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Polynesian Astronomy

Polynesian culture, the history of the people of Polynesia and all that encompasses has been a fascination of mine since having a spiritual experience with a Samoan Tafuga which is a story I hold sacred. The Polynesians thousands of years ago took to the seas for a myriad of reasons and in doing so created a oceanic civilization that spans thousands of miles and evolved into many different sub-cultures of the original Polynesian explorers that utilized the Pacific waves, currents and winds but most importantly, the Stars. In this blog post I intend to deliver to my readers a vast amount of information regarding this subject because the passion I have for it runs deep.

Interest in the heavens goes back far into the ancient fabric of Polynesian culture. Many of the early Polynesian gods and demi-gods derived from or dwelt in the heavens, and many of the legendary exploits took place among the heavenly bodies. The demi-god Maui, especially, was known for such astronomical deeds as snaring the Sun to slow its passage across the sky, or of fashioning a magical fishhook (recognized in Western astronomy as the stinger in Scorpio) to fish up the Hawaiian Islands out of the deep ocean.

In a more practical vein, the early Polynesians were highly skilled sailors and navigators who sailed thousands of miles over open ocean between the Society Islands, the Marquesas, Easter Island in the east, the Hawaiian Islands in the north, and New Zealand in the southwest. Navigation was accomplished primarily, we believe, by a thorough knowledge of the stars, their rising and setting points along the horizon and their meridian passage as a function of latitude. Of course, there were other indicators in nature that helped guide them: the winds, the waves, the ocean swells, cloud formations, and birds and fish.

No instruments or charts of any kind were used to assist these early navigators. But with the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778, and subsequent arrivals of foreign ships, the Hawaiians were introduced to spyglasses, sextants, compasses, clocks, and charts, and easily adapted to Western technology. The foreign ideas and techniques soon crowded out the ancient and extensive knowledge of the sky and, sadly, most of this ancient lore has been lost and forgotten. To a large extent our current lack of knowledge of Hawaiian astronomy can be attributed to the early immigrants, mostly missionaries, who transcribed the unwritten language of the Hawaiians. The Hawaiians had names for hundreds of stars and other astronomical objects and concepts. Many of the words were recorded, but not their English equivalents, which were unknown to the transcribers. Continue reading HERE.

The Islands of Polynesia Source

Where Did Polynesians First Come From?

The answer to that question is one of historians’ greatest ongoing debates. 

The leading theory is that Polynesian ancestors started in Southeast Asia, and over the course of thousands of years, constructed vessels and used currents to populate offshore islands. As their skills in wayfaring and navigation grew, the Polynesians sailed their double-hulled canoes for thousands of miles to the east.

While the timing of the Pacific migration is disputed, it’s believed Polynesians reached Samoa and Tonga as early as 1200 BC.

From there they fanned out to the Marquesas Islands as early as 300 AD, eventually heading north to the Hawaiian Islands between 400 and 600 AD. It’s believed that Tahiti and Easter Island were settled about the same time, and later on—around 1200 AD—the Polynesians voyaged southwest to the islands of Aotearoa.

Other theories suggest that the Polynesians may have actually sailed from South America. One of the main proponents of this alternative theory was the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who, in 1947, famously sailed aboard the Kon-Tiki from the coast of Peru to the Tuamotu Islands—over 4,300 miles away. SOURCE

An introduction to the storied Polynesian voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa and its significance from the Hawaiian Renaissance to today.

