Völund Star-Smith:

The Kneeling man and the Virgin with the Golden Ring

 by Peter Krüger
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Account of the Method Used

The task of the following investigation of Völundarkviða is to shed new light on the origin of this poem by comparing the main figures of the tale and their attributes with Greek and Roman mythology and  astronomy. This doesn’t mean that Völundarkvida is to be understood as a Greek “Wandersage”, but since the main actor Völund, described as a lame smith, has a counterpart in Hephaistos/Vulcan  in the classic mythology and the name Nidud (Nidhad, 'the lower one'), best describes a ruler in the lower world reminiscent of the Greek Hades, this approach might be useful to identify common roots of the tales. The approach itself —comparing Eddic tales with Greek constellations— is not new, I just want to mention the recent work of Björn Jonsson (Star Myths of the Vikings, 1994) or the work of Timothy J. Stephany, published in several articles.

It is assumed as a premise that the poet of Völundarkviða intends to provide clues for the identification of its characters as stars or constellations. To avoid circular arguments this work will intentionally focus on the tale itself without using other northern sources. In this work, we will use the English translation of Bellows.

As a first step to identifying the figures of Völundarkviða as stars or star constellations it is important to screen the tale for hints such as specific attributes. Looking through the text of Völundarkviða there is indeed a very interesting passage to start with. Within two strophes (and some prose) for all the three main actors of the tale there are specific attributes or characteristics mentioned that could help identification:

“King Nithuth gave to his daughter Bothvild the gold ring that he had taken from the bast rope in Völund's house, and he himself wore the sword that Völund had had. The queen spoke:


18. "The glow of his eyes | is like gleaming snakes,
His teeth he gnashes | if now is shown
The sword, or Bothvild's | ring he sees;
Let them straightway cut | his sinews of strength,
And set him then | in Sævarstath."

So was it done: the sinews in his knee-joints were cut, and he was set in an island which was near the mainland, and was called Sævarstath. There he smithied for the king all kinds of precious things. No man dared to go to him, save only the king himself. Völund spake:

19. "At Nithuth's girdle | gleams the sword
That I sharpened keen | with cunningest craft,
(And hardened the steel | with highest skill;)
The bright blade far | forever is borne,
(Nor back shall I see it | borne to my smithy;)
Now Bothvild gets | the golden ring
(That was once my bride's,-- | ne'er well shall it be.)"

If we take Völundarkviða as a serious guide to the starry sky we have to be on the look out in Greek mythology for a constellation of a man with  sinews severed at the knee joint, a young woman with a golden ring on her finger, and a man with a shining sword at his girdle. All three of them should be found close together in the sky.


Ian Ridpath


Völund, the Kneeling Man

The main actor of the tale, Völund, is described as a smith. At first glance, there seems to be no fitting constellation. There is no constellation named Hephaistos or Volcanus we could compare Volund with. But at least there is a long list of items ascribed to Hephaistos, amongst them e.g. the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. Corona Borealis was sometimes considered to represent a crown that was given by Dionysos to Ariadne, the daughter of Minos of Crete (the story is told by Ovid, "Fasti" III 459-516). But actually, as we follow the hints of Völundarkviða we are not looking for a constellation depicting a smith but for a “man with cut sinews in his knee joints”. Focusing specifically on this description there is indeed an interesting candidate:

"Next to the chill Bears and the frozen north comes a figure on bended knee [Engonasin], the reason for whose posture is known to none but him." [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century, AD, p.29.]

"Hercules, the figure on bended knee and called by the Greek name of Engonasin, about whose origin no certainty prevails. Of this constellation is begotten the desertion, craftiness, and deceit characteristic of its children, and from it comes the thug who terrorizes the heart of the city. If perchance his mind is moved to consider a profession, Engonasin will inspire him with enthusiasm for risky callings, with danger the price, for which he will sell his talents: daring narrow steps on a path without thickness, he will plant firm feet on a horizontal tightrope; then, as he attempts an upward route to heaven, (on a sloping tightrope) he will all but lose his footing and, suspended in mid-air, he will keep a multitude in suspense upon himself" [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century, AD, p.353.]

