We have explored the symbolism around long hair in the previous two blog posts, with the myth of Loki and Sif. We have also seen how long hair can symbolize the long “hairy” tail of a comet. In the Norse myth, Sif’s long, golden hair gets cut off, and likewise, a comet can grow and lose its “hair” as it interacts with the sun.
In the previous parts of this series, I have shown, building on the work of David Mathisen’s Star Myth research, how the myths and even the possible celestial events – including comets – can be linked to the constellations. The myths are written in the language of the constellations, so treating the myths as Star Myths is the ultimate key to understanding them.
We can’t be sure exactly what the Norse myth of Sif represents, although it is highly likely that it is written in the constellations. it is interesting to see how nature mirrors myth in many ways, and looking into the symbolism of this myth has sparked an investigation into diverse forms of hair symbolism in myth and religion.
If we want to fully understand the ancient myths, we have to take many different possibilities into account that could explain their origins, and the visible or invisible phenomena that they describe.
The symbol of long hair is also connected to solar symbolism. Solar deities are often said to have long, golden hair, like the rays of the sun. Let’s explore the connections between the symbolic powers of long hair in myth, and how this may also be linked to the sun.
The Long Locks of the Sun
Sun gods are often depicted with seven rays of light, or having long and golden locks. Other solar symbolism which has been linked to golden hair include the golden stalks of wheat in the fields, and the golden manes of lions. Sif’s hair has also been linked to the golden color of wheat in the philosophy of nature myth. The hair of the goddess Freyja has been described as “flaxen” in color. Freyja doesn’t have lions in her retinue, but she does have a chariot that is drawn by cats.
There are a few references to solar deities in Norse myth, but they seem to be less pronounced than the solar figures in other mythologies. In the north, where the sun is milder, and often obscured by clouds, and held firmly in the grip of winter, it was mainly the stormy Thor and the gloomy figure of Odin who held prominent places in the Norse imagination.
Still, the sun may be linked to a wide variety of Norse deities.
The Norse personification of the Sun was not a male god, but the goddess Sól, who traversed the sky in her sun chariot. Máni the moon man followed in his own lunar chariot. The Norse god Dagr (“Day”) was the personification of daylight, and he too rode a heavenly chariot.
Solar deities are often depicted with a number of seven rays above their head. David Mathisen points out on his blog how the sun god Helios, also identified with Apollo, has a total of seven rays emerging from his head. Seven is also the number of locks on the head of Samson, the long-haired warrior from the biblical Book of Judges.
Mathisen noted in his Star Math analysis that it is hard to tie Samson to one particular constellation, since there are references to many different constellations in Samson’s adventures. Samson’s adventures rather reflect the sun’s travel through the zodiac with the passing of the months in the solar year, making Samson’s seven locks the rays of the sun.
The cutting of Samson’s locks by his treacherous lover Delilah would then symbolize the waning power of the sun as it makes its descent into the lower and darker part of the year.
The true message according to David Mathisen is the symbolic meaning that this myth carries. The sun’s descent into the Underworld, or the loss of the seven locks, can be seen as the severing of our connection with the divine, with the spiritual nature within ourselves.
When the sun makes its way through the darkness of the night, or the darkness of winter, it also gathers new strength, and new wisdom. When the sun returns triumphant over the darkness, it symbolizes enlightenment, and the attainment of new wisdom. Likewise, when the locks of the blinded Samson start growing again, his heroic power too began to increase anew.
Seven Golden Rays like Strings
The link between the rays of the sun and locks of hair is enforced in the following example that Mathisen quotes from the Dionysiaca, written by the poet Nonnus in late antiquity. In this passage it is described how the sun god Helios prepares his sun chariot for the young Phaeton:
After this speech, he [Helios] placed the golden helmet on Phaethon’s head and crowned him with his own fire, winding the seven rays like strings upon his hair, and put the white kilt girdlewise round him over his loins; he clothed him in his own fiery robe and laced his foot into the purple boot, and gave his chariot to his son. 291 – 297; page 113 in the Rouse translation linked above.Dionysiaca, Nonnus, c. 5th century AD
This passage suggests that the “seven rays like strings” were originally the attribute of the sun god Helios, before he placed them onto the head of his sun Phaeton (in late antiquity at least).
The Phaëton myth has been seen by many as an eyewitness account of a comet impact. The Ancient Egyptians took this myth seriously. They knew it as a Greek memory of a time when cosmic disaster befell the earth, setting all the hills and mountains ablaze and drying up the seas.
Plato explains in the Timaeus how an Egyptian priest told his ancestor Solon that the Greeks were but children, and that they had no memory of how the world had been destroyed by multiple floods and conflagrations.
