The Divisions of the Universe: Nine Worlds of the Ancient Norse

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THE Asa-gods built Asgard, the celestial city set high above the heavens. It stands upon a holy island in the midst of a dark broad river flowing from the thunder-vapours that rise through the great World-tree from Hvergelmer (“the roaring cauldron”), the mother of waters.

A dark and lofty wall protectes Asgard, and the great boiling river breaks angrily at its base. There is no entry-way apart from Odin’s mighty gate. If anyone who is unworthy cross the river unscathed by the vafer-flames and wants to open the gate of Asgard, he would be caught suddenly by a chain which which crushes him.

In the middle of Asgard is Idavoll, the Court of Judgment, in which the gods’ divine affairs are discussed and arranged. There was set the great golden throne of Odin, the chief ruler of Asgard, and around it are placed twelve golden seats for the gods who sit with him in judgment, and to whom the All-father gave power to rule and to issue decrees. Another stately structure is built as a sanctuary for the goddesses called Vingolf (“the abode of friends”).

There was also smithy which are furnished with anvils, hammers and tongs. With these the cunning elf-smiths, Ivalde’s sons and Sindre’s kinsmen, made for the gods every instrument they need. On a green place in the celestial city were found the golden tablets with which was played the Game of the Gods. This was in the Golden Age, which lasted until there came from Jotun-heim three giant maids, who brought corruption. In Midgard lived a race of dwarfs. In the deep, dark mould of Ymer’s body they swarmed , going here and there with no purpose or knowledge. All the gods gave the dwarfs human shape. There are also the the Trolls, who have power to change their shape.

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English translation of the Prose Edda from 1847, by Oluf Olufsen Bagge

The wonder of the Universe is the great ash tree, Ygdrasil, the Tree of Existence, which nourishes and sustains all spiritual and physical life. Its roots are spread through the divisions of the worlds that fill the yawning gulf, and its boughs are above the high celestial city of the gods. It grows out of the past,  lives in the present and reaches towards the future.

The World-ash has three great roots. One root reaches the realms below Midgard – it receives warmth and life in the glittering plains from the deep fountain of Urd where Hela the goddess of fate and of death, lives. Another root reaches the egg-white well of Mimer, who is Wisdom and Memory. The last root is in gloomy Nifel-heim, where it finds hardening sustenance in Hvergelmer, the fount of primeval waters, ice-cold and everlasting.

The souls of good men go to the realm of Urd. Near to it, in the underworld, is Mimer’s grove, where the race which will regenerate the world of men live. Below Nifel-heim are the nine divisions of torture in which the souls of the wicked are punished.

The roots of the great World-tree suck up the waters of the three eternal fountains which,  mixed together, give imperishable life. In the well of wise Mimer the fibres are made white with the holy mead which gives wisdom and poetry, and also is the very elixir of eternal life.

On the high branches of Ygdrasil, which overshadow Asgard, sits a wise eagle, and between its eyes is perched a hawk named Vedfolner. On the topmost bough is Goldcomb, the “cock of the north”, which awakens the gods from sleep and puts the demons to flight. From Hela then answers the red cock, whose fire purifies what is good and destroys what is evil.

The great World-tree bears a more painful burden than human beings understand. In the well of Hvergelmer, in the black realm of Nifel-heim, is the corpse-eating dragon Nidhog (“the lower one”), which chews constantly at the root. Above the tree, four giant harts are biting its buds and its leaves. Age rots its side and serpents gnaw its tender fibres in the dark underworld. Because, there is never a good which is not approached by evil, and there is never a growth that doesn’t experience decay and the passing of time.

Up and down the World-tree runs constantly the squirrel Ratatosk, which bears gossip between the eagle on the highest branches and the dragon Nidhog at the root, and is thus forever cause strife. Greatly dreaded is Nidhog, who flies to the rocks and cliffs of the lower world with the bodies of dead men beneath its wings.

The three Fates, who are called Norns, are Urd and her two sisters–Urd, (“present”), Verdande (“past”) and Skuld (“future”). The Norns sprinkle the great ash-tree each morning with precious mead from Urd’s fount of life, so that its leaves forever be green. From there comes the honey-dew, which drips upon the world and is stored by the bees. And in Urd’s fountain are the two mystic swans which are the ancestors of the swan race in Midgard. The Norns are spun  the fates of men and women. There are also Dises, who are maids of Urd, unto whom various duties are assigned. The Hamingjes are those Dises who are guardians of men through their lives, and appear to them in dreams to give warnings and noble counsel. There are also the sweet elf-maids who have care of babes unborn in the fair realms of Urd, and find them kindly mothers in the world of men; and there are maids who conduct the souls of the dead to Hela’s glittering plain.

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Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin

The souls of the dead are judged in Helaand rewards and punishments are meted out by Odin. There is only one road therer from Asgard for all the gods save Thor, and that is over the curved bridge Bif-rost (“the rainbow”) which has its foundation beyond the edge of the world of men. The southern span reaches to the fount of Urd in the realms of green verdure that never. know decay. Bif-rost is built of air and water, and is protected by red fire flaming on its edge. Frost giants and mountain giants always seek to capture the bridge, so that they may ascend to Asgard and overcome the gods; but its sentinel, Heimdal, is constantly on guard against them. The gods set Heimdal, son of the waves, to protect the bridge forever against the enemy. He is clad in silvern armour, and he wears a  burnished helmet with ram’s horns. His sight is so keen that he can see by night as well as by day the length of a hundred leagues, and he listens so keenly that he can hear the grass growing. He sleeps as little and as lightly as a bird. When the giants and monsters come to assail the gods at Ragnarok, Heimdal shall blow a thunderblast on Gjallar-horn which is hidden in the deepest shade of the World-tree.

