Category: Norse Gods (Page 2 of 4)

Mind Escape Podcast #139: Comets and Catastrophe in Norse Myth

In episode #139 of the Mind Escape podcast, we talk about how comets and cosmic catastrophe may have left its marks in the Norse myths

I have been invited to Mike and Maurice’s Mind Escape for a second time to have an interesting discussion about the Norse myths again. In the first episode, we talked about how the myths of the Norse  can be linked to an ancient astronomical tradition. This second time, we talked about the possible role of comets and cosmic catastrophe in the Norse mythological poems.

In this episode, I gave an introduction into the catastrophic periods that have happened on the human timescale. Cosmic impacts were not just a thing that the dinosaurs experienced – we have received a decent dose of cosmic catastrophe ourselves. I think that it’s likely that this has found its way into our myths as well, and it’s probably one of the crucial components in understanding myth and religion.

If this topic interests you, I’d say, jump right into the episode. If you have seen it already, or if you’d rather  read a bit about it first, then here you can find more about this subject.

Some interesting questions were asked to me during the interview, and here in this blog post, I have provided some additional answers to these questions, as well as other important questions to think about. I’ve also added some links to articles and websites on the subject for those who’d like to explore this further.

If I’ve left you still with some questions, I wouldn’t consider that a bad thing. I’m having a lot of questions myself about what the myths are about, and how comets and catastrophe may be involved in them. It’s these questions that are driving me to research these topics. Some of the answers I’ll leave for future blog posts, but I’ve provided some additional information on the topics discussed in this episode here below, summarizing some of the key points:

What evidence is there that the Norse gods are linked to comets?

At this point, my research into the links between Norse myths and comets, meteorites, and cosmic impacts is still in a beginning stage, although I have consumed much information about these topics in the past few years. Any links between the Nore gods and comets are still speculative, but I have amassed enough data to strongly suspect that there is a connection between the two. 

Ever since seeing Martin Sweatman’s conclusion that the gods are comet gods in his book Prehistory Decoded, I started paying more attention, and when I started looking at the myths more and more from this perspective, several puzzling things in the myths and in ancient artwork started to make more sense.

The winged disk symbolism for example, with its fan-like rays, may not resemble so much the disk of the sun, but rather a large comet for example, as Graham Philips shows in his book End of Eden.

The winged sun disk, the Faravahar of the Zoroastrian tradition
A zoroastrian winged disk symbol with what appears to be a deity or king on it source

Researching the myths is speculative by definition. By nature, myths lend themselves to multiple interpretations, and I don’t think that these have to be mutually exclusive. I think that multiple different avenues deserve to be explored in a search for answers.

Science has proven without doubt that catastrophic events did happen in the human timeline, more than one time. We also know that giant comets are a part of the human experience. Both the rarity and magnitude of these events would have contributed to the mark that they would have left on the human psyche, when such an event did occur. Yet at the same time, these cosmic events have happened in the human past more often than we have for a long time believed.

Here below, you can see a timeline I’ve made of several major cosmic impacts and cometary events of the last 15,000 years:

A timeline of cosmic catastrophe and comets (Arthur Koopmans)
A timeline of catastrophic and cometary events that have shaped human history since the past 15,000 years. Illustration by Arthur Koopmans.

The myths are also quite clear about the existence of these recurring cosmic events, sometimes explicitly mentioning falling stars and natural disasters, which we see in the Norse myth of Ragnarök and also in other Norse myths, such as Thor’s fishing trip. When Thor fished for the World Serpent, the line snaps, and the serpent is thrown back into the water, causing volcano eruptions, earthquakes and large waves.

I think that the ancients would have used symbols that were familiar to describe those things that words themselves could hardly describe. The snake as a symbol of a comet or meteorite would have been one of the most prominent symbols. This, we may see reflected in the giant serpent Jormungandr of Norse myth, whose battles with Thor have destructive consequences, or in the evil spirit Angra Mainyu from the Avesta, falling out of the sky like a snake, causing a terrible winter.

Not only giant monsters are probably linked to cosmic impacts, but the gods themselves as well. The Mayan Quetzalcoatl is known to be linked to comets, and around 1500 BC, when a giant comet visited the earth, we see the rise of monotheism and winged disk symbolism with deities in them, such as Ahura Mazda. With all these links between gods and comets in different traditions, it would be no surprise if the Norse gods too could be linked to such phenomena.

What makes it harder to find links between the Norse myths and comet phenomena, is that there is less of it left, due to the persecution of European paganism by Christianity. Also, the runic script was not suited for writing down large stories. Only when the latin alphabet came into use in Iceland, these myths could be finally written down, ironically enough, by Christian writers.

In late Scandinavian folklore, we find the belief that pieces of meteoritic rock are pieces of Thor’s hammer. His hammer Mjollnir was originally a grindstone or whetstone, which he hurled at giants. So, was Thor as a sky god hurling meteorites at giants? And if the Norse peoples would have seen comets as well, then which parts of the myths can be linked to these bright visitors?

