Tag: Giants (Page 2 of 2)

Thor’s Fishing Trip: a Meteorite Impact?

The gods of Asgard all have their own enemy to face in the final battle against chaos. Thor’s ultimate nemesis in the myths is the giant World-Encircling serpent Jormungand. Before Thor, champion of the gods and protector of humans meets his doom, he has several encounters with this poisonous serpent. 

When Thor fights giant monsters, this usually results in thunder and lightning, and a battle of the elements. Could the ancient Norse, or their ancestors, have witnessed real events that may have inspired Thor’s thunderous battles with giant monsters?

In the poem Hymiskvitha (“The Fetching of the Cauldron”), Thor decides to go on a fishing trip together with the giant Hymir to catch the ultimate prize: the Midgard Serpent. The two go far out towards the edge of the known waters, where the serpent lurks. Thor uses the head of the giant’s best ox as bait. This attracts the serpent, making it rise from the deep.

What follows is a swift encounter between Thor and the beast. The giant Hymir, becoming nervous, cuts the fishing line in one version of the story. Thor manages to give the beast a good whack on the head before it descends into the deep. The violent throes of the monster cause volcanoes to erupt, the earth to shake, and the waves to stir.

What is described here in the allegory of a fishing trip might be a mythical description of a meteorite impact, possibly an impact into the sea. Before we can examine the connections between the myth and real-world catastrophe, let’s first look at this comical story of Thor, the giant, and the snake.

Aegir the Brewer, from Liebig Meat Productions trading cards (1934) – source

A Cauldron for the Sea Giant

The story of Thor’s fishing trip is found in both the Poetic Edda and in Snorri’s Prose Edda. It begins with a great feast in the hall of Aegir and Ran, two giants who dwell deep below the sea. Thor, who is not too fond of giants, quickly gets into an argument with the sea giant Aegir. In revenge, Aegir challenges Thor to fetch him a cauldron that is large enough to hold all the beer that is to be brewn for the feast.

The god Týr confides to Thor that he knows of a cauldron that is large enough to do the job. His giant father Hymir the wise owns a cauldron that is a mile deep. It is “the biggest cauldron of them all”.

What cauldron could be a mile deep? Are we talking here about a purely fictional object, a large crater or caldera, or some kind of cosmic cauldron? David Mathisen, in his book on Norse Star Myths, has provided a celestial explanation for the curious events in this myth, which we will examine at a future date.

Ancient peoples would have recognized all sorts of symbols in the constellations that were a part of their everyday world. A cauldron could have been one of these symbols from the every-day world of the Norse that was attached to a certain constellation.

In this part of the investigation, we’ll explore this myth on a layer of meaning that is placed somewhere in between the stars and the depths of the sea, at the border between heaven and earth.

A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie. Oil on canvas, Albert Bierstadt (1866) – source. The high mountains of the Rockies come close to what the mountainous home of the giants would look like.

At the Giant’s Home

After a day-long journey from Asgard, Thor and Týr arrive in the land of the giants. Glaciers are shaking as the giant Hymir comes home from the icy heights. Hymir was not happy at seeing Thor, the slayer of giants coming forward out of hiding. But as a good host should, he ordered three oxen to be killed to serve his guests a good meal. Thor ate two whole oxen, to the giant’s dismay.

Here in the poem is where a lot of bull symbolism is first mentioned, the significance of which we will examine later. Seeing Thor’s unsettling appetite, the giant exclaims: “If all three of us want to eat tomorrow, then we’d better go fishing.”[1]

The Fishing Trip

So it was decided that Thor and the giant would go fishing together. Hymir would row the boat, and Thor would prepare for the trip by going to forest to fetch some bait from the giant’s herd of oxen. Thor followed the giant’s advice and chose the best ox out of Hymir’s herd, took the beast by its horns, and ripped off its head.

Again, the giant was filled with horror and dismay by Thor’s brutality, and worse, the jovial manner in which he did so. With the bait in hand, Thor asked the giant to row out far into the sea. The giant was reluctant to do so, but he did as he was asked. At the edge of the encircling sea, he managed to catch two big whales.

