Category: Star Myths (Page 2 of 4)

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

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

The Deadly Beauty of Long-Haired Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The long-haired Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comets with Hair Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flakes From a Giant’s Skull

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comets in the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Can comets too be linked directly to certain constellations?

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

Hair Like Snakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iliad

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

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

Divine Visitors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Continue with the next part:

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

Series:

Long-haired Stars and the Myths


Source Texts

The Iliad by Homer

Skáldskaparmál (The Poesy of Skalds)

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Books

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

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

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

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