Observations in Eddic Astronomy
How Passages in the Eddas Act as
References to Constellations

by Dr. Christopher E. Johnsen
© 2014

Image from Bronze Age Petrogylphs
Böhuslan, Sweden

The Norse Myths have a distinctive flavor all their own, but they also have many similarities to the Greek, Roman, Persian and Indian mythologies.  These myths from other cultures have many well-known correspondences with the stars, whereas the Norse mythical tradition has a paucity of them, or perhaps it would be better to say that they have been intentionally hidden and the keys to deciphering these correspondences have been lost.

 Astronomy, stjörnuíþrótt in Old Norse, is the science of observation of the stars – it seems that the ancients were very good at it.  It is likely that the people living far North near the Arctic circle had a natural tendency to focus on observation of the stars since so many winter nights were filled with nothing but darkness and the stars above to observe, with little sunlight present around the winter solstice. 


Modern astronomy’s roots can be traced to Mesopotamia, and it descends directly from Babylonian astronomers who in turn derived their knowledge from Sumerian astronomers.  The earliest Babylonian star catalogues date from about 1200 BC and many star names are in Sumerian suggesting that the Sumerians were one of if not the first people to study the stars that have been observed in the archeological record or that they inherited an astronomical tradition from some unknown earlier culture.
The Sumerians developed the earliest known writing system - cuneiform – whose origin is currently dated to circa 3500 BC.  Baked clay tablets with cuneiform writing have been found that recorded detailed observations of the stars which led to the sophisticated astronomy of the Sumerian’s successors, the Babylonians. Only fragments of these cuneiform tablets detailing Babylonian astronomy have survived down through the ages. Many believe that "all subsequent varieties of scientific astronomy, in the Hellenistic world, in India, in Islam, and in the West—if not indeed all subsequent endeavour in the exact sciences—depend upon Babylonian astronomy in decisive and fundamental ways."(1) An argument can be made that this statement also holds true for the Norse astronomers of old and that they were continuing the ancient Sumerian/Babylonian tradition.

The Sumerians created the concept of planetary gods and also used a sexagesimal (base 60) number system.  This method of calculation facilitated the manipulation of both very large and very small numbers and is the basis for the modern practice of divvying up a circle into 360 degrees. The number 60 has twelve factors, namely 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30 and 60. With so many factors, manipulation of fractions involving sexagesimal numbers are simplified.
For example, one hour can be divided evenly into 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 12 minutes, 10 minutes, 6 minutes, 5 minutes, 4 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute. 60 is also the smallest number that is divisible by every number from 1 to 6; that is, it is the lowest common multiple of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Sexagesimal numbers are the easiest to use in astronomy since the movements of the heavenly bodies, visible from the earth, occur in circles, and the sky can thus be equally divided. 


Astronomy can be used for determining both time and location by careful observation, thus making it useful for agricultural purposes to be able to observe and record the cyclical movements of the moon, stars and planets as well as for navigation on land and by sea.  Since the Norse were an agricultural society, the welfare of the people depended upon timing planting properly and study of the stars could be used to create a calendar in order to maximize the turnout of the crops. They were also mariners and travelled vast distances between different lands on the sea and needed an accurate method of navigation in order to get to where they were going.

 Many of the Norse poems were linguistic masterpieces that appear to be designed to aid their own memorization.  This also would be natural to a culture that was more accustomed to recitation in public places as a method of communication to the masses.  Much of this culture was likely to have been pre-literate or illiterate, and memory was vastly more important without the presence of formalized writing.  The easier to memorize poems would have enjoyed a greater distribution and life than more difficult ones and this oral, mythological tradition was a way to transmit the knowledge of astronomy to future generations.

 The origin of the stars and planets and also their eventual destruction at Ragnarök is spoken of in the Norse poem, Völuspa.  In Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, the text describes how the giant Ymir was killed and his body was used by three gods, Odin, Vili and Ve to create the earth.  His skull was made into the “firmament” thought to support the stars which were made out of sparks from Muspellheim.  Four dwarves hold up the ancient giants’ skull and they are named for the directions of the compass.

