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.
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.
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.
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”.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
Continue with the next part:
Long-haired Stars and the Myths
David Mathisen’s Blog