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.
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.
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:
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 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:
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 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:
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:
Long-haired Stars and the Myths
David Mathisen’s Blog
Featured image: “Water Snakes I” by Gustav Klimt (1904-1907). Source: WikiArt.