|Scalloway Fire Festival (2014). Source: ft.com|
Something that has long puzzled me about Germanic polytheism is the apparent absence of the worship of a God or Goddess of fire. Fire must have been an integral aspect of ancient and medieval Germanic life and in many other Pagan religions is accorded due reverence. That ancient Germanic Heathenry shared this characteristic is suggested by Julius Caesar who, in one of the earliest historical descriptions of the Germanic people, specifically mentions that fire was, along with the sun and the moon, highly revered by the Germanic tribesmen he came into contact with. So why is this great Germanic God of fire so seemingly elusive to us now?
What has survived from the myths of the Norsemen puts forth three of the more obvious candidates:
- Surt – a powerful and destructive giant from Muspellsheim, the realm of fire; it is prophesised that he will ride out as leader against the Gods at Ragnarok with a weapon that shines like the sun and, after defeating the foremost God of fertility (Freyr), he will burn the world; this final act of destruction is necessary in order for the renewed earth, renewed men and renewed Gods to emerge from the ashes of the old.
- Logi – a giant whose name literally means “fire”; he is most famous for outdoing Loki in an eating contest; for fire consumes more swiftly than man or God. Snorri Sturluson tells us that “the one called Logi was wildfire itself” (The Prose Edda). Arguably, Logi could be considered to be Surt by another name, or as one who manifests from the same destructive fiery realm.
- Loki – a powerful deity associated with deceit and dishonour. The belief that he is a fire deity is popular among some contemporary Heathens. He is prominent in Norse mythology even though there is no evidence of his worship among Norse people. Cambridge scholar H R Ellis Davidson aptly describes him as “a kind of semi-comic shaman, half way between God and hero, yet with a strong dash of the jester element” (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe). Sometimes his wiles are amusing, other times they are malevolent. He is strongly associated with the events of Ragnarok, for he is the father of the Fenriswolf (destined to kill Odin), the Midgard serpent (destined to kill Thor) and Hel, who rules over the realm where those who have died of disease or old age go (but from where the beloved God Baldr will emerge after Ragnarok). Loki himself is destined to kill and be killed by Heimdall, who watches over and guards the Gods. Loki is thus like Surt in the sense that he is, despite his oftentimes sinister and destructive nature, an integral player in the life-death-rebrith process signified by the events of Ragnarok. It is said that a “ship journeys from the east, Muspell's people are coming over the waves, and Loki steers” (The Poetic Edda). Whether or not these things are enough to establish him as a fire deity is ambiguous. Relatedly, in the nineteenth century the notion that Loki and Logi are in fact the same deity arose, partly due to the similarities in the pronunciation in their names. However the very facts of the myth surrounding Logi seem to contradict this notion, for how could Logi defeat Loki if they are but the same being? While Loki's destructive affinity with Surt and perhaps Logi may hint at confirming his nature as a fire God it is nowhere made explicit that Loki has a fiery nature, despite the extensive number of references to him in medieval Germanic literature. Davidson notes that “Loki does not behave like a fire spirit, and indeed seems to be as much at home in the water as on the earth, so that some scholars have even tried to see him as a water spirit” (ibid). Loki is a fascinating deity, but there just isn't enough compelling evidence to establish him as a fire God. In any case, even if he is a fire deity, he can be of little assistance to mankind, for according to myth Loki is currently undergoing torment in that cave where the Gods are said to have tied him down as retributive punishment for his role in bringing about the death of Baldr. It is said that Loki is bound with the entrails of one of his children, and his face rests immediately below a venomous snake who continually drops poison onto his face – most of the time his wife holds out a bowl to catch the venom, but when the venom falls on him he convulses so violently that the earth shakes.
The deities above are principally associated with destruction; none sounds like a God to give comfort, such as fire must of done, when it warmed the home and cooked the family meal. Much less so can we imagine Surt, Logi or Loki as Gods of ritual and sacrificial fire. At best Surt and Logi (and possibly Loki) are forces of nature to be propitiated as representations of fire in its most violent form. Is there not a more benevolent Germanic God of fire?