A sky god hurling meteors is something that can also be found in Phoenician mythology, where the god Baetylus hurled down life-endowed meteorite stones from the sky. The evidence points to a similar meteorite link with the god Thor.

Mjollnir, Thor's hammer pendant from Skane, a meteorite?
Thor’s hammer was originally not a hammer, but a whetstone or grindstone, possibly meteoric in origin – source

Speaking of grindstones, what about the cosmic mill, which grinds out wealth in several myths, like a cornucopia? The Finnish version of the cosmic mill, the Sampo, is also called the “bright-lid”. This bright mill ultimately sank into the sea, like the bright Phaëton crashing his chariot in the river Eridanus.

The suspect list

In this podcast episode, I have presented a small suspect list, with symbols in Norse myth that I think could be linked to comets (among other things). This is only a small list, with four examples that I will explore further in future blog posts here at Secrets of the Norse. 

Surtr’s flaming sword

The first on the list is the fire giant Surtr, who splits the sky in two at Ragnarök, with a sword that is brighter than the sun. Comets were also envisioned as flaming swords. In 1910, when comet Halley visited the earth, the comet appeared to an observer in Accra, west Africa ‘like a flaming sword with jewelled hilt’.  Meteorites and comets have been proven to be blinding to the eye when they descend upon the earth, as was also observed when a meteorite hit the Russian town of Chelyabinsk in 2013.

Notable comets from 1577-1652, like a flaming sword
Excerpt from “Notable comets of the period 1577-1652”. Notice how a comet might have been seen as a flaming sword? – source

Odin’s golden spear

Randall Carlson has written a great series about the Grail Legends, whose origins can largely be found in the period of the Dark Ages – a period, which I have shown in this interview to be a period of cosmic disaster. In his grail series, Randall explains how the four major grail symbols are possibly metaphors for cosmic impacts. The spear would have been one of the symbols used by ancient peoples to describe the long shape of a bright comet or meteorite’s tail. Is Odin’s golden spear Gungnir linked to comets and meteorites as well?

Comet symbols in Norse mythology, Mind Escape Podcast with Arthur Koopmans
List of suspected comet symbols in Norse mythology – from the Mind Escape Podcast.

Freyja’s Necklace

The Norse goddess Freyja has a golden necklace, called Brisingamen. The name means something like “fiery or glowing necklace”. When Thor tells her that she is to be wed to a giant, she bursts into anger, and her fiery necklace drops. Then, the mansions of the gods tremble. In other words, a fiery, golden-hued object falls down, causing tremors large enough to shake the mansions of the gods. 

Here, we could see a more subtle reference to a cosmic impact. One of Freya’s names, Mardöll, has the linguistic element in it that refers to something shining or bright. Heimdall is also called the white god, or the shining god. Could this refer to more than simply the sun, moon and stars? Was Freyja also linked to a bright comet?

Sif’s golden hair

The word comet itself means “long-haired”, from Ancient Greek kometai, “letting the hair grow long”. Milton describes comets like this in Paradise Lost (1667):

Just as a comet in the burnished air

Is wont to burn with bloody, horrid locks,

And, wrecking realms, still new disasters bring —

An omen of ill-luck to crimson kings.

Milton, Paradise lost (1667)

In the Greek myth of Medusa, we find the monstrous gorgon women with their snake-hair, deadly gaze and roaring screams. Medusa was once, like the Norse Sif, a golden-haired maiden.

In Norse myth, Sif’s golden hair gets cut off by Loki. The dwarves then have to make a new set of golden hair, and Loki sets two groups of dwarf smiths up against each other to produce even more golden objects, including Odin’s spear. Freyja’s necklace too, was made by the gold from the dwarfs.

Like Sif’s hair, comets can grow and lose their “hair”, their coma. Could this be subtle symbolism for a comet phenomenon? Possibly. I’ve written an entire three-part series about this topic on my blog (part one, part two, part three). Since then, I found more links between hair symbolism in myths and comets and catastrophe.

In the Finnish Kalevala for example, the divine singer Väinamöinen makes a musical instrument out of a lady’s seven locks. When he plays it, the hills and mountains shake, trees get uprooted, and boulders fall from the cliffs. Compare this to the story of Phaëton, the son of the sun, who crashes his father’s sun chariot with the seven rays of the solar crown on his head, possibly reflecting the multiple tails of a comet.

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

Cosmic Battles

Here we have a golden spear, a golden necklace, golden hair… in fact, there are many golden objects in possession of the gods that were important in their defence against the giants. Do we have here in the wars between gods and giants a symbolic struggle between the elements of the earth meeting those of the sky? Science has shown that cosmic impacts can profoundly alter the geography of the earth, causing earthquakes, tsunamis, and even causing volcanic activity.

