Tag: Runes (Page 1 of 3)

The White Lady in the Hollow Tree: The Hidden World of Gods, Fates and Fairies

In the time of year when the veil between the world of the living and the dead becomes blurred, I stumbled upon a ghost story that has some ancient ties to Norse mythology. 

In the Veluwe region of the Netherlands, the story is still told of a ghostly white lady who lives in a hollow tree. There in that hollow beech tree in the forest of Soeren, she spins her threads. It has been said that she is none other than one of the Norns, the Germanic goddesses of Fate.

The spinning woman that haunts this tree may be the youngest of the Norns, named Urth. Usually, the Norns are three in number, but in this story there is only one. An old 855 AD charter from the Gelderland region of the Netherlands speaks of the Urthensula, the “Pillar of Urth”, found in the Veluwe forest. 

Could the wood with the hollow tree be the same wood that was home to Urth’s pillar? Or, as van der Wall Perné asks in his Veluwsche Sagen[1], was this place once home to the World Tree, the great ash tree (or yew tree, many say), where the Norns weaved their threads of Fate for all the world?

But why, do I ask, does the lady reside in a hollow tree? That question made me ask myself why trees are hollow in the first place? Let’s first look at the folk tale and then let’s see to what realms our investigation takes us…

De Witte Juffer by Perné - The Norn in the hollow tree
“The White Lady of High Soeren”, by Gustaaf van der Wall Perné (1909)

The White Lady of High Soeren

Gustaaf van der Wall Perné was a collector of old folk stories from the Veluwe. The name of this region with its dry forests and heathlands was said to come from the Vale Ouwe, “the Pale Old One”. In his time already, around the turn of the 20th century, these old tales were almost forgotten. 

The tale of the Witte Juffer van Hoog Soeren, the “White Lady of High Soeren”, is one of several that he has collected around the hearth fire. The old people of the region told them that the tree was so hollow, that one could stand in it upright.

When one came into the forest at night, one could see a small light burning, and one could hear the Lady spinning inside the tree. Sometimes people heard knocking from inside the tree. At times, a black dog was seen with fiery eyes, prowling the forest. 

Several folk tales relate how common people were punished by the lady for their pride and the rude intrusions into her domain. One fellow met the black dog, and a little girl was grapped by her hair when she dared stick her head inside the hollow tree.

Those who were more cautious and respectful towards the spinning lady would be rewarded rather than punished. As one story goes, a blue light and two black ravens reveal the location of Urth’s treasure, which lies buried in the ground in a big and heavy chest.

Through the centuries, the goddesses of Fate that we know from the myths have been remembered in later folktales. No doubt, this came with many later variations and ideas on how the Norns manifest themselves to us. First, let’s look more closely at the hollow tree – that tree which may be a late memory of the old Germanic World Tree known as Yggdrasil by the Norse.

The hollow tree of Hoog Soeren
The old and decaying “Jufferboom”, the hollow tree where the White Lady is still said to reside. Photo source: Natuurmonumenten.

What Makes Trees Hollow?

We can ask ourselves: what makes trees hollow? There are several natural factors that can damage the outer layers of the tree, and expose the tree’s heartwood. Once a hole is created, it can grow larger as animals further develop the hole using their break, teeth or claws.

The hollow tree in the Dutch folktale has a very large cavity, large enough for a grown-up person to stand in. Such large holes tend to form in older trees, so the hollow tree of High Soeren was probably an old one already when tales about the hollow tree formed. But there is something else that causes trees to become hollow, eating away the wood of decaying trees: the bracket fungus.

The bracket fungus eats away at both living and dead trees. When the fungus works its way into the wood of the tree, it weaves a tangled web of usually colorless threads called the mycelium. Just like the Lady in White, who spins the threads of Fate inside the hollow tree, the bracket fungus (some of which are white in color) weaves its web of mycelium.

Mycelium growth on beech trees
Fungal Mycelium growth on beech leaves. Like the web of the Norns, the mycelium has power over life and death in the forest. Full Photo by Rosser1954 (source).