But even the Greeks had a memory of one such event, preserved in the myth of Phaëton. In the words of the Egyptian priest himself:
“There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes.
There is a story that even you [Greeks] have preserved, that once upon a time, Phaethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt.
Now, this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals.”Timaeus, Plato, c. 360 BC
There are only a few heavenly bodies that produce such a conflagration as described in the Phaëton myth. The image of the chariot of the sun gone awry evokes most of all the event of a comet coming from the direction of the sun. Flying very low, it touched the earth’s atmosphere, then plunged into a body of water described in the myth as the River Eridanus.
Like the Samson story, this myth too makes references to certain constellations. Possibly, the path of a comet through certain constellations is described, whereas the Samson myth may be more descriptive of the path of the sun.
The Tails of a Comet
Returning to the seven locks, what does it mean when these seven rays upon the hair of Helios were handed over to his son Phaëton?
If Phaëton is indeed the personification of a comet coming from the direction of the sun, then what are these seven rays that the daring youth gets crowned with? Quite possibly, these seven rays can be seen as the multiple tails (or locks) of a comet. As the comet’s volatile gasses ignite under the influence of the sun, these gasses can fan out in different directions. There is a serious possibility that what is described here, is a comet with multiple tails.
Exactly such a comet with multiple tails is described in Graham Philip’s End of Eden: The Comet that Changed Civilization. Philips theorizes that the solar disk that was at one point worshipped in Egypt in the time of Pharaoh Akhenaten, was actually a comet with multiple tails. The Aten, as this celestial disk was called, was according to him not related to the sun at the time when it was observed and described by the earlier Pharaoh Thutmose III.
There are many Egyptian reliefs that show the Aten as a disk with multiple rays emanating from it, but what he noticed is, that these rays are not uniformly distributed around the edge of the disk, as you would expect from a depiction of the sun. Instead, the rays are all clustered in only one direction of the disk. To Philips, this rather resembled a comet with multiple tails.
If the Aten was the same comet as the one observed by the Chinese around the year 1500, then the Aten may have been a ten-tailed comet that visited the earth around that time.
In the image below, you can see the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti basking in the light of the Aten:
The Aten story is one that I would like to get back to at a later time, since it portrays an intriguing image of the way that comets were described in ancient times, and how they might have affected human behavior and climatic conditions on earth. But for now, let’s investigate the symbolism of long hair and its links with the sun and with comets a bit further.
The Seven Colors of the Rainbow
In Vedic mythology, the chariot of the sun god Surya is driven by seven horses, and is said to depict the seven days of the week. Through the dispersion of the rays of Surya is also created the rainbow, with its seven different colors.
Could there also be a link between the seven locks of the Israelite Samson, the seven rays in the hair of Helios, and the seven different hues that can be perceived in a rainbow? In Vedic India at least, they made this connection between the sun’s rays and seven different colors.
I’m not sure if this seven-fold spectrum this is the main reason for the seven locks or seven rays, but the rainbow is definitely a product of the rays of the sun. Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th Century understood that when light gets refracted through a prism, this white light splits up in seven different hues.
Both the Australian Aboriginals and the Maya of Central America have a “Rainbow Serpent” in their mythology. The aboriginals saw this multi-colored serpent as a creative force and a giver of life through its association with water, but it could also be a destructive force when angry – associated by some Aboriginal tribes with a fallen star.
Do we have here another instance of comet symbolism, this time linked to a cosmic snake? That there is a link between comets and snakes is little doubted. We’ll see plenty of examples later on of the destructive powers of snakes in Norse myth.
Mourning and Cosmic Battles in Egypt
There is one final example that I would like to bring up that can tell us more about the symbolism of hair in relation to the cosmic environment. For this, we return once more to ancient Egypt. It involves a symbolic ritual that unites long and disheveled hair, the cutting of the locks, the god of the sun, and his battles with a terrible snake that makes a formidable foe.
In the Egyptian language, the word samt can mean “sadness” or “lament”, but also a “lock of hair”. More accurately, it might be translated as the “lock of hair of a professional mourner”. In the mourning rite, a part of the lock of the professional mourner was cut. Queen Berenice in the Egyptian legend was full of grief when her lock of hair was stolen, and the Norse Sif too is depicted by artists as full of grief at the loss of her hair.
Another Egyptian word for a lock of hair, and especially a plaited one, is nebed. Dr. Rosa Valdesogo Martín, writer of the blog Hair and Death in Ancient Egypt, notes how the word nebed is very similar to nebedj, which can be translated as “the bad”, or “the enemy”.
