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Viking Age Star and Constellation Names

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

What names did the Vikings have for the constellations? Did they "see" the same sky-pictures that we identify today?

(signed) Starry-Eyed Sky-Gazer

Gentle Reader:

Jakob Grimm in Teutonic Mythology ch. 22 tells us:

"It is a very remarkable statement of Jornandes cap. 11, that in Sulla's time the Goths under Dicenaeus, exclusive of planets and signs of the zodiac, were acquainted with 344 stars that ran from east to west."

While the Germanic peoples obviously knew the night skies and had names for the objects they saw therein, as Grimm goes on to comment, few of the old names have been preserved.

Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda says in Gylfaginning:

Þá tóku þeir síur ok gneista þá, er lausir fóru ok kastat hafði ór Múspellsheimi, ok settu á mitt Ginnungap á himin bæði ofan ok neðan til at lsa himin ok jörð. Þeir gáfu staðar öllum eldingum, sumum á himni, sumar fóru lausar undir himni, ok settu þó þeim stað ok skipuðu göngu þeim. Svá er sagt í fornum vísindum, at þaðan af váru dægr greind ok áratal.

[Then they (the gods) took the sparks and burning embers that were flying about after they had been blown out of Muspellheimr, and placed them in the midst of the firmament (Ginnungagap) both above and below to give light heaven and earth. They gave their stations to all the fires, some fixed in the sky, some moved in a wandering course beneath the sky, but they appointed them places and ordained their courses.]

Vôluspá in the Poetic Edda expresses the same idea:

Sól það n vissi
hvar hún sali átti,
stjörnur það n vissu
hvar þær staði áttu,
máni það n vissi
hvað hann megins átti.


[The sun knew not
where she had her hall,
the stars knew not where they had a stead,
the moon knew not
what power he possessed.]

Elsewhere in the Poetic Edda, the poem Alvíssmál gives a complex series of astronomical synonyms attributed to the various races of the Norse cosmos, but doesn't name stars or constellations:

Þórr kvað:
"Segðu mr þat Alvíss,
- öll of rök fira
vörumk, dvergr, at vitir,
hv sá himinn heitir
erakendi,
heimi hverjum í?"

Alvíss kvað:
"Himinn heitir með mönnum,
en hlrnir með goðum,
kalla vindófni vanir,
uppheim jötnar,
alfar fagraræfr,
dvergar drjúpansal."

Þórr kvað:
"Segðu mr þat Avlíss,
- öll of rök fira
vörumk, dvergr, at vitir,
hversu máni heitir,
sá er menn sa,
heimi hverjum í?"

Alvíss kvað:
"Máni heitir með mönnum,
en mylinn með goðum,
kalla hverfanda hvl helju í,
skyndi jötnar,
en skin dvergar,
kalla alfar ártala."

Þórr kvað:
"Segðu mr þat Alvíss,
- öll of rök fira
vörumk, dvergr, at vitir,
hv sú sól heitir,
er sa alda synir,
heimi hverjum í?"

Alvíss kvað:
"Sól heitir með mönnum,
en sunna með goðum,
kalla dvergar Dvalins leika,
eygló jötnar,
alfar fagrahvl,
alskír ása synir."
Thórr said:
Say to me, Alvíss,
for it seems to me
there is nothing you do not know:
what is heaven called,
that all know,
in all the worlds there are?

Alvíss said:
Heaven it is called by men,
the Arch by gods,
Wind-Weaver by the Vanir,
by giants High-Earth,
by elves Fair-Roof
by dwarves the Dripping Hall.

Thórr said:
Say to me, Alvíss,
for it seems to me
there is nothing you do not know:
what is the moon called,
that men see,
in all the worlds there are?

Alvíss said:
Moon it is called by men,
the Ball by gods,
the Whirling Wheel in Hel,
the Speeder by giants,
the Bright One by dwarves,
by elves Tally-of-Years.

Thórr said:
Say to me, Alvíss,
for it seems to me
there is nothing you do not know:
what is the sun called,
that is seen by men,
in all the worlds there are?

Alvíss said:
Sól it is called by men,
Sunna by the gods,
by dwarves, Dvalinn's toy,
by giants Everglow,
by elves Fair-Wheel,
All-Bright by the sons of gods.



Planets

From these mentions we can certainly see that the Vikings saw and observed the difference between the fixed stars and the wandering planets.

Cleasby & Vígfusson (p. 95 s.v. dagstjarna) give dagstjarna, "day-star" as a word for the morning-star (Venus) citing it from Sólarljóð 39, but the poem is actually using the word to describe the sun: Sól ek sá / sanna dagstjörnu, "The sun I saw / true day-star".