Are the ancient Norse and their myths linked to Göbekli Tepe?

The Old Norse culture and that of Göbekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey are far removed, both in place and in time. Yet both can be argued to have their myth and religion based upon an ancient astronomical system. David Mathisen has, to my mind, made a convincing case that the world’s myths are part of an ancient worldwide system.

The myth of Thor’s fishing trip is also found in Polynesian myth for example, in the story of Maui’s fishing trip. It is also reflected in the battle between Marduk and Tiamat, in ancient Babylonian myth. All of these myths can be argued to be based upon the constellations. The world’s myths and ancient civilization itself can be traced back to Göbekli Tepe – the first sign of civilization since the last ice age, and a monument that incorporates both megalithic architecture and a link with an ancient form of the zodiac.

Martin Sweatman, in deciphering this ancient zodiac, has come to the conclusion that the monument is dated to the Younger Dryas Impact Event, and sees in it a monument to an ancient cataclysm. Later civilizations used the same symbols linked to the stars that were used in Göbekli Tepe, although these would have been somewhat altered over the course of thousands of years, and after several more cosmic interruptions.

It is likely, he thinks, that the gods in the world’s myths actually represent comet gods. In this blog post, Martin Sweatman has collected a number of ancient symbols from ancient artwork, which he suspects are linked to comets. It is these giant comets that he thinks inspired the construction of Göbekli Tepe, and thus also the first signs of organized religion.

In the screenshot of his website below, we see first several different illustrations of comet observations:

Martin Sweatman, Prehistory Decoded, collage of comet illustrations
Screenshot from Martin Sweatman’s blog, showing a collage of comet illustrationssource

And below, we see a collage that Martin Sweatman has made of what he suspects is comet symbolism:

Martin Sweatman, Prehistory Decoded, comet symbolism
Screenshot from Martin Sweatman’s blog, showing a collage of suspected comet symbolssource

Eventually, this ancient astronomical system would have also reached the Proto-Indo-Europeans of the Eurasian steppes, who later conquered Europe, and from which ultimately the Norse myths of Scandinavia were derived. 

Andrew Collins thinks that the builders of Göbekli Tepe were denisovan hybrids, possibly the Swiderians. This hybrid offspring of humans and Denisovans would have come from an ancient Eurasian homeland. This takes us closer to the original homeland of the ancient Norse as well.

Denisovan DNA has even been found in modern Icelandic and Finnish people. So Iceland, the land where the Norse myths were ultimately written down, even has some genetic affinity with who Andrew Collins suspects were the builders of Göbekli Tepe.

But ultimately, this system with its astronomical tradition has dispersed around the world, and according to Laird Scranton, there were multiple key centres of learning. One of these would have been Skara Brea in the Orkney Islands around 3200 BC – again, close to Iceland, the later home of the Norse myths.

Are comets and catastrophes what the myths are all about?

I don’t deem it necessary at this point to settle for one explanation only of what the myths are about. What is sure though, is that catastrophe on an epic scale is found in myths worldwide, especially in myths dealing with the end of a world age. Martin Sweatman thinks that the experience of the Younger Dryas Impact Event was sufficient motivation for people to come together and establish the basis for an organized religious tradition, and the creation of myth.

But before the Younger Dryas, there were not only earlier episodes of cosmic catastrophe, but also long periods of relative peace and prosperity. In these periods with a more stable and favourable climate, the human spirit and civilization flourishes. It could be that in these more climatically favorable times, the horrors and the religious awe of cosmic encounters were largely forgotten, and the reverence for the sun and stars becomes more prominent. 

A giant comet, Graham Philips, Mind Escape Podcast with Arthur Koopmans
The author Graham Philips has pointed out that around 1500 BC, a giant 10-tailed comet visited the earth – screenshot from the Mind Escape Podcast

Still, comets might have been on the radar even in less cataclysmic times, as they would still visit the earth century after century.

But when disaster strikes again, this may revive tales of gods, giants and monsters fighting each other in epic battles. When excessive rainfall due to global cooling plagues farmers, with floods swallowing their lands, a new water-based religion may ensue. This could explain the many archeological finds of sacrifices of weapons, utensils, and people into bogs and lakes.

When being confronted with the role of comets and catastrophe in the myths, one could get the idea that this is what it’s all about. The myths do take us from one conflict to another, because what’s a story without a conflict? But I think there’s much more to the myths than fire and brimstone. The myths to me, seem to reflect the entirety of the human experience, but played out in stories that centre around the world of the gods.

This would include knowledge of the stars, and quite probably, our experiences with entheogens. Forces that are larger than life were I think, personified in the form of gods, giants, elves and dwarves, so that we could relate to these phenomena on a personal and societal level. The result would have been the splendid poetry that continues to inspire and intrigue us.

David Mathisen has shown evidence that these poems are written in the stars.

How can the myths be about comets and about the stars and constellations at the same time?

