Above Stockholm, near the farm of Böksta in the province of Uppland, we find this beautiful runestone from the Viking Age. When I first encountered this runestone, I was not only learning about the myths of the Norse, but I was also getting familiar with the constellations in the night sky, one by one. Could this runestone refer to the constellations?
The small figure with the skis and bow in the bottom left has been identified with the little-known hunting god Ullr. Of all the modern constellations, Orion the Hunter most of all resembles a human figure. The shield that he is holding in his right hand can also be interpreted as a bow.
Could the hunting scene on this runestone display the constellations in the night sky? Does this stone refer to the time of the hunting season, in the region of Orion the Hunter? If so, then this would provide evidence that the Viking runemasters were stargazers, and that many of their runestones might contain carvings of the stars.
Looking further, I noticed that the angle of the horse and rider matches the angle of the constellation Taurus in respect to Orion. Below the horse, and to the right of the skiing archer on the runestone, we find a large snake, wound in complicated knots. The position of this curling snake suggests a link with the large snake-like constellation Eridanus.
If we draw a line underneath Orion’s legs, and then extend this line to the star Beta Eridani on the right, we can envision Orion as a skiing figure with a bow:
Surely I’m not the first to note this correlation? A google search revealed that I am indeed not the first to notice the apparent link between the Böksta Runestone and the region of Orion. A certain Daniel Vagerstam has noted the similarity in 2017.
Browsing through the entries on his blog, I discovered that he has been roaming the Scandinavian countryside for quite a while, looking for runestones and finding links between Scandinavian artwork and the stars.
What was still to be established though, is a picture that shows the entire hunting scene in all its glory, as envisioned in the constellations.
Before we can make this picture, we have to look at the scene in a little more detail. In the image below, you can see the entire hunting scene on the stone:
Eternal Hunting Grounds
Before we explore the runestone’s link with the stars, let’s examine the details shown in the hunting scene. The Böksta runestone is made of granite, and stands to a height of 2.6 meters. The most striking feature is the man on horseback, who is holding a spear while he chases an animal that looks like an elk. Two dogs can be seen chasing the elk, and a bird is attacking it’s eye. According to Lars Silén, this was standard hunting practice.
He opposes the idea though, that this runestone represents a hunting scene. And argues that the figures in the scene are each doing their own thing. Let’s call it a hunting scene anyway, since the stone seems ro refer to the region of Orion the Hunter.
The horse-rider with his beard and helmet has been speculated to be Odin, riding on his steed Sleipnir. The horse on the runestone has four legs, which is what you would normally expect from a horse, but Sleipnir is a horse with eight legs. There’s a good chance though, that the horse depicted here is Sleipnir, since the Tängelgårda stone also depicts Sleipnir with four legs.
The skiing archer who accompanies the rider may be Ullr. This enigmatic god has been described in the Skáldskaparmál of the Prose Edda as a ski-god, an archery-god, and a hunting-god. This wintery figure was also associated with artisans.
Hunting required specialised tools and clothing, and many Norse hunters had to rely on their own skills to make these tools. Especially during the six harsh months of winter, the Scandinavians had to rely on their skills and their common sense to survive. They could also use a little extra meat from the hunt to keep their bellies filled.
The whole scene is surrounded by a serpent, and a runic inscription is carved into it. The serpent also forms a complicated coil underneath the horse. In the top right, hovering in the air, is another bird. If the horse-rider on this stone is Odin engaged in the hunt, then the two birds may be his two ravens Huginn and Muninn. The two dogs or wolves may then be Geri and Freki.
The inscription reads:
Ingi-… and Jógerðr, they had this stone raised in memory of Eistr, their son; Ernfastr and his brothers raised in memory of their brother.Böksta runestone inscription
So, the Böksta runestone was raised as a memorial, in memory of a certain Eistr by his parents and his brothers. Perhaps they wanted to link the memory of Eistr to the eternal hunting grounds in the stars above – the realm of gods and heroes.
Let’s see if we can decode the imagery on this stone and locate these celestial hunting grounds.
Hunting in a Winter Sky
The Böksta Runestone was erected around the year 1050 AD, when Scandinavia had already been converted to the Christian faith. The erection of this runestone shows that pagan elements were still very much alive after Sweden’s conversion. If this runestone is a memory of the winter sky around 1050 AD, then let’s take a look at what the Orion region of the night sky looked like around that time.
In the image below, we can see Orion in the center left, with Taurus to the right of him. On the snout of Taurus (or alternatively, his left horn), there was a very bright supernova in the year 1054 AD. Out of curiosity, I chose to take a snapshot of the sky of the year 1054 AD, around the time of fall, centered on the southern horizon.
The fall equinox was the start of winter in Scandinavia, and the fall is also the time when the hunting season starts. We’ll get to this supernova later. Let’s first focus on the constellations and try to recreate the hunting scene on the runestone. As you can see, the night sky provides a splendid tableau of constellations, depicting mostly humans and animals of all shapes and sizes:
The constellations as we see them in the image above are the constellations as they were envisioned by H.A. Rey. His version of the constellations, which can be found in his book The Stars: A New Way to See Them, better resemble actual human and animal figures than the modern ones. It is these constellations that seem to come closest to the way ancient peoples, and also the Vikings envisioned them.
