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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

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Finland in the Viking Age

Finland is a country filled with rich history, amazing people, fascinating folklore, great culture and a beautiful landscape. It is a country I have been fascinated with for many years for a myriad of reasons. Today I wanted to explore a period of time in Finnish history that is not discussed enough in my opinion and that is what was going on in Finland during the Viking age. The Viking age in Scandinavia and throughout Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean had a huge impact. So The question is this, how was Finland effected during this period of history? Well that is exactly what this blog post is about.

Finland: the Viking Ages

  By Kristian Ola (Wilpuri)

Viking Age Finland is a topic which is rarely discussed when talking about Finnish history. In schools, pupils learn next to nothing about pre-Medieval Finnish society. Also, historians have been rather reluctant to deal with the topic in-depth in recent years, and so very few works have emerged. It is almost as if it were taboo.

Because of its remote location, Finland has always been a little bit behind in technological advances. The Bronze-age had just made its arrival, when in they already started to become out-dated in the cradles of civilization. However, during the iron-age, there were strong contacts with the Finnic tribes on both sides of the Gulf of Finland, as well as to the east and to the west. During the Viking age, the tribes of Finland were more or less at par in technological development with their neighbors to the west, east and the south. Differences between western Finnic tribes and eastern Finnic tribes of Finland become evident by the Merovingian period. Finland is commonly divided between Western Finnish Cultural Sphere and Eastern Finnish Cultural Sphere. The Pre-historic period of Finland stretched all the way to Swedish conquest in the 12th century, and in eastern Finland it stretched all the way to the late 13th century.

The entire area that is thought to have been possessed or controlled by the Finns during the late iron-age was most likely not a united province politically until the medieval times under Swedish rule. There appear to have been some key areas, which formed which are thought to have acted as political entities. The most important of these areas are the Turku-region, and the area known as Vakka-Suomi, which has also been referred to as “Kaland” in some historical sources. It is impossible to tell exactly how these areas were governed, but some educated guesses would suggest a very “democratic” style of decision making. The strong men of different villages would decide together on a common course of action, as no single leader was strong enough to dominate the entire province, very much like the Vikings are thought to have operated. One cannot talk of a nobility or aristocracy as such, but there are evident class-distinctions. These become evident when looking at the items found in the graves. As swords were expensive and hard to come by (as they had to be imported from over-seas), they act as a good marker of a wealthy and usually important person within the community. As mentioned earlier, the Finns of the Turku-region and Vakka-Suomi had a very good geographical location to engage in trade with the west, especially with Birka, as this had become a dominant (if not the dominant) trade-centre of the Baltic by the Viking age. Continue reading HERE.

There is evidence of both peaceful trade and not-so-peaceful conflict between Finns and the neighboring Vikings during this time, and Finland is thought to have been a regular stop for Vikings on their way east, with significant evidence of trade with the Viking trade center of Birka (situated near modern-day Stockholm) found in archeological sites in Finland and Sweden.

Finnish ports along the Baltic sea were thought to have been key factors behind the Norsemen’s expansions eastwards, and it is believed that individual Finns did take part of Viking raids and expeditions.

Furthermore the island of Åland was considered an important Viking port at the time, and it was considered to be Finnish back then too. The Norse also acquired important knowledge about the Russian lands from the Finns, which is thought to have been crucial information enabling their future eastern endeavors. SOURCE

The Ålandic mystery

Åland has been ”a contact zone between Finnic and Scandinavian linguistic and cultural groups for at least two thousand years” (p. 7). Recurrent themes in VAÅ include some ”mysteries”. Åland is conspicuously absent from Old Norse sources, mentioned only once, in Fundinn Noregr (The discovery of Norway); but there it appears in an accurate itinerary, indicating familiarity, as Schalin with Frog point out (pp. 277–278). The lack of place names in Åland older than the late Viking Age and the dearth of artifacts from the late 10th through the 11th century have been taken as evidence of a possible discontinuity in settlement near the end of the Viking Age. Another mystery is the clay paw amulet, a grave practice mainly restricted to Åland, from which it spread to Timerëvo in central Russia. Frog focuses on this rite in relation to bear ceremonialism generally (arguing convincingly that the paws are more likely to represent bear than beaver), situating Åland between Finnic and Scandinavian mythological traditions.

Many contributions adopt indirect approaches to problems for which the evidence is minimal. Ahola, Frog and Schalin explain the methodological problems involved in trying to ascertain the language(s) spoken in Åland during the Viking Age. Aalto explores the meaning of the Norse ethnonym Finnr, which in addition to Sámi and (occasionally) the residents of present-day Finnish territory may have included Ålanders, even if they were Scandinavian speakers. Place names indicate that continuous Swedish-speaking settlement in Southwest Finland dates to around 1100 AD, according to Mikko Heikkilä. Schalin with Frog argues for Germanic etymologies for most of the older place names in Åland. Jomala, a Finnic name for ’god’, is likely an old name for the largest island, and may reflect a Viking Age borrowing of the word into Scandinavian as an appellative for Finnic sacred places (pp. 286–289).

Ahola discusses traditions in Kalevala-meter poetry associated with Saari ’Island’, which has sometimes been identified with Åland. Rather than indicating that these epic stories are based on historical events in Åland, as Kaarle Krohn thought, Ahola suggests that mainland Finns may have come to view Åland as a mystical place because of the valence of islands in epic tradition. SOURCE

Most overviews dealing with eastern Vikings have cast the Eastern Baltic peoples in a predominantly passive role during the large-scale Viking movement into the region. This book demonstrates how communication networks over the Baltic Sea and further east were established and how they took different forms in the northern and the southern halves of the Eastern Baltic. Archaeological as well as written sources indicate the impact these networks had on the development of local societies. In particular, areas along the northern Baltic Sea, both on the eastern and the western coasts, were characterized by a shared cultural sphere for warriors. Changes in archaeological evidence along relevant trade routes through these areas suggest that the inhabitants of present-day Finland and the Baltic States were more engaged in Viking eastern movement than is generally believed.
From Ancient Finnish Kings who ruled the whole of Northern Europe to savages living in dirt holes to the bane of Viking raiders, there are countless stories of Viking Age Finland and its inhabitants going around. How was this cold and remote country a thousand years ago? This animated documentary takes a look at some of the facts and theories of what Viking Age Finland was like.
Vikings spread terror across the Baltic Sea and beyond. But why they left Finland alone has been a mystery until now. There are several runestones describing grave military disasters experienced by Viking raiders in modern day Finland. What went so wrong for them? The answer is bloodcurdling.

Further Resources

The Viking Age in Finland III: Identity and Identification and the Viking Age in Finland (with Special Emphasis on the Åland Islands)

History of Finland: THE ERA OF SWEDISH RULE, 1150-1809

Fibula, fabula, fact : the Viking Age in Finland

Were there ever Vikings in Finland or Finnish Vikings?

Finland in the Viking Age