Through the work of Star Myth researcher David Mathisen, I came to learn of the connections between the myths and the stars. Many scholars would admit that there is at least some presence of constellations in Norse myths and in archaeoastronomy, dealing with ancient sites. But David Mathisen has shown through numerous examples, how practically all of the world’s myths can be seen as written in the constellations.

He himself also readily admits though, that the stars were not the end-point. They were not the object of worship, but they were used as the closest metaphor for the divine realm, that part of us that is less concerned with material reality, and more concerned with spiritual matters. The Otherworld, A world outside of ordinary reality is also found in altered states, which can be accessed through entheogens and a wide variety of shamanic techniques.

The stars then, could have been used as a metaphor for explaining the world of consciousness and a connection to the larger cosmos, and how this is integral in living a fulfilled and complete life. The stars form the language in which these experiences were captured, personified in the tales of gods and other beings with humanoid qualities.

Another interesting question: could the use of psychedelics have somehow enhanced the stargazing experience? Could they have played a crucial role in the shaping of Star Myth poetry? This reddit thread contains anecdotal evidence, which shows multiple people experiencing the stars in a different state while under the influence of LSD.

But if the stars were used as a language, could they have been used as a metaphor for other experiences as well? If the stars and constellations can serve as a metaphor to explain realms outside our own, then could they also describe events that may be seen as forces of the divine or chtonic realm invading the ordinary world in world-changing or world-ending events? I would say yes.

The visitation of a giant and bright ten-tailed comet would have been like a psychedelic experience. A giant comet or cataclysm would be a paradigm-shifting experience of its own. One that I think was likely passed down in the form of Star Myths, connected to an ancient astronomical tradition.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the Aten
Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the multi-rayed Aten, 18th Dynasty. Notice how they’re holding what seems like hallucinogenic blue lotus flowers? Perhaps they were tripping while basking in the light of a giant comet! – source

So, what came first? Star Myths, or tales of cosmic catastrophe? This seems to be a chicken or the egg question. Human beings have lived with both for a long time. The two have likely co-evolved, and since the stars are a more stable and more permanent feature in our lives, I think it’s likely that this is the reason that the stars were used as the basis for this ancient system of knowledge.

Civilizations come and go, but the stars are largely in the same place as they were tens of thousands of years ago. See also this blog post for more information on how comet symbolism may be linked to certain constellations (example: a snake deity can be linked to both the tail of a comet and to a snake-like constellation).

Comets and the constellations Scorpio and Coma Berenices
Depictions of comets compared with the constellations Scorpio and Coma Berenices. Experiences with large and bright comets were likely passed on in the form of Star Myths.

What good is knowledge of catastrophic events in my personal life?

Imagine a giant ten-tailed comet appearing in the sky, the size of four full moons. You could call it a giant piece of ice and dust lighting up in the sun’s heat, but when you as a human being are confronted with such an awe-inspiring sight, words would not suffice to describe it. To the ancients, it would have been like a god or a giant visiting the earth, or even plunging into it.

Giant comets really are a thing from the world of giants, who in Norse myth, are related to the gods themselves. In Norse myth, the realm of giants is called Jotunheim, a world on the periphery of Midgard, the world of humans. Per definition, giants and giant comets are not part of our everyday experience. Volcanic eruptions and tsunamis are the forces of giants as well, and luckily, we do not encounter these every day.

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

But when such an extraordinary thing does happen, it can challenge our entire worldview. It makes us realize that we humans are part of a much larger cosmic scheme. And once in a blue moon, these forces invade the human world. The sight of a giant comet alone would suffice to profoundly alter the course of human history, let alone any cosmic cataclysm it leaves in its wake.

I think it’s good to challenge once in a while the way we view the world, and not become too complacent with what we think is ordinary reality. A giant comet may challenge our worldview, just like a psychedelic experience would. Both may have found their way in myth, possibly represented by the gods themselves. 

Psychedelics may have even helped humans deal with the trauma caused by such events. And when the planet cools down due to cometary dust, and rain keeps on falling, wouldn’t that in some places have contributed to the growth of psychedelic mushrooms?

What both the science and the myths also teach us about catastrophic events, is that life goes in cycles, both on the cosmic scale and on the scale of the human experience. No matter how catastrophic and chaotic things get when the forces of chaos threaten the established order, life will triumph eventually. This, to me, is a hopeful message.

This chaos doesn’t have to be all bad either. It’s how we grow. The comet that killed the dinosaurs paved the way for us humans (and chickens). And sometimes, we look for chaos ourselves, when too much order and routine gets into the way of growth. This is also why some of us use mind-altering substances from time to time, to break free from old patterns (or something more mundane such as taking a vacation or watching a great movie would help as well).

Ragnarök, falling stars, a screenshot from the Mind Escape Podcast with Arthur Koopmans
The Ragnarök myth explicitly mentions the falling of stars from heaven – screenshot from the Mind Escape Podcast

What’s driving me to research comets and catastrophe in myth?

