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Norse Constellations


 

nightsky

Today it is difficult to appreciate the understanding earlier humans had of the world around them.  Tremendous power existed in the sky, the thunderstorm was a spectacle unrivaled and only periodic, less like the regular and predictable movements of the Moon and Sun.  People would not have been aware of the true scale of the Earth, but it was clearly a circular disk with a domical sky overhead that appears to surround it.  From this perspective everything was close, and the universe small, the Moon and Sun were same-size disks just beyond the clouds, the stars just up there in the heavens.  People would have rarely met people beyond their immediate vicinity, perhaps only a couple times a year.  A far-bound traveler could bring tales of far off places no farmer could visit.  Nature was dominant and powerful, yet appeared to hold a spiritual, personified and regulated power that could also be appealed to by humans.


Constellations of Northern Europe

 

Among the ancient people of Europe the night sky was a mysterious realm sometimes viewed as a magnificent World Tree that stretched across the sky, where the stars were fruit upon its spreading branches, and the Milky Way was its massive roots that extended down to the Earth.  This comprised their universe and their understanding of its powers.

 

There is an eagle sits in the branches of the ash, and it has knowledge of many things, and between its eyes sits a hawk called Vedrfolnir.  A squirrel called Ratatosk runs up and down through the ash and carries malicious messages between the eagle and Nidhogg.  Four stags run in the branches of the ash and feed on the foliage.  Their names are: Dain, Dvalin, Dunyr, Durathror. (Faulkes 1987:18-19)

 

Although the constellations here were known in the past, all but Thiassi’s Eyes and Nidhogg play no role within Norse mythology.  Also it cannot be certain sometimes exactly which stars were the ones seen from those times (and this will continue unless a graphic depiction is located).  The constellations are largely based upon evidence from knowledge of Germanic mythology, but they are modern recreations based upon the suggestions of these sources.  (See the paper “Ancient Skies of Northern Europe” on the Mythology page for more details.)  The ones shown here are the only ones that are known to be genuine Nordic constellations.[1]

 

(While it could be justified in saying that these are Norse constellations, it is not actually known if the Norse or Vikings knew they were constellations and not abstract concepts.  It is clear that by the time of the Eddas that the descriptions of the deer, squirrel, eagle and serpent were no longer linked to constellations.  Therefore, although they arise from Norse mythology, it is perhaps more proper to call them constellations from Northern Europe, to distinguish them from the Greek and Roman constellations known from Southern Europe.  In addition, there apparently was never one consistent set of “Norse” constellations, just as there are several representations of the Sun or Moon.  For this reason also it is possible that the constellations were identified outside of Scandinavia and then imported in at a later time, but without knowing which gods they were associated with it is difficult to hypothesize which peoples they might be associated with.)

 

Friggerock (Frigg’s distaff) – this consists of three stars making up a distaff, which is equated with the belt of Orion.  (Assuming the Orion constellation was also viewed as a figure in the sky, in this case the goddess Frigg [2], the belt of Orion is still a belt but the sword has a vertical orientation as does the spindle as it would have been known in a society where women were the spinners.)  "Though Icelandic writings do not contain this name, it has remained in use among the Swedish country-folk (Ihre, sub v. Friggerock).  The constellation is however called Mariärock, Dan. Marirock (Magnusen, gloss. 361. 376), the christians having passed the same old idea on to Mary the heavenly mother." (Grimm 2004: 270)  "The same three stars are to this day called by the common folk in Up. Germany the three mowers, because they stand in a row like mowers in a meadow" (Grimm 2004: 726).

 

Thiassi’s Eyes – this consists of two Gemini stars Castor and Pollux, that are side by side of equal brightness resembling two eyes, reaching their peak in the sky at midnight in January, which is why they were associated with Skadi (goddess of winter and presumed goddess of Skandza).

 

Dain (dormant) – one of the deer constellations in the branches of the World Tree, an elf name and here is associated with the smallest of the deer.  Consists of two stars along its back leg, two stars along its front leg, two for its trunk, one star on its neck, the bright star Vega is its eye, and the four Lyra stars form its antler.

 

Dvalin (sleeper) – one of the deer constellations, a dwarf name and here is associated with the second smallest of the deer.  Consists of some of the same stars as Cepheus, with one star for each of its front foot and the North Star makes its rear foot, two stars for its trunk, one bright star is its eye, one star on its snout, seven stars make up its antlers.

 

Duneyr (drooping-ears) – one of the deer constellations, the name associated with the second largest of the deer.  Consists largely of the stars of the Great Bear, with two stars for its front leg, five stars for its rear leg, seven stars make up its body, two for its neck, one for its eye, and three for its antlers.

 

Durathror (sluggish beast) – one of the deer constellations, the name associated with the largest of the deer.  Consists of the Perseus constellation as its head and antlers and Auriga as its body, with one star for each of its three visible legs, six stars for its body, one star for its eye, one star for its snout, five stars make up its longer antler, three its shorter antler.

