a talisman. The legendary Saga of the Volsungs[2] describes such a ritual:

The horn was lined

With runes manifold,

Carved and cut with blood.

VOLSUNGA SAGA. Chapter 34

In this passage, runes were carved into the inside of a drinking horn to protect the drinker from  poison in the beverage. The runes were reddened with blood to fill them with magical potency. The sources imply that blood was a necessary ingrediënt to activate the power of the runes. We can find more examples of rune magic in the later Icelandic sagas. In Egill’s Saga[3], the Icelandic warrior poet Egill cuts his hand with a knife, then carves the runes into a horn, and smears them with his blood to activate them for magical protection. 

In another example from Grettir’s saga, the völva (seeress) Þuríðr cut runes on a tree root, and colored them with her own blood to kill the outlaw Grettir:

She looked at the tree and bade them turn it over before her eyes, and on one side it was as if singed and rubbed;  so there whereas it was rubbed she let cut a little flat space; and then she took her knife and cut runes on the root, and made them red with her blood, and sang witch-words over them; 

Grettir’s saga, Chapter 81

The witch in Grettir’s saga not only reddened the runes with her blood, but she also carved the runes on the root of a tree. This passage from a medieval icelandic saga seems to hearken back to more ancient Germanic ritual practices, especially if we consider that the woman that cut the runes was a völva. These wise women were already described by Tacitus in 98 AD. 

The excerpt from the saga above in which the wise woman or witch carved the runes and reddened them with her blood may be a memory of an older ritual that stems from an ancient Star Myth tradition. This is in line with the evidence from the myth that we are investigating. Odin had to wound himself with a spear before he could take the runes. Can the blood from Odin’s wound and the reddening of the runes also be linked to the stars in the sky?

Knife of a Viking woman with blood
Replica of a Viking woman’s knife.  Photograph edited by the author. (Source)

The Rival of Mars

In the image of the constellation Scorpio below, I have highlighted the bright red star Antares. In the screenshot taken from the star-gazing software Stellarium, its red hue may not be as clearly visible, but if you look closely, you can see that it is warmer in color than its surrounding stars. The close-up of the star Antares in the long exposure photograph gives a better idea of the red-orange hue of the star.

Antares is the fifteenth-brightest star in the night sky, which makes it one of the brightest stars that can be seen with the naked eye. Because of its brightness and its red color, the ancient Greeks saw it as a rival to the god of war. They connected Ares, the Greek god of war, to the red planet Mars. Mars is the Latin name for Ares. The name Antares can be translated as Anti-Ares, referring to its rivalry with Ares. Antares is often linked to symbols in myth that are red in color, such as fire, or the red heart of a beast. But most often, this star is linked to blood.

Antares in Scorpio - a bright red star

The bright red star Antares. Left: Reconstructed view of Antares (Source). Right: Photograph by Dylan O’Donnell (Source).

Scorpio can be seen as a dying or wounded figure in myth, with Antares symbolizing the blood on its chest. The hellhound Garm in Norse myth is such a figure that is described as having a bloody chest, and it can be linked to Scorpio when the constellation is envisioned as a crouching dog. In the case of the Greek hellhound Cerberus, it is a dog with multiple heads, and with serpents for tails. While Scorpio may not be immediately evident as a crouching dog, the various clues in the myths – the bloody chest, the multiple heads, the snake-tails – make a strong case for the association between Scorpio and the hound of hell. 

We can find another clue in the gates of the Underworld that the dog guards. We have seen that the rectangular body of Ophiuchus with its pointy top can be seen as the shape of a house, but it can just as well represent a gate, door or portal to the netherworld. Scorpio is placed right below Ophiuchus as the hound at its steps.

Now that we know that the red star Antares symbolizes blood, we can connect this with Scorpio as the nine runes and with Odin’s spear wound. When we combine this with the examples from the myths and the saga literature, we come to the following realization: the reddening of the runes may be linked to the bright red star Antares in Scorpio.

A Gift of Life

The sympathetic scholar and artist Arith Härger explains in one of his videos how the ancients thought that blood contains the spirit, the life force of a being. It has been this way since paleolithic times. The ancients thought that the life force in the blood could animate an object, by imbuing it with spirit. In Härger’s view, the runes offered revealed wisdom after they had been fed the spirit that resides in the blood. Give some, get some in return.

The idea of runes as revealed wisdom fits with the evidence that we have gathered for the use of runes in divination. The ancients thought that reddening the runes with life-blood could reveal the will of the gods, or that of the higher powers of Fate. Only by giving a gift of blood could Odin learn the wisdom of the runes.

Odin as the Óðr represents the spirit of life itself. He is the Great Spirit, the all-pervading spirit that gives life, energy, inspiration and passion. He represents that feeling of bliss that comes with feeling connected to the larger cosmos, which knows no bounds. To become connected with the source, with the Well from which this unbounded spirit flows, Odin had to align himself with the great Tree Yggdrasil, the Cosmic Axis.

