Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives

  Hermann, Pernille, Stephen A. Mitchell, and Jens Peter Schjødt, eds., with Amber J. Rose. 2017. Old Norse Mythology—Comparative Perspectives. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 3. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_HermannP_etal_eds.Old_Norse_Mythology.2017.

The Mythic Sun: An Areal Perspective

Thomas A. DuBois, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Abstract: Old Norse materials regarding the sun present conflicting stories about its identity and nature. These contradictions are examined in light of folk song materials and other evidence from Balto-Finnic, Sámi, and Baltic cultures to investigate to what extent a shared mythic narrative of a female sun (or sun’s daughter) may have existed as a common element in Nordic/Baltic mythologies and whether that figure enters into marriage with other astral figures (e.g., the moon, the stars). Methodologically, the paper investigates the extent to which folk song materials—central in the reconstruction of Finnish and Baltic mythologies but largely rejected in the field of Old Norse studies—can serve as useful tools in reconstructing ancient myths in the region.

Anyone familiar with Old Norse mythology will have noticed certain discrepancies with respect to conceptualizations of the sun. In a region beset with extreme shifts in the daylight regimen and long, frigid winters, one would think that the sun would be one astral being about which much would be said, and that, as a result, the sun’s mythological representation would show a great deal of consistency and continuity. Instead, however, as I hope to demonstrate in the following discussion, the sun in Old Norse mythology seems to be depicted in differing, contradictory fashions. The sun is sometimes described as an unpersonified flame or disk, while in other cases, the sun figures as a female deity, or a deified earthling consigned to the sky. Perennially chased by wolves, the sun will eventually be swallowed or extinguished in the tumultuous events at the end of the world. Before her demise, however, she will have given birth to a daughter, who will follow in her footsteps in the reconstituted new cosmos (Vafðrúðnismál st. 47; Gylfaginning p. 54).

My question in surveying this range of accounts of the sun and her fate is to ask to what extent an areal—Nordic-Baltic—perspective can in some ways shed light on the seeming contradictions in the sun’s image and treatment described above. In the following, I sketch the main lines of sun mythology in Old Norse, Balto-Finnic, Sámi, and Baltic (Latvian) traditions, with an eye to understanding whether there could have been, if not downright borrowing of mythic ideas from one culture to the next in the Nordic-Baltic region, then at least an awareness of neighboring peoples’ understandings of the sun, awareness that could have translated into the incorporation of mythic elements that do not necessarily cohere logically, but that account for the various conceptualizations of the sun operative in the region.

In order to make an areal comparison, I need to examine, and to some extent accept, the validity of research methods in Finnish, Karelian, Estonian, Sámi, and Latvian scholarship that make use of song materials committed to writing long after the end of the Middle Ages. I do so with the cognizance that medievalists tend to avoid using such evidence, and that much may have changed in detail from the thirteenth century of Snorri Sturluson to the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries of folklorist collectors like Elias Lönnrot, F. Reinhold Kreutzwald, Anders Fjellner, or Krišjānis Barons. But I would like to suggest that we can posit certain continuities nonetheless, particularly if we keep our analysis on the level of broad formations rather than minute details, and provided we follow the well-founded judgments of scholars in these fields regarding measures of likely antiquity—broad distribution, continuity between earliest and later recordings of a given motif, and careful appraisal of possible borrowings from written or adjacent oral traditions over time. What I would like to suggest is that the folk songs sung by non-literate Latvian, Estonian, Karelian, Finnish and Sámi singers over a broad geographic expanse are probably qualitatively quite distinct from the Scandinavian ballad tradition to which they are often compared and should be regarded as a valuable potential source of comparative evidence for illuminating aspects of pre-Christian Nordic mythology. [1]

The sun in Old Norse sources

Images apparently of the sun figure prominently on the Gotlandic picture stones, where they are accorded a prominent place at the top center of the stones, a placement later occupied by images of the god Óðinn, or later still, by the Christian Cross (Andrén 2014). The images of these earliest Gotlandic stones, which date to the early Viking Age or even before, suggest a sun understood as a swirling flame, a pinwheel of fire. In two places in Skáldskaparmál, Snorri enumerates a wide range of sun epithets that closely match this unpersonified flame. In one passage, he calls the sun “Eldr himins” and “[eldr] lopts “ (Skáldskaparmál p. 39) (fire of sky, fire of air) (Faulkes 1987: 93). He also furnishes a wider catalogue, including the following terms:

Dvalins leika
Dvalin’s toy
Elf disc
Doubt disc

(Skáldskaparmál p. 85; translation: Faulkes 1987: 133–34)

At least some of these epithets recall, however cryptically, mythic events, e.g., Dvalins leika, (Dvalin’s toy), a name that occurs also in the eddic poem Alvíssmál and suggests a narrative of fatal dwarf dealings with the sun (Alvíssmál st. 16). But even with such apparently narrative-referential epithets, the sun acts apparently not as a personified being, but rather simply as the luminous astral body that presides over the day and proves lethal when seen by dwarfs. As the pedantic Alvíss explains in response to Þórr’s question:

Sól heitir með mǫnnum          enn sunna með goðom,
                   kalla dvergar Dvalins leica
eygló iǫtnar          álfar fagrahvél
                   alscír ása synir. (Alvíssmál st. 16; Prose Edda p. 126)

(Sun it’s called by men
And sunshine by the gods,
for the dwarfs it’s Dvalin’s deluder
The giants call it overglow
The elves the lovely wheel
The sons of the Æsir all-shining. (Larrington1996: 111))

The sun, called either sól or sunna, is a bright and glowing disc, a fire in the sky, perhaps wheel-like in its roundness and movement, but not, apparently, a personified being. It should be noted that in many instances, the Old Norse material, like the Hebrew accounts in Genesis 1: 3 and 1: 14–18, seems to separate the sun-as-flame from the light of day, which is seen to have a separate, independent existence. So the sun in these epithets is a shining, welcome, but potentially dangerous, astral body, not a deity per se and not directly the source of the world’s periodically plentiful light. It is interesting that the final speakers enumerated in Alvíss’s catalogue above are the ása synir, “sons of the Æsir”, a group not mentioned elsewhere in Alvíssmál, but an epithet which figures prominently, as we shall see, in Latvian song traditions connected with the sun.

Snorri presents the genesis of the sun in terms that similarly underscore this unpersonified, naturalistic imagery. In describing the formation of the cosmos out of the primordial void, Snorri recounts in his Gylfaginning:

Þau tóku þeir síur ok gneista þá, er lausir fóru ok kastat hafði ór Múspellsheimi, ok settu í miðjan Ginnungahimin bæði ofan ok neðan til at lýsa himin ok jǫrð. Þeir gáfu staðar ǫllum eldingum, sumum á himni, sumar fóru lausar undir himni, ok settu þó þeim stað ok skǫpuðu gǫnga þeim … (Gylfaginning p. 12)

(Then they took molten particles and sparks that were flying uncontrolled and had shot out of the world of Muspell and set them in the middle of the firmament of the sky both above and below to shine on heaven and earth. They fixed all the lights, some in the sky, some moved in a wandering course beneath the sky, but they appointed them positions and ordained their courses … (Faulkes 1987: 12))

The sun is a spark, fixed in the sky by the gods, and consigned to its predictable course by the divine will of others.