The Fate of the Forest

Networks of mycelium can grow to gigantic proportions, covering hundreds or even thousands of acres of woodland. It’s the mycelium which determines the fate of the entire forest. It’s a gigantic network of tentacles and sensors which decides to which plants or trees the nutrients should be distributed, deciding the fate of the entire food chain. In turn, it takes nutrients for itself, feeding off dead organisms.

The mycelium gives and takes life through an intelligent network of colorless wires and visible fungi. There is one problem though in trying to establish a link between tree fungi and the Norn in the hollow tree. The threads of the mycelium are usually too small to be seen with the naked eye. Only when they form together in big lumps can they be seen more easily[2].

The most noticeable way in which the fungus network reveals itself, is in the fruiting bodies that it sprouts on the surface that it lives on. These are what we would call the fungus or mushroom itself.

A nice analogy can be drawn between the threads of the Norns and the (almost invisible) threads which mushrooms weave through the forest, and through the wood of trees. But that doesn’t suffice to prove any connection between the Norns and (white) mushrooms growing on trees.

There are a more clues to be found though, when we look at the myths and folklore, and their implied connections with all that grow, including fungi…

Artist's Conk (Ganoderma Applanatum) on an oak tree
The Artist’s Conk (Ganoderma applanatum) on an oak stub. An example of one of the species of bracket fungi that grow on the wood of trees. Full photo by George Chernilevsky (source)

Gods and Trees

In the Eddic poem called Völuspa, the Norns were said to reside in a dwelling beneath the Tree. There, as the poem says, they carved into wood [3]. One could see the poetic link between the carving Norns and the mushrooms that eat their way into the tree.

David Mathisen, who explains the myths by showing the correlations with the stars, also suggested the possible link between the Norse god Odin and the mushroom. Odin is one of the gods who is strongly associated with the World Tree, and with all the flora and fauna that dwell in its roots and branches. 

It is not too far-fetched to suggest a link with that other forest-dweller: the mushroom. The mushroom often grows between the roots of the tree in a symbiotic relationship, and it’s from the roots of the Yggdrasil Tree that Odin carves his runes.

The Norns share the same strong link with the Tree as Odin does, and as they live at the base of the tree, they also live in the same place where mushrooms tend to grow. There, they are said to control life and make the laws of nature, either by spinning, carving on wood, or by singing.

Mushrooms could be called protectors of the forest. But when they appear on a tree, it’s usually a sign that the tree is becoming old, and decay starts setting in. But the Norns were said to protect the Tree of Life by spraying snow-white clay onto its trunk to prevent it from rot. When mushrooms cause white patches to appear on a tree though, it’s called “white rot”. It’s a sign of decay rather than something that keeps the tree healthy.

Be that as it may, we do find some more clues in the realm of the fairies…

Meadow Elves by Nils Blommér (1850)
Meadow Elves by Nils Blommér (1850) – source. Banks of mist or fairy rings were often linked to fairies, elves, or the ghosts of wise women or witches.

The Fair Folk

The Goddesses of Fate are not only similar to other gods, but they also have strong links to the fairy faith that is found in later folklore. In fact, the very word fairy has been derived from Fata, one of the Roman goddesses of Fate. The name Fata can be derived from Latin fatum: “fate, lot, destiny, death…” etc. This in turn comes from fatus: “having spoken, said”.

Urth and other goddesses of Fate have their counterpart in the Queen of the Fairies of the fairy faith that was prevalent across Europe. Like the Norns, the fairies were regarded as “beings of light”, or as “white beings”. Fairies are also called “the Fair Folk”, because they share this same luminous quality. This connection to light and brightness is found among the elves of the Old Norse faith, who are also described as supernatural beings of light.

In Scandinavia, the fall was the time when ancestors were worshipped. In this time of year, the sacrificial feast called the Álfablót was held behind closed doors. The Álfablót is the sacrifice to the elves – the sacrifice to the ancestors. And as Fjorn the Skald points out in his podcast called Fjorn’s Hall, the fall is also the time of year when mushrooms start popping out of the ground. Helped perhaps, by a sacrifice of blood.

There is a link between elves, ancestors and fertility. The earth provides the fertility of the land. The earth gives life, but it was thought necessary to nourish the earth with a sacrifice to give it something in return. New life can only grow out of the old, out of the ancestors who dwell beneath the earth.

