Tag: Catastrophism (Page 2 of 2)

Mind Escape Podcast #139: Comets and Catastrophe in Norse Myth

In episode #139 of the Mind Escape podcast, we talk about how comets and cosmic catastrophe may have left its marks in the Norse myths

I have been invited to Mike and Maurice’s Mind Escape for a second time to have an interesting discussion about the Norse myths again. In the first episode, we talked about how the myths of the Norse  can be linked to an ancient astronomical tradition. This second time, we talked about the possible role of comets and cosmic catastrophe in the Norse mythological poems.

In this episode, I gave an introduction into the catastrophic periods that have happened on the human timescale. Cosmic impacts were not just a thing that the dinosaurs experienced – we have received a decent dose of cosmic catastrophe ourselves. I think that it’s likely that this has found its way into our myths as well, and it’s probably one of the crucial components in understanding myth and religion.

If this topic interests you, I’d say, jump right into the episode. If you have seen it already, or if you’d rather  read a bit about it first, then here you can find more about this subject.

Some interesting questions were asked to me during the interview, and here in this blog post, I have provided some additional answers to these questions, as well as other important questions to think about. I’ve also added some links to articles and websites on the subject for those who’d like to explore this further.

If I’ve left you still with some questions, I wouldn’t consider that a bad thing. I’m having a lot of questions myself about what the myths are about, and how comets and catastrophe may be involved in them. It’s these questions that are driving me to research these topics. Some of the answers I’ll leave for future blog posts, but I’ve provided some additional information on the topics discussed in this episode here below, summarizing some of the key points:

What evidence is there that the Norse gods are linked to comets?

At this point, my research into the links between Norse myths and comets, meteorites, and cosmic impacts is still in a beginning stage, although I have consumed much information about these topics in the past few years. Any links between the Nore gods and comets are still speculative, but I have amassed enough data to strongly suspect that there is a connection between the two. 

Ever since seeing Martin Sweatman’s conclusion that the gods are comet gods in his book Prehistory Decoded, I started paying more attention, and when I started looking at the myths more and more from this perspective, several puzzling things in the myths and in ancient artwork started to make more sense.

The winged disk symbolism for example, with its fan-like rays, may not resemble so much the disk of the sun, but rather a large comet for example, as Graham Philips shows in his book End of Eden.

The winged sun disk, the Faravahar of the Zoroastrian tradition
A zoroastrian winged disk symbol with what appears to be a deity or king on it source

Researching the myths is speculative by definition. By nature, myths lend themselves to multiple interpretations, and I don’t think that these have to be mutually exclusive. I think that multiple different avenues deserve to be explored in a search for answers.

Science has proven without doubt that catastrophic events did happen in the human timeline, more than one time. We also know that giant comets are a part of the human experience. Both the rarity and magnitude of these events would have contributed to the mark that they would have left on the human psyche, when such an event did occur. Yet at the same time, these cosmic events have happened in the human past more often than we have for a long time believed.

Here below, you can see a timeline I’ve made of several major cosmic impacts and cometary events of the last 15,000 years:

A timeline of cosmic catastrophe and comets (Arthur Koopmans)
A timeline of catastrophic and cometary events that have shaped human history since the past 15,000 years. Illustration by Arthur Koopmans.

The myths are also quite clear about the existence of these recurring cosmic events, sometimes explicitly mentioning falling stars and natural disasters, which we see in the Norse myth of Ragnarök and also in other Norse myths, such as Thor’s fishing trip. When Thor fished for the World Serpent, the line snaps, and the serpent is thrown back into the water, causing volcano eruptions, earthquakes and large waves.

I think that the ancients would have used symbols that were familiar to describe those things that words themselves could hardly describe. The snake as a symbol of a comet or meteorite would have been one of the most prominent symbols. This, we may see reflected in the giant serpent Jormungandr of Norse myth, whose battles with Thor have destructive consequences, or in the evil spirit Angra Mainyu from the Avesta, falling out of the sky like a snake, causing a terrible winter.