In one of the same passages of Skáldskaparmál quoted above, however, Snorri mentions other epithets, ones which he privileges by listing them ahead of unpersonified names like “Fair-wheel” and “Elf-disc”. Not only is the sun a disc or flame, in other words, but also “Dóttur Mundilfœra”, “Systur Mána”, and “Kona Glens” (Skáldskaparmál p. 39) (Daughter of Mundilfæri, Sister of Moon, Wife of Glenr) (Faulkes 1987: 93).

Snorri quotes the eleventh-century Icelandic skald Skúli Þorsteinsson regarding the sun’s mysterious spouse Glenr mentioned in this listing:

Glens beðja veðr gyðju
goðblíð í vé, síðan
ljós kemr gótt með geislum,
gránserks ofan mána. (Skáldskaparmál p. 39)

(God-blithe bedfellow of Glen steps to her divine sanctuary with brightness; then descends the good light of grey-clad moon. (Faulkes 1987: 93))

Here, the setting sun is described as sinking into her bed, her nightly sanctuary, leaving the sky to the light of the moon. The identity or nature of Glenr beyond his marriage to the sun however, remains unexplicated.

In Skáldskarparmál, then, the sun is accorded a female gender (matching the grammatical gender of the Old Norse term sól) and a kinship network: she is the daughter of one Mundilfæri, the sister of the moon, and the wife of someone named Glenr. In the eddic poem Vǫluspá, it is noted that at the beginning of creation, “Sól þat né vissi hvar hon sali átti … “ (lit., the sun did not know where she had her hall (Vǫluspá st. 3))—a similar ascription of human or divine attributes and behaviors to an astral body that other textual references describe as simply a spark, flame, or wheel. Snorri draws his Skáldskaparmál terms in part from another eddic poem, Vafðrúðnismál, in which the giant Vafðrúðnir declares:

Mundilfœri heitir          hann er Mána faðir
                   ok svá Sólar iþ sama;
himin hverfa          þau scolo hvergian dag,
                   ǫldum at ártali. (Vafðrúðnismál st. 23)

(Mundilfæri he is called          the father of Moon
and likewise of Sun;
they must pass through the sky, every day
to count the years for men. (Larrington 1996: 43))

Sun and moon are female and male, linked by the same father and destined to parallel daily treks across the sky. A little later in the same poem, the genders of day and night are reversed, as we read of another father, Dellingr, and his son Dagr (day) and daughter Nor (night):

Dellingr heitir, hann er Dags faðir
                   enn Nótt var Nörvi borin;
ný och nið          skópo nýt regin
                   öldum at ártali. (Vafðrúðnismál st. 25)

(Delling he is called, he is Day’s father,
and Night was born of Norr;
new moon and dark of the moon the beneficent Powers made
to count the years for men. (Larrington 1996: 44))

In order to accommodate the sun’s female gender and kinship relations with the competing image of the sun as an unpersonified flame, Snorri supplies what seems like a somewhat convoluted tale:

Sá maðr er nefndr Mundilfœri, er átti tvau bǫrn. Þau váru svá fǫgr ok fríð at hann kallaði annat Mána, en dóttur sína Sól, ok gifti hana þeim manni, er Glenr hét. En guðin reiddusk þessu ofdrambi ok tóku þau systkin ok settu upp á himin, létu Sól keyra þá hesta, er drógu kerru solarinnar þeirar er guðin hǫfðu skapat til at lýsa heimana af þeiri síu er flaug ór Múspellsheimi. (Gylfaginning p. 13)

(There was a person whose name was Mundilfæri, who had two children. They were so fair and beautiful that he called the one Moon and his daughter Sun, and gave her in marriage to a man named Glen. But the gods grew angry at this arrogance and took the brother and sister and set them up in the sky. They made Sol drive the horses that drew the chariot of the sun which the gods had created, to illuminate the worlds, out of the molten particle that had flown out of the land of Muspell. (Faulkes 1987: 14))

Here the personified sun, Sól, a human being unwisely named by her overweening father, is made the driver of a sun chariot that draws the unpersonified flame or disc, síu, that is the sun in its most primal essence. So there are two “Suns”, one the actual flame, the other a human attendant. Such a situation may be reflected also in the far earlier Trundholm sun chariot (ca. 1400 BCE), which depicts a large upright disk (the sun?) drawn by a horse on wheels, albeit with no driver (see discussion below).

It should be noted that this account is markedly masculine in its characters and ideology: the gods (guðin)—presumably the three Æsir credited with creating the land and sky in Snorri’s account, i.e., Óðinn, Vili, and Vé—perform all consequential actions, from the establishment of the earth and sky from the body of the murdered frost giant Ymir, to the appointment of the sun and establishment of the solar path. It is they who punish the human father Mundilfæri when he transgresses by naming his children after the sun and moon. It is Mundilfæri, the father, who is punished by the consignment of his children to perpetual astral servitude. Sól has no independent latitude of action of her own, be she the actual sun or the sun’s human chauffeur. She eventually marries, but Snorri tells us nothing of her courtship, wedding, or marriage, until he supplies the detail that she has given birth to a replacement sun at Ragnarǫk. This decidedly masculine narrative contrasts markedly with the myths known from the Sámi, Balto-Finnic, and Baltic traditions, as discussed below.

The progress of the sun, chariot or otherwise, is not serene: both sun and moon are pursued by wolves. Grímnismál states:

Scǫll heitir úlfr,          er fylgir ino scírleita goði
                   til varna viðar;
Enn annarr Hati          hann er Hróðvitnis sonr,
                   sá scal fyr heiða brúði himins. (Grímnismál st. 39)

(Skoll a wolf is called who pursues the shining god
to the protecting woods;
and another is Hati, he is Hrodvitnir’s son,
who chases the bright bride of heaven. (Larrington 1996: 57))

I note in passing that the beset sun here is described as brúði himins (bride of heaven/the sky), a name that underscores the sun’s personified identity as well as her entry into marriage with a being of the sky, or at least in the sky. She is not described as an attendant of the real sun, as in Snorri’s account, but as a goddess, an image paralleled, as we shall see, in Latvian tradition. Snorri includes the image of the panicked, pursued sun and moon in Gylfaginning, noting that the wolf will eventually catch the sun hana, “her”, but not clarifying if this capture is of the flame, the chariot, or its human driver (Gylfaginning p. 14; Faulkes 1987: 14–15). Grímnismál, too, describes such a pursuit, mentioning a defender as well:

Svǫl heitir          hann stendr sólo fyrir
                   sciǫldr, scínanda goði
biǫrg oc brim          ec veit at brenna scolo
                   ef hann fellr ífrá (Grímnismál st. 38)

(Svalin is the name of a shield which stands before the sun
before the shining god;
mountain and sea I know would burn up
if it fell away from in front. (Larrington 1996: 57))

This mysterious defender Svǫl (“Cooler”; Larrington’s Svalin)—be it an anthropomorphized being or a physical shield—is not mentioned in Snorri’s accounts. It is certainly possible to interpret Svǫl as a personified deity standing in defense of a presumably personified sun. Whatever the case, Svǫl is ultimately unsuccessful, for, as Snorri recounts, the sun is eventually swallowed by one of the pursuing wolves: “Þá verðr þat er mikil tíðindi þykkja, at úlfrinn gleypir sólna, ok þykkir mǫnnum þat mikit mein” (Gylfaginning p. 49) (Then something will happen that will be thought a most significant event: the wolf will swallow the sun, and people will think this a great disaster (Faulkes 1987: 53)). Here, again, Snorri does not differentiate between the sun as flame, the chariot, or its human driver. Drawing on Vafðrúðnismál, however, he recounts the sun’s eventual rebirth. As the eddic poem puts it:

… eina dóttur          berr Álfrǫðull
                   áðr hana Fenrir fari;
sú scal ríða          þá er regin deyja
                   móður brautir mær. (Vafðrúðnismál st. 47; Gylfaginning p. 54)

(A daughter shall Álfrǫðull [Elf-disc] bear before Fenrir catches her. She shall ride, when the powers die, the maiden, her mother’s road. (Faulkes 1987: 57))

Vafðrúðnismál thus describes a sun named with a disc epithet, consciously riding along an established route and capable of giving birth to a sun being like herself. Such an act implies the shining essence of the sun as flame, the presence of some sort of wagon or wheels, and a reproductive anatomy. At some point in her daily (or nightly) travels, in other words, the sun has engaged in sexual reproduction, perhaps as a result of her conjugal relations with her husband (Glenr) or possibly through her dealings with her (amorous?) defender Svǫl.