This life force, as Härger explains, is also connected with the spirits and the combined wisdom of the ancestors that walked this world before us. The Well of Urd is the well of all origin, and thus contains all the memories of the past. The World Tree itself can then be seen as the ancestral tree that arises from it – the branches of which follow the flow of Fate. Ancestor worship was linked to the tribe of the Vanir gods above all. From the Vanir also comes the magical practice called seidr, which is linked to divination, prophecy, and the carving of the runes. 

The combined wisdom and experience of the ancestors had to be fed to the runes before they could reveal what the future holds in store.

The runes were perhaps not only colored red because of what people thought were the potent properties of blood, but perhaps also because of the underlying celestial symbolism. The Norse myths and the runes are part of an ancient Star Myth tradition. In these Star Myths, we can find more explanations as to how and why ancient rituals were performed. Many or even most of these rituals can be seen as live reënactments of the myths, and thus also as a reënactment of the stars in heaven.

Looking at the myths and legends from a Star Myth perspective can greatly aid us in the understanding of the traditions of people from ancient times all the way up to the Middle Ages, and even to this day.

The old the saying goes: “As above, so below”.

Carved Under a Red Star

We have seen the link between Scorpio and the rune twigs, and the red star Antares as the blood that makes them red. In part 2 of this series, we saw Ophiuchus as Odin beating Scorpio the snake with a stick. The same stars that make this stick can be seen as Odin’s spear Gungnir. When we combine the two, we can see Odin carving the runes, as envisioned in the constellations below:

Ophiuchus ans Scorpio as Odin carving the runes with blood - Star Myth
Odin imagined in the stars as carving the runes with his spear and painting them with his blood.

The following stanza of the Hávamál reveals how the so-called “high Powers” made the runes, and how Odin then carved them:

Hidden Runes you will find 

and signs to read,

many symbols of might and power,

by the great Singer painted, 

by the high Powers fashioned,

carved by the Utterer of gods.

Hávamál 141

When comparing the Olive Bray translation above with that of Jackson Crawford’s translation of the Poetic Edda, it becomes clear that the “great Singer” and “Utterer of gods” both refer to Odin, which makes it clear that it is Odin himself who carved and colored the runes. The witch that carved the runes in Grettir’s Saga also sang a witch’s song over them, which reminds us that the runes are related to magical songs. Odin is called the “great Singer” in this poem, which implies that he too sang the runes.

The myth makes it clear that Odin did not invent the runes. They were revealed to him while he was hanging from a noose, and Odin materialized them by carving them into twigs, and he painted them red with his own blood.

The reddening of the runes can also be seen on many medieval runestones, although most runic inscriptions were made with red paint as a substitute for blood. The pigment that was used for the red paint could be based on red ochre, red lead, or even the expensive vermillion. You can see an example of such a runestone from Sweden in the image below:

The Rök Runestone by Bengt Olof Åradsson.
The Swedish Rök runestone. Photo: Bengt Olof Åradsson (edited by the author). The runes on rune stones were often painted with red pigment such as red ochre, red lead or vermillion.

CONCLUSION:

The runes were first created by the “holy gods” or “high Powers”. Odin possibly saw or heard these runes near the Well of Urd, and then carved the runes into the twigs (Scorpio). He then painted them with the blood that flowed out of his spear wound. The blood which reddens the runes is likely a reference to the red star Antares in Scorpio. Odin had to give the runes his own life-force, his own spirit, so that the wisdom of the runes could be revealed to him. By using the stars as a metaphor, the myth teaches us that wisdom, inspiration and creativity must be fed with the force of life itself in order to flourish. This force of life is symbolically linked to the vital force that sustains our bodies: the blood that courses through our veins. This great, arousing force is what the Norse called Odin.


Now that we have identified the twigs on which Odin carved the runes, and the possible reason why the runes were painted red, we can continue with the lines of the poem that deal with Odin’s taking of the runes in the next part of this series. The lines in this myth are densely packed with meaning, and they have not yielded all their riddles yet:

None refreshed me ever with food or drink,

I peered right down in the deep;

crying aloud I lifted the Runes,

then back I fell from there.

Hávamál 138

The above lines still leave us with some questions. To name a few:

  • Why did Odin cry aloud when taking the runes?
  • What is the significance of Odin’s lack of food and drink?
  • Can we find a falling Odin somewhere in the night sky?

The myth also brings to mind the question whether the runes might be linked to other constellations in the night sky. We have found a lot of answers already to age-old mysteries, but as always, these lead us to more questions. The next part of this series will start with a scream…

Continue with the next part:

Part IV   Odin’s Scream and the Whispers of the Runes

Series:

Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


Notes

[1] my adaptation of the Bellows translation

[2] The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, translated by Jesse L. Byock (1990)

[3] Smiley, J. (2005). The Sagas of the Icelanders. Penguin UK.

Source Texts

Grettir’s Saga

Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray

The Germany and the Agricola of Tacitus

The Saga of the Volsungs

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Arith Härger

Video: Blood on the Runes

Books

Star Myths of the World, and How to Interpret Them: Volume Four: Norse Mythology (David Mathisen 2018)

The Stars: A New Way to See Them (H.A. Rey 1976)

Featured image: Arthur Koopmans

In Search of the Runes: The Runes in the Stars

In the first part of this series, we have looked at David Mathisen’s interpretation of Odin’s sacrifice on the World Tree Yggdrasil from a Star Myth perspective.