Objects and events in the skies were also important to ancient Oceanic peoples in a variety of other ways. They certainly had an extensive knowledge of astronomy: ethnographers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries recorded a great many names for stars, planets, nebulae (such as the Magellanic Clouds), areas of the Milky Way, and so on—things actually visible in the sky—as well as for purely conceptual constructs related to the motions of the heavenly bodies. As an example of the latter, the Hawai-ians had names for what we might call the celestial tropics—the most northerly and southerly paths followed by the sun around the sky at the times of the June and December solstices, respectively. The northern tropic they termed “the black shining road of Kane” and the southern one “the black shining road of Kanaloa,” Kane and Kanaloa being two principal creator-gods. The same or similar names for certain celestial objects (with dialectic variants) can often be found right across the linguistically homogenous area of Polynesia and even farther afield, which indicates considerable antiquity. For example, the Pleiades were known in Hawai’i as Makali’i, in Samoa as Li’i, in Tonga as Mataliki, in Tahiti as Matari’i, and by the Maoris of New Zealand as Matariki. To the west of Polynesia they were known, for example, within Vanuatu (Melanesia) as Matalike and in Pohnpei (Micronesia) as Makeriker.

Stars and constellations were frequently associated with gods, culture heroes, or living chiefs, as well as featuring in stories of ocean voyaging and of ancient homelands. A form of genealogical prayer chant common in Polynesia served to place those of the highest rank in a cosmic scheme of things that includes everything in the sky as well as on earth. A famous example of this is the Hawaiian Kumulipo. SOURCE

So far as I have been able to discover, the study Of astronomy was treated by the Tongans as a branch of navigation. Certain it is that these bold and skillful mariners were keen Observers Of the heavens and that no small part of the equipment of the old sea captains was the ability, based rather on experience and judgment than on rules, to determine when to shift from one star or constellation and to set the course by another group.

Post-Captain Cook

The first record of scientific astronomical observations being made from Hawai`i appears to be that of a British expedition on 8 December 1874. Captain G. L. Tupman of the HBM Scout observed a transit of Venus from a site on Punchbowl Street.  Observations of this transit were also made from Waimea, Kaua`i and Kailua-Kona, Hawai`i Island.

David Kalakaua reigned over the Kingdom of Hawai`i from 1874 to 1891. King Kalakaua was a worldly and progressive monarch, especially considering how recently his people had been exposed to the society and culture of the “civilized” Western world. It was his ambition, as King of Hawai`i, to travel far and wide to learn the ways of the outside world. Even before his voyage, which took place in 1881, Kalakaua had shown an interest in astronomy, and in a letter to Captain R. S. Floyd on November 22, 1880, had expressed a desire to see an observatory established in Hawai`i. His voyage began with a visit to San Francisco, where he visited Lick Observatory in nearby San Jose. Mr. French of Lick Observatory evidently was the King’s guide at the observatory. In his journal Mr. French noted how interested and enthusiastic the King had been and how he had expressed a desire to bring such a telescope to Hawai`i.

It was not long after this that King Kalakaua expressed his interest in having an observatory in Hawai`i. Perhaps as a result of the King’s interest a telescope was purchased from England in 1883 for Punahou School, a private school established by early missionaries to Hawai`i. In 1884 the five-inch refractor was installed in a dome constructed above Pauahi Hall on the school’s campus. Unfortunately, it was not a stable, solid mounting, and the telescope was not useable. Nevertheless, it was the first permanent telescope in Hawai`i and did prove itself useful later on, as we shall see. In 1956 this telescope was installed in Punahou’s newly completed MacNeil Observatory and Science Center. Sometime since then it was replaced and has disappeared, sad to relate.

It appears that the first scientific astronomical and geophysical studies made on Mauna Kea were those conducted in 1892 by Mr. E. D. Preston, astronomer, of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey as part of an extensive survey of the island of Hawai`i. Together with his assistant, Mr. W. E. Wall, and surveyor Prof. W. D. Alexander, the team set up near Lake Waiau a meridian telescope for determining latitude, as well as a gravimeter, a magnetometer, and a barometer to determine altitude. This expedition contributed the first accurate base-line geophysical data for the island. SOURCE

Ke Kā o Makali‘i (“The Canoe-Bailer of Makali‘i”)

Ke Kā o Makali‘i is formed by five stars curving across the sky from ‘akau (north) to hema (south) in the shape of a bailer. It rises in the east like a cup, holding the constellation of Orion and Taurus, and as it begins to set in the west, it pours the content of the cup down to the western horizon.