In summary, then, we can see in the Old Norse material at least two competing images of the sun: one as an unpersonified flame or wheel, set in its place by deities, and the other as a conscious, anthropomorphized woman or female deity, capable of marriage, fear, and reproduction. Between these two images we find a human driver, possibly Snorri’s interpolation so as to reconcile the conflicting accounts: this Sól is the victim of her father’s hubris and may be the being who gives birth to the reborn sun at the end of the world.

Balto-Finnic tradition

As John Lindow argues in his contribution to this volume, songs collected from illiterate Finnish and Karelian peasants in the nineteenth century provide useful comparative evidence for the student of Old Norse mythology. These songs are best known to an international audience through their literary adaptation into the Finnish national epic Kalevala, a project undertaken in the 1830s and 40s by the folklorist and doctor Elias Lönnrot (1802–1884). [2] Although Lönnrot’s literary rendering changed many details of the traditional songs that Lönnrot and other scholars collected, the collectors’ original notations and field recordings survive in the archives of the Finnish Literature Society (Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura) and have been partially published in a massive anthology Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot (Ancient Songs of the Finnish People) [3] (SKVR). In the wake of the 1835 publication of the Kalevala, a long succession of folklorists undertook further fieldwork expeditions to rural tracts of northern and eastern Finland, Ingria, and Karelia to collect additional songs, so that Finnish archives today possess a great wealth of carefully collected songs from the nineteenth century. Similarly, in Estonia, the romantic ideas of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) and the intellectual excitement occasioned by the appearance of the Kalevala led to parallel collection efforts in Estonia and the eventual literary epic Kalevipoeg, created by Friedrich R. Kreutzwald (1803–1882). [4]

Although these songs were first recorded in writing only in the nineteenth century, several factors point to their likely antiquity. Firstly, the collected songs are widespread in the Balto-Finnic culture area, occurring with certain significant variations in Finnish, Karelian, Ingrian, Votic, and Estonian languages. Secondly, they possess a conservative meter and alliterative system that helped maintain the texts over time. The marked language barrier that separated Finnic speakers from the lore and languages of other European populations, and the low literacy rate of peasants in the era when the songs were collected, further limited cross-cultural diffusion of European ballad and other musical traditions from Scandinavia and Low German. And, finally, the intriguing thematic linkages of the songs with mythic themes found in other North Eurasian and even North American culture areas, argue for contacts and diffusion processes occurring over many centuries. Balto-Finnic song traditions are qualitatively different, in other words, from the Scandinavian ballad traditions with which they are sometimes compared, traditions that, as modern research has shown, were frequently shaped by clerical, literate, and literary forces that do not seem to have operated to the same degree within the peasant communities on the northern and southern shores of the Gulf of Finland. This is not to say that new ideas or motifs did not occasionally diffuse into these song traditions, as we shall see below. But it is relatively safe to suggest that a song common to Finnish, Karelian, and Estonian song traditions, widely distributed and displaying the characteristics of the alliterative song tradition, is likely to be of significant antiquity, reaching back at least into the medieval era.

The epic songs and incantations collected among Finns, Karelians, Ingrians, Votes, and Estonians during the nineteenth century contain a number of myths concerning the sun and the heavens. In the southern range, i.e., the areas in closest long-term contact with Baltic cultures, images of solar courtship and marriage occur, as we shall see below. More fundamental within the Balto-Finnic tradition, however, appear to be variants of a bird-egg myth, in which the origin of the cosmos results from the recovery of one or more fractured eggs, laid on a small outcropping of land (or hero’s limb) above the wide expanse of a primordial sea, and eventually sundered to create the land, sky, clouds, sun, moon, and all other heavenly bodies. In Estonian, Votic, and Ingrian versions, the bird responsible for this feat is often referred to as a migratory swallow, bat, waterfowl, or päivälintu, “sunbird” (Valk 2000). A song collected in the village of Halliste, Estonia, in 1889 recounts:

Pääsukeine, päevalindu—
tei ta pesa söödu pääle.
Munne kolmi muna sisse:
üits sai aoss alla ilma,
teine päevas pääle ilma,
kolmas sai kuusse taevasse. (Tedre 1969 I: 15)

(Little swallow, sunbird—
built a nest upon a field.
She laid three eggs inside:
One became the dawn light for the lower world
The second the sun for the upper world
The third the moon in the sky.)

Here, as in the Old Norse material, the sun—päeva—is distinguished from the light of dawn, which exists separately from it. In 1883, V. Porkka collected a similar song from Paroi, Saku’s wife, in Hevaa, Kaprio, Ingria:

Pääsköilintu päivöilintu
haravoi meroin kokkoon
kaikki ruokot meroista
ja kaikki kaislat kaislikosta.
Löysi puolet ruskeaista
toisen puolen valkeaista
kolmaas kelloin karvallista:
mikä puolet oli ruskeaista
se kuuksi kumoittamaan,
mikä puoli valkeaista
se päivöiksi paistamaan,
mikä kelloin karvallista
se pilviksi pakeneviksi. (SKVR 4(2) no. 1821; Kuusi et al. 1977: 84)

(The swallow bird, the sun bird
raked the seabed together
all the seaweed from the seas
all the reeds from the marshes.
She found a part that was ruddy
Also a part that was white
A third part that was yellow:
That which was ruddy
Became the moon to glow;
That which was white
Became the sun to shine;
That which was yellow
Became the clouds to drift.)

In other versions of such songs, the sun is formed from the yolk of the egg or eggs which the bird recovers (Tedre 1969 I: 13–15; Valk 2000). The sun is thus created at the same time as all other elements of the sky, which come to supplement the primordial sea and mythic beings like the bird and whatever gods or other figures assist her in the recovery of the shattered fragments. The sun is not preeminent and is not personified, although the myth as a whole has a decidedly female cast in that it depicts key events in the creation of the heavenly bodies as the result of a mother seeking restoration of her lost offspring.

