Tuesday, December 3, 2013

What did the Vikings and Saxons call the Stars?

by Richard Denning

Image from Timothy Stephany's Myths, Mysteries and Wonders site

The Norse and Anglo- Saxons looked at the world in a way very different to the mythology that was developed by the Greeks and Romans. Most of the constellations in our night sky have derived their modern names from the Greek myths. Yet the ancestors of those of us from England and Scandinavia had totally different names for the shapes formed by the stars above us.

The English kept only very scanty written records before they converted to Christianity and at the same time came into greater contact with the Roman Catholic world. That world changed dramatically many aspects of our culture, and this applies to the stars as to other areas of life. Thus by the time the English are writing things down in Alfred the Great’s era, they had abandoned the former names and stories.

The Norse- Viking world is different. Written documents survive in greater numbers, and because the Norse peoples did not convert until much later (even as late as the 12th century) their names for stars and constellations survive. The English shared a common mythology so we can assume that these same names – or very similar is what the English also used.

The Origins of the Stars

The Edda was a book of Icelandic-Norwegian legends and in it there is a passage saying where the norse believed stars came from.

"Then they (the gods) took the sparks and burning embers that were flying about after they had been blown out of Muspellheimr, and placed them in the midst of the firmament both above and below to give light heaven and earth. They gave their stations to all the fires, some fixed in the sky, some moved in a wandering course beneath the sky, but they appointed them places and ordained their courses."

Muspellheimr is the one of the Norse worlds where fire spirits lived.

Names of constellations

Friggerock (Frigg’s distaff)– A distaff was part of spinning equipment and was seen as the three stars in Orion’s belt. What we see as a sword hanging from that belt was seen as the spindle. The goddess Frigga is often depicted with a spinning wheel.

Thiassi’s Eyes– this consists of two Gemini stars Castor and Pollux, that are side by side of equal brightness resembling two eyes, reaching their peak in the sky at midnight in January. Thiassi was the name of a frost giant and father of Skandi goddess of winter.

Dain – Dain was the name of one of the deer who lived in the World Tree. The bright star Vega is its eye, and the four Lyra stars form its antler.

Dvalin– Another of the deer constellations, Much of the constellation  Cepheus make up the deer with the North Star its rear foot.

Durathror Yet another deer made from much of the Perseus collection.

Ratatosk – the squirrel constellation. Formed from Cassiopeia.

Eagle – the eagle constellation  is how the Norse saw Cygnus the Swan.

Nidhogg– This is the constellation of the serpent who lived and gnawed at the roots of the world tree Yggdrasill’s. The constellation we today call Scorpius, was Nidhogg.

The Wagon or Hellewagen was formed by the modern Great Bear/ Plough/ Big Dipper. It was seen as a wagon maybe carrying the dead and probably was seen as Woden’s wagon.

Loki’s Torch – This was the bright star Sirius.


blóðstjarna  - or bloody star was probably the Norse name for Mars whilst Venus was called either  morgunstjarna (morning star) or Friggjarstjarna Frigg’s star.

There is a lot of guess work about exactly which stars were called what but these fragments that survive give us a glimpse of people who did exactly what we do – look up and make pictures and shapes in the night sky and then give them names.

There is more on this subject at Timothy Stephany's Myths, Mysteries and Wonders site


Richard Denning is a historical fiction and fantasy author. His main period is the Early Anglo-Saxon era in which he sets his Northern Crown and Nine Worlds Series of novels.


  1. It's still called Grosser Wagen (great wagon) in Germany.

    1. Really? That is interesting. Any other constellations that still have the Germanic rather than Greek names?

    2. In Denmark, Hellewagen is called Karlsvognen, With Karl being an old word for farmhand. Compare old norse Huskarl/Housecarl, the household warriors/bodyguard of a king or nobleman.

  2. Just shows we all see the same but perceive it differently. Fascinating. Did the Norsemen try to tell the future with the stars too?

    1. good question. I will have to check, They certainly used runesticks.

  3. Hello, great Job on the names of the Nordic constellations.
    I am afraid the star chart you used, has some flaws (I know, you didn't create it). In Timothy Stephany's map, the Hellewagen which should be in Ursa Major is actually in Pegasus. Ursa Major is on the opposite side of Cassiopeia, if you use the North Star as the center. Thus, the Hellewagen is where Timothy Stephany put Duneyr.
    Duneyr is the fourth of the four deer living in the Tree of Yggdrasil. Since you did not mention that deer in your constellation list, I don't think it is where Timothy Stephany put it.
    Still, I love your descriptions of the constellations!


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