Not only giant monsters are probably linked to cosmic impacts, but the gods themselves as well. The Mayan Quetzalcoatl is known to be linked to comets, and around 1500 BC, when a giant comet visited the earth, we see the rise of monotheism and winged disk symbolism with deities in them, such as Ahura Mazda. With all these links between gods and comets in different traditions, it would be no surprise if the Norse gods too could be linked to such phenomena.

What makes it harder to find links between the Norse myths and comet phenomena, is that there is less of it left, due to the persecution of European paganism by Christianity. Also, the runic script was not suited for writing down large stories. Only when the latin alphabet came into use in Iceland, these myths could be finally written down, ironically enough, by Christian writers.

In late Scandinavian folklore, we find the belief that pieces of meteoritic rock are pieces of Thor’s hammer. His hammer Mjollnir was originally a grindstone or whetstone, which he hurled at giants. So, was Thor as a sky god hurling meteorites at giants? And if the Norse peoples would have seen comets as well, then which parts of the myths can be linked to these bright visitors?

A sky god hurling meteors is something that can also be found in Phoenician mythology, where the god Baetylus hurled down life-endowed meteorite stones from the sky. The evidence points to a similar meteorite link with the god Thor.

Mjollnir, Thor's hammer pendant from Skane, a meteorite?
Thor’s hammer was originally not a hammer, but a whetstone or grindstone, possibly meteoric in origin – source

Speaking of grindstones, what about the cosmic mill, which grinds out wealth in several myths, like a cornucopia? The Finnish version of the cosmic mill, the Sampo, is also called the “bright-lid”. This bright mill ultimately sank into the sea, like the bright Phaëton crashing his chariot in the river Eridanus.

The suspect list

In this podcast episode, I have presented a small suspect list, with symbols in Norse myth that I think could be linked to comets (among other things). This is only a small list, with four examples that I will explore further in future blog posts here at Secrets of the Norse. 

Surtr’s flaming sword

The first on the list is the fire giant Surtr, who splits the sky in two at Ragnarök, with a sword that is brighter than the sun. Comets were also envisioned as flaming swords. In 1910, when comet Halley visited the earth, the comet appeared to an observer in Accra, west Africa ‘like a flaming sword with jewelled hilt’.  Meteorites and comets have been proven to be blinding to the eye when they descend upon the earth, as was also observed when a meteorite hit the Russian town of Chelyabinsk in 2013.

Notable comets from 1577-1652, like a flaming sword
Excerpt from “Notable comets of the period 1577-1652”. Notice how a comet might have been seen as a flaming sword? – source

Odin’s golden spear

Randall Carlson has written a great series about the Grail Legends, whose origins can largely be found in the period of the Dark Ages – a period, which I have shown in this interview to be a period of cosmic disaster. In his grail series, Randall explains how the four major grail symbols are possibly metaphors for cosmic impacts. The spear would have been one of the symbols used by ancient peoples to describe the long shape of a bright comet or meteorite’s tail. Is Odin’s golden spear Gungnir linked to comets and meteorites as well?

Comet symbols in Norse mythology, Mind Escape Podcast with Arthur Koopmans
List of suspected comet symbols in Norse mythology – from the Mind Escape Podcast.

Freyja’s Necklace

The Norse goddess Freyja has a golden necklace, called Brisingamen. The name means something like “fiery or glowing necklace”. When Thor tells her that she is to be wed to a giant, she bursts into anger, and her fiery necklace drops. Then, the mansions of the gods tremble. In other words, a fiery, golden-hued object falls down, causing tremors large enough to shake the mansions of the gods. 

Here, we could see a more subtle reference to a cosmic impact. One of Freya’s names, Mardöll, has the linguistic element in it that refers to something shining or bright. Heimdall is also called the white god, or the shining god. Could this refer to more than simply the sun, moon and stars? Was Freyja also linked to a bright comet?

Sif’s golden hair

The word comet itself means “long-haired”, from Ancient Greek kometai, “letting the hair grow long”. Milton describes comets like this in Paradise Lost (1667):

Just as a comet in the burnished air

Is wont to burn with bloody, horrid locks,

And, wrecking realms, still new disasters bring —

An omen of ill-luck to crimson kings.

Milton, Paradise lost (1667)

In the Greek myth of Medusa, we find the monstrous gorgon women with their snake-hair, deadly gaze and roaring screams. Medusa was once, like the Norse Sif, a golden-haired maiden.