In some areas, e.g., in the Karelian song traditions, figures like the hero/god Väinämöinen are included as ancillary or even central actors in this creation narrative. Väinämöinen’s knee or some other appendage serves as the nesting place for the bird (often an eagle, hawk, or duck), and he uses words to transform the shattered eggs into celestial bodies (Kuusi 1963a: 64–71; Pentikäinen 1989: 131–32; Honko et al. 1993: 96–97; Tarkka 2013: 209–13). The instigator of the egg’s destruction in such more northerly versions—as often in the versions collected in Estonia and Ingria as well, if specified—is a male deity, Ukko (a god of thunder and/or the sky), or Jumala, the term used in modern Finnish for the supreme deity of Christianity. Occasionally, the toppling of the eggs is attributed to Väinämöinen. The rake that the bird employs, like the heavens themselves in other epic songs, may be described as the work of the god Ilmarinen. Parallels to the Balto-Finnic egg myth are found in other parts of the world, including the eastern Mediterranean, South Asia, the Malay Archipelago, Oceania, and Australia (motif A641 in Stith Thompson’s index), although Ülo Valk suggests that the particular myth as reflected in Balto-Finnic songs may be of independent origin and predate Indo-European arrival in the Nordic region (Valk 2000: 154). Matti Kuusi posits that Finno-Ugric mythology may have contained a key dichotomy in a god of the heavens (Ilmarinen) and a god of the waters (Väinämöinen), and that the production of the sun may represent a transfer of items from the watery realm to the sky (Kussi 1963: 71).

Another widespread myth related to the sun in Balto-Finnic song traditions relates its theft and eventual restoration (Kuusi 1963a: 70–71; Kuusi et al. 1977: 195–204). Like the cosmogonic egg myth, this narrative has parallels in many other parts of the world (motif A721.1 “Theft of the Sun” and A1411 “Theft of Light” in Thompson 1932–1936). In Balto-Finnic songs, the sun (sometimes also the moon) disappears from the sky or is stolen, to be restored by the heroic acts of the song’s main character. In a song collected from an unidentified singer in Paltamo, Finland sometime before 1825, for instance, the sun is imprisoned in a rock:

Minne, sano, meiltä päivä peäty
kunnas meiltä kuu katosi?
Päivä peäty kalliohon. (SKVR 12(2) no. 99; Kuusi et al. 1977: 195)

(Say where our sun has been taken
where has our moon disappeared to?
The sun has been taken into a rock.)

The hero, who must release the sun by hammering the rock, may be Väinämöinen, as in the above song, or sometimes Jesus (SKVR 4(2) no. 1838; Kuusi et al. 1977: 200–4) but is not always divine or male. In a version of the song collected from a female singer named Natelia in Soikkola in 1883, for instance, the rescuing hero is a smith’s wife:

Sepoin nain selvä nain
nii joutui omille maille.
Oli isoin ikkunalla
oli kasvant kultain koivu
oli kasvant hoppiia honka:
sinne tuo laati päivyeen
ja laati kuun kumattammaa. (SKVR 3(1) no. 1150; Kuusi et al. 1977: 199)

(The smith’s wife, a clear-headed woman
thus made it to her own lands.
There was at the window of her fathers
There a golden birch had grown
There a silver pine had grown
That is where she placed her sun
and set the moon to shine.)

The woman sets the sun in a tree for the benefit of her community (Thompson motif A714.2). In such songs, the widespread international myth of the theft and release of the sun can be discerned (A721.1); in these myths the sun, unpersonified in itself, is a boon to be rescued and restored to the sky (or first placed in the sky) by the benevolent actions of a likely or unlikely culture hero, often a trickster. Often in Balto-Finnic songs, the rescue is also accompanied by the imagery of a bridal quest (Thompson motif R225), in which the culture hero must elude the pursuit of some guardian(s) of the sun who would sequester the sun again. Pursuit recurs in these songs, as in the Old Norse wolf myths, but the outcome is better: in the end, the sun survives to shine in the sky and illuminate the earth.

A fourth, less prominent mythic tendency in some of the Balto-Finnic songs is to refer to the sun as a female deity Päivätär, parallel to a similarly female moon deity Kuutar (Turunen 1981: 270). In wedding songs, both beings are described weaving wedding clothes of gold and silver. Anna-Leena Siikala notes that Karelian bathing charms, such as those used to ensure fertility of the bride in wedding preparations and for other healing or protective functions, often subsume Päivätär into the figure of the Virgin Mary (Siikala 2002: 118, 197). Perhaps related to these details is the reference to the mythical land Päivölä, visited by the epic hero Lemminkäinen as part of a bridal quest. As Siikala has shown, these Päivölä songs contain striking shamanic elements and can be regarded as an epic account of shamanic cosmic travel (Siikala 2002: 270–71). At the same time, it is travel that is tied to a marriage quest, one in which the culture hero aims at obtaining for himself a bride from the land of the sun or the daughter of the sun. Such is exemplified in the opening of a song collected in Kiimasjärvi in 1872 in which the impetuous Lemmingäine calls for raiment to outfit him for his quest:

Oi on emo kandajaizen
tuo tänne sodisobani
kannas vainovoattieni
piiruloissa piettäväni
häissä häilyteldäväni:
lähem Päivöläm pidoho
suarijoukon juomingihi! (SKVR 1(2) no. 716; Kuusi et al. 1977: 207)

(Oh mother who bore me
bring here my war gear
fetch my killer clothes
that I can wear at the party
that I can show off at the wedding
I’m leaving for the feast in the Land of the Sun
for the drinking bout of the island crowd.)

Lemminkäinen’s reception at Päivölä makes it evident that he has come as a suitor or wedding guest, albeit one who is very unwelcome. In this song complex, in other words, the sun seems to be equipped with human societal characteristics like a realm, a court, and a family. Siikala points out that otherworldly courting sites like Päivölä in Balto-Finnic songs are generally presided over by women rather than men: although a hero like Lemminkäinen may eventually battle a male host, he is initially greeted and rejected by the presiding woman of the house, the emäntä (Siikala 2002: 322). Siikala also points out that in some Ingrian songs, a son of the sun (Päivän poika) heads to the land of the dead (Tuoni) in quest of a bride (Siikala 2002: 315). Here the solar associations remain, although the sun has become attached to the suitor instead of the bride, a detail shared with the Estonian song discussed below.

A divergent depiction of the sun appears in the Estonian song known as “Tähemõrsja” (The Star Bride) (Tedre 1969 II: 18–19). Here, a human maiden Salme is courted by male astral figures: the sun, the moon, and a star. She rejects the sun and moon but eventually consents to marry the star suitor. Felix Oinas has examined this song’s variants and motifs in detail and suggests that it represents not an ancient part of the Balto-Finnic song tradition but rather a medieval or post-medieval loan from Russian Orthodox song traditions, a finding which helps explain its different portrayal of the sun and the limited distribution of the song to only the Estonian tradition (Oinas n.d.).

To summarize, then, in most Balto-Finnic mythic songs the sun appears usually as an object, produced, stolen, or regained by other beings: female birds, male deities, or human women. The myths feature male deities more prominently in the more northerly reaches of the tradition (e.g., in Finnish and Karelian songs), while female beings—female birds, a farmwife, female wedding attendants, and so on—play more central or uncontested roles in more southerly reaches (e.g., in Ingrian, Votic, and Estonian songs). Songs related to the recovery of the sun sometimes employ bridal quest imagery, and wedding songs and fertility incantations occasionally refer to the sun as a personified goddess, weaving clothing and ensuring the fertility of the bridal couple. The figure of Päivätär and the land of Päivölä indicate a more personified notion of the sun, one with parallels to the personified sun descriptions in Old Norse and, more particularly, to those found in Sámi and Baltic materials. In both the Balto-Finnic and Old Norse traditions, however, these personified sun images exist alongside a more prominent unpersonified image of the sun as a source of light or flame.

