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The Runic Sky

by Allan Webber.

2000 ....Allan Thomas Webber

One of the mysteries surrounding the Norse Vikings is the lack of evidence of a knowledge of astronomy. As a seafaring race with an economy dependent on fickle weather patterns it would seem inconceivable that there was no interest in the stars. In the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson (c1120 AD) he records as part of ancestral belief...

"Similarly they learned from their elderly relatives that after many hundreds of years had been reckoned there was the same earth, sun and heavenly bodies. But the courses of the heavenly bodies were various, some had a longer course and some a shorter. From such things they thought it likely that there must be some controller of the heavenly bodies who must be regulating their courses in accordance with his will."..Prologue

The absence of evidence suggests that, given its importance, it was a hidden knowledge so highly revered it could not be made public. In an oral society such as existed up to the end of the first millennium it placed a large burden on the mechanisms available to transmit knowledge. The meaning of words and plays on sound were crucial. The runes were one piece of evidence left by early Vikings and it would not therefore be surprising to find they have highly structured, astronomic meaning.

This paper presents some of the results of my research into the hidden astronomy.  It presents a table of the well established runes with the name(s) for the star group(s) of each. These are then shown on star maps to show how they fill the sky, are mapped easily using all the brightest stars and how they need minimal distortion, inversion or rotation to place each rune. I then give some other reasons for my selection based on the fit between the meaning of the rune, the attributes of the star groups, the stories linked to the star groups and the names of the stars.

 

Runes of the elder Futhark
and their place in the sky.
 

There are 24 runes in the elder futhark and the shapes are those used in the early to middle part of the first millenium. The names are not necessarily from that period for at this time the Scandinavian society relied on oral transmission of knowledge.

Fehu
Pegasus

Uruz
Aries

Thurisaz
Cepheus

Ansuz
Cassiopia

Raido
Draco

Kenaz
Cancer

Gebo
Bootes & Virgo

Wunjo
Cygnus & Lyra
   

Hagelaz
Taurus

Naudhiz
Eridanus

Isa
Polestar

Jera
Gemini

Eiwaz
PolarWheel

Perthro
Perseus

Elhaz
Auriga

Sowilu
U.Major East

 

Tiwaz
U.major Central

Berkano
U.Major West

Ehwaz
Hercules

Mannaz
Orion

Laguz
Cetus

Ingwaz
Triangulum

Othala
Andromeda

Dagaz
Moon

 

The star names given in the table above were not chosen solely by looking for patterns that fit. The process involved:

  1. a belief the runes may have been astronomic

  2. grouping runes by connections in their meaning
    e.g. sun reference implying stars linked to summer.

  3. choosing star patterns where a clear wording exists (see below list) 

  4. A belief that the names of the runes may be influenced by contact of the Vikings with people knowledgeable in Arabic astronomy.

  5. filling in the gaps by the most appropriate pattern.

The most distinctive meanings can be seen in Raido, Tiwaz and Eiwaz for these have direct astronomical linking.

Raido is traditionally associated with circular or spiral journies and is linked to the wheeling of stars around the cosmic axis. Draco serves this role throughout history and even as the wheel of precession turns, its shape twists around the pole.

Tiwaz has association with the spear or pointer and the god Tyr. It is seen as  a guiding principle, steadfast and able to be used in judging one's position. In the Old English Rune Poem Tyr is a star. Throughout the first two millennia Dubhe & Merek in Ursa Major have been called 'The Pointers' for they indicate the position of the Polestar and were used by mariners and travellers to find their position.

Eiwaz represents the spinning World Tree, Yggdrasil. It is the axis about which all else revolves. Eiwaz is based on either the annual axis (celestial pole) or the 25,000 year precessional  axis (terrestrial pole). In my presentation it has a meaning different from most of the other rune figures for it (and Isa) represent an astronomic principle more than a single location. However, its shape can be seen dominating the axes of the sky.

The material presented offers a strong visual proof of its merits. Any other evidence is purely supportive. I therefore proceed directly to the futhark and the signs in the sky.

The Runic sky in 1200AD October 20th, midnight had the following appearance.