Thor meanwhile, was baiting his own hook with the giant ox-head. The blood of the ox attracted the Midgard Serpent. The giant worm rose out of the water with gaping jaws. Thor took his chance and struck the poisonous beast with his hammer. 

Thor dragging in the Midgard Serpent from the deep – source

The Old Earth was Shaken

Jackson Crawford, in his 2015 translation of the Poetic Edda, translates what happened next:

The monster howled,

Volcanoes erupted,

And the old earth

Trembled all over,

But that sea monster

Sank back into the waves.

Hymiskviða 24

Volcanoes, earthquakes, and probably monstrous waves beating against the shore as the monster sank back into the depths – it’s all in there. What we have here it seems, is a mythical account of some kind of catastrophe. Natural disaster made into art, a work of poetry. What do other translations of this poem say about this event?

The monsters roared, 
and the rocks resounded,
And all the earth so old was shaken;
Then sank the fish in the sea forthwith.
(Bellows)
The icebergs resounded, 
the caverns howled, 
the old earthshrank together:
at length the fish back into ocean sank.
(Thorpe)
Moaned the wild monster,
the rocks all rumbled,
the ancient earth shrank into itself.
Then sank the serpent down in the deep.
(Bray)

The above fragments are all written in a more archaic English – making it more difficult to follow the story for the modern reader. Compared with these older translations, Jackson Crawford’s modern translation is refreshing in its clarity of words. But what’s also noticeable, is how the details in these four translations differ.

Where Crawford translates “volcanoes”, Thorpe says “howling caverns”, and Bellows and Bray simply mention “rumbling rocks”. Confronted with such different interpretations of the Old Norse text, it’s hard to get specific details of the event. It’s clear though that the monster’s retreat makes the earth tremble amid a lot of roaring noise – something catastrophic is being described here.

Even when we take a look at the original Old Norse text, we see slight variations in spelling.

The Olive Bray translation has the word Hreingölkn, whereas the Bellows translation gives Hraungalkn. Hreinn could be translated as “bright”, while “hraun”  is an Icelandic word for lava. 

I’m not trained in Old Icelandic myself, but even those who master the language come to quite different interpretations of the original text. Where most translations give the word “monster” or “wild monster”, Thorpe gives “icebergs”. The serpent is also called físk (“fish”) in two of the translations. Serpents in skaldic poetry are often symbolically described as fish.

Myths are notorious for their use of puns, and one word can often be translated in more than one way. Such is the nature of poetry and of language itself. Still, the general picture of catastrophe is clear.

Thor and Hymir go fishing for the Midgard Serpent. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66 – source

Fishing with Meteorites

I’m not the first person to notice the possible links between Thor’s Fishing Trip and a meteorite impact – possibly an impact into the sea or ocean. Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried on his The Norse Mythology Blog sees in this story a poetic metaphor for the perturbation of natural phenomena by larger-than-life forces, personified in the battle between the thunder god Thor and the monstrous Midgard Serpent.

To be more specific, he thinks that the story might even refer to two meteors falling from the sky. The remote location of the fishing trip far out into the sea could be explained because of the perceived remoteness of the meteor strike, Seigfried explains. Midgard, the world of humans, is encircled after all by the outer ocean that separates it from Jotunheim, the “Home of the Giants”.

When the Midgard Serpent takes the bait, Thor’s legs break through the bottom of the fishing boat, as described in Snorri’s Prose Edda. Since Thor is able to touch the ocean floor with his feet, Seigfried reasons, he must have grown to enormous size himself. When he throws his hammer towards the serpent’s head, he does this from a great height.

The name of the ox is a strong clue in itself. Himinhrjód (“heaven-destroyer”) or Himinbrjoter (“sky-cleaver”), is an apt name for a large meteorite. The fishing line according to Karl can be seen as a symbol for the meteor’s bright trail, with the rocky core as the ox’s head attached to the line. In the striking of Thor’s hammer, he sees a possible second meteorite.