During Ho’oilo (the winter season from November to April), these stars are visible for most of the night in the Hawaiian sky; during Kau (the summer season from May to October), these stars are in the sky overhead mostly during the daylight hours. SOURCE

Most people think that the Pacific was settled by accident. But this clip upsets that notion by focusing on the lost technique of “Wayfinding.” Is it possible that Polynesians used the Pacific for trading routes and refined their navigational techniques to reach the Americas millennia before Columbus?

O na hoku no na kiu o ka lani.
‘The stars are the eyes of heaven.’

Hawaiian Sailing Proverb (Pukui, 1983)

Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions

The ancient Hawaiians saw Procyon as part of an asterism including four other stars, in Ke Ka o Makali’i (“the canoe bailer of Makali’i”) that assisted them while navigating at sea. Recently named Puana (Maori for “blossom”), it had no recorded Hawaiian name outside of its use in the asterism (Johnson et al., 1975). The constellation was part of a curving formation in the shape of a bailer surrounding the western constellation Orion. Makali’i has several meanings in Hawaiian: 1) it’s the name for the Pleiades, a group of seven stars called Nā hiku o Makali’i (meaning seven little eyes); 2) it was the name for the third modern voyaging canoe (following Hōkūle‘a and Hawai‘i loa) built by native Hawaiians to resurrect ancestral voyaging traditions; and 3) it was the name of the navigator of the legendary canoe of Chief Hawai’iloa, who is often identified as the discoverer of Hawai’i.

Puana forms Ke Ka o Makali’i with Capella (Hoku-lei: star lei), Sirius (A’a: burning brightly), Castor and Pollux (Namahoe: the twins), and Canopus (Ke Ali‘i o kona i ka lewa: chief of the southern heavens) (Brosch, 2008). Polynesian navigators at sea looked east for rising stars to use as clues to direction and the constellation was seen to rise in the east like a cup (Hawaiian Star Lines). SOURCE

Dr. Orchiston is a foremost authority on the subject of New Zealand astronomy, and here are the collected papers of his fruitful studies in this area, including both those published many years ago and new material. The papers herein review traditional Maori astronomy, examine the appearance of nautical astronomy practiced by Cook and his astronomers on their various stopovers in New Zealand during their three voyagers to the South Seas, and also explore notable nineteenth century New Zealand observatories historically, from significant telescopes now located in New Zealand to local and international observations made during the 1874 and 1882 transits of Venus and the nineteenth and twentieth century preoccupation of New Zealand amateur astronomers with comets and meteors.

Lunar Month

Ancient Polynesians recognized the planets and the fixed stars. In Hawaii the eastern star was called manalo and the evening star was called na-holo-holo. Their calendar measured the movement of the stars across the sky with great accuracy. Like all ancient cultures the star group of Pleiades, “the seven sisters” had great significance. Its first appearance in the evening sky , which at present falls in November marked the beginning of the year and was highly celebrated. Some other Polynesian groups began their year when Pleiades made its appearance in the morning sky which fell around June.

The lunar month was observed and 29/30 days of the month were given different names for the nights of the Moon. The Hawaiians called this year beginning with Pleiades appearance in the sky Makahiki. It was divided into twelve lunar months, beginning with the new Moon. By allotting 29/30 days to each lunar month there was usually a left over portion of days at the end of the year, but it is unknown what significance was attached to it.. They would use a cycle of 19 years in which the 3rd, 5th, 8th, 11yh, 13th, 16th, 19th years were allowed to have an extra 13th lunar month. In the intervening years, the 12th month was given extra length to account for the extra days. The Greeks followed a similar system. SOURCE

The names given by the Tahitian people to the nights of the Moon are:

