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Norse luminous gods

May 2, 2013

When one talks about the Norse gods, one’s mind goes directly to the might of the Aesir, the wisdom of the Vanir, and the chaos of the jotunn. However, there are several deities who don’t quite seem to fit in these groups, and amidst them lie the gods of light, the deities of the Sun and Moon, Day and Dawn.

These gods are of particular interest to me because of their mysterious, yet unambiguously important status amidst norse worshippers.

Introduction

The Norse luminous gods are a group of five deities directly associated to the main sources of skylight, the Sun and the Moon (the latter obviously just reflecting the rays of the Sun). In Norse thought, as in many other indo-european religions, skylight was often seperated from the Sun proper, and indeed some of the more famous norse gods, like Freyr, Heimdall and Baldr, often embodied sunlight without being directly associated to the sphere of the Sun (though Freyr might have been more closely linked to the solar body; see below).

The most obvious of these luminous deities are Sunna and Máni, the physical gods of the Sun and Moon; alongside them stands Dagr, the god of personified day. These gods are the offspring of Dellingr and Mundilfari, gods that may also be closely tied to the Sun and Moon respectively (similar to the Hyperion-Helios relationship). Nótt technically belongs to this group of deities, but I decided to not include her both because she is not luminous in any way, being the deity of the night and shadows, and also because she herself is apart from these other gods.

Sunna/Sól

Sunna

The most celebrated of these deities, Sunna is even reffered as an Ásynja, though whereas this is a direct connection to other known Ásynjur or simply a glorious way to show her status is not clear (Gylfaginning seems to imply the latter). Sunna is an often overlooked deity by modern ásatruar and odinists, who preffer to venerate solar energies through Freyr or Baldr (or even Odin, claiming that his eye is the solar body), and for quite some time this was thought to be the case amidst archaelogists, as per a motiff in indo-european traditions to replace the solar deity for non-solar gods associated with sunshine. However, Sunna, if not the focus of cults, was at least seemingly widely acknowledged, as Sunday (Sunnudagr) originated as a day specific to her, and she was also venerated as a healing goddess, as the Merseburg Incantations show, as well as a deity of protection and victory, aspects embodied in the Sowilo rune (though the latter might have been directly associated with Freyr, given the usage of naval metaphors. Freyr is himself claimed to be associated with the Ingwaz rune; any help in this department is welcome).

Sunna is the daughter of Mundilfari and the sister of both Máni and Sinthgunt, a mysterious deity I’ll talk about latter. She and her brother were placed in the Heavens by the gods – the details are rather vague, with the Prose Edda suggesting that they were originally mortals thrown there for their arrogance, though one must always remember that the Eddas were written by a christian who justified the gods as being ascended greek heroes, so divine ascension reccords must be taken with a grain of salt -, and are eternally chased by two wolves, Sköll and Hati, offspring of Fenrir that seek to devour the heavenly gods, and will appearently suceed for a brief period of time, as Sunna will give birth to another Sun once she is caught. Of course, since the Ragnarók might be a christian invention, this too probably needs to be taken with a grain of salt as well, especially when one considers that this story is basically pointless, as Sunna appearently can both still find the time to aid mortals and will triumph in the end anyways (must be why the Sowilo is so associated with victory, what with this being a divine Coyote – Road Runner routine).

As my previous comments on Freyr might have indicated, Sunna seems overall closely connected to the Vanir, in spite of her Ásynja title. Her role as a nurturing goddess directly overlaps with Freyr – who is also reffered as “Prince of the Aesir” -, and both deities indeed are closely tied in many aspects, such as their role in healing, protection, fertility, ships and naval guidance and destruction of the icy powers of the north. Sunna is stated to be the bedfellow of Glenr, a theonym that may be associated with Freyr, and in turn the latter is considered to be the undisputed ruler of Álfheimr, the realm of the light elves, a realm that may be the solar body. Such a close, dualistic relationship between the solar deity and a more earthly god is not something unheard of, as with Apollon and Helios in hellenic traditions.

Unlike greek solar deities, neither Sunna nor Freyr have the dire associations with rot and destruction so feared, instead being more associated with the healing and life-giving nature of the rays of sunlight, but this doesn’t mean neither is weak. Besides being associated with military victory in the Sowilo rune, implying a nature as a war goddess, Sunna is also said to be a fiery deity. In the Grímnismál, Sunna is said to be covered by Svalinn, a shield that literally means “cold” or “chill”. Without this shield, Sunna would utterly destroy the Earth, burning away even the seas and mountains. Naturally, Svalinn is a useful metaphor for the shielding powers of our atmosphere and magnetic forces, or the void of space, keeping most of the devastating light at bay. In turn, however, Svalinn also keeps the world cold, protecting the powers of darkness.

