Category: Star Myths (Page 2 of 3)

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)

The Theft of the Golden Hair: a Celestial Crime

We have seen the evidence that mythology isn’t just the ancient’s way of writing fantasy fiction. As much as I enjoy modern fantasy in books or television series, there is something in the myths that to me, make them more intriguing, and more loaded with mystery. The myths may be all the more vibrant in meaning compared to ordinary fiction because they are written in the stars, describing celestial phenomena through symbolism and revealing eternal truths that people in ancient times have found.

While we are still following Odin’s nighttime journey, let’s look in the meantime at another interesting story of Norse myth, to see how this one too can be linked to the constellations. The story starts with the theft of the golden hair of Sif, the wife of the thunder god Thor. This myth too has very strong links to the stars, and we will start our investigation by looking at David Mathisen’s interpretation of the myth. 

Is this an innocent story about a woman who loses her golden locks, or is there something more going on here? Let’s have a look at this myth, and explore the different theories that can explain what inspired the ancient poets to craft this wonderful tale, involving golden locks, a trickster, and the dwarfs beneath the earth.

A Celestial Crime

The myths of the Norse aren’t all doom and gloom, wrought from the imagination of bloodthirsty Vikings. The mischievous trickster god Loki knows how to create a comical note at the expense of the gods, and to the delight of us, the audience. When the gods display too much vanity and pride, and when things are going just a little bit too well, there is always Loki to stir up trouble. The lack of adversity can be a bit boring for the rebellious character that is Loki.

Sif, the beautiful wife of Thor, wakes up one morning to find that her once luscious golden locks have suddenly disappeared. The sight of his wife’s sudden baldness (or shorter coupe) must have been quite the shock for the thunderous Thor. One can imagine how Thor, a god with a fiery temper, must have been boiling with rage at the humiliation that Loki had brought upon him and his wife.

But perhaps greater than his rage was the despair at the idea that his once-perfect wife may not have her splendid golden locks return to their former glory. After all the tricks that Loki had played on the gods, Thor knew immediately who was to blame for this bold and wicked crime. 

Loki cuts the golden hair of Sif by Katharine Pyle
“Loki cuts Sif’s Hair” by Katharine Pyle (1930)

The Skáldskaparmál (the “Language of Poetry”) in Snorri’s Prose Edda, tells us about this story in prose form. Snorri tells how Thor threatened to break every bone in Loki’s body if he would not come up with a solution for his wife’s  missing hair. Loki quickly swore that he would have the black-elves make his wife a new head of hair. They would forge the new locks of hair out of gold, and they would grow on Sif’s head like any other hair. 

After that, Loki went to visit the dwarfs – the black-elves – as Snorri calls them in the Prose Edda. These dwarfs were master smiths, the sons of Ivaldi, and they forged for Loki the head of hair, and also two other wonders that would prove the gods much good in their fight against the giants and the onslaught of Ragnarök. 

Loki then wagered his head with another pair of dwarfs called Brokk and Eitri, and challenged them to create three items that are even better than the ones that the other dwarfs made. Because his head was on the line, Loki tried all he could to stop these dwarfs from succeeding, by harassing them in the form of a fly.

In his Star Myths of the World Volume Four, David Mathisen looks for a celestial interpretation for the involuntary haircut in this myth. The first constellation that we should turn to is the celestial maiden Virgo. Above her outstretched arm, we find the asterism Coma Berenices, her locks.

Virgo and Coma Berenices
Virgo as the sleeping Sif and Coma Berenices as the golden locks

Berenice’s Hair

In the image above, we can see Virgo lying on her back, as if sleeping. With her outstretched arm, we might also envision her lying on her side, perhaps sleepily reaching for the golden locks that are being taken away from her by the mischievous Loki. Coma Berenices means the “Hair of Berenice”. The very name of this asterism should be a strong clue that this asterism represents the stolen hair in the myth. H.A. Rey in his book The Stars: a New Way to See Them explains how the name of this faint cluster of stars that is visible on a moonless night came to be:

“This constellation owes its name to a theft: Berenice was an Egyptian queen (3rd century BC) who sacrificed her hair to thank Venus for a victory her husband had won in a war. The hair was stolen from the temple but the priests in charge convinced the disconsolate queen that Zeus himself had taken the locks and put them in the sky as a constellation.”

H.A. Rey, The stars: A new way to see them

The asterism Coma Berenices is an ancient one, and the origin of this legend is likely to be found in an older connection between Coma Berenices and long locks of hair. In another version, the court astronomer Conon of Samos explains to the grieving queen how it was Aphrodite herself who placed her locks in the heavens as a constellation. Aphrodite is the Greek name for Venus. We know Venus as the second planet from the sun, but also as the goddess of love and beauty, victory in war and fertility among other things.

