Nár: the Dead Man
The 'Lost' Constellation

by Peter Krüger

[Germanic Astronomy]
In Völuspá we find  the word nár three times. In the same poem, we find it as a dwarf name in the Dvergatal and in the word Náströnd. Nár can be translated easily as 'dead body, corpse,' [German: 'Leichnam']. Since many figures of Völuspá can be traced back to constellations, it's worthwhile to investigate if there has also been a constellation of Nár. Indeed there is a Sumerian/Babylonian parallel in the sky, the constellation of LU.USH2. It's translated as well as 'dead man or corpse'. The correct localization is still a matter of dispute but I agree with Gavin White, Babylonion Star-Lore, to identify it with the constellation Sagitta, the arrow.

If this localization is right, we should be able to confirm it by having a look on the other figures mentioned in the corresponding stanzas of Völuspá. I'd like to start the investigation with the last stanza of Völuspá:


  Þar kømr inn dimmi
dreki fljúgandi,
naðr fránn, neðan
frá Niðafjöllum.
Berr sér í fjöðrum
- flýgr völl yfir -
Níðhöggr nái -
nú mun hon søkkvask.
There comes the dark
dragon flying
glittering serpent, below
from Nidi's mountains.
Nidhögg in his feathers
—he flies over the field—
carries corpses.
Now she must sink.

If we assume an association to constellations than there is a self-evident choice for dreki: the constellation of Draco, the dragon. Indeed the dragon is not a very bright constellation, that's why it's called `the dim dragon'. In contrast to other authors, I don't think that the dragon and Nidhöggr are identical but two different constellations. We learn from this stanza that Nidhögg's main attribute is wings and that these seem to be in proximity to Sagitta/Nár. Thus we must look elsewhere.
Another stanza of Völuspá provides additional clues:
  Hrymr ekr austan,
hefisk lind fyrir,
snýsk Jörmungandr
í jötunmóði.
Ormr knýr unnir,
en ari hlakkar,
slítr nái Niðfölr,
Naglfar losnar.
Hymir drives from the east,
hoists his shield before him
Jörmungand coils
in giant rage.
The Serpent roils the waves
and the eagle exults—
Pale-Beak tears corpses
Naglfar is loosed.
This stanza is one of the most interesting of Völuspá as it contains hints to at least six constellations. Two of them are easily identified. Ari is surely Aquila, the eagle, bordering directly on Sagitta and the Ormr is Serpens, the snake, both located next to one another. Jörmungandr should not be intermingled with the worm, Jörmungandr is rather Hydra, the water serpent.
Hrymr with the lind-shield can be identified as Sagittarius, the archer, with his bow, here seen as a shield. In Babylonion sources we find directly below Sagittarius a boat called MA2.GUR8, the cargo boat, this is Naglfar, the constellation Corona Australis. I assume that the name should be translated as 'nail-ferry' as a reference to its shape and not to 'corpse-ferry' even this would fit as well.

Interesting is also the name Nidfölr or Nef-fölr. This name is normally translated as 'the Pale-beaked'. Besides the eagle we find indeed next to Sagitta two other constellations that have been seen as birds. One of them is Lyra, known besides a lyre also as a vulture. The name of the bright star Vega stems from Arabian an-nasr al-wāqi, 'the falling eagle' translated into Latin as Vulture Cadens (the harp in Völuspá is not related to Lyra but to Corona Borealis).
Interestingly Serpens, the snake, reappears in another stanza where the word nár appears in the compound Náströnd, the corpse-beach:
  Sal sá hon standa
sólu fjarri
Náströndu á,
norðr horfa dyrr.
Fellu eitrdropar
inn um ljóra,
sá er undinn salr
orma hryggjum.
A hall she sees standing
far from the sun
on Náströnd,
its door faces north.
Drops of poison fell
through its roof-vent.
That hall is woven
of serpents' backs.
Serpens is a very large constellation and divided into Serpens Caput, the head of the snake. (I assume this is the source of the eitrdropar) and Serpens Cauda, the tail. Between them we find Ophiuchus, the snake bearer. This constellation has the shape of a door and the bottom part is formed from the middle part of the snake, this is 'orma hryggjum' the back of Serpens.

I assume therefore that the Náströnd itself is the rift of the Milky Way between Sagitta/Aquila and Ophiuchus. The tongue of the Milky Way beside it could be the hvera lundi in another stanza of Völuspá.
We have seen that Nár/Sagitta is surrounded by an eagle, a serpent and a vulture. We know in addition that Niddhöggr has wings and from the following stanza that it sucks the corpse:
  Sá hon þar vaða
þunga strauma
menn meinsvara
ok morðvarga
ok þanns annars glepr
Þar saug Niðhöggr
nái framgengna,
sleit vargr vera -
vituð ér enn, eða hvat ?
She saw there wading in
heavy streams
perjurious men
and murderous wolves (vargr)
and the one who seduces
another's trusted wife.
There Nidhögg sucks
the corpses of the departed
the wolf (vargr) tears men.
Know ye yet or what?

We find indeed a third bird next to Sagitta/Nár. Cygnus, the swan. In early Greek texts it was simply called the bird. In Sumerian/Babylonian times, it was seen as a winged panther, associated with disease, the dead and the underworld (compare Gavin White, Babylonian Star-Lore). Looking at its shape, it has two wings formed by the stars eta- and delta-Cygni. As its head we find the star beta-Cygni, Albireo called in Arabic al-Minhar al-Dajajah, "the hen's beak, pointing directly to Sagitta/Nár, the corpse. To close the loop, we return to the first stanza discussed, in which Cygnus borders on Draco, the dragon.

Overall Sagitta/Nár is not located in the best neighborhood one can imagine with a snake, varg, eagle, vulture and another raptor surrounding it. This must be the Niflhel of the northern myth. The word nifl, corresponding to the German Nebel, surely refers to the 'Sternennebel' [nebulae] of the Milky Way where Sagitta lies.

Return to Germanic Astronomy