Sunna, as a travelling deity, is known by many names in the nine worlds. The Alvíssmál claims that she is known as “Sun” by humanity, “sunshine” by the gods, “Dvalinn’s Deluder” by the dwarves, “everglow” by the giants, “the lovely wheel” by the elves and “all-shining” by “the offspring of the Aesir”. These names, while at first simple solar epiphets, seem to reveal quite much about her relationship with the other worlds:

– “Sunshine” naturally indicates a degree of inferiority to simply “Sun”, which may imply that Asgard has a higher solar deity, perhaps Heimdall or Baldr as they are reffered as “white gods” and the source of light; however, neither is associated with healing or fertility at least directly, which probably suggests why Sunna remains distinct, as her light nurtures.

– “Dvalinn’s Deluder” is directly stated to be a refference to the belief that sunlight turns dwarves and trolls into stone, which becomes more profound as Dvalinn is also a minor deity associated with dreams and sleep. Latter in the Prose Edda another epiphet is given to her, “Dvalinn’s Toy”, and this might reffer to the Sowilo rune: Dvalinn is said to have brought the runes to the dwarves, so logically this would mean making use of that particular rune as well. However, her being by nature an enemy to the dwarves presumably gives her power over them, hence the “deluder”. Dagr’s horse Skinfaxi is interestingly also called Dvalin’s Deluder.

– “Everglow” is an interesting epiphet. The jötnar are basically the ancient powers of chaos in nordic thought, and covering many aspects of nature they probably interact in several ways with sunlight. Frost giants are presumably hostile towards Sunna, as she herself is frequently described as an “ice breaker” and an enemy to dark and cold. The fire giants are something of a controversial concept, as they primarily feature in the Ragnarok, which may or may not be an invention, though Muspelheim is recognised as a realm and is said to be inhabitted by fire jötnar, presumably borne by the primordial flames just as the frost giants were born from Ymir. The jötnar as a whole probably predate Sunna, but the concept of a primal fire, of a primal light melting away the ice, is certainly not new to them, as they were born from it’s consequences. “Everglow”, thus, is perhaps an apropriate term given to a fact of nature that has been with the giants since their conception, the eternal fires that threaten to destroy the world if the cold doesn’t shield them.

– “The lovely wheel” is an epiphet even less dignified than “sunshine”, which might suggest that Sunna has no relevance in Álfheimr, or that alternatively this emphasis on the wheel might correlate to the interpretation of the realm as the Sun itself.

– “All shining” has connatations of victory and glory, even more so in old norse, and thus this epiphet is more than apropriate for the descendence of the gods, in flesh or in spirit.

As often stated, the Trundholm Sun Chariot may be an artifact built in name of the goddess, even bearing what appears to be a shield akin to Svalinn. The other common option, a chariot to Taranis, seems less likely to me due to the blatant solar motiffs, unless Taranis began as a solar deity. Another possibility suggested was as a chariot meant for Dagr, which I have to say that is a very interesting hypothesis, but unlikely given his lack of association with chariots. While he rides the horse Skinfaxi, Sunna rides Árvakr and Alsvidr, “very awake” and “very quick” respectively.

Máni

Máni by Hank Frank. By far one of my favourite depictions.

Máni by Hank Frank. By far one of my favourite depictions.

Less fabled than Sunna, Máni was still seemingly relevant in norse paganism, having a day named after him, Monday (Mánadagr) and appearently enough traces left in poetry to suggest a larger role than he is relegated to today. Unlike Sunna, there is less evidence about his role in norse religion, with no equivalents to the Merseburg Incantations nor runes associated with him, so it’s perhaps easier to say that his role was less overt than that of Sunna. However, he does have a larger presence in the surviving mythology.