Every day the horses of the gods thunder over Bif-rost as they descend to and return from the lower-world. Except for Thor, the thunder god – he cannot travel this way because the fire of his thunder chariot might set the bridge aflame and destroy it. He has to wade across the four great girdling rivers in the underworld to reach Hela’s glittering plains.

 When the gods come unto Hela they descend from their horses and take their seats in the Thingstead. The dead are then brought before them. Down the valley of thorns the dead came – the feet of the wicked were torn and bleeding. When they walked over on boards, the unjust amongst them were sorely wounded and covered with scars, so that their bodies dripped blood.

Those who are justified pass to the eternal realms of Hela, where joy prevails, because they have lived upright lives, brave and also because they worshipped the gods and gave offerings in the temples. But those who are condemned are sent to Nifel-hel, the region of torture. They are judged to be unworthy if they injured others by falsehoods or wicked deeds, if they were adulterers, or murderers, or despoilers of graves, or cowards, or were traitors, and profaners of the temples. Those who are to share eternal joy are given to drink from the horn of Urd, which imparts to them enduring strength. The doomed are given a draught of burning venom which changes them to monsters. Their tongues are then for ever bereft of speech and they can only moan.

The happy dead then meet lost friends and ancestors from the earliest years of the world while the doomed are driven towards Nifel-hel by elves, who carry thorny rods with which they lash those who falter or seek to turn back. Their first punishment is received when they  pass through the regions of eternal bliss, and see the joy of the blessed which they can never enjoy. Then they cross the rivers which girdle Hela, and climb towards the dark mountains of Nifel-hel. Then they enter the Na-gates and die the second death. Punishment is given in the nine realms of torture according to the sins that were committed. Some are seized by the dragon and some by the birds of prey, according to their deserts. Others are tempted for ever by illusions of sinful things they sought in life, and there are those who are torn to pieces by the great wolf.

In the Venom-dale is a river called Slid, and it is full of daggers and sharp spears. Through it must wade the perjurers and murderers and adulterers, who are continually suffering new and fierce wounds. Others sit together on benches of iron, while venom drips on them, within a hall which is full of unberarable stench. Traitors are hung on trees and cowards are drowned in pools of foulness.

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Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin.

Naglefar, the “ship of death”, lies in the Gulf of Black Grief, in the outer regions of Nifel-hel, fastened to a dark island with chains that shall not sever until Ragnarok (“the dusk of the gods”). The warriors who are slain in battle, or drowned at sea, are brought  to Valhal in Asgard by the maids of Urd, who are called Valkyries. They are horsed on swift steeds, and first they pass to Hela, where the gods give judgment and reject the unworthy. Then they are carried by the Valkyries over Bif-rost, and the hoofs of their steeds resound in Asgard. In great Valhal the heroes feast with Odin in eternal triumph and happiness.

Now these are the divisions of the Universe. In the midst is the earth, Midgard, which is encircled by the ocean. On high, and above all else, is Asgard, and below it is the realm of white elves, who flit between the branches of the great World-tree. Then Vana-heim, the home of the Vana-gods, is in the air and in the sea; and in the depths of the western sea is the hall of Æger, god of Ocean. Alf-heim, the home of elves, is to the east. In the lower world, below Nifel-heim, are the Nifel-hel regions of torture, and under Midgard are the Hela realms of Mimer and of Urd. Far below the path of the gods towards Hela’s fields of bliss are Surtur’s deep dales on the borders of Muspel-heim, where the great giant Surtur, the swarthy sentinel, keeps watch with his flaming sword. Jotun-heim is to the north and the east, beyond the world’s edge.

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From the Body of a Giant: Ancient Norse Story of Creation

At the very beginning there was nothing. Then a vast and empty gulf opened in space. The  length and breadth of this gulf was immesurable and its depth was beyond any of our comprehension. That gulf contained the beginning of everything.

Then, one by one, our homes were formed. On the north was Nifel-heim, the home of misty darkness and freezing cold. On the south was Muspel-heim, the luminous home of warmth and of light. In middle was Nifel-heim, the great fountain from which all waters flow. The great fountain was named Hvergelmer (“the roaring cauldron”) from which surged twelve tremendous rivers called Elivagar which washed southward towards the gulf. These rivers flew from their source to great distances before the venom that was swept with them began to harden until they congealed and became ice. The rivers grew silent and gigantic blocks of ice formed.

That part of the gulf laying northward was a region of horror and of strife. Heavy masses of black vapour enveloped the ice, and within were screaming whirlwinds that never ceased, and dismal banks of fleeting mist. But southward, Muspel-heim glowed with intense radiance, and sprayed forth beautiful flakes and sparks of shining fire. The intervening space between the region of tempest and gloom and the region of warmth and light was a peaceful twilight, serene and still.

