Category: Norse Gods (Page 3 of 5)

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.

Odin’s Scream and the Whispers of the Runes

Why does Odin scream when he takes the runes? Why are giants such a noise bunch? The stars may have the answers…

We have seen how Odin hung on the World Tree for nine whole days and nights, and how this Tree has its roots in the stars of the night sky. The stars are the home of the gods and their myths.

We now know from where Odin took the runes, and how he himself is the one who carved and painted them. These runes however, are immaterial in their origin, as the myth suggests. Odin did not invent the runes. The runes can be seen as divine laws that are woven into the fabric of the universe – determining the fate of gods and mortals.

Odin saw the shapes of the runes, and then he carved and painted them, presumably with his own blood. The presence of a bright red star near the celestial twigs that carry the runes suggests that the practice of reddening the runes may be of celestial significance.

Odin Hanging on the World Tree by Emile Doepler & Arthur Koopmans
Artwork: Odin sacrificing himself upon Yggdrasil (1895) by Lorenz Frølich. Coloring by Arthur Koopmans.

We started out with looking at David Mathisen’s celestial interpretation of the hanging Odin. As we keep delving deeper, it becomes clear how deep the roots of this myth go. Let’s return to the poem and see where it leads us:

None refreshed me ever with food or drink,

I peered right down in the deep;

crying aloud I lifted the Runes,

then back I fell from there.

Hávamál 138[1]

So few lines, so full of meaning… The first line of this stanza says that no one refreshed Odin with food or drink while he hung on the tree. Many scholars have noted the shamanic undertones in Odin’s prolonged state of deprivation. Fasting is one of the techniques that shamans across the world have practiced as a preparation for shamanic ceremonies and ritual initiations. 

Fasting is a technique that can be used to improve experiences of altered states. It would have helped to bring the shaman to the Otherworld, the realm of spirits, and it may have helped Odin to find the shapes of the runes.

In a similar manner, Francis Crick supposedly first saw the double helix shape of the DNA molecule while he was under the influence of LSD, although this is disputed.

We will return to Odin’s fasting later. Now, let’s pick up where we left off with Odin’s taking of the runes.

We have seen through several examples how the runes were perceived by ancient people as more than just the letters of an alphabet. The myths and sagas tell us that the runes were symbols with magical qualities, attached to songs of power.

To the ancients, there was magic in the act of writing, and there was magic in the power of song and incantation. In the poem, Odin took the runes with a scream. This is yet another clue that we should be looking for a certain constellation in the night sky.

Screaming he took the Runes

After nine days and nights of hanging from a tree, Odin let out a scream as he took up the runes in his hand. As we now know, Odin can be linked to the constellation Ophiuchus. Ophiuchus is one of the larger constellations that can be seen in the sky.

David Mathisen has demonstrated in his Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology) that the towering constellation Ophiuchus can be linked to many of the giants in Norse myth. When we look at the constellation Ophiuchus below, we can see that he is a head taller than the figure of Sagittarius, towards which he seems to be leaning:

Odin's Hanging Star Myth (David Mathisen)
The towering Ophiuchus is one of the so-called “giant constellations”

One of the giants that David Mathisen has shown to be linked to Ophiuchus is the primordial giant Ymir, whose name may be translated as “Screamer.” Many other giants have names with “yeller” or “screamer” in them.

There is a certain constellation that seems to be linked to the screams of giants, and to the scream or voice of several other mythological characters. One of the rules that can be derived from the Star Myths, is that a figure associated with a certain constellation can derive its attributes from surrounding constellations. 

Star myth Rule: 

  • Mythological figures linked to a certain constellation can derive their attributes from neighbouring constellations.

The roaring voice of Ophiuchus figures can be found in a constellation that is placed near the head of Ophiuchus. In the image below you can see what looks like a four-armed whirlwind. This is the modern way of viewing the constellation Hercules.

It is not often that the modern way of looking at the constellations is that useful, but this is one of those cases. In the image below, you can see Hercules in both its modern form as a whirlwind, and you can see H. A. Rey’s version.

The latter looks more like the actual Hercules that we know from the myths as a sturdy figure carrying a club:

The constellation Hercules (H.A. Rey)
Two versions of the constellation Hercules

A Voice like a Whirlwind

In his books, David Mathisen has shown that Hercules in his “whirlwind form” is linked to roaring and sucking vortices in myth. Heroes like Odysseus must navigate around these treacherous maelstroms, and sometimes the hero gets sucked in, to be transported to a magical realm.

