We all know that Yggdrasil is the World Tree of Norse myth, and that it holds together the nine worlds. However, the Norse, like the Finns and the Hindus of India, seem to have had some notion of a world mill (or churn) as well, which turned the heavens and could grind out various products. This cosmic mill shows through the confused myths about the sun and moon.
Most translations of the Eddic poem Vafþruðnismál give stanza 23 as follows:
‘Mundilfæri he is called, the father of Moon
and likewise of Sun;
they must pass through the sky, every day,
to count the years for men.’
That is Orchard’s translation, and Larrington and others give it the same interpretation. Clive Tolley and Ursula Dronke, however, have suggested a different reading. Instead of the sun and moon “traversing” the heavens, they are actively “turning” it:
He is called Mundilfœri,
the father of Moon,
and also of Sun;
they are to turn heaven
for the reckoning of years for men.
The name Mundilfare, which may well be related to the word möndull, mill-handle, so his name would mean something like “Carrier of the Mill-Handle”. (Dronke suggests that Mundilfare was the upper millstone – the one the handle was fitted to. (116) The sun and moon, his children, would turn the handle.) Tolley thinks the mundil– part may be a play on the words for “time” and “hand”, while fœri would be related to words for “mover, carrier”. (75)
This explains the rather strange verse in Völuspá, which states that the sun threw/cast her right hand over the heavens. If she was getting ready to turn it, her action would make sense. The next verse then continues this idea with the gods meeting to give names to the times, such as midday, morning, etc. that the turning of the heavens had created.
In Indian myth, churning the ocean of milk produces many things, including the moon. Norse myth gives the luminaries a more active role, as they turn the heavens to produce time.
I said that the Norse myths about the sun and moon were confused – this is because of Snorri Sturluson, who gives a very different origin for the sun and moon. According to him:
There was a man called Mundilfari who had two children. They were so fair and beautiful that he called one Moon [Mani], and the other, a daughter, Sun [Sol], marrying her to the man called Glen. But the gods were angered by this arrogance, and they took the brother and sister and placed them up in the heavens. There they made Sun drive the horses that drew the chariot of the sun, which the gods, in order to illuminate the worlds, had created from burning embers flying from Muspellheim…”
(Byock: Loc. 650)
The Christian Snorri downgrades the sun and moon from independent beings to the sort of unfortunate humans that had to endure the wrath or lust of the gods in Greek myth. However, Vaf. mentions that the sun, at least, has a daughter who takes up her mother’s job after Ragnarök (verse 47).
Sun-worship, which seems to have been an important part of the earlier religion, seems to have been displaced by the new aristocratic, warrior cults. (Andrén: 237) Perhaps Snorri was embarrassed by such primitive beliefs?
Although this a theory that can never be proven, some have seen the images of a large wheel with two smaller whirling wheels below it as a depiction of Mundilfare and his two children. It is certainly possible.
PS – Further to my idea of Mundilfare as the handle or handler of the cosmic mill, the obscure Greek god Koios was seen as the god of the north pillar of the heavens, the one around which the heavens turned. I’m not going to say on the basis of two examples, and one of them Greek, that this might be an Indo-European theme, but it’s certainly more common than I realized.
The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Jesse Byock, Penguin Classics, 2005.
The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, 2011.
Andrén, Anders 2014: Tracing Old Norse Cosmology: The World Tree, Middle Earth and the Sun in Archaeological Perspectives, Nordic Academic Press. (available through Scribd)
Dronke, Ursula 1997: The Poetic Edda, vol II: The Mythological Poems, Clarendon Press.
Tolley, Clive 1994-7: “The Mill in Norse and Finnish Mythology”, Saga-Book of the Viking Society XXIV: 63-82.
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