When the sparks from Muspel-heim fell through the frozen vapour, completed by the heat was sent there by the might of the All-father, drops of moisture began to fall from the ice. It was then that life began. The drops were quickened and a formless mass took human shape. Thus came into being the great lumbering clay-giant named Ymer. Ymer was rough and ungainly. As he stretched himself and began to move about, Ymer was tortured by the pangs of immense hunger. He searched for food, but there was nothing he could eat. The whirlwinds went past him and the dark mists enveloped him like a shroud.

More drops fell through the gloomy vapours and formed a gigantic cow, which was named Audhumla (“void darkness”). Ymer saw the cow standing in the gloom beside blocks of ice and groped weakly towards it. He found that milk ran from its teats in four white streams. He drank and drank until he was filled with the seeds of life. Then a great heaviness came over him and he lay down into deep sleep. In his sleep, sweat gathered in the pit of his left arm, from which a son named Mimer and a daughter named Bestla were formed. From Mimer the Vana-gods were descended. A monstrous six-headed son, who was the ancestor of the evil frost giants, the dreaded Hrimthursar, was born from under the feet of Ymer.

Then Ymer was awoken by Audhumla, the great cow, because she could not find anything to eat. She had been surviving by licking the huge boulders that were encrusted by salt and rime. In one day, hair of a great head appeared in the boulders. On the second day, when Audhumla returned to the boulder, a head of human semblance was laid bare. On the third day a form leapt forth. He was beautiful, nimble and powerful. He was Bure, the first of the Asa-gods.

In time, more beings followed. Mimer, who is Mind and Memory, had daughters, the chief of whom was Urd, Goddess of Fate and Queen of Life and Death. Bure had a son named Bor, who took for his wife Bestla, the sister of Mimer. They had three sons: the first was called Odin, the second Ve – also known as Honer, and the third Vile – also known as Lodur and Loke. Odin became the chief ruler of the Asa-gods, and Honer was chief of the Vans until Loke, the usurper, became their ruler.

Ymer and his sons were moved with wrath and enmity against the family of gods, and soon warfare broke out between them. The fierce conflicts were waged through the long ages as the earth was formed until the sons of Bure prevailed. When Ymer was stricken down, the victors leapt upon him and slit open the bulging veins of his neck. A great deluge of blood gushed forth, and the whole race of giants was drowned except Bergelmer (“The Mountain-old”) who took refuge on the timbers of the great World-mill with his wife and remained there. From these are descended the Jotuns, who for ever harboured enmity against the gods.

When Ymer was dead, the gods set forth to frame the world. They laid Ymer’s body on the mill and ground it. The stones were smeared with blood and the dark flesh came out as mould producing the earth and the gods shaped it to their desire. Rocks and the mountains were made from Ymer’s bones. His teeth and jaws were broken and flung the fragments forming pebbles and boulders. The ice-cold blood of Ymer became the waters of the vast engulfing sea.

The gods then set Ymer’s skull over the earth to be the heavens. At each of the four corners they put as strong dwarfs East and West and North and South as guardians. The skull of Ymer rests upon their broad shoulders.

Mundilfore, who cared for the World-mill, aspired to rival Odin. He had two beautiful children, Mani (moon)  and Sol (sun). Mundilfore’s presumption angered the gods and, to punish him, they took his two children away from him to drive the heavenly chariots and count the Years for men.  They sent Sol to drive the sun-chariot. Her steeds are Arvak, which is “Early Dawn”, and Alsvid, which signifies “scorching heat”.  They enter the eastern heaven at Hela-gate, through which the souls of dead men pass to the world beneath.

Then the gods set Mani, the handsome youth, to drive the chariot of the moon. With him are two fair children whom he carried away from earth – a boy Hyuki, and a girl named Bil. They had been sent out in the darkness of night by Vidfinner, their father, to draw song-mead from the mountain spring Byrger, “the hidden”, which broke forth from the source of Mimer’s fount. They filled their pail Saegr to the brink, so that the precious mead spilled over as they raised it on the pole Simul. When they began to descend the mountain, Mani seized them and took them away. The spots seen on the fair-faced moon are Hyuki and Bil.

The sun and the moon are pursued by gigantic wolves. Skoll, “the adherer”, chases the sunand Hati, “the hater”, who races in front of “the bright maiden of heaven”, in ceaseless pursuit of the moon.

Skoll and Hati are giants in wolf-guise. They were sent forth by the Mother of Evil, the dark and fearsome Hag, Gulveig-Hoder. She lived in the Iarnvid, the black forest of iron trees, on the world’s edge, which is the habitation of a witch family dreaded both by gods and by men. Hati, who is also called Managarm, “the moon devourer”, feeds on the blood of dying men. The seers have foretold that when he comes to swallow the moon, the heavens and the earth shall turn red with blood.

Nat (Night), is the daughter of the Vana-giant Narve (“the Binder”). Her hair is dark and her eyes are soft and benevolent. She brings rest and refreshment to the weary, and sleep and dreams unto all. To the warrior she gives strength so that he may win victory, care and sorrow she loves to take away. Nat is the beneficent mother of gods. She married three times. Her first husband was Nagelfare of the stars, and their son was Aud of bounteous riches. Her second husband was Annar, “Water”, and their daughter, Jörd, the earth-goddess, was Odin’s wife and the mother of Thor. Her third husband was Delling, the red elf of dawn, and their son was Dagr, which is Day.

