Odin, Vili, and Ve, kill the giant Ymir, with assorted scenes from the life of Ymir, illustration by Lorenz Frølich, published in Nordens Guder by Adam Oehlenschläger, 1885.
Ymir was an ancient primeval being present before the cosmos had form; he was the ancestor of the entire race of jötnar who were Thor’s eternal enemies. In the Norse creation myth, much of life and the cosmos itself came from the body of Ymir.
Ymir did not give his body willingly. Odin and his brothers struck down the first giant and designed all of creation from his remains. From Grímnismál:
40. Out of Ymir’s flesh | was fashioned the earth,
And the ocean out of his blood;
Of his bones the hills, | of his hair the trees,
Of his skull the heavens high.
41. Midgard the gods | from his eyebrows made,
And set for the sons of men;
And out of his brain | the baleful clouds
They made to move on high.”
And also from Gylfaginning in the Prose Edda edited by Snorri Sturluson:
Then said Thridi: “They took [Ymir’s] skull also, and made of it the heaven, and set it up over the earth with four corners; and under each corner they set a dwarf: the names of these are East, West, North, and South. Then they took the glowing embers and sparks that burst forth and had been cast out of Múspellheim, and set them in the midst of the Yawning Void, in the heaven, both above and below, to illumine heaven and earth. They assigned places to all fires: to some in heaven, some wandered free under the heavens; nevertheless, to these also they gave a place, and shaped them courses. It is said in old “songs, that from these the days were reckoned, and the tale of years told, as is said in Völuspá:
The sun knew not | where she had housing;
The moon knew not | what Might he had;
The stars knew not | where stood their places.
Thus was it ere | the earth was fashioned.”
Those lines about Ymir’s skull and the heavens are significant for us this week with heavy coverage of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. What did the Vikings and their forebears think of the heavens built of Ymir’s skull? How much attention did this civilization of farmers and seafarers pay to astronomy?
With so few written records, it’s difficult to say for sure exactly how much attention the ancient northern Europeans paid to the stars and the sky. But from the records we do have, we can make quite a few deductions and inferences. In fact, it seems likely that astronomy was an essential part of Norse culture mythologically and as a technical component of their daily lives.
While Norse tradition was primarily passed down orally rather than by the written word, we can’t assume that northern Europe was devoid of relatively advanced technology or generations of accumulated knowledge. In particular, we have evidence of some of this technological skill: the seafaring adventures of many northern Europeans to distant destinations, running from points all throughout continental Europe, to western Asia, the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and even far West to North America. Trips of extended time and distance required not only shipbuilding and sailing skill, but also, quite importantly, a deep understanding of navigation and astronomy. Our knowledge of the Germanic peoples as farmers is also a strong argument in favor of knowledge of the stars, as agriculture is greatly aided by careful attention to the sun, the moon, and the stars.
Since we have no written records of Norse star charts, though, we have to do some work to reconstruct how any of these practices would have worked.
Scholarship over the past two hundred years has taken up this challenge from time to time, and in the past twenty years especially, we’ve started to make additional progress. A solid working thesis worth considering from this scholarship is that the Eddas themselves are a source of knowledge about Viking astronomy.
Consider the quotations that began this post. The Eddas tell us of the creation of the cosmos from the body of Ymir and the creation of the heavens from his skull. We learn that the stars were originally the sparks of the flames of Muspellheim, the land of fire, repurposed by the gods. Four dwarfs aided navigation as sentinels of the cardinal directions.
There’s much to learn just from these quotes, but let’s start with something obvious. A skull is a roughly spherical object, and for our purposes, let’s assume that the skull of the first giant was perfectly spherical. Perhaps only half a sphere was used – whether the Norse were aware Midgard itself was a sphere (an oblate spheroid, actually) or thought it was flat is irrelevant for now.
If you stand in a field or on a mountain or on a ship in the ocean, you see the horizon as a line that surrounds you; as you turn in a circle to see its full extent, you see the horizon as a circle with you the center point. You also see the sun, the moon, and the stars rise and set as if they were inscribing the inside of a dome or sphere. The Norse creation myth, that results with humans in the middle of a spherical skull that has sparks arrayed all about its insides is a worthy model of that lived experience.
Recognizing this point leads to another: star charts, at least those intended to describe the stars as we see them at night, are written inside circles. Drawing stars and constellations on a square or rectangular sheet of paper doesn’t make sense when our experience of the stars is that they encircle us to the horizon’s edge.
There’s more evidence linking the Norse cosmology to our more familiar conceptions of astronomy. For instance, there’s substantial evidence that important numbers used in the Eddas are there because of their importance to sexagesimal (base 60) number systems. This likely comes from a shared history with the ancient Sumerians, who are believed to have created most of the early practices of astronomy, including using 360 degrees for a circle, which is aided immensely by the use of a sexagesimal number system.