Indo-European fire Gods
|"The Punishment of Loki" by Penrose (c.1912)|
- Roman and Hellenic – fire is associated with: (1) Vesta, the inviolate Goddess of protecting hearthfire and ritual fire, and (2) Vulcan, God of raging flames, as well as destructive and creative (smithing) fire. Note that the situation is identical in Greek polytheism, only the names are different – Hellenic polytheists call Vesta “Hestia” and Vulcan “Hephaestus”. There is also (3) fiery Apollo, God of the sun and its healing light. There is also another God associated with fire in a less obvious way: (4) Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks), the great God of the sky.* In Greek myth Zeus withholds fire from mankind, until Prometheus (a trickster God of fire in Hellenic polytheism) steals it for the use of our species; this story suggests a primordial connection between Zeus and fire, or at the very least that fire was thought to originally come from the heavens. Some believe that Loki may be a Germanic Prometheus – at the very least the nature of divine retribution visited upon them is similar. Prometheus is said to have been nailed to a mountain where an eagle would continually eat his liver; instead of dying his liver would continually replenish to endure fresh torment. However, it is said that Prometheus was eventually rescued from ongoing divine torment by Hercules (Herakles to the Greeks).
- Celtic – Bel or Belenus (meaning “shining” or “brilliant”) is the main Celtic fire God that we know of; he was apparently widely worshipped by ancient Celts and associated with protection and purification. Beltane, a fire festival traditionally held on 1 May, was associated with him. On this day cattle would walk between two bonfires in a magical rite that was thought to ward off disease.
- Slavic and Baltic – it is unclear (to me) who the Slavic / Baltic God or Gods of fire are but it seems that whoever this God is he is also associated with storms, thunder and lightning; lightning may thus be interpreted as an important manifestation of fire.
- Vedic / ancient Indian – Agni (meaning “fire” in Sanskrit; cognate with the English “ignite”) was a major God in Vedic India and is unequivocally a fire God par excellence. He incorporates all of the aspects of the Roman God and Goddess of fire (Vulcan and Vesta respectively), including the purifying features associated with Vesta, as well as the Celtic Belenus. He also has associations with the fire of Surya (the Vedic Apollo) and the lightning of Indra (Vedic Jupiter).
In Agni it is as if a light is shone on the ancient Indo-European understanding of divinised fire and so it may be instructive to look at him more closely. According to tradition Agni has ten forms (see hinduwebsite.com and decodehindumythology.blogspot.com):
- Ordinary fire.
- Sacrificial / ritual fire, produced by rubbing sticks.
- Initiation fire, at a child's coming of age ceremony.
- Fire kept in the house for domestic rituals.
- Fire from lightning.
- Fire of the sun.
- Fire associated with ancestors ("southern fire").
- Funeral fire – used during cremation.
- Digestive fire – the most potent of all fires.
- Destructive fire (forest fire, fire that is going to consume the world at the end of creation and so on).
All the features of the known fire deities of the major polytheisms of Europe seem to be combined in this one great fire God of ancient India; so perhaps by understanding the characteristics of Agni we can gain an insight into the understanding the Germanic perception of divinised fire. In Agni we see that fire is not just the destructive fire of Surt and Logi but also the fire of the home, the religious ritual, the sun and of lightning. We do know who the Germanic deities of the sun and lightning are; are they thus also deities of fire?
* Note that in On the Nature of the Universe (1st century BCE) Lucretius writes "fire was first brought to earth for mortal men by lightning. From this every flame has spread" (bk 5).
* Note that in On the Nature of the Universe (1st century BCE) Lucretius writes "fire was first brought to earth for mortal men by lightning. From this every flame has spread" (bk 5).