Illustration of Yggdrasil from W. H. Auden and P.B. Taylor's The Elder Edda

It would seem that the people who created the stories (perhaps to transmit this wisdom to their children and descendants) about the gods and goddesses could certainly have encoded information about astronomical phenomena.  There do seem to be hidden astronomical references present in the Norse Myths and there is also evidence that the Norse were inheritors of this ancient Sumerian/Babylonian tradition and this becomes clearer when we look at some special numbers found in the mythology.

 There are a number of astronomically significant numbers present in the Edda and there are clues in the Norse myths that indicate the poets have inherited and transmitted an astronomical tradition with sexagesimal numbers. Several important, unique numbers are found within Grímnismál or The Speech of the Masked One, where it says: 

Fimm hundruð dura
 ok umb fjórum tögum,
svá hygg ek á Valhöllu vera;
átta hundruð Einherja
 ganga senn ór einum durum,
 þá er þeir fara við vitni at vega.

23. Five hundred doors
and forty there are,
I ween, in Valhall’s walls;
Eight hundred fighters
through one door fare
When to war with the wolf they go.

(Henry A. Bellows Translation, 1923)

540 has the factors 20, a standard numerical unit known as a score, and 27, which also happens to be a number that is called the sidereal lunar cycle or the number of days it takes for the moon to return to the same place in the sky.  When you multiply 540 and 800 it ends up being 432,000 which is an astronomically significant number. 
A Chaldean priest named Berossos, who wrote in Greek circa 289 B.C., reported the Mesopotamian belief that 432,000 years had elapsed between the crowning of the first earthly king and the coming of the deluge(2). In the Babylonian or Sumerian story, there were ten kings total who lived very long lives from creation to the time of the flood which is a total of 432,000 years.  This number represents the number of years in the Babylonian Great Year and the time it takes for the planets to return to their exact same position in the sky (3).  To discover that this non-arbitrary, ancient Babylonian/Sumerian number used in their mythology and astronomy is also present in the Norse myths is remarkable.
In the related Biblical account, there were ten patriarchs between Adam and Noah, who also lived long lives. Noah was 600 years old at the time of the landing of the Ark on Mount Ararat. The total years add up to 1,656. In 1,656 years, there are 86,400 weeks, and half that number is 43,200. Doubling and cutting in half these figures seems to be a common theme. The number of years from Adam to Noah seems to hide the time cycle number and indicates that the composer of this text and also the composer of the Norse poem had a working knowledge of the earth’s cycle of precession, which that number indicates.
Precession is the periodic wobble of the earth, which spins like a spinning top.  When the Earth wobbles, it does it over a very long period of time and the wobble only makes one complete revolution every 25,920 years.  This figure divided by the sexagesimal base number 60 results in the number 432. There is further evidence that the ancient Norse divided up the heavens into equal slices of a 360 circular pie, echoing the approach of the Babylonians and Sumerians with their use of sexagesimal calculations, just like we currently use sexagesimal instruments such as the watch and clock, along-side standard decimal mathematics.


IIt is clear that the Babylonian astronomers thought in terms of sixes and twelves more than our current culture does, which is to think in terms of tens, 100’s and thousands.  The sexagesimal calculation, 60 x 60 x 120, equals 432,000. For a 6 and 12-based society, talking about 432,000 of something is like talking about a hundred thousand of something to present day people. For a Babylonian astronomer, 432,000 would seem like a nice, even number since it has multiple factors that are easy sexagesimal calculations.
Grímnismál also contains a description of the Norse cosmology and the homes of the gods.  As noted above, this lay contains the astronomically significant number 432,000, however, an earlier portion of the poem describing the gods’ homes and lands has sexagesimal influence because twelve homes of the gods and goddesses are described:


1. Thrudheim for Thor as well as Ydalir (the Yewdales apparently in Thrudheim) for Ull who is his stepson.
2.  Alfheim for Frey
3.  Valaskialf for Vali
4.  Sokkvabekk for Saga (Frigg)
5.  Gladsheim for Odin which has within it Odin’s hall - Valhalla
6.  Thrymheim for the giantess Skadi who rules it after her father Thiazi dies.
7 Breidablik for Balder
8. Himinbiörg for Heimdal
9. Folkvang for Freya
10. Glitnir for Forseti
11. Noatun for Njord
12. Landvidi for Vidar


With twelve homes of the gods mentioned, it can be seen as a hint that they are located in the sky, since the sky has for many thousands of years been divided up into twelve equal “houses” as they are known in present day astrology.  Homes and houses are the same thing both in the present and the past.
Here we have ancient Mesopotamian numbers showing up in a Norse poem – that is very interesting isn’t it?  In addition to these numbers, however, there are some other clues that the poems are describing stellar locations and heavenly bodies.
In Skáldskaparmál in the Prose Edda, Aurvandill, SIf’s first husband and father of Ull, is mentioned in the context of a journey he took with the god Thor:

[Þórr]  hafði vaðit norðan yfir Élivága ok hafði borit í meis á baki sér Aurvandil norðan ór Jötunheimum, ok þat til jartegna, at ein tá hans hafði staðit ór meisinum, ok var sú frerin, svá at Þórr braut af ok kastaði upp á himin ok gerði af stjörnu þá, er heitir Aurvandilstá.  

Thor had waded from the north over the river Elivagar and had borne Aurvandill in a basket on his back from the north out of Jotunheim. And he added for a token, that one of Aurvandill's toes had stuck out of the basket, and became frozen; wherefore Thor broke it off and cast it up into the heavens, and made thereof the star called Aurvandill's Toe.

Norse Aurvandill is the same as the Old English Ēarendel and has been thought to mean "luminous wanderer", a reasonable description of the planet Venus, since “planet” means “wanderer.”  It would seem reasonable that the Norse were referring to Venus in the myth where Thor throws Aurvandill’s toe up into the heavens.
Old English Earendel appears in glosses translating iubar as "radiance” or “morning star."  In the Old English poem Crist I are the lines:

 éala éarendel engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnum sended
and sodfasta sunnan leoma,
tohrt ofer tunglas þu tida gehvane
of sylfum þe symle inlihtes.

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,
over Middle-earth to men sent,
and true radiance of the Sun
bright above the stars, every season
thou of thyself ever illuminest.(4)

The name Earendel is here taken to refer to John the Baptist and he is addressed as the morning star which heralds the coming of Christ, the sun. Of course, there are other theories, including Richard Allen’s who links Orion with Aurvandill, identifies the star Rigel as one of his toes and the frozen and broken-off toe as the star Alcor (5). 
There are also direct references to heavenly bodies in Norse Mythology.  The poem Alvismal contains a series of back and forth questions and answers about what the heavenly bodies are called by various races.  Thor asks Alvis these questions to test the knowledge of the dwarf who wants to be the suitor for his daughter Thrud.

Illustrations by William Gershom Collingwood (1854-1932) 

 Þórr kvað:

"Segðu mér þat, Alvíss,
- öll of rök fira
 vörumk, dvergr, at vitir -:
hvé sú jörð heitir,
er liggr fyr alda sonum
heimi hverjum í?"

Thor spake

9. "Answer me, Alvis!
thou knowest all,
Dwarf, of the doom of men:
What call they the earth,
that lies before all,
In each and every world?"

Alvíss kvað:

"Jörð heitir með mönnum,
en með ásum fold,
kalla vega vanir,
ígræn jötnar,
alfar gróandi,
kalla aur uppregin."