We have seen the similarities between Odin’s hanging and the Egyptian Osiris in the tamarisk tree, the Buddha under the Tree of Awakening, and even Jesus hanging on his wooden cross. What all of these gods and spiritual teachers have in common is the sacrifice that they had to make in order to rise anew to a higher state of being. 

For many, the myths are a source of spiritual truth and archetypal lessons. But there is an increasing amount of evidence that the myths and the wise lessons that they teach us are also linked to the constellations in the sky. The myths convey eternal truths about our existence in this world by using that which for our ancestors came closest to the world of the divine: the vault of heaven and all the luminous objects in it.

The evidence shows that the hanging Odin can be identified with the constellation Ophiuchus. The Tree from which he hung is the World Axis, linked to the Milky Way itself. The tree Yggdrasil is sprinkled with the snow-white clay from the Well of Urd, which lies at its base. This well with its shining white clay can be found in the brightest and widest part of the Milky Way band: the Galactic Core, where we can peer into the innermost regions of our own Galaxy.

In the image below, you can see the first part of his celestial myth played out on the canvas of the night sky:

Odin's Hanging on Yggdrasil - a Star Myth (David Mathisen)
Odin’s hanging on the World Tree envisioned in the constellations based on the work of David Mathisen

But we haven’t found the runes yet that Odin retrieves from the deep through his sacrifice. Before we can find out where these runes are located in the sky, we must first take a brief look at what the runes really are.

On Wood they Carved

Many historians see the runes in the first place as a writing system. The main runic alphabet consists of 24 runic letters, and is called the Elder Futhark. The runic characters represent phonemes, the “building blocks of sound” in the Old Norse language. The name F-U-TH-A-R-K is derived from the first six letters of this alphabet, and it is named the “Elder” Futhark, because it is considered to be the oldest form of the runic alphabets. These runes were used for writing words in the Germanic languages of Northern Europe before the Viking Age. 

The runes, with their stick-like shapes, are ideal for carving in hard materials such as wood, stone, bone and metal. Below you can see a variation of the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark alphabet:

The Elder Futhark Rune Alphabet
The Elder Futhark alphabet (Source)

Not only do the Norse runes look like they are created out of sticks themselves, but there is also evidence from historical sources that rune-like markings were carved into wooden sticks. The Roman historian Tacitus describes how the ancient Germanic people used wooden throwing sticks with certain markings on them to practice divination in the Germania (98 AD):

No people are more addicted to divination by omens and lots. The latter is performed in the following simple manner. They cut a twig from a fruit tree, and divide it into small pieces, which, distinguished by certain marks, are thrown promiscuously upon a white garment…

Tacitus, Germania

The throwing of these sacred lots was one of many types of divination, in which the opinion of the gods was sought on important matters concerning the benefit of the community. Whether or not the markings that were carved on these throwing sticks were actual runes or something similar to runes is not clear from this historical anecdote. But if we look at the poem Völuspá from the Poetic Edda – the main source of our Norse myths – we find the following passage:

From there come the maidens, mighty in wisdom,

Three from the dwelling down beneath the tree;

Urth is one named, Verthandi the next, and Skuld the third.

On the wood they carved, Laws they made there, 

and life allotted to the sons of men, and set their fates.

Völuspá 20[1]

The passage above names the three Norns, the goddesses of Fate. These goddesses live at the Well of Urd, which can be linked to the bright Galactic Core in the Milky Way band. These goddesses represent the Past, Present and Future of the universe. They write the laws of the world, and they have control over the lives and destinies of all the creatures that inhabit it. The poem clearly states that the Norns determine the Fate of us humans by carving on wood.

By practicing divination using carvings on wooden sticks, the ancient Germanic peoples emulated these higher powers in an effort to determine their fortunes in life. The following lines from the Hávamál mention the runes more explicitly in the words of an unkown wandering singer called Loddfafnir:

It is time to speak on the wise man’s chair At Urth’s well.

I saw and was silent, I saw and I thought, I listened to men’s speech.

I heard about runes, They were not silent with counsel.

Hávamál 111

Here we have another mention of the runes in relationship to the Well of Urd – Urd being the Norn who presides over the Past, and the origins of the universe. In the Völuspá, the Norns were described as carving men’s destinies on wood, but it doesn’t mention explicitly that these carvings were runes. The above lines from the Hávamál however, do mention the runes in relation to the home of the Norns. By connecting the runes to the Norns, the myths imply that the runes are connected to the origins and the fate of the universe itself.

Odin took his runes from the World Tree itself. This implies that he carved the runes on twigs that grew from the tree. The ancient Germans made their divination lots from the twigs of a fruit tree, which makes the connection between runes and twigs a likely one. In the Eddic poem Hymiskvitha, the gods themselves used twigs for divination, mingled with blood – but Odin had to discover these runes first before he and the gods could use them.