  1. (New Moon) – Tirio or Teriere
  2. HiroHiti
  3. Hoata
  4. Hami-ama-mua
  5. Hami-ama-roto
  6. Hami-ama-muri
  7. ‘Ore’ ore-mua
  8. ‘Ore’ ore-mui
  9. Tamatea
  10. Huna
  11. Rapu or Ari
  12. Maharu
  13. Hu-a
  14. Maitu
  15. Motu
  16. Mara’i
  17. Turu or Turutea
  18. Ra’au-mua
  19. Ra’au-muri
  20. ‘Ore’ ore-mua
  21. ‘Ore’ ore-roto
  22. ‘Ore’ ore-muri
  23. Ta’aroa-mua
  24. Ta’aroa -roto
  25. Ta’aroa-muri
  26. Tane
  27. Ro’o-nui
  28. Ro’o-mauri
  29. Mutu or Maurimate


[Recited in 1818 at Porapora, by Rua-nui (Great-pit), a clever old woman, then bent with age, and eyes dim. The stars were identified with their equivalents in English by the aid of Paora’i (cleft sky), Counsellor of Porapora, in 1822, and by the best authority in Tahiti, later from the MSS. of the Rev. J. M. Orsmond, Missionary of Tahiti.]

Communicated by Miss Teuira Henry.

RUA-TUPUA-NUI (source-of-great-growth) was the origin; when he took to wife Atea-ta’o-nui (vast-expanse-of-great bidding), there were born his princes, Shooting-stars; then followed the Moon; then followed the Sun; then followed the Comets; then followed Fa’a-iti (Little-Valley, Perseus), Fa’a-nui (Great Valley, Auriga), and Fa’a-tapotupotu (Open Valley, Gemenii), in King Clear-open-sky, which constellations are all in the North.

Fa’a-nui (Auriga) dwelt with his wife Tahi-ari’i (Unique Sovereign, Capella in Auriga), and begat his prince Ta’urua (Great Festivity, Venus), who runs in the evening, and who heralds the night and the day, the stars, the moon, and the sun, as a compass to guide Hiro’s ship at sea. And there followed Ta’ero (Bacchus or Mercury), by the sun.

Ta’urua (Great Venus) prepared his canoe, Mata-taui-noa (Continually-changing-face), and sailed along the west, to King South, and dwelt with his wife Rua-o-mere (cavern-of-parental-yearnings, Capricornus), the compass that stands on the southern side of the sky.

There was born his prince Maunu-‘ura (fading-redness, Mars), who rises in the evening with two faces (two shades in its disc) a red star, the god that flies to offer oblations for thought in his season. Continue reading HERE.

Further Resources

How Polynesian navigation history informs astronomy today

The Polynesian, Master Mariner and Astronomer

Voyaging Stars: Aspects of Polynesian and Micronesian Astronomy

Archaeoastronomy in Polynesia

Islander Mythology and Astronomy

A Collection of Curricula for the STARLAB Polynesian Voyaging Cylinder


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NGC 2359: Thor’s Helmet Nebula

This helmet-shaped cosmic cloud with wing-like appendages is popularly called Thor’s Helmet. Heroically sized even for a Norse god, Thor’s Helmet is about 30 light-years across. In fact, the helmet is more like an interstellar bubble, blown as a fast wind from the bright, massive star near the bubble’s center sweeps through a surrounding molecular cloud. Known as a Wolf-Rayet star, the central star is an extremely hot giant thought to be in a brief, pre-supernova stage of evolution. Cataloged as NGC 2359, the nebula is located about 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Canis Major. The sharp image, made using broadband and narrowband filters, captures striking details of the nebula’s filamentary structures. It shows off a blue-green color from strong emission due to oxygen atoms in the glowing gas. SOURCE

I combined 3 nights of imaging on the target of Thor’s Helmet … NGC 2359 using a broadband one-shot-color camera and two other nights using a monochrome camera using narrowband filters of Oxygen 3 and Hydrogen-Alpha. The combination of the images provided a colorful deep space target. Watch to see how I did this.

Sky Rider by Justin Douglas Blackford

I soar aloft the sky
And see what lies below.

I create the clatter
That comes with the lightning.

I am the bane of thurses,
Trolls, tyrants, and chaos.

I destroy disorder
And halt the dark forces.

