Category Archives: Fate
Etymology: Kore – “The Maiden” or “The Girl”, Persephone – pherein phonon, “to bring (or cause) death”, Destroy-Slay
Alternate Spellings & Other Names: Περσεφόνη, Kore, Core, Cora, Nestis, Persephonê, Persephneia (Homeric), Persephoneiê, Periphona, Persephassa, Persephatta, Phersephassa, Pherepaha, Phersephatta, Pherrephatta, Juno Inferna, Auerna, and Stygia
Epithets: Goddess of the Underworld, Queen of the Underworld
Persephone has a number of epithets that show her dual role as a chthonic and vegetation goddess. In other words, a life and death goddess. The poetic names for Persephone display her role as a Queen of the Underworld with the power to bring forth life and to take it away back to the earth. Persephone’s name of Kore, shows her role as a vegetation goddess in Arcadia where she was worshiped as Despoinia, an ancient chthonic goddess.
As an Underworld goddess, Persephone is given euphemistic, friendly names as some people were afraid to draw her attention to them. It’s possible that names are also the names of an original, local goddess. Some of these names are: Despoina (Dems-potnia), “the Mistress” in Arcadia. This name means: “Mistress of the House.”
Other names are: Aristi Cthnia, “the Best Chthonic,” Hagne, “Pure,” this is the original name of a goddess of springs in Messenia. Melinda or Melinoia (from meli “Honey”) in her role as the wife of Hades in Hermione, the names: Melivial and Melitodes. “the Pure One”, “the Maiden,” and “the Venerable One” to give a few others.
The Orphic Hymn to Persephone identifies her as Praxidike, the Subterranean Queen, the Eumenides’ source or mother, fair-haired, whose frame proceeds from Zeus’ ineffable and secret seeds.”
In her role as a vegetation goddess, she was called: Kore, “the Maiden,” Kore Soteira, “the Savior Maiden” in Megalopolis, Neotera, “the Younger” in Eleusis, Kore of Demeter Hagne in Homeric Hymns and Kore Memagmeni, “the Mixed Daughter” or bread.
With her mother Demeter, they were called: The Goddesses, often as “the older” and “the younger” in Eleusis. Demeters in Rhodes and Sparta, The Thesmophoroi or “the legislators” in Thesmophoria, The Great Goddesses, The two Demeters, The two Goddesses and The Mistresses in Arcadia and Karpophoroi or “the bringers of fruit” in Tegea, Arcadia.
Persephone is known as the Queen of the Underworld and wife to Hades. She is best known for the story of her abduction by Hades from her mother Demeter and being brought down to the Underworld to marry him for the Greek explanation and story for the origin of the seasons.
Month: January, May
Patron of: the Underworld, Spring, Flowers, Vegetation
Plant: Flowers, Pomegranate, Seeds of Grain
Sphere of Influence: Fertility, New Growth
Symbols: Cornucopia, Torch
Early Greek Depictions
The earliest depictions of a goddess that can be identified with Persephone show her growing up out of the ground. This image is found on a plate from the Old-Palace period in Phaistos. This goddess is plant-like in appearance and she is surrounded by dancing girls and blossoming flowers. In Minoan ring of Isopata, there is a similar image of this plant-like goddess.
In Classical Greek art, Persephone is typically shown wearing a robe and carrying a sheaf of grain. Sometimes she is shown carrying a scepter and a small box. More often though, Persephone is shown being carried off to the Underworld by Hades. When Persephone is shown with her mother, it is Demeter who often carries the scepter and sheaf of grain. Persephone is then shown holding a four-tipped torch, the kind often used for the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Sometimes, Persephone is shown holding a pomegranate or even just a pomegranate seed, thus linking her to her marriage with Hades and the Underworld. Another symbol that Persephone could be shown with is a cornucopia or horn of plenty to represent her role as a fertility deity.
Grecian poet Homer describes Persephone as being a formidable, venerable and majestic princess of the underworld. Persephone would put into effect the curses of men onto the souls of the dead.
What’s In A Name
There are serveral different names that have been given for Persephone. In a Mycenean Greek or Linear B inscription tablet dating from 1400 to 1200 B.C.E., the name Preswa has been identified a Persa, the daughter of Oceanus with speculation that this could be Persephone.
In the Ionic (think Epic) Greek literature, Persephone is the name used to identify her. The Homeric poems uses the spelling of Persephneia. In Plato’s Cratylus, she is known as Pherepaha as “she is wise and touches that which is in motion.” With other Grecian dialects, the names of Periphona, Persephassa, Persephatta, Phersephassa and Kore have been used. All of these variations to spelling and even pronunciation, have suggested the idea that Persephone may originated before Greek culture did.
The name Persephatta has been thoughted to translate to: “female thresher of grain.” With “perso-“ being connected to the Sanskrit word “parsa” meaning: “sheaf of grain.” The second part of the name comes from a Proto-Indo European word meaning: “to strike.”