A figure on bended knee could indeed be another description for a man with cut sinews in the knee. The constellation Engonasin, the kneeling man, was in later times identified with Herakles the greatest hero of Greek history. Herakles has been one of few figures that survived a trip to Hades and came back alive, an interesting parallel to  Volund who managed to escape from the realm of Nidud, the underworld ruler.



The constellation Hercules is depicted headlong on star maps. This reminds to the story of Hephaistos who was thrown out of heaven from Hera either because he was lame or in other versions he became lame from the fall. In one version he landed on an island, in other versions in the ocean.

Two of the many epithets for Hercules were Greek Korunetes, and Korunephoros, the equivalents of Latin Clavator and Claviger, Club-bearer. The club could easily be compared to the hammer of a smith. As mentioned before, exactly next to Hercules we can find the golden ornament Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown forged by the lame smith Hephaistos. Another interesting epithet is Kharops, the keen-eyed one, a phrase similar to the expression in Völundarkviða: “The glow of his eyes | is like gleaming snakes”.

Also interesting is that Hercules is brought into connection of the Milky Way. One account of the origin of the Milky Way is that Zeus, who wanted to make Hercules immortal, had tricked Hera into nursing the infant Hercules; discovering who he was when she woke up, she pulled him from her breast, and a spurt of her milk formed the smear across the sky to become the Milky Way. Rydberg always pointed out the connection of Volund and his brothers to the Milky Way.

The name of Hercules is in most cases translated as “glory of Hera”. However, as the name Hera is believed to relate to the word air it could also be understood as “glory of the air or “clashing against the air”.

"But inasmuch as the sun wards off the evils of the earth, they called him Heracles (from his clashing against the air) in passing from east to west. And they invented fables of his performing twelve labours, as the symbol of the division of the signs of the zodiac in heaven; and they arrayed him with a club and a lion's skin, the one as an indication of his uneven motion, and the other representative of his strength in "Leo" the sign of the zodiac." [Porphyry, On Images, (c. 232 AD - c. 304), Fragment 8.]

Overall it seems that an identification of Volund and the kneeling man could make a lot of sense. But, to proof this identification that could be coincidence we should also be able to find the young woman with a ring at the finger and a man with a sword at his girdle.

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Bödhild, the Virgin with the Golden Ring

Searching at the GrGermanic Astronomyeek starry sky for a young woman next to Hercules we obviously have to take a closer look to the constellation Virgo. Virgo is depicted normally with a staff or rod in her right hand and an ear of grain in her left hand. The word Virgo itself is often explained as meaning “twig, young shoot”. Virgo is thought to represent in one tale Erigone who on finding her father Icarius (Bootes) dead, hanged herself in grief and was raised to heaven. An alternative story (cf. Aratus, Phaen. 98 ff.) identified her as Astraea, literally the star-maiden. We should also mention the story of Persephone living both in Hades and in Olympus.

As an interesting side aspect the very bright star Spica, the ear of grain is not always seen as part of the constellation Virgo but as a separate constellation. It is tempting to identify Virgo, the star maiden Astraea, with Bodvild and assume that Spica, the ear of grain in her hand of the Greek story is thought to be a ring in the Northern myth.

Nidud, the Possessor of Völund's sword

After having found a kneeling man and a young maiden with an attribute in her hand that could be interpreted as a ring we have now to search for a man with a sword at his girdle. A starting point could be the tale of Erigone mentioning Icarios as her father. Icarios is identified with the constellation Bootes, the constellation between Hercules and Virgo.

Bootes is described as a watchman of a herd of oxen, but never brought into connection with a sword. One fact, however is very interesting. Within the constellation Bootes we find the brightest star of the northern sky, the star Arcturus Its position is always described as being next to the knee of Bootes, so below of a virtual “girdle” of Böotes.



Since oldest times Arcturus has been one of the most prominent stars of heaven used as a calendar star as described from Hesiod:

"(ll. 609-617) But when Orion and Sirius are come into mid-heaven, and
rosy-fingered Dawn sees Arcturus (30), then cut off all the grape-
clusters, Perses, and bring them home." (Hesiod)

As Arcturus was such a prominent star, a calendar star, situated in a position below the “girdle” of Bootes, who is described as a watchman it would be very tempting to identify this star with the sword we are looking for, but in the whole Greek tradition Arcturus is (to our knowledge) never described as a sword. However, looking into veddic traditions and astronomy we find indeed the trace we are looking for:

“In India Arcturus was the 13th nakshatra (Hindu Moon Mansion), Svati, the Good Goer, or perhaps Sword, but figured as a Coral Bead, Gem, or Pearl; and known there also as Nishtya, Outcast, possibly from its remote northern situation far outside of the zodiac, whence, from its brilliancy, it was arbitrarily taken to complete the series of Hindu asterisms (Richard H. Allen Star Names, p.98.).