Sámi tradition and Anders Fjellner’s poetry

Sámi pre-Christian beliefs are known primarily through seventeenth- and eighteenth-century missionary accounts of pagan “backsliding”, as well as certain items of material culture, such as the seventy-some shamanic drums that survived decay and willful destruction from this same era. The status of the sun in these materials has been meticulously examined by Bo Lundmark (1982, 1985), building on the authoritative two-volume survey of Sámi shamanic drums provided by Ernst Manker (1938, 1950). All of these materials have been recently reviewed and reanalyzed by, among others, Juha Pentikäinen (1995) and Hans Mebius (2003).

The sun (North Sámi beaivi, South Sámi biejjie) figures prominently on Sámi shamanic drumheads surviving from the eighteenth century (Manker 1938, 1950; Mebius 2003). Here, the sun often occupies a central area (Manker 1950: 58–59). In many drums produced in the South Sámi area, the sun is depicted as rhomboid, with rays emanating outward in four directions, rays which in turn are populated by various personified deities (Manker 1950: 62–68). In other drums produced farther to the North, however, the sun is depicted as round or as a wheel, as for instance on the drum now preserved at the Vatican (Pentikäinen 1995: 128). Images of the sun could also figure on the back side of drums. Such round or wheel-like suns are reminiscent of the Old Norse unpersonified sun terms, and the sun on such objects may have played a role in cosmic navigation, i.e., in helping the noaidi (shaman) account for or depict the different astral and underworld realms with reference to the visible world. Yet it may also have been the object of entreaties, as missionary accounts of ritual practices indicate (see below). And many deities on the drumheads are depicted with images that do not imply personification even though they were viewed in anthropomorphic terms: as Manker has shown, for instance, the important male deity known variously as Ipmel, Raedie (ruler), Raedieaehtjie (ruler’s father), Máilmmeraedie (world ruler), or Vearelden ålmaj (man of the world) is usually represented as some sort of building topped with crosses (Manker 1950: 76–89). Whatever the broader meaning of such depictions, for the purposes of the present discussion, the main lesson conveyed by the drumheads is that the sun played a central role in the cosmology and ritual life of the noaidi.

In his 1671 overview of Sámi culture and religious practices, Samuel Rheen (d. 1680) asserts:

Den tredie Afgudh lapparna offra är Sohlen, den dhe för een Moder hålla för alle lefwande diur, Conservera deras Rehnfoster och medhela them then naturlige warman att the wäll må trijwas, hvarföre the och offra henne Unge Reenar, och särdeles the som ähro af waijo kiönet. (Quoted in Mebius 2003: 75)

(The third false god to whom the Sámi make offerings is the Sun, which they regard as the mother of all living creatures, one who takes care of their young reindeer and provides them with natural warmth so that they may thrive. For this [service] they offer her young reindeer, and especially ones of the female sex.)

Rheen had entered university at Uppsala in 1633 and served as a minister/preacher in both Jokkmokk and Kvikkjokk from 1666 to 1671. His study’s sixteen chapters include three on Sámi religious practices, shamanic drums, and bear rituals. His account has been regarded as a careful and apparently accurate account of practices then current among Lule Sámi people (Mebius 2003: 32). It is also clear, however, that his status as a minister made it difficult for him to obtain a full account of Sámi pre-Christian traditions. Nevertheless, his emphasis on the feminine nature of the sun and her status as a mother to all creatures is a characterization that squares well with other evidence regarding Sámi beliefs regarding the sun.

An important ritual associated with the sun and described in various sources consisted of preparing and consuming a porridge made of the inner bark of pine trees. The missionary Hans Skanke (1679–1739), drawing on the notes of Thomas von Westen (1682–1727), describes the production of such porridge on midsummer night’s eve (Lundmark 1985: 183). Although Skanke’s account focuses primarily on the South Sámi area, other parallel accounts, along with the scar evidence on surviving Scots pine trees, indicates the widespread nature of the custom (Bergman et al. 2004). The sun is a deity of fertility and nourishment, one lovingly entreated for help in the lean moments of the North Nordic early spring.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Sámi minister Anders Fjellner (1795–1876) produced several extended poems, constructed, apparently, of narratives he knew from his childhood South Sámi tracts or his adult life in North and Lule Sámi parishes (Lundmark 1979). Fjellner’s works are authored poems, reflective of Fjellner’s literary aspirations. Yet they probably also reflect at least some of the concepts of the sun common to the communities he lived in. His explicit aim in creating these poems was to celebrate Sámi cultural identity and oral literature, aims that, one might posit, would have led him to attempt in some way to stay close to his source tradition.

In the poem “Biejjie-baernien såangoe Jeahnaj eatnamisnie” (North Sámi “Beaivvi bártni soagŋu Jiehtanasaid máilmmis”) (The Sons of the Sun in the Land of the Giants), one of the sons of Gállá (a Sámi name for the stars of Orion’s belt) or perhaps Gállá himself (the Sámi name for the star Sirius) embarks on a bridal quest to the land of the giants (Fjellner 2003: 3). He charms the giant’s daughter and with her help accomplishes marriage trials to win her hand. After the couple have had their wedding and have embarked on their homeward journey with plentiful wedding gifts, the girl’s brothers pursue them, leading to an exciting chase and the release of magic winds. The bride and groom become the progenitors of the Sámi. Even more interesting is the lyric poem Fjellner composed (or, possibly, recorded) regarding the death of the “daughter of the Sun”, “Biejjie-neijten sealadimmie” (North Sámi “Beaivvi Niedda jápmin”) (The Death of the Daughter of the Sun) (Gaski 2006). The poem depicts the dying moments of the daughter of the sun, who has lived on earth a lifetime and now yearns to return to the sky:

Beaivi luoitá, gumppet bohtet
ihkku njáhket bivdimin
Čiehkádallet seavdnjadasas
Iđit boahtá, iigo dáidde?
Johtá goitge
Beaivvi nieida Beaivvi lusa
Váldá Beaivvi mánáid mielde
Iđit boahtá, iigo dáidde? (Quoted in Gaski 2006: 15)

(The Sun/day gives way, wolves approach
hunting in the night
lurking in the dark
Morning comes, will it not?
But she proceeds
the Sun’s daughter, home to the Sun
takes along the Sun’s children
Morning comes, will it not?)

Here, the wolf imagery so prevalent in the Old Norse material recurs. We are reminded of why such a metaphor would arise: wolves come out as darkness sets in, posing threats to the Sámi reindeer herd and to the domestic livestock of medieval Scandinavians alike. As the poem relates, the sun’s daughter returns to the heavens, ending her mythic sojourn on earth—presumably the result of a mythic marriage.

Fjellner’s poems, along with other corroborating evidence, suggest a strong tendency in the Sámi material to view the sun, or at least the sun’s daughter, as a female deity, one who entered into marital relations with a hero from the sky and who became a progenitor of the Sámi people. It is important to point out, as Bo Lundmark notes, that in the Kola region, Sámi traditions often represented the sun in particular as male, making the sun the father of the “Biejjien niejde” known in North and South Sámi traditions (Lundmark 1985: 187). In a sense, this view of the sun as masculine is a logical outgrowth of the notion of a sun daughter or sun bride, one expectable in a culture in which fathers played a central role in negotiating and securing their daughter’s marriages. It may also reflect Russian Orthodox influence, as might the Estonian “Tähemõrsja” discussed above. The fact that Sámi has no grammatical gender probably helped facilitate this logical progression or gender ambiguity in a manner that may have been hampered in Germanic and Baltic languages, where the words for the sun are of feminine gender. Crucially, as in the Old Norse and Balto-Finnic cases, we find in these Sámi materials both an apparently unpersonified sun image and a personified one. But here, the balance seems to shift decidedly toward the personified, as the sun becomes both overtly female and an ancestor of the Sámi themselves.