These sacred twigs give us something more tangible to work with in our effort to determine where the runes are located in the night sky. We could expect to find the runes in a constellation that represents the twigs of the World Tree Yggdrasil.

But how many runes did Odin exactly take? This question will be very relevant as we will investigate more clues that can reveal the celestial metaphor on which this myth is based.

Baresma, Zoroastrian sacred twigs
The Holy Baresma: the sacred twigs of the Zoroastrian faith.
Source: Chess and Playing Cards, Culin, S. (1898)

Nine Mighty Songs

Runes and writing in general were for a long time associated with acts of magic, which was mostly practised by a learned elite. The words “spell” – as in “magic spell” and the “spelling” of words –  are connected. The word “grammar” did not only describe the rules of language, but also meant “magic” or “enchantment”. The related word “grimoire” refers to a book of spells. In the Finnish epic the Kalevala, the different songs are called “runo”, a word borrowed from the proto-Norse language. This confirms a connection between runes and songs

The Hávamál says that Odin lifted up the runes after peering into the deep, but the poem doesn’t mention explicitly how many runes he took. The myth says that Odin learned nine mighty songs from the son of Bolthorn (or “Evil thorn”), who we might identify with Odin’s wise teacher Mimir:

Nine mighty songs I learned from the great

son of Bale-thorn, son of Bestla;

I drank a measure of the wondrous Mead,

with the Soulstirrer’s drops I was showered.

Hávamál 139[2]

These lines seem to describe an event that is separate from Odin’s hanging. They describe how Odin learns a different set of runes, described here as “nine mighty songs”. This passage is inserted into the story of Odin’s hanging, which is about his discovery of the runes. This suggests that the two events are closely connected, and that these “nine mighty songs” and the runes may be interchangeable.

We have seen in the first stanzas of the Hávamál (137-138) how Odin took the runes, then in the stanza above (139), we hear of nine mighty songs, and then in stanza 141 we hear of the runes again: “Hidden Runes you will find and signs to read, many symbols of might and power, by the great Singer painted, by the high Powers fashioned, carved by the Utterer of gods.”

At the end of Odin’s Rune Poem in the Hávamál, we also find a description of eighteen rune charms: magical spells that describe the powers connected to eighteen different runes. Since Odin recounts eighteen different spells after taking the runes, and since he learned nine of these spells from Mimir, the poem implies that Odin found nine runes for himself while hanging from the tree.

We can thus conclude that Odin carved nine runes into twigs of the World Tree, and that he learned nine runes from the wise Mimir.

An Anglo-Saxon charm from the 10th century can provide more evidence for the exact number of runes that Odin took. The Nine Herbs Charm speaks of how Odin took nine glorious twigs and used them to smash a serpent into nine pieces:

A snake came crawling, it bit a man.

Then Woden took nine glory-twigs,

Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.

The mention of the “nine glory twigs” hints at the idea that Odin took a number of nine runes. The mention of a snake that gets blown into nine pieces makes it all the more easy to determine where among the stars these nine runes may be located…

The Branch on the World Tree

The first few lines of Odin’s Rune Song give an important clue as to where to find the runes that Odin took. Let’s look at these two lines again:

I peered right down in the deep;

crying aloud I lifted the Runes…

There is no doubt that we should look for the runes somewhere below the hanging Odin. If we envision Ophiuchus as Odin hanging from the tree, then we should find the runes somewhere underneath this constellation. We have already seen that underneath Ophiuchus, we can find the Galactic Core, the Well of Urd. It is sometimes speculated that Odin peered down into the well while hanging from the tree, and that Odin may have seen the shapes of the runes in its waters.

I would argue that between Odin and the Well of Urd, we can find one single branch with a bunch of twigs growing out of it. Beneath the constellation Ophiuchus we find the constellation Scorpio (officially called Scorpius). In the image below you can see Scorpio underneath the feet of the figure of Ophiuchus:

The Constellation Scorpio as a branch of Yggdrasil
The constellation Scorpio below Ophiuchus as the branch from the World Tree.

We know Scorpio best as a scorpion, as the name would suggest. Researchers in the field of astrotheology (the field of research dealing with astronomical links to myth and religion) have also linked Scorpio to the snake at the bottom of the tree – a theme that is prevalent in ancient cosmologies around the world[3]. As David Mathisen has shown in his Star Myths of the World series, the constellation Scorpio can represent many more things, based on its long, slender, and winding shape. 

Mathisen has linked Scorpio to many multi-headed beings in mythology, such as the three-headed Cerberus, the watchdog of the Greek underworld. The multi-headed Hydra of Lerna that was slain by the hero Hercules can be linked to the same constellation Scorpio. An image of the Hydra on a bronze fibula (a brooch or a pin for fastening garments) shows the Hydra with six heads. However, the number of heads of the Hydra was first mentioned in the writings of Alcaeus (c. 600 BCE), who gave the monster a number of nine heads

While Scorpio figures in myth are not always connected to the number nine, there are plenty of other examples which link the number nine to Scorpio. Especially in Norse mythology, the number nine is very prevalent. As we will see, there are good reasons to believe that in this myth too, Scorpio is linked to the number nine, and thus to the nine runes that Odin takes. 