In the Norse myth, this asterism is probably linked to the long, golden hair of Sif, who herself is represented by Virgo. Sif shares this connection with Virgo with several other goddesses of Norse myth, the foremost of which is Freyja – the Norse equivalent of Venus and Aphrodite. We will turn to the significance of the connection with the planet Venus later. First, we have a thief to catch.

The Prime Suspect

Star Myth researcher David Mathisen has also unmasked the culprit of this celestial crime. When we zoom out a little, we might see him hanging above Coma Berenices:

The constellations Virgo, Coma Berenices and Boötes
Loki’s theft of Sif’s hair envisioned in the constellations

There he is, whistling with a flute in his mouth, sitting on his bum, as if he is an innocent child. But David Mathisen has provided a good deal of evidence in Part Four of his Star Myths series that Loki can be identified with the constellation Boötes in several Norse myths. He suggests that this same constellation may also play the role of the satyr god Pan with his panflute. Boötes is called the “Herdsman” in the astronomy of the Greeks, which fits the pastoral nature of the god Pan. In the Norse myth, we can see him snatching away Coma Berenices, the golden locks of Sif.

Why are the long locks of Sif described as golden in color? Is this simply because there are more blond people in Northern Europe? Or does this too have a celestial explanation? Seeing that this myth too is based on the stars, it seems like hardly any detail in the myths can be left to chance. In addition to Coma Berenices, I think that there is another constellation that can be linked to Sif’s golden hair.

When Loki had made the real hair disappear, he challenged the dwarfs in the subterranean realm Svartalfheim to forge new locks of hair out of gold. While Coma Berenices in this myth likely represents the original set of hair linked to Virgo, I think it likely that the constellation Scorpio represents the newly forged set of hair:

The constellation Scorpio with Antares
Scorpio with the red-golden star Antares

The Gold in the Underworld

The constellation Scorpio can be found in the region of the Underworld, as it is a constellation that is placed lower in the sky, in the path of the Ecliptic. This is the perceived path that the sun and the planets follow in their wanderings through the sky. The dwarfs (or black elves) in Norse mythology are described as dwelling beneath the mountains of the earth, where they forge the most splendid magical items for the gods. As we will see, there is evidence that the dwarfs and their creations can be found in this very same region.

In previous blog posts I have made the argument that Scorpio can be linked to the nine runes that Odin carved while he hung from the World Tree Yggdrasil. The bright ruddy star Antares in Scorpio likely represents the blood from his wound with which he colors the runes red. The color of  Antares is somewhere in the middle between red and yellow, giving it a red-golden hue. In the above screenshot from the star-gazing software Stellarium you can clearly see how it has a warmer, gold-like hue in comparison with its surrounding stars.

Especially at the point where Scorpio fans out to the right, out of the golden-hued Antares, we can envision this constellation as a long lock of hair with strands of hair attached to it, much like the asterism Coma Berenices. Scorpio may represent the new locks of hair that were crafted by the dwarfs from the gold of the earth, from the gold of the Underworld itself – the Underworld through which, according to many ancient traditions, the golden light of the sun travels at night.

The golden-hued Venus, along with the other planets, follow the sun closely along the Ecliptic. But Scorpio has its own fiery-gold star Antares to account for the golden color of the locks.

The true color of Antares is a little bit more red than in the above screenshot, which would perhaps also explain many red-haired figures in mythology. Set, the Egyptian god of chaos – mischievous like the Norse Loki – has long been associated with the constellation Scorpio. The earliest depiction of Set in his beast-form is as a scorpion on a ceremonial macehead. Set has been described as a redhead in myth, and so is Osiris. And what to think of the story of the biblical Samson, whose seven locks are cut off by his lover Delilah, and who has been reported by some to have had red or blond hair?

Let’s zoom out again, so that we can see dwarfs forging the golden hair in their celestial forge:

The constellations in the region of Ophiuchus.
The region of Ophiuchus as the celestial forge of the dwarfs.

Forged by Dwarfs

To the left of Boötes we find the short and stout constellation Hercules. Hercules, with its square head and his upraised arm – brandishing some sort of striking weapon – is envisioned by David Mathisen as a celestial smith in this myth. In the H.A. Rey version of the constellation, he holds a big club.

Mathisen makes the argument in his book on Norse Star Myths that by slightly altering the stars in this constellation, the club can also be envisioned as a wide range of striking weapons, including a hammer. He supports this argument by providing a large sample of artwork and sculpture from civilizations across the globe that all have depicted this constellation in their own unique ways, but still recognizably Hercules.

Compared to the towering Ophiuchus, the smaller Hercules and Boötes look more like children, or dwarfs. And compared to the two figures above it, Ophiuchus itself looks like a giant. Mathisen links the lofty figures Hercules and Boötes to the dwarfs in this myth. Remember that these dwarfs dwell in the mountains? The tall Ophiuchus with his triangular hat can also represent a mountain in myth – the very World Mountain even that is revered by ancient cultures across the globe.