Vindsval, son of gloomy Vasud, “the ice wind”, was father of Winter, and the mild and beneficent Svasud was the sire of Summer.

Finally, the sons of Bure saw two logs of wood. One log was from an ash tree, and from it the gods shaped a man named Ask. The other, which was an alder tree, was shaped into a woman named Embla. The gods gave them mind and will and desire, and from them the entire human race descended. They live in Midgard, “middle ward”, and Mana-heim, “home of men”.

Hero Born in Sorrow: the Birth, Love and Death of Tristan

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A fragment of Tristrant, by Eilhart von Oberg. Parchment manuscript written in East Alemannian with Middle German-Lower German Elements in the early 13th century

In an expedition to the court of Mark, king of Cornwall and England, Riwalin, king in the land of the Parmenians, had become acquainted and subsequently passionately in love with Mark’s beautiful sister, Blancheflure. Later, as he was assisting Mark in a campaign, Riwalin became mortally wounded and was carried to Tintajole. Blancheflure, disguised as a beggar maid, hastened to his sickbed and saved Mark’s life through her devoted love. The lovers then fled together to his native land and Blancheflure was proclaimed as his consort. However, Morgan attacked Riwalin’s country and, the king entrusted the pregnant Blancheflure to his faithful retainer Rual. Rual placed the queen for safekeeping in the castle of Kaneel. Here she gave birth to a son and died as her husband fell in the battle against Morgan.

In order to protect the king’s son from Morgan’s pursuits, Rual spread the rumor that the infant had been born dead. The boy was named Tristan because he had been conceived and born in sorrow. Under the care of Rual and his wife, Tristan grew up strong in body and mind until his fourteenth year, when he was kidnapped by Norwegian merchants, who then put him ashore in Cornwall because they feared the wrath of the gods. Here the boy was found by the soldiers of King Mark, who was so pleased with the brave and handsome youth that he made him his master of the chase.

Meanwhile, the faithful Rual set forth to look for his abducted foster son. Disguising himself as a beggar, Rual found Tristan in found at last in Cornwall. Rual revealed the story of Tristan’s birth to the king who was delighted to see in him the son of his beloved sister and raised him to the rank of knight. To avenge his father, Tristan proceeded with Rual to Parmenia, vanquished Morgan the usurper, and gave the country to Rual as the liege while he himself returned to his uncle Mark. 

In the service of Mark, Tristan killed Morald, the bridegroom of Isolde. Being severly wounded, Tristan was saved by Isolde herself. Tristan then asked her hand in marriage on behalf of his uncle Mark. When he fulfilled the condition of killing a dragon, Isolde reluctantly accompanied Tristan to Cornwall. On the journey they unwittingly drank a disastrous love potion which bound them together in frenzied passion. 

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“Sir Tristram and La Belle Yseult Drinking the Love Potion”,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882)

On Isolde’s wedding night with Mark, Isolde had her faithful maid Brangäne represent her and sacrifices her virginity to the king. Next followed the banishment of Tristan, Tristan’s attempts to regain his beloved, although he had meanwhile married another Isolde (“Isolde the White Hand,” of Brittany) who resembled his beloved “Isolde the Fair.” At last Tristan was again severely wounded. Only this time his beloved Isolde arrived too late to save him. 

A plainer version of the Tristan saga is found in the fairy tale “The True Bride,” quoted by Riklin from Rittershaus. In this story, the childless royal pair were much less affectionate. The king threatened to kill his wife unless she bears a child by the time of his return from his sea voyage. Seeing that sea voyages are long and the king was, apparently, rather stupid. The queen was secretly brought to him during his journey, by his zealous maid-servant, as the fairest of three promenading ladies, and the king took her into his tent without recognizing her. After sleeping with the king, the queen returned home without having been discovered. She then gave birth to a daughter, Isol, and died.

When she was older, Isol found a most beautiful little boy in a box by the seaside. The name of the boy was Tristram. Isol raised him and became engaged to him. The subsequent story, which contains the motif of the true bride, is noteworthy for present purposes only in so far as here again occurs the drink of oblivion, and two Isoldes. The king’s second wife gave a potion to Tristram which caused him to completely forget his Isol, leading him to marry Isota. However, he ultimately discovered the deception and became united with his Isol.

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Overall view of the so-called Tristante carpet, wall hanging, circa 1300, wool. Kloster Wienhausen at Celle, Germany.

Ask For Blessings, Wake Up Early and Don’t Travel too Far: Welcome to the New Year

There are three little messages that we pass along to each other in my family. One, spend a little time to pray around midnight to be grateful for the year that has passed and ask for blessings for the coming year. Two, if possible, despite perhaps the long night of partying, get up early in the first day of the New Year to watch the sunrise. Lastly, don’t travel long distance so near the major holidays. If one does need to travel, try to travel one or two weeks before 25 December at the latest and ideally wait for one or two weeks after the holidays to return. These are all ancient advice.

Nowruz is not only an ancient holiday that is still celebrated globally, it has the distinction of being one of the longest continually celebrated holiday in the world. Although there even records of it being celebrated in 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great, versions of the same celebration were also known to be observed 2,000 years earlier in the Kingdom of Aratta. 

