Will the real sun-god (dess?) please stand up?

It seems almost ridiculous to be writing a post proving that Norse had a sun-goddess. After all, it’s right there in the sources that the sun is a goddess, either a human plucked from the earth to drive the sun’s chariot, or else a being who goes back to the time of creation.

Especially at a time when popular books on mythology and religion are becoming more accepting of sun-goddesses generally, to the point where even Llewellyn Books is willing to publish a book reclaiming the sun-goddess, it hardly seems necessary.

However, no bad idea ever dies. I’m not sure if it’s Sol and Mani’s relative unimportance that bothers people who are looking for a full-blown Neo-pagan style sun-cult, or the fact of their genders. (It’s amusing and annoying to see how often their genders are still described as “reversed”. Clearly the sun-goddess still has a way to go.)

In this post I will consider the five most commonly mentioned candidates for Norse sun-god. These are Baldr, Freyr, Ullr, Tyr, Odin and Thor. Baldr is the one most people think of when they think of a Norse sun-god so I will begin with him.

Baldr: the most popular candidate for sun-god. After all, in the Poetic Edda, Snorri tells us:

He is the best and all praise him. He is so fair in appearance and so bright that light shines from him, and there is plant so white that it is called after Baldr’s eyelash. It is the whitest plant of all plants, and from this you can tell his beauty both of hair and body. He is the wisest of the Aesir and most beautifully spoken and most merciful, but it is one of his characteristics that none of his decisions can be fulfilled. He lives in a place called Breidablik [Far-Shining]. (Faulkes: 23)

A lot of popular writing on this subject simply focuses on the “shiny” bits and ignores two very important statements. First, that none of Baldr’s decisions “can be fulfilled”, and second that he is the “best”. He would seem to be a remarkably impotent god, even if he is the best and, as the Italians would say, bella figura.

His impotence may stem from his role in Norse mythology. John Lindow puts it very bluntly in a discussion of Baldr’s wife, Nanna, when he says, “Nanna’s role, like that of Baldr, is to die”. (Lindow 1997: 91) Baldr’s death is a tragedy, yes, in the sense that it brings on the end of the world. But, it’s also Odin’s final joke on Loki and the giants, since Baldr will come again, Christlike, to rule over the new world.

Baldr’s shininess is far more easily accounted for: Michael Chabon, in his article “Ragnarok Boy” notes that everything beautiful in Norse myth glitters and shines. (49) If we start thinking all of it indicates the sun then we end up with a sun-cult more encompassing than that of Egyptian Ra. (Similar objections apply to Ullr and Heimdall.)

There are several possible meanings for the name Baldr, some of which are more likely than others. Grimm offered two: “white, good”, or else “fire”. The first is relatively uncontroversial, since it fits with what we know about Baldr. (Simek: 28) It also connects him to another dying, ultra-good figure, Christ, who was also known as “white”.

The etymology that links Baldr to fire is shakier. Grimm linked Baldr to various fire-festivals centered around early May, linking a hypothetical Celtic god Bael to Beltane and Baldr. However, the name Beltane is Irish, and not known elsewhere (Green: 42) and while it may be connected to the Celtic god Belenus, it is unlikely to be connected to a Scandinavian god. (I should add that not everyone accepts the connection of a god Bael with Beltane.)

Two other possibilities, however, are “lord” and “bold”; the latter is a strong contender, since “bold” in Old Norse is baldr. Snorri Sturluson’s version of Baldr’s death makes him an innocent victim, but Saxo Grammaticus tells it as a conflict between two young aristocratic men over a woman (Nanna), which ends with Baldr’s death (by the sword). Both Baldrs are the best of aristocrats, and sons of Odin, but otherwise the two couldn’t be more different. (Gesta Danorum Book III)

In light of this, it makes sense to me that Baldr is the perfect young aristocrat. I have been toying with the idea of a book about Odin, Lugh and Apollo, and I was stuck on the fact that Apollo and Lugh both have sons who embody some of their best qualities: Asklepios and Cuchullain. Odin and Baldr didn’t seem to fit, because they were so different.

But if Odin is the god of the aristocracy, then his son is the perfect aristo. I think that far from being tied to the solar round, Baldr had a larger cosmic function.

As Norse mythology for Smart People puts it:

He seems to have been regarded as the divine animating force behind the beauty of life at the peak of its strength and exuberance. His death marks the beginning of the decline into old age, night, winter, and ultimately the death and rebirth that characterize Ragnarök.