The subject that we talk about in this episode is not the only way in which I view the myths, but it is a subject that fascinates me, and might be crucial in understanding what the myths are about. The cryptic language of symbolism that we finds in the myths triggers curiosity. It’s curiosity which makes us human, and not programmed automatons that are satisfied with one single script.

It’s this curiosity that is driving me to research the myths. So far, it has taken me to distant lands and distant times, to the stars, and to falling stars, and from the fruit of knowledge to the plant of immortality.

Cosmic catastrophe, and the appearance of exceptionally large comets is one of these many subjects that I find utterly fascinating, and in continuing blog posts, I will continue to research this subject further, as well as its place in an ancient astronomical tradition based upon the stars and constellations.

Mind Escape Podcast #134: Norse Myths, Runes, and the Stars

In episode #134 of the Mind Escape podcast, we talk about the links between Norse myths and the stars

I have had the great honor to be invited by the two nephews Mike and Maurice, who host the Mind Escape Podcast. I have been following this podcast myself for a while, and now I’ve had the chance to experience being invited as a guest myself, and talk about Norse Star Myths.

In the first part of what is to become a 2-part series, we explore the links between Norse mythology, and an ancient astronomical tradition. In a slideshow format, I provide an introduction of how the discipline of astromythology has been advanced with the new way of viewing the constellations of H.A. Rey, and the foundations that David Mathisen has laid for the field of research he himself calls Star Myths.

The focus of this introduction to Norse Star Myths is on the story of Odin, and his discovery of the runes. David Mathisen has decyphered the first part of this myth in his book Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology), and by using knowledge of the constellations, and of the Norse myths, I continued this investigation, and discovered that the runes too, that Odin carves, can be seen in the constellations.

In this podcast episode, we will see how the runes represent higher knowledge from the sacred tree, and we will even see how this connects with the biblical Garden of Eden; a story that uses the same symbols and the same constellations to deliver its sacred message to humankind.

If you want to became more familiar with the Norse myths and the constellations as well, this would be a good chance to learn more about these fascinating topics. And thank you David, for your kind words.

Part 2 will be about the Ragnarök myth, the Twilight of the Gods. We will exploring a slighty different angle, in an attempt to find traces of past catastrophe and cosmic encounters with comets in the Norse myths. And we’ll see how this too could have been remembered in the form of Star Myths.

This was a great experience, and Mike and Maurice showed a genuine interest in the history of the Vikings and Norse myths. Stay tuned for the second part!


See also:

Odin’s Sacrifice: A Myth Written in the Stars

In Search of the Runes: The Runes in the Stars

Links:

Mike and Maurice’s Mind Escape Podcast

David Mathisen’s Blog

The Böksta Runestone: A Stone Linked to the Stars?

Above Stockholm, near the farm of Böksta in the province of Uppland, we find this beautiful runestone from the Viking Age. When I first encountered this runestone, I was not only learning about the myths of the Norse, but I was also getting familiar with the constellations in the night sky, one by one. Could this runestone refer to the constellations?

The small figure with the skis and bow in the bottom left has been identified with the little-known hunting god Ullr. Of all the modern constellations, Orion the Hunter most of all resembles a human figure. The shield that he is holding in his right hand can also be interpreted as a bow. 

Could the hunting scene on this runestone display the constellations in the night sky? Does this stone refer to the time of the hunting season, in the region of Orion the Hunter? If so, then this would provide evidence that the Viking runemasters were stargazers, and that many of their runestones might contain carvings of the stars.

Looking further, I noticed that the angle of the horse and rider matches the angle of the constellation Taurus in respect to Orion. Below the horse, and to the right of the skiing archer on the runestone, we find a large snake, wound in complicated knots. The position of this curling snake suggests a link with the large snake-like constellation Eridanus.

If we draw a line underneath Orion’s legs, and then extend this line to the star Beta Eridani on the right, we can envision Orion as a skiing figure with a bow:

Ullr and Orion on the Böksta Runestone
Left: the skiing figure identified with Ullr.    Right: The constellation Orion.

Surely I’m not the first to note this correlation? A google search revealed that I am indeed not the first to notice the apparent link between the Böksta Runestone and the region of Orion. A certain Daniel Vagerstam has noted the similarity in 2017.

Browsing through the entries on his blog, I discovered that he has been roaming the Scandinavian countryside for quite a while, looking for runestones and finding links between Scandinavian artwork and the stars.

What was still to be established though, is a picture that shows the entire hunting scene in all its glory, as envisioned in the constellations. 

Before we can make this picture, we have to look at the scene in a little more detail. In the image below, you can see the entire hunting scene on the stone:

The Böksta Runestone hunting scene
The hunting scene on the Böksta Runestone.
Photograph by Berig (2007) – source. Edited by the author.