Latvian myths

In the various dainas collected during the nineteenth century, the sky god Dievs is often involved in one way or another in an astral wedding featuring the sun. The sun’s suitors include Dieva dēli, “the sons of Dievs”, Mēness, “the moon”, Mēnesnieks, “moonlight”, and “Auseklis”, a term that may refer to either the light of dawn or the morning star (Venus). Typical of these short but evocative songs is the following, in which the sun’s suitors are referred to as the sons of Dievs:

Dieva dēli, Saules meitas
Vidū gaisa kāzas dzēra;
Mēnesnīca tekādama
Tā pārmija gredzeniņus. (Biezais 1976: 514)

(The Dieva dēli [sons of Dievs], and Saules meita [daughter of the sun]
Celebrated their wedding up in the air.
The landscape was moonlit as they proceeded
Exchanged dear/little rings.)

Another song describes an evening sky in which the morning star (Auseklis) is absent since he has gone to attend the sun’s wedding:

Mēnesītis zvaigznes skaita,
Vai ir visas vakarā.
Visas bija vakarā,
Auseklīša vien nebij.
Auseklītis aztecēja,
Saules meitas kāzas dzert.
Dieviņš ņēma Saules meitu,
Pērkons jāja vedībās. (Biezais 1961: 125)

(Mēnesītis [moon] counts the stars
[to see] if they are all there in the evening.
All are there in the evening
Only Auseklis [morning star] is not.
Auseklis has gone
To celebrate the wedding of the daughter of the sun.
Dievs takes the daughter of the sun as his bride,
Pērkons [thunder] makes up part of the groom’s party.)

In many songs, and paralleled by the human rituals at earthly weddings at which such songs were traditionally performed, the sun prepares her daughter for marriage, dressing and adorning her appropriately for the event and providing wedding gifts to all attendees. In the following daina, the sun provides dowry gifts to the forest trees:

Kam tie tādi kumeliņi
Sudrabiņa podziņām?
Dieva dēla kumeliņi,
Saules meita vedamā.
Pate Saule pūru veda,
Visus mežus veltīdama:
Ozolam raibi cimdi,
Liepai mēļu vilnainīte,
Smalkajam kārkliņam
Apzeltīti prievietiņi (Biezais 1961: 126)

(Who has such horses
With silver buttons?
the horses of Diev’s son
come for the daughter of the sun.
The sun herself provided the dowry
Gave gifts to all the forest:
Colorful gloves for the oak,
A dark blue little woolen kerchief for the linden
For the fine little willow bush
Gilded stocking garters.)

With all attendees properly gifted, the community prepares for a wedding celebration that, like its human counterpart in Latvian folk custom, will last for days: “Trīs dieniņas, trīs naksiņas/Dieviņam kāzas dzēra” (Biezais 1961: 126) (Three days, three nights, was Diev’s wedding celebrated). Here it is easy to imagine parallels with the eddic poem Skírnismál, where the bride, as in the Sámi poem described above, is described as a giant’s daughter, and the marriage (or sexual encounter) is one of male god and female earth, the core of the mythic hieros gamos tradition. In Latvian songs, however, the bride is unambiguously described as the sun or the sun’s daughter, and her home is in the sky, not on the earth. She marries another denizen of the sky, and her wedding holds significance for all the cosmos, heavens and earth combined.

Haralds Biezais points out that the term Saules meita places the word for sun, saule, in the genitive, where it can mean either of two things. As an appellative genitive, the term would mean “the maiden, the sun”: i.e., the sun herself would be the maiden bride (Biezais 1962: 127; 1972: 184–90). This appellative use of the genitive is common in Latvian folksongs, where, for instance, the Virgin Mary can be called “Maŗas jumpraviņa” (literally, “the virgin of Mary”) (Biezais 1962: 128). As a possessive genitive, however, Saules meita would mean “the daughter of the sun”, in which the maiden is the sun’s child, whose wedding is being arranged and celebrated by a loving astral parent. Perhaps we can see in Saule and Saules meita a mother-daughter relationship much as in the Old Norse texts discussed above, in which the sun (Álfrǫðull or Sól) will give birth to a daughter, who will follow in her mother’s path in the world after Ragnarǫk. In any case, the distinction between the sun and the sun’s offspring is perhaps not as significant as it might at first seem, since in Latvian weddings—and in the mythology that these songs seem to suggest—a daughter is a metonym for her family, a product and fulfillment of her natal household, the entirety of which is implicated in marriage. In a sense she is her family, at least in the act of marriage.

The female sun and her daughter are described in rich detail in the various dainas. Their clothing and jewelry is enumerated and beauty praised. Their activities include greeting the suitors, who, as in the above-quoted text, tend to arrive on horseback (Biezais 1972: 204). The sun or her daughter also owns and uses horses and wagons (Biezais 1972: 207), particularly when traversing the mountain of the sky (Biezais 1972: 211, 236–48). The sun owns a boat as well (Biezais 1972: 212), a detail paralleled, as Anders Andrén notes, by Bronze Age petroglyphs as well as Gotlandic picture stones, as I will discuss below (Andrén 2014: 123). In the night the sun travels back to the East by crossing a sea (Biezais 1972: 278–302), riding in a ship or wading:

Mēnestiņis tā vaicāja:
Kur, Saulīte, nakti guli?
Sak’ Saulīte raudādama:
Vai es arī nakti gulu?
Dienu teku zaļu birzi,
Nakti zelta laiviņā (Biezais 1972: 289).

(Mēnestiņis [moon] asked thus:
Where, Saulīte [sun], do you sleep at night?
Says Saulīte [sun] weeping:
Do I sleep at night?
In the daytime I run in a green grove
In the night in a golden boat.)

Although this image has connections with solar myths reaching back to the Bronze Age, as we shall note below, the sun is also frequently depicted wading her way through the sea:

Saules meita jūru brida,
Ne matiņus neredzēja;
Dieva dēli gan redzēja,
Kur met jūŗa burbulīšus. (Biezais 1972: 279)

(Saules meita [daughter of the sun] wades in the sea
Her hair was not seen
Dieva dēli [Diev’s sons] saw indeed
Where the sea casts foam.)

Sometimes, as the above daina indicates, this wading is such that the maiden is almost completely submerged, with only her crown showing above the surface of the water:

Saules meita jūrā slīka
Vainadziņu vien redzēja;
Dieva dēls kalniņa
Zelta krustu vēcināja. (Biezais 1972: 279)

(Saules meita [daughter of the sun] sank in the sea
Only her crown was visible;
Dieva dēls [Diev’s son] on the little mountain
Dangled a golden cross.)

This image makes particular sense in the West of Latvia and Lithuania, where the setting sun is seen to sink into the Baltic Sea, reemerging in the East at dawn, having traversed an unseen sea or underworld in her return to her starting place.

In Latvian folk custom, similes likening the astral and human bridal couple were flattering to the families involved in the wedding, but they also, according to Biezais, preserved mythic concepts that had survived from the ancient past regarding the sun. As in Germanic languages, Baltic sun terms are grammatically feminine, a fact which must have helped preserve or even intensify the goddess imagery within the song tradition. In any case, we find in the Latvian material virtually no tendency to regard the sun as an unpersonified flame, wheel, or spark. Instead, the sun is consistently depicted as a female deity, fully anthropomorphized and explicitly likened to a human bride, or mother of a bride, through the ritual use of sun dainas in wedding celebrations.