Just as all things will be purified through the fires of Ragnarök and improved in the new world, so the ruler of the gods will no longer be a cynical old man but a beautiful young one. Meanwhile, the sun’s daughter will travel her mother’s paths, lighting the sky while Baldr rules.

Freyr: the Vanic counterpart of Baldr, since his name means “Lord”, and Snorri describes him as one of the best of his people. I can see why he might be assigned a solar role, because he is said to control sunshine. However, the full passage says:

Freyr is the most glorious of the Aesir. He is a ruler of rain and sunshine and thus of the produce of the earth, and it is good to pray to him for prosperity and peace. (Gylfaginning 14)

So, far from being a sun-god, he is a god of farmers, who gives them good weather. In the Ynglina saga, which talks about the gods as if they were heroic humans, Freyr is a king whose rule is noted for its peace and prosperity. This gets closer to the heart of Freyr’s role, as a complex god of royalty, fertility, and the sacred. (His title veraldar góð or “world god” sums it up pretty well.) Like Baldr, he has an unexpected warrior side.

In fact, since in his main myth, Skirnismal, he falls in love with a beautiful and radiant woman, you could argue that the story is burlesque of the myth of twin gods rescuing the sun-maiden. (Note: I am not saying that this is what the myth is about, only that it holds together as well as the interpretations that have Freyr’s solar ray striking and thawing the frozen earth. In either case, the maiden refuses to be rescued, or thawed.)

Ullr: is a more mysterious god than the first two, and little is known about him for certain. A common theory has it that he was more important before the Odin cult took hold. Odin in fact pays him a particular compliment in the poem Grimnismal when he promises Ullr’s blessing on whoever will rescue him from the trap he has fallen into.

Other than this, we know that he was an excellent athlete (winter sports) and warrior, and people swearing oaths invoked Ullr’s name. The only indication that he might be a sun or sky god comes from his name, which might derive from the Old English wuldor and Old Gothic wulþus, both meaning “glory or splendour”. This may mean he was god of the northern lights or a former sky god. (Lindow 2001: 300)

Tyr: is often assumed to be the old Indo-European sky-god in Norse guise, since his name comes from the I-E root for “sky”, Dyēus. Like Ullr, Tyr was supposed to adjudicate disputes, and in fact he seems more like the 1st-Function god of oaths and contracts than a sun-god.

It is also worth noting that the sun and sky gods of Indo-European religions were generally separate beings, although they might work together, and the sky’s sons may court the sun’s daughter, as in Baltic and Indian myth.

Tyr and Ullr may well both be former sky-gods, since Tyr’s name goes back to the root meaning “sky” or “shine”, and Ullr could well mean something like “splendour”, and the reconstructed sky-god’s name can mean either “Father Sky” or “Shining Sky”. This is of course, speculative, since we have very little evidence about either god or their cults. (In fact, Tyr’s cult is centered in Demark, with little penetration into the rest of Scandinavia, which might explain his relative obscurity in the Eddas.)

Odin: some have suggested that Odin is the sun-god based on the fact that he has one eye, but as I have shown elsewhere, this is modern mythology, probably derived from the Egyptian god Horus, who had one good eye (the sun) and one damaged one (the moon).

Thor: I’m really not sure on what grounds Thor would be a sun-god. As the god of thunder, he would seem to be the opposite of a solar deity. Sure, he rides a chariot through the sky, but the similarities end there. In fact, the sun and the thunder-god are often seen as opposites, each spoiling the other’s efforts.

Some 19th-century writers saw Thor as a form of Baal, the Middle Eastern god whose main manifestation was Hadad, a rain and storm-god. What they do not seem to have understood is that there were many Baals, and they took many forms. Also, direct influence seems unlikely.

Some people studying rock art also seems to assume that the hammers and the sun-discs all belong to the same god, which is possible, but by the time the Eddic poems were being composed, Thor and Sol were two distinct beings.

Chabon, Michael 2009: “Ragnarok Boy”, in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, Harper Perennial, NY. (Kindle edition)
Green, Miranda 1997: Dictonary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
Lindow, John 1997: Murder and Vengeance Among the Gods: Baldr in Scandinavian Mythology, Academia Scientiarum Fennica, Helsinki.
Lindow, John, 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.

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