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Skylore of the North


The science of universal prehistory is concerned with the basis on which the Germanic ancestors of our modern civilization lived their lives, before time and alien cultures cast a veil over their origins. In those larger contexts that we denote by “blood and soil”, the sky above us has always had a place; and to the methods of universal prehistory we may properly add astronomy, for the road through “sun, moon and stars” is by no means a detour if it leads to our own culture.

This road, in the absence of proofs, seemed to be blocked. In the train of the west European cultural revolution, when even the Germanic constellations, named after the ancient gods, were swept in their glory from the heavenly vault, to be replaced by a welter of Greek, Roman and Arabic shapes and names, the modern critic still falls into step all too readily, and, whether he knows it or not, his education and prejudices lead him to follow the easier trend. No doubt it is harder to turn against the stream, and commit oneself to proving the existence of an early Germanic astronomy, than to dismiss these early Germanic races as barbarous children of Nature, who developed nothing of their own, but borrowed everything from outside.

The silence of the sources is still held to be adequate proof of the alleged lack of a native Germanic astronomy, and even a reference to the historical fact that pre-Christian civilization was overthrown by the arms of the Carolingians is dismissed as unfounded. And yet it had already struck Jacob Grimm that no names for the conspicuously bright planets had survived from the Germanic regions. “It is hardly thinkable”, he says (Mythology 3.686), “that the Pagans, if they singled out certain fixed stars by special names, did not also distinguish and name the planets, whose appearance and movements are far more striking to the eye.” If we now point out also the considerably greater number of Germanic constellations, taking their names from the great cycle of Germanic sacred myths, it becomes clear that such an explicit body of Pagan doctrine in the sky was something that the struggling medieval Church could not tolerate. The star observations of Oddi Helgason, who was honoured with the popular nickname Star Oddi, and whose number sequences (fortunately preserved) relate to the movement of the sun and the angle of twilight, have been lost; yet they were surely just as clear evidence for popular astronomical observations as the number sequences that we can verify today. The reason why the sources of Germanic astronomy are for the most part only to be found in the northern Germanic regions is that in the North the destruction began almost half a millennium later than in Germany itself. The fact of that destruction is proved.

By contrast, Alexander Tille [1] can still write (and such quotations are instructive enough): “The observation of the change of cold in winter and heat in summer is one thing, that of the movement of the rising-point of the sun on the horizon is another. … The Germanic tribes knew so little of solstices and equinoxes that they had not even names for them, and the different words which the various tribes formed to express these ideas are mere translations of the Roman denominations. There never was a Germanic solstice celebration.”

In just the same aggressive style is a contribution from Gustav Bilfinger [2], who is at home in this kind of repetition: “The Anglo-Saxons (in Bede’s time) were certainly not yet in a position to calculate the solstice correct to the day, and thus solve a problem requiring a high level of mathematics and observational astronomy.” He is at least consistent when he writes later: “The ‘bound’ lunar year is one of the most complicated forms of time reckoning and presupposes a level of mathematical and astronomical knowledge that we should once again be reluctant to ascribe to a primitive people. …” But Bilfinger is scarcely reasonable when, for the sake of his argument, he reproaches the father of Icelandic history, Ari Thorgilson (1067–1148), for “carefully concealing” a fact well known to him in order to derive the old Norse calendar from Christian sources while he himself can still conclude triumphantly that “of the Germanic Yule festival nothing truly Germanic is left except the name Yule.”

Bilfinger’s ill-founded and erroneous judgement on the ancient Norse calendar was soon rejected by Ginzel, Finnur Jónsson, Martin P. Nilsson, J.F. Schroeter and others as “exaggerated”; today, Germanic independence has been proved in this field also. But how far such mistakes, wide open to contradiction for all their learned trappings, can spread into scientific debate, and how hard they are to root out, is shown by the fact that even Franz Boll, the author of Sphaera, was relying as late as 1913 upon Alexander Tille and “Bilfinger’s as always very thorough and competent discussion” when he emphasised that among the Germanic peoples “no scientific astronomy, however primitive” had been developed. It is instructive to see how such an important judgement can rest on such selective and one-sided quotations and use of the sources, for which the blame lies less with the practical astronomer than with the critical historian.

