Category: Catastrophism (Page 3 of 3)

The Seven Locks of the Sun and the Disheveled Hair of a Comet

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.

Solar Apollo with the seven rays solar halo of Helios
Solar Apollo with the radiant halo of Helios, with seven rays emerging from his headsource

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.

Samson and Delilah by Solomon Joseph (1887)
“Samson and Delilah” by Solomon Joseph Solomon (1887) – source

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).

Phaëton by Gustave Moreau (1878)
Excerpt from “Phaëton” by Gustave Moreau (1878) – source.
The artist depicts Phaëton with long, disheveled hair.

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:

Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the Aten
Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the multi-rayed Aten, 18th Dynasty – source

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.

A rainbow with seven colors - seven locks of the sun god
A great rainbow across the landscape. Photo by Binyamin Mellish source

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. 

Purifying and Mourning the Dead in ancient Egypt
Purifying and Mourning the Dead in ancient Egypt – source

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.


Source Texts

Dionysiaca by Nonnus

Skáldskaparmál (The Poesy of Skalds) by Snorri

Timaeus by Plato

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Samson and the Seven Locks of his Head

Articles

The Comet that Changed Civilization – And May Do Again

Egyptian Words for “Lock of Hair” related to the Mourning Rite.

Books

End of Eden: The Comet that Changed Civilization

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

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: “The Chariot of the Sun” by Collingwood (1908) – source

The Deadly Beauty of Long-Haired Stars

The Norse goddess Sif lost her long, fair locks to the mischievous Loki. While she lay sleeping, Loki cut off her locks. She awoke in horror to discover that her once beautiful hair was no more. Her husband Thor was furious. Loki somehow had to restore Sif’s locks, if he wanted to live. 

We have seen in the previous blog post how Loki pitted two pairs of dwarf smiths  against each other in a competition. This yielded many golden treasures for the gods. Among these was the new golden hair for Sif, which grew to her head with renewed splendor. We have investigated this Norse myth, and its connection to the stars.

David Mathisen has shown in Part Four of his Star Myths series that Sif’s golden locks can be found in the asterism Coma Berenices in the night sky. This faint group of stars that is named after the hair of the Egyptian queen Berenice.

This celestial crime seems to be solved with the identification of Boötes as Loki, the thief, and many details of this myth can be confidently placed in the constellations. But this myth makes me wonder if there is something more at play, hidden in the poetic symbolism. The night sky above our heads is a very dynamic place, filled with wonders and terrors of many kinds.

Some of these wondrous events are relatively rare, but when they do occur, they inspire us with great awe. Such an event may be the arrival of a comet, growing in brightness as it nears the sun, sporting a “hairy tail”.

Could there be a link between the arrival of a comet and myths and legends about the loss and retrieval of locks of hair? The very word comet means “long-haired star”. Long or disheveled hair has been noted as one of the many symbols associated with comets, and comets too can lose and regain their “fiery locks”.

The more I researched the ancient myths, the more I realised how significant a role comets may have played in the worldview and spiritual-religious experience of ancient peoples.

Great Comet of 1861 by E. Weiss
The “Great Comet of 1861”, drawing by E. Weiss – Source

The long-haired Star

The word comet derives from the Latin cometa, in turn from Ancient Greek kometes, meaning “long-haired”. The ancient Greeks already used the term kometes for “long-haired stars”, or comets. Kometes is derived from the word komeo, “to wear the hair long”. This word itself comes from the word koma, meaning “the hair of the head,” which referred to “the tail of a comet”. The etymology makes it clear that already in the times of ancient Greece, comets were associated with long hair. 

The part of the comet that is visible to the naked eye is not the rocky core itself, but the so-called coma and tail that emerge from the rocky body under the influence of the sun’s heat. In modern science, the coma of a comet is the name for the bright and fuzzy cloud that envelops the comet’s inner core. It’s the coma that is called after the word for “hair”, and out of this coma, sometimes emerges the comet’s tail.

The dark organic matter that covers the nucleus has an extremely low albedo, which means that it absorbs most of the light that falls on it.