I ride to bring the rain,
Making red clouds above.

I was, am, and will be
Always in the Nine Worlds.

Thor’s Helmet gets its glow from the massive unstable star WR7, a so-called “Wolf-Rayet” star which ejects much of its gaseous outer layers into space at speeds of up to 2,000 km/s. The ejected material from the star runs into the slower-moving gas floating between the stars. The collision excites the surrounding gas and causes it to emit light.

Wolf-Rayet stars are massive, fast-burning, and short-lived stars on their way to exploding as a supernovae. This phase of the star’s life only lasts briefly, which means Wolf-Rayet stars are quite rare. Only 150 have been discovered in the Milky Way.

The interstellar gas in and around this nebula is chemically enriched by the entrails of the Wolf-Rayet star. The rich blue-green color of the nebula comes from ionized oxygen ejected by the star. The reddish-pink color comes from excited hydrogen gas from the star and in the interstellar medium. Continue reading HERE.

In this video, I am Photographing Thors Helmet Nebula through my Zenithstar 81 Apo refractor telescope.

Thor in the Cosmos

Mjöllnir: Thor’s Short-Handled Hammer  

Recently we have shown that by comparing the classical  constellations with eddic myths many figures of the myths can be identified. By investigating the Völundarkvida it was possible to find the sword of Völund in Nidud’s possession. The sword is the brightest star of the northern starry sky, Arcturus. Nidud is depicted as the herdsman Böotes. Surely it’s possible to equate Surtur holding Frey’s sword with Böotes and Arcturus as well. We also find the maiden Bödhild as the constellation Virgo bearing the golden ear of grain that can be seen in the northern myth either as a twig called mistiltein or as a golden ring. Continue reading HERE.

Thor’s Iron Glove: Járnglófar/Járngreipr

The head of Cetus is near to the Pleiades and to the constellation Taurus and explains perfectly why Thor needs it to hold the hammer Mjölnir.

In addition this asterism can explain some obscure details in other stories. In Skáldskaparmál Thor uses in his fight with Geirröd not his hammer to smash the giant but the glove Járngreipr to throw back a piece of hot iron. I assume the story describes the rising of the head of Cetus and the setting of Böotes (Geirröd) and the bright star Arcturus (the hot piece of iron). The tongs Geirrödr is using could be the claws of Scorpio, the iron pillar he is hiding behind is the Milky Way in the Sagittarius/Scorpio region.

A Marriage Made in Heaven: Thor as the Bride of Thrym

Thrymskvida, the story of how Thor’s hammer Mjöllnir was stolen by the giant (thurs) Thrym and how he rescued it by disguising himself as a bride pretending to be Freyja and finally smashing Thrym with his hammer, is one of the most famous Eddic poems. It seems to be one of the oldest poems handed down to us. Nevertheless it puzzled scholars due to its content. Most see it as a genuine pre-christian poem, whereas others suspect it to be a christian parody as they find it hard to believe that one of the highest Germanic gods would have allowed himself to be dressed as a bride. See the Thrymskvida Study Guide for details.

In the case of Thrymskvida, it may be fruitful to assume an astral background of the Eddic story. As I already discussed in the essay Mjöllnir – Thor’s short handled hammer it seems to be possible to connect the hammer Mjöllnir with the asterism of the Pleiades, a part of the constellation Taurus. Indeed this asterism has the shape of a hammer with a short handle. Therefore in an astronomical context the poem would describe how the asterism of the Pleiades disappears at the western horizon and how it reappears in the east. Continue reading HERE.

Further Resources:

Thor’s Helmet: Skywatcher Sees Glowing Gas Space Bubble

Thor’s Helmet (NGC 2359) and Planetary Nebula

NGC 2359: Thor’s Helmet

Odin’s Gifts – Thor

Thor’s Helmet

Pictures of Thor’s Helmet Nebula

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Astronomy of the Germanic and Scandinavian Sky

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been looking at the night sky viewing the stars, constellations, planet alignments, the moon and more. The vastness of space has been intertwined into folklore, myths and stories of Gods and Goddesses all over the world. It is a subject I have been fascinated with for many years with my interest specifically focusing on star navigation at sea and the ancient Astronomy found in Germanic and Scandinavian history. So today I wanted to share with you some amazing resources on this very topic regarding the ancient and some modern interpretations of Germanic and Scandinavian astronomy.

