Two Norse deities can be connected to the álfar, or elves, of Norse myth. One is Freyr, who had Alfheim as a tooth-gift, and was ruler of the álfar. The other is the sun-goddess, whose connection with the álfar runs much deeper than her by-name Álfroðull, or Elfin Beam.
And may the sun shine and the day’s eyes open.
During my research for my post on Medusa and the Gorgon, I constantly ran into the idea that the Gorgon was a faint echo of an early Mycenean sun-goddess, depicted face-front with radiating (snaky) hair. I could see how that idea might arise, but Athena as sun-goddess struck me as a bit of a reach. After all, Athena wears the Gorgon on her breast as a symbol of the triumph of cunning (metis) over elemental powers. (Deacy: 47)
It must be tempting, though, to invert the Greek beliefs that shaped patriarchal culture, with its binary of sun/reason/male vs. night/emotion/female. Especially in the form of its most complicit goddess, Athena, who upheld father-right against the Furies’s desire to avenge a matricide. (Although kicking Bachofen and his followers comes about 150 years too late.) Feminizing the Greek sun, and connecting it to those elemental powers, may feel like sweet revenge.
Stories from around the world tell how even the messy things that deities produce are valuable and important. In Shinto myth the god Izanagi has two deities come out of his eyes and another from his nose. The ancient Egyptian deities Shu and Tefnut were born from Atum’s masturbation.
So it’s no surprise that a goddess’ tears would take the form of amber or gold. In fact, three different stories tell how valuable a weeping goddess could be.
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 Norse sun-goddess, far from being some sort of Northern aberration, is very similar to other Indo-European sun deities. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since “basic” deities like the sky, earth and rivers tend to keep their characteristics across a very wide swathe of Europe and Asia.
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.