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Norse constellations

Norse constellations.
By Jonas Persson
Most people have some knowledge of the Greek mythology and that the western
constellations come from them. As a Scandinavian it is natural to think about the Norse
mythology and constellations, this is an attempt to bring some light on the Norse
One thing to remember is that we do not know a lot of which names and constellations they
used. Despite a rich oral and written tradition very little has been preserved, why the material
is meagre. There are two major problems, the use of Latin and Greek/roman names during the
medieval period, and the nationalistic Romantic 19th century, where “new” names and
tradition arose. Even today the ”New Age” movement invents new names and traditions. It is
therefore important to look for reliable (?) sources.
Our main source of Norse mythology comes from the Eddas, the poetic Edda and prosaic
(Snorre Sturlason’s) Edda. But there exist other sources with surprisingly little references to
the sky, as we know the mastery of the Norse navigation and seamanship, something that
indicates a fair knowledge of astronomy for navigation.
Observations of the stars and the sun are important for navigation, but also as a way of telling
time. Local landmarks are used in combination with observations to tell the time. But one
notices that the Vikings were aware of the difference of “sun-time” and “star-time”. The
existence of a Norse calendar is mentioned in the Icelandic chronicle “Íslendingabók”, where
a calendar reform around AD955. A calendar used from the 8th century till the 12th century,
when the Julian calendar where introduced. It is likely that the Icelandic calendar where based
on astronomical observations.
We find in the Icelandic literature a man, Odd Helgason, ”Star-Oddi”, who had a reputation to
be a skilful astronomer. A text supposedly originating from him includes the winter- and
summer solstice [1]. The text shows his astronomical skills, which shows a tradition for
astronomical observations, something that lost its importance with an increased literacy and
an increased number of foreign and Icelandic books. Here we find an encyclopaedic text on
Astronomy which has survived [2].
Stars and constellations in the Eddas.
In Völuspa the origin of the stars and planets are mentioned, as well as their end at Ragnarök.
The world was created from the body of the giant Ymer. His skull forms the firmament and is
held in place by four dwarfs, where sparks from Muspellheim forms the stars. Their place in
the sky was determined by the gods and some were given paths where they will roam.
In prosaic Edda, which is a textbook on writing poetry, we find more stories where stars are
mentioned. As in the Greek mythology how they ended up in the sky.
In Skáldskaparmál, the story of Tjatse is told. Tjatse managed, with the assistance of Loki, to
kidnap Iden, the keeper of the apples of youth, from Asgard. Loki managed to save her but
was pursued by Tjatse who got killed. Tjatses daughter Skade came and demanded
compensation for her father. The compensation were among other things a husband. In
addition Odin or Thor placed Tjatses eyes in the sky, which stars they are we do not know.
The other story where a star or constellation is mentioned is in the epilogue of the fight
between Thor and the giant Hrungne. Thor was injured in the fight, a small piece of stone got
stuck in his head. In order to get it out he sought help from a Vala, a type of oracle, named
Groa. When Thor felt that the stone were coming out, he told Groa that he helped her husband
Aurvandil, to escape from the land of the giants. During the escape Aurvandil froze hit big
toe, which Thor broke off and throw up to the sky to become a star or a constellation,
Aurvandils toe. This made Groa so happy that she forgot her magic and Thor still has that
piece of stone in his head.
There exist a number of possible candidates of ”Aurvandils toe”. Rigel is one possibility, as
“Orion” is associated with Thor in other myths. Richard Allen [3] identifies ”Orwandil”1 as
the Norse name of Orion, and Rigel as one of ”Orwandils” toes. The broken-off toe is
according to Allen, Alcor, since he was riding in Thors chariot (Mans chariot, i.e. The Big
Dipper). But this is hardly the case as he was carried on Thors back according to the myth.
”Aurvandils toe” might also be Corona Borealis, partly the likeness with a toe. But there are
also other indications making this identification the most likely. Corona Borealis is a spring
constellation which is of importance. In ”Gesta danorum" written by Saxo Grammaticus [4],
one finds a story of a King, Horwendil, who is fighting a duel with a Norwegian king, Koller
(cold). The duel ends with Horwendil cutting off Kollers foot and thus killing him. This story
is probably based on an old myth of the fight between seasons, making Kollers foot or
“Aurvandils toe” a sign of spring or summers victory over the cold winter.
There is another interesting object in the Eddas, Bifrost, often identified as the name of the
rainbow or the Milky Way. There are these two interpretations. In the north-western European
tradition the rainbow is the road of the dead. This road is in Norse mythology called the road
to Hel, the realm of the dead. But the rainbow is also the road to the “other” world. The name
Bifrost originates from two words, bif, the shimmering, the trembling or the multi coloured,
and rost, road. In the poetic Edda, Bifrost is described as the shimmering road and as the road
to Asgard, something that is inconsistent with the rainbow.
Rudolf Simek [5] identifies Bifrost as the rainbow, while Jan de Vries [6] concentrates on the
notion of the shimmering road, thus identifying Bifrost as the Milky Way. There are other
circumstantial evidence, Heimdall, the guardian of Bifrost lives in a house ”high up in the
sky”. In arctic and subarctic cultures, the Milky Way is the road to the world of the dead. The
dark period of the year is also the time when the dark forces and the dead are closer to our
world, but during this period rainbows are very rare, while the Milky Way is visible. So
Bifrost is probably a mix, during the day it is the rainbow, while being the Milky Way at
night, an indication of influences from different cultures.
Stars in encyclopaedic litterature.
The literature that survived, originates from 1150-1400, why it is possible that it has been
influenced by continental material. This is indicated by the use of names that is more or less a
direct translation of the Latin names. The author must have known the old Norse names but
used the Latin names instead.