Nowruz is traditionally observed on the day of the vernal equinox, when the coming of spring also heralds the new year. The first five days of the ancient Nowruz celebration were very public, then followed by a more reverent observance. On the thirteenth day of the festival, people would throw wheat grass into rivers and canals to throw away bad luck and misfortune.

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Passing lion, brick panel from the Procession Way which ran from the Marduk temple to the Ishtar Gate and the Akitu Temple. Glazed terracotta, reign of Nebuchadrezzar II (605 BC–562 BC), Babylon 

In Babylonia, the festival of Akitu honored Marduk and marked the beginning of the growing season. For the general population, the beginning of the festival meant a week of holidays and celebrations. The king would begin the festival by going to the temple of Nabu, where the priests presented him with a royal scepter reminding him of his responsibility. He then travelled to the city of Borsippa, where he spent the night participating in religious ceremonies in this city’s temple such as the re-enactment of their creation myths to remind him of his past and the past of his people. When the king returned to Babylonia, he would go to a temple and stripped off his weapons and royal regalia to approach his god with humility befit someone given their rule by a supreme deity.


Ebony label depicting the pharaoh Den, found in his tomb in Abydos, circa 3000 BC. Top register depicts the king running in his Heb Sed festival as well as seated on a throne. Lower register depicts the destruction of enemy strongholds and the taking of captives. EA 32650.
Hieroglyphs: The Sed festival area is framed on the right with a large Renpet hieroglyph.

The hieroglyph for the Egyptian word renpet (“year”)  is a woman wearing a palm shoot, symbolizing time, over her head. She was often referred to as the Mistress of Eternity. She also personified fertility, youth and spring. The New Year, Wepet Renpet (“the opening of the year”), was based on the annual flooding of the Nile River, an earthly cycle which also coincided with a heavenly cycle. Therefore, the New Year was marked with community feasting and a mix of hope and fear. To the ancient Egyptians, every year was potentially their last, because they didn’t know how the flood would impact them. The annual flood left behind rich deposits of silt, which fertilized crops to feed the entire country. Just the right amount of flooding assured a fruitful harvest – too little means famine, too much means destruction.

The festival for the annual flood celebrated the death and rebirth of Osiris and, by extension, the rejuvenation and rebirth of the land and the people. The legend behind this celebration was that the god Set and his accomplices murdered Osiris by drowning him in the river and dismembered him – scattering his limbs up and down the valley. Osiris’ death brought about the annual floods that brought life to the valley. It was then believed that Osiris arose from the dead, but needed the constant supplication of his devoted followers to strengthen his return. The priests mourned his death, prayed for his return and, at the moment of his resurrection, celebrated with dancing, singing, and feasting. Traditionally, young boys chosen for their exceptional beauty were thrown into the Nile to drown, just as Osiris had drowned, as a sacrifice for the benefit of the living. Those who drowned in the Nile were then considered to have become gods, especially if the water responded the following year with a flood.

Solemn rituals related to the death of Osiris were observed as well as singing and dancing to celebrate his rebirth. The call-and-response poem known as The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys was recited at the beginning to call Osiris to his feast.  

The lamentation is when the two goddess-sisters call the soul of Osiris to rejoin the living. The dual entreaties of the two sisters echoed each other in their attempts to symbolically revive Osiris. The best-preserved version of this work comes from the Berlin Papyrus dating to the Ptolemaic Dynasty (323 – 30 BCE) although the work itself is much older.

Another ancient Egyptian interpretation is that the New Year’s Day itself was also regarded as the birthday of the god Ra-Horakhety. The belief was that, on New Year’s day the sun was reborn and grew increasingly frail over the year’s final few months. This is another reason why the end of the year was considered dangerous. At the end of the year, the sun god was weak and vulnerable to attack from his enemies. If he were to be defeated, the New Year might never arrive.

Therefore, it was a time of great relief when the sun rose on New Year’s day, because the end of the world had been averted. People would then make offerings to Ra-Horakhety at sunrise, pour black ink into the Nile for the goddess Nut and the god Nun as a sign of gratitude, then cleansed themselves by bathing in the Nile. Afterwards, they wore their best clothes and went off to riotous banquets to celebrate their opportunity to see another year.

Another belief is to do with the fact that the Egyptian civil calendar consisted of 360 days, with five “extra” days added to the end. These five extra days were regarded as a dangerous, transitional time, when the goddess Sekhmet controlled twelve demonic murderers who travelled the earth shooting arrows from their mouths and cause plague wherever they went. To protect themselves, the ancient Egyptians performed rituals and wore charms around their necks to pacify Sekhmet, ensuring her protection instead of her wrath. This is similar to the Aztec calendar where the passing of the old year and the coming of the new were two very different sets of days. The last five days of the year were called nemontemi, and they were considered very dangerous days where dark spirits wander the land. People mostly stayed indoors, kept to themselves, and kept quiet to avoid attracting the attention of these spirits.

Sons of the Wolf: The Birth of Romulus and Remus, Founders of Rome

The twins Romulus and Remus were borne by Ilia, daughter of king Numitor, and the war-god Mars. They were condemned by King Amulius, the ruler of Alba, to be cast into the river. The king’s servants took the children and carried them from Alba as far as the Tiber on the Palatine Hill. However, when they tried to descend the hill to the river to carry out the command, they found that the river had risen and they were unable to reach its bed. They therefore thrust the tub which the children slept into the shallow water at the shore.

