In my post on Mani the Norse moon-god I tried to work out what powers he might have, based on the few references to him in the Eddic poems, and especially in Völuspá. This time around I will look at his sister, Sol the sun-goddess.
4. Before Bur’s sons brought up the lands,
they who moulded famed middle-earth;
Sun shone from the south on the stones of the hall:
then the ground grew with the leek’s green growth.
5. Sun, Moon’s escort, flung from the south
her right arm round heaven’s rim.
Sun did not know where she had a hall:
the stars knew not where they had stations,
Moon did not know what might he had.
4. First the sons of Bur brought up the earth,
the glorious ones who shaped the world between;
the sun shone from the south on the hall of stones,
then the soil was grown over with green plants.
5. From the south, Sun, companion of the moon,
threw her right hand round the edge of heaven;
Sun did not know where her hall might be,
the stars did not know where their place might be,
the moon did not know what power he had.
The first problem with Vsp is that some scholars (Dronke, for example) think the lines about the sun, moon and stars not knowing their places or powers were inserted into the text, perhaps because the original lines were lost.
As they point out, it seems silly to have the sun coming from the south and confidently setting out on her journey, then saying she doesn’t know where her home is, or where to go.
Green Growth and the Sun
What we do know, and no one disputes, is that the sun shines on the barren land Odin and his brothers created from the first giant’s body, and the first vegetation appears.The gods created the world, but they needed the intervention of the sun to make the bare stones “green up”. So not only does the sun bring light and time into the world, she also introduces life.
(A short note on Orchard’s translation: in earlier times the word “leek” could mean an onion, garlic, or a leek, but it still conveys the idea of something edible (and medicinal), as opposed to weeds. This sets the stage for the first humans, created by Odin, Lodur and Hoenir.)
There may be a subtext in this verse: in another Eddic poem, the Second Lay of Gudrun, she laments: “So Sigurd was beside Gjúki’s sons, like a green leek grown in the grass”. Leeks are both more valuable to humans and taller, outstanding. (Dronke: 116)
The sun’s power then, was to stimulate green growth.. (According to the book Tracing Old Norse Cosmology, a major sun-cult flourished in the Bronze Age, superseded by the warrior and aristocratic cults as time moved on.) The cult of Freyr also notes the sun’s power, as he can bring sunshine and rain for farmers.
It’s an attractive idea, the sun warming things into life, and certainly contrasts with the bloody business of hacking up Ymir to make the worlds and the sky. It may be a deliberate contrast, suggesting now that the world had been established a gentler mode of creation can begin. (The creation of humans, similarly, is an act of giving them gifts that enable them to take on conscious life.)
Comes from the South
The sun coming from the “south” could be an image of the longest day, Midsummer, when the sun doesn’t set, but dips to the horizon and back up again.
The role of the sun in keeping time is obvious, so I won’t belabor it here. However, the light-giving power of the sun was far more important in the days before electricity, especially in the far north. People may not have known about Seasonal Affective Disorder and Vitamin D, but they knew that sunlight was healthy and good.
The poem says that the sun threw her hand over heaven’s rim, which follows the greening of the earth. Presumably her light alone did that. She may well have been establishing her dominion, shedding her light on her land. The god of the Old Testament was said to hold his hand over Israel, as a sign of his protection, and it’s a pretty straightforward idea that could have appeared independently in other mythologies.
I have mentioned in my post on the sun’s father that both she and her brother may have been turning the cosmic mill that moves the heavens. So her gesture may begin the movement of time. (The sun’s ruling over time may have been part of the Bronze Age sun-cult, which may have seemed slightly primitive to the later Norse as it did with the Greeks.)
The Sun’s Home
Mai Berg has an interesting theory about the sun’s home, which might explain the lines about the sun searching for her place. She thinks that the sun is shown as searching for a home to underline the ultimate power of darkness. This eventually triumphs in the doom of the gods and then the apparition of the dragon Nidhoggr at the end, to show that evil has not been entirely vanquished.
She notes that first the sun is looking for its salr, then we see Frigga weeping at Fensalir (she translates it as “damp place”, presumably from tears), and then through some evil places like Jarnvidr where destructive powers lurk, until finally in the new world we have Gimlé, which shines by its own light. The beginning, with the sun stretching her hand over the heavens, connects to the end where Gimlé is “more beautiful than the sun”, i.e. paradise. (Berg: 36-7)
While Berg thinks that the notion of the sun’s having no place is a poet’s conceit, it may be that they were drawing on prior knowledge about the sun. In later Germanic lore and in other Indo-European cultures, the sun travels back to the east at night, so it has no home, only resting places. (The Greek god Helios, for example, but also the Baltic sun-goddess in some folk-songs.)
Anders, Kaul and others have interpreted Bronze Age artifacts like the Trundholm Chariot as suggesting something similar – the chariot, for example, carries a sun that is gilded on one side only, perhaps the daylight side. (Flemming Kaul discusses the symbolism of the sun chariot in this video.)
The “south” may be as close as we can come to a stead for the sun. For these northern lands, good things often came from the south, as the poem Haustlöng. When the goddess who held the apples of immortality, Idunn, is kidnapped by the giants, she is described as coming from the south to Giant-land.
So the question of the sun’s stead may turn out to be a trick question: she has none, because she’s always moving.
The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, 2011.
The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.
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.
Berg, Mai Elisabeth 2000: “Myth or Poetry: a Discussion of Some Motives in the Elder Edda,” in Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society, 11th International Saga Conference , eds. Geraldine Barnes and Margaret Clunines-Ross, 35-43. (also through Scribd)
Kaul, Flemming 2014: “Mythological Aspects of Bronze Age Religion”, The Handbook of Religions in Bronze Age Europe, eds. Lisbeth Bredholdt Christiansen, Olav Hammer and David A. Warburton, Routledge: 90-97.
Kristiansen, Kristian 2014: “Religion and Society in the Bronze Age,” The Handbook of Religions in Bronze Age Europe, eds. Lisbeth Bredholdt Christiansen, Olav Hammer and David A. Warburton, Routledge: 98-114.
McGrath, Sheena 1998: The Sun Goddess: Myth, Legend, History, Cassell.