Eternal Hunting Grounds

Before we explore the runestone’s link with the stars, let’s examine the details shown in the hunting scene. The Böksta runestone is made of granite, and stands to a height of 2.6 meters. The most striking feature is the man on horseback, who is holding a spear while he chases an animal that looks like an elk. Two dogs can be seen chasing the elk, and a bird is attacking it’s eye. According to Lars Silén, this was standard hunting practice.

He opposes the idea though, that this runestone represents a hunting scene. And argues that the figures in the scene are each doing their own thing. Let’s call it a hunting scene anyway, since the stone seems ro refer to the region of Orion the Hunter.

The horse-rider with his beard and helmet has been speculated to be Odin, riding on his steed Sleipnir. The horse on the runestone has four legs, which is what you would normally expect from a horse, but Sleipnir is a horse with eight legs. There’s a good chance though, that the horse depicted here is Sleipnir, since the Tängelgårda stone also depicts Sleipnir with four legs.

The skiing archer who accompanies the rider may be Ullr. This enigmatic god has been described in the Skáldskaparmál of the Prose Edda as a ski-god, an archery-god, and a hunting-god. This wintery figure was also associated with artisans. 

Hunting required specialised tools and clothing, and many Norse hunters had to rely on their own skills to make these tools. Especially during the six harsh months of winter, the Scandinavians had to rely on their skills and their common sense to survive. They could also use a little extra meat from the hunt to keep their bellies filled.

The whole scene is surrounded by a serpent, and a runic inscription is carved into it. The serpent also forms a complicated coil underneath the horse. In the top right, hovering in the air, is another bird. If the horse-rider on this stone is Odin engaged in the hunt, then the two birds may be his two ravens Huginn and Muninn. The two dogs or wolves may then be Geri and Freki.

The inscription reads:

Ingi-… and Jógerðr, they had this stone raised in memory of Eistr, their son; Ernfastr and his brothers raised in memory of their brother.[1]

Böksta runestone inscription

So, the Böksta runestone was raised as a memorial, in memory of a certain Eistr by his parents and his brothers. Perhaps they wanted to link the memory of Eistr to the eternal hunting grounds in the stars above – the realm of gods and heroes.

Let’s see if we can decode the imagery on this stone and locate these celestial hunting grounds.

Ullr the Norse god by Heine
Ullr, a god of skiing, archery and hunting. Illustration by W. Heine (1845-1921) – source

Hunting in a Winter Sky

The Böksta Runestone was erected around the year 1050 AD, when Scandinavia had already been converted to the Christian faith. The erection of this runestone shows that pagan elements were still very much alive after Sweden’s conversion. If this runestone is a memory of the winter sky around 1050 AD, then let’s take a look at what the Orion region of the night sky looked like around that time.

In the image below, we can see Orion in the center left, with Taurus to the right of him. On the snout of Taurus (or alternatively, his left horn), there was a very bright supernova in the year 1054 AD. Out of curiosity, I chose to take a snapshot of the sky of the year 1054 AD, around the time of fall, centered on the southern horizon. 

The fall equinox was the start of winter in Scandinavia, and the fall is also the time when the hunting season starts. We’ll get to this supernova later. Let’s first focus on the constellations and try to recreate the hunting scene on the runestone. As you can see, the night sky provides a splendid tableau of constellations, depicting mostly humans and animals of all shapes and sizes:

Orion, Taurus, and the supernova of 1054
The region of Orion on the Southern Horizon at the Fall Equinox of 1054 AD

The constellations as we see them in the image above are the constellations as they were envisioned by H.A. Rey. His version of the constellations, which can be found in his book The Stars: A New Way to See Them, better resemble actual human and animal figures than the modern ones. It is these constellations that seem to come closest to the way ancient peoples, and also the Vikings envisioned them.

Even then, the ancients had multiple ways of viewing a single constellation. The same shape of a constellation could be interpreted in different ways, or even (slightly) altered by redrawing some of the lines, and by adding or dropping one or more stars.

We have seen at the beginning of this blog post for example, how we can imagine Orion as a skiing figure by drawing a line between his feet, and connecting this with the star Beta Eridani in the constellation Eridanus, to make the upward-pointing tip of his skis. 

Looking at the snapshot of the night sky above, the hunting scene as depicted on the runestone does not immediately present itself to us. If we want to re-create this hunting scene in the stars, then we might have to look outside the traditional boundaries of the constellations, and try to envision them the way the rune-carver might have seen them.

The Horse-Rider

If we look at the horse-rider on the runestone, we can see that the scale of this figure doesn’t quite match that of the constellation Taurus. Orion, itself a “giant” constellation, is dwarfed by the rider and horse. Taurus though, is of about the same size as Orion in the sky. This too deserves a closer look. Its angle and position however, do seem to match. If Taurus is linked to the horse-rider – who might be Odin – then where is the rider with his spear?