Like his sister, Máni too was thrown to the skies and supposedly is running for his life from the wolf Hati, who also has the rather poeticall taciturn epiphet of Mánagarmr (“Moon Dog”). Hati is also appearently associated with solar eclipses, so he’s not chasing after Máni exclusively. There are perhaps many reasons for this, from maybe an extraordinarily simplistic reccord of the function of these wolves to being christian reccorder bullshit, but I feel in that maybe these “wolves” are actually probably the older gods of the Sun and Moon, before the arrival of proto-indo-europeans to Europe. Fenrir is blatantly a metaphor for the primal chaos and destruction that the wolf symbolises, being born of jötunn and being the sibiling to Death and an Apophis analogue, so Sköll and Hati being the more ravenous aspects of the Sun and Moon makes sense thematically, especially when the wolf has been associated with violent yet light-bearing gods like Apollon.

Besides running for his life, Máni is also stated to be followed around by two children, Hjúki and Bil, the latter possibly being derived from Bilwis, a theonym associated with agriculture. Fathered by Vidfinnr, these two were kidnapped by Máni when fetching water from a well (ominously named Byrgir, “Hider of Something”), and now take residence in the heavens, accompanying the god through his nocturnal journeys. Bil is appearently a girl, as she is latter mentioned in the Prose Edda as a “goddess who has already been described”. Several authors, such as Anne Holtsmark, see this as a metaphor for lunar activity, with the two children being the waxing and waning of the Moon. Thus, unlike other lunar gods like Thoth or Men, Máni was likely not associated with shapeshifting, and it is even possible that moonlight was recognised as not emanating from the Moon, but simply reflected from it. Bilwis as an agricultural theonym may also relate to Máni as an agricultural god, as with the Vedic Chandra: dew is frequently associated with the Moon, and in Norse thought it is outrightly stated to be the saliva of Hrímfaxi, Nótt’s horse.

Logically, this little tale also ressonates with the myths of the Man in the Moon, where a random person is sequestered to the Moon whilst working outdoors at night. Indeed, both Hjúki and Bil are described as bearing a pole, which connects directly to the version where this man gathers wood, very common in northern Europe. To me, the end expression of this myth is less to explain moon craters and moonlight, but more to adress the more surreal side of the Moon, the dreams and madness that come under moonlight. Because the Man in the Moon myths tend to be associated with some sort of cosmic justice – like hubris or the simple act of working on Sunday -, Máni to me is a god associated with retribution, striking wrong doers with insanity, while also symbolising the hopeful side of dreams, deifying Hjúki and Bil. Moon gods associated with justice and righteousness are not an uncommon concept, such as the egyptian Khonsu and the babylonian Sin, so perhaps Máni is the norse expression of the righteous Moon concept.

Máni and Sunna are said to be sibilings to another deity, Sinthgunt, whose only reccord are in the Merseburg incantations, where she sings to heal Phol’s horse. Sinthgunt’s can be translated as “night wanderer”, putting her directly in Máni’s territory as the nocturnal light-bearer. My personal two cents on the matter is that she is Bil, being the female night-wanderer to was adopted by Máni as his sister (by default becoming Sunna’s too), and ressonating thus with Bilwis as an agricultural theonym. Thus, while Máni is the male aspect of the Moon, concerned with illuminating the night and serving justice, Sinthgunt/Bil is the “more traditional Moon goddess”, associated with water and it’s life giving properties. In this aspect, she may also be equated with Nótt, not only because she provides the dew like Hrímfaxi, but also because she is associated with the waning of the Moon, while her brother is the waxing, the “light male side”.

Máni, like Sunna, also has epiphets in other worlds. The Alvíssmál claims that he is called “Moon” by mankind, “Fiery One” by the gods, “The Whirling Wheel” in Hel, “The Hastener” by the giants, “The Shiner” by the dwarves and “The Counter of Years” by the elves:

– “Fiery One” is a strange epiphet given the previous assertion that light isn’t something unique in Asgard. Maybe this has to do with the more fiery qualities of his radiance, like it’s mutability or the madness inducing, which differ from Sunna’s usually more calm, life giving radiance.

– “The Whirling Wheel” epiphet almost certainly has to do with the Moon’s association with movement, mostly in the form of the passing of light across it’s face. In the dim, still and stagnated depths of Hel, Máni’s rotating radiance is almost certainly more notable, being perhaps the only moving celestial object, as Sunna never shines there.

– Likewise, Máni’s swifter motion than Sunna’s probably warrants him that epiphet amidst the giants, especially rock and frost jötnar, who are by nature slow, slumbering beings.

– As asserted previously, dwarves have an avertion to Sunna, hence Máni is probably the main source of light for the crafty creatures. Adding in the absence of a known Moon rune, and the dwarves almost certainly would see Máni as higher than his sister, earning him glory as a nightly illuminator whose radiance doesn’t hurt the dwarves.

