Sol and Sunna: the Sources

In this post I have assembled all the written evidence I could find for sun-worship in pre-Christian Germanic and Scandinavian culture. I haven’t covered rock art or other visual evidence for the cult of the sun here as that is a post in itself.

The first two sources, Julius Caesar and Tacitus, are naturally not the most reliable, because of distance and bias. (Caesar’s comments about the Germanii worshipping the sun, moon and fire can be read as saying that they didn’t have sophisticated gods like the Romans did – it was assumed that foreigners followed more primitive cults.)

Neither Roman author says anything about a sun-goddess. Caesar’s comment does not say anything about what sort of deities the sun, fire and the moon are, while Tacitus could easily be describing the Roman sun-god Sol.

Following this is a healing spell found in a German manuscript from the 9th or 10th century, which names Sunna, the Germanic form of the sun-goddess. It mentions other recognizable Germanic deities, namely Woden, Balder and Frija (Frigg). The other three are more mysterious, although Volla may well be Frigg’s handmaiden, Fulla.

Below those are the Eddic sources, as well as parts of the poem Solarljod, in which a poet faces up to his approaching death. Although he is clearly a Christian, he shares elements of the old pagan world-view. (I have already written about the references to the sun in Völuspá.)

You will notice in these quotes that sometimes the sun is clearly a person, while other times she seems more like an object. This ambivalence seems to be a part of Norse myth, and you will notice that Snorri Sturluson distinguishes the woman Sol from the spark created by the gods. (I will also be discussing this distinction in a forthcoming post.)

They rank in the number of the gods those alone whom they behold, and by whose instrumentality they are obviously benefited, namely, the sun, fire, and the moon; they have not heard of the other deities even by report.
(Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallica 6.21.2)

Beyond the Suiones is another sea, one very heavy and almost void of agitation; and by it the whole globe is thought to be bounded and environed, for that the reflection of the sun, after his setting, continues till his rising, so bright as to darken the stars. To this, popular opinion has added, that the tumult also of his emerging from the sea is heard, that forms divine are then seen, as likewise the rays about his head. Only thus far extend the limits of nature, if what fame says be true.
(Tacitus, Germania, 45)

Phol and Wodan rode into the woods,
There Balder’s foal sprained its foot.
It was charmed by Sinthgunt, her sister Sunna;
It was charmed by Frija, her sister Volla;
It was charmed by Wodan, as he well knew how:
Bone-sprain, like blood-sprain,
Like limb-sprain:
Bone to bone; blood to blood;
Limb to limb; like they were glued.
(Second Merseburg Charm, from a 9th or 10th century manuscript)

The following quotes are from the Poetic Edda, as translated by Carolyne Larrington:

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.

40.In the east sat an old woman in Iron-wood
and nurtured there offspring of Fenrir;
a certain one of them in monstrous form
will be the snatcher of the moon.

41.The corpses of doomed men fall,
the gods’ dwellings are reddened with crimson blood;
sunshine becomes black the next summer,
all weather is vicious — do you understand yet, or what more?

57.The sun turns black, earth sinks into the sea,
the bright stars vanish from the sky;
steam rises up in the conflagration,
a high flame plays against heaven itself.

37.’Arvak and Alsvid, they must pull wearily
the sun from here;
and under their saddle-bows the cheerful gods,
the Aesir, have hidden iron bellows.’

38.’Svalin is the name of a shield which stands before the sun,
before the shining god;
mountain and sea I know would burn up
if it fell away from in front.’

39.’Skoll a wolf is called who pursues the shining god
to the protecting woods;
and another is Hat, he is Hrodvitnir’s son,
who chases the bright bride of heaven.’

22. ‘Tell me this second thing if your knowledge is sufficient
and you, Vafthrudnir, know,
from where the moon came, so that it journeys over men,
and likewise the sun.’

23.’Mundifaeri he is called, the father of the Moon
and likewise of the Sun;
they must pass through the sky, every day
to count the years for men.’
47.”Elf-disc will bear a daughter,
before Fenrir assails her;
she shall ride, when the Powers die,
the girl on her mother’s paths.’

15.’Tell me this, All-wise — I foresee, dwarf,
that you know the fates of men —
what the sun is called, which the sons of men see,
in each of the worlds.’

16.’Sun it’s called by men, and sunshine by the gods,
for the dwarfs it’s Dvalin’s deluder,
the giants call it everglow, the elves the lovely wheel,
the sons of the Aesir the all-shining.”

15.’On a shield they should be cut,
the one that stands before the shining god,
on the ears of Arvak and the hoof of Alsvinn,
on that wheel which turns under [H]rungnir’s chariot,
on Slepnir’s teeth and on the sledges’ strap-bands.

Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda was intended to explain the rather gnomic Poetic Edda, and to act as a manual for would-be poets. Although a lot of people dismiss his story abou the sun and moon as more like a fairytale than an account of a sun-cult, I think there is a lot more to it. (I have used Jesse Byock’s translation.)

11.The Sun and Moon
Then Gangleri said, ‘How does he steer the course of the sun and the moon?’