And what about the oxen that are killed and eaten by Thor from the giant’s herd, before they go on a fishing trip? Are these a meteoric precursor for the larger objects that were to follow?

Thor’s ox head on a fishing rope imagined as a meteor with a fiery debris trail. Ox head (source), meteor (source). Illustration by Arthur Koopmans.

While there are some intriguing connections between Thor’s hammer and meteorite stones, it’s also quite possible that the meteorite entering the atmosphere goes paired with a lightning discharge. The possibility of two large meteorites could be explained by a meteor shower, or a meteor that has fragmented into more than one piece.

Volcanoes erupting, rocks rumbling, and the earth shaking could all be explained as the secondary effects of a cosmic impact. Crawford’s mention of volcanoes and even lava giants also makes one wonder about the volcanic element in all this.

Monsters howled and “volcanoes erupted” says Crawford’s translation, as Jormungand sank back into the sea. Painting by Mezey Lajos (c. 1860) – source

Volcanoes and Cauldrons

After the serpent has broken free – or after being cut free by Hymir – Thor sees his greatest foe sink back beneath the waves. It’s time to head back home. The giant Hymir rows back in a gloomy mood, and what follows is a duel in which Thor is challenged to break Hymir’s wine cup. 

Breaking the cup he does, by throwing it against Hymir’s rock-solid skull. The shattering of the cup could itself be a reference to a cosmic event of some kind.

Thor and Týr, having earned Hymir’s cauldron after winning the duel, head back towards the sea-feast, but they are being chased by the obligatory army of giants. Thor throws his hammer Mjollnir at them, killing what Jackson Crawford translates as “lava giants”.

The mile-wide cauldron that Hymir possesses might be poetic imagery for the caldera of a volcano, a connection which Dr. Seigfried among others has also made. With Crawford’s mention of erupting volcanoes and lava giants, this is a serious possibility. The very word caldera is Spanish for “cauldron”.

Another challenge in deciphering poetic imagery for catastrophic events is that some of these events can have overlapping symbolism. A “cauldron” could just as easily refer to a meteor crater. An image like a “fiery sword that splits the sky in two” (found in the Ragnarök myth) could refer to both the trail of a comet or meteor, or to the fiery column of an erupting volcano.

Whether the fire comes from above or below, the same symbols may have been applied in myth to both cosmic impacts and volcanism. But science also shows us that impacts and volcanism can go hand in hand, as a large enough impact could trigger volcanic events of several kinds.

The intricacies of impact and volcano symbolism is another subject that we will look at in more detail. There are some more clues hidden in this myth however, that do seem to point at the possibility of a cosmic impact.

Left: Thor Obtains Bait from an Ox by W.J. Weigand (1871) – Right: Thor and Hymir fishing for the serpent by Jenny Nystrom (1893) – source

The Cosmic Bull and the Cosmic Serpent

Quite possibly, this myth may even contain clues that tell about where these impacts came from, and possibly even a broad time-frame in which this impact may have occurred. One major clue lies in the symbols of the two great beasts that are mentioned in this poem: the bull and the serpent.

In myths from all over the world, both the bull and the serpent are connected to godhood, and also to cosmic destruction. Thor slaying Hymir’s “sky-cleaving bull” reminds of the Tauroctony, the “slaying of the bull” of the Roman Mithraic cult. The (poisonous) World Serpent, encircling both heaven and earth, is encountered in other mythical traditions as well.

And more than once, we find both the bull and the serpent together in the same myth, in different traditions across the world. Marduk, the “Calf of the Sun” fighting the watery monster Tiamat in Babylonian myth is one example of this. Are the bull and the snake universal symbols of divine entities who have shook the world to its bones?

