Category: Star Myths (Page 3 of 4)

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

In Search of the Runes: The Runes in the Stars

In the first part of this series, we have looked at David Mathisen’s interpretation of Odin’s sacrifice on the World Tree Yggdrasil from a Star Myth perspective.

We have seen the similarities between Odin’s hanging and the Egyptian Osiris in the tamarisk tree, the Buddha under the Tree of Awakening, and even Jesus hanging on his wooden cross. What all of these gods and spiritual teachers have in common is the sacrifice that they had to make in order to rise anew to a higher state of being. 

For many, the myths are a source of spiritual truth and archetypal lessons. But there is an increasing amount of evidence that the myths and the wise lessons that they teach us are also linked to the constellations in the sky. The myths convey eternal truths about our existence in this world by using that which for our ancestors came closest to the world of the divine: the vault of heaven and all the luminous objects in it.

The evidence shows that the hanging Odin can be identified with the constellation Ophiuchus. The Tree from which he hung is the World Axis, linked to the Milky Way itself. The tree Yggdrasil is sprinkled with the snow-white clay from the Well of Urd, which lies at its base. This well with its shining white clay can be found in the brightest and widest part of the Milky Way band: the Galactic Core, where we can peer into the innermost regions of our own Galaxy.

In the image below, you can see the first part of his celestial myth played out on the canvas of the night sky:

Odin's Hanging on Yggdrasil - a Star Myth (David Mathisen)
Odin’s hanging on the World Tree envisioned in the constellations based on the work of David Mathisen

But we haven’t found the runes yet that Odin retrieves from the deep through his sacrifice. Before we can find out where these runes are located in the sky, we must first take a brief look at what the runes really are.

On Wood they Carved

Many historians see the runes in the first place as a writing system. The main runic alphabet consists of 24 runic letters, and is called the Elder Futhark. The runic characters represent phonemes, the “building blocks of sound” in the Old Norse language. The name F-U-TH-A-R-K is derived from the first six letters of this alphabet, and it is named the “Elder” Futhark, because it is considered to be the oldest form of the runic alphabets. These runes were used for writing words in the Germanic languages of Northern Europe before the Viking Age. 

The runes, with their stick-like shapes, are ideal for carving in hard materials such as wood, stone, bone and metal. Below you can see a variation of the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark alphabet:

The Elder Futhark Rune Alphabet
The Elder Futhark alphabet (Source)

Not only do the Norse runes look like they are created out of sticks themselves, but there is also evidence from historical sources that rune-like markings were carved into wooden sticks. The Roman historian Tacitus describes how the ancient Germanic people used wooden throwing sticks with certain markings on them to practice divination in the Germania (98 AD):

No people are more addicted to divination by omens and lots. The latter is performed in the following simple manner. They cut a twig from a fruit tree, and divide it into small pieces, which, distinguished by certain marks, are thrown promiscuously upon a white garment…

Tacitus, Germania

The throwing of these sacred lots was one of many types of divination, in which the opinion of the gods was sought on important matters concerning the benefit of the community. Whether or not the markings that were carved on these throwing sticks were actual runes or something similar to runes is not clear from this historical anecdote. But if we look at the poem Völuspá from the Poetic Edda – the main source of our Norse myths – we find the following passage:

From there come the maidens, mighty in wisdom,

Three from the dwelling down beneath the tree;

Urth is one named, Verthandi the next, and Skuld the third.

On the wood they carved, Laws they made there, 

and life allotted to the sons of men, and set their fates.

Völuspá 20[1]

The passage above names the three Norns, the goddesses of Fate. These goddesses live at the Well of Urd, which can be linked to the bright Galactic Core in the Milky Way band. These goddesses represent the Past, Present and Future of the universe. They write the laws of the world, and they have control over the lives and destinies of all the creatures that inhabit it. The poem clearly states that the Norns determine the Fate of us humans by carving on wood.

By practicing divination using carvings on wooden sticks, the ancient Germanic peoples emulated these higher powers in an effort to determine their fortunes in life. The following lines from the Hávamál mention the runes more explicitly in the words of an unkown wandering singer called Loddfafnir:

It is time to speak on the wise man’s chair At Urth’s well.

I saw and was silent, I saw and I thought, I listened to men’s speech.

I heard about runes, They were not silent with counsel.

Hávamál 111

Here we have another mention of the runes in relationship to the Well of Urd – Urd being the Norn who presides over the Past, and the origins of the universe. In the Völuspá, the Norns were described as carving men’s destinies on wood, but it doesn’t mention explicitly that these carvings were runes. The above lines from the Hávamál however, do mention the runes in relation to the home of the Norns. By connecting the runes to the Norns, the myths imply that the runes are connected to the origins and the fate of the universe itself.

Odin took his runes from the World Tree itself. This implies that he carved the runes on twigs that grew from the tree. The ancient Germans made their divination lots from the twigs of a fruit tree, which makes the connection between runes and twigs a likely one. In the Eddic poem Hymiskvitha, the gods themselves used twigs for divination, mingled with blood – but Odin had to discover these runes first before he and the gods could use them.

