Norse Constellations, and the Astronomy of Myth

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In today’s world, the constellations of the sky are represented primarily by figures from Greek mythology, at least in the Western world. While I enjoy stargazing and planet watching quite often, I have always had a feeling that the sky was unbalanced, in terms of what culture has influenced the naming of the constellations. Many of the constellations known today were known by other names and symbols by different cultures throughout the ancient world. In many of the worlds mythologies, the stories of the deeds of Gods and Heroes intermingles with the actual night sky. Norse mythology is no different, we just have less surviving information. It is likely that our ancestors saw (most of) the nine worlds existing in the heavens, Yggdrasil literally spread out before their eyes, with the stars hanging like fruit from it’s canopy. The focus of this post is, obviously, on the constellations (and other celestial phenomena) as they were known to our Heathen ancestors.

It is well known that the Vikings were adept navigators, but many people forget that in the ancient world, this meant that they were also excellent astronomers. Unfortunately, little of their astronomical knowledge was written down, or at least does not survive into the modern age. We do not know the names of all the constellations known to them, but we do know some, and even where some of them were. The lore records several constellations, and even how a few of them got there. It is debatable whether they saw all of these ‘constellations’ as a grouping of stars, or a single star, or even if they pictured them similarly to the way we do today, with a picture superimposed on them.


The Wagon/Ursa Major
The constellation we know today as Ursa Major (Great Bear, Big Dipper, the Wain) was seen by the ancient Norse/Teutonic people as a wagon or chariot. It is one of the constellations that we know for certain. We also know that it was viewed as a picture in the sky.  It was known by different names and therefore associated with different gods throughout Northern Europe. Where it was known as ‘Óðins vagn’ (Odin’s Wagon) it was, quite obviously, associated with Odin. Some kennings that refer to Odin support the notion that the Wain was Odin’s chariot: ‘vagna verr’ (wagon's lord), ‘valdr vagnbrautar’ (ruler of the wagon-road) which suggests that the “wagon road” upon which he traveled, was the heavens, hence the ruler of the heavens. As late as the 15th century the Dutch used Woonswaghen or Woenswaghen, as in the phrase sevenstarre ofde Woenswaghen (the seven stars of Wotan's Wagon), another clear indicator, seeing as how Ursa Major has seven stars.
Of all the gods most associated with driving a chariot (or wagon if you will), was Thor. In places where it was associated with Thor we find it called ‘Karlwagen’ or Karl’s wagon. Karl was the familiar name given to Thor by Scandinavians, and is usually translated as “the old man”, also ‘Karla-Þórr’, "old man Thórr". We also find the names ‘Karlavagnen’, and ‘Karlsvagn’ translated as “the man’s chariot” which, along with the name ‘Kvennavagn’ ,or “woman’s chariot” given to Ursa Minor, suggests the gods associated with chariot driving; Thor and Freyja. The statue of Thor at Uppsala was described:

The God Thor was the highest of them,

He sat naked as a child,

Seven stars in his hand and Charles's Wain.


Some are of the opinion that the seven stars could also be the Pleiades, but the evidence points at Ursa Major. The name ‘Karl’s Wagon’ could also be explained as being the Scandinavian equivalent to ‘Charles’ Wagon’, aka Charlemagne’s wagon (Charles’ Wain) by which Ursa Major was known in Britain. Charlemagne (Karl Magnus) is a compound name, meaning Charles the Great. In Teutonic Mythology, Jacob Grimm points out that many of the tales of Wotan, or Odin were reinvented after Christianity swept through heathen lands, and enter the Germanic folklore with Charlemagne as the hero.
Whether you see it as Odin’s, or Thor’s Chariot is a matter of personal opinion, as our ancestors saw both. The idea of a wagon also brings to mind the cult of Nerthus, in whose practices a covered image in a wagon was drawn through the land yearly.

