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
The sun in Old Norse sources
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.
The sun is a spark, fixed in the sky by the gods, and consigned to its predictable course by the divine will of others.
goðblíð í vé, síðan
ljós kemr gótt með geislum,
gránserks ofan mána. (Skáldskaparmál p. 39)
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.
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):
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))
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).
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:
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:
áðr hana Fenrir fari;
sú scal ríða þá er regin deyja
móður brautir mær. (Vafðrúðnismál st. 47; Gylfaginning p. 54)
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
tuo tänne sodisobani
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.
Sámi tradition and Anders Fjellner’s poetry
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.
ihkku njáhket bivdimin
Iđit boahtá, iigo dáidde?
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.
Vidū gaisa kāzas dzēra;
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:
Vai ir visas vakarā.
Visas bija vakarā,
Auseklīša vien nebij.
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:
Dieva dēla kumeliņi,
Saules meita vedamā.
Pate Saule pūru veda,
Visus mežus veltīdama:
Ozolam raibi cimdi,
Liepai mēļu vilnainīte,
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.
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:
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:
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.