In Norse myth, Sif’s golden hair gets cut off by Loki. The dwarves then have to make a new set of golden hair, and Loki sets two groups of dwarf smiths up against each other to produce even more golden objects, including Odin’s spear. Freyja’s necklace too, was made by the gold from the dwarfs.

Like Sif’s hair, comets can grow and lose their “hair”, their coma. Could this be subtle symbolism for a comet phenomenon? Possibly. I’ve written an entire three-part series about this topic on my blog (part one, part two, part three). Since then, I found more links between hair symbolism in myths and comets and catastrophe.

In the Finnish Kalevala for example, the divine singer Väinamöinen makes a musical instrument out of a lady’s seven locks. When he plays it, the hills and mountains shake, trees get uprooted, and boulders fall from the cliffs. Compare this to the story of Phaëton, the son of the sun, who crashes his father’s sun chariot with the seven rays of the solar crown on his head, possibly reflecting the multiple tails of a comet.

Phaëton by Gustave Moreau (1878)
Excerpt from “Phaëton” by Gustave Moreau (1878) – source. The artist depicts Phaëton with long, disheveled hair.

Cosmic Battles

Here we have a golden spear, a golden necklace, golden hair… in fact, there are many golden objects in possession of the gods that were important in their defence against the giants. Do we have here in the wars between gods and giants a symbolic struggle between the elements of the earth meeting those of the sky? Science has shown that cosmic impacts can profoundly alter the geography of the earth, causing earthquakes, tsunamis, and even causing volcanic activity.

Are the ancient Norse and their myths linked to Göbekli Tepe?

The Old Norse culture and that of Göbekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey are far removed, both in place and in time. Yet both can be argued to have their myth and religion based upon an ancient astronomical system. David Mathisen has, to my mind, made a convincing case that the world’s myths are part of an ancient worldwide system.

The myth of Thor’s fishing trip is also found in Polynesian myth for example, in the story of Maui’s fishing trip. It is also reflected in the battle between Marduk and Tiamat, in ancient Babylonian myth. All of these myths can be argued to be based upon the constellations. The world’s myths and ancient civilization itself can be traced back to Göbekli Tepe – the first sign of civilization since the last ice age, and a monument that incorporates both megalithic architecture and a link with an ancient form of the zodiac.

Martin Sweatman, in deciphering this ancient zodiac, has come to the conclusion that the monument is dated to the Younger Dryas Impact Event, and sees in it a monument to an ancient cataclysm. Later civilizations used the same symbols linked to the stars that were used in Göbekli Tepe, although these would have been somewhat altered over the course of thousands of years, and after several more cosmic interruptions.

It is likely, he thinks, that the gods in the world’s myths actually represent comet gods. In this blog post, Martin Sweatman has collected a number of ancient symbols from ancient artwork, which he suspects are linked to comets. It is these giant comets that he thinks inspired the construction of Göbekli Tepe, and thus also the first signs of organized religion.

In the screenshot of his website below, we see first several different illustrations of comet observations:

Martin Sweatman, Prehistory Decoded, collage of comet illustrations
Screenshot from Martin Sweatman’s blog, showing a collage of comet illustrationssource

And below, we see a collage that Martin Sweatman has made of what he suspects is comet symbolism:

Martin Sweatman, Prehistory Decoded, comet symbolism
Screenshot from Martin Sweatman’s blog, showing a collage of suspected comet symbolssource

Eventually, this ancient astronomical system would have also reached the Proto-Indo-Europeans of the Eurasian steppes, who later conquered Europe, and from which ultimately the Norse myths of Scandinavia were derived. 

Andrew Collins thinks that the builders of Göbekli Tepe were denisovan hybrids, possibly the Swiderians. This hybrid offspring of humans and Denisovans would have come from an ancient Eurasian homeland. This takes us closer to the original homeland of the ancient Norse as well.

Denisovan DNA has even been found in modern Icelandic and Finnish people. So Iceland, the land where the Norse myths were ultimately written down, even has some genetic affinity with who Andrew Collins suspects were the builders of Göbekli Tepe.