It was thought in old folk belief that when one died and was buried, the deceased ancestor would continue to watch over the living from the grave. As the ancestor became one with the earth, the ancestor would also receive the powers of fertility, and help the living by providing them with all that grows.

The fairies too were said to live underground, in hollowed-out hills. The fairies of Ireland were once proud gods who were driven underground when mortals took over. This reminds us again of the White Lady living in the hollow tree. Even the afterlife of Odin, the great Valhalla with its army of the dead, was thought to be located in a hollow mountain or under the ground in older times. 

In the realm of fairies, which is so much bound to the earth and fertility, we also find a lot of clues that would link them to mushrooms. We have all heard of those rings of mushrooms called fairy rings or witches’ rings. In Ireland, the psychedelic Liberty Cap mushrooms are also called pookas, linking them to the Puck, the trickster spirits of the earth.

Woodcut of fairies dancing in a ring with giant mushroom
A woodcut of Fairies dancing in a ring near a large mushroom and a hill with a doorway (source). As David Mathisen has shown, there is a constellation which can play the role of both a hill or a mountain, and also a doorway. 

Spirits in the Sky

The Otherworld of gods, elves, and fairies can be found beneath the ground, in dreams, in psychedelic visions, and most probably in the stars of a moonless night as well. In the darkness of the night, the lines between sky and earth become blurred. They merge in the absence of light, with only the stars to guide the way.

As David Mathisen has convincingly demonstrated in Star Myths of the World Volume Four, the Norns and their weaving may also be seen in the stars. There, the Norns can be seen spinning where the Milky Way is brightest, near the Core of our own Galaxy. And there too we may see the hollow mountain of Valhalla, and perhaps also the hollow tree of the Lady in White of Dutch folklore.

In the sky, we may even see the black ravens of the folktale reflected in the celestial birds Cygnus and Aquila. And the dog with its burning eyes is perhaps none other than the dog of the Underworld, the hound of Hel, which we can find in a constellation with a fiery red star. And between the ravens and the dog, you may just find the chest of treasure that is alluded to…

As I found out by reading the experiences of people who have used psychedelic substances like magic mushrooms, some interesting things can happen when combining the effects of psychedelics with stargazing. Many users have reported seeing lines appear between the stars in an interconnected web.

This too reminds us of the fact that we can see similar phenomena on different planes of reality. Here too, the Norns can be seen “weaving their threads”.

The fairies, who are so similar to the Norns, were not only said to reside underground, but also in the air. Sometimes they were said to be engaged in aerial battles with shimmering armor and a clamour of weapons. This again, is a late echo of the former cosmic battles between the different tribes of gods.

Perhaps the ancients also saw the weaving and spinning of threads in the multiple tails of bright comets, which from time to time pass the earth. Coming closer to the sun, they often flare up like a torch, gliding slowly through the air like a white ghost. Or perhaps like shining gods, witches in white ( like Hecate with her torches), like shining elves or as the spirits of ancestors

Psychedelic mushrooms and constellations
Many people who have combined a psychedelic experience – whether from LSD or magic mushrooms – with stargazing, have reported seeing lines form between the stars like an interconnected web.

Finding Explanations

The myths are written like riddles, and to truly understand them, we have to look at them from various different perspectives. The language they are written in is likely linked to the stars, but I suspect that they contain additional layers of meaning on different levels.

One critique that I have encountered in trying to find explanations for the myths is that these explanations are “naturalistic”, and distract from the profound metaphysical truths that they want to convey. But I would like to object by pointing out that nature is the way in which these metaphysical laws manifest themselves to us, and this language of nature is what has been used to explain in metaphor that which is beyond words.

David Mathisen too emphasizes that while the myths are found in the stars, they are not merely about astronomy. The stars are used as a metaphor for explaining the world beyond our own, that world which is more spirit than matter. When looking for natural or celestial explanations, it’s good to be reminded of the spiritual value of myths.

The inhabitants of the Veluwe saw the Norn Urth in the hollow of a tree. In the eastern parts of the Netherlands, the Norns are also linked to the banks of mist that form above the ground when the days are getting colder. Here they are called witte wieven, “the women in white” or the ghosts of  “wise women”, who were often said to dwell amid the old grave mounds as the spirits of dead witches.