– As we will see latter, the passage of time was probably very relevant to norse lunar worship, hence Máni’s role amidst the elves as a time indicator is obvious, especially when his light is even less notable than Sunna’s.

Both the germanic and runic calendars are dictated by the Moon, thus it’s almost expected that Máni also beared a role as a god dictating the passing of time. This function will be discussed latter with Dagr and Mundilfari.

Unlike Sunna, Máni doesn’t seem to have had a naval function, as far as it is known, so he was probably not associated with water. Water, therefore, was more of the domain of Nótt/Sinthgunt, especially as nightly dew, while Máni was therefore more associated with light, with some sources reffering to him as a “white god”, similar to Baldr and Heimdall. While there is no evidence of syncretism of Máni with more popular gods, Bragi and Odin are often depicted in art with lunar traits, and Forseti is the god of justice, a realm appearently belonging to Máni. If I had to syncretise Máni, it would be with Apollon, as both gods are associated with the destructive side of the light, both are noted to be swift and fast and both are seemingly associated with justice and wolves (Apollon as a god protecting against wolves, Máni as a god persecuted by wolves). As much as Apollon is associated with the Sun, he is also associated with the Moon, bearing a silver bow and being honoured in the first day of the lunar month alongside Selene.

Dagr/Dagaz

Dagr

Dagr is not directly related to Máni and Sunna aside from the Nótt/Sinthgunt link, but he bears a very similar function as a god illuminating the Earth and as a deity associated with time passing. He is the son of Dellingr, and of either Nótt or Jörd (either are otherwise described as his sister instead). While Máni and Sunna simply ride chariots across the sky, Dagr’s steed appearently bears a function in his role, as Skinfaxi (“shining mane”) is the one who illuminates the earth, “drawing Day to mankind”. Indeed, chapter 58 of the Prose Edda blatantly states that Skinfaxi/Glad is the one who pulls forth the day, Dagr simply controlling him.

Dagr, much like Sunna and Máni, appearently began on Earth, having been given Skinfaxi and placed in the sky by Odin, to bring day to mankind; given Odin’s relatively recent ascension in the norse pantheon, either this was original done by Tyr, or by nobody at all. Unlike the sibilings, he is not said to be pursued by wolves, simply flying across the skies to illuminate the earth. This duty is shared with Nótt, who does the same for night, bringing darkness with her horse Hrímfaxi (“rime mane” or “frost mane”). As Hrímfaxi is stated to be the one who creates dew from his saliva, it’s perhaps safe to say that both gods serve as conductors, channeling the primal forces of light and darkness to put the world in motion.

Dagr’s role in norse worship is by far much less clear than Sunna’s or Máni’s, but from what we know it’s safe that he had an equally if not more important relevance. The Poetic Edda seems to imply that he “fathers” heroes, reffering to “Sons of Dagr”; this notion may be confirmed somewhat in the character of Svipdagr, a hero featured in the Svipdagsmál. Svipdagr himself is sometimes taken as the same entity as Dagr, the Svipdagsmál being considered relics of the deity’s earlier cult. The variation Swaefdaeg is also present in the genealogies of the Anglian royal houses of Anglo-Saxon Brittain.

A relevant clue about Dagr’s role can be seen in the poem of the Dagaz rune, obviously named after him. Here, he fulfills a role similar to that of Sunna in the Sowilo rune poems, being a source of hope and hapiness to everyone, “sent by the Creator” (likely Odin/Tyr). However, while Sunna seems to take a more proactive stance by either destroying the forces of ice or by defending seafarers, Dagr seems to be more of an emmisary of hope, simply bringing joy. Modern neopagan authors seem to see a theme of duality within this rune, which suffice to say is not present in the original poem, and seems to be a mixture of Dagr’s role as daylight with Nótt as the nighttime (“day” originally simply reffered to daylight hours, for starters). It’s unique shape is often used to justify this notion, but it seems to be more of a symbol of dawnlight, much like Sowilo’s “thunder” is actually a simplified sunray.