Grímnismál contains a description of twelve key houses of the gods, which is both a sexagesimal number and may be houses in the sky, perhaps like signs of the zodiac. Alvismál, discussed previously, is essentially a catalogue of various mythological entities and can be interpreted as a coded description of various astronomical phenomena and their various names.
This evidence isn’t exactly conclusive: much of this research is spent trying to find hidden meanings in writing where the author was legally barred from discussing astronomy (the famous scholar Snorri Sturluson who compiled the Prose Edda in the 13th century lived in a time when such things were banned as too pagan for a universally Christian society), or in oral poems written down for the first time after these traditions had mostly died out (the Poetic Edda), which were most likely memorized by significant numbers of society and supplemented with explanations of details that haven’t been passed down to us.
But some evidence can seem to make a solid case. For instance, have a look at Yggdrasil, the World Tree that houses the nine realms of lore. It has three roots, a serpent gnawing on a root, an eagle at the top, and so on. In one artist’s conception (right), you can see how such a giant tree would make sense within a giant spherical or ovoid conception of the universe, with various features at different points within the three-dimensional model.
But then there’s the real world analogue to how Yggdrasil would have appeared to the Norse: the Milky Way galaxy itself. It’s worth noting that in other parts of the world, you might see the Milky Way as a curving river. In Northern Europe, though, the Milky Way, as pictured below, is a massive pillar that rises straight out of the ground itself. That awesome pillar of stars may have inspired many a tale all on its own.
If the Norse conception of the constellations above came from interactions with other Europeans, or ancient contact with the Sumerians, or maybe more likely, from a common Proto-Indo-European root, then we can expect that some astronomy-related practices were similar. Catasterism, the practice of placing gods, heroes, and other notable mythological figures into constellations, was likely practiced by the Norse if they followed the patterns of related cultures. Constellations devised by the Norse most likely resembled stories from their mythology.
Perhaps one group of stars was Ratatosk the squirrel or another Heimdall and his Gjallarhorn. Perhaps the constellation that today is handed down as Scorpio is instead the dragon/serpent Niddhogg gnawing at the roots of mighty Yggdrasil. Or perhaps the constellations were quite a bit different than these. Perhaps the Milky Way represented another mythological concept for the Norse entirely than the great ash tree, like the walls of Asgard, one suggestion among several possible. But without the light pollution of today and with longer nights in winter, the opportunity for study was ever present. Even in some of the more dreary areas of Scandinavia, the stars were out enough that they could capture the imaginations of farmers, sailors, craftspeople, and the well-educated alike.
But there is another possibility as well. While the stars are mostly stable, merely rotating with the seasons and moving about slightly as Earth completes its orbit around the sun, the skies are not still even on cloudless nights. The moon flies from horizon to horizon, changing shape (going through phases) over the course of its cycle. The sun, too, travels from horizon to horizon. Shooting stars, or the bright trails of meteoroids, burn through the sky from time to time. Meteor showers occur frequently, with a few major events occurring annually when Earth passes through meteor or asteroid clouds. Comets brighten the sky on regular schedules, too, but those schedules are sometimes so extremely long that generations pass before the comets reappear. The northern lights shine down frequently as well.
And the planets move about their orbits, looking much like stars but moving in ways that none of the other stars do. Other Indo-European civilizations give the names of gods to these planets, and for good reason: if all the heavens were fixed in place, representing ancient heroes, or the sparks of ancient creation, then what do you make of ancient powers that move? Perhaps they’re the beings orchestrating all the objects, mobile and immobile, that appear in the heavens.
There’s another possibility, too. As an ancient people who had thousands of years to look up at the sky as they sought aid for their farms or guidance to travel to new and distant lands, the Norse had a great deal of time for their myths to react to changes in the stars. They might have seen activity among their gods and heroes in the heavens and crafted new stories for them based on the activity they saw in the night sky. Two planets near each other when a meteorite falls between them might mean one thing, or a meteor shower occurring during an eclipse might mean another. The possibilities are endless.*
The point is, we can’t expect these ancestors of today’s civilizations to have had static beliefs that never changed, and given what we know of the relationships of the Norse to other Indo-European societies, and the probability that the skies were an important part of their daily lives, there are many possibilities for how the night sky (and the day sky) might have represented and influenced their beliefs. There is a great deal of research yet to be done into the ethnoastronomy of the Norse.
Even though the Vikings and their ancestors probably never saw Pluto, much of our excitement this week was undoubtedly part of their lives as well. They looked up and saw all the beauty and tragedy of creation just as we do. That they did their examining with simpler tools makes their insights no less profound.
* This is a good place to remind the reader that I am not an expert in this field, and my “endless possibilities” may well have been whittled to “just a few possibilities” by someone who has spent more than a week learning this subject.