Seeing the Norns manifested in so many possible ways, we can conclude that all along, they are not really of this world, yet they are still part of it. They are of a world that is not our own, yet the threads that they weave manifest in the physical reality that we find ourselves in.

As the Dutch folk tale shows, the powers of Fate are neither good nor bad. They can both reward and punish. They tend to treat those well who do well, and punish those who had it coming. 

We find the same moral ambiguity among the Irish fairies, who can both help and hurt. The laws of cause and consequence are essentially those of past, present and future. This trio is found again in the three Norns Urdr, Verdandi and Skuld: “Origins” (Past), “Becoming” (Present) and “Debt” (Future). 

By understanding the ways in which the powers of Fate manifest themselves, we can enrich our understanding of how the laws of this world work, and how those transcend the world of matter. As a consequence, we may better understand the poetic minds of ancient peoples, and how they shaped history and myth.

Featured Image: Samlede Eventyr, the “Gathering at Dusk” by Theodor Kittelsen (1907) – source

Map:


Notes

[1] Perné, Gustaaf Frederik Wall. Veluwsche sagen. Sirius en Siderius, 1993.

[2] Structure of Fungi

[3] Völuspa 20 (Bellows)

Veluwsche Sagen by Gustaaf F.W. Perné

Bundle 1 (contains the Lady in White Saga)

Bundle 2

The Völuspá

Bellows translation (stanzas 16-20)

The Norns

Fjorn’s Hall

Álfablót: Sacrificing to the Elves

Fairies and Psychedelics

Otherworld Gnosis: Fairy Ointments and Nuts of Knowledge by Dr Norman Shaw

The Mysterious and Lost Magic Mushroom Rituals of the Ancient Celts

David Mathisen

Starmythworld.com

Star Myths of the World Volume Four: Norse Mythology

Buddha, Odin, Mushrooms

Myths, Meteors and Comets

Myths and Meteors: How Ancient Cultures Explained Comets and Other Chunks of Rock Falling From the Sky


Mind Escape Podcast #134: Norse Myths, Runes, and the Stars

In episode #134 of the Mind Escape podcast, we talk about the links between Norse myths and the stars

I have had the great honor to be invited by the two nephews Mike and Maurice, who host the Mind Escape Podcast. I have been following this podcast myself for a while, and now I’ve had the chance to experience being invited as a guest myself, and talk about Norse Star Myths.

In the first part of what is to become a 2-part series, we explore the links between Norse mythology, and an ancient astronomical tradition. In a slideshow format, I provide an introduction of how the discipline of astromythology has been advanced with the new way of viewing the constellations of H.A. Rey, and the foundations that David Mathisen has laid for the field of research he himself calls Star Myths.

The focus of this introduction to Norse Star Myths is on the story of Odin, and his discovery of the runes. David Mathisen has decyphered the first part of this myth in his book Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology), and by using knowledge of the constellations, and of the Norse myths, I continued this investigation, and discovered that the runes too, that Odin carves, can be seen in the constellations.

In this podcast episode, we will see how the runes represent higher knowledge from the sacred tree, and we will even see how this connects with the biblical Garden of Eden; a story that uses the same symbols and the same constellations to deliver its sacred message to humankind.

If you want to became more familiar with the Norse myths and the constellations as well, this would be a good chance to learn more about these fascinating topics. And thank you David, for your kind words.

Part 2 will be about the Ragnarök myth, the Twilight of the Gods. We will exploring a slighty different angle, in an attempt to find traces of past catastrophe and cosmic encounters with comets in the Norse myths. And we’ll see how this too could have been remembered in the form of Star Myths.

This was a great experience, and Mike and Maurice showed a genuine interest in the history of the Vikings and Norse myths. Stay tuned for the second part!


See also:

Odin’s Sacrifice: A Myth Written in the Stars

In Search of the Runes: The Runes in the Stars

Links:

Mike and Maurice’s Mind Escape Podcast

David Mathisen’s Blog

The Böksta Runestone: A Stone Linked to the Stars?