Aurvandil, Orwandil, Horwandil and Erendil are different forms of the same name.
In Beckman and Kålund’s compilation [7] of Rimtöl they present five constellations that
appear to have the old norse names:
"Ulf's Keptr", Mouth of the Wolf, Hyades
”Fiskikarlar”, Fishermen, Orion’s belt
”Kvennavagn”, Womans chariot; Ursa Minor
”Karlvagn”, Mans chariot; The big dipper
”Asar bardagi”, The Asar battlefield, Auriga
The mouth of the Wolf ("Ulf's Keptr"), Hyades, show an resemblance of a wolfs mouth. In
norse mythology there are two wolfs hunting the sun and the moon. The mouth of the Wolf is
close to the ecliptic, and can be interpreted as one of these wolfs. An alternative explanation is
that it symbolises the Fenrir Wolf, whose mouth is held open with a sword, The milky way is
then formed by the foam from his mouth. But this is not supported by the myth, as Fenrir was
chained underground. If the Milky Way is the road to Hel, the wolf could be Garm, who is
guarding the entrance to Hel.
Gislason [8] mentions a second Mouth of the wolf, in the vicinity of Andromeda, this might
be stars in Pieces, as they are close to the ecliptic.
However the two wolfs in the sky can be interpret as one running in front of the sun and one
after. This might be the origin of the word Sundog, parhelia. The Danish name is a direct
translation of the English or rather vice versa.
Orion is a well know constellation, and there are a number of names on Orions belt of Norse
origin. Beckman and Kålunds [7] use ”Fiskikarlar”, the fishermen. Another name is ”Friggs
distaff”. These names seem to be used locally, the fishermen are used in Norway and on
Iceland, while Friggs distaff is used in Sweden.
One of the most well known constellations is The Big Dipper, the Plogh or Charles’s wain,
which in the Nordic countries are called ”Karlavagnen”, the chariot of Karl or man. The
wagon is easily identified, but the origin of the name is a source for discussions. One theory is
that is is named after Charlemange (Karl in Scandinavia) and of medieval origin. But if we
look at the older Norse name, we find ”Karlsvagn” (Man’s chariot) but also ”Kvennavagn”
(woman’s Chariot) as the name of Ursa Minor. This might indicate a connection between the
constellations and that the names are much older, with a possibility that specific names have
been used during different periods in history. This means that Thor might be the Man as well
as Freya, being the woman, both travelling by chariots according to the myths. We also might
have a connection with the Nerthus cult, described by roman authors.
One constellation which has a peculiar name is Auriga, which is called ”asar bardagi”. The
battlefield or the fight of the asar. Beckman and Kålund interpret this name as Thor’s Fight,
probably based on the Greek name. But asar is plural, so it might indicate the final battle for
all asar, that is Ragnarök. The neighbouring constellations are equally horrifying, with The
Mouth of The Wolf, and the Milky Way as The road of the dead, in the vicinity.
Among the stars three have special names:
Arcturus; Dagstjarna, Day star.
Polaris; Leidarstjarna, Guiding star
Vega; Sudrstjarna, South star
Vega is visible in the southern sky during summer and in south at midnight during summer
Polaris is always in north, and have probably been used for navigation, hence its name.
But why call a star Day star? (The finnish name for arcturus is ”Aurinkontähti”, sunstar) we
know that the sun does not follow star time, why there shouldn’t exist a specific star that
following the sunrise. But at the latitudes of Scandinavia, especially around the Arctic Circle,
the sunrise follows star time during the first months of the year. So an intense star visible
before sunrise during late winter and spring, will indicate that the sun is coming and the
refereed to as the day star, that is Arcturus.
We also find an indication of a star in folklore, especially in a popular Swedish Christmas
song, with medieval origin. The interesting lines go like this:
Det är väl ingen dager än,
Fast Eder tyckes så,
Det är den ljusa stjärnan
Som för dagen plägar gå.
”There is no sign of dawn
Even if it seems to be
It is the shining star
Promising the day to come”
This song is sung around Christmas, when Arcturus is in the right position. Arcturus is also
called Day star in some parts of Norway today.
The Norse societies had a considerable knowledge of astronomy and quite possibly their own
constellations and names of stars. These names have been lost, apart from some fragments
from written sources and within the folklore. The literature was probably written down by
persons who had some kind of education, including in astronomy, why they used the Latin
names. But the small fragments that exist give a picture of this lost culture that might increase
when more notes are found in the Icelandic archives.
1. Roslund Curt, Stjärn-Oddi: En vikingatida astronom på Island, Astronomisk årsbok, s 28,
1984 (in Swedish)
2. Beckman, N. and Kålund, Kr. (1914-16). Alfræði íslenzk: Islandsk encyklo-pædisk
litteratur: II. Rímtöl [Encyclopaedic literature on the calendar]. s 48-53 (in Swedish).
3. Richard Hinckley Allen, Star Names; Their lore and meaning
4. Saxo Grammaticus, ”Gesta danorum" (In Latin)
5. Rudolf Simek, The Dictionary of Northen Mythology
6. Jan de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte (in German)
7. Beckman, N. and Kålund, Kr. (1914-16). Alfræði íslenzk: Islandsk encyklo-pædisk
litteratur: II. Rímtöl [Encyclopaedic literature on the calendar]. s 72. (in Swedish)
8. Gislason, K. Fire og fyrretyve for en stor Deel forhen utrykte Prøver af oldnordisk Sprog
og Litteratur. (København: Gyldendalska bogh. 1860) (in Danish)