Victor Clube and Bill Napier, two of the world’s leading astro-phycisists, argue in their book The Cosmic Serpent that a hero’s mythical fight with a snake is poetic imagery for episodes of cosmic bombardment. In Chapter 8 we find the following quote:

“The earliest recorded myths are those of combat, between a god or hero and a dragon. The dragon was a familiar figure in Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, India, China, North America and elsewhere. Usually, he has the form of a winged serpent. He is a gigantic monster; he spouts fire and smoke; bellows and hisses; he throws rocks, and is the creator of terrible destruction; and his home is in the sky. ”

clube and napier, “the cosmic serpent”

While the Midgard Serpent is described as a sea monster of the deep, there is more than one myth in which a serpent of the depths once had its home in the sky, before it was cast out of heaven.

There’s another detail in this story that resonates with observations of cosmic impacts and the harm that they can do. During the fishing trip, the giant Hymir catches two whales, while Thor is aiming for the World Serpent. Sagan and Druyan in their book Comet mention the Chinese saying: ‘When comets appear, whales die’.

It must be said though, that this detail can also be a reference to a specific celestial detail that we become aware of when we look at this myth from a Star Myth perspective. We’ll look at some examples from David Mathisen’s analysis as well in our investigation.

Close-up of the the Pleiades in the constellation Taurus. Photo by Kees Scherer (2018) – source

The Myths in the Stars

It is heavenwards that we shall look for more clues that will help us awaken the memories of ancient monsters that lurk between the lines of this old Icelandic poem. In only a few generations, memories of a cosmic disaster may have been largely forgotten, remembered in stories that are increasingly harder to believe with the passing of time.

It’s because they are woven into the greatest poetry, that these memories have survived. Their riddling language continues to fascinate and inspire us. Star Myth researcher David Mathisen makes the case that these myths are linked to the undying stars – another path to eternity.

What we have here perhaps, is a memory of cosmic events passed down in the form of a myth that is written in the language of the stars and constellations – a myth about the eternal struggle between the champion of the gods and the great beasts of heaven.


Notes

[1] The Poetic Edda, Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes by Jackson Crawford (2015).

The Norse Mythology Blog by Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried’s 

Myth Science: Thor’s Fishing Trip

Clube and Napier

The Cosmic Serpent (1982)

Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan

Comet (1985)

David Mathisen

Starmythworld.com

Star Myths of the World Vol.4: Norse Mythology

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.

Odin’s Scream and the Whispers of the Runes

Why does Odin scream when he takes the runes? Why are giants such a noise bunch? The stars may have the answers…

We have seen how Odin hung on the World Tree for nine whole days and nights, and how this Tree has its roots in the stars of the night sky. The stars are the home of the gods and their myths.

We now know from where Odin took the runes, and how he himself is the one who carved and painted them. These runes however, are immaterial in their origin, as the myth suggests. Odin did not invent the runes. The runes can be seen as divine laws that are woven into the fabric of the universe – determining the fate of gods and mortals.

Odin saw the shapes of the runes, and then he carved and painted them, presumably with his own blood. The presence of a bright red star near the celestial twigs that carry the runes suggests that the practice of reddening the runes may be of celestial significance.

Odin Hanging on the World Tree by Emile Doepler & Arthur Koopmans
Artwork: Odin sacrificing himself upon Yggdrasil (1895) by Lorenz Frølich. Coloring by Arthur Koopmans.

We started out with looking at David Mathisen’s celestial interpretation of the hanging Odin. As we keep delving deeper, it becomes clear how deep the roots of this myth go. Let’s return to the poem and see where it leads us:

None refreshed me ever with food or drink,

I peered right down in the deep;

crying aloud I lifted the Runes,

then back I fell from there.

Hávamál 138[1]

So few lines, so full of meaning… The first line of this stanza says that no one refreshed Odin with food or drink while he hung on the tree. Many scholars have noted the shamanic undertones in Odin’s prolonged state of deprivation. Fasting is one of the techniques that shamans across the world have practiced as a preparation for shamanic ceremonies and ritual initiations. 

Fasting is a technique that can be used to improve experiences of altered states. It would have helped to bring the shaman to the Otherworld, the realm of spirits, and it may have helped Odin to find the shapes of the runes.