Even then, the ancients had multiple ways of viewing a single constellation. The same shape of a constellation could be interpreted in different ways, or even (slightly) altered by redrawing some of the lines, and by adding or dropping one or more stars.
We have seen at the beginning of this blog post for example, how we can imagine Orion as a skiing figure by drawing a line between his feet, and connecting this with the star Beta Eridani in the constellation Eridanus, to make the upward-pointing tip of his skis.
Looking at the snapshot of the night sky above, the hunting scene as depicted on the runestone does not immediately present itself to us. If we want to re-create this hunting scene in the stars, then we might have to look outside the traditional boundaries of the constellations, and try to envision them the way the rune-carver might have seen them.
If we look at the horse-rider on the runestone, we can see that the scale of this figure doesn’t quite match that of the constellation Taurus. Orion, itself a “giant” constellation, is dwarfed by the rider and horse. Taurus though, is of about the same size as Orion in the sky. This too deserves a closer look. Its angle and position however, do seem to match. If Taurus is linked to the horse-rider – who might be Odin – then where is the rider with his spear?
Above Taurus, we find the constellation Perseus. Star Myth researcher David Mathisen has pointed out how Perseus can be seen as a kind of wizardly figure, waving a wand in his left hand (to the right). His right hand (to the left) can be seen as something resembling a curved sword. Could Perseus be the horse-rider in this scene, holding a spear?
It is possible that the combination of Perseus and Taurus makes the combination of the horse and rider. However, it is also possible that we can find a more accurate depiction of the horse-rider if we look at the stars from neighbouring constellations. The bright stars of Auriga are at the position where the horse’s rear should be. If Perseus is the rider, then Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Aries are located near the horse’s head and front legs.
David Mathisen has shown in his Star Myths of the World series how the ancients sometimes combined multiple constellations into one “super-constellation.” The Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoatl, and even mermaids and nagas could have been derived from the conjointment of more than one constellation. In this blog post, David Mathisen gives an example of how the Greek winged serpent Typhon can be created out of multiple constellations.
If our horse and rider too are made of multiple constellations, then that would explain its large size in respect to Orion.
I have made an attempt to recreate a large part of the hunting scene in the stars. Here is the result:
There it is, the horse and its rider… The scale of this figure now resembles the rider in the runestone more accurately. Of course, we don’t know exactly which stars the runemaster used to construct the horse-rider and the other figures in this scene. What I have provided is an approximation, a rough sketch of what the runemaster may have envisioned.
The hind legs of the horse are formed out of the lower half of Auriga, with the horse’s tail ending in Taurus. I have created the horse’s head out of Cassiopeia, and I’ve used the brighter stars of Andromeda and Aries for its front legs.
As you can see, I’ve also made an attempt to recreate the elk and the coiling snake. Let’s explore the other figures in the scene in more detail.
The animal that is being hunted, the elk, would be somewhere to the right of the large horse-rider. Here, we find the constellation Pegasus, with half of the Great Square as its wing. Pegasus is in the right place to be the animal that is hunted down, but one thing doesn’t quite match. The elk in the hunting scene has its head pointed downwards, and has its legs on the left side. Pegasus has its head pointed up, and its legs on the right side.
It could be that the runemaster simply reversed the horse for artistic reasons, to make the elk fit better with the composition of the scene. It’s also possible that the runemaster took the stars of Pegasus, and made a mirrored image of the horse.
This is the solution that I’ve tried out myself, and I found that it’s possible to create the horse’s legs out of the stars of the Great Square. Again, it’s an approximation.
As for the bird attacking the elk’s eye and the two dogs chasing it, I’m not exactly sure how the runemaster envisioned these, so I have left these out of the drawing. I would guess that the birds and dogs are found somewhere between the constellations Perseus and Pegasus.
You can see, however, the small constellation Lacerta, the “Lizard” above the head of Pegasus in the image below, which might be linked either to the bird or the dogs chasing the elk.
Another possibility would be that the two hunting dogs are a reference to Canis Major and Canis Minor, located near Orion. In ancient astronomy, these two constellations were seen as the hunting dogs of Orion. Next to Canis Major is the faint constellation Monoceros, the “Unicorn”. But if these constellations refer to the dogs, the bird and the elk, then they’re located in the wrong part of the sky.
As you can see in the image below, Canis Major in the bottom left looks like a proper dog:
At the bottom of the scene, we have the complicated form of the coiled snake. Due to the weathering on the stone, it’s hard to see how it exactly connects to the band of runes that envelops the entire scene. But this snake could be an extension of the band of runes. The most obvious candidate for this snake would be the constellation Eridanus, which can be envisioned as a long and winding river, but also as a snake.
Placed in the lower region of the sky, it’s certainly in the right position. But Eridanus stops at the point where Perseus is placed in the sky above it, while the snake on the runestone extends much further to the right. This problem can be solved when we join Eridanus with the stars of Cetus the Whale, and possibly with parts of Pisces.
