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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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Loki in the Cosmos

Since the dawn of human civilization, humans have looked to the stars in relationship to the Gods and Goddesses of their spiritual beliefs. We can see this through archeological, written and anthropological evidence and even see it currently throughout the world. Last month I published a post regarding the Astronomy of the Germanic and Scandinavian skies. Today I want to focus on one specific Loki and his place in the cosmos regarding a Moon of Jupiter and a very well know star. The oceans of this world are my most passionate fascination but the realm of the Universe is a subject I also like learning about and I hope you enjoy this as much as I do.

Lokabrenna – Star of Loki (Sirius)

In some Scandinavian countries, Sirius is sometimes referred to as Lokabrenna (Loki’s Brand or Loki’s Torch.)

Sirius is so bright that it can even be observed with the naked eye, provided that the sky is clear, the observer is at a high altitude, or the Sun is at the horizon in the eastern sky, especially as Sirius appears during the late summer months in the Northern Hemisphere.

The appearance of Sirius in the sky was seen as of immense importance in ancient times; several other cultures worshiped and offered sacrifices as the rise of Sirius signaled good fortune. (Coins retrieved from 3rd century BCE were embossed with pictures of dogs or stars emitting rays, which may signify the importance of Sirius.)

Another common name for Sirius is the ‘Dog Star’ – which coincides with arrival of the oppressive heat – hence the reason why late summer (July 3rd-August 11th) is commonly referred to as the ‘dog days.’

Being the brightest star in the sky, Lokabrenna may have also been used as a navigational tool by sailors, such as the Vikings. Interestingly enough, Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan -who wrote the Risala around 921 A.D., regarding his impressions of the Varangians (Vikings) on the Volga trade route – dedicated the largest portion of his account to describing (and opining upon) the daily practices and beliefs of these traders.   Thus, Fadlan may have been the first to include reference to Sirius’ importance to the Vikings as a navigational guide in the eastern skies, among other things. SOURCE

Most people perceive it as one single star. However, in reality Sirius is a binary stellar system consisting of two space objects – Sirius A and Sirius B.

Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, α Canis Majoris (Alpha Canis Majoris), or Canicula, is the brightest star in the night sky. It lies at a distance of 8.60 light years (2.64 parsecs) from Earth, in the constellation Canis Major, the Greater Dog. Sirius is not the brightest star because it is more luminous than other visible stars, but because it is located so close to the solar system. It is the fifth closest star system to Earth and contains two of the eight nearest stars to Earth.

Sirius is slowly moving closer to Earth and will gradually increase in brightness over the next 60,000 years, before it starts to recede. It will, however, remain the brightest star seen from Earth for the next 210,000 years.

Sirius has an apparent magnitude of -1.46, which makes it almost twice as bright as Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky, located in Carina constellation. Continue reading HERE.

A Volcano called Loki

Loki Patera volcano in color from Voyager 1

A huge area of Io’s volcanic plains is shown in this Voyager 1 image mosaic. Numerous volcanic calderas and lava flows are visible here. Loki Patera, an active lava lake, is the large shield-shaped black feature. Heat emitted from Loki can be seen through telescopes all the way from Earth. These telescopic observations tell us that Loki has been active continuously (or at least every time astronomers have looked) since the Voyager 1 flyby in March 1979. The composition of Io’s volcanic plains and lava flows has not been determined, but they could consist dominantly of sulfur with surface frosts of sulfur dioxide or of silicates (such as basalts) encrusted with sulfur and sulfur dioxide condensates. The bright whitish patches probably consist of freshly deposited SO2 frost. The black spots, including Loki, are probably hot sulfur lava, which may remain molten by intrusions of molten silicate magma, coming up from deeper within Io. The ultimate source of heat that keeps Io active is tidal frictional heating due to the continual flexure of Io by the gravity of Jupiter and Europa, another of Jupiter’s satellites. SOURCE

The largest volcano in the solar system, located on Jupiter’s moon Io, is called Loki, named after Loki of Norse Mythology. There are several other volcanoes on the moon of Io, and all of them are named after mythical figures, most of whom are associated with fire.

Loki generates more lava and heat than all volcanoes on Earth combined, is 202km in diameter, and under the crust, is part of a molten core as large as half of the Earth’s moon.

Information gathered from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s website and NASA’s Galileo mission website.

Loki can be found on Jupiter’s moon Io. Named for the Norse God of Mischief (or comic book villain if you prefer), this volcano is considered to be the hottest and most powerful in the Solar System. Loki is officially called Loki Patera which means “Loki Basin”. Loki is not a tall volcano, it has no cone. It is the opposite, a large depression in Io’s surface that is filled with lava. Loki alone puts out more heat than all of Earth’s volcanoes combined!

Volcanism was discovered on Io by Voyager back in the 1970s. Up until this point people thought Earth was the only place with such active geology. Initially it was surprising to discover this much activity on such a tiny world. Scientists thought that since larger bodies (such as the other rocky planets, and larger moons) appeared to have thoroughly cooled and stopped exhibiting signs of active volcanism, tiny bodies such as Io wouldn’t exhibit it either. Voyager snapped photos of Io’s surface, showing large volcanic scars as well as plumes of ash reaching into the skies. Io had even more volcanic activity than Earth! SOURCE

Further Resources:

The Bizarre Characteristics of Io | Our Solar System’s Moons

Once upon a time… Lokabrenna

Lokabrenna (from temple of the Flea)

Some Thoughts on the Scenery of Hárbarðsljóð

Viking Age Star and Constellation Names