In the close-up of Scorpio below, I have put breaks between the lines, so that the individual stars that make up the constellation are better visible. I have also marked the bright red star Antares at the point where the body of Scorpio branches off. When we see the head of Scorpio branching off into several segments, it becomes possible to see how Scorpio might be seen as a branch with nine twigs in this myth. Let’s look at some more evidence that links the runes to Scorpio.

The constellation Scorpio with Antares (H.A. Rey version)
The constellation Scorpio with the bright red star Antares

A Snake Came Crawling

Now that we have found the region where we should look for the nine runes, let’s take a closer look at the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm to see what clues we gather from it that can help us decypher the myth of Odin’d hanging:

A snake came crawling, it bit a man.

Then Woden took nine glory-twigs,

Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.

There apple brought this pass against poison,

That she nevermore would enter her house.

nine herbs charm

We can link the snake in this charm to the constellation Scorpio with great certainty. The charm describes how Odin hits the snake with a stick so that it scatters into nine pieces. In the close-up of Scorpio above you can see how it can be seen as a snake that scatters into multiple parts, which reminds of the Hydra snake that gets its nine heads chopped off by Hercules in the Greek myth.

Ophiuchus may be envisioned as carrying a spear, as we have seen in the previous part. In this case, the spear may be seen as the stick with which Odin hits the snake. We can imagine a line extending from the spear in his right hand (on the left side of Ophiuchus), towards the star Antares in Scorpio.

Sagittarius is another candidate for Odin hitting the snake. David Mathisen has identified Sagittarius as one of the constellations that can be linked to Odin – particularly when Odin is in his role as a practitioner of seidr magic. In the image below, I have also drawn a line from the bow-arm of Sagittarius towards the snake. In this case though, the stick does not end in Antares. 

Odin in the Nine Herbs Charm killing Scorpio as snake (Star Myth)
Odin smashing the snake into nine pieces.

If we see the red Antares as the snake’s wound as a result of its beating by a stick, then Ophiuchus seems to be the most likely candidate for the one who hits the snake. Ophiuchus often plays the role of a dragon-slayer or serpent-slayer in myth. This is an additional reason to believe that Odin destroying the snake refers to Ophiuchus.

The victim of the snake bite is probably the constellation Virgo, which we can find to the right of Ophiuchus. In the image below you can see Virgo as a person lying on its back – having succumbed to an affliction of some kind – in the vicinity of Scorpio as the snake:

Odin killing a snake in the Nine Herbs Charm (Star Myth)
Scorpio as both the snake and the nine twigs.

After Odin’s slaying of the snake, the charm says that it will never again enter the house. This implies that the man got bitten by the snake at his own house. The house is likely to be another reference to Ophiuchus. If you look at the figure of Ophiuchus in the image above, you can see how the long rectangular body of Ophiuchus together with his triangular hat can be seen as a house with a pointy roof – as has been noted by David Mathisen in his books.

The events in this charm seem to center around Scorpio, and the charm mentions “nine glory twigs”. The fact that there are nine of them, and the fact that the snake too gets blown into nine pieces, strongly hints at the idea of the constellation Scorpio representing the nine twigs.

In the myth of Odin’s hanging, Odin does not carry a stick, but his spear Gungnir. If we imagine the stick that Odin uses to kill the snake to play the role of his spear Gungnir in Odin’s Rune Song, it is easy to imagine that Odin also uses his spear to carve the runes into the nine twigs. The point where Odin’s spear touches Scorpio as the branch of the World Tree can be placed at the red star Antares.

It seems like we have found the nine runes…


CONCLUSION:

When we connect all the evidence, I think it is safe to say that in this myth Scorpio represents a root or branch of the World Tree from which grow nine twigs. These nine twigs can be linked to the nine runes that Odin carved while he hung from the Tree. These nine runes are connected to the Well of Urd, the point of origin of the world in ancient myth, out of which emerge all the invisble forces that create life and that determine the fate of humankind.


In the next chapter of this series we will continue our investigation of this myth. By treating this myth as a Star Myth, new insights reveal themselves, which can change the way we understand not only the myths, but also the sacred rituals that were performed in ancient times.

New light will be shed on the history of the Norse and the runes in chapter three of this series.

Part III   Carved under a Red Star: Why were the runes carved red?


Series:

Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


Notes

[1] my adaptation of the Bellows translation

[2] my adaptation of the Olive Bray translation

[3] Collins, A. (2006). The Cygnus Mystery: Unlocking the Ancient Secret of Life’s Origins in the Cosmos. Duncan Baird Publishers, p. 65

Source Text

Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray

Nine Herbs Charm

The Germany and the Agricola of Tacitus

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Books

Star Myths of the World, and How to Interpret Them: Volume Four: Norse Mythology (David Mathisen 2018)

The Poetic Edda Volume II: Mythological Poems (Ursula Dronke 1997)

The Stars: A New Way to See Them (H.A. Rey 1976)

Featured image: “Divination” by Emil Doepler (1905) – source. Edited by the author.