Wolf, Romulus And Remus, Sculpture, She-Wolf, Statue

The tub floated for a while before the water promptly receded. The tub then knocked against a stone and the screaming infants were thrown into the river mud. They were heard by a she-wolf. She  came and gave her teats to the boys to nurse them and, as they were drinking, she licked them clean with her tongue. A woodpecker flew above them to guard the children and bring them food. These were Mars’ doing as the wolf and the woodpecker are animals consecrated to him

La Louve (she-wolf) at the Grand Palace, Brussels, Belgium - Stierch.jpg

These odd happenings were seen by one of the royal herdsmen who was driving his pigs back to the pasture. Startled, he summoned his friends. They all made a loud noise to scare the wolf away, but the wolf was not afraid. Calmly ignoring the herdsmen, she disappeared into the wilderness of the forest. Meanwhile the men picked up the boys and carried them to the chief swineherd of the king, Faustulus, as they believed that the gods did not wish the children to die. But Faustulus’ wife had just given birth to a dead child and was full of sorrow. Faustulus gave her the twins to nurse and the couple raised the children. They named them them Romulus and Remus.

Evidently, the twin never forgotten the wolf. After Rome had been founded, king Romulus built himself a house not far from the place where his tub had stood. The gully in which the she-wolf had disappeared was renamed as the Lupercal (the Wolf’s Gully). The image of the she-wolf with the twins was subsequently erected at this spot and the she-wolf herself, the Lupa, was worshipped by the Romans as a divinity.

This saga later on underwent manifold transmutations, mutilations, additions, and interpretations. It is best known in the form transmitted by Livy, where we learn something about the fate of the twins: 

File:'Mars and the Vestal Virgin', oil on canvas painting by Jacques Blanchard, ca. 1630, Art Gallery of New South Wales.jpg

‘Mars and the Vestal Virgin’, oil on canvas painting by Jacques Blanchard, ca. 1630

King Proca bequeaths the royal dignity to his firstborn son, Numitor. But his younger brother, Amulius, pushes him from the throne, and becomes king himself. So that no scion from Numitor’s family may arise, as the avenger, he kills the male descendants of his brother. Rhea Silvia, the daughter, he elects as a vestal, and thus deprives her of the hope of progeny, through perpetual virginity as enjoined upon her under the semblance of a most honorable distinction. But the vestal maiden was overcome by violence, and having brought forth twins, she named Mars as the father of her illegitimate offspring, be it from conviction, or because a god appeared more creditable to her as the perpetrator of the crime. The narrative of the exposure in the Tiber goes on to relate that the floating tub, in which the boys had been exposed, was left on dry land by the receding waters, and that a thirsty wolf, attracted from the neighboring mountains by the children’s cries, offered them her teats. The boys are said to have been found by the chief royal herder, supposedly named Faustulus, who took them to the homestead of his wife, Larentia, where they were raised. Some believe that Larentia was called Lupa (“she-wolf”) by the herders because she offered her body, and that this was the origin of the wonderful saga.

Grown to manhood, the youths Romulus and Remus protect the herds against the attacks of wild animals and robbers. One day Remus is taken prisoner by the robbers, who accuse him of having stolen Numitor’s flocks. But Numitor, to whom he is surrendered for punishment, was touched by his tender age, and when he learned of the twin brothers, he suspected that they might be his exposed grandsons. While he was anxiously pondering the resemblance with the features of his daughter, and the boy’s age as corresponding to the time of the exposure, Faustulus arrived with Romulus, and a conspiracy was hatched when the descent of the boys had been learned from the herders. The youths armed themselves for vengeance, while Numitor took up weapons to defend his claim to the throne he had usurped. After Amulius had been assassinated, Numitor was reinstituted as the ruler, and the youths resolved to found a city in the region where they had been exposed and brought up. A furious dispute arose upon the question of which brother was to be the ruler of the newly erected city, for neither twin was favored by the right of primogeniture, and the outcome of the bird oracle was equally doubtful. The saga relates that Remus jumped over the new wall, to deride his twin, and Romulus became so much enraged that he slew his brother. Romulus then usurped the sole mastery, and the city was named Rome after him.

File:La lupa con Romolo e Remo di Domenico Parodi e Francesco Biggi (detail).png

Destiny Repeats: The Knight of the Swan and the Son of the Grain

The widely distributed group of sagas that have been woven around the mythical Knight of the Swan (the old French Chevalier au cigne) can be traced back to very ancient Celtic traditions. The following is the story of Lohengrin, the Knight of the Swan, as transmitted by the medieval German epic and briefly retold by the Grimm brothers under the title “Lohengrin in Brabant.” 

August von Heckel Lohengrin.jpg

Lohengrin (1886)

The Duke of Brabant and Limburg died, without leaving other heirs than a young daughter, Elsa. On his deathbed, he recommended her to one of his retainers, Friedrich von Telramund. Friedrich, the intrepid warrior, became emboldened to demand the young duchess’ hand in marriage as well as her lands under the false claim that she had promised to marry him. Of course, Elsa refused to do so. Not taking no for an answer, Friedrich then used his connections to complain to Emperor Henry the Fowler (876 – 936). The Emperor decreed that Elsa must defend herself against Friedrich through some proxy hero, in a so-called divine judgment, in which God would accord the victory to the innocent and defeat to the guilty. As no knight was willing to act for her, the young duchess prayed ardently to God to save her.