Areal comparison

What this survey of the varying sun images of the Nordic-Baltic region demonstrates, I believe, is that two different understandings of the sun have prevailed in the region and that these show geographic concentrations as well as areas of overlap. We can tabulate these differences with respect to particular cultures as follows:

  flame disk released pursued chariot bridal quest bride suitor godess
Old Norse + + + + (+) (+) (+)
Balto-Finnic + + + (+) (+) (+) (+) (+)
Sámi (+) (+) + + + (+)
Latvian (+) + + + + +

In the above listing, a plus sign means that the listed mythic motif is clearly present within the culture’s recorded materials. A plus sign within parentheses denotes cases in which the motif is only weakly evidenced but is nonetheless logically expectable, given other present motifs. And a minus sign means that the motif is seldom or never found in the tradition, at least as far as we can tell from extant evidence. As can be seen, the Old Norse and Balto-Finnic traditions show a strong cluster of features on the unpersonified side of the listing, with some evidence of bridal and goddess imagery as well. The Sámi and Latvian traditions show an opposite skewing, with a strong clustering of features on the personified, female side of the listing and only sporadic inclusion of unpersonified images related to the sun. Both the Balto-Finnic and Sámi examples show a mediating array of features, although it is noteworthy that the details of the Sámi and Latvian traditions seem a good deal closer to each other than to the Balto-Finnic or Old Norse. In particular, the Sámi myth of an astral hero embarking on a quest to marry an astral bride seems startlingly close to the Latvian tradition. And the fact that Sámi, like the Balto-Finnic languages, possesses no grammatical gender makes the striking feminine attributes of the Sámi sun myths all the more significant. It is also noteworthy that if we separate the Balto-Finnic traditions to songs collected north of the Gulf of Finland from those common to the South, we find a stronger tendency toward feminine imagery in the southern area than in the North.

The possibility of cultural diffusion here seems plausible, in which an eastern Baltic goddess myth has diffused productively northward at an early period, to be strongly adopted in Sámi traditions (and transformed into a distinctively Sámi myth) and combined in the Balto-Finnic song tradition with a similarly feminine bird egg myth. Some of the stray epithets described in the Old Norse materials—e.g., Alvíssmál’s ása synir, “sons of the gods” and Grímnismál’s brúði himins, “bride of the sky”—suggest that the Norse mythology may have come in contact with or shared such a marriage myth to some extent, whether it be as a result of contact with Latvians, Balto-Finns, or Sámi, or through an independent Germanic development arising from the grammatical gender of sun terms in Old Norse. In any case, by the era during which the eddic poems were composed or written down, the sun was also known to have a father, brother, and husband, and to ride in a chariot pursued by wolves.

One way to account for contradictions in the Old Norse mythological conceptions of the sun is to posit an evolution of ideas. Changes in understandings of the sun can occur over time, and to some extent these can be discerned through archaeological data, as Anders Andrén has shown in his important study Tracing Old Norse Cosmology (2014). For Andrén, Norse, Sámi, and Baltic cultures share an underlying set of cosmological understandings concerning the sun that date at least to the Bronze Age. Drawing on Flemming Kaul (2004), Andrén sees the Bronze Age itself (ca. 1500 BCE) as witnessing the development of a concept of the sun drawn in a chariot pulled by one or two horses, an image that finds its most stirring embodiment in the Bronze Age Trundholm sun chariot (Andrén 2014: 126). The sun chariot construct finds partial replication in several other finds, including horse sculptures recovered at Tågaberg (Skåne) and Järfälla (near Stockholm), as well as some petroglyphs and bronze razor decorations. As Kaul argues, the existence of such chariots and horses does not necessarily imply the existence of an anthropomorphized god or goddess as a driver, and it is notable that the Bronze Age depictions do not seem to include such figures (Kaul 2004: 341). Where personified beings are included, Kaul argues, they seem to be dawn and dusk helpers, perhaps equivalent to the mythic twins of Greek and Roman tradition, the Dioscuri (Kaul 2004: 80). Bronze Age petroglyph images of ships as well as Gotlandic picture stones also seem to indicate that the sun returns to the East overnight by sailing a ship across the dark sea of night (Andrén 2014: 123).

A further stirring image of the sun from ca. 500 BCE is the Eskelheim sun disc, excavated in western Gotland, where it was deposited with a large number of bronze horse bits and fittings. The bronze object, consisting of five concentric rings connected by small spikes, was probably imported into the Nordic region from the South. It appears to depict a sun and may have been attached to a harness or carriage shaft, its attached bronze pieces creating a tinkling sound to accompany movement. Writes Andrén: “This gives us an unusual illustration of a sun symbol in its functional, and probably ritual, context” (Andrén 2014: 133). The disc also shows the addition of waterfowl images and serpent shapes that supplement earlier solar symbols from about 1100 BCE onward. As noted, images of a ship—understood as the means of the sun’s nocturnal return journey—also begin to appear in Nordic petroglyphs from around the same period as the Eskelheim sun disc, and appear to be a counterpart to the diurnal chariot image.

According to Andrén, the archaeological record is silent on sun representations for some centuries thereafter (i.e., ca. 500 BCE–200 CE), but sun imagery rises again to prominence in the period ca. 200–550 CE, along with notions of the sun’s daily travels, interaction with the world tree, and a return journey through an underworld by ship (Andrén 2014: 165). In Iron Age metalwork as well as early Gotlandic picture stones, swirling sun images figure prominently, as on the Sanda stone, dated to ca. 400 CE (Andrén 201: 138). Sol– place-names, widespread in various parts of mainland and insular Scandinavia, appear to indicate a widespread ritual and mythic tradition (Andrén 2014: 159–60). Andrén suggests that this evolving image of a personified sun in Old Norse mythology may have undergone further influence from the rise of the cult of Sol Invictus in late Roman paganism: “It is also possible that the old solar myths were renewed with inspiration from the contemporary Roman world […] The Roman Dioscuri, as well as the imperial cult of Sol Invictus, which was introduced in the early third century, may have stood as models for local reinterpretations of earlier mythologies” (Andrén 2014: 166). Norse bracteates made in imitation of Roman medallions witness this process of adaptation (Andrén 2014: 179).

Yet, at the same time, as the above discussion shows, images of a personified sun—particularly envisioned as a celestial bride who will eventually give birth to a new sun—lived on alongside such unpersonified images, reflecting a different, competing cosmological understanding. An areal examination of the mythic traditions of the Nordic-Baltic region suggest that this alternative conceptualization was paralleled or perhaps buttressed in Norse tradition by the myths of neighboring peoples with whom the Norse were engaged in frequent close trade and cultural exchange for millennia. It is difficult to know for certain whether the evidence presented above from late pagan Old Norse tradition and agrarian early modern or modern Sámi, Balto-Finnic, and Baltic cultures are precisely contemporaneous. In accordance with scholars in Sámi studies, Balto-Finnic folklore studies, and Baltic folklore studies, I believe that many of the images described above were extant among Sámi, Balto-Finnic, and Baltic peoples in the era before Christianization, even if their modern recording in folkloric texts and artifacts undoubtedly also reflects later Christian influences. If we accept the folkloric and philological assertions of the antiquity of such widespread and apparently stable images in the North and East of the Nordic-Baltic region, we can conclude that they permit us to look at a multilingual cultural region in which images of an unpersonified flame or disc sun co-occurred with images of a personified sun goddess or anthropomorphic sun.