These sacred twigs give us something more tangible to work with in our effort to determine where the runes are located in the night sky. We could expect to find the runes in a constellation that represents the twigs of the World Tree Yggdrasil.

But how many runes did Odin exactly take? This question will be very relevant as we will investigate more clues that can reveal the celestial metaphor on which this myth is based.

Baresma, Zoroastrian sacred twigs
The Holy Baresma: the sacred twigs of the Zoroastrian faith.
Source: Chess and Playing Cards, Culin, S. (1898)

Nine Mighty Songs

Runes and writing in general were for a long time associated with acts of magic, which was mostly practised by a learned elite. The words “spell” – as in “magic spell” and the “spelling” of words –  are connected. The word “grammar” did not only describe the rules of language, but also meant “magic” or “enchantment”. The related word “grimoire” refers to a book of spells. In the Finnish epic the Kalevala, the different songs are called “runo”, a word borrowed from the proto-Norse language. This confirms a connection between runes and songs

The Hávamál says that Odin lifted up the runes after peering into the deep, but the poem doesn’t mention explicitly how many runes he took. The myth says that Odin learned nine mighty songs from the son of Bolthorn (or “Evil thorn”), who we might identify with Odin’s wise teacher Mimir:

Nine mighty songs I learned from the great

son of Bale-thorn, son of Bestla;

I drank a measure of the wondrous Mead,

with the Soulstirrer’s drops I was showered.

Hávamál 139[2]

These lines seem to describe an event that is separate from Odin’s hanging. They describe how Odin learns a different set of runes, described here as “nine mighty songs”. This passage is inserted into the story of Odin’s hanging, which is about his discovery of the runes. This suggests that the two events are closely connected, and that these “nine mighty songs” and the runes may be interchangeable.

We have seen in the first stanzas of the Hávamál (137-138) how Odin took the runes, then in the stanza above (139), we hear of nine mighty songs, and then in stanza 141 we hear of the runes again: “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.”

At the end of Odin’s Rune Poem in the Hávamál, we also find a description of eighteen rune charms: magical spells that describe the powers connected to eighteen different runes. Since Odin recounts eighteen different spells after taking the runes, and since he learned nine of these spells from Mimir, the poem implies that Odin found nine runes for himself while hanging from the tree.

We can thus conclude that Odin carved nine runes into twigs of the World Tree, and that he learned nine runes from the wise Mimir.

An Anglo-Saxon charm from the 10th century can provide more evidence for the exact number of runes that Odin took. The Nine Herbs Charm speaks of how Odin took nine glorious twigs and used them to smash a serpent into nine pieces:

A snake came crawling, it bit a man.

Then Woden took nine glory-twigs,

Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.

The mention of the “nine glory twigs” hints at the idea that Odin took a number of nine runes. The mention of a snake that gets blown into nine pieces makes it all the more easy to determine where among the stars these nine runes may be located…

The Branch on the World Tree

The first few lines of Odin’s Rune Song give an important clue as to where to find the runes that Odin took. Let’s look at these two lines again:

I peered right down in the deep;

crying aloud I lifted the Runes…

There is no doubt that we should look for the runes somewhere below the hanging Odin. If we envision Ophiuchus as Odin hanging from the tree, then we should find the runes somewhere underneath this constellation. We have already seen that underneath Ophiuchus, we can find the Galactic Core, the Well of Urd. It is sometimes speculated that Odin peered down into the well while hanging from the tree, and that Odin may have seen the shapes of the runes in its waters.

I would argue that between Odin and the Well of Urd, we can find one single branch with a bunch of twigs growing out of it. Beneath the constellation Ophiuchus we find the constellation Scorpio (officially called Scorpius). In the image below you can see Scorpio underneath the feet of the figure of Ophiuchus:

The Constellation Scorpio as a branch of Yggdrasil
The constellation Scorpio below Ophiuchus as the branch from the World Tree.

We know Scorpio best as a scorpion, as the name would suggest. Researchers in the field of astrotheology (the field of research dealing with astronomical links to myth and religion) have also linked Scorpio to the snake at the bottom of the tree – a theme that is prevalent in ancient cosmologies around the world[3]. As David Mathisen has shown in his Star Myths of the World series, the constellation Scorpio can represent many more things, based on its long, slender, and winding shape. 

Mathisen has linked Scorpio to many multi-headed beings in mythology, such as the three-headed Cerberus, the watchdog of the Greek underworld. The multi-headed Hydra of Lerna that was slain by the hero Hercules can be linked to the same constellation Scorpio. An image of the Hydra on a bronze fibula (a brooch or a pin for fastening garments) shows the Hydra with six heads. However, the number of heads of the Hydra was first mentioned in the writings of Alcaeus (c. 600 BCE), who gave the monster a number of nine heads

While Scorpio figures in myth are not always connected to the number nine, there are plenty of other examples which link the number nine to Scorpio. Especially in Norse mythology, the number nine is very prevalent. As we will see, there are good reasons to believe that in this myth too, Scorpio is linked to the number nine, and thus to the nine runes that Odin takes. 