In a similar manner, Francis Crick supposedly first saw the double helix shape of the DNA molecule while he was under the influence of LSD, although this is disputed.

We will return to Odin’s fasting later. Now, let’s pick up where we left off with Odin’s taking of the runes.

We have seen through several examples how the runes were perceived by ancient people as more than just the letters of an alphabet. The myths and sagas tell us that the runes were symbols with magical qualities, attached to songs of power.

To the ancients, there was magic in the act of writing, and there was magic in the power of song and incantation. In the poem, Odin took the runes with a scream. This is yet another clue that we should be looking for a certain constellation in the night sky.

Screaming he took the Runes

After nine days and nights of hanging from a tree, Odin let out a scream as he took up the runes in his hand. As we now know, Odin can be linked to the constellation Ophiuchus. Ophiuchus is one of the larger constellations that can be seen in the sky.

David Mathisen has demonstrated in his Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology) that the towering constellation Ophiuchus can be linked to many of the giants in Norse myth. When we look at the constellation Ophiuchus below, we can see that he is a head taller than the figure of Sagittarius, towards which he seems to be leaning:

Odin's Hanging Star Myth (David Mathisen)
The towering Ophiuchus is one of the so-called “giant constellations”

One of the giants that David Mathisen has shown to be linked to Ophiuchus is the primordial giant Ymir, whose name may be translated as “Screamer.” Many other giants have names with “yeller” or “screamer” in them.

There is a certain constellation that seems to be linked to the screams of giants, and to the scream or voice of several other mythological characters. One of the rules that can be derived from the Star Myths, is that a figure associated with a certain constellation can derive its attributes from surrounding constellations. 

Star myth Rule: 

  • Mythological figures linked to a certain constellation can derive their attributes from neighbouring constellations.

The roaring voice of Ophiuchus figures can be found in a constellation that is placed near the head of Ophiuchus. In the image below you can see what looks like a four-armed whirlwind. This is the modern way of viewing the constellation Hercules.

It is not often that the modern way of looking at the constellations is that useful, but this is one of those cases. In the image below, you can see Hercules in both its modern form as a whirlwind, and you can see H. A. Rey’s version.

The latter looks more like the actual Hercules that we know from the myths as a sturdy figure carrying a club:

The constellation Hercules (H.A. Rey)
Two versions of the constellation Hercules

A Voice like a Whirlwind

In his books, David Mathisen has shown that Hercules in his “whirlwind form” is linked to roaring and sucking vortices in myth. Heroes like Odysseus must navigate around these treacherous maelstroms, and sometimes the hero gets sucked in, to be transported to a magical realm.

In Volume One of his Star Myths series, we can find the example of the imposing forest guardian of Mesopotamian myth, called Humbaba or Huwawa. This Humbaba is also an Ophiuchus figure. In the epic of Gilgamesh it is said that the giant Humbaba’s voice is like a whirlwind

This example shows us that the constellation Hercules in its whirlwind form can be linked to a roaring voice. In Norse myths, this roar is attributed mostly to the noisy giants. In the myth of Odin’s hanging though, Hercules in its “whirlwind form” can be seen as the scream that emanates from Odin’s mouth.

Tridents and Thunderbolts

We have seen that Scorpio can be identified with the nine runic twigs, but when Odin lifts up the runes, they may be linked to a different celestial snake.

Ophiuchus can be seen in the image below to carry the snake asterism called Serpens. The right side of the snake is called Serpens Caput, the “Snake’s Head”. The actual head of the snake is the small triangular ring at the end of the snake’s body, which you can see in the image below:

Odin screams as he takes the runes - Star Myth
Odin Screams as he lifts up the runes – envisioned in the constellations

David Mathisen has shown throughout his books that this snake’s head can be seen as a small object that is held by the constellation Ophiuchus. He has also shown that this object held in Ophiuchus’ hand can be linked to the writing tablets that the Egyptian god Thoth hands over to Ra.

