A view of Orion and the winter sky low in the south from a latitiude of 70 degrees north, near Oksfjord, Norway, in October 2018. This demonstrates the low altitude of southern constellations from far northern latitudes. (Alan Dyer) | SkyNews
A view of Orion and the winter sky low in the south from a latitiude of 70 degrees north, near Oksfjord, Norway, in October 2018. This demonstrates the low altitude of southern constellations from far northern latitudes. (Alan Dyer)

Old Norse: Reading into ancient sky stories

Despite mastering the night sky, many old Norse sky culture details have been lost over time

Despite having a rich history of sagas and epics, very little is known about Old Norse sky cultures. What exists can be found in those stories, but individual stars and asterisms are rarely mentioned.

Jonas Persson of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology said this is because the Christianization of Scandinavia did not prioritize which star patterns were important to Norse cultures.

“A culture is based on your own environment, how you live, what you do and how you live,” said Persson.
“It’s how you see the world, and that outlook includes the night sky.”

Old Norse constellations, including the ones sailors used to navigate transatlantic voyages, have been lost. By the 13th century, they had already been replaced with Greek, Latin or Roman constellations.

In the 1800s, nationalist movements and an interest in the Viking era prompted new names to be created. Neo-pagan and modern new age movements have continued inventing new constellations.

Persson’s research on what is known about Old Norse sky cultures can be found in the Stellarium app and in the World Asterisms Project, a living collection of asterisms built by The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Inclusivity and Diversity Committee as a celebration of the sky cultures of the world. The collection includes more than 9,000 asterisms from 400 cultures around the world.

A view of Orion and the winter sky low in the south from a latitiude of 70 degrees north, near Oksfjord, Norway, in October 2018. This demonstrates the low altitude of southern constellations from far northern latitudes. (Alan Dyer) | SkyNews
A view of Orion and the winter sky low in the south from a latitiude of 70 degrees north, near Oksfjord, Norway, in October 2018. This demonstrates the low altitude of southern constellations from far northern latitudes. (Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com)

It is believed that Old Norse literature identifies Bifrost, or shimmering road, as a rainbow and the Milky Way. This could mean the two are connected in Norse mythology.

The Big Dipper is usually seen as a chariot or wagon in Scandinavian cultures, including Old Norse. But Ursa Minor is called a woman’s chariot. Persson believes these titles refer to the gods Thor and Freyja.

“Most sources are actually from the 19th and 20th century. There are very [few] old sources available,” he said. “This is an integrated part of our culture and we are losing it all the time.”

A certainty is that Norse culture had a mastery of the night sky. The maritime culture of the region shows Norse sailors must have had a strong knowledge of astronomy for navigation.

Persson said he worries the past may be repeating itself as the night sky gives way to light pollution and space junk. He argued this robs all people of a window into their past.

“This is a huge cultural problem. We consider it a necessity to know about Shakespeare and that we should know about Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Picasso — and yet we have forgotten about our culture in the sky,” he said.

“Stars are a part of our culture and are some part of what we are. Denying people the possibility of observing the stars and starting to think ‘where do we come from?’ is a huge mistake.”

This World Asterisms Project, which includes more than 8,600 asterisms from 400 cultures, is a living project celebrating sky cultures. Published by The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, it continues to grow as the process of naming stars continues and as ethnoastronomers and researchers investigate old records, interview elders and recover previously lost sky culture information.

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