Above Taurus, we find the constellation Perseus. Star Myth researcher David Mathisen has pointed out how Perseus can be seen as a kind of wizardly figure, waving a wand in his left hand (to the right). His right hand (to the left) can be seen as something resembling a curved sword. Could Perseus be the horse-rider in this scene, holding a spear?

The Böksta Runestone and the constellations Orion, Perseus and Taurus
Left: the hunting scene on the Böksta Runestone. Right: The Orion region of the night sky in 1054 AD.

It is possible that the combination of Perseus and Taurus makes the combination of the horse and rider. However, it is also possible that we can find a more accurate depiction of the horse-rider if we look at the stars from neighbouring constellations. The bright stars of Auriga are at the position where the horse’s rear should be. If Perseus is the rider, then Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Aries are located near the horse’s head and front legs.

David Mathisen has shown in his Star Myths of the World series how the ancients sometimes combined multiple constellations into one “super-constellation.” The Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoatl, and even mermaids and nagas could have been derived from the conjointment of more than one constellation. In this blog post, David Mathisen gives an example of how the Greek winged serpent Typhon can be created out of multiple constellations.

If our horse and rider too are made of multiple constellations, then that would explain its large size in respect to Orion.

I have made an attempt to recreate a large part of the hunting scene in the stars. Here is the result:

The Böksta Runestone in the constellations
The Böksta Runestone hunting scene envisioned in the constellations.

There it is, the horse and its rider… The scale of this figure now resembles the rider in the runestone more accurately. Of course, we don’t know exactly which stars the runemaster used to construct the horse-rider and the other figures in this scene. What I have provided is an approximation, a rough sketch of what the runemaster may have envisioned.

The hind legs of the horse are formed out of the lower half of Auriga, with the horse’s tail ending in Taurus. I have created the horse’s head out of Cassiopeia, and I’ve used the brighter stars of Andromeda and Aries for its front legs.

As you can see, I’ve also made an attempt to recreate the elk and the coiling snake. Let’s explore the other figures in the scene in more detail.

The Hunt

The animal that is being hunted, the elk, would be somewhere to the right of the large horse-rider. Here, we find the constellation Pegasus, with half of the Great Square as its wing. Pegasus is in the right place to be the animal that is hunted down, but one thing doesn’t quite match. The elk in the hunting scene has its head pointed downwards, and has its legs on the left side. Pegasus has its head pointed up, and its legs on the right side.

It could be that the runemaster simply reversed the horse for artistic reasons, to make the elk fit better with the composition of the scene. It’s also possible that the runemaster took the stars of Pegasus, and made a mirrored image of the horse.

This is the solution that I’ve tried out myself, and I found that it’s possible to create the horse’s legs out of the stars of the Great Square. Again, it’s an approximation.

As for the bird attacking the elk’s eye and the two dogs chasing it, I’m not exactly sure how the runemaster envisioned these, so I have left these out of the drawing. I would guess that the birds and dogs are found somewhere between the constellations Perseus and Pegasus.

You can see, however, the small constellation Lacerta, the “Lizard” above the head of Pegasus in the image below, which might be linked either to the bird or the dogs chasing the elk.

Another possibility would be that the two hunting dogs are a reference to Canis Major and Canis Minor, located near Orion. In ancient astronomy, these two constellations were seen as the hunting dogs of Orion. Next to Canis Major is the faint constellation Monoceros, the “Unicorn”. But if these constellations refer to the dogs, the bird and the elk, then they’re located in the wrong part of the sky.

As you can see in the image below, Canis Major in the bottom left looks like a proper dog:

Orion, Taurus, and the supernova of 1054
In the bottom left you can see Canis Major, Orion’s hunting dog. On the right, the horse or elk that is Pegasus.

The Snake

At the bottom of the scene, we have the complicated form of the coiled snake. Due to the weathering on the stone, it’s hard to see how it exactly connects to the band of runes that envelops the entire scene. But this snake could be an extension of the band of runes. The most obvious candidate for this snake would be the constellation Eridanus, which can be envisioned as a long and winding river, but also as a snake.

Placed in the lower region of the sky, it’s certainly in the right position. But Eridanus stops at the point where Perseus is placed in the sky above it, while the snake on the runestone extends much further to the right. This problem can be solved when we join Eridanus with the stars of Cetus the Whale, and possibly with parts of Pisces.

There’s also a strange V-shaped protrusion coming from the snake, which you can see in the image below. I’m not sure what this is supposed to represent, perhaps the two legs of an unfortunate Viking who is being swallowed by the snake? Whatever this is, it is placed to the right of the skiing archer, and thus corresponds to the location of Taurus in the sky.