We have one mention from Óláfr Árnarson's 1242 Third Grammatical Treatise, which uses the term merkistjarna, "mark-star" to indicate a planet, but clearly this discussion comes from a background of Continental classical education and may not reflect Viking Age usage:

Hljón at er vernr af líflausum hlutum er sumt ógreiniligt sem vinda gnr ena vatna aytr ena reinar arumur, en sumt hljón er greiniligt eptir náttúruligri samhljónan, æiri er philosophi kllunu músikám; ok vernr at hljón hit efsta ok hit æzta af hræring hringa aeira sjau er sól ok tungl ok fimm merkistjornur ganga í ær er planetæ eru kallanar, ok heitir at cælestis harmonia ena himnesk hljónagrein. Æssar stjrnur sagni Plato hafa líf ok skyn ok vera ódaunligar.

Some sound which occurs from non-living things is indistinct like the howling of winds or the roaring of waters or the rumble of thunder, but some sound is divisible (distinguishable) according to natural consonance, which philosophers called music; and the most sublime and noble sound arises from the movement of those seven rings in which the sun and moon and five 'marking' stars - which are called planets - travel, and that is called cælestis harmonia or heavenly type of sounds. Plato said that these stars have life and reason and are immortal. (Tarrin Wills. The Foundation of Grammar: An edition of the first section of Óláfr Árnarson's grammatical treatise. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Sydney, 2001.)

Unlike other Indo-European peoples such as the Greeks and Romans, we do not have surviving Old Norse names for the planets that identified them with gods in the Scandinavian pantheon, although clearly Old Norse preserved the deity/planet names in adaptation of the words for the days of the week. Ares/Mars was equated with Tr as a warrior god. Zeus/Jupiter was equated with Thórr as the god who hurled lightnings. Mercury was equated with Óðinn, since both had a role as psychompomps, the one who leads the dead to their afterlife. Aphrodite/Venus was equated with Frigga/Freyja.

Modern English Name Old Norse Name Ancient Greek Name Latin Name
Sunday Sunnudagr hemera heliou Solis dies
Monday Mánadagr hemera selenes Lunae dies
Tuesday Tsdagr hemera Areos Martis dies
Wednesday Óðinsdagr hemera Hermu Mercurii dies
Thursday Þórsdagr hemera Dios Jovis dies
Friday Frjádagr hemera Aphrodites Veneris dies
Saturday laugardagr (washing-day) hemera Khronu Saturni dies



Stars

Old Norse preserves almost no star-names, and mentions are often ambiguous. "The Star" (stjarna) indicated the constellation of the Pleiades, used for winter timekeeping at night. (Cleasby & Vígfusson An Icelandic-English Dictionary p. 594 s.v. stjarna)

However, to sailors "The Star" was the "lode-star" (leiðarstjarna) that we recognize as the North Star or Polaris today. Or the same term might instead refer to Arcturus, the brightest star of the northern hemisphere, which was also termed the vagnstjarna or "wagon-star" because of its nearness to the constellation of The Wagon (Ursa Major), which is discussed below (Cleasby & Vígfusson, loc. cit.).




Constellations

Norse literature does mention a few constellations, though these seem at times to be conceptualized as a single star rather than a sky-picture outlined by a series of nearby stars.

The Great Wagon

The first of the known Viking Age constellations is the Great Wagon or Wain, the constellation better known today as the Great Bear or Ursa Majoris. This constellation was viewed as a sky-picture, with the seven stars thought of as a four-wheeled wagon, its pole being formed by the three stars that hang downwards (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology ch. 7).

Cleasby & Vígfusson say that the Great Waggon was "in heathen times" called Óðins vagn, "Óðinn's Wagon" (p. 674 s.v. vagn). Grimm says there is no evidence of an Old Norse Óðins vagn, but believes that the phrase seems to have existed at some point in Germanic antiquity because Dutch continued to use Woonswaghen or Woenswaghen, as in the phrase sevenstarre ofde Woenswaghen, "the seven stars of Wotan's Wagon", as late as the 15th century (Teutonic Mythology ch. 7).