Our understanding of ancient astronomy in Northern Europe has been limited because no record exists of the native constellations among the Germanic tribes in ancient times. They certainly did not know of the constellations of the south have become our standard ones today. However, it would be unusual to suppose they never had any, only that the knowledge of them has not come down to us.

Fortunately, the surviving mythology of Scandinavia has left us enough clues to allow us to piece together this forgotten knowledge of the past. At the time these myths were recorded in 13th century Iceland the people no longer believed in the old religion. However, even back during the Viking Age, before the year 1000 AD, when the religion was still strong, many of the beliefs held then seem already to have been understood only in abstract terms, while the naturalistic explanations they embodied went back even further.

It is now clear that the mythology of Scandinavia as we know it arose from a fusion of traditional local gods with several other more widespread traditions. While the myths attained their present form within the Iron Age, some elements and aspects of it go back even into the Stone Age, when humans were first trying to make sense of their universe. SOURCE

Bronze age sky disk

A group of German scientists has deciphered the meaning of one of the most spectacular archeological discoveries in recent years: The mystery-shrouded sky disc of Nebra was used as an advanced astronomical clock.

The purpose of the 3,600 year-old sky disc of Nebra, which caused a world-wide sensation when it was brought to the attention of the German public in 2002, is no longer a matter of speculation.

A group of German scholars who studied this archaeological gem has discovered evidence which suggests that the disc was used as a complex astronomical clock for the harmonization of solar and lunar calendars.

Unlike the solar calendar, which indicates the position of the earth as it revolves around the sun, the lunar calendar is based on the phases of the moon. A lunar year is eleven days shorter than the solar year because 12 synodic months, or 12 returns of the moon to the new phase, take only 354 days.

The sky disc of Nebra was used to determine if and when a thirteenth month — the so-called intercalary month — should be added to a lunar year to keep the lunar calendar in sync with the seasons. Continue reading HERE.

For thousands of years people have looked up to the night sky and told stories about the stars. These epic tales tell of vengeful gods and goddesses, of monsters and heroes. Others try to make sense of the natural world, or unravel the mysterious forces of the universe. This stunning book brings together 23 of these legends from all over the world: from Ancient Greece to North America, Egypt, China, India, and the South Pacific. Written by award-winning author Anita Ganeri and with beautifully detailed artwork by illustrator Andy Wilx, this is a magical book to be treasured for generations to come.

Scandinavian Daymarks

The Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans all lived far enough north of the equator that they could not rely on a fairly constant Sun-path over the year, as people in the tropics did, but they were not so far from the equator that the differing lengths of day and night made it difficult for them to use their “temporal hours”, even though their lengths changed somewhat over the course of the year.

Very far north (or south) of the equator, however, the difference between the length of daylight time in the summer is very much greater than in the winter. In parts of Scandinavia above the Arctic Circle (at a latitude of 66.5° North) the Sun does not set at all for part of the summer–it is daylight all the time. On the other hand, for part of the winter the Sun does not rise in these same areas. Obviously there is no point in dividing the daytime or nighttime into twelve sections if they are not taking place! Even if the Sun sets for only three of our modern hours in the summer, if one is dividing the daytime and nighttime into Babylonian/Egyptian-style “temporal hours”, the nighttime hours will be so short compared to the daytime hours that there is hardly any point in making the divisions.

However, even very far north (or south), no matter where the Sun rises or sets, the middle of its path is above about the same part of the horizon. That means you can always tell when the middle of the day is if you know above which point on the horizon the highest point of the Sun’s path is. Also, no matter how high the Sun is above the horizon, it always passes over the same points on the horizon after the same interval of time. Using these facts, the people living in Scandinavia developed a system of time-keeping quite different than the Babylonian/Egyptian system.