Above Stockholm, near the farm of Böksta in the province of Uppland, we find this beautiful runestone from the Viking Age. When I first encountered this runestone, I was not only learning about the myths of the Norse, but I was also getting familiar with the constellations in the night sky, one by one. Could this runestone refer to the constellations?

The small figure with the skis and bow in the bottom left has been identified with the little-known hunting god Ullr. Of all the modern constellations, Orion the Hunter most of all resembles a human figure. The shield that he is holding in his right hand can also be interpreted as a bow. 

Could the hunting scene on this runestone display the constellations in the night sky? Does this stone refer to the time of the hunting season, in the region of Orion the Hunter? If so, then this would provide evidence that the Viking runemasters were stargazers, and that many of their runestones might contain carvings of the stars.

Looking further, I noticed that the angle of the horse and rider matches the angle of the constellation Taurus in respect to Orion. Below the horse, and to the right of the skiing archer on the runestone, we find a large snake, wound in complicated knots. The position of this curling snake suggests a link with the large snake-like constellation Eridanus.

If we draw a line underneath Orion’s legs, and then extend this line to the star Beta Eridani on the right, we can envision Orion as a skiing figure with a bow:

Ullr and Orion on the Böksta Runestone
Left: the skiing figure identified with Ullr.    Right: The constellation Orion.

Surely I’m not the first to note this correlation? A google search revealed that I am indeed not the first to notice the apparent link between the Böksta Runestone and the region of Orion. A certain Daniel Vagerstam has noted the similarity in 2017.

Browsing through the entries on his blog, I discovered that he has been roaming the Scandinavian countryside for quite a while, looking for runestones and finding links between Scandinavian artwork and the stars.

What was still to be established though, is a picture that shows the entire hunting scene in all its glory, as envisioned in the constellations. 

Before we can make this picture, we have to look at the scene in a little more detail. In the image below, you can see the entire hunting scene on the stone:

The Böksta Runestone hunting scene
The hunting scene on the Böksta Runestone.
Photograph by Berig (2007) – source. Edited by the author.

Eternal Hunting Grounds

Before we explore the runestone’s link with the stars, let’s examine the details shown in the hunting scene. The Böksta runestone is made of granite, and stands to a height of 2.6 meters. The most striking feature is the man on horseback, who is holding a spear while he chases an animal that looks like an elk. Two dogs can be seen chasing the elk, and a bird is attacking it’s eye. According to Lars Silén, this was standard hunting practice.

He opposes the idea though, that this runestone represents a hunting scene. And argues that the figures in the scene are each doing their own thing. Let’s call it a hunting scene anyway, since the stone seems ro refer to the region of Orion the Hunter.

The horse-rider with his beard and helmet has been speculated to be Odin, riding on his steed Sleipnir. The horse on the runestone has four legs, which is what you would normally expect from a horse, but Sleipnir is a horse with eight legs. There’s a good chance though, that the horse depicted here is Sleipnir, since the Tängelgårda stone also depicts Sleipnir with four legs.

The skiing archer who accompanies the rider may be Ullr. This enigmatic god has been described in the Skáldskaparmál of the Prose Edda as a ski-god, an archery-god, and a hunting-god. This wintery figure was also associated with artisans. 

Hunting required specialised tools and clothing, and many Norse hunters had to rely on their own skills to make these tools. Especially during the six harsh months of winter, the Scandinavians had to rely on their skills and their common sense to survive. They could also use a little extra meat from the hunt to keep their bellies filled.

The whole scene is surrounded by a serpent, and a runic inscription is carved into it. The serpent also forms a complicated coil underneath the horse. In the top right, hovering in the air, is another bird. If the horse-rider on this stone is Odin engaged in the hunt, then the two birds may be his two ravens Huginn and Muninn. The two dogs or wolves may then be Geri and Freki.

The inscription reads:

Ingi-… and Jógerðr, they had this stone raised in memory of Eistr, their son; Ernfastr and his brothers raised in memory of their brother.[1]

Böksta runestone inscription

So, the Böksta runestone was raised as a memorial, in memory of a certain Eistr by his parents and his brothers. Perhaps they wanted to link the memory of Eistr to the eternal hunting grounds in the stars above – the realm of gods and heroes.

Let’s see if we can decode the imagery on this stone and locate these celestial hunting grounds.