The Subterranean Smithy and the Treasure Chest

As we were able to identify Volund, his sword and his ring, Nidud and Bodhild by using just verse 18 and 19 as a guide to the starry sky, we should also be able to find Volund's smithy and explain astronomically the episode where Volund kills the two sons of Nidud. It is described in the following strophes:

 21. They came to the chest, | and they craved the keys,                                         
The evil was open | when in they looked;
To the boys it seemed | that gems they saw,
Gold in plenty | and precious stones.

24. They came to the chest, | and they craved the keys,
The evil was open | when in they looked;
He smote off their heads, | and their feet he hid
Under the sooty | straps of the bellows.

36. "Seek the smithy | that thou didst set,
Thou shalt find the bellows | sprinkled with blood;
I smote off the heads | of both thy sons,
And their feet 'neath the sooty | straps I hid.

Just below the constellation Hercules we find the constellation of Ophiuchus. This constellation is normally seen as a man holding a giant serpent. On the other hand the constellation serpent is depicted on the sky as divided into two constellations, the head and the tail of the serpent. 


It is now very interesting to look on the way the stars of Ophiuchus are normally connected on star maps as in the figure below. Indeed this constellation looks like a house or a chest. This has been noticed before, Björn Jonnson interpreted it e.g. as the door of Valhall.




Ophiuchus, the constellation in the shape of a house or chest

If we take both observations together we can see in fact a chest and in front of the chest a constellation called the head of the serpent, the other part of the figure being the tail of the serpent. The two parts of the constellation Serpent can be interpreted as parts of the slaughtered sons. In the following strophes we find additional interesting information about the fate of the dissected brothers.

25. Their skulls, once hid | by their hair, he took,
Set them in silver | and sent them to Nithuth;
Gems full fair | from their eyes he fashioned,
To Nithuth's wife | so wise he gave them.

26. And from the teeth | of the twain he wrought
A brooch for the breast, | to Bothvild he sent it;
. . . . . . . . . .

Völund spoke:

27. Bothvild then | of her ring did boast,
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . | "The ring I have broken,
I dare not say it | save to thee."

37. "Their skulls, once hid | by their hair, I took,
Set them in silver | and sent them to Nithuth;
Gems full fair | from their eyes I fashioned,
To Nithuth's wife | so wise I gave them.

38. "And from the teeth | of the twain I wrought
A brooch for the breast, | to Bothvild I gave it;
Now big with child | does Bothvild go,
The only daughter | ye two had ever."

Both the silver cup and the brooch can be found without a problem to represent star constellations. The cup is the constellation Crater placed near Hydra and the brooch made out of the teeth is seen as Corona Borealis. Indeed Corona Borealis looks like a jawbone with teeth. Only the eyes of the sons turned into gems are too non-specific to be identified in the sky.


Nidud's wife

The identification of Nidud's wife must remain unfortunately pure speculation based on Völundarkviða alone,  as nothing in the poem helps to identify her. It should therefore only be mentioned here that today’s constellation of Virgo is a merger of two once independent constellations representing women, the second one being part of Virgo and today's Coma Berenices.


Taking together our findings it seems that we achieved our task to find with the help of Greek and Roman traditions constellations that would fit to the hints disclosed from the poet of Völundarkviða. We might therefore be able to identify Volund with his bended knee (Hercules), Bodhild (Virgo), Volund's ring (Spica), Volunds sword (Arcturus) and Nidud (Bootes) as constellations of the northern sky. The smithy of Volund can be compared to Ophiuchus, the constellations of the head and the tail of the serpent (Serpens Caput and Serpens Cauda) representing parts of the dead brothers. Other parts can be seen in the shape of a (broken) brooch in Corona Borealis and as a silver cup in Crater. Altogether the Völundarkviða describes a cluster of constellations in a certain region within the arch of the Milky Way. This region is identical with Nidud's realm with the Milky Way as its border.



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