High said: ‘There was a man named Mundilfari who had two children. They were so fair and beautiful that he called one Moon [Mani] and the other, a daughter, he called 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 illuminate the worlds, had created from burning embers flying from Muspellshiem. The horses are called Arvak and Alsvinn. In order to cool them, the gods placed two bellows under their shoulders; according to the same lore, the bellows are called Isarnkol. Mani guides the path of the moon and controls its waxing and waning. He took from the earth two children named Bil and Hjuki. They had been walking from the well called Byrgir, carrying between them on their shoulders the pole called Simul with the pail called Soeg. Vidfinn was the name of their father. These children follow Mani, as can be seen from the earth.

12.The Wolves.
The Gangleri asked, ‘The sun moves quickly, and it is almost as though she fears something. She cannot go faster on her journey even if she was afraid of her own death.’

Then High answered, ‘It is not surprising that she moves with such speed. The one chasing her comes close, and there is no escape for her except to run.

‘Who is chasing her?’ asked Gangleri.

High said, ‘There are two wolves, and the one who is chasing her is called Skoll. He frightens her, and he will eventually catch her. The other is called Hati Hrodvitnisson. He runs in front of her to catch the moon. And, this will happen.’

Then Gangleri asked, ‘Of what family are the wolves?’

High replied, ‘An ogress lives to the east of Midgard in the forest called Jarnvid [Iron Wood]. The troll women who are called the Jarnvidjur [the Iron Wood Dwellers] live in that forest. The old ogress bore many giant sons, all in the likeness of wolves, and it is from here that these wolves come. It is said that the most powerful of this kin will be the one called Managarm [Moon Dog]. He will gorge himself with the life of all who die, and he will swallow the moon, spattering blood throughout the sky and all the heavens. Because of this, the sun will lose its brightness while the winds will turn violent, roaring from all directions. So it is said in The Sibyl’s Prophecy1:

‘In the East the old one lives
in Iron Wood
and there she bears
Fenrir’s brood [the wolves].

From all of them comes
one in particular,
the ruin of the moon
in the shape of a troll.

He gorges himself on the life
of doomed men,
reddens the god’s dwelling
with crimson gore.

Dark goes the sunshine,
for summers after,
the weather all vicious.
Do you know now or what?’
(The Sibyl’s Prophecy. 40-41.)

35.’Sol [Sun] and Bil, whose natures have already been described, are counted among the goddesses.
‘Next will come an event thought to be of much importance. The wolf will swallow the sun, and mankind will think it has suffered a terrible disaster. Then the other wolf will catch the moon, and he too will cause much ruin. The stars will disappear from the heavens.’
‘There is something else that you will find amazing. The sun will have had a daughter no less beautiful than she, and this daughter will follow the path of her mother. As it says here:

One daughter
is born to Alfrodul [Sun]
before Fenrir destroys her.
When the gods die
this maid shall ride
her mother’s paths.
(The Lay of Vafthrudnir. 47)

75.’How should the sun be referred to?’
‘By calling it the daughter of Mundilfoeri, the sister of the Moon, the wife of Glen and the fire of the heavens and the air.”

Now for Solarljod, and the rune-poems, all of which have the s-rune, called “sun”. The last verse of Solarljod refers to the sun’s “hart” although we know from the verses quoted above that Sol drove a chariot with horses. The Finnish sun-goddess Beiwe was associated with reindeer, however, so the Norse may have borrowed the idea from them.

39.The sun I saw,
true star of day,
sink in its roaring home;
but Hel’s grated doors
on the other side I heard
heavily creaking.

40. The sun I saw
with blood-red beams beset:
(fast was I then from this world declining)
mightier she appeared,
in many ways
than she was before.

41. The sun I saw,
and it seemed to me
as if I saw a glorious god:
I bowed before her,
for the last time,
in the world of men.

42. The sun I saw:
she beamed forth so
that I seemed nothing to know;
but Giöll’s streams
roared from the other side
mingled much with blood.

43. The sun I saw,
with quivering eyes,
appalled and shrinking;
for my heart
in great measure was
dissolved in languor.

44. The sun I saw
seldom sadder;
I had then almost from the world declined:
my tongue was
as wood become,
and all was cold without me.

45. The sun I saw
never after,
since that gloomy day;
for the mountain_waters
closed over me,
and I went called from torments.

46. The star of hope,
when I was born,
fled from my breast away;
high it flew,
settled nowhere,
so that it might find rest.

55.The sun’s hart I saw
from the south coming,
he was by two together led:
his feet stood on the earth,
but his horns
reached up to heaven.

(author unknown, Benjamin Thorpe’s translation)


Icelandic rune-poem:
Sun : shield of the clouds
and shining ray
and destroyer of ice.

Norwegian rune-poem:
11.Sun is the light of the world;
I bow to the divine decree.

Old English rune-poem:
The sun is ever a joy in the hopes of seafarers
when they journey away over the fishes’ bath,
until the courser of the deep bears them to land.

(translations found here)

1. The Siby’s Prophecy is a translation of the name Voluspa.

(For the image at the top, click here.)


4 thoughts on “Sol and Sunna: the Sources

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