In addition to a mountain, I think that Ophiuchus with its rectangular body and its pointy tip can represent something else as well in this myth. What is placed between the smith and the thing that he makes? You guessed it right: an anvil. Notice how the shape of Ophiuchus can be seen as the anvil of the celestial smith? The image below shows how the three constellations Hercules, Ophiuchus and Scorpio can together depict the celestial forge of the dwarfs:

The dwarf smiths Brokk and Eitri - Star Myth
Ophiuchus as the anvil on which the magical artifacts are created for the gods

The Scorpion’s Claws

Can we perhaps also find the tool with which Loki cuts off Sif’s hair? An alternative way in which Scorpio is sometimes depicted, is as a beast with two big claws. Perhaps the best way to envision this is by combining Scorpio with the stars of the neighbouring Libra. In Babylonian astronomy, Libra was known as the “scales” or “balance”, but also as the “Claws of the Scorpion”

Let’s combine the two constellations and see what we get:

Scoprio and Libra as scissors that cut Virgo's hair
Scorpio combined with Libra as a pair of scissors

When I connected the dots, I found that these two constellations taken together surprisingly depict the “claws” or “scissors” of a scorpion surprisingly well. In this case, they might also depict the scissors of the mischievous Loki. To the left, on the same level of Scorpio in the sky, we find Sagittarius. This too, is one of the constellations that David Mathisen identified with the shape-shifting Loki. As Mathisen makes clear, mythological figures are often linked to more than one constellation in the sky. For this, we will see plenty of evidence in later investigation of the myths.

Even in the origins of words, we find the same connections that we find in the myths. The Greek word skorpius (“scorpion”) is derived from the Proto-Indo-European word (s)ker, “to cut”, or “cut off”. The Dutch word for scissors schaar is derived from the Old Dutch skari, which comes close to (s)ker. The modern English word heart is derived from PIE kér, which comes close to the word (s)ker. From kér is also derived the French coeur (“heart”), and another name for the red-golden star Antares is the Heart of the Scorpion.  Scorpions, scissors, red or golden hair, it all comes together in the same constellation.

What happened to Loki after he had wagered his head with the dwarfs Brokk and Eitri? Despite his attempts to thwart the dwarfs’ making of three additional gifts for the gods, the duo of dwarfs succeeded, and the knife was now aimed at Loki’s neck. But the cunning Loki said to the dwarfs that the deal was to take his head off, not his neck. This proved such a conundrum for the dwarfs that they lost their patience, and simply sew his mouth shut. This too can be found in the constellations that we have visited in this story.

We could dwell further on the way that this myth can be envisioned in the stars, but I think that we should cut this story short for now (sincere apologies for this pun). I think that we have gathered a good deal of evidence that suggests that this too is a myth written in the stars. David Mathisen provided a good basis without which this further exploration of the myth wouldn’t be possible. I think that we have proven that there is probably more to this myth than just an innocent story about a maiden losing her hair.

The beauty is that not only the Norse myths can be found in the stars, but the myths around the world use this same system. When we look at any one constellation with the knowledge of the myths, we could see one symbol after another flash past our mind’s eye , drawn from the well of memory, from myths and traditions all over the world, and from different periods of time.

But there are also other phenomena that inhibit our skies, some of which mimick the events in this story quite well. In the next part of this series, we will explore the ancient connections between hair and comets, the so-called “long-haired stars”.

Continue with the next part:

The Deadly Beauty of Long-Haired Stars

Series:

Long-haired Stars and the Myths


Source Texts

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 Four: Norse Mythology (David Mathisen 2018)

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

Featured image: “Water Snakes I” by Gustav Klimt (1904-1907). Source: WikiArt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carved and Cut with Blood

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

stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,

myself to my own self given…

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

Of old the gods made feast together,

And drink they sought, still unsated they were;

Twigs they shook, and blood they examined:

Rich fare in Ægir’s hall they found.

Hymiskvitha : 1[1]

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

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

The horn was lined

With runes manifold,

Carved and cut with blood.

VOLSUNGA SAGA. Chapter 34

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

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

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

Grettir’s saga, Chapter 81

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

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

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

The Rival of Mars

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

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

Antares in Scorpio - a bright red star

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

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

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

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

A Gift of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carved Under a Red Star

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

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

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

Hidden Runes you will find 

and signs to read,

many symbols of might and power,

by the great Singer painted, 

by the high Powers fashioned,

carved by the Utterer of gods.

Hávamál 141

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION:

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


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

None refreshed me ever with food or drink,

I peered right down in the deep;

crying aloud I lifted the Runes,

then back I fell from there.

Hávamál 138

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

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

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

Continue with the next part:

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

Series:

Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


Notes

[1] my adaptation of the Bellows translation

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

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

Source Texts

Grettir’s Saga

Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray

The Germany and the Agricola of Tacitus

The Saga of the Volsungs

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Arith Härger

Video: Blood on the Runes

Books

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

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

Featured image: Arthur Koopmans

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2020 Secrets of the Norse

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