Ullr the Norse god by Heine
Ullr, a god of skiing, archery and hunting. Illustration by W. Heine (1845-1921) – source

Hunting in a Winter Sky

The Böksta Runestone was erected around the year 1050 AD, when Scandinavia had already been converted to the Christian faith. The erection of this runestone shows that pagan elements were still very much alive after Sweden’s conversion. If this runestone is a memory of the winter sky around 1050 AD, then let’s take a look at what the Orion region of the night sky looked like around that time.

In the image below, we can see Orion in the center left, with Taurus to the right of him. On the snout of Taurus (or alternatively, his left horn), there was a very bright supernova in the year 1054 AD. Out of curiosity, I chose to take a snapshot of the sky of the year 1054 AD, around the time of fall, centered on the southern horizon. 

The fall equinox was the start of winter in Scandinavia, and the fall is also the time when the hunting season starts. We’ll get to this supernova later. Let’s first focus on the constellations and try to recreate the hunting scene on the runestone. As you can see, the night sky provides a splendid tableau of constellations, depicting mostly humans and animals of all shapes and sizes:

Orion, Taurus, and the supernova of 1054
The region of Orion on the Southern Horizon at the Fall Equinox of 1054 AD

The constellations as we see them in the image above are the constellations as they were envisioned by H.A. Rey. His version of the constellations, which can be found in his book The Stars: A New Way to See Them, better resemble actual human and animal figures than the modern ones. It is these constellations that seem to come closest to the way ancient peoples, and also the Vikings envisioned them.

Even then, the ancients had multiple ways of viewing a single constellation. The same shape of a constellation could be interpreted in different ways, or even (slightly) altered by redrawing some of the lines, and by adding or dropping one or more stars.

We have seen at the beginning of this blog post for example, how we can imagine Orion as a skiing figure by drawing a line between his feet, and connecting this with the star Beta Eridani in the constellation Eridanus, to make the upward-pointing tip of his skis. 

Looking at the snapshot of the night sky above, the hunting scene as depicted on the runestone does not immediately present itself to us. If we want to re-create this hunting scene in the stars, then we might have to look outside the traditional boundaries of the constellations, and try to envision them the way the rune-carver might have seen them.

The Horse-Rider

If we look at the horse-rider on the runestone, we can see that the scale of this figure doesn’t quite match that of the constellation Taurus. Orion, itself a “giant” constellation, is dwarfed by the rider and horse. Taurus though, is of about the same size as Orion in the sky. This too deserves a closer look. Its angle and position however, do seem to match. If Taurus is linked to the horse-rider – who might be Odin – then where is the rider with his spear?

Above Taurus, we find the constellation Perseus. Star Myth researcher David Mathisen has pointed out how Perseus can be seen as a kind of wizardly figure, waving a wand in his left hand (to the right). His right hand (to the left) can be seen as something resembling a curved sword. Could Perseus be the horse-rider in this scene, holding a spear?

The Böksta Runestone and the constellations Orion, Perseus and Taurus
Left: the hunting scene on the Böksta Runestone. Right: The Orion region of the night sky in 1054 AD.

It is possible that the combination of Perseus and Taurus makes the combination of the horse and rider. However, it is also possible that we can find a more accurate depiction of the horse-rider if we look at the stars from neighbouring constellations. The bright stars of Auriga are at the position where the horse’s rear should be. If Perseus is the rider, then Cassiopeia, Andromeda and Aries are located near the horse’s head and front legs.

David Mathisen has shown in his Star Myths of the World series how the ancients sometimes combined multiple constellations into one “super-constellation.” The Feathered Serpent Quetzalcoatl, and even mermaids and nagas could have been derived from the conjointment of more than one constellation. In this blog post, David Mathisen gives an example of how the Greek winged serpent Typhon can be created out of multiple constellations.

If our horse and rider too are made of multiple constellations, then that would explain its large size in respect to Orion.

I have made an attempt to recreate a large part of the hunting scene in the stars. Here is the result:

The Böksta Runestone in the constellations
The Böksta Runestone hunting scene envisioned in the constellations.