But ultimately, this system with its astronomical tradition has dispersed around the world, and according to Laird Scranton, there were multiple key centres of learning. One of these would have been Skara Brea in the Orkney Islands around 3200 BC – again, close to Iceland, the later home of the Norse myths.

Are comets and catastrophes what the myths are all about?

I don’t deem it necessary at this point to settle for one explanation only of what the myths are about. What is sure though, is that catastrophe on an epic scale is found in myths worldwide, especially in myths dealing with the end of a world age. Martin Sweatman thinks that the experience of the Younger Dryas Impact Event was sufficient motivation for people to come together and establish the basis for an organized religious tradition, and the creation of myth.

But before the Younger Dryas, there were not only earlier episodes of cosmic catastrophe, but also long periods of relative peace and prosperity. In these periods with a more stable and favourable climate, the human spirit and civilization flourishes. It could be that in these more climatically favorable times, the horrors and the religious awe of cosmic encounters were largely forgotten, and the reverence for the sun and stars becomes more prominent. 

A giant comet, Graham Philips, Mind Escape Podcast with Arthur Koopmans
The author Graham Philips has pointed out that around 1500 BC, a giant 10-tailed comet visited the earth – screenshot from the Mind Escape Podcast

Still, comets might have been on the radar even in less cataclysmic times, as they would still visit the earth century after century.

But when disaster strikes again, this may revive tales of gods, giants and monsters fighting each other in epic battles. When excessive rainfall due to global cooling plagues farmers, with floods swallowing their lands, a new water-based religion may ensue. This could explain the many archeological finds of sacrifices of weapons, utensils, and people into bogs and lakes.

When being confronted with the role of comets and catastrophe in the myths, one could get the idea that this is what it’s all about. The myths do take us from one conflict to another, because what’s a story without a conflict? But I think there’s much more to the myths than fire and brimstone. The myths to me, seem to reflect the entirety of the human experience, but played out in stories that centre around the world of the gods.

This would include knowledge of the stars, and quite probably, our experiences with entheogens. Forces that are larger than life were I think, personified in the form of gods, giants, elves and dwarves, so that we could relate to these phenomena on a personal and societal level. The result would have been the splendid poetry that continues to inspire and intrigue us.

David Mathisen has shown evidence that these poems are written in the stars.

How can the myths be about comets and about the stars and constellations at the same time?

Through the work of Star Myth researcher David Mathisen, I came to learn of the connections between the myths and the stars. Many scholars would admit that there is at least some presence of constellations in Norse myths and in archaeoastronomy, dealing with ancient sites. But David Mathisen has shown through numerous examples, how practically all of the world’s myths can be seen as written in the constellations.

He himself also readily admits though, that the stars were not the end-point. They were not the object of worship, but they were used as the closest metaphor for the divine realm, that part of us that is less concerned with material reality, and more concerned with spiritual matters. The Otherworld, A world outside of ordinary reality is also found in altered states, which can be accessed through entheogens and a wide variety of shamanic techniques.

The stars then, could have been used as a metaphor for explaining the world of consciousness and a connection to the larger cosmos, and how this is integral in living a fulfilled and complete life. The stars form the language in which these experiences were captured, personified in the tales of gods and other beings with humanoid qualities.

Another interesting question: could the use of psychedelics have somehow enhanced the stargazing experience? Could they have played a crucial role in the shaping of Star Myth poetry? This reddit thread contains anecdotal evidence, which shows multiple people experiencing the stars in a different state while under the influence of LSD.

But if the stars were used as a language, could they have been used as a metaphor for other experiences as well? If the stars and constellations can serve as a metaphor to explain realms outside our own, then could they also describe events that may be seen as forces of the divine or chtonic realm invading the ordinary world in world-changing or world-ending events? I would say yes.

The visitation of a giant and bright ten-tailed comet would have been like a psychedelic experience. A giant comet or cataclysm would be a paradigm-shifting experience of its own. One that I think was likely passed down in the form of Star Myths, connected to an ancient astronomical tradition.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the Aten
Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the multi-rayed Aten, 18th Dynasty. Notice how they’re holding what seems like hallucinogenic blue lotus flowers? Perhaps they were tripping while basking in the light of a giant comet! – source

So, what came first? Star Myths, or tales of cosmic catastrophe? This seems to be a chicken or the egg question. Human beings have lived with both for a long time. The two have likely co-evolved, and since the stars are a more stable and more permanent feature in our lives, I think it’s likely that this is the reason that the stars were used as the basis for this ancient system of knowledge.