Could this V-shape be a reference to the Hyades asterism in Taurus? The Hyades form the bull’s horns when we envision Taurus in the following way:

The Böksta Runestone and the Hyades in Taurus
The V-shaped object in the coiled snake could refer to the Hyades in Taurus

The Birds and the Milky Way

In the Böksta runestone, the runic inscription envelops the entire hunting scene. What is noticeable, is that in the Orion region of the sky, the Milky Way envelops much of the constellations in this scene. The Milky Way however, runs partly through the horse. But all in all, it forms a sort of frame around the constellations in the hunting scene.

Whether this correlation between the Milky Way and the band of runes was intended by the maker of this stone, is a guess. Many runestones follow the same general formula with the runic inscription forming a ring around the characters that make up the story. Many runestones also feature variations on the serpent motif in the bottom of the stone.

I have mentioned that the Böksta runestone contains two depictions of birds. One of these, as we have seen, is attacking the eye of the elk. The other bird forms the sole element in this scene that is placed outside the runic inscription, in the top right. Does this bird too refer to a constellation?

At the opposite end of the sky compared to Orion, on the top right of Pegasus, we find the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Perhaps this is the bird at the top of the stone. Where the bird on the runestone sits atop the runic inscription, Cygnus is found in the band of the Milky Way.

Here is once again the comparison between the Böksta runestone, and a sketch of the same scene in the night sky (note that the line of the Milky Way in the top right of the image would be perceived in reality as a curved arch instead of a straight line):

The Crab Nebula remnant of supernova SN 1054
The Böksta runestone may mirror the fall/winter sky of the year 1054 AD

Two Archers

Before I researched the connection between the Böksta runestone and the Orion region of the sky in depth, I wanted to make sure that I was looking at the right part of the sky. There is another celestial archer, and that is Sagittarius. But around the year 1050 AD, Sagittarius does not really emerge fully above the horizon like Orion does.

The same goes for Centaurus and Lupus, who can play the roles of an elk and a wolf. On the northern latitude of Uppsala, these constellations are even harder to see, since they are located lower in the sky. Ophiuchus has been shown to be linked to Odin with his spear, but it in these stars, is hard to see the rider on the horse as depicted on the runestone.

Both the hunting season and the rising of Orion in the sky come with the start of the colder part of the year. This too creates a stronger link between the Viking runestone and the region of Orion.

Supernova 1054 AD

And finally, a quick word about the supernova of the year AD 1054. In the above image, you can see the horse’s tail ending in a large dot, which is SN 1054. This “guest star” was first sighted on July 4 of the year, and was visible to the naked eye in the daylight sky for 23 days. It still remained visible in the night sky for two years, until it became invisible on 17 april 1056.

It was described as a reddish-white star, and its appearance in the sky was linked by observers at the time with the coming of plagues.

Whether there is any connection at all between the supernova and the Böksta runestone, or even with the coming of plagues, is unknown. The runestone itself does not seem to show any obvious reference to this “guest star”, although it did appear in the same region of the sky. The estimated date for the creation of the runestone also comes close to the date of the supernova.

But the stone could also have been put in place before the supernova appeared, around 1050 AD, or even after. Perhaps this extra star was of little significance to the family of Eistr, to whom this stone was dedicated. Or did they see the soul of Eistr reflected in the appearance of a new star, visible in the winter sky?

Judging by Medieval records from various observers, this supernova event did not go unnoticed by the people who lived at that time.

The remnant of this supernova can still be observed today in the form of the Crab Nebula:

The Crab Nebula is a remnant of the 1054 supernova in Taurus – source

Viking Stargazers

If this beautiful Viking runestone with its hunting scene is indeed a memory of the night sky of the Orion region, around the time of Eistr’s death, then this could be a sign that the stars held a prominent place in the Norse world. It would mean that runemasters in the Viking Age were very familiar with the constellations, and were also quite creative with them.

As seafaring people, it is to be expected that the people of Scandinavia had a decent knowledge of the stars. The stars would have provided a practical way of keeping track of time and location, but to the Vikings and their predecessors, the stars were much more.

As David Mathisen has demonstrated in his book Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology), the entire mythology of the Norse was written in the stars, including Odin’s hanging on the World Tree. There is poetry and beauty in the stars, and the memories of times past are linked to stars and constellations.

Perhaps the memory of Eistr was attached to the eternal hunting grounds in the night sky, where he could enjoy the company of Odin and Ullr. If the Böksta runestone is part of an astronomical tradition, then we can expect to find plenty of other runestones with references to the constellations.

In fact, David Mathisen in his books, and also the blogger Daniel Vagerstam have already identified several links between runestones and constellations. There are still some runestones out there, whose secrets have yet to be revealed…



Notes:

[1] Silén, Lars (1983). “Några Reflektioner Angående Bilderna på Balingsta-Stenen i Uppland” (PDF). Fornvännen. Swedish National Heritage Board.

Source Texts

Skáldskaparmál (The Poesy of Skalds)

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Daniel Vagerstam

hedningblog.wordpress.com

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: The Böksta Runestone. Photograph by Berig (2007) – source. Edited by the author.

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