Cleasby & Vígfusson offers additional support for a Viking Age Óðins vagn, pointing out that the Old Norse poetry includes kennings such as vagna verr ("wagon's lord") for Óðinn (Grimm cites this same kenning as a periphrase for Thórr) or vagna grimnir, "the wagon of Grimnir", one of the heiti of Óðinn. The Eddaic poem Sigrdrífumál verse 17 has Reið Rôgnis, "the conveyance of Rôgnir" or "Rôgnir's wagon", where Rôgnir again is one of the heiti of nicknames of Óðinn. The kenning valdr vagnbrautar "ruler of the wagon-road" is found for Óðinn as well, with vagnbrautar, "the road of the wagon" being the road upon which the constellation of the Great Wagon travels, i.e., the heavens, thus "ruler of the heavens" = Óðinn (Eysteinn's Lexicon of Kennings Analytical Glossary).

Grimm mentions the Old Swedish chronicle which calls the Great Wagon karlwagen and connects it with the god Thórr, "who stepping into his chariot holds the seven stars in his hand" (Thor statt naken som ett barn, siu stjernor i handen och Karlewagn). It is true that Thórr was sometimes refered to as Karl or Karla-Þórr, "Old Man Thórr", but elsewhere in Europe the Great Wagon was considered the wagon of Charlemagne (Karl Magnus, Charles the Great), and Grimm goes on to point out that many stories of Wotan or Óðinn have been reinvented in Germanic folklore after the introduction of Christianity with Charlemagne as their hero. (Teutonic Mythology ch. 22).

Aurvandill's Toe

The story of Aurvandill is mentioned only once in Norse Mythology, in the Skáldskaparmál section of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda:

Þórr fór heim til Þrúðvanga, ok stóð heinin í hôfði honum. Þá kom til vôlva sá, er Gróa ht, kona Aurvandils ins frækna. Hon gól galdra sína yfir Þór, til þess er heinin losnaði. En er Þórr fann þat ok þótti þá ván, at braut myndi ná heininni, þá vildi hann launa Gró lækninguna ok gera hana fegna, sagði henni þau tíðendi, at hann hafði vaðit norðan yfir Élivága ok hafði borit í meis á baki sr Aurvandil norðan úr Jôtunheimum, ok þat til jartegna, at ein rá hans hafði staðit úr meisinum, ok var sú frerin, svá at Þórr braut af ok kastaði upp á himin ok gerði af stjôrnu þá, er heitir Aurvandilstá. Þórr sagði, at eigi myndi langt til, at Aurvandill myndi heim koma, en Gróa varð svá fegin, at hon mundi enga galdra, ok varð heinin eigi lausari ok stendr enn í hôfði Þór, ok er þar boðit til varnanar at kasta hein of gólf þvert, því at þá hrærist heinin í hôfði Þór. Eftir þessi sôgu hefir ort Þjóðólfr hvinverski í Haustlông.

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.

It is not known today which star the Vikings identified as Aurvandill's Toe. Old English has the name Éarendel, which is cognate to Norse Aurvandill, and used it to refer to the morning star (Venus), as in the Old English poem Crist I (ll. 104108) by Cynewulf:

ala arendel engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnum sended
and sodfasta sunnan leoma,
tohrt ofer tunglas þu tida gehvane
of sylfum þe symle inlihtes.


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.

J.R.R. Tolkien was inspired by the Anglo-Saxon figure, and transformed it into his own star-hero, again identified with the morning star. Tolkien himself said that he saw Cynewulf's poem as "rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology".

Hail Eärendil, of mariners most renowned,
the looked for that cometh at unawares,
the longed for that cometh beyond hope!
Hail Eärendil, bearer of light before the Sun and Moon!
Splendour of the Children of Earth,
star in the darkness,
jewel in the sunset,
radiant in the morning!

Others believe Aurvandill's Toe to be the star Rigel (Beta Orionis), the bright blue star which makes up the right foot of the constellation we identify today as Orion the Hunter (See Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet's Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time, Boston, David R. Godine, 1999, p. 354. Also Cleasby & Vígfusson An Icelandic-English Dictionary p. 594 s.v. stjarna.)

The Eyes of Thjazi

The tale of how the eyes of the giant Thiazi became a constellation is recounted in the Skáldskaparmál section of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda.

The goddess Iðunn had been captured by the giant Thjazi with the connivance of Loki. Without the youth-giving golden apples of Iðunn, the gods withered and grew old. They gathered to discuss the matter, and deduced that Loki had been involved. Under threat of death, Loki was sent to get the goddess back. Loki flew off to accomplish this task, wearing the magical falcon-cloak belonging to the goddess Freyja. Loki rescues Iðunn, but in the escape Thjazi is killed, and the gods are forced to make amends to the giant's surviving daughter, Skaði. The gods in compensation offered Skaði the right to choose a husband from among their number, but with the condition that she could choose only by viewing the feet of the gods. Skaði selected the most beautiful feet, thinking that she had chosen the bright god Baldr, but instead found she would marry Njôrð of Nóatún, a god of the sea-coasts. Another part of the compensation was that the gods had to make Skaði laugh, which was accomplished by Loki, who tethered a goat to his own testicles, presenting such a bizarre spectacle that Skaði laughed despite herself. Last of all, a final compensation for the slaying of Thjazi was offered:

Svá er sagt, at Óðinn gerði þat til yfirbóta við Skaða, at hann tók augu Þjaza ok kastaði upp á himin ok gerði af stjôrnur tvær.