Odin’s Sacrifice: A Myth Written in the Stars

I know that I hung on that windy Tree

nine whole days and nights,

stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,

myself to my own self given,

high on that Tree of which none have heard

from what roots it rises to heaven.

None refreshed me ever with food or drink,

I peered right down in the deep;

crying aloud I lifted the Runes,

then back I fell from there.

Hávamál 137-138[1]

The terrible ordeal of the Norse god Odin begins with these puzzling lines. They describe how Odin sacrifices himself on the World Tree to gain the wisdom of the Runes. In the Icelandic poems of the Poetic Edda, Odin is the god of wisdom, poetry, inspiration, intoxication, and the chooser of the slain. He is the Allfather, the father of the gods. He mingles in the affairs of mortals, bringing them glory, riches, or death. Most of all, he is the bringer of inspiration and poetry. As the Wise One, Odin is always in a relentless pursuit for knowledge and wisdom, but this knowledge comes with a great sacrifice.

Why was it necessary for Odin to hang himself from a tree in order to receive this powerful wisdom? And what is so special about the Runes? Let us join Odin in his bold quest and peer down into the deep. We might gain some wisdom for ourselves!

Star Myths

To understand why Odin hung himself from the tree we must do something we don’t regularly do anymore in these modern times: We must look up and gaze at the starry vault of heaven, towards the mythical realm of the gods.

By now, there is an increasing amount of evidence that this myth, and many other myths, are written in the stars. One researcher and writer in particular has already written extensively on the celestial nature of the world’s mythologies, legends, and folklore. His name is David Mathisen, the writer of the blog Star Myths of the World. His excellent analysis of the myth of Odin’s hanging came about through years of investigating myths from all over the world and through the writing of multiple volumes of books. 

It is mainly through his writings that my eyes have opened up to the possibility that we are dealing with celestial allegory in the stories that have been handed down to us over the course of thousands of years. By examining the celestial interpretations of myths from all over the world, I have learned to understand this language of symbols, and how to interpret what David Mathisen has coined as Star Myths. I have also discovered some things for myself along the way, which I would like to share with you here on Secrets of the Norse.

When we look at the stars of the night sky, it is hard to see anything resembling constellations. But some groups of stars really stand out, such as the three belt stars of Orion. Starting from there, it becomes easier to envision the larger figure that is formed from the stars around them. Cygnus the swan with its cross-like shape is also not too hard to find, and the Big Dipper in Ursa Major is perhaps the most widely-recognized of all.

But when you search for a guide on the constellations, these constellations often don’t really look like much. In fact, most of the modern constellations make little to no sense at all, and often they don’t seem to resemble anything. Why even bother giving them names like Big Bear or Hercules? However, there is a way of seeing the constellations that makes a lot more sense, and this is the way that the constellations were envisioned by H.A. Rey in his book The Stars: A New Way to See Them.

Below you can see the modern way of viewing Ursa Major, which doesn’t look very pretty, and barely resembles the silhouette of a bear. When looking at it the H.A. Rey way, the shape of the constellation looks more bearish, with a sort of saddle where the bucket of the Big Dipper is located. Personally, in the H.A. Rey version I see another way of making a bear out of it, in which the constellation resembles the head of a bear, with the four stars that make the bucket of the Big Dipper as its eye, and with its snout on the right. It is these constellations of H.A. Rey which David Mathisen has used for the past ten years or so in his analysis of Star Myths, and it is mainly these constellations of H.A. Rey that will be used to illustrate the myth of Odin’s hanging.

The Great Bear modern version and H.A. Rey version
Two versions of the Great Bear.

H.A. Rey’s way of viewing the constellations probably comes a lot closer to how the ancients actually envisioned the constellations, so his book could just as well have been named “The Stars: The Old Way to See Them”.  We don’t really have an ancient record outlining explicitly how the ancients viewed the constellations, but the artwork and texts of ancient people do leave us a lot of clues.

Sometimes though, in sacred texts and in oral traditions worldwide, the connections between certain stars, a planet, or even an entire constellation can be explicitly mentioned. Egyptologists for example, have found strong correlations between the god Osiris and the constellation Orion, mainly because this connection was explicitly mentioned in the ancient texts themselves. But most of the time, these connections are not immediately obvious, and the myths present themselves in riddles. 

There is evidence that not just single gods, but also their entire stories are written in the stars. But, as David Mathisen himself stresses, the fact that there is a celestial basis behind these stories doesn’t mean that there is no higher meaning to them. The point of the myths is not just to playfully describe the movements of planets and constellations, although that is an important part of it.

By observing the cycles of movement of the many-colored stars, the fiery band of the Milky Way, the Sun, the Moon, and the planets, it is as if we are looking into a mirror that makes us question what our place in this universe is, and the duality of those things which perish, and those things that stay with us throughout the eons.

