The Norse sun-goddess is not alone in her splendour – among her neighbours are the Finnish and Baltic sun-goddesses, Beiwe and Saule. Last week I wrote a post comparing Sol with two major Indo-European sun-gods, Helios of the Greeks and Surya of the Indians, but this time I want to see how much the three goddesses have in common.
Comparing her to other sun-goddesses brings out more feminine aspects of her character; for example, spinning was the ultimate in women’s work, so it’s no surprise that the sun-goddesses have to spin their sunbeams. Their daughters, the sun-maidens, do not escape without their share of the work. And all three are nurturing figures, who provide food for animals and people.
The Sami, or Lapps, live in the Arctic region of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They are a Finno-Ugric people, related to the Hungarians and indigenous peoples of Russia. They were traditionally reindeer-herders, and the reindeer were a central part of life.
Beiwe, Beivia, or Paive is the Sami name for the sun. The Scandinavian Sami, in particular, seem to have seen the sun as a goddess, and sacrificed to her. They made offerings to the sun as follows:
…they made a wooden image, one end of which they formed like a globe and furnished with thorns, or they used only a large, wooden ring decorated with figures; these objects were besmeared with the blood of the sacrifice. The animals offered up to the “Sun virgin,” were always female, and where possible, white. At the very least, a white thread had to be sewn through the right ear of the sacrificial reindeer. (Homberg: 224)
The sun made the plants grow, which meant food for the reindeer, so she was seen as a goddess who nourished both the herds and their owners. She not only looked after their bodies – the sun was able to restore mental health. (No doubt this was connected to Seasonal Affective Disorder.)
In those areas far enough north that the sun disappeared in midwinter, they offered prayers for those mentally afflicted on her “return” above the horizon. (The sun “disappeared” for 40 days around the winter solstice, during which the moon was the main source of light. The Lapps made offerings to the moon-god in winter.)
Beiwe’s other major festival was midsummer eve, when she was offered a porridge made rich with butter from milking the herds. People also smeared butter on their doorposts as an offering, to strengthen her.
Sometimes a spinning-wheel and flax were set up on the altar as offerings to the sun-goddess. (Holmberg: 225)
Beiwe had a daughter, Beaivi-nieida (the sun maiden). The two travelled across the sky together, in an enclosure of reindeer horns. (Another story tells how Aknidi, the sun’s daughter, lived among people, but they grew jealous of her superior skills and crushed her under a rock. She returned to the sky, like Astraea.)
The Sami are famous for their shaman’s drums, and the sun is often the central figure, in the abstract form of a diamond with four arms extending from its corners. (Another style of drum divides the cosmos into three layers, with the sun and moon in the top (sky) third of the drum.) This probably reflects the sun’s role as sustainer of life and health for humans and reindeer. (The Sami flag also incorporates rings symbolizing the sun and moon, inspired by the 19th century poem “Children of the Sun”.)
The only known myth about the sun comes from the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala, in which the witch Louhi steals the sun and moon and hides them, forcing the heroes to make new ones. The sun also helps Lemminkainen’s mother gather up his body – the sun seems to be male in this version. The sun has a daughter, however, who is praised for her spinning and weaving. (The Kalevala constantly refers to the work of the sun and moon maidens.) In the Kalevala, the sun is Peiwe, and his daughter Paivatar.
The Baltic sun-goddess was a central figure in the old pagan religion of the Lithuanians and Latvians. Unlike the Sami, who speak a Finno-Ugrian language, the Balts are part of the Indo-European family. This makes Saule is closer to Sol, both in name and attributes.
While the Sami made figures of a globe or ring to symbolize the sun, the Balts imagined the sun as a wheel or ball, rolling across the sky. Otherwise, the sun-goddess rose early, saddled her horses with her daughters’ help, and rode across the sky:
Saule, with her two gold horses
Rides up the stone mountain [the sky]
Never heated, never weary,
Never resting on the way.
Like Helios, she returned through the underworld, across water.