Alvis spake:

10. " 'Earth' to men, 'Field'
to the gods it is,
'The Ways' is it called by the Wanes;
'Ever Green' by the giants,
'The Grower' by elves,
'The Moist' by the holy ones high."

Þórr kvað:

"Segðu mér þat, Alvíss, -
öll of rök fira vörumk,
dvergr, at vitir -:
hvé sá himinn heitir,
heimi hverjum í?"

 Thor spake:

11. "Answer me, Alvis!
thou knowest all,
Dwarf, of the doom of men:
What call they the heaven,
beheld of the high one,
In each and every world?"

Alvíss kvað:

"Himinn heitir með mönnum,
en hlýrnir með goðum,
kalla vindófni vanir,
 uppheim jötnar,
alfar fagraræfr,
dvergar drjúpansal."

 Alvis spake:

12. " 'Heaven' men call it,
'The Height' the gods,
The Wanes 'The Weaver of Winds';
Giants 'The Up-World,'
elves 'The Fair-Roof,'
The dwarfs 'The Dripping Hall.'"

 Þórr kvað:

"Segðu mér þat, Alvíss,
- öll of rök fira vörumk,
dvergr, at vitir -:
hversu máni heitir,
sá er menn séa,
heimi hverjum í?"

 Thor spake:

13. "Answer me, Alvis!
thou knowest all,
Dwarf, of the doom of men.:
What call they the moon,
that men behold,
In each and every world?"

 Alvíss kvað:

"Máni heitir með mönnum,
en mylinn með goðum,
kalla hverfanda hvél helju í,
skyndi jötnar,
en skin dvergar,
kalla alfar ártala."

 Alvis spake:

14. "'Moon' with men, 'Flame'
the gods among,
'The Wheel' in the house of hell;
'The Goer' the giants,
'The Gleamer' the dwarfs,
The elves 'The Teller of Time."

Þórr kvað: 

"Segðu mér þat, Alvíss,
- öll of rök fira vörumk,
dvergr, at vitir -:
hvé sú sól heitir,
er séa alda synir,
heimi hverjum í?"

Thor spake:

15. "Answer me, Alvis!

thou knowest all,
Dwarf, of the doom of men:
What call they the sun,
that all men see,
In each and every world?"

 Alvíss kvað:

"Sól heitir með mönnum,
en sunna með goðum,
kalla dvergar Dvalins leika,
eygló jötnar,
alfar fagrahvél,
alskír ása synir."

Alvis spake:

16. "Men call it 'Sun,'
gods 'Orb of the Sun,'
'The Deceiver of Dvalin' the dwarfs;
The giants 'The Ever-Bright,'
elves 'Fair Wheel,'
'All-Glowing' the sons of the gods."

(Henry A. Bellows Translation, 1923)

Dwarves would have had ample opportunity to observe the night sky since they turned to stone if exposed to the sunlight.  These kennings are not obvious for the phenomena described and the “code” revealed by Alvis is one of the few instances in the Norse poems where it is made clear that knowledge of the sky and stars was present among those who wrote the myths. 
            There are more clues in the Eddic and Skaldic poetry that indicate the ancient Norse were knowledgeable in astronomy, however, the evidence cited above is that which is most readily recognizable amongst the various poems that make up the corpus of what we call Norse Mythology. Many more correspondences can be inferred or intuited by comparison with Roman, Greek and Indian mythology which have better preserved the astral connections to the myths and this is a fascinating area of study which merits a great deal more research.


1.        A. Aaboe (May 2, 1974). "Scientific Astronomy in Antiquity". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 276 (1257): 21–42. doi:10.1098/rsta.1974.0007. JSTOR 74272.
2.     Thorkild Jacobsen, The Sumerian King List, 1939, pp. 71, 77.
3.     Ogier, J. Eddic Constellations.
4.     Crist I (ll. 104–108) by Cynewulf.
5.     Richard Hinckley Allen, Star Names; Their Lore and Meaning.