As said earlier, our modern system of time-keeping divides each sun-cycle into twenty-four hours, each of which is 60 minutes long. The Scandinavians divided each sun-cycle (sólarhringr, “sun-ring” in their language) into eight sections. They did this by dividing the horizon into eight sections (north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, and northwest). Each of these sections was called an eighth (átt or eykt). 3 A place on the horizon which lay dead center in any of these eight directions (due north, due northeast, etc.) was called a daymark (dagmark). 4 The identified the time by noting when the Sun stood over one of these daymark-points on the horizon. Continue reading HERE.

The Vikings used the stars to navigate across the seas on boats like the Skidbladner. They gave their own names to what they observed above them. The North Star (Polaris) is ever present in our northern skies. They called it Leidarstjarna, meaning ‘guiding star’. Watch this animation about the Vikings and the stars.

Viking Age Star and Constellation Names

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 lýsa 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 né vissi
hvar hún sali átti,
stjörnur það né vissu
hvar þær staði áttu,
máni það né 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 mér þat Alvíss,
– öll of rök fira
vörumk, dvergr, at vitir,
hvé sá himinn heitir
heimi hverjum í?”

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

Þórr kvað:
“Segðu mér þat Avlíss,
– öll of rök fira
vörumk, dvergr, at vitir,
hversu máni heitir,
sá er menn séa,
heimi hverjum í?”

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

Þórr kvað:
“Segðu mér þat Alvíss,
– öll of rök fira
vörumk, dvergr, at vitir,
hvé sú sól heitir,
er séa alda synir,
heimi hverjum í?”

Alvíss kvað:
“Sól heitir með mönnum,
en sunna með goðum,
kalla dvergar Dvalins leika,
eygló jötnar,
alfar fagrahvél,
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.

The pagan Great Midwinter Sacrifice and the ‘royal’ mounds at Old Uppsala

At the end of the 17 th century, the farmers of Uppland were still using the so-called rule of King Aun, according to which the phases of the moon in the Julian calendar fell one day earlier after 304 years. Such displacements in the eight-year cycle took place in 1692, 1388, 1084, 780, and 476. The semi-legendary king Aun is considered to have reigned about AD 450-500 and t o have been buried at Old Uppsala. The three ‘royal’ burial mounds there have been dated to AD 450-550. These mounds are oriented in such a way that they could have been used to regulate the sacrificial calendar.

The importance of the Disting and the precise definitions as to when it should take place

The original meaning of the Disting was threefold; there should be: a great sacrifice for peace and victory for the king, a general meeting with representatives from all the Swedish provinces, and a major market (Granlund 1958: cols 112-115). At the general meeting, important common political decisions were taken, such as election of a new king or solution of judicial questions that not could be solved at local courts. The participation of the representatives was compulsory, and Christian representatives who refused to come because of the human sacrifice had to pay a great fine.

The dates for the Disting were linked to the phases of the moon according to an ancient rule preserved in medieval texts. Already Tacitus had pointed out that important meetings among the Germanic peoples must take place at the new or full moon (Hutton 1970: 149 [Germania 11]). In his Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, written in 1555 during his exile in Rome, Olaus Magnus, the last Roman Catholic archbishop in Sweden, explained that the Disting was started at the full moon because the light from the moon facilitated travel to Uppsala during the short days at midwinter (Foote 1996: 203 [Magnus 4.6]).