Closely associated with Ursa Major was, of course, Ursa Minor, as it is today. It was seen as Freyja’s Chariot (Freyja’s Wain), or Thor’s Throne. Ursa Minor looks a lot like a chair, so it is easy to see how it would have been seen as a throne. Chairs were seating for important people, the common folk sat on benches or stools, but the leaders sat in chairs, hence the term ‘chairman’. The only surviving image of Thor depicts him as seated on a decorated throne, so it’s easy to see how it came to be seen as Thor’s Throne. I personally think that, as ‘Freyja’s Chariot’, it could also have been seen as her throne. Freyja was a goddess associated with seið magic, which was practiced by heathen seeress’ (Volva, Vala, Idis’, etc.) while seated on a squat chair or throne, usually on a hill or other elevation.


Aurvandil’s Toe
The tale of Aurvandil’s toe may already be known to you. Snorri Sturluson records in the Skáldskaparmál:

Thórr went home to Thrúdvangar, and the hone remained sticking in his head. Then came the wise woman who was called Gróa, wife of Aurvandill the Valiant: she sang her spells over Thórr until the hone was loosened. But when Thórr knew that, and thought that there was hope that the hone might be removed, he desired to reward Gróa for her leech-craft and make her glad, and told her these things: that he had waded from the north over the river Élivága (Icy Stream) and had borne Aurvandill in a basket on his back from the north out of Jôtunheim. And he added for a token, that one of Aurvandill's toes had stuck out of the basket, and became frozen; wherefore Thórr broke it off and cast it up into the heavens, and made thereof the star called Aurvandill's Toe. Thórr said that it would not be long ere Aurvandill came home: but Gróa was so rejoiced that she forgot her incantations, and the hone was not loosened, and stands yet in Thórr's head. Therefore it is forbidden to cast a hone across the floor, for then the hone is stirred in Thórr's head.

What star exactly is Aurvandil’s toe is not certainly known. Some believe that Rigel, the blue star that makes Orion’s right foot is it. There is strong evidence to suggest that it is Venus, and many seem to believe this to be true, myself included. The old English name Éarendel is a cognate of the Norse Aurvandil, and is used to refer to the morning star, as in the poem Crist I, by Cynewulf:
   
    Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,
    over Midgard to men sent,
    and true radiance of the Sun
    bright above the stars, every season
    thou of thyself ever illuminest.


Venus appears in the sky as a bright crescent, due to it’s position in the solar system, and resembles ... a toenail.
But let’s not discount the possibility that it was Rigel, or even a constellation. In Star Names; Their lore and meaning, Richard Allen tells us ”Orwandil” is the Norse name of Orion, and Rigel is one of his toes. The Corona Borealis is another possibility, not only because of it’s shape. Saxo Grammaticus writes in Gesta danorum of a fight between a King  Horwendil, and King Koller (whose name is synonymous with ‘cold’). Horwendil kills Koller by cutting off his foot. This story seems to be based on earlier myths of a duel between spring and winter, in which spring prevails, of course. The Corona Borealis is a spring constellation, visible only once spring has come. Both Koller’s foot, and Aurvandil’s toe could be seen as harbingers of springtime, which the Corona Borealis certainly is.


Thjazi’s Eyes
The story of Thjazi’s eyes (or Thiassi) might also be known to you, as it too is recounted in Snorri’s Skáldskaparmál. It is part of the longer tale of Loki conniving to kidnap Idunn, with the giant Thjazi. Thjazi is killed during Idunn’s rescue, and when his daughter, Skaði, travels to Asgard seeking amends for her fathers death, she is allowed to choose a husband from among the Asa gods, but had to choose based only on their feet. She ultimately chooses Njôrð, thinking the most beautiful feet must surely belong to Baldr.  Loki performs some silliness with a goat in order to make her laugh, and Odin also appeases her by casting her fathers eyes into the heavens where they will shine as the constellation.
The Lay of Harbard contradicts this myth; in it Thor asserts how he was instead responsible for creating this constellation:

‘Strong Thjatsi, the thurs, I overthrew in battle,

and the awful eyes of Alvaldi's son

I cast on the cloudless sky.

Those be the mighty marks of my great works'.