There it is, the horse and its rider… The scale of this figure now resembles the rider in the runestone more accurately. Of course, we don’t know exactly which stars the runemaster used to construct the horse-rider and the other figures in this scene. What I have provided is an approximation, a rough sketch of what the runemaster may have envisioned.

The hind legs of the horse are formed out of the lower half of Auriga, with the horse’s tail ending in Taurus. I have created the horse’s head out of Cassiopeia, and I’ve used the brighter stars of Andromeda and Aries for its front legs.

As you can see, I’ve also made an attempt to recreate the elk and the coiling snake. Let’s explore the other figures in the scene in more detail.

The Hunt

The animal that is being hunted, the elk, would be somewhere to the right of the large horse-rider. Here, we find the constellation Pegasus, with half of the Great Square as its wing. Pegasus is in the right place to be the animal that is hunted down, but one thing doesn’t quite match. The elk in the hunting scene has its head pointed downwards, and has its legs on the left side. Pegasus has its head pointed up, and its legs on the right side.

It could be that the runemaster simply reversed the horse for artistic reasons, to make the elk fit better with the composition of the scene. It’s also possible that the runemaster took the stars of Pegasus, and made a mirrored image of the horse.

This is the solution that I’ve tried out myself, and I found that it’s possible to create the horse’s legs out of the stars of the Great Square. Again, it’s an approximation.

As for the bird attacking the elk’s eye and the two dogs chasing it, I’m not exactly sure how the runemaster envisioned these, so I have left these out of the drawing. I would guess that the birds and dogs are found somewhere between the constellations Perseus and Pegasus.

You can see, however, the small constellation Lacerta, the “Lizard” above the head of Pegasus in the image below, which might be linked either to the bird or the dogs chasing the elk.

Another possibility would be that the two hunting dogs are a reference to Canis Major and Canis Minor, located near Orion. In ancient astronomy, these two constellations were seen as the hunting dogs of Orion. Next to Canis Major is the faint constellation Monoceros, the “Unicorn”. But if these constellations refer to the dogs, the bird and the elk, then they’re located in the wrong part of the sky.

As you can see in the image below, Canis Major in the bottom left looks like a proper dog:

Orion, Taurus, and the supernova of 1054
In the bottom left you can see Canis Major, Orion’s hunting dog. On the right, the horse or elk that is Pegasus.

The Snake

At the bottom of the scene, we have the complicated form of the coiled snake. Due to the weathering on the stone, it’s hard to see how it exactly connects to the band of runes that envelops the entire scene. But this snake could be an extension of the band of runes. The most obvious candidate for this snake would be the constellation Eridanus, which can be envisioned as a long and winding river, but also as a snake.

Placed in the lower region of the sky, it’s certainly in the right position. But Eridanus stops at the point where Perseus is placed in the sky above it, while the snake on the runestone extends much further to the right. This problem can be solved when we join Eridanus with the stars of Cetus the Whale, and possibly with parts of Pisces.

There’s also a strange V-shaped protrusion coming from the snake, which you can see in the image below. I’m not sure what this is supposed to represent, perhaps the two legs of an unfortunate Viking who is being swallowed by the snake? Whatever this is, it is placed to the right of the skiing archer, and thus corresponds to the location of Taurus in the sky.

Could this V-shape be a reference to the Hyades asterism in Taurus? The Hyades form the bull’s horns when we envision Taurus in the following way:

The Böksta Runestone and the Hyades in Taurus
The V-shaped object in the coiled snake could refer to the Hyades in Taurus

The Birds and the Milky Way

In the Böksta runestone, the runic inscription envelops the entire hunting scene. What is noticeable, is that in the Orion region of the sky, the Milky Way envelops much of the constellations in this scene. The Milky Way however, runs partly through the horse. But all in all, it forms a sort of frame around the constellations in the hunting scene.

Whether this correlation between the Milky Way and the band of runes was intended by the maker of this stone, is a guess. Many runestones follow the same general formula with the runic inscription forming a ring around the characters that make up the story. Many runestones also feature variations on the serpent motif in the bottom of the stone.

I have mentioned that the Böksta runestone contains two depictions of birds. One of these, as we have seen, is attacking the eye of the elk. The other bird forms the sole element in this scene that is placed outside the runic inscription, in the top right. Does this bird too refer to a constellation?

