When writing my last post on Heimdall, I wondered if his name was connected to one of Freyja’s by-names, Mardoll. It’s usually translated as “Beauty of Light on Water”, perhaps inspired by the sun sparkling on the sea. It’s an appropriate name for Freyja, too, since her father controlled the waters, and she was the most desirable of goddesses.
The Scandinavians were a coastal people, who relied on the sea for food, trade and travel. Winter was when ice closed up harbour entrances and people stayed home; sun shimmering on the water meant spring had come and travel could begin again.
After all, the Egyptians seem to have associated the moon with gods: Thoth, Khonsu, Aah. The Greeks, however, saw the moon as feminine, so when the Ptolemies ruled Egypt, Isis became a moon goddess. Isis is a very complex goddess, however, who can’t be defined by any one function or aspect.
Modern Pagans often think of Isis as a Moon Goddess. And, it’s true, in later periods of Her worship, She was indeed associated with the Moon—and, in fact, that’s how She entered the Western Esoteric Tradition. The Isis-Moon connection first started when Egypt came under Greek rule in the 3rd century BCE, following the conquest by Alexander the Great. To the Greeks, Goddesses were the lunar Deities, so as Isis made Her way into Greek culture and hearts, Her new devotees naturally associated Her with the Moon.
In Egypt, Osiris, Khons, Thoth, and I’ah were the Deities most associated with the Moon. Isis, for Her part, was connected with the star Sirius as far back as the Pyramid Texts; the star was said to be Her ba, or soul. Yet Isis is also linked…
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.
Sulis is probably one of the more famous Celtic goddesses, even though she only has one cult site, at a thermal spring in south-west England.1 The site, known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis, was not only a spa, but had a temple to Sulis Minerva2, her Romano-Celtic form.
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.
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.