In direct contrast to the other tale, Thor casts the eyes into the sky as trophies, rather than as an apology.

While the two stars that were seen as Thjazi’s eyes is unknown for certain, most scholars agree that they were most likely the stars Castor and Pollux, in the constellation of Gemini. They are of the same approximate brightness, quite visible, and an appropriate distance apart to resemble eyes in the firmament. They also reach their peak in the sky in January, fittingly, as Skaði is a winter goddess.


Frigg’s Distaff/Freyja’s Girdle/Orion

The constellation we know today as Orion, is one of the easiest to find, it is one of the first things anyone interested in star-gazing usually identifies, and many constellations are found by using it as a reference point. No doubt the ancients did the same. There are several variations of what this constellation was to our Norse and Teutonic ancestors.
The three stars which make up Orion’s belt was known as Friggerock (Frigg’s distaff) also Rejerock or Fröjas Rock , and the three stars which made up the sword were the spindle. In areas where it was known as such, the entire constellation may have been seen to be a representation of the goddess herself.  In a society where great importance was placed on the feminine arts of spinning and weaving, it seems only fitting that a constellation representing the distaff and spindle would be the one which was used as a reference to find other stars. Spinning, weaving and fate, or Orlog were all interwoven (pardon my pun). In this capacity it might also be seen as being very similar to the symbol known as Skuld’s Net, which would overlay on the constellation nicely. As the web of fate that guided one to other stars, and therefore either to disaster or home, depending on ones ability to navigate, it’s quite appropriate.
Orion was also known as Freyja’s Dress, and the belt and sword as Freyja’s Girdle. Brisingamen was sometimes referred to as a girdle, worn as a belt. It would naturally have been associated with Freyja (Vanadis) where it was known as such. The three stars of Orion’s belt were also know as Fiskikarlar (the fishermen) in Iceland and Norway, and in upper German lands as ‘the three mowers’.


Lokabrenna/Loki’s Torch
The star Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, a part of the constellation we know as Canis Major, and is actually a binary star system. To our heathen ancestors this star was known as Loki’s Brand, or Loki’s Torch (Lokabrenna), a reference to Loki’s role at Ragnarok, when Midgard will be consumed in a fiery conflagration. I find it significant that this particular star was associated with Loki, and Ragnarok. Sirius is also known as ‘the dog star’, because of the constellation it inhabits, and is associated with the hottest, most unrelenting days of the summer, which are known as ‘the dog days’ of summer. It is just before these hottest and driest of days that Sirius makes its most prominent appearance in the summer sky. Because it is one of our closest neighbors, being a mere 8.6 light-years away, and because of its brightness,  it can be seen to twinkle with great vigor, especially early in the summer when the weather conditions are unsettled. To the ancient Greeks this vigorous activity heralded the coming of the dog days, in which the crops would wilt, and many people would behave badly. Quite appropriate for a star associated with Loki, isn’t it? Just the other day I was perusing a heathen forum on the web, and noticed a comment about “how active Sirius’ twinkling has been lately”, how it coincided with all the craziness happening in the world, and how “Loki has been busy”. So it seems not to have lost it’s significance.