The scribe god Thoth himself can be identified with the constellation Hercules in the image above. The god Ra, who receives the tablets from Thoth, is linked to Ophiuchus. A detailed analysis of the Egyptian myth about the origin of writing can be found in his Star Myths of the World Volume One

We know that in the Norse myth, Odin can be identified with Ophiuchus. As Odin lifts up the runes from below, could Serpens Caput represent the runes that he holds in his hand?

The Snake’s Head asterism could be envisioned as a small tablet in Egyptian myth. However, it doesn’t seem to visually resemble the rune twigs that Odin takes, at least not in this form.

If you look closely at Serpens Caput, you can see that there is an extra star on the top of the snake’s head. By altering the lines that connect these stars, David Mathisen has shown how this asterism can be envisioned as a trident shape. Mathisen has linked Ophiuchus to several mythological figures that have a trident as weapon, such as the Indian Shiva or the Greek god Poseidon.

The vajra, the ritual thunderbolt weapon of the Vedic tradition, can also assume the form of a trident. And in an Icelandic manuscript from the 18th Century, we see Odin depicted with such a thunderbolt weapon in his hand, and on his horse Sleipnir:

Odin riding Sleipnir with a trident in his hand, from an 18th Century Icelandic Manuscript – source

Elk’s Antlers and Burning Plants

When we see Serpens Caput in the above manner, I would argue that we can also see this asterism as a forked twig, or as a bundle of twigs.

There is even a rune that has this exact same shape, and that is the Algiz ᛉ rune. This rune is commonly known as Algiz or Elhaz, possibly from the Proto-Germanic word for “elk”. This name is rather appropriate, since the shape of this rune resembles the antlers of an elk, but the original name of this rune is unknown.

In the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, this rune is linked to eolh-secg, or “elk-sedge”, a plant that burns the blood of those who touch it.

In the image below you can see how Serpens Caput can resemble a twig or a bundle of twigs held by Odin, and how this resembles the shape of the Algiz rune:

Ophiuchus holding Serpens Caput (H.A. Rey)
Serpens Caput as the rune twigs that Odin holds in his hand

There are other constellations that, to my mind, can be linked with this trident shape. We will deal with those at a later time. As you can see in the Icelandic illustration above, the trident motif is repeated all over.

The idea of a plant that “burns the blood” of those who touch it also reminds of the relation between the runes and blood that we have examined in the previous part of this investigation.

Secrets and Whispers

With all this mystery surrounding the runes, let’s take a look at what the word rune actually means. 

The English word rune can be derived from the Proto-Germanic word runo, which can be translated not only as “letter”, but also as “secret” or “whisper”. This in itself gives us a clue that we are not merely dealing with the letters of an alphabet. Clearly, the runes were perceived as being more than that.

The predecessor of the word runo has been reconstructed in the Proto-Indo-European language as rewhn (“to roar, grumble, murmur, mumble, whisper”). It is interesting to see how rewhn can mean “to roar”, since we have seen how Odin took the runes with a scream. We have also seen how this is related to the constellation Hercules as a roaring wind or vortex.

Clearly, the runes contained a special kind of knowledge, which was best kept secret. Odin had to go through great efforts to acquire them. As we have seen in Part Two of this series, the secret of the runes lies with the “higher Powers”, who first conceived them.

This fits with the myth from the Rig Veda, which describes the vedas as the vision of a higher entity called Brahma.

How might the idea of the runes as “secrets” or “whispers” be linked to the constellations? Can we see a secret being whispered into someone’s ear?

In the previous image, we have seen the constellation Hercules above Ophiuchus in his two main forms. The left side of the image shows Hercules handing something over to Ophiuchus below, where Serpens Caput represents the object that is given.

I would propose that Serpens caput might also be envisioned as an ear into which a secret is whispered from above. The whisper, like the scream, could be linked to Hercules in its whirlwind form, which is shown in the right side of the image.