Her main festival was also Midsummer’s Eve, known as Ligo. People stayed up all night to see the dawn, when the sun was supposed to dance in the sky. People lit bonfires, sang songs, and shared a special meal with mead and cheese.
In Lithuanian myth, Saule has two daughters, the morning and evening stars, while Latvian myth has one, Saules meita. Her daughter(s) accompany her on her journey back the east each night.
In both versions, the morning star or junior sun is a double of Saule, and like Suryaa there is an elaborate myth of her marriage. In one version, her step-father the moon is the spoiler: she is promised to the star-god Auseklis, but the moon seduces her, and either Saule or the thunder-god chops him in bits for it.
This explains why the sun and the moon do not appear in the sky together, and why the moon has phases. In other versions she marries the twin Dieva deli, the sons of the sky-god Dievs.
Saule, too, is supposed to warm the soil in spring and bring green back to the earth. She looks after the crops as they grow. Her quarrels with the thunder-god are partly to do with her concern that thunderstorms will flatten the crops.
Saule was a spinning goddess, who spun the sunlight:
Saule, my amber weeping Goddess
creating light like thread.
As “Saules Mat” my mother sun, daily blessing
your thankful world with light.
Amber spindle whorls have been found in burial mounds, and although some have been considered symbolic, ones found in the Baltic show signs of use. (Since light is never tangled, a form of sympathetic magic may have been at work.) Other songs mention the sun-maiden spinning and weaving, like the Finnish sun-maiden.
Beiwe and Saule are clearly well-defined deities with their own cultural contexts, but they do resemble Sol in several ways. First, the spinning which was an inevitable part of any woman’s life, and which even the divine ones could not escape. A Swedish rhyme says:
Mistress Sun sat on a bare stone
And spun on her golden distaff
For three hours before the dawn.
Monaghan suggests that the spinning imagery was central the sun-goddess cult: the sun was the spindle, with the yarn or thread as its rays. This would explain the prohibition against turning or dancing widdershins; to do so would untwist the thread or break it. (Monaghan: 106)
Saule and Beiwe were honoured at midsummer, as well as spring. We don’t know for sure that Sol was the focus of a festival, but the Norse did celebrate then. All three have daughters who are their doubles. Although Beiwe travels in an enclosure of reindeer bones rather than on horseback, reflecting the Sami culture, all three share the ring, ball and globe imagery of the sun.
Beiwe’s role as provider of plants is echoed in the Völuspá, where Sunna’s appearance coaxes plant growth from the bare rocks. Saule also takes care of the green growth of crops, protecting them from rain and hail, and in one folksong carefully lifting her skirts to walk through them. (McGrath: 32)
Finally, the image of the sun’s hart in the Norse poem Solarljod probably comes from the cult of Beiwe as nurturer of the reindeer.
The Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot/Keith Bosley, Oxford World Classics, 2008.
Holmberg, Uno, Finno-Ugric and Siberian, Mythology of All Races IV, Cooper Square Publishers.
McCrickard, Janet 1990: Eclipse of the Sun: An investigation into sun and moon myths, Gothic Image.
McGrath, Sheena 1997: The Sun-Goddess: Myth, Legend and History, Blandford.
Monaghan, Patricia 1994: O Mother Sun! A New View of Cosmic Feminine, The Crossing Press.
(For the image at the top, click here.)
http://www.chalquist.com/sami.html (daughter of)
http://old.no/samidrum/ (sun cross on Sami drums)
https://www.pinterest.com/source/arrankrukmakeri.com/ (sun cross again)
http://old.no/samidrum/lapponia/chap-x.html (sun and reindeer – male in this case)
http://freya.theladyofthelabyrinth.com/?page_id=397 (Sol, Beive, and Yule)
https://medium.com/@sundaywhite/weaving-spinning-how-fiber-is-rooted-in-the-myths-around-the-globe-ba08dc728bae (as a spinner/weaver)
http://sacredserpents.weebly.com/saule-and-zaltys.html (snake Saule’s animal)