The Moon
There is a lot going on with the moon in all the world’s mythologies, no less so with the Norse/Teutonic myths. In the northern cosmology, the moon is seen as Mani’s chariot, being driven across the sky. Most people familiar with Norse mythology know this explanation of the moon. Some of you might even be familiar with the story of Hiuki and Bil, the original Jack and Jill; while the children were fetching water from the well ‘Byrgir’ (carrying it in a tub known as Saeg), Mani swooped down in his chariot and kidnaped them. The three of them represent the main phases of the moon, Mani driving the chariot represents the whole, full moon, and the children the waxing and waning phases. The masculine and feminine force representing the destructive and productive states of the waning and waxing moon. The children can be seen to this day on the face of the moon carrying their water jug.
Refer to this illustration elric888.deviantart.com/art/No…
Lesser known is the idea that the moon is either the spring of Urð, or Mimir’s spring itself. Not all of the folk believed in the chariot driven moon. At some point long ago, people realized that the sun’s light shining on a well over the course of the day looked just like the phases of the moon. The moon therefore was seen as the great well of  Urð, which was tended by the Norns, who themselves are aspects of lunar phenomenon. The concept is mirrored in many pagan faiths as the maiden, mother and crone, who are always associated with the three main phases of the moon. The Norns share this threefold existence as both a single entity (the goddess/fate itself ie. ‘the Norns’) and as sisters (maiden/mother/crone, or future/present/past). The Norns have a direct correlation to the M/M/C concept. In their appearances together in artwork Skuld, the youngest of the Norns is often depicted looking forward, to the future, a mark of youth, and symbolic of the waxing moon; Verdandi is depicted as looking directly out, towards the present, neither at Skuld nor Urð. I find this symbolism fitting to the mother figure, who must keep an eye on her children in the here and now, and fits well with the full moon. Urð ( Urða, Ertha) is depicted as either looking back at Skuld, downward, or inward reflecting on the past (as an old woman might); or perhaps deep in trance, as the crone is often associated with magic and divination. She symbolizes the waning moon. Personally I feel that the modern concept of M/M/C stems directly from the belief in the Norns, but that’s a subject of  lengthy discussion all on its own. The spring of Urð had two swans swimming in it, the progenitors of all earthly swans, and they too can be seen in the moon if you know where to look.
The moon was seen as Mimir’s spring in some places as well, Mimir himself being visible as the ‘man in the moon’, complete with his drinking horn. The ‘man in the moon’ was also seen as the face of Heimdal, who was the moon itself (and in these places the sun was Bertha/Perchta). The white light of the moon easily explains why he was known as ‘the white god’. The phases of the moon correspond to different aspects of Heimdal: the crescent moon being his horn Gjallarhorn, the quarter moon his grin (one of his names was Gullintanni, or ‘shining teeth’), the half moon was the ear that he sacrificed, either that or the one he hadn’t. Add to that the notion that Heimdal needed little sleep, and it becomes clearer still, as the moon is out when everyone else is normally asleep, and itself only disappears briefly to ‘sleep’, and the connection becomes even more profound.  
The shape of a wolf can also be seen in the moon, and may account for the idea of the wolf (Hati, Managarm, or Moongarm) that chases Mani through the sky, until Ragnarok when he catches him. An eclipse of the moon was thought to be either Hati, or Fenrir about to catch the moon. When this happened people would cause quite a raucous noise in an attempt to thwart the wolf from catching his prey. The idea has it’s antithesis in the sun as well, where Skoll chases Sol through the sky. In this case the appearance of ‘sundogs’ (parhelia, which are atmospheric reflections of light from the sun, appearing on either, or both sides of the sun) may have been understood to be Skoll, visible in the sky. The appearance of a solar eclipse would, naturally, have been seen in the same way.


The God’s Nail/Polaris
The North star, Polaris was clearly an important star for navigation. It was known as Leiðarstjarna (lode-star/guiding star), the Anglo-Saxons called it ‘the ship’s star’. To Scandinavians it was known as ‘the God’s Nail’, which associates it with Thor as a chief deity. Homes were built with a central pillar dedicated to Thor, in which nails were driven. The pillar of the world, the axis around which the cosmos spin is the North Star (actually it’s a point of space very near to it), and its association with Thor is made apparent by this practice, especially when one considers that in Scandinavia Polaris is nearly overhead, and thus nearly in the center of the 'house of the sky'.


