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Monday, May 2, 2016

Prayers to the Sun

The sun arose from the south
Along with the moon
Her right hand cast over heaven's rim;
No knowledge she had, of where her home should be,
The stars knew not, where their places were.
The moon knew not of what might he possessed.
Edvard Munchs The Sun, painted for the University aula in Oslo, 1909-1916

The stanza from Völuspá (eng. "Prophecy of the Volva") tells a great deal about the old northerner perception of the sun, moon and stars as manifestations of the foremost of all natural forces. Chances are, it also describes the Nordic summer night, the time of year in which the sun does not set. After a long winter, it is the sun which initiates the imminent unfolding of Mother Nature, full of life-giving abilities! Besides the celebration of Christmas, it is the feasts connected to the coming of spring and summer that has occupied the Nordic lands to the greatest extent. The old custom of greeting the sun was reviewed already during the 6th century by historian Procopius of Caesarea – and while other cultures have erected high temples in honor of the sun, our Nordic ancestors had their own humble ways of worshiping this revitalizing deity, dependent on its mercy as they were.

Among the pagan Northmen, the original celebration and the sacrifice to the gods began with “the very first day of summer”, April 25th, to ensure the king his victory on their sea campaigns. They believed that at this time, the aesir had won over the winter demon Tjatse (eng. Thiazi), therefore calling this sacrifice for sigersblòt (eng. “victory feast”).

In the old agricultural society however, spring Festival began already with the Mass of Saint Gregory on March 12th, when the mere daylight had become sufficient enough for one not to have to light candles inside. The spring equinox on March 21st, when våronna (“spring work”) was at hand, day and night had grown equally long. This was also the time when the hens finally began to lay eggs after a long and dark winter, and chickens soon began to hatch. In the really old days, people buried eggs in the field at the spring equinox, in order to improve the chances of a good harvest, because the egg was believed to symbolize fertility and life – its vitality could thus be transferred to the field. As the ancient spring festival was fused with the Christian Easter celebrations, the egg in turn became the symbol of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and Virgin Mary often assumed the characteristics and roles of the Norse fertility divinities Freyr and Freyja. Sigersblòtet was renamed Markusmesse (eng. "Feast of Saint Mark"), and priest and commoners walked in procession with pictures of saints and relics around the cultivated fields to ensure a good harvest. Easter Morning, all over Norway it was told that the sun was “dancing over the mountain tops”, joyful at the resurrection of Christ. Whoever was lucky enough to see this dance, would be blessed with good fortune for the rest of their life.

Like most other deities, however, the sun could also be both moody and uncooperative. To inspire its benevolence just before its pending return, people therefore smeared butter in the roof vent over the open hearth; the intention was to offer the sun a treat after the long absence, in order to gain back its strength. It was also believed that sunlight had the power to eliminate all kinds of witchcraft and devilry. If one had suspected that the baby lying in the cradle was a bytting (eng. "changeling"), a baby troll placed there by the subterraneans as a substitute for the human child, one could make use of the sun in order to win back the kidnapped infant. Easter morning, the changeling should be held naked up towards the sun; the mother of the baby troll would then give in, and return the rightful child back to its parents.

Solbønner (eng. “prayers to the sun”) have long been performed to inspire the sunshine. This tradition might be old, yet it remains still of great value, and has been given new implications through the ages. How long this particular solbønn has been performed by young shepherd boys and girls in Norway, nobody knows. Yet, a prayer for the sun it has surely been, for warm days and sunny weather – one can only imagine, that this little song might have brought a sense a comfort for those far astray into the woods, always in need for some help from above.

May the sun shine
Over the little children of mine,
Over hills, over trees,
Over people, over cattle,
Over land and meadows,
Over house and home and over the silk bed of virgin Mary 

Did you know?

Consecration cross, on interior wall of
mediaeval Slidredomen church,
Vestre Slidre, Norway (wikimedia commons)

In earlier times, humans imagined the sun as a wheel that rolls over the firmament of the heaven. The sun wheel or sun cross was therefore a well-known and widely used symbol, partly as ornament and as jewelry. It simply shows - like the Swastika - the sun in motion. The symbol was also used as protection against evil forces, and solar crosses was inscribed upon on all sorts of utensils, butter, cheese and bread, over the stable door and cattle stalls. Between 1933 and 1945 however, the Nazis unfortunately made use of several of these symbols, and vandalized their original connotations previously associated with both the symbol and its history.

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      • Per Holck (1993). Merkedager og gamle skikker. Cappelen: Gjøvik  
      • Internet Sacred Texts. The Poetic Edda, vol. 1 “Lays of the Gods”, by Henry Adams Bellows (1936). URL:   
      • Finn Stefánsson. "Helleristinger", i Nordisk Mytologi. Gjengitt i Gyldendals Store Danske Leksikon. URL:  
      • Kristoffer Visted og Hilmar Stigum (1971). Vår gamle bondekultur. 3. utgave, bind 2. J.W. Cappelens forlag: Oslo

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