In the following we shall distinguish as best we can between hypothesis, probability, and proof. Those who wish to enter the wider field of Germanic culture, or who wish to see from sources, reports and documents how this astronomy was not the preserve of a few but a popular heritage, are referred to my book Germanische Himmelskunde (published by J.F. Lehmann, München). The important thing here is to recognize the independence of the Germanic race in one of the most important fields, namely the observation of astronomical cycles. Even then, what might seem from the numbered notes below to be the sum total of Germanic achievement is in reality no more than a brief survey of a few identifiable remains. At least these are such that we can recognize not only the use of astronomical phenomena, e.g. for time reckoning or ocean navigation, but also the patient struggling with the numerical concept of natural law.

In view of the unfavourable northern climate, which calls forth a man’s whole strength in the battle with the elements, no reasonable person can expect the north to show such a development of mathematics and theoretical astronomy as the world owes to the racially related Greeks of more favoured regions. On the other hand, among none of the so-called “primitive peoples” do we find the independent development of a long calendar cycle, such as was definitely used among the north Germanic peoples and probably in the south, and which goes far beyond the “bound lunar year” rejected by Bilfinger. To the medieval West, as to ancient Rome, the Germanic, or at least the old Norse cultural area appeared as a separate one, with an astronomical achievement to its credit that those other regions seem to have lacked. That was the giant stride across the Atlantic, the development of ocean navigation across 40 degrees of latitude and 100 degrees of longitude, a challenge unknown to the narrower regions of the south.

The great religious concepts of the Norse Edda, which are known as far afield as Aryan Persia and apparently describe the age-old myth of the final battle between the forces of creation and destruction, appear in a new light when in the splendour of the constellations we see the gods’ great prophecy written at night in the sky itself.

We do not know how far these are common to all Germanic peoples. A wide field lies open to research. Yet from it we can see: the former age was a spiritual one, and is illuminated by every fresh proof of its lasting relationship with the stars above us.

We begin with the sun’s path above the horizon and the derivation and use of the astronomical directions; then follows a survey of popular observations and measurements. The second half presents Germanic solar and lunar calendars, and the representation of the constellations.

I. Edge and circle of the sky

For Germanic as for all early astronomical observations, the first reference plane will have been the visible horizon. The movement of the sky takes place above a fixed boundary; so it is natural for people observing it to relate the movement to some well-defined fixed plane. We shall see, however, that the Germanic peoples very soon made a distinction between the visible terrestrial horizon, irregular in shape and marked out by hills, woods, or the ocean’s rim, and a quite independent, purely theoretical circle in the sky, the so-called “apparent horizon”.

1. The sun and the concept of direction

Among the earliest evidence of Germanic observational astronomy, derived from far back in prehistoric times, is that found in the annals of language. Concepts of direction among all Germanic peoples have in common the words north, east, south and west; today these are in use the world over [3]. The original meanings of these four main direction words show that the concept of direction was based on observation of the sun’s daily and nightly path (see Fig. 1).

1. North = “away, below”: for the sun’s nightly journey beneath the horizon: northwards and below, in old Norse speech, is the direction of the Hel road, i.e., the road of the dead.

2. East = “growing bright, burning”: for the sunrise quarter. Thus Easter (Ostern) is the time when the sun crosses the midpoint of this sunrise quarter, on its way towards its summer position.

3. South = “the brilliant”, or perhaps the “going” quarter, above which the sun reaches its greatest daily height and gives its fullest light.

4. West. = “the evening” quarter.

The first Germanic concept of direction did not yet imply the so-called true astronomical directions north, east south, west, but simply the four main positions of the sun.

The unity of this concept is all the more striking, when we see that such unity is lacking among e.g. the Greek and Roman concepts.

The Greeks named the north after the blustery wind Boreas; the south after the wet wind Notos; while east and west were named the bright (Euros) and dark (Zephyros) regions, from the sun’s appearance.