Nestis – There is a Classical period text attributed to Empedocles, who lived from 490 to 430 B.C.E. In this text, Empedocles is describing the correspondence between four gods and the classical elements of earth, wind, fire and water. The name Nestis, for water, is used as a euphemism as Persephone’s name is taboo.
She who must not be named. That makes sense as Persephone is a Queen of the Dead and you didn’t want to unnecessarily attract her attention. Given the taboo to Persephone’s name, she would also be called Kore or “the maiden.”
Though, given the text: “Now hear the fourfold roots of everything: enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus. And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears.” I see that Hades gets mentioned by name. Given Persephone’s much older lineage, she must not have been a goddess whose name was taken lightly.
The Eleusinian mysteries were an annual religious celebration that predates the Olympian pantheon. It is an important life and death ritual with Persephone in her role as a vegetation goddess and Demeter having important roles where they are worshiped together.
Originally, the festival was celebrated in the autumn during the seasonal sowing in the city of Eleusis. The myth was told in three phases of a decent, the search and the ascent, describing Demeter’s sorrow and her joy as she became reunited with Persephone. This celebration also involved dancing in the Rharian field where the first grains were grown. There are inscriptions of “the Goddesses” being accompanied by Triptolemos, an agricultural god and another of the God and Goddess that refer to Persephone and Plouton.
Ancient Sumerian Origin – The idea has been put forward by the renowned scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer that the story of Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld likely sees its origins in the ancient Sumerian story of Ereshkigal, the goddess of the Underworld who was abducted by the dragon Kur and forced to become the ruler of the Underworld against her will.
Agrarian Cults – The cults of Demeter and Persephone of the Eleusinian Mysteries and Thesmophoria are based on some very old agrarian cults. These cults were led by priest as evidenced from an image on a Minoan vase dating to the end of the New Palace Period. This ancient cult held a connection to seasonal practices and tasks.
Daemons & Animal Nature – In Arcadia, the worship of Persephone and Demeter were the first daemons local deities who governed the powers of nature. Such ancient beliefs show a connection to animal nature that saw a belief in nature personified with nymphs and deities with human forms but also possessing animal heads and tails or other features.
Celebrate Good Times, Come On!
The seasonal disappearance and the later return of Persephone were times of festivals during the time of ancient Greece. The Eleusinian Mysteries are the most well-known and even then, the secrets for this festival were closely guarded, that not much is known about them.
Secret Rites & Immortality – Life after death seems to be a very common motif in many religions and beliefs around the world, even anciently. That somehow, life, some sort of existence continues even after death. It was no different for initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries who closely guarded their initiation rites. After all, the Eleusinian Mysteries wouldn’t be a mystery if everyone knew about them. For the Eleusinian Mystery initiates, these secrets were that of resurrection and there would be some place better than that of dismal depths of Tartarus.
They wouldn’t be the first to have the idea of life after death. It is thought by the experts, that the rites and mysteries held during the Eleusinian mysteries, along with other traditions such as the Orphic tradition and Mithraism all contributed towards the formation of Christianity and its ideas of resurrection, everlasting life and even immortality.
In the Eleusinian Mysteries, Kore’s return from the Underworld conveyed the idea of immortality and a resurrection from death.
Orphic Tradition – This is where the myth of Persephone is identified with other deities such as Isis, Rhea, Ge, Hestia, Pandora, Artemis, and Hecate. It is within this tradition that Persephone, with Zeus becomes the mother of Dionysus Iacchus, Zagreus or Sabazius.
Local Cults & Worship
Each local cult held their own traditions and ideas for where Persephone had been abducted from. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, it is the “plain of Nysa” where Persephone’s is kidnapped. The Corinthian and Megarian colonists, and Sicilians believed her abduction to happen in the fields of Enna. The Cretes believed that Persephone’s abduction occurred on their island. Other versions will place the abduction in places like Attica, near Athens, or even near Eleusis.
Distant localities that lay in the mythical played a part in creating a sense of some mystically, distant chthonic world that normally couldn’t be visited and created more of an air of mystery and prestige to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the month known as Anthesterion, Persephone was the only one to whom the mysteries were dedicated to in Athens.
Temples dedicated to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the worship of Demeter and Persephone were found throughout all of ancient Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily, Magna Graecia and Libya. Not much is known about the specifics of local rites and worship.
According to Homer, Groves sacred to Persephone were found on the far western edges of the earth, leading to the lower or Underworld. These Groves were known as the House of Persephone.
New Year’s Celebration & Divine Child
A near eastern culture with strong ties and connection to the ancient Greeks. The Minoans of Crete held a belief in a fertility goddess whom every year, would give birth to the God of the New Year. That sounds familiar. The New Year’s baby to symbolize the New Year.