LOOKING TOWARD THE NORTH

RuneFigNth.gif (32996 bytes)

Raido
Draco

Berkano
U.Major West

Tiwaz
U.major Central

Sowilu
U.Major East

 

Ehwaz
Hercules

Gebo
Bootes & Virgo

 

LOOKING TOWARD THE EAST-SOUTH-EAST

RuneFigESE.gif (23111 bytes)

Elhaz
Auriga

Perthro
Perseus

Jera
Gemini

Kenaz
Cancer

 

Hagelaz
Taurus

Mannaz
Orion

Naudhiz
Eridanus

 

LOOKING TOWARD THE WEST-SOUTH-WEST

RuneFigWSW.gif (29651 bytes)

Ansuz
Cassiopia

Thurisaz
Cepheus

Ingwaz
Triangulum

Othala
Andromeda

Wunjo
Cygnus & Lyra

Laguz
Cetus

Uruz
Aries

Fehu
Pegasus

 

LOOKING TO THE ZENITH

RuneFigPle.gif (30790 bytes)
 

Isa
Polestar

Eiwaz
PolarWheel

The hypothesis underlying this work is that the runes were based on images in the sky. These rune pictures are likely to be from   times well before the end of the first millennium but the names are a later addition. By the beginning of the second millennium the Vikings had substantive contact with Western civilisation (for example The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson contains quite lengthy stories of Troy).  And of course they had quite lengthy contact with other European nations from their Viking settlements in England, Scotland, Ireland and France. The Norse had a long history in navigation and hence are likely to have been keenly interested in astronomy. The ideas of the Arabic world were the source for astronomy at this time. To serve their own ends and advance their astronomy it is possible that they infused the meaning and names to link the two systems (Norse & Arabic/ancient) together. All of this is hinted at in the continuation of the quotation from the prologue of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda.....

.."And so they believed that he ruled all things on earth and in the sky, of heaven and the heavenly bodies, of the sea and the weathers. But so as to be better able to give an account of this and fix it in memory, they then gave a name among themselves to everything, and this religion has changed in many ways as nations became distinct and languages branched."

Despite the suggestion of a 'memory science' based on names there is no established body of evidence for Viking astronomy. The above hypthesis is an acceptance of the logic of an astronomic science concealed within the tools of the oral and runic tradition. In the following I list ways in which this hypothesis  guided my selections.

 

The first rune chosen (after the clearly astronomic runes) was Hagelaz. Hagelaz represents hail and this is in turn referred to as an egg,  the cosmic egg. But the cosmic egg is also a classical allusion referring to Taurus for the bull held the  egg within its horns. An examination of the rising of Taurus shows that  October is the month when it rose as the sun set. And October 20th leads on to winter's depths making the hail emblem very appropriate. This choice underlay the selection of October 20th for my astronomic charts. Hagalez may have linguistic links to the Arabic name for the lead star in Taurus 'Hadl al hajm' known more commonly as Aldebaran.

As Taurus rises Lyra is at the meridian and Bootes is setting. At midnight on October 20th Taurus moves to  the meridian and   Cancer is rising. It is likely that if Taurus is a seasonal reference identified by 'hail' then the runes for Cancer, Lyra and Bootes will contain appropriate symbols.

Gebo is seen as a form of the solar wheel. It celebrates the changing of the seasons and the gifts of grain and wealth from the gods. It emphasises partnership between giver and receiver, a mutual union. This hints of spring, fertilisation and the utilisation of personal effort in the sowing and nurturing of seed. Gebo should then be seen as a union of Bootes and Virgo for it is these that rise over the horizon in spring.   The pattern for Gebo is (). To build this image requires both Bootes and Virgo. It is possibly not just a physical union for the name may result from combining elements of Virgo ('g') and Bootes ('bo').

Wunjo is connected with 'wind' and similarly to winter. It represents happiness, joy, glory, victory   and companionship but more importantly changes in direction. These activities, especially companionship are dominant in winter and joy and victory may reflect on activities of this enclosed season. The linguistic link of Wunjo to winter is quite strong but there may also be links to the Arabic name for Lyra, 'Al Sanja'. The name and the winter appearance of Lyra and Cygnus form the basis of the association with Wunjo. Ophiuccus is also a candidate for it is in the winter sector below Lyra. The rune may stretch across more than one constellation and may be larger and much lowerthan shown in my runic sky picture

Kenar (= Kenaz: z and r are represented by same letter) represents a torch that transforms and regenerates. It is a primal force within the creation myth whereby fire and ice are generators of the life force. And Cancer is the constellation that is linked to the furthest northward movement of the sun. Before the appearance of Cancer on the horizon the sun moves North. After its appearance the sun is transformed and moves back along its previous path (like a crab). Therefore the torch can be seen as the sun in summer when its burning powers are strong and the transformation and regeneration is its turning and retracing of its earlier path. In addition there seems to be a possible linguistic link between Kenar and Cancer . Also the nearby Canis Minor and Major seem involved. The torch could be Sirius the brightest star in the sky .