In Volume One of his Star Myths series, we can find the example of the imposing forest guardian of Mesopotamian myth, called Humbaba or Huwawa. This Humbaba is also an Ophiuchus figure. In the epic of Gilgamesh it is said that the giant Humbaba’s voice is like a whirlwind

This example shows us that the constellation Hercules in its whirlwind form can be linked to a roaring voice. In Norse myths, this roar is attributed mostly to the noisy giants. In the myth of Odin’s hanging though, Hercules in its “whirlwind form” can be seen as the scream that emanates from Odin’s mouth.

Tridents and Thunderbolts

We have seen that Scorpio can be identified with the nine runic twigs, but when Odin lifts up the runes, they may be linked to a different celestial snake.

Ophiuchus can be seen in the image below to carry the snake asterism called Serpens. The right side of the snake is called Serpens Caput, the “Snake’s Head”. The actual head of the snake is the small triangular ring at the end of the snake’s body, which you can see in the image below:

Odin screams as he takes the runes - Star Myth
Odin Screams as he lifts up the runes – envisioned in the constellations

David Mathisen has shown throughout his books that this snake’s head can be seen as a small object that is held by the constellation Ophiuchus. He has also shown that this object held in Ophiuchus’ hand can be linked to the writing tablets that the Egyptian god Thoth hands over to Ra.

The scribe god Thoth himself can be identified with the constellation Hercules in the image above. The god Ra, who receives the tablets from Thoth, is linked to Ophiuchus. A detailed analysis of the Egyptian myth about the origin of writing can be found in his Star Myths of the World Volume One

We know that in the Norse myth, Odin can be identified with Ophiuchus. As Odin lifts up the runes from below, could Serpens Caput represent the runes that he holds in his hand?

The Snake’s Head asterism could be envisioned as a small tablet in Egyptian myth. However, it doesn’t seem to visually resemble the rune twigs that Odin takes, at least not in this form.

If you look closely at Serpens Caput, you can see that there is an extra star on the top of the snake’s head. By altering the lines that connect these stars, David Mathisen has shown how this asterism can be envisioned as a trident shape. Mathisen has linked Ophiuchus to several mythological figures that have a trident as weapon, such as the Indian Shiva or the Greek god Poseidon.

The vajra, the ritual thunderbolt weapon of the Vedic tradition, can also assume the form of a trident. And in an Icelandic manuscript from the 18th Century, we see Odin depicted with such a thunderbolt weapon in his hand, and on his horse Sleipnir:

Odin riding Sleipnir with a trident in his hand, from an 18th Century Icelandic Manuscript – source

Elk’s Antlers and Burning Plants

When we see Serpens Caput in the above manner, I would argue that we can also see this asterism as a forked twig, or as a bundle of twigs.

There is even a rune that has this exact same shape, and that is the Algiz ᛉ rune. This rune is commonly known as Algiz or Elhaz, possibly from the Proto-Germanic word for “elk”. This name is rather appropriate, since the shape of this rune resembles the antlers of an elk, but the original name of this rune is unknown.

In the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, this rune is linked to eolh-secg, or “elk-sedge”, a plant that burns the blood of those who touch it.

In the image below you can see how Serpens Caput can resemble a twig or a bundle of twigs held by Odin, and how this resembles the shape of the Algiz rune:

Ophiuchus holding Serpens Caput (H.A. Rey)
Serpens Caput as the rune twigs that Odin holds in his hand

There are other constellations that, to my mind, can be linked with this trident shape. We will deal with those at a later time. As you can see in the Icelandic illustration above, the trident motif is repeated all over.

The idea of a plant that “burns the blood” of those who touch it also reminds of the relation between the runes and blood that we have examined in the previous part of this investigation.

Secrets and Whispers

With all this mystery surrounding the runes, let’s take a look at what the word rune actually means. 

The English word rune can be derived from the Proto-Germanic word runo, which can be translated not only as “letter”, but also as “secret” or “whisper”. This in itself gives us a clue that we are not merely dealing with the letters of an alphabet. Clearly, the runes were perceived as being more than that.

The predecessor of the word runo has been reconstructed in the Proto-Indo-European language as rewhn (“to roar, grumble, murmur, mumble, whisper”). It is interesting to see how rewhn can mean “to roar”, since we have seen how Odin took the runes with a scream. We have also seen how this is related to the constellation Hercules as a roaring wind or vortex.

Clearly, the runes contained a special kind of knowledge, which was best kept secret. Odin had to go through great efforts to acquire them. As we have seen in Part Two of this series, the secret of the runes lies with the “higher Powers”, who first conceived them.