Focusing on sun imagery within the Nordic-Baltic region allows us to sense the intercultural relations that tied Nordic-Baltic peoples together, despite their differing languages and economies. In other words, although the Norse, Sámi, Balto-Finns, and Balts all spoke different languages, they seem to have known, and perhaps been influenced by, each others’ traditions. In the Mediterranean world, it should be noted, an areal perspective on mythology is fully accepted: intercultural borrowing and adaptation of neighboring cults was common and fully normative prior to (or even after) the rise of Christianity. Roman emperors made use of the deities and rituals of neighboring peoples in order to enhance their own authority and demonstrate control over subjugated peoples. In late Roman paganism, the Egyptian Isis, Middle-Eastern variants of Sol Invictus, Judaism, and the Persian god Mithra were all the focus of popular cults, sometimes strongly endorsed by Roman authorities, sometimes merely tolerated, sometimes suppressed. In any case, an openness to religious sharing was regarded as understandable and useful in the sometimes challenging work of uniting peoples into a multiethnic state or empire.

In the small, decentralized communities of the Nordic-Baltic region, such conscious, organized borrowing on the level of statecraft may seem improbable at least prior to the advent of Christianization, when the new faith certainly became a tool for the consolidation of states and royal dynasties. Archaeological evidence from after 550 CE seems to indicate, as Andrén shows, an embrace of gods like those celebrated in Old Norse materials as parallels to a new kind of aristocracy developing in the mid-sixth century (Andrén 2014). But there were also plentiful settlements far less unified or controlled within the Nordic-Baltic area, particularly among the non-Norse populations of the North and East. In such areas, archaeological evidence also makes clear the extent of human exchange across cultural lines. The intensive practice and maintenance of trade relations across the region meant that communities easily became aware of the religious traditions of their neighbors and could easily choose, consciously or unconsciously, to incorporate foreign elements into their ritual practices and mythic conceptions. In the more decentralized Sámi, Balto-Finnic and Baltic communities (as well as in landnám-era Iceland), family units played a central role as an organizing principle, and marriages between families were of tremendous importance. In this social context, it makes sense that marriage and weddings were reflected within the mythic system as well. Thus, the female-centered, marriage quest myths of the eastern regions reflect a different, perhaps prior, social system, one just as normative to Sámi or Latvians as the male-dominated court-based myths of Snorri’s Prose Edda were to late pagan Norse.

An areal perspective here thus provides valuable insights into the potential development, diffusion, or maintenance of competing, contrasting myths within a single region. It acknowledges the fact that Norse, Finno-Ugric (Sámi and Balto-Finnic), and Baltic cultures have lived in close and continuous contact for millennia and have had ample opportunities through the centuries to compare their understandings of the cosmos. Such comparisons are natural when one considers the importance of the sun to all these cultures and their associated livelihoods, be they hunters, fishermen, traders, herders, or farmers. In the process of comparison, mythic elements transfer from one culture to the next, and clearly demarcated categories could become blurred with subtle or striking contradictions. Such does not imply decay or disarray, however, but rather, a process of ongoing evolution, in which new ideas come to dwell alongside older ones in a widening of understandings and mythic models that seek to incorporate or assimilate foreign ideas that are in some way attractive or memorable. In this way, the abstract and seemingly fanciful details of mythic narrative become reflective of the concrete world of intercultural contacts, interactions, and exchange.


Many thanks to both Anders Andrén and Guntis Šmidchens for their comments and advice on earlier drafts of this paper.

Works cited

Primary sources

Alvíssmál: see Poetic Edda

Grímnismál: see Poetic Edda

Gylfaginning: see Prose Edda


The Kalevala: An Epic Poem after Oral Tradition. Compiled by Elias Lönnrot. Transl. Keith Bosley. Oxford: 1989.


Kalevipoeg: An Ancient Estonian Tale. Ed. and transl. Jüri Kurman. Compiled by Fr. R. Kreutzwald. Moorestown, NJ: 1982.

Krišjāņa Barona Dainu skapis

Barons, Krišjānis. Krišjāņa Barona Dainu skapis. http://dainuskapis.lv/ (accessed April 4, 2015).

Poetic Edda

Edda: Die Lieder des Codex regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern. Ed. Gustav Neckel and Hans Kuhn. Germanische Bibliothek, Vierte Reihe. Heidelberg: 1962.


The Poetic Edda. Transl. Carolyne Larrington. Oxford: 1996.

Prose Edda

Snorri Sturluson. Edda: Prologue and Gylfaginning. Ed. Anthony Faulkes. London: 2005.

Snorri Sturluson. Edda: Skáldskaparmál. Vol. 1: Introduction, Text and Notes. Ed. Anthony Faulkes. London: 1998.


Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Ed. and transl. Anthony Faulkes. London: 1987.

Skáldskaparmál: see Prose Edda

Skírnismál: see Poetic Edda


Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot. 34 vols. Ed. A. R. Niemi et al. Helsinki: 1908.

Vafðrúðnismál: see Poetic Edda

Vǫluspá: see Poetic Edda

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[ back ] 1. For an overview of the contents and style of songs in the Finnish “Kalevala meter”, see the excellent anthology Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic, edited by Matti Kuusi, Keith Bosley, and Michael Branch (1977). The origins and distinctiveness of Kalevalaic (trochaic tetrameter) meter in particular have been ably discussed by Mikko Korhonen (1994) and Pentti Leino (1994) in articles published in English. These scholars build on Matti Sadeniemi’s (1953) important study of the meter, available in German. Anna-Leena Siikala has explored thematic connections between the Kalevalaic songs and Old Norse poetry in her Mythic Images and Shamanism (2002). The classic exploration of the relationship between Finland’s archaic Kalevalaic song tradition and the stanzaic, rhymed song tradition that displaced it during the later Middle Ages and after can be found in Matti Kuusi’s chapter “Keskiajan kalevalainen runous” and Matti Hako’s follow-up chapter “Riimilliset kansanlaulut” in Kuusi’s edited volume Suomen kirjallisuus I: Kirjoittamaton kirjallisuus (1963). Musicological aspects of the traditions are aptly surveyed in Anneli Asplund’s chapters “Kalevalaiset laulut” and “Riimilliset kansanlaulut” in the volume she edited with Matti Hako entitled Kansanmusiikki (1981).

[ back ] 2. For a detailed discussion of the relation of Lönnrot’s epic to its oral antecedents, see (in Finnish) Anttila 1985, Kaukonen 1939–1945, and Kuusi and Anttonen 1995. For further detail of the antecedent song traditions see especially Harvilahti 1992 and (in English) Tarkka 2013. For useful examinations in English, see Pentikäinen 1989, DuBois 1995, and Virtanen and DuBois 2000. For a useful and accurate translation of the Kalevala into English, see Bosley’s translation, listed in the primary sources section of this chapter.

[ back ] 3. Translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

[ back ] 4. For valuable examinations of Estonian folk song traditions and the Kalevipoeg, see especially Tedre 1969, Annist 1966, and (in English) Kalevipoeg (Kurman 1982) and Oinas 1985.

[ back ] 5. For dainas incorporating this motif, see the Barons database: http://www.dainuskapis.lv/meklet/Ozols-auga%20Daugav%C4%81 (accessed April 4, 2015).

[ back ] 6. For an excellent overview of the Latvian daina tradition, see the various articles in the edited volume Linguistics and Poetics of Latvian Folk Songs (Vīķe-Freiberga 1989).

[ back ] 7. Large volcanic eruptions can produce enough atmospheric particulates to alter weather patterns and cool the global climate. These occurrences are now called “dust veil events”.