There are other methods of determining a connection. One of these is the signifigance of the sign rather than its pattern. The rune for Jera is a good example..

The Jera rune is a twinned pair (). It is the only rune of this nature. As such it represents Gemini. Its meaning is the fruitful completion of a cycle , a season or year. It is the harvest symbol and is faithfully represented by Gemini which lies between the summer rune of Cancer and the mid autumn rune of Taurus. Its name Jera  or its alternate form 'Jeza' has connection to the Arabic name (Al) Jeuze).

Bercano seems clearly linked to 'Banat Nash al Kubra', a name for Ursa Major. Bercano is the rune associated with birth and rebirth. It is the Great Mother, the Earth Goddess  and linked to the renewal of spring. This places it immediately above the spring constellations of Bootes and Virgo (Gebo) and again this is the western end of the Great Bear or Ursa Major.

Raido was one of the first runes mentioned in this paper. It is a clear astronomic rune linked to Draco. The Arabic names 'Draconis', 'Al Rakis', 'Alwaid'  used in this constellation form an additional linguistic link.

Naudhiz has the runic significance of controlling the fates. The Norns were based at the foot of the trunk of Yggdrasil and watered its roots from the fountain of 'Urd'. Eridanus has linguistic connection to Naudhiz and Urd. Eridanus is also known as 'Al Nahr' and 'Nahar'. Eridanus fits well to the description of the 'fountain of Urd'. Eridanus is known as ' the river' and only the northern edge of the river shows in the high North skies. It is a band that hugs the horizon and could be rightly described as being a fountain at the foot of the astronomical tree. The stars that never rise contain the bulk of Eridanus and it therefore provides the water for the sustenance of the roots forever buried beneath the earth.

Laguz is Al Kaitos. The runic Laguz represents the sea and other bodies of water and one of the others wells of the Norns, 'the well of wyrrd'. Cetus is a sea monster, a weird marine animal that again is only visible on the Nordic horizon.

The associative link between Ursa Major and Bootes (Bercano and Gebo) discussed earlier provides another strong group of linkages. Bercano and Gebo are linked by the season of spring. This seasonal reference can be extended to Cancer and Sowilo as summer runes.

Sowilo is the rune linked to the sun. This is clearly a summer rune and places it above Kenar or Cancer. This is the eastern part of Ursa Major.

Uruz is associated with the primal creative force and refers to  the 'earliest' or 'original' element, sound or item. Uruz has linguistic links to Aries and this constellation contains 'the first point of Aries' a traditional astronomic label for the first star that used to rise over the horizon at the vernal equinox. Aries is the 'original' or 'earliest' starting point for astronomy and therefore fits to the meaning of Uruz.

Isa is the primal ice, glacial in nature seeming static but imperceptibly mobile. The ice identifies the north and in particular the North Pole and the rune's ice properties fit to that of the Polestar. The precession of the heavens takes 25,000 years and during that time stars such as Thuban, Cyanosura and Vega become the Polestar. The change from one to another takes thousands of years and each appears fixed at the pole from year to year. At present Cyanosura, known also as Polaris and Navigatori is as close as it will ever be to the Celestial North Pole. The Isa rune describes a single star and its rune figure, a single line, may well be from the Polestar to the pole.

Eiwaz is the spinning World Tree, the axis around which all revolves. Earlier this was identified as an overriding pattern describing the larger pattern of movement around the pole. This is reinforced by another image for the rune Eiwaz. In Valkyrie (see credits) it says "It suggests the passage and communication between different worlds and layers of reality"

My aim in this paper has been to present the runic patterns in the sky. The word portraits (above & below) are not essential to that end but they show some of the reasoning process for selecting the star and its rune pattern. I continue to present the remainder because they offer completion for those wanting to see how extensive the image connections are.