The Germanic sun as a fire Goddess
|Sol / Sunna. Source: thechosenites.wordpress.com|
Just as Agni is associated with both the sun and fire, perhaps so too is the Germanic sun deity – Sol, also called Sunna, a Goddess representing the sun. According to Norse mythology, when the Gods created the universe as we know it:
“they took the embers and sparks shooting out of Muspellsheim [the realm of fire] and flying randomly. These they placed in the middle of the … sky, both above and below, to light up heaven and earth. They fixed places for all these burning elements. Some were placed up in the heavens, whereas for others, which had moved about under the heavens, they found places and established their courses. It is said in the old sources that, from then on, times of day were differentiated and the course of years was set. So it is said in The Sibyl’s Prophecy: ‘Sun did not know where she had her home. Moon did not know what strength he had. The stars did not know where their places were’ [The Prose Edda].”
This places the Sun as the child of fire. Snorri Sturluson tells another version of the creation of the sun in which she (Sol) and the Moon (Mani) were originally the beautiful children of a man whom the Gods punished for their father’s hubris.
“they made the Sun drive the horses that drew the chariot of the sun, which the Gods, in order to illuminate the worlds, had created from burning embers flying from Muspellsheim [The Prose Edda].”
Either way, Sol is clearly associated with the fires of Muspellsheim, though the latter myth has a darker aspect – for it is said that a monstrous wolf perpetually chases Sol and will eventually catch and kill her. However:
“The Sun will have had a daughter no less beautiful than she, and this daughter will follow the path of her mother. As it says here: ‘One daughter is born to Alfrodul [Sun] before Fenrir [the wolf] destroys her. When the Gods die this maid shall ride her mother’s paths’ [The Prose Edda].”
If we want to explore Germanic attitudes to the sun a little more deeply then we can look to the Rune known as “Sowilo” (the sun). An Old English Rune Poem, cited by Pollington in Rudiments of Runelore, says of this Rune:
“Sun to seamen is always a hope / when they travel over the fish’s bath / until the sea-steed brings them to land.”
Pollington also cites a Norwegian Rune Poem as stating:
“(sun) is the light of lands: I bow to holy judgment.”
And he cites an Icelandic Rune Poem as follows:
“(sun) is the clouds’ shield and a blazing ray and ice’s destroyer.”
The sun was also associated with the swastika – an ancient Indo-European symbol long associated with auspiciousness. Equally though, the swastika may also be associated with thunder:
“The swastika, or hooked cross … was very popular among the heathen Germans, and appears to have been associated with the symbol of fire. There may be some connection between it and the sun-wheel, well known in the Bronze Age, or it may have arisen from the use of the hammer or axe to represent thunder, which was accompanied by fire from heaven. Thor was the sender of lightning and the God who dealt out both sunshine and rain to men, and it seems likely that the swastika as well as the hammer sign was connected with him [Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe].”
Thor as a fire God
|"Thor's Battle" by Winge (1872)|
The quotation from Davidson, immediately above, suggests that Thor has an association with fire, the author (a respected Cambridge scholar) fleshes out this assertion in the same book at 77-79:
“One of Thor’s most enthusiastic worshippers described in the sagas was Thorolf Mostrarskegg … when life grew difficult on account of the tyranny of Harald Fairhair, he consulted Thor as to whether he should leave [Norway] for Iceland. The reply was evidently favourable, for he took down Thor’s shrine, packed its high-seat pillars and most of the timber from it on his ship … When he reached Iceland, he flung the high seat pillars overboard and landed at the point where they washed ashore. There he marked out the plot of land where he would live, and where he meant to rebuild Thor’s temple. He went round the borders of the new estate with fire, and then began building his own house and a mighty sanctuary for his divine friend. The temple … had pillars, with ‘God-nails’ in them …
Here … we have emphasis on the importance of the high-seat pillars. In Scandinavian halls these were carved wooden pillars flanking the seat of honour, and we see from this and other passages that they also stood in Thor’s temple … It seems likely that a figure of Thor himself was sometimes carved on these pillars …
A possible clue to the significance of such nails is found in seventeenth-century accounts of heathen religion among the Lapps. They are said to have kept an image of the thunder God in the form of a rude block of wood, with a man’s head carved at the top, and two sticks for arms, one holding a mallet. Scheffer says: ‘Into his head they drive a nail of iron or steel, and a small piece of flint to strike fire with, if he hath a mind to it.’