The exact rule for determining the starting date of the Disting was given by Olof Rudbeck (1679: 68), professor in medicine at the university of Uppsala and a scholar with broad scientific interest: The moon that shines in the sky on Twelfth Day (6/1) is the Christmas moon and after this follows the Disting’s moon. This means that the earliest date for the beginning of the Distingwas 21 January (7/1+14 days) and the latest date was 19 February (7/1+29 days). The Disting started on the day of the full moon between 21/1 and 19/2, according to the Julian calendar. The corresponding interval for the beginning of the Disting in our modern calendar is 28 January-26 February. It may seem strange that this originally heathen rule was related to Twelfth Day, or the Epiphany, as in the rule for the start of the Disting in Magnus (Foote 1996: 203 [Magnus 4.6]). The explanation is that the rule for the dates of the Disting was related to the Christian calendar in the 12th century. At that time, there was a shift by seven days between the Julian calendar and our Gregorian calendar that is closely related to the solstices and equinoxes. This fact also explains why the Swedish tradition says that the night of St. Lucia, 13 December, is the longest and darkest night of the year. If seven days are added to this date, we get the date of the winter solstice at that time. This fact indicates that the pre-historic Swedish calendar was closely related to the solstices and equinoxes and supports the results found in my earlier archaeoastronomical investigations of ancient monuments in Sweden (Henriksson 1983, 1989a and b, 1992, 1994,
1995, 1999 and 2002).

Astronomy is perhaps the oldest science to be studied to this day. Since humans gained intelligence and the ability to think, we have made many discoveries, answered questions, and made many more discoveries, all at the same time. Today on Feed My Curiosity, we explore the Evolution of Astronomy, starting with how the Ancient Greeks and the Mayans observed it. We them look at the accomplishments and discoveries made by key figures such as Newton and Einstein, and how much rocket science and space exploration has evolved, with SpaceX and Boeing leading the way. We conclude with the future of astronomy and what we plan to do next, like sending humans to Mars, and how we understand unresolved mysteries of the universe, like its fate.

Observations in Eddic Astronomy
How Passages in the Eddas Act as
References to Constellations by Dr. Christopher E. Johnsen

The Norse Myths have a distinctive flavor all their own, but they also have many similarities to the Greek, Roman, Persian and Indian mythologies. These myths from other cultures have many well-known correspondences with the stars, whereas the Norse mythical tradition has a paucity of them, or perhaps it would be better to say that they have been intentionally hidden and the keys to deciphering these correspondences have been lost.

Astronomy, stjörnuíþrótt in Old Norse, is the science of observation of the stars – it seems that the ancients were very good at it. It is likely that the people living far North near the Arctic circle had a natural tendency to focus on observation of the stars since so many winter nights were filled with nothing but darkness and the stars above to observe, with little sunlight present around the winter solstice. 

Modern astronomy’s roots can be traced to Mesopotamia, and it descends directly from Babylonian astronomers who in turn derived their knowledge from Sumerian astronomers.  The earliest Babylonian star catalogues date from about 1200 BC and many star names are in Sumerian suggesting that the Sumerians were one of if not the first people to study the stars that have been observed in the archeological record or that they inherited an astronomical tradition from some unknown earlier culture.
The Sumerians developed the earliest known writing system – cuneiform – whose origin is currently dated to circa 3500 BC.  Baked clay tablets with cuneiform writing have been found that recorded detailed observations of the stars which led to the sophisticated astronomy of the Sumerian’s successors, the Babylonians. Only fragments of these cuneiform tablets detailing Babylonian astronomy have survived down through the ages. Many believe that “all subsequent varieties of scientific astronomy, in the Hellenistic world, in India, in Islam, and in the West—if not indeed all subsequent endeavour in the exact sciences—depend upon Babylonian astronomy in decisive and fundamental ways.” An argument can be made that this statement also holds true for the Norse astronomers of old and that they were continuing the ancient Sumerian/Babylonian tradition.
Continue reading HERE.

Surveys the pre-Christian beliefs of the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. Provides an introduction to this subject, giving basic outlines to the sagas and stories, and helps identify the charachter traits of not only the well known but also the lesser gods of the age.

Further Resources:

Skylore of the North

Observations in Eddic Astronomy
by Dr. Christopher E. Johnsen

Viking & Germanic People Star Lore in Viking and Germanic Mythology

Germanic Astronomy: An Attempt to Recover the Old Heathen Constellations of Northern Europe by Peter Krüger