The Roman words for the direction are related to (1) the pole of the sky (north = septem triones, the seven stars of the plough), (2) the middle of the day (south = meridies, midday), (3) the rising and setting quarters (east = oriens, west = occidens).

This kind of comparison shows that the Germanic system of directions had already arisen independently in prehistoric times; further, that the rising sun was identified with the setting sun of the day before; that the “deep north” was seen merely as the ending and restarting of the sun’s circular course.

In Germanic regions during the summer months one can see on the northern horizon the bright glow of the sun beneath; in higher Germanic latitudes the sun even remains visible above the northern horizon at the end of its daily journey. In Greece, where on account of the greater steepness of the sun’s path these phenomena do not occur, men of the calibre of Xenophanes and even Herakleitos were still teaching, around 500 BC, shortly before the great upsurge in Greek science, that the sun like all heavenly bodies was extinguished in the evening, a new one being kindled at sunrise.

2. Observation of the circular path

Further evidence for observation of the circular path is the Germanic (probably Indo-Germanic) custom by which all movements requiring good luck were carried out sunrise, i.e. turning to the right. With the sun the boat was put about, the rope was coiled, the firewheel was turned. On a much larger scale, the same belief underlies the Germanic king’s ride, a sunwise tour of the country (in Sweden called “Erik’s highway”) which was required for the king’s election to become legally valid. Law and custom, belief and usage, were in this way placed under heavenly protection.

Here too belongs the ancient Germanic four-spoked wheel cross, seen on Swedish rock carvings and still frequently met with today. Even in prehistoric times, not only the sun symbol but the whole circle of the sky was depicted as a wheel, the “sky wheel”. The magical star, the moon, appears at first sight to travel sunwise; but its true yearly motion, like that of the sun, is eastwards, i.e. against the apparent motion which simply reflects the rotation of the earth. Thus the swastika, a sacred symbol from the earliest times, can be interpreted in both its orientations as the movement of light in the quartered circle, or the divine organizing of light itself.

3. The fundamental direction

Of all solar directions only north and south, the sun’s positions at midday and midnight, stand unshakably firm. All other solar positions, on and above the horizon, move with the seasons: northwards from the winter point to the summer point, then southwards from summer to winter. The sunrise (sunset) position swings in German latitudes between NE (NW) in summer and SE (SW) in winter. The sunrise point marks true east only on the days of the spring and autumn equinoxes (see Figs. 1 & 2).

Direction finding at night (i.e. without using the sun) begins by observation of the hub of the sky wheel (the celestial pole) which establishes true north once and for all. Every other direction depends on this. Once it is observed, the four regions of the sky can be given permanent midpoints independent of the horizon. When directions are found from the hub of the sky, east and west are not independent directions but lie at right angles to the principal direction. Circles divided into only two parts, not infrequently met with in Swedish rock carvings, thus appear to indicate the N–S direction – or in terms of the “hub” analogy, the axle of the sky.

(For North Germanic observations of the pole down into the historical period, see Sections II and IV).

4. Orientation in theory and practice

The Germanic concept of direction is reflected in the old Norse creation myth, and in the orientation of the house, settlement, moot hill, oath, prayer and grave.

1. The creation myth. The primeval space (old Norse Ginnungagap) is stretched out between the giant ice world in the north and the giant fire world in the south.

Between the two, motion comes into being through a divine power; from their meeting there grows in the primeval chasm the giant first being (Ymir), but at the same time his opponents, the race of Æsir. These gods killed the giant and from his skull built the roof of the sky, from his flesh and blood the earth and sea. From the hostile glowing heat of the southern fireworld the heavenly ones made the sun and other stars and gave them their places and paths.

2. Farm houses and king’s halls. These are oriented so that the high seat on the northern long wall faces the sun’s high point in the south; the lower seat on the southern long wall opposite faces the high point of the northern sky, the abode of the gods. On the high seat pillar of the northern wall were carved a sacred image and “the gods’ nail” (the north star).

3. The village. This is built up from the south to north; the second settler takes the land to the north. The younger son has first rights on the southernmost plot of land.