There’s also a strange V-shaped protrusion coming from the snake, which you can see in the image below. I’m not sure what this is supposed to represent, perhaps the two legs of an unfortunate Viking who is being swallowed by the snake? Whatever this is, it is placed to the right of the skiing archer, and thus corresponds to the location of Taurus in the sky.
Could this V-shape be a reference to the Hyades asterism in Taurus? The Hyades form the bull’s horns when we envision Taurus in the following way:
The Birds and the Milky Way
In the Böksta runestone, the runic inscription envelops the entire hunting scene. What is noticeable, is that in the Orion region of the sky, the Milky Way envelops much of the constellations in this scene. The Milky Way however, runs partly through the horse. But all in all, it forms a sort of frame around the constellations in the hunting scene.
Whether this correlation between the Milky Way and the band of runes was intended by the maker of this stone, is a guess. Many runestones follow the same general formula with the runic inscription forming a ring around the characters that make up the story. Many runestones also feature variations on the serpent motif in the bottom of the stone.
I have mentioned that the Böksta runestone contains two depictions of birds. One of these, as we have seen, is attacking the eye of the elk. The other bird forms the sole element in this scene that is placed outside the runic inscription, in the top right. Does this bird too refer to a constellation?
At the opposite end of the sky compared to Orion, on the top right of Pegasus, we find the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Perhaps this is the bird at the top of the stone. Where the bird on the runestone sits atop the runic inscription, Cygnus is found in the band of the Milky Way.
Here is once again the comparison between the Böksta runestone, and a sketch of the same scene in the night sky (note that the line of the Milky Way in the top right of the image would be perceived in reality as a curved arch instead of a straight line):
Before I researched the connection between the Böksta runestone and the Orion region of the sky in depth, I wanted to make sure that I was looking at the right part of the sky. There is another celestial archer, and that is Sagittarius. But around the year 1050 AD, Sagittarius does not really emerge fully above the horizon like Orion does.
The same goes for Centaurus and Lupus, who can play the roles of an elk and a wolf. On the northern latitude of Uppsala, these constellations are even harder to see, since they are located lower in the sky. Ophiuchus has been shown to be linked to Odin with his spear, but it in these stars, is hard to see the rider on the horse as depicted on the runestone.
Both the hunting season and the rising of Orion in the sky come with the start of the colder part of the year. This too creates a stronger link between the Viking runestone and the region of Orion.
Supernova 1054 AD
And finally, a quick word about the supernova of the year AD 1054. In the above image, you can see the horse’s tail ending in a large dot, which is SN 1054. This “guest star” was first sighted on July 4 of the year, and was visible to the naked eye in the daylight sky for 23 days. It still remained visible in the night sky for two years, until it became invisible on 17 april 1056.
It was described as a reddish-white star, and its appearance in the sky was linked by observers at the time with the coming of plagues.
Whether there is any connection at all between the supernova and the Böksta runestone, or even with the coming of plagues, is unknown. The runestone itself does not seem to show any obvious reference to this “guest star”, although it did appear in the same region of the sky. The estimated date for the creation of the runestone also comes close to the date of the supernova.
But the stone could also have been put in place before the supernova appeared, around 1050 AD, or even after. Perhaps this extra star was of little significance to the family of Eistr, to whom this stone was dedicated. Or did they see the soul of Eistr reflected in the appearance of a new star, visible in the winter sky?
Judging by Medieval records from various observers, this supernova event did not go unnoticed by the people who lived at that time.
The remnant of this supernova can still be observed today in the form of the Crab Nebula:
If this beautiful Viking runestone with its hunting scene is indeed a memory of the night sky of the Orion region, around the time of Eistr’s death, then this could be a sign that the stars held a prominent place in the Norse world. It would mean that runemasters in the Viking Age were very familiar with the constellations, and were also quite creative with them.
As seafaring people, it is to be expected that the people of Scandinavia had a decent knowledge of the stars. The stars would have provided a practical way of keeping track of time and location, but to the Vikings and their predecessors, the stars were much more.
As David Mathisen has demonstrated in his book Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology), the entire mythology of the Norse was written in the stars, including Odin’s hanging on the World Tree. There is poetry and beauty in the stars, and the memories of times past are linked to stars and constellations.
Perhaps the memory of Eistr was attached to the eternal hunting grounds in the night sky, where he could enjoy the company of Odin and Ullr. If the Böksta runestone is part of an astronomical tradition, then we can expect to find plenty of other runestones with references to the constellations.
In fact, David Mathisen in his books, and also the blogger Daniel Vagerstam have already identified several links between runestones and constellations. There are still some runestones out there, whose secrets have yet to be revealed…
 Silén, Lars (1983). “Några Reflektioner Angående Bilderna på Balingsta-Stenen i Uppland” (PDF). Fornvännen. Swedish National Heritage Board.
Skáldskaparmál (The Poesy of Skalds)
David Mathisen’s Blog
Star Myths of the World, and How to Interpret Them: Volume Four: Norse Mythology (David Mathisen 2018)
The Stars: A New Way to See Them (H.A. Rey 1976)
Featured image: The Böksta Runestone. Photograph by Berig (2007) – source. Edited by the author.
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