 

Ratatosk (gnaw-tooth) – the squirrel constellation.  Consists of the main stars in Cassiopeia, with one star for its head, one for each foot, one for its body, and two for its tail.

 

Eagle – the eagle constellation consists of largely the same stars as Cygnus the swan, with one star for its body, tail and head, its left wing being four stars and its right wing being five stars.

 

Vedrfolnir (wind-parched) – constellation for the hawk upon the eagle's head.  Consists of one star for its body and one for its head, two stars for its left wing, and three stars for its right wing.

 

Nidhogg (poison biter) – constellation of a serpent at the foot of Yggdrasill’s root.  Consists of many of the same stars as Scorpius, four stars make up its head and 19 stars make up its body and tail.

 

Wagon – this constellation among the Germanic people is well-known, in England as charles wain, Denmark as karlsvogn, Sweden as  karlwagn, and herrenwagen, meaning the "lord's wagon" and ultimately related by Grimm back to Wotan's wagon (Odin's wagon) (Grimm 2004: 151) while in the Netherlands it is known as the hellewagen (Grimm 2004: 802).  The same stars that comprise the Big Dipper, with four stars making up the wagon and three stars making up the tongue.  "We know that in the very earliest ages the seven stars forming the Bear in the northern sky were thought of as a four-wheeled waggon, its pole being formed by the three stars that hang downwards" (Grimm 2004: 151).[3]

 

Hellewagen – constellation of the wagon of the dead, that travels upon hellweg or Frauen Hilde Street (the Milky Way) to the underworld.  There is good reason however to think that the constellation known as Pegasus was the original Hellewagen (perhaps also Odin's Wagon), consisting of four stars making up the wagon, with three stars making up its tongue.[4]

 

You can take the opportunity, on a clear night away from city lights, to locate these constellations yourself, which sometimes requires going out different nights or different times to see them all clearly.  It will perhaps help recall a time when the night sky held a significant place in the lives of humans.

 

 

[1] "Friggerock" and "Wagon" are identified by Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology while the rest arise from my own studies.  Although it is commonly held that Thiassi's Eyes are the Gemini stars and for a few that Nidhogg is the constellation Scorpius, these were arrived at independently.  Attempts have been made of other constellation identifications, and it is possible that both the deer Eikthymir and the goat Heidrun are represented somewhere in the stars, but no reliable identification has yet been made (for more see Eddic Constellations on the Links page.  Most attempts to identify Norse constellations have been highly speculative and based upon unreliable comparisons or mere guesswork.  Valhall has not been clearly identified in cosmological terms, but if it or the tree Laerad were representative of the night sky Eikthymir or Heidrun might be found near the apex of the sky.

[2] There are internet sites that claim the Orion constellation was known among the Germanic people as "Freya's Gown" and the belt was known as "Freya's Girdle", but again I am unaware of the source of this information.

[3] Grimm also identifies the plural term for the greater and lesser wagon, the latter, Ursa Minor, is called by Berthold the wegelin (Grimm 2004: 724).  Neither Ursa Major nor Ursa Minor dip beneath the horizon as seen from northern latitudes.

[4] The Hellewagen constellation does not appear to regard the existence of the World Tree, which suggests that there was never any unified set of constellations in Northern Europe, so this speaks to the accumulation from different cosmological traditions (see the paper "Yggdrasill and Ymir's Skull: The Cosmologies of Nordic Myth" on the Mythology page).


Norse Stars

 

Aurvandil's Toe - Sometimes wrongly thought to be a Norse constellation is actually the Morning Star, the planet Venus.   Venus and Mercury never appear full from the Earth, they are either approaching or receding when they are on the same side of the Sun as Earth.  Mercury, however is not clearly visible and cannot be seen other than as a point with the naked eye.  Venus is sometimes the brightest object in evening after sunset or in the morning after sunrise (when the Moon is not out).  Often paired with the crescent Moon, both were very early associated with bear claws, Aurvandil specifically equivalent to Grendel in this regard.

Vidofnir - cock that is perched upon the highest branch of the World Tree.  Likely equivalent at some point to Vedrfolnir (the hawk perched upon the Eagle upon the World Tree).  The Otherworld was to have been to the north and down, which would place it at the North Pole, the tree would have had its height at the axis where the tree rotates, which would mean that Vidofnir is Polaris, the North Star.

Other various gods and goddesses are assocaited with the Sun and the Moon, more can be learned on the Norse Gods page.


Sources

 

Grimm, Jacob.  Teutonic Mythology.  1883, 1888.  Trans. Ed. James Steven Stallybrass.  4 vols.  New York: Dover, 2004.

 

Sturluson, Snorri.  Edda.  Trans. Ed. Anthony Faulkes.  London: Everyman, 1987.