4. The moot hill. The moot hill lies in the cardinal directions. King and law speaker stand in the north facing south, the assembled people in the south facing north.

The plaintiff goes from south to north towards justice; from north to south follows the defence and the oath of purification. The oath was taken towards high south (sun due south, the highest point of the wheel).

In legal proceedings that were not regarded as a contest, i.e. at the conclusion of a contract or settlement, one party came from the east, the other from the west. In this legal procedure the reflexion of the sun’s course is apparent. In north and south the most extreme opposites face each other: midday and midnight, the solstices. In east and west is the balance between the two, between light and darkness, the equinoxes.

5. Graves. Graves often show a regular orientation. Also oriented N–S is the early Bronze Age grave at Kivik in southern Sweden; the same is true of the great ship arrangements and ship burials (Blomsholm, Oseberg, Gokstad, Ynglingehög).

6. Prayer. Prayer is directed towards the immovable heavenly seat, the high north (Bilskirnir, Valhalla).

This northerly orientation of prayer came into legal conflict with the easterly orientation, the sacred direction of the Church. In the east–west churches of the Frisians, who had recently been Christianized by Charlemagne, the Danish king Gotrik (c. 800) had northern doors cut out and forced the people to crawl through them; on the Christian side, the Norwegian king Olaf Kyrre (12th century) had the northern high seat of the farmhouse and royal hall removed to the eastern side. Christian prayer implies the direction of the rising sun (“ex oriente lux”, which is valid only for southern latitudes); Germanic prayer was turned towards the pole of the sky, and implied the heavens.

5. Basic rule of division

In dividing the horizon, the principle of continued halving is the rule. North and east meet in NE, south and west in SW. Continued halving leads to the ancient 8-fold division and to the 16-fold and 32-fold divisions.

Alongside these common Germanic terms, Norway had very early on, no doubt in prehistoric times, named the four intermediate directions according to their deviation from the N–S direction, relating them to the NNE trend of the coast in that country. NE was called landnorth, and SE was landsouth; while the westerly directions pointing out to sea were outnorth and outsouth (i.e. NW and SW). Even when far from the Norwegian coast these terms remained in use (see Fig. 2).

Charlemagne tried to replace this Germanic 8-fold division with an academic 12-fold division of Chaldean origin. The NW quarter was no longer to be halved by the intermediate direction NW, but split into three by two other directions, namely N 30° W and N 60° W, to be called north-west and west-north. Charles’s plan came to nothing. The modern compass directions go back to the Germanic principle of halving.

6. Regions and directions of the sky

From this halving principle it follows that each true direction lies at the centre of a region of sky with the same name. In north Germanic territory the eight regions are called ætt (i.e. family, plural ættir). The true (astronomical) direction is ætting (also staðr, i.e. place).

The division is regular. The northern sector is the sector between NNW and NNE; at its centre lies true north. Later we shall see that night is defined as the time taken by the sun to cross this sector.

For the true astronomical directions the Germanic peoples still use, as in olden times, the terms due north, due west, etc.

7. Astronomical directions as a clock face

Among all peoples the time of day has been told by the position of sun, moon or stars above fixed landmarks such as mountains, trees and other high spots on the horizon [4]. Over and above this simple procedure, which varies with the shape of the horizon, the Germanic countries developed a method of timekeeping used nowhere else on earth, replacing random landmarks by the fixed and universally valid clockface of the directions, irrespective of the lie of the land and the observation point, measuring the course of time, through the motion of sun, moon and stars above and below this directional circle (see Fig. 2).

For time markers, the sun was used by day and the moon and stars by night. As regards the stars, see Section IV on the constellations.

The method depends on the fact that as we go further north, the celestial pole stands higher in the sky, so that the paths of the stars become more horizontal. But as a star circles round closer to the horizontal, the closer is the approximation between its direction in the sky and the time of day. The method is therefore impracticable in the Mediterranean regions, but by the same token works better in the North. The time defined by “sun due east” changes its value during the summer half year by about 2½ hours in the latitude of Tunis, but in Iceland by only ¾ of an hour. The Icelandic variation is scarcely noticeable, that in the Mediterranean is scarcely tolerable.