At any rate, it seems clear that Dagr has a role as a harbringer of good news, and likely shares with Sunna the role of victory in the battlefield. Of course, Dagr’s sphere of influence overlaps very closely with Sunna’s, as even if he’s not considered the personification of the Sun, he is of sunlight. Indeed, his original role might very well had been a solar deity in all but name: Svipdagr descends from Sólbjartr (“sunlight”) and Gróa (“growth), and woos Menglöd, whose name is an epiphet of Freyja; this has been interpreted as relics of a fertility cult, with Svipdagr being a god akin to Adonis, related to the fertile aspects of sunlight. In turn, this also connects him to Freyr, who both is associated with solar fertility and royal houses, and ostensibly might had replaced Dagr in that area, much like Odin replaced Tyr as the original divine leader. As such, Sunna, Dagr and Freyr form a sort of “divine trinity”, associated with the Sun and it’s life giving aspects.

Dagr, alongside Nótt, is perhaps one of the most easily syncretisable of the Norse gods. He seems directly analogous to the hellenic Aether/Hemera, being a god of daylight seemingly independent from the Sun, illuminating the Heavens until nightfall, and even being the son of the personification of night, Nótt/Nyx. In particular, I see Skinfaxi as Aether and Dagr as Hemera, the former being the illuminator and the latter the main operator, with Hemera cleansing the night mysts and Dagr guiding Skinfaxi. Aether’s main epiphet is Akmon, “untiring”, something that not only relates to Dagr’s daily journeys, but also to the idea of the solar chariot.

Dagr as the god of day is almost certainly also associated with time, with his name blessing all days in the germanic and runic calendars. In this role, he is closer to Máni in function, dictating time as he illuminates the world. While Máni sets the lunar month with his changes in luminousity, Dagr sets the individual divisions at each sunrise and sunset, periods that shorten and widen drastically across the nordic year. Both set natural and constructed orders: Dagr has the foundations set in stone for the days of the week and indicates the seasonal motion with his changing periods of activity, while Máni does both in the form of the lunar phase cycle. Mánadagr/Monday is where their influences are most interlocked, which is the time of renewal and new beginnings, suiting their roles as light-bearers.

Dellingr and Mundilfari

To finalise this analysis, we look at the divinities that fathered Sunna, Dagr and Máni, Dellingr and Mundilfari. Neither having any known role in norse worship, both are only known for their roles fathering these deities, being attested in the Eddas. As such, even their very veracity as actual deities and not posterior made-up concepts is debatable, but nonetheless I will adress them.

Dellingr is attested as Dagr’s father, being the husband of either Nótt or Jörd. Outside of his son, he appearently is also the lord of a specific realm, with “Dellingr’s doors” being a common expression in both Eddas and The Saga of Hervarar and Heidrek. Based on his name (“shining one”; it has also been suggested that it’s derived from Deglingr, “Dagr’s descent”, reffering to his role as Dagr’s father, in a usual nordic reversal), it has been suggested that Dellingr is the personification of the dawn, being one of the few male gods to be so. In his role as the father of Dagr and deity of the rising Sun, he is somewhat analogous to the greek Hyperion, the father of Helios that stands in the East. If Svipdagr’s progenitor Sólbjartr is in fact Dellingr, this makes him also quite directly a solar deity.

Mundilfari is on the other hand less attested, just being stated to be the father of Máni and Sunna and nothing else. Based on his name, which is derived from mund, “period of time”, it has been suggested that he is simply a kenning for the Moon, due to Máni’s role as the time-bearer. This in part recalls one of the Ragnarok prophecy of Sunna bearing another Sun, implying a rebirth cycle for the solar bodies. Most importantly, however, this also reminds one of the greek relationship between Helios and Hyperion: the two gods are frequently treated as one and the same, with Helios taking his role as Selene’s father due to Hyperion being the original father of both as well as Eos. This might hint at a proto-indo-european or at least old european tradition of equating the son with the father, with in this case being the Moon gods instead of the Sun gods.

In conclusion, Dellingr and Mundilfari are ostensibly the predecessors for the latter light-bearing deities, forming basically what appears to be the original Sun/Moon duo. This male/male arrangement is in turn remaniscent of the Vedic situation, where both the Sun and Moon are male, which might hint at the PIE condition.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. brian permalink
    November 21, 2013 7:59 pm

    Your etymology for Mundlfari is incorrect . Mundle means “handle”, and fari comes from a root that means “to turn”. He is the turner of the handle. What handle? The cosmic quern/mill.

    • November 21, 2013 8:37 pm

      Well, it’s one of the possible etymologies AFAIK. Here I’m using the John Lindow proposition. Though I do realise that the one you positted makes more sense gramatically.

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