We are told that Óðin compensated her by taking Thjazi's eyes and throwing them up into the sky, making of them two stars.

We are not certain which stars were identified as the Eyes of Thjazi, but most scholars assume the constellation to represent two stars in our modern constellation Gemini, the Twins, which appears high overhead in mid-winter, above and to the left of Orion. The two brightest stars, Castor and Pollux (Alpha Gemini and Beta Gemini), are assumed to be the Eyes of Thjazi. (See Cleasby & Vígfusson An Icelandic-English Dictionary p. 594 s.v. stjarna, and Grimm's Teutonic Mythology ch. 22).

Frigga's Distaff

The last of the constellations which may belong to the Viking Age is Friggjarrokkr, Frigga's Distaff, the three bright stars that make up the belt of the constellation we know today as Orion the Hunter. Grimm cites this name from the Swedish Friggerock, and also Frejerock or Fröjas rock (Teutonic Religion ch. 13 and ch. 22).




Medieval Words Relating to Astronomical Concepts

Rímbegla, a 12th-century Icelandic computational treatise, lists a number of names for stars and planets, but we don't know if these concepts reach back to the Viking Age. Some of these may be found in Cleasby & Vígfusson's An Icelandic-English Dictionary:

Rímbegla Term Translation Source
blóðstjarna "bloody star", probably Mars p. 70 s.v. blóð-stjarna
höfuðstjarna "chief star" p. 308 s.v. höfuð-stjarna
meginstjarna "main star", a star of first order p. 421 s.v. megin
morgunstjarna "morning star" p. 435 s.v. morgun-stjarna
stjörnubókarmaðr "star-book-man", an astronomer p. 594 s.v. stjarna
stjörnumark "star-mark", a constellation p. 594 s.v. stjarna


Cleasby & Vígfusson's An Icelandic-English Dictionary also offers other words related to astronomical concepts taken from medieval texts that date after the end of the Viking Age, as well as terms for which no source is explicitly named. Again, we don't know if these words reflect Viking Age usages:

Icelandic Term Translation Source
aptanstjarna "evening star" p. 23 s.v. aptan-stjarna. Alexanders saga 54, Stjórn 92
blástjarna "blue star", i.e. Hesperus p. 68 s.v. blá-stjarna. Snót (a collection of poems from 1852)
Friggjarstjarna "Frigg's star", i.e., Venus p. 174 s.v. Frigg. Clements saga 26
Hundastjarna "the dog-star", Sirius p. 292 s.v. hundr
Lokabrenna "Loki's brand; Loki's torch", Sirius. Under brenna Cleasby says, "According to Finn Magnusson (Lex. Mythol.) Sirius is called Loka brenna, 'the conflagration of Loki', referring to the end of the world." p. 79 s.v. brenna; p. 594 s.v. stjarna
sjaustirni "the seven-star", i.e., the Pleiades p. 533 s.v. sjau
stjörnubók "star-book", a register of stars p. 594 s.v. stjarna
stjörnufrœði "star-knowledge", astronomy p. 594 s.v. stjarna
stjörnufrœðinger "star-scholar", astronomer p. 594 s.v. stjarna
stjörnugangr "star-going, star-journey", the course of the stars p. 594 s.v. stjarna. Alexanders saga, Barlaams saga, Maríu saga
stjörnuhrap "falling-down star", a shooting star p. 282 s.v. hrap, p. 594 s.v. stjarna
stjörnuíþrótt astronomy p. 594 s.v. stjarna. Stjórn (an Old Testament paraphrase), Alexanders saga
stjörnulist astronomy p. 594 s.v. stjarna. Fornaldar Sögur iii, 497
stjörnuljós star-light p. 594 s.v. stjarna. Fornmanna Sögur i, 54
stjörnumeistari an astrologer p. 594 s.v. stjarna. Barlaams saga 7
stjörnurím astrology p. 594 s.v. stjarna. Stjórn 278, Barlaams saga 189
stjörnu-vegr "a star-way", constellation p. 594 s.v. stjarna. Karlmagnús saga 129



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