When a comet gets closer to the sun, the sun’s rays start to heat up and ignite the volatile gasses inside the nucleus, forming the coma. When the comet gets even closer to the sun, the smaller and lighter particles in the coma get blown away, far into the solar system, forming the comet’s tail. This tail can be absolutely enormous, growing to the size of multiple planets combined.

A comet can even sport multiple tails that spread out like strands of hair, like the seven locks of Samson, or as the golden hair of a maiden.

Comets in multiple shapes (1860)
A vintage print from 1860 showing comets that have appeared in a variety of shapes.

Most comets are too faint to be seen by the naked eye. Once in a while however, a comet shows up that illuminates a large portion of the sky. Such a comet is designated as a “Great Comet”. Many comets are periodic comets, visiting the earth at regular intervals that can be calculated and predicted by astronomers. Sometimes a comet disintegrates when it nears the sun. When a comet moves so fast that it escapes the sun’s gravity, we call it a “lost comet”. 

Sometimes, a comet is headed straight for earth – grazing the earth’s atmosphere, causing disturbances of all kinds, or crashing into the earth’s surface, into the ocean, or into an ice-cap – like an angel cast out of heaven.

Comets with Hair Loss

There is a thin line between asteroids and comets. What looks like an inactive asteroid at first can become activated when the sun ignites the volatile gases inside its rocky core, which makes the asteroid grow into something that more resembles a comet. The sun can endow a comet with a large and bright tail, or with “locks of hair”. But can these “locks” get cut off, like the golden locks in mythology?

When the ion load in a comet’s tail is sufficient, the magnetic field lines are squeezed together to the point where, at some distance along the ion tail, a so-called “magnetic reconnection” occurs – leading to a “tail disconnection event”. In April 2007, the ion tail of comet Encke was completely severed as the comet passed through a coronal mass ejection.

All this is highly technical stuff; I might prefer the more poetic version. Simply put: the comet’s “locks” get “cut off” as it were by the flares of the sun.

Myths can be interpreted in more than one way due to their highly symbolic and archetypal nature. This very quality makes it possible to store an incredible amount of information in just a few lines of poetry, containing multiple layers of meaning – ranging from the stars that shine in the night, to the golden wheat in the fields, to the gems that shimmer in the eternal night of the earth.

All these different layers of symbolism are written in the constellations. 

Comets too – the celestial messengers, the mediators between heaven and earth – may have their place in the constellations.

The Giant Ymir by Emile Doepler (1900)
“The Primeval Giant Ymir” by Emil Doepler (1900)

Flakes From a Giant’s Skull

The Roman natural philosopher Pliny described comets as “human-like” with “long hair” or “long beard”. If this is how the ancients envisioned comets, wouldn’t we expect to find traces of this hair symbolism in the world’s ancient myths? There may be more traces of comet symbolism in the myths and artwork of the ancient world than we realize. Once you see them, they cannot be unseen.

In the Norse cosmology, the sky was created out of the skull of the primordial giant Ymir. This giant was slain by Odin and his two brothers, and from the different parts of his body was created the world (or should we say, a new version of the world?).

If we extend this poetic analogy, we might envision comets as parts of Ymir’s skull; the comet’s tail as pieces of Ymir’s hair, still attached to the rocky pieces of his skull.

There is a whole array of symbols that has been attached to comets, according to researchers of myth and folklore, including long or disheveled hair, the chariot of the sun god, torches, snakes, broomsticks, and probably several more that have yet to be identified. 

Let’s start our investigation of comet symbolism by looking at the symbol from which is derived the very word comet: the “hair of the head”.

Inanna's knot and a comet with tail
Left: a symbol of the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Right: Engraving of a comet with tail – source.

Comets in the Stars

Could Sif’s hair be another symbol for the hairy tail of a comet? The Norse goddesses Sif and Freyja have their counterparts in many other goddesses from different cultures – goddesses that fulfill important roles like love and mothership, beauty and warfare, and many more. When we look at the Sumerian version of this “great goddess” archetype, we find symbolism in ancient artwork that has a surprising visual resemblance to comets.