This fits with the myth from the Rig Veda, which describes the vedas as the vision of a higher entity called Brahma.

How might the idea of the runes as “secrets” or “whispers” be linked to the constellations? Can we see a secret being whispered into someone’s ear?

In the previous image, we have seen the constellation Hercules above Ophiuchus in his two main forms. The left side of the image shows Hercules handing something over to Ophiuchus below, where Serpens Caput represents the object that is given.

I would propose that Serpens caput might also be envisioned as an ear into which a secret is whispered from above. The whisper, like the scream, could be linked to Hercules in its whirlwind form, which is shown in the right side of the image.

The Ear of Heimdal

There is evidence that provides further support for this interpretation in David Mathisen’s Star Myths of the World Volume Four. In this book, he shows how Ophiuchus can also be linked to the Norse god Heimdal, the Watchman of the gods, a god with a supernatural ability of hearing.

Heimdal at Bifröst with horn by Emile Doepler (1905)
“Heimdallr at the Bridge of Heaven” by Emile Doepler (1905) Source

The constellations in the night sky have been likened by Mathisen with actors who can play multiple roles in the same story. Let’s make this rule of thumb that he mentions into an official Star Myth rule:

Star myth Rule: 

  • The same constellations can play many different mythical figures, and they can even play more than one character in the same myth.

The icelandic poet Snorri Sturlusson mentions in his Prose Edda – an important source of Norse myths – that the watchman of the gods is a son of Odin. In the myths it is told how Odin sacrificed an eye to gain knowledge of the unknown.

Heimdal is said to have sacrificed an ear, so that he could hear all the things that happen outside the home of the gods. Both the eye of Odin and Heimdal’s ear have been linked by David Mathisen to Serpens Caput, which can be seen as a disembodied organ held in Ophiuchus’ hand.

As the ear of Heimdal, the “serpent-head” can be envisioned as an ear attached to the head of Ophiuchus by the right half of the Serpens asterism.

Ophiuchus with Serpens Caput (H.A. Rey)
Serpens Caput symbolizing a disembodied organ held by Ophiuchus

We can now see how these constellations may be linked to the sharing of the runes as “secrets”. These secrets may be seen as whispered into the ear of an Ophiuchus figure, by a Hercules figure above.

We have seen how Hercules as a vortex can be the visualization of a voice, or a roaring sound, so it could represent a whisper as well. Both the “whisper” and the “roar” can be found in the meaning of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word rewhn, from which the word rune is derived.

Odin’s Rune Song doesn’t speak about secrets being whispered into Odin’s ear; rather, he finds the runes somewhere in the depths below. But we have seen from the etymology of the word rune that the runes are linked to the trading of secrets, and these secrets were given in the form of a whisper.

In the myths of ancient Egypt and India, the gifts of writing and divine wisdom were handed over from above. In the Norse myths, the nine runes were taken by Odin from the deep, from what could be called the Underworld.

But since there are more than nine runes, perhaps not all of these runes came from the depths below. What these myths seem to suggest is that there is wisdom not only in the realm of heaven above – which we associate with the world of light – but there is wisdom too in the netherworld, at the roots of the World Tree.


CONCLUSION:

The constellation Hercules in its “whirlwind form” can be linked in myth to Odin’s scream when he takes up the runes, and to the screaming giants. The etymology of the word rune shows that the word can be translated as “roar” or “scream”, but also as “secret” or “whisper”. Hercules as a human figure can be seen as whispering a secret into the ear of Ophiuchus, with Serpens Caput as Ophiuchus’ ear. This asterism can also represent the runes that Odin takes, and the Algiz rune.

The runes can be seen as visions from the deep, or as whispers from above. They can represent divine laws that manifest in the building blocks of speech, in magical songs, in words of power, and in letters for writing.


This myth presents a riddle that is hard to solve when we look only at the lines of the poem itself. If we don’t shy away from investigating a larger world-wide mythological tradition linked to the stars, then we can begin to understand the secret knowledge hidden in this poem. By looking at the stars above, we can salvage its age-old wisdom.

So far, we have only focused on one small part of the night sky. As we go deeper into the investigation of this myth in the next part of this series, we will broaden our horizon, so that we can see the full extent of the sky that this myth describes, and what the implications of this might be…

Coming soon:

Part V   Odin’s Fall and the Secret Fire

Series:

Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


Notes

[1] my adaptation of the Bellows translation

Source Texts

Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray

The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Books

Star Myths of the World, and How to Interpret Them: Volume One, Second Edition (David Mathisen 2019)

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: “Odin Screaming as he Takes the Runes” by Arthur Koopmans

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