The proper noun Nebedj was a way of naming Seth, the enemy of Osiris, and also Apophis, the enemy of Re, the Egyptian sun god. Osiris too was linked to the sun, and its travels through the darkness of the Duat, the Underworld.
Somehow, the cutting of the lock in Egyptian mourning rituals, was connected to the cosmic struggle between a solar god and his enemy. Apophis is the Greek name for Apep, a personification of the forces of chaos, who appears in art as a giant snake. It is interesting that once again, our research into the symbolism surrounding long hair leads us to snakes.
The Coffin Texts imply that Apep used his magical gaze to overcome the sun god Ra and his entourage.
The Coffin texts were recorded a century or so before 2000 BC, not too long before the collapse of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and the start of Egypt’s First Intermediate Period. This was indeed one of the more chaotic episodes in Egyptian history.
A mere two centuries before the start of this period, we find in the climatic record the 4.2 Kiloyear Event. This cosmic calamity caused a sudden and severe aridification of the environment in Egypt and many other regions, including Central Europe. While Egypt was plagued by drought and dust-storms, parts of Northern Europe experienced wetter conditions, paired with flooding.
The increasing geological evidence shows that these so-called “kiloyear events” – and other such events that involve a sudden and dramatic upheaval of the global climate – are often connected to periods of cosmic bombardment. The symbol of a giant snake hints at the possible involvement of a comet.
What about the snake’s magical gaze, this “evil eye” which overwhelms the sun god? Both snakes and the evil eye, or a flaming or burning eye are symbols that are present in many mythologies, including that of the Norse.
Were the Egyptian mourning rituals involving the cutting of locks and the swaying of disheveled hair reenactments of a larger cosmic drama, following periods of darkness and chaos, and the subsequent renewal of the world?
According to Dr. Martín, the cutting of the lock could reflect the end of the chaos and darkness which dominated the universe before the creation.
Purification and Rebirth
The story about the links between the hair of a solar deity, the wild hair of a comet’s tail, snakes and comets gets complicated quickly. There are a lot of overlapping symbols that keep recurring.
I have provided several possibilities for explaining the links between locks of hair and diverse celestial phenomena, while trying not to make too much of a tangled mess out of it.
When we look at rituals concerning hair from all over the world, one thing is ubiquitous, and that is that the cutting of hair is related to a new phase in the life of a person, the life-cycle of a comet, the cyclical journey of the sun, or in the larger cosmic cycles that affect life on earth.
The cutting of hair was often seen as a ritual of purification, which is why the cutting of the lock is also linked to rituals of initiation, and the transition from youth to adulthood. In the mourning rites of the Egyptians, it signified the passage from death to rebirth in the afterlife.
Not only was the cutting of someone’s hair a symbol of purification, it could also mean the loss of one’s strength. In the Germanic world too, long hair was treasured and held as sacred. Laws forbade the cutting of someone’s hair against the person’s will.
Long hair was often regarded as a treasure, and was seen as the extension of the self in ancient cultures. Many Germanic warriors only cut their hair after the killing of their first foe in battle, as a sacrifice to the god of war.
In the Eddic poem Lokasenna, the mischievous Loki is hurling insults at the gods, and he accused Sif of having slept with another man. Loki himself may have been this man with whom Sif shared her bed. Cutting off Sif’s hair might have been Loki’s way of punishing her for an act that he himself was involved in. It seems like Thor received little notion of this, as his main concern was to make sure that Loki found a way to retrieve Sif’s hair.
While this insight may help us understand the motif of Loki cutting off Sif’s hair, I can’t help but wonder whether this myth was inspired by some memory of a celestial event witnessed by the ancient peoples of the North, or by whoever first dreamt up this story.
Judging by the evidence that we have seen from other myths and legends – from Queen Berenice to Samson, and from Helios and Phaëton to the gods and monsters of Egypt – the symbol of hair repeatedly turns up in relation to heavenly phenomena and cosmic catastrophes of several kinds. Ultimately, these events would have been written in the constellations, as we have seen in the previous part.
Every aspect of our lives, from the hair on our head to the sun in the sky, comes with an incredible amount of ritual, history and myth, and also an ever-growing scientific understanding. Even today, we treat our hair sometimes with a sacred reverence, and our psyche and personal story is reflected in a myriad of different hair-styles.
Dionysiaca by Nonnus
Skáldskaparmál (The Poesy of Skalds) by Snorri
Timaeus by Plato
David Mathisen’s Blog
Featured image: “The Chariot of the Sun” by Collingwood (1908) – source