As Elsa prayed, the sound of the bell was heard far away in distant Montsalvatsch, in the Council of the Grail, showing that there was someone in urgent need of help. The Grail therefore decided to send Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal, as a rescuer. Just as Lohengrin was about to place his foot in the stirrup, a swan came floating down the water drawing a skiff behind him. As soon as Lohengrin set eyes on the swan, he exclaimed, “Take the steed back to the manger; I shall follow this bird wherever he may lead me.” Lohengrin did not take any food with him in the skiff. After they had been afloat five days, the swan dipped his bill in the water, caught a fish, ate one half of it, and gave the other half to Lohengrin to eat.

Meanwhile, Elsa had summoned her chieftains and retainers to a meeting in Antwerp. Precisely on the day of the assembly, a swan was sighted swimming upstream drawing a skiff behind him, in which Lohengrin lay asleep on his shield. The swan came to land at the shore and Lohengrin was joyfully welcomed. Right after he landed, the swan swam away again. Lohengrin heard of the wrong which had been done to the duchess and consented to become her champion.

Elsa then summoned all her subjects and relatives. A place was prepared in Mainz for Lohengrin and Friedrich to fight in the emperor’s presence. The hero of the Grail defeated Friedrich, who confessed having lied to the duchess and was executed. Elsa and Lohengrin became lovers and, within time, marry. However, Lohergin secretly insisted upon Elsa avoiding all questions about his ancestry, or he had come from, otherwise he would have to leave her instantaneously and she would never see him again.

For a time, the couple lived in peace and happiness. Lohengrin was a wise and mighty ruler of his land. He also served his emperor well in his expeditions. However, one day when he was throwing the javelin, Lohengrin knocked the Duke of Cleve from his horse, so that the latter broke an arm. The Duchess of Cleve spoke out amongst the women angrily, “Lohengrin may be brave enough, but what a pity that he is not noble as no one knows whence he has come floating to this land.” These words pierced Elsa’s heart. At night, Elsa wept. Her husband asked her, “What is the matter, Elsa?” She answered, “The Duchess of Cleve has caused me sore pain.” Lohengrin could guess what happened, but he was silent and did not ask any more questions. On the second night, the same thing happened again. On the third night, Elsa could no longer control herself, and she asked, “Lord, do not chide me! I wish to know, for our children’s sake, where you were born, for my heart tells me that you are of high rank.” When the sun rose, Lohengrin made a public declaration about where he had come from, that Parsifal was his father and God had sent him from the Grail. He then asked for his children, kissed them and told them to take good care of his horn and sword which he would leave behind. To his wife, he left a little ring which his mother had given him. Then his friend the swan came. Lohengrin crossed the water, back to the service of the Grail. Elsa sank down in a faint.She wept and mourned the rest of her life for her beloved husband who never came back to her. Remembering Lohengrin’s service to the empire, the empress resolved to keep his son (also named Lohengrin) for his father’s sake, and to bring him up as her own child.

The fate of the younger Lohengrin was similar to his father. The infant Lohengrin floated in a vessel upon the sea and was carried ashore by a swan. After his father left, the empress adopted him as her son. He grew up to become a hero. Having married a noble maiden of the land, he forbade her to ask about his origin. When the command was broken, the younger Lohengrin also revealed his miraculous descent and divine mission, after which the swan carried him back in his skiff to the Grail.

File:Beowulf face to face with fire-breathing Dragon.jpg

Beowulf face to face with fire-breathing Dragon

The characteristic features of the Lohengrin saga–the disappearance of the divine hero in the same mysterious fashion in which he has arrived; the transference of mythical motifs from the life of the older hero to a younger one bearing the same name are likewise embodied in the Anglo-Lombard saga of Sceaf, who reappears in the Prelude to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, the oldest Teutonic epic. Here, he is called Scyld the Scefung (“son of Sceaf”). The older legend says that he received his name because as a very young boy he was cast ashore, as a stranger, asleep in a boat on a sheaf of grain (Anglo-Saxon: sceaf) . The waves of the sea carried him to the coast of the country he was destined to defend. The inhabitants welcomed his arrival as a miracle, raised him, and later on made him their king, considering him a divine emissary. His story also repeated itself in his son, also called Scyld. His body was exposed, as he had ordered before his death, surrounded by kingly splendor, upon a ship without a crew, which is sent out into the sea. Thus he vanished in the same mysterious manner in which his father arrived ashore, this trait being accounted for, in analogy with the Lohengrin saga, by the mythical identity of father and son.

Wheat Field, Wheat, Cereals, Grain, Cornfield, Sunset

Sargon, Karna and Ion: Hidden Sons of Virgin Mothers

Sargon of Akkad.jpg

Bronze head of a king of the Old Akkadian dynasty, most likely representing either Naram-Sin or Sargon of Akkad. 