If the Norse myths are based on this system of celestial allegory, and if people in other parts of the globe recognized the same constellations, then wouldn’t we expect to find some similarities in myths from different parts of the world? As it turns out, this is exactly the case. Let us look at a few parallels from other parts of the world that mirror the story of Odin’s hanging on the Tree before we will look at the celestial basis behind this myth.

Odin hanging on the World Tree by Emile Doepler (1905)
Odin hanging on the World-Tree by Emil Doepler (Public Domain, 1905)

Suffering at the Tree

Odin’s hanging from the tree is not a unique motif in the world of mythology, in fact we can find many stories that follow a similar core structure. These myths follow the pattern of the god that has to be sacrificed before rising again with renewed powers, and many of them involve a tree or a wooden pole from which the god is hanged. This tree or pole is symbolic of the Axis Mundi, the central axis around which our world revolves.

One of the earliest references to a World Tree or Tree of Life is found in ancient Egypt, in the legend of Osiris. The wicked Set wanted to get rid of his brother Osiris by tricking him as part of a game held during a banquet. All of the guests were asked by Set to lay down inside a coffin to see if it would fit their size. When it was Osiris’s turn to lay down into the coffin, it turned out to fit the size of his body perfectly. Set immediately nailed the coffin shut together with his 72 conspirators, and threw the coffin into the river Nile. The coffin with Osiris still in it floated all the way towards the Phoenician coast, where it got embedded inside a tamarisk tree. The tree grew and grew, enclosing the chest with Osiris in its trunk. Osiris remained suspended inside the tree before it was cut down with an axe by the king of Byblos. The tree was then made into a wooden pole to support the roof of the king’s palace, with Osiris’ coffin still inside it. 

So in Egypt too, we find a god hanging in a tree, but this time the god is placed inside a coffin as well. This legend also unites the idea of a tree with a wooden pole as the central axis on which the god hangs.

Venturing from ancient Egypt to the Indian subcontinent, we find the legend of the prince Siddharta Gautama, who sat for six days and nights under a fig tree struggling with the obstacles in his mind. After experiencing the many tricks of his mind he finally achieved a state of enlightenment. The tree under which he sat became the sacred Bodhi Tree, the Tree of Awakening. 

The ordeal of that other spiritual teacher, Jesus, is probably the most famous example of a hanged god. While the hanging of Jesus did not take place at a tree, he hung on what can be considered its closest alternative, a wooden cross or pole. When his suffering was complete he ascended up into the heavenly realm.

Because of the similarities between the stories of Odin’s hanging and the crucifixion of Jesus, many have postulated that the Norse myth must have been brought to Northern Europe along with Christianity. But if this same theme was already present in the Osiris myth of Egypt, predating the stories of the Bible, then is there really a need to assume that Odin’s hanging was copied from the Christian version? In some respects, such as the spear wound and the exposure to the elements, the stories are much alike. But the tree from which Odin hangs reminds more of the Egyptian tamarisk tree in which the body of Osiris is trapped.

What all these myths have in common is a divine figure who first has to go through some terrible ordeal before he can transcend to a higher level of awareness or existence. And somehow this divine quest for enlightenment is linked to a tree or a pole, which is also the centre of the world.

If the basis for these myths is celestial in nature, then which celestial feature could the World Tree as the central pole represent?

Yggdrasil the Norse World Tree by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1886)
Yggdrasil, the Norse World Tree by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1886)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Many Indo-European myths – from the ancestors of the various peoples that came to conquer Europe and parts of Asia – feature a World Tree in their cosmology. Yggdrasil is what the Norse World Tree is called. It is described as an enormous evergreen tree that connects Heaven and Earth, surrounded by the Nine Realms of the Norse cosmology. Not only does Odin find nine runes by hanging on the tree, but here again we find the number nine in the nine different realms. As we will see, the number nine is a very important and constantly recurring number throughout Norse mythology.

The World Axis in the ancient cosmologies has often been identified either with the Milky Way, or with the imaginary line that can be drawn between the North and South Pole, extending in both directions into what we perceive from Earth as a heavenly sphere rotating around our planet. In the myth of Odin’s hanging, we can safely identify Yggdrasil with the band of the Milky Way that brightens the Night Sky as a broad band of stars and galactic nebulae. The Milky Way is none other than our own galaxy, in which our solar system is located. 

If one could view our Galaxy from above, it would appear as a disk with a bright center out of which emerge spiral arms. Since we are inside one of the spiralling arms of this disk, we perceive the Milky Way as a ring or a band that surrounds the Earth. Looking at this from a mythic perspective the way the ancients did, we could imagine our own planet as being one of the Worlds in this Cosmic Tree.

Snow-White Clay

David Mathisen has written about Odin’s hanging on the Tree in his Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology). Let us begin his analysis by looking at the following lines from the poem Völuspá, the Prophecy of the Volva, which is the Norse word for a seeress or oracle. This will provide us with more detail about Yggdrasil. This is from the translation of Ursula Dronke (1997):

An ash I know there stands,

Yggdrasill is its name,

a tall tree, showered

with shining loam.

From there come the dews

that drop in the valleys.

It stands forever green over

Urðr’s well.