The Sumerian goddess Inanna from the Fertile Crescent region had as one of her symbols a knot made out of reeds. This symbol might just be a representation of a comet with a curved tail. In the image above you can see a comparison between the sacred Sumerian knot and an engraving of a comet that has been observed by an astronomer in the year 1741. While knots are also found in braided hair, this sacred knot is made out of reeds. 

We have seen in the previous blog post how the Norse goddess Sif can be linked to the constellation Virgo in the night sky. We can see Inanna too in this constellation:

Virgo and Coma Berenices
The constellation Virgo with Coma Berenices as hair, or perhaps even a comet.

The link between Inanna and Virgo is unmistakable, since Inanna is also connected with lions in myth. Right next to Virgo is found the constellation Leo the lion. The Norse Freyja too is linked to felines. But it is the asterism Coma Berenices that is of more interest right now.

We have also seen in the previous part how this asterism is linked to the hair of the Egyptian queen Berenice, which was placed into the sky by Zeus, according to the legend. 

David Mathisen has proven in Star Myths of the World Volume One that this faint group of stars can not only be connected to hair in myth, but also to reeds or plants in numerous examples from myth and artwork from around the world. This strong connection with reeds or sheaves of wheat makes it likely that Inanna’s comet-like knot of reeds can be linked to this same asterism.

Since locks of hair – and quite possibly the knot of Inanna – can be seen as symbols for comets, we could pose the following question:

  • Can comets too be linked directly to certain constellations?

If this is so, then Coma Berenices would certainly be a good match. It has a fan-like shape that radiates outwards from a single point, much like the tail of a comet that radiates outwards from its nucleus. If comets played an important role in the ancient cosmological experience, and if these experiences were written in the language of the constellations, then would it not be logical if comets too were written in the constellations?

Hair Like Snakes

We have seen in our exploration of the Norse myth that deals with Sif, that the constellation Scorpio might represent her newly-forged locks, forged from the gold of the dwarfs. Scorpio has the red-golden star Antares to account for the golden-blonde or red hair of many of the gods and heroes in the ancient myths.

If Scorpio, like Coma Berenices, is linked to hair symbolism, then is Scorpio too a constellation that can symbolize a comet? I think that Scorpio might just be the ideal actor for that role. 

When gods and goddesses are linked to certain constellations, they often take their attributes from neighbouring constellations. Scorpio as the long locks of hair is likely one of these divine attributes. Its red-golden star Antares further enforces the link with the fiery and bright appearance of a comet.

Ophiuchus ans Scorpio as Odin carving the runes with blood - Star Myth
The constellation Ophiuchus as a spear-wielding god, with Scorpio and the golden-red Antares beneath it.

Scorpio can be linked to multi-headed monsters in myth, from the three-headed Cerberus to the nine-headed Hydra. Its multiple necks can be seen as radiating outwards from the star Antares. Likewise, these multiple necks may be seen as the multiple tails of a comet, or alternatively, as the debris that splits off from the nucleus in a comet fragmentation event.

I have already noted the link between monstrous dogs, serpents or dragons in myth, and the constellation Scorpio. In the Greek Medusa with her snake-riddled hair, we find these two symbols combined. 

Medusa was once a golden-haired, fair maiden like the Norse goddess Sif. She was a priestess of Athena, with a life devoted to celibacy. The young Medusa would be a Virgo-figure too, as virgo is the Latin word for virgin. But the young Medusa fell for the charms of the sea god Poseidon. As a punishment for her disloyalty, she was turned into a monstrous gorgon – her fair locks turned into venomous snakes.

Medusa by Jacek Malczewski (1900)
“Medusa” by Jacek Malczewski (1900) – source

The symbol of Medusa’s snake-hair is an additional reason to believe that Scorpio is connected to hair symbolism, and to comet symbolism as well.

It must be noted though that gorgons have been linked by David Mathisen to the constellation Hercules as well, and he provides compelling evidence for that. But when Medusa’s head gets cut off by the hero Perseus, it becomes attached to a shield, the Aegis. The Aegis becomes an attribute of the gods, and of Athena in particular – the same Athena that Medusa as a virgin priestess once venerated. 