The attempt by the medieval Church to import the southern method (the so-called temporal hour system) into the North came to nothing. This method divided the time between sunrise and sunset into 12 daylight hours, and the time between sunset and sunrise into 12 night hours. Since the nights in winter are longer than the days, but in summer shorter, the hours are unequal: the daylight hours are shorter in winter than in summer. In Mediterranean latitudes the difference was acceptable; in Iceland, however, where the day (from sunrise to sunset) lasted 21 of our hours in summer but only 3 hours in winter, the corresponding hours by the church’s method had a length in summer of 1¾ hours and in winter of ¼ hour by our modern reckoning. The uselessness of the medieval “temporal hour” system inevitably roused resistance soon after its introduction into the North, having led to great confusion there.

Our 24 hours of equal length did not become customary until the 14th century, following the introduction of striking clocks.

8. The eykt division

(See Fig. 2)

To the eight regions of the sky (ættir) correspond eight periods of time (eyktir, singular eykt, probably related to German “joch” and English “yoke”) during which the time marker passes through the region of sky in question. Among Germanic seafaring peoples the following method of dividing the day had already been developed in prehistoric times.

The sun’s passage through the northern sector was regarded in Iceland as legal night; “sun due north” was thus midnight. The sun in the northeast sector was called ótta (German “uchte”, Old English “uht”), that is, greying of day. With the crossover into the eastern sector the morning began; sun at ENE is daybreak and, in the summer half year, rising time (rismál). The sun due east indicates midmorning. The morning eykt was followed in the North by the daylight mealtime (dagmál); at the beginning of this the sun stood ESE, the old Norse dagmál point. The other sectors of this sky clock can be seen in the accompanying diagram. At the end of the afternoon eykt the sun stood WSW; in the summer half year this was time to stop work, the eykt point. It lies opposite the rismál point, so that the day is divided by the ENE and WSW sun positions into two equal parts (doegr). With the crossover into the western sector the evening began; sun due west denotes midevening. (For the eykt division in Germany see Fig. 3.)

Moreover, on the day in autumn when the sun set at the eykt point, the winter half year began, in which all field work stopped. When time was told during the winter nights by the moon or stars, the eykt markers still kept their names derived from the path of the sun. “The star is at the midday point” denoted its southern and highest position. Because the rotation of the stars gains time over the sun, amounting to about 4 minutes a day, one star had to take over from another as the time marker. The request “take a look at the star” referred in winter to the Pleiades, in spring to the Daystar (Arcturus).

Telling time by the moon required a special rule, since this body, because of its marked true eastward motion among the stars, does not keep pace with the stars in their apparent westward motion.

When the sky was clouded over, people managed in various ways: vital, at least on the coast, was the observation of the regular ebb and flow of the tides. Reckoning by the roughly 12-hour tidal cycle soon led in the Germanic North to a division of the day into two half days (doegr), which started a little later day by day, and returned in the course of a month to almost the same time of day.

9. Eykt markers and observation stones

To make it easier to tell the time, houses, as already mentioned, were from the earliest times built facing the cardinal directions, so that whoever went out one of the doors already had the required direction in front of them, without having to work it out every time. Whoever stepped out of the south door had before them the true south; true west to the right; true east to the left. If for any reason the house did not face the cardinal points, and if moreover the horizon lacked natural high spots to act as eykt markers, then artificial markers were erected to show the directions.

But since with every step taken by the observer the eykt markers were shifted in relation to the true directions, telling the time from eykt markers of this type was valid only from a particular observation point. At the Althing in Iceland (and the same will have held good elsewhere) the sun’s course was observed “from the law speaker’s seat”. In front of every old Icelandic house, in fact before the door, lay the “house stone”, onto which the observer had to step in order to tell the correct time from the position of the sun, moon, or appropriate star.

After this it must be said that eykt markers are no more than makeshifts for the true astronomical directions. A knowledge of the true astronomical directions is gained by systematic observation.