Völuspá 19

The tree has three major roots which end in three sacred wells. One of these roots draws from the Urdarbrunnr, the Well of Urd, mentioned in the lines above.With the water from this sacred well, and with the snow-white clay that lies about it, the tree is sprinkled. David Mathisen identifies the evergreen tree Yggdrasil with the stars of the Milky Way that faithfully hold their place in the sky, both in winter and in summer. 

The Milky Way World Tree
The column of the Milky Way.

The image of the night sky shown above is created from a screenshot of the star-gazing software Stellarium. The band of the Milky Way raises itself up in the night sky as it rotates together with the stars to a vertical position, as you would imagine the trunk of a giant tree. When in this vertical position, the Milky Way can be seen as a column going up from the ground towards the vault of heaven.  

The brightest part of the Milky Way can be envisioned as the Well of Urd and the white clay that is sprinkled onto it. From here comes the dew drops into the valleys, as in the imagination of the poet that crafted this song. This part of the Milky Way is known as the Galactic Core, the very centre of our galaxy. Here too lies the region where we should look for the celestial identity of Odin. Somewhere on this starry tree a figure can be seen hanging.

Odin on Yggdrasil Tree Star Myth
The Milky Way band with the constellation Ophiuchus.

Odin’s Hanging

Hanging in the above image, looking down into the Galactic Core, is the constellation Ophiuchus. His Greek name means the ‘Snake Handler’, as Ophiuchus can be seen as a human figure holding two ends of one snake, or alternatively, holding two different snakes. As David Mathisen has observed, this same figure can be seen as a man hanging from a noose, if you see the snake as a rope with a noose instead. The head of the serpent, Serpens Caput, can be seen as the noose at the end of the rope. I have outlined the band of the Milky Way, which forms the tree from which Ophiuchus can be seen hanging.

What then about Odin wounding himself with a spear, and how does this tie in with Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself? The constellation Ophiuchus, as David Mathisen points out, was often portrayed as a person holding two objects, one in each hand, or as a person holding one single object in both hands, such as a spear. The stars left of Ophiuchus can be seen as one single spear, as shown in David Mathisen’s interpretation below:

Ophiuchus as Odin with spear (David Mathisen)
Ophiuchus as Odin with his spear Gungnir (David Mathisen’s interpretation)

The simplest explanation as I see it would be that the right half of Serpens forms Odin’s noose, and the left half forms the spear with which Odin stabs himself. The tail part of Serpens, if seen as Odin’s spear Gungnir, which he holds in his right hand, can be envisioned as ending in the region of his lower abdomen, wounding him.

David Mathisen also provides an alternative explanation which fits the riddle of Odin sacrificing himself to himself quite well. This explanation also involves the constellation Sagittarius as Odin, which is described in his Star Myths of the World Volume Four.

I have given a basic outline of David Mathisen’s interpretation of Odin’s hanging, which will be necessary if we want to continue the investigation of this myth and if we want to further unlock its secrets. I have left out a few of the details which can be read in his book, such as why Yggdrasil is described as a windy tree. But if you look at the image of the night sky below, and then take another look at the lines of the poem, you may be able to make a few more connections yourself between the myths and the stars in the sky…

Odin's Hanging Star Myth (David Mathisen)
Odin’s hanging envisioned in the constellations.

In the image above we can see how Ophiuchus as Odin forms the central figure, hanging on the Milky Way Tree. Below him you can see the Well of Urd in all its splendor. Added to this scene are also the constellations Sagittarius below, and the modern version of the constellation Hercules hanging above Ophiuchus.

In his book Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology), David Mathisen explains his interpretation of this myth in even more detail, as well as many other Norse myths. He also brings up the phenomenon of bog bodies, the possible role of Sagittarius in this myth, a celestial interpretation of the crucifixion and much more. So if you would like to know more about Norse Star Myths and Norse culture, I would highly recommend reading his book, as well as his blog posts on Star Myths of the World.

Some questions still remain though, and we have only just looked at the first two stanzas with which the myth of Odin’s hanging begins.


Where in the night sky can we find the runes that Odin takes?

What shape and color do the runes take in this myth, and what makes them worth this sacrifice?

Can we find an Odin falling down from the Tree screaming?


This and more requires some additional investigation.

David Mathisen himself has said in his writings that his interpretations don’t encompass the entire breadth of the myths, simply because of the vastness of the material. Entire volumes could be written on Norse Star Myths alone. Let us see this as an invitation to delve deeper into the celestial basis of the powerful stories that the poets of Northern Europe have left us!

Since I have become more and more versed in the language of the Star Myths, I have discovered some things for myself. We are now familiar with David Mathisen’s interpretation of the myth, so let’s see if we can take it even further in the next part of this series…


Part II   In Search of the Runes: The Runes in the Stars


Series:

Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


Notes

[1] my adaptation of the Olive Bray translation

Source Text

Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Books

Star Myths of the World, and How to Interpret Them: Volume Four: Norse Mythology (David Mathisen 2018)

The Poetic Edda Volume II: Mythological Poems (Ursula Dronke 1997)

The Stars: A New Way to See Them (H.A. Rey 1976)

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