 

Thurisaz (Phurisaz) is seen as a rune for defense and destruction with links to thorns and castles, shields and the rescue of captives, victims and the besieged. Cepheus, the king of Ethiopa, after whom the constellation Cepheus is named, was the father of Andromeda. Andromeda was rescued by Perseus after she was chained to a rock by the Nereids, who were enraged by claims by Andromeda's mother that she was more beautiful than they. The Arabic names for Cepheus include 'Phirceus' ,'Phicareus' and 'Ficares'

Perthro is the rune of the warrior who constantly tests himself against chance and luck. Perseus was a warrior who not only pitted himself against the forces of nature to rescue Andromeda but who had previously beheaded the Medusa, whose face could turn those who looked on it to stone. It was Medusa's head with its snake like hair that Perseus used in the rescue of Andromeda. Surely Perseus is a warrior who constantly tested himself against chance and luck. Perseus and Perthro have similar sounds suggesting a possible common origin.

Ophala is the rune of the village, homeland and family. It is the family group and its inheritance, customs, duties and language. It is the inherited wealth that comes from one's ancestors. Andromeda had no other claim to fame other than the looks and title that she inherited and it was her homeland as well as Andromeda herself that suffered by her mother's boasting of their inherited attributes. The lead star of Andromeda is 'Alpheratz'.

Ehwaz is the rune associated with twin gods, heroes or horses. Sleipnir is the name of the horse and represents fertility and partnership. Sleipnir was an eight legged grey horse that could cross land and sea. It typified the wind which blows from the eight cardinal points of the compass. In the legend of Perseus, the winged horse Pegasus is born out of the blood of Medusa, spilled at the time she was beheaded. Pegasus was born at the time of Perseus' battle against Neptune who also created a horse, Arion. This horse possessed human feet for its right legs, it spoke with a human voice and ran with incredible swiftness. Arion became the horse of the hero Hercules. Here then are the twin horses and twin heroes; Perseus and Hercules, Arion and Pegasus. The combined properties of these horses are then found in Sleipnir.

Fehu is the rune of fruitfulness and wealth associated with animal husbandry. The god Freyr is closely linked to the rune and this God had a horse called Bloodhoof. Pegasus was born out of the blood of Medusa. The constellation of Pegasus contains names Alfares, Faras al Thani, Enifr, Alanf, Fum  Alfares which seem to relate to Fehu and Freyr.

Mannaz is the rune of mortality representing individuals or groups. To  link this rune of mortality to an ancient star pattern is not difficult. A long tradition makes Orion, the Hunter, a logical choice. It is Orion that was the focus of the Egyptian union of mortal man with immortal stars. The major star of Orion is called Misan (al Batil)

Elhaz implies a  two edged sword and is a sign to promote victory and protection. This is a warrior rune and naturally draws the attention to Auriga, the charioteer where the sword is a major weapon of a warrior thought to bring both victory and protection. Auriga contains 'Alcahela' and is known as 'Alhajor' or 'Elhajor'.

Ingwaz is associated with marking out the boundaries. Its relevant gods circuit the bounds of the land ensuring their fertility. Triangulum marks the boundaries of autumn and winter and the boundary of the bountiful bright stars in the milky way and the less spectacular other regions of the heavens. Its name 'triangulum' contains the critical 'ng/gn' sound associated with this rune.

Ansuz is the rune of inspired speech, the passing of knowledge in an orally based society. It is the rune of the poet and the seer. These references suggest that Ansuz is Hermes, the messenger of speech, and therefore represents the planet Mercury which is also known by the name Hermes. It is quite likely some or all runes have planetary significance as well as representing fixed stars. Cassiopia's claim to fame was from her words through boasting of her own and Andromeda's inherited beauty. Such speech seems hardly inspiring or poetic but more provocative. Despite this I chose Ansuz for Cassiopia because after all my other selections Ansuz remained unplaced and yet it fitted elegantly to the gap in the sky left by the other runic figures.  

 

CREDITS

Runes of the Elder Futhark
Copyright January 1994 by *Susan Granquist

Valkyrie valkyrie@eskimo.com

Taken from a series  written by Valkyrie* and posted originally on Runes/Asatru on PODS. The names, primary definition and sound assignment used by Valkyrie are from Edred Thorsson's books on runes, _Futhark_, _ At the Well of Wyrd_ and _Runelore_.
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Star Names : Their Lore and Meaning
Richard Hinckley Allen

Dover Publications Inc., New York
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Edda: Snorri Sturluson
Translated and edited by Anthony Faulkes

Everyman. 1995
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The planetarium pictures used to illustrate the star patterns are printouts from Maris Multimedia's 'Redshift 2' CD. The settings used are for the year 1200 AD at Reyjevik, Iceland.
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