Probably the oldest transmitted hero myth we know is from the period of the foundation of Babylonia (circa 2800 BC). It concerns the birth history of its founder, Sargon of Akkad.  He was best known for his conquests of the Sumerian city-states in the 24th to 23rd centuries BC. The Sumerian king list makes him the cup-bearer to king Ur- Zababa of Kish. Sargon appears as a legendary figure in Neo-Assyrian literature of the 8th to 7th centuries BC. Tablets with fragments of a Sargon Birth Legend were found in the Library of Ashurbanipal.

The story is translated as follows:

“Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade, am I.

My mother was a vestal, my father I knew not, while my father’s brother dwelt in the mountains.

In my city Azuripani, which is situated on the bank of the Euphrates,

my mother, the vestal, bore me. In a hidden place she brought me forth.

She laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch,

and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me.

The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier.

Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart,

Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son,

Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener.

In my work as a gardener I was beloved by Ishtar, I became the king,

and for forty-five years I held kingly sway.”

A rather similar story to the Sargon legend is also shown in certain features of the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata in its account of the birth of the hero Karna. Karna’s story goes roughly like this:

A Yadava dynasty king named Surasena had a beautiful young virgin daughter named Pritha (later Kunti). As tradition had it, a rishi – Vedic scholar and seer – named Durvasa visited the king for a lengthy stay, who housed him as his palace guest. The king asked Pritha to personally ensure that the sage Durvasa’s stay was comfortable. Princess Pritha did her best, and Durvasa was delighted with his stay and her diligent services. Before leaving, Durvasa thanked her and gave her the Siddha mantra telling her that if she ever wants, she can use that mantra to call any god she desires as her lover.

Pritha became curious and wondered if the mantra would really work. Therefore, on one beautiful morning, as the golden sun rose, to explore, she called the sun god Surya. He came with a golden glow, dressed up in jewelry and breastplate. Surya impregnates her. Karna is thus the child of the princess and the Surya. After their consummation, the god Surya grants her the wish that after Karna’s birth she will regain her virginity.

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 statue of Karna fighting Ghatothkacha taken in Bali, Indonesia

Pritha hid her pregnancy. Later, the adaptation of the myth by A. Holtzmann, verse 1458 reads: “Then my nurse and I made a large basket of rushes, placed a lid thereon, and lined it with wax; into this basket I laid the boy and carried him down to the river Acva.” Floating on the waves, the basket reaches the river Ganges and travels as far as the city of Campa. “There was passing along the bank of the river, the charioteer, the noble friend of Dhritarashtra, and with him was Radha, his beautiful and pious spouse. She was wrapt in deep sorrow, because no son had been given to her. On the river she saw the basket, which the waves carried close to her on the shore; she showed it to Azirath, who went and drew it forth from the waves.” The couple then raised the boy as their own son. 

Later, Karna went to school in Hastinapura. He studied martial arts under the sages Drona, Kripa and Parashurama. However, he was often subjected to ridicule by his peers for being the son of a poor family. The boy Karna came to be known for his solitary habits, hard work, pious yoga before dawn every day, compassion and eager generosity to help anyone in need.

Kunti went on to marry King Pandu, who was forced to refrain from conjugal intercourse as he was cursed to die in the arms of his spouse. As her husband could not give her children, Kunti bore three sons again through divine conception. Years later, at a tournament, Karna appears to measure his strength against Arjuna, the third son of Kunti. Arjuna scoffingly refused to fight the charioteer’s son. In order to make him a worthy opponent, one of those present anoints Karna as king. Kunti later  recognized Karna as her son by the divine mark on his body and revealed to him the secret of his birth.

File:Arjuna Karna final battle, Kurukshetra war, 12th-century Mahabharata relief, Hoysalesvara temple Halebidu.jpg

Arjuna Karna final battle, Kurukshetra war, 12th-century Mahabharata relief, Hoysalesvara temple Halebidu

A striking resemblance to the entire structure of the Karna legend is presented by the birth history of Ion, the ancestor of the Ionians. Apollo, in the grotto of the rock of the Athenian Acropolis, procreated a son with the virgin Creusa, the daughter of Erechtheus. In this grotto the boy was also born. Creusa left the child behind in a woven basket in the hope that Apollo would not leave his son to die. At Apollo’s request, Hermes carried the boy that same night to Delphi, where the priestess finds him on the threshold of the temple in the morning. She raised the boy as her own and, when he has grown into a youth, made him a servant of the temple. Erechtheus later gave his daughter Creusa in marriage to Xuthus. As their marriage produced no child, the couple went to the Delphian oracle, praying to be blessed with a child. Apolo revealed to Xuthus that the first boy to meet him on leaving the sanctuary was his son. Xuthus hastened outside and met the youth, whom he joyfully greeted as his own son, giving him the name Ion, which means “walker.” However, Creusa refused to accept the youth as her son. She tried to poison him, but her attempt failed and the infuriated people turned against her. Ion was about to attack her, but Apollo, who did not wish his son to kill his own mother, enlightened the mind of the priestess so that she understood the connection. The priestess took the basked in which Ion was born to Creusa. Creusa recognized him as her son and revealed to him the secret of his birth.

File:DSC04511 Istanbul - Museo archeol. - Apollo citaredo, sec. II dC - da Mileto - Foto G. Dall'Orto 28-5-2006.jpg

Statue of Apollo kitharoidos (“who plays the kithara”) 2nd century AD