The Mouth of the Wolf, and the Road to Hel
The open star cluster known as the Hyades was known as Ulf's Keptr (the Mouth of the Wolf), and may have referred to Fenrir, but more likely referred to Garm, the wolf who guards the gates at the end of the road to Hel (the Helweg). These stars appear in the constellation we know as Taurus, the brightest of them forming a ‘V’ shape. This notion occurs in parallel with that of the Milky Way being that very road. While the name is clearly ON., it is uncertain whether the idea stems from older heathen ideas of the sky, or if the influence of encroaching Roman ideas gave rise to ‘the Mouth of the Wolf’, and the Milky Way as the road to the underworld. Another constellation dependant on these ideas is the Hellewagen, the wagon of the dead which traveled on the Helweg. This was most likely the constellation of Pegasus, located along the Milky Way.
The Milky way may also be one of the incarnations of Bifrost. While it is generally accepted that rainbows, and the aurora borealis were seen as Bifrost appearing, and allowing entry into the other worlds. The Milky Way may have been the road to the other world our ancestors knew as Bifrost, which also gives credence to the Milky Way as the road to the underworld. During the winter months when the world of the dead is closer to that of the living, the appearance of rainbows is rare. Bifrost may have appeared in several forms, being at different times a rainbow, the Milky Way, or the Northern Lights. If we suppose that the moon is Heimdal, it makes even more sense that it was the Milky Way. During the day it was a rainbow, at night the Milky Way.
Another constellation nearby the Milky way, and the Ulf's Keptr is Asar Bardagi the Gods’ Battlefield, upon which the final battle will happen. It is identified as the constellation we know as Auriga.



:bulletblack:I could continue on, but this has already grown rather lengthy, and I've covered the most important bits. I hope that this was informative, and inspiring. I’d love to see some of you incorporate these ideas into future works!

:bulletred:Anyone interested in exploring this subject deeper should read some of the articles here: timothystephany.com/nordic.htm… , also check out timothystephany.com/constellat… at the same site.

:bulletgreen:There are many aids to those wishing to explore astronomy, and help locate objects in the sky. I personally recommend the program Stellarium, I use it often to track planets, constellations and even man-made satellites :D Check it out for yourself, it’s freeware and has some nifty optional plugins: www.stellarium.org
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© 2011 - 2021 Heathen-Kindred
Comments9
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ruting's avatar
brilliant!
thank you very much for this... 

but - do you know what stars could be Thjazi's eyes? (Augu Þjassa)
Snnanagfashtalli's avatar
Fascinating! I did not know about the North Star's connection to Thor and the central pillar of a home. How appropriate for the God who defends Midgard.

Since Loki brought me into Heathenism (he was kind enough to introduce me to his friends), I think I'm now going to have a certain fondness for the star-formerly-known-as-Sirius after reading all this....
Elric888's avatar
Every time I look at the night sky, I check out how active it (Sirius) is, and wonder just what mischief Loki is up to..
:D
wanderingmage's avatar
Since Thor is not known as a crafter with his hammer (it was a battle weapon), wouldn't it make more sense for the God's Nails to connect to a deity like Weyland/Volund?
Elric888's avatar
From that point of view, sure. But the distinction here is that these central house pillars were dedicated to Thor, signifying a central place in their worship. It was in these pillars that nails were driven, presumably in a ritual dedication. Since Polaris was known to be called the God's nail, the assumption here is that they thought of it as connected to Thor. It makes sense when you consider that Thor still has a bit of iron whetstone in his head (that Groa failed to remove), and since a compass points towards the north (and Polaris) links it more closely with him.
Odins-Gift's avatar
Great! I´ve been wanting to do some research, but never found the time, thanks for the in-depth article! Now let´s rename all constellations to have a proper Norse night-sky!
Elric888's avatar
Glad to see my efforts have not been in vain, you're welcome! I'd love to be a part of re-naming the night sky :D, I've actually been thinking of doing a series of constellation art superimposed on NASA images, or other public domain photos of the sky, perhaps this will inspire others to participate as well.
Odins-Gift's avatar
Yeah, count me in! I don´t work with images much, but I can help hunt up photos. Perhaps a list with conventional vs. new Norse constellation names would be a good start.
Elric888's avatar
I've been looking through NASA's media site..man do they need to re-organize that..so far no luck finding shots of sections of the sky. In one of the links above there's some 'new' Norse constellations suggested, I like the idea of Scorpio as Nidhogg, and Cassiopea as Ratatosk, there are some others there too that make good sense. I think that it's a good place to start drawing inspiration from.
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