Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Sol, the Ancient Germanic Sun Goddess

The Germanic Sun Goddess Sol is probably one of our oldest deities and yet little is spoken of Her in the Eddas. She was certainly counted as being one of the Aesir or more correctly Asynjur[feminine plural].
She is referred to as the sister of the moon who is masculine and the daughter of Mundilfaeri.

"Sol and Bil are reckoned among the Asyniur."[Gylfaginning, Younger Edda].

Sol is again listed amongst the Asynjur in Skaldskaparmal in the Younger Edda.

"Mundilfaeri he is called, the father of Moon and likewise of Sun; they must pass through the sky, every day to count the years of men"[Vafthrudnismal 23, Elder Edda]

However I do not think that the passages in the Eddas correctly report the origins of the Goddess Herself. We need to remember that both the Elder and Younger Eddas were set down to paper long after the xtianisation of the Germanic world and changes of belief occurred in the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age. The elder deities, eg Tyr/Tiw were relegated to minor positions as `sons` of the All-Father Woden or at least that is how the xtian scribes presented it. Sol is far more ancient than the Eddas but let us see what else is recorded about Her:

"High said: `There was a person whose name was Mundilfaeri who had two children. They were so fair and beautiful that he called the one Moon and his daughter Sol[Sun], and gave her in marriage to a person called Glen. But the gods got angry at this arrogance and took the brother and sister and set them up in the sky; they made Sol drive the horses that drew the chariot of the sun which the gods had created, to illuminate the worlds, out of the molten particle that had flown out of the world of Muspell. The names of these horses are Arvak and Alsvinn. Under the shoulders of the horses the gods put two bellows to cool them, and in some sources it is called ironblast. Moon guides the course of the moon and controls its waxing and waning. He took two children from the earth called Bil and Hiuki as they were leaving a well called Byrgir, carrying between them on their shoulders a tub called Saeg; their carrying pole was called Simul. Their father`s name is Vidfinn. These children go with Moon, as can be seen from earth.`"[Gylfaginning, Younger Edda]

I have quoted the above passage in full because of it being the original source for our Jack and Jill English fairytale and this is a clear example of how ancient heathen lore has been preserved in our fairytales. Nothing is forever completely lost-most things can at least in part be recovered. The passage makes it clear that the personalities called Moon and Sol in the Eddas are not necessarily the deities themselves but their servants or representatives who have been named after them. Here we are also introduced to the myth of the Divine Twins, a common theme in Indo-European mythology which I hope to explore in a future article. It should be noted that the Divine Twins in Germanic and Indo-European mythology are usually in some way associated with horses and the horse is of course a solar symbol.

The fate of Sol is also alluded to in the passage from Gylfaginning:

"Then spoke Gangleri: `The sun moves fast, almost as if she was afraid, and she would not be able to go any faster if she was in terror of her death.` Then High replied: `It is not surprising that she goes at great speed, he comes close who is after her. And she has no escape except to run away.`Then spoke Gangleri: `Who is it that inflicts this unpleasantness on her?` High said: `It is two wolves, and the one that is going after her is called Skoll. She is afraid of him and he will catch her, and the one that is running ahead of her is called Hati Hrodvitnisson, and he is trying to catch the moon, and that will happen." 

A similar fate of course awaits Woden at Ragnarok but His spirit will be reborn in Widar the Avenger just as Sol will be reborn  in Her daughter. Interestingly later on in Gylfaginning the name of Her pursuing wolf is Fenrir, the very same one who will swallow Woden!

Contained in some translations of the Elder Edda is the Solarljoth or The Song of the Sun. It can certainly be found in Benjamin Thorpe`s translation. What makes this work so interesting is that it was clearly composed or set down by a xtian but in the transitional phase when xtianity was beginning to replace the old religion. It contains many heathen references and refers to Sol as being a Goddess. Clearly Her worship which was so ancient could not be easily eradicated. Also she was in the north a benign Goddess. How could even zealous xtians take a hard line with Her?

"The sun I saw, and it seemed to me as if I saw a glorious god: I bowed before her, for the last time, in the world of men."

What a glorious way to end one`s days on Midgarth!

There is a single reference to an alternative name of Sunna for this Goddess in Alvismal 17 in the Elder Edda[Thorpe`s translation]:

"Sol among men `tis called, but with the gods sunna...."

Correctly translating this name is important for there is a reference to Sunna in the Old High German Second Merseburg Charm:

"Phol and Wodan rode into the wood; the foreleg of Baldr`s horse was dislocated; then Sinthgunt and Sunna her sister, sang over it, then Friia and Volla, her sister, sang over it, then Wodan sang over it, for he could do that well: be it dislocation of bone, be it an ailment of blood, be it dislocation of the limbs: bone to bone, blood to blood, limb to limb, as if they were glued."

This charm dates back to the 10th century but the content is certainly older[see Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology].

Of course we have the Rune Sol, which is the 11th in the Younger Futhork:

"Sol is the light of the lands; I bow to the doom of holiness."[Old Norwegian Rune Poem]
 "Sol is the shield of the clouds and shining glory and the life-long sorrow of ice."[Old Icelandic Rune Poem]

The Old English Rune Poem is heavily xtianised but I will include the relevant portion here for completeness:

"Sigel is by sea-men always hoped for when they fare away over the fishes bath until the brine-stallion they bring to land."

Clearly in the Viking Age this Goddess was still highly thought of but she reached her zenith of importance in the Bronze Age as can been seen from Scandinavian rock carvings from this period and the famous Trundholm Sun Chariot from Denmark.

"The association of the sun with a wheel is ancient in Scandinavia, and sun/wheel imagery is ubiquitous in the Nordic Bronze Age."[Long Branches Runes of the Younger Futhark, Ann Groa Sheffield]

Ann Groa Sheffield then goes on to relate to how high status women in the Bronze Age were buried with large bronze belt-discs. I highly recommend her book. It is one of the best on the Runes and one of the few to focus on the Younger Futhork.

Sol`s symbol apart from the Sol Rune is the four spoked Sunwheel and its many variants. It is of course closely associated with the Fylfot and it is likely that the curved Fylfot derived from this. Although there are other explanations for its origin-a subject I will elaborate on in a future article.

Sol or Sunna is remembered in the first day of the week-Sunday and in the Anglo-Saxon month of Solmonath.
Julius Ceasar in his De Bello Gallico makes reference to the ancient Germans worshipping the sun and moon:

"The customs of the Germans are very different from those of the Gauls. They have no druids to preside over religious matters, nor do they concern themselves with sacrifices. The only things which they count as gods are things they can see and which clearly benefit them, for example, the Sun, Vulcan[ie fire-my note], and the Moon. They have not even heard rumours of any others."[6.21]

This is of course a gross oversimplification and in many respects plain wrong! However it is interesting that certainly in the mid 1st century BCE the Sun was still acknowledged as a primary deity amongst the continental Germanic peoples.

Sheena McGrath makes an excellent job of exploring Indo-European Sun Goddesses including Sol in The Sun Goddess Myth Legend and History[1997] and also Sol is frequently discussed in her Asyniur Womens` Mysteries in the Northern Tradition[1997], both of which I recommend.

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