At the opposite end of the sky compared to Orion, on the top right of Pegasus, we find the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Perhaps this is the bird at the top of the stone. Where the bird on the runestone sits atop the runic inscription, Cygnus is found in the band of the Milky Way.

Here is once again the comparison between the Böksta runestone, and a sketch of the same scene in the night sky (note that the line of the Milky Way in the top right of the image would be perceived in reality as a curved arch instead of a straight line):

The Crab Nebula remnant of supernova SN 1054
The Böksta runestone may mirror the fall/winter sky of the year 1054 AD

Two Archers

Before I researched the connection between the Böksta runestone and the Orion region of the sky in depth, I wanted to make sure that I was looking at the right part of the sky. There is another celestial archer, and that is Sagittarius. But around the year 1050 AD, Sagittarius does not really emerge fully above the horizon like Orion does.

The same goes for Centaurus and Lupus, who can play the roles of an elk and a wolf. On the northern latitude of Uppsala, these constellations are even harder to see, since they are located lower in the sky. Ophiuchus has been shown to be linked to Odin with his spear, but it in these stars, is hard to see the rider on the horse as depicted on the runestone.

Both the hunting season and the rising of Orion in the sky come with the start of the colder part of the year. This too creates a stronger link between the Viking runestone and the region of Orion.

Supernova 1054 AD

And finally, a quick word about the supernova of the year AD 1054. In the above image, you can see the horse’s tail ending in a large dot, which is SN 1054. This “guest star” was first sighted on July 4 of the year, and was visible to the naked eye in the daylight sky for 23 days. It still remained visible in the night sky for two years, until it became invisible on 17 april 1056.

It was described as a reddish-white star, and its appearance in the sky was linked by observers at the time with the coming of plagues.

Whether there is any connection at all between the supernova and the Böksta runestone, or even with the coming of plagues, is unknown. The runestone itself does not seem to show any obvious reference to this “guest star”, although it did appear in the same region of the sky. The estimated date for the creation of the runestone also comes close to the date of the supernova.

But the stone could also have been put in place before the supernova appeared, around 1050 AD, or even after. Perhaps this extra star was of little significance to the family of Eistr, to whom this stone was dedicated. Or did they see the soul of Eistr reflected in the appearance of a new star, visible in the winter sky?

Judging by Medieval records from various observers, this supernova event did not go unnoticed by the people who lived at that time.

The remnant of this supernova can still be observed today in the form of the Crab Nebula:

The Crab Nebula is a remnant of the 1054 supernova in Taurus – source

Viking Stargazers

If this beautiful Viking runestone with its hunting scene is indeed a memory of the night sky of the Orion region, around the time of Eistr’s death, then this could be a sign that the stars held a prominent place in the Norse world. It would mean that runemasters in the Viking Age were very familiar with the constellations, and were also quite creative with them.

As seafaring people, it is to be expected that the people of Scandinavia had a decent knowledge of the stars. The stars would have provided a practical way of keeping track of time and location, but to the Vikings and their predecessors, the stars were much more.

As David Mathisen has demonstrated in his book Star Myths of the World Volume Four (Norse Mythology), the entire mythology of the Norse was written in the stars, including Odin’s hanging on the World Tree. There is poetry and beauty in the stars, and the memories of times past are linked to stars and constellations.

Perhaps the memory of Eistr was attached to the eternal hunting grounds in the night sky, where he could enjoy the company of Odin and Ullr. If the Böksta runestone is part of an astronomical tradition, then we can expect to find plenty of other runestones with references to the constellations.

In fact, David Mathisen in his books, and also the blogger Daniel Vagerstam have already identified several links between runestones and constellations. There are still some runestones out there, whose secrets have yet to be revealed…



Notes:

[1] Silén, Lars (1983). “Några Reflektioner Angående Bilderna på Balingsta-Stenen i Uppland” (PDF). Fornvännen. Swedish National Heritage Board.

Source Texts

Skáldskaparmál (The Poesy of Skalds)

David Mathisen’s Blog

Star Myths of the World

Daniel Vagerstam

hedningblog.wordpress.com

Books

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

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

Featured image: The Böksta Runestone. Photograph by Berig (2007) – source. Edited by the author.

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