Civilizations come and go, but the stars are largely in the same place as they were tens of thousands of years ago. See also this blog post for more information on how comet symbolism may be linked to certain constellations (example: a snake deity can be linked to both the tail of a comet and to a snake-like constellation).

Comets and the constellations Scorpio and Coma Berenices
Depictions of comets compared with the constellations Scorpio and Coma Berenices. Experiences with large and bright comets were likely passed on in the form of Star Myths.

What good is knowledge of catastrophic events in my personal life?

Imagine a giant ten-tailed comet appearing in the sky, the size of four full moons. You could call it a giant piece of ice and dust lighting up in the sun’s heat, but when you as a human being are confronted with such an awe-inspiring sight, words would not suffice to describe it. To the ancients, it would have been like a god or a giant visiting the earth, or even plunging into it.

Giant comets really are a thing from the world of giants, who in Norse myth, are related to the gods themselves. In Norse myth, the realm of giants is called Jotunheim, a world on the periphery of Midgard, the world of humans. Per definition, giants and giant comets are not part of our everyday experience. Volcanic eruptions and tsunamis are the forces of giants as well, and luckily, we do not encounter these every day.

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

But when such an extraordinary thing does happen, it can challenge our entire worldview. It makes us realize that we humans are part of a much larger cosmic scheme. And once in a blue moon, these forces invade the human world. The sight of a giant comet alone would suffice to profoundly alter the course of human history, let alone any cosmic cataclysm it leaves in its wake.

I think it’s good to challenge once in a while the way we view the world, and not become too complacent with what we think is ordinary reality. A giant comet may challenge our worldview, just like a psychedelic experience would. Both may have found their way in myth, possibly represented by the gods themselves. 

Psychedelics may have even helped humans deal with the trauma caused by such events. And when the planet cools down due to cometary dust, and rain keeps on falling, wouldn’t that in some places have contributed to the growth of psychedelic mushrooms?

What both the science and the myths also teach us about catastrophic events, is that life goes in cycles, both on the cosmic scale and on the scale of the human experience. No matter how catastrophic and chaotic things get when the forces of chaos threaten the established order, life will triumph eventually. This, to me, is a hopeful message.

This chaos doesn’t have to be all bad either. It’s how we grow. The comet that killed the dinosaurs paved the way for us humans (and chickens). And sometimes, we look for chaos ourselves, when too much order and routine gets into the way of growth. This is also why some of us use mind-altering substances from time to time, to break free from old patterns (or something more mundane such as taking a vacation or watching a great movie would help as well).

Ragnarök, falling stars, a screenshot from the Mind Escape Podcast with Arthur Koopmans
The Ragnarök myth explicitly mentions the falling of stars from heaven – screenshot from the Mind Escape Podcast

What’s driving me to research comets and catastrophe in myth?

The subject that we talk about in this episode is not the only way in which I view the myths, but it is a subject that fascinates me, and might be crucial in understanding what the myths are about. The cryptic language of symbolism that we finds in the myths triggers curiosity. It’s curiosity which makes us human, and not programmed automatons that are satisfied with one single script.

It’s this curiosity that is driving me to research the myths. So far, it has taken me to distant lands and distant times, to the stars, and to falling stars, and from the fruit of knowledge to the plant of immortality.

Cosmic catastrophe, and the appearance of exceptionally large comets is one of these many subjects that I find utterly fascinating, and in continuing blog posts, I will continue to research this subject further, as well as its place in an ancient astronomical tradition based upon the stars and constellations.

The Deadly Beauty of Long-Haired Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The long-haired Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comets with Hair Loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flakes From a Giant’s Skull

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comets in the Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Can comets too be linked directly to certain constellations?

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

Hair Like Snakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Divine Visitors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue with the next part:

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


Long-haired Stars and the Myths

Source Texts

The Iliad by Homer

Skáldskaparmál (The Poesy of Skalds)

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World


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

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

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

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