If the nails in the pillar were indeed used for the ritual kindling of fire, we might see an explanation of the strange myth about the duel between Thor and Hrungnir the giant … The giant was armed with a whetstone and a stone shield. When Thor appeared with thunder and lightning, he hurled his hammer at Hrunggnir while the giant hurled the whetstone at him. The whetstone was smashed to pieces, and one small piece remained in Thor’s head, and is said to be there still.
Such a fantastic incident must either be based on obscure poetic imagery or on ritual practice … The strange fact of the whetstone being left in Thor’s head might be explained by the Lapp practice of using the head of the thunder God as a source of fire. The whetstone of the giant, encountering the iron hammer of the God, would be equivalent to the kindling of fire with flint and steel, and this in turn represented the flash of lightning.
Association of fire with Thor’s temple is made in a late saga … Here the temple is described in the usual way, but it is also stated that the altar was made of iron on top: ‘This was the place for the fire which was never allowed to go out. This they called the sacred fire.’
… It is probable … that the association between Thor and fire was a genuine one. It was with fire that Thorolf went round his land, claiming it in the name of the God, and there is some reason to believe that the fires of cremation might be connected with Thor as well as with Odin. There is evidence that a perpetual fire burned in the temple of the thunder God of the old Prussians, within an oak sanctuary. Thor’s power over lightning, the fire from heaven, must not be forgotten … [Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe].”
There are other things that seem to confirm Thor’s fiery nature. At Baldr’s funeral it is said that Thor blessed the cremation pyre as it started to burn:
“Thor stood up and blessed the pyre with Mjollnir [his hammer]. A dwarf named Lit ran in front of his feet. Thor kicked the dwarf with his foot; it landed in the fire and burned to death [The Prose Edda].”
Then in the Thrymskvida (Thrym’s Poem) within The Poetic Edda it is said of Thor’s eyes “It seems to me that fire is burning from them.” Likewise, Thor is traditionally described as having red hair and a red beard – which may be easily associated with fire.
Germanic Gods of fire
So we have the fire of Muspellsheim, which seems to be associated with a number of deities:
- It is the world of Surt, from which the sun, the moon and the stars are created, but which will ultimately devour and destroy the universe at the time of Ragnarok in a life-death-rebirth cycle.
- The wildfire of Logi which consumes and devours – he may or may not be from Muspellsheim.
- Then there is the indeterminate Loki who seems to have connections with the fiery realm of Muspellsheim, while resembling in some ways the deceptive Hellenic fire God Prometheus.
- We also have Sol, who is created, or at least propelled, from the fires of Muspellsheim – she is the bringer of light and hope and the destroyer of deadly ice. Is she also a domestic and ritual fire Goddess, such as the Roman Vesta? I know of no evidence that could confirm this proposition.
- Finally, we have Thor who through his lightning brings heavenly fire to the realm of men and women, and in whose temples fire should burn perpetually, as with the fire of the Vedic Agni and the Roman Vesta.
Conclusion – Thor is awesome
|"Thor" by hellanim.deviantart.com|
“Thor is the foremost among … the Aesir … he is the strongest of all Gods and men … [and owner of] the hammer Mjollnir. Frost giants and mountain giants recognise it when it is raised in the air, which is not surprising as it has cracked many a skull among their fathers and kinsmen [The Prose Edda]”.
It seems so apposite that frost giants are specifically mentioned in this passage – here winter’s cold is seemingly conceived of as a family of powerful giants. Who ya gonna call? Thor!
- Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, Penguin Classics
- B Cuncliffe, The Ancient Celts, Penguin
- H R Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin
- H R Ellis Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology, Paul Hamlyn
- C Larrington (trans), The Poetic Edda, Oxford
- S Pollington, Rudiments of Runelaw, Anglo-Saxon Books
- Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, Penguin Classics