The Ear of Heimdal

There is evidence that provides further support for this interpretation in David Mathisen’s Star Myths of the World Volume Four. In this book, he shows how Ophiuchus can also be linked to the Norse god Heimdal, the Watchman of the gods, a god with a supernatural ability of hearing.

Heimdal at Bifröst with horn by Emile Doepler (1905)
“Heimdallr at the Bridge of Heaven” by Emile Doepler (1905) Source

The constellations in the night sky have been likened by Mathisen with actors who can play multiple roles in the same story. Let’s make this rule of thumb that he mentions into an official Star Myth rule:

Star myth Rule: 

  • The same constellations can play many different mythical figures, and they can even play more than one character in the same myth.

The icelandic poet Snorri Sturlusson mentions in his Prose Edda – an important source of Norse myths – that the watchman of the gods is a son of Odin. In the myths it is told how Odin sacrificed an eye to gain knowledge of the unknown.

Heimdal is said to have sacrificed an ear, so that he could hear all the things that happen outside the home of the gods. Both the eye of Odin and Heimdal’s ear have been linked by David Mathisen to Serpens Caput, which can be seen as a disembodied organ held in Ophiuchus’ hand.

As the ear of Heimdal, the “serpent-head” can be envisioned as an ear attached to the head of Ophiuchus by the right half of the Serpens asterism.

Ophiuchus with Serpens Caput (H.A. Rey)
Serpens Caput symbolizing a disembodied organ held by Ophiuchus

We can now see how these constellations may be linked to the sharing of the runes as “secrets”. These secrets may be seen as whispered into the ear of an Ophiuchus figure, by a Hercules figure above.

We have seen how Hercules as a vortex can be the visualization of a voice, or a roaring sound, so it could represent a whisper as well. Both the “whisper” and the “roar” can be found in the meaning of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word rewhn, from which the word rune is derived.

Odin’s Rune Song doesn’t speak about secrets being whispered into Odin’s ear; rather, he finds the runes somewhere in the depths below. But we have seen from the etymology of the word rune that the runes are linked to the trading of secrets, and these secrets were given in the form of a whisper.

In the myths of ancient Egypt and India, the gifts of writing and divine wisdom were handed over from above. In the Norse myths, the nine runes were taken by Odin from the deep, from what could be called the Underworld.

But since there are more than nine runes, perhaps not all of these runes came from the depths below. What these myths seem to suggest is that there is wisdom not only in the realm of heaven above – which we associate with the world of light – but there is wisdom too in the netherworld, at the roots of the World Tree.


CONCLUSION:

The constellation Hercules in its “whirlwind form” can be linked in myth to Odin’s scream when he takes up the runes, and to the screaming giants. The etymology of the word rune shows that the word can be translated as “roar” or “scream”, but also as “secret” or “whisper”. Hercules as a human figure can be seen as whispering a secret into the ear of Ophiuchus, with Serpens Caput as Ophiuchus’ ear. This asterism can also represent the runes that Odin takes, and the Algiz rune.

The runes can be seen as visions from the deep, or as whispers from above. They can represent divine laws that manifest in the building blocks of speech, in magical songs, in words of power, and in letters for writing.


This myth presents a riddle that is hard to solve when we look only at the lines of the poem itself. If we don’t shy away from investigating a larger world-wide mythological tradition linked to the stars, then we can begin to understand the secret knowledge hidden in this poem. By looking at the stars above, we can salvage its age-old wisdom.

So far, we have only focused on one small part of the night sky. As we go deeper into the investigation of this myth in the next part of this series, we will broaden our horizon, so that we can see the full extent of the sky that this myth describes, and what the implications of this might be…

Coming soon:

Part V   Odin’s Fall and the Secret Fire

Series:

Odin’s Sacrifice – A Myth Written in the Stars


Notes

[1] my adaptation of the Bellows translation

Source Texts

Hávamál, translated by Olive Bray

The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Books

Star Myths of the World, and How to Interpret Them: Volume One, Second Edition (David Mathisen 2019)

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: “Odin Screaming as he Takes the Runes” by Arthur Koopmans

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