While I’ve previously discussed astronomical knowledge of the Vikings, and revisited that a bit when discussing whether the Vikings believed Earth is flat, I’ve mostly glossed over the two most important astronomical objects in our sky: the sun and the moon. They’re part of the naming system for the days of the week (Sunday and Monday) that’s been passed down to us, so they’re clearly part of the pre-Christian Germanic mythological structure, but how do they figure in?
As you might expect, given their prominence in the sky, the sun and the moon are related to one another: the sun goddess is called Sól or in some places Sunna and is the sister of the moon god Máni. As with other gods in the pre-Christian Germanic worldview, they are the personification of the forces that animate the sun and the moon, not so much beings independent of the bright objects we see in the sky but intimately connected with them.
There are a couple of notable mentions of them in the literary sources.
In Voluspa, a poem frequently referenced because of its descriptions of cosmology, relationships, and prophecy of Ragnarok, describes them:
5. The sun, the sister | of the moon, from the south
Her right hand cast | over heaven’s rim;
No knowledge she had | where her home should be,
The moon knew not | what might was his,
The stars knew not | where their stations were.
This fifth stanza is located just after Odin and his brothers created the land from the body of the primordial giant Ymir, so here the poet is describing how so early in creation Sol and Mani didn’t really understand their purpose, where to go or how to act. The Germanic cosmos was disordered and chaotic in its earliest days, and the gods had to make order from that chaos.
In Vafthruthnismal, we learn of the purpose of Sol and Mani, and a name for their father:
23. “Mundilferi is he | who begat the moon,
And fathered the flaming sun;
The round of heaven | each day they run,
To tell the time for men.”
But both Sol and Mani are chased by wolves throughout their lives, as detailed in Grimnismal:
39. Skoll is the wolf | that to Ironwood
Follows the glittering god,
And the son of Hrothvitnir, | Hati, awaits
The burning bride of heaven.
These two wolves, Skoll and Hati, are identified elsewhere as the children of Fenrir, the wolf who took one of Tyr’s hands and who will swallow Odin whole at Ragnarok. They finally succeed in their attempts to chase down the sun and moon at Ragnarok. It’s worth pointing out that only the sun is explicitly mentioned as being destroyed at Ragnarok, but given the fact that wolves chase both and a wolf (in one obscure poem Fenrir himself) is definitively identified as stealing (or killing or swallowing) the sun, it seems likely the other major celestial traveler will have fallen as well.
Of course, this adds to the imagery of natural disaster surrounding Ragnarok, the swollen seas, the quaking of Yggdrasil, the flames wrought by the giant Surt. But it also describes real phenomena – the solar and lunar eclipse, so that we might understand the eclipses that occur in normal life to be instances of the wolves almost catching their prey, with Sol or Mani narrowly escaping, and at Ragnarok, they are captured at last.
After Ragnarok, a new sun will take her mother’s place to begin the cycle of life anew.
As seen in the featured image above, Sol and Mani are believed to shine brightly as they ride through the sky in a chariot drawn by horses, a sight with which you are likely familiar given similar motifs in other mythologies.
It’s difficult to say exactly how prominent Sol and Mani were in daily belief and ritual among the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, but they were not accounted for in descriptions by the Roman scholar Tacitus in the first century CE or by Adam of Bremen’s account a thousand years later. The extent to which solstice festivals focused on Sol is unclear, but as described previously, they were typically focused on other deities with roles in agriculture and battle against chaos, so it seems unlikely either Sol or her brother were major parts of these festivals, though they likely had a role of some sort.
There is one especially well-known artifact of sun worship among the Germanic peoples, a sun chariot discovered in Trundholm, Zealand, Denmark. This statue shows a horse pulling a large disc behind it, and one side of the disc is gilded, indicating the brightness we associate with the sun. The sun chariot is dated to around 1800 to 1600 BCE, though – well before anything resembling the religious practices we call “Norse mythology” or the peoples we call Vikings. Whether the sun chariot indicates greater prominence of sun worship in earlier belief relative to later belief is hard to say.
Given the fact that the sun is the source of all life on Earth and, in fact, the Earth itself, we might expect a cult of a sun god to be dominant in most societies. And, in fact, it often is. Even in other major sources of Western culture like the Roman and Greek cultures, sun gods are better known and attested than are Sol and Mani.
What’s the difference? My own speculation leads me to believe that geography is the culprit here. Celtic mythology also doesn’t have a dominant sun/moon god, but other Indo-European cultures do, including the major Baltic god Saule, the Hindu Surya. Sun gods are big deals in Africa, Asia, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Most of these cultures, though, are much closer to the equator than the Germanic peoples I’ve focused on here. Most especially, the surviving literature made its way to Iceland, particularly far north, and along with much of Scandinavia and other Viking territories, had a different relationship with the sun than most of the world, since at that latitude days are substantially shorter for much of the year, temperatures are colder, and in some areas, the sun completely disappears for extended periods.
The moon and its associated deities are less remarkable in most societies. Interestingly, northern Europeans favor nights as the period by which to mark time, and counted major periods by the moon(th) rather than the day or the year.
In terms of their role in the Germanic pantheon, maybe there’s also something going on about how the sun and the moon move very predictably, and gods are believed to have more autonomy than the sun and the moon exhibit, so their restricted movement indicated they weren’t as big a deal as far as a pantheon of gods goes. This seems possible, but doubtful.
In any case, it seems likely that Sól and Máni, while not as important as might be expected given their astronomical importance, are still noteworthy. After all, they’re one of the first forces mentioned in the creation myth, and Sól is one of the first deities attacked at Ragnarok. Control over these elements is necessary for either order or chaos to surge ahead in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.