In the close-up of Scorpio below, I have put breaks between the lines, so that the individual stars that make up the constellation are better visible. I have also marked the bright red star Antares at the point where the body of Scorpio branches off. When we see the head of Scorpio branching off into several segments, it becomes possible to see how Scorpio might be seen as a branch with nine twigs in this myth. Let’s look at some more evidence that links the runes to Scorpio.

The constellation Scorpio with Antares (H.A. Rey version)
The constellation Scorpio with the bright red star Antares

A Snake Came Crawling

Now that we have found the region where we should look for the nine runes, let’s take a closer look at the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm to see what clues we gather from it that can help us decypher the myth of Odin’d hanging:

A snake came crawling, it bit a man.

Then Woden took nine glory-twigs,

Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.

There apple brought this pass against poison,

That she nevermore would enter her house.

nine herbs charm

We can link the snake in this charm to the constellation Scorpio with great certainty. The charm describes how Odin hits the snake with a stick so that it scatters into nine pieces. In the close-up of Scorpio above you can see how it can be seen as a snake that scatters into multiple parts, which reminds of the Hydra snake that gets its nine heads chopped off by Hercules in the Greek myth.

Ophiuchus may be envisioned as carrying a spear, as we have seen in the previous part. In this case, the spear may be seen as the stick with which Odin hits the snake. We can imagine a line extending from the spear in his right hand (on the left side of Ophiuchus), towards the star Antares in Scorpio.

Sagittarius is another candidate for Odin hitting the snake. David Mathisen has identified Sagittarius as one of the constellations that can be linked to Odin – particularly when Odin is in his role as a practitioner of seidr magic. In the image below, I have also drawn a line from the bow-arm of Sagittarius towards the snake. In this case though, the stick does not end in Antares. 

Odin in the Nine Herbs Charm killing Scorpio as snake (Star Myth)
Odin smashing the snake into nine pieces.

If we see the red Antares as the snake’s wound as a result of its beating by a stick, then Ophiuchus seems to be the most likely candidate for the one who hits the snake. Ophiuchus often plays the role of a dragon-slayer or serpent-slayer in myth. This is an additional reason to believe that Odin destroying the snake refers to Ophiuchus.

The victim of the snake bite is probably the constellation Virgo, which we can find to the right of Ophiuchus. In the image below you can see Virgo as a person lying on its back – having succumbed to an affliction of some kind – in the vicinity of Scorpio as the snake:

Odin killing a snake in the Nine Herbs Charm (Star Myth)
Scorpio as both the snake and the nine twigs.

After Odin’s slaying of the snake, the charm says that it will never again enter the house. This implies that the man got bitten by the snake at his own house. The house is likely to be another reference to Ophiuchus. If you look at the figure of Ophiuchus in the image above, you can see how the long rectangular body of Ophiuchus together with his triangular hat can be seen as a house with a pointy roof – as has been noted by David Mathisen in his books.

The events in this charm seem to center around Scorpio, and the charm mentions “nine glory twigs”. The fact that there are nine of them, and the fact that the snake too gets blown into nine pieces, strongly hints at the idea of the constellation Scorpio representing the nine twigs.

In the myth of Odin’s hanging, Odin does not carry a stick, but his spear Gungnir. If we imagine the stick that Odin uses to kill the snake to play the role of his spear Gungnir in Odin’s Rune Song, it is easy to imagine that Odin also uses his spear to carve the runes into the nine twigs. The point where Odin’s spear touches Scorpio as the branch of the World Tree can be placed at the red star Antares.

It seems like we have found the nine runes…


CONCLUSION:

When we connect all the evidence, I think it is safe to say that in this myth Scorpio represents a root or branch of the World Tree from which grow nine twigs. These nine twigs can be linked to the nine runes that Odin carved while he hung from the Tree. These nine runes are connected to the Well of Urd, the point of origin of the world in ancient myth, out of which emerge all the invisble forces that create life and that determine the fate of humankind.


In the next chapter of this series we will continue our investigation of this myth. By treating this myth as a Star Myth, new insights reveal themselves, which can change the way we understand not only the myths, but also the sacred rituals that were performed in ancient times.

New light will be shed on the history of the Norse and the runes in chapter three of this series.

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


Series:

Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


Notes

[1] my adaptation of the Bellows translation

[2] my adaptation of the Olive Bray translation

[3] Collins, A. (2006). The Cygnus Mystery: Unlocking the Ancient Secret of Life’s Origins in the Cosmos. Duncan Baird Publishers, p. 65

Source Text

Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray

Nine Herbs Charm

The Germany and the Agricola of Tacitus

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 Poetic Edda Volume II: Mythological Poems (Ursula Dronke 1997)

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

Featured image: “Divination” by Emil Doepler (1905) – source. Edited by the author.

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