It is likely that it is the dismembered head of Medusa that can be identified with Scorpio. Athena then, can be linked to the spear-carrying Ophiuchus above, which Mathisen has also identified with the spier-wielding Odin. There are probably other constellations or parts of constellations with some historical link to the Aegis, some of which may be later attributions.

But Scorpio really stands out in the way it resembles multiple snakes, combined with the bright Antares, and its proximity to the spear-wielding giant of a constellation Ophiuchus.

The Medusa myth has many parallels with the Norse myth about the goddess Sif. Both of them lose their golden locks. In the case of Medusa however, these new locks come in the form of venomous snakes. Medusa not only loses her locks, but she also loses her head when she encounters Perseus. The Iliad describes the Aegis thus:

The aegis of Athena is referred to in several places in the Iliad. “It produced a sound as from a myriad roaring dragons (Iliad, 4.17) and was borne by Athena in battle … and among them went bright-eyed Athene, holding the precious aegis which is ageless and immortal: a hundred tassels of pure gold hang fluttering from it, tight-woven each of them, and each the worth of a hundred oxen.”

Iliad

That sounds like an apt description for a roaring comet, does it not? Let us now take the two star-groups Scorpio and Coma Berenices, and compare these to depictions of comets, to see how well they match:

Comets and the constellations Scorpio and Coma Berenices
Depictions of comets compared with the constellations Scorpio and Coma Berenices

Divine Visitors

Looking at the image above, I think there is a strong visual comparison between comets with multiple tails or one single fiery tail, and the two aforementioned constellations.

When we look at the myths, we can find many instances in which the two constellations can play the same role. I mentioned here earlier how Coma Berenices can be seen as a bundle of reeds, and so too can Scorpio. We have already linked Scorpio to the nine runes that Odin takes, and we will soon see how Coma Berenices too can represent the runes in Norse myth.

I think that both constellations symbolize Sif wifth her long locks, and when we compare them with the shape of comets and their symbolism, I think we can connect both these constellations to comets in the myths – many examples of which will follow.

  • It would make sense that, if the myths are written in the language of the constellations, that comets too have their place in the constellations.

Not only do we have a lot of Star Myths that we can investigate further, there is also a rich, powerful and complex world of comet symbolism that we can explore in the myths.

Our encounters with comets don’t always yield catastrophic results. Once in a decade or so, we get the chance to look in awe at a long-haired star, filling a large portion of the sky as it makes its way into the inner solar system. Each time a comet visited the earth, the ancients may have been inspired with divine awe and feelings of religiosity.

While the constellations that populate the night sky may have been greatly revered and beheld with awe, they are still a relatively stable part of the celestial environment. They rise and set in predictable ways, and only in the course of thousands of years do they lose their original positions in the sky, shifting places in the celestial wheel.

Comets on the other hand, would have come with little prior warning. As it made its entrance, a comet could swell to enormous proportions, shining like a beacon even in daylit skies. Some comets may have been short-lived, others may have dominated the skies for possibly several centuries on end.

  • Their sometimes unpredictable changes of course and behavior must have given comets almost human-like qualities.

Visitations of comets would have been relatively transient, temporary events, but they may have left an extremely powerful impression on the ancient psyche – especially in episodes of relentless cosmic bombardment and cometary winters.

Tales about beautiful and benign comet gods, or roaring, world-destroying monsters may have been memorised by attaching them to something more reliable: the constellations. Through oral tradition, these tales have finally reached us in the form of myths.

In the next blog post, we will continue the theme of comets and hair once more, and we will explore more of the ritual concerning hair and comets, and how this is related to loss and mourning, and to cosmic destruction and rebirth.


Featured image: A hairy star from the Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, Folio 28, c. 1552. – source

Continue with the next part:

The Seven Locks of the Sun and the Disheveled Hair of a Comet

Series:

Long-haired Stars and the Myths


Source Texts

The Iliad by Homer

Skáldskaparmál (The Poesy of Skalds)

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Books

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

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)

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