This god of the New Year would become the fertility goddess’ lover and of course, the cycle would repeat with the god’s death and his rebirth at the New Year. Similar beliefs and cults are found with those of Adonis, Attis and Osiris.
In Minoan Crete, this fertility goddess is Ariadne and the “divine child” who died every year were part of an aniconic religion whose main deities were female. Every year, an ecstatic sacral dance that involved tree-shaking and the worshiping of stone or stone idols were conducted. The idea and suggestion have been put forward that the worshiping of Persephone may likely be a continuation of the worshiping of a Minoan Great Goddess.
Divine Child – This boy consort to the Great Goddess symbolized the annual dying and renewal of vegetation every year.
Mycenean Greece – Arcadia
While we know the mystery cults existed, not much is known about other than a few inscriptions. In Mycenae, Persephone is thought to have been identified with a local goddess by the name of Despoina, “the Mistress” and chthonic goddess of West-Arcadia. Despoina’s worship is just an example of another deity who would be absorbed into the worship of Greek deities. To the uninitiated of the Arcadian mysteries, the name Despoina was not allowed to be revealed.
The local temples throughout Arcadia were often built near springs and there is evidence of continual fires being kept at some of these. The worship of Demeter and Kore were closely linked to springs and animals.
Another mystery cult similar to the Elesusinian Mysteries. Many of the secret rites and traditions are very similar to each other, including an early concept idea of immortality. Thesemophoria were held and celebrated in the city of Athen before coming more wide spread throughout Greece. It was a women-only festival that held strong association to marriage customs. It would be held on the third day of the year in the month of Pyanepsion, marking when Kore was abducted and Dememter neglected her duties as a harvest goddess.
One ceremony involved burying sacrifices of pigs into the earth and then unearthing the decayed remains of pigs buried from the previous year. The remains would be placed on an alter and mixed with seeds before being planted.
Thesmophoria would be celebrated over the course of three days. On the first day is the “way up” to the sacred space. The second day is a day of feasting where pomegranate seeds are eaten. The third and final day, is a meat feast that honors Kalligeneia, goddess of beautiful birth. Hades, under the euphemistic name of Zeus-Eubuleus would attend the feast.
Parentage and Family
It is generally given and accepted that the parents of Persephone are Zeus and Demeter.
Zeus and Styx – Apollodorus is who lists these two deities as being Persephone’s parents. In the rest of Apollodorus’ accounts, he gives story of Demeter being Persephone’s mother.
In the Arcadian mysteries and worship, Persephone-Kore, known there as Despoina, is the daughter of Poseidon Hippios and Demeter. She is then believed to have been raised by the Titan Anytus.
I would also note that at this time, despite her parentage, Persephone is not considered one of the twelve Olympian gods.
Hades, god of the Underworld, also her Uncle.
Zeus, In the Orphic tradition, there is a story of Zeus seducing his daughter.
The direct siblings of Persephone are: Aeacus, Amphitheus I, Angelos, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Arion, Artemis, Athena, Chrysothemis, Despoina, Dionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Eris, Ersa, Eubuleus, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Hephaestus, Heracles, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Philomelus, Plutus, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Graces, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses and the Moirai
In the Orphic tradition, Persephone with Zeus is the mother of Dionysus, Iacchus, Melinoe and Zagreus.
By Hades, Persephone is also the mother of the Furies or Erinyes.
The Rape Of Persephone
You read that right. Yes, I could have titled this one differently. However, this is the title of the story for Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld that many are familiar with and the most well-known story regarding Persephone.
It seems prudent that this story gets mentioned first. When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden. As Kore, she lived with her mother Demeter, a harvest Goddess. Kore herself is a fertility goddess who makes or causes everything to grow. Kore’s father is the mighty Zeus himself.
Kore grew up and spent her time playing in the fields with the nymphs, gathering flowers, playing and with her mother. As she grew older, Kore came to attract the attention of the other male Olympian gods. Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her hand in marriage. The young Kore rejected them all for she was still interested in playing with her nymph friends and collecting flowers. Demeter made sure that her daughter’s desires were known.
This didn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this was love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (also Kore’s father), to petition for Kore’s hand in marriage, getting permission.
Zeus took the proposal to Demeter who refused. Kore isn’t going to leave her or go anywhere, least of all the Underworld with Hades. Not going to happen!
At first, this sounds as if Demeter is simply being unreasonable. The type of response of a mother fearing the empty nest or mother smothering and won’t let her child go. What we would call now days, Helicopter Parenting.
Zeus likely thinks he’s being reasonable, mentioning that every child grows up and leaves their parents eventually and that Kore is certainly old enough to marry. But Zeus isn’t listening, he thinks he knows better. That Demeter is just making an idle threat that if he marries off Kore to Hades and takes her down to the Underworld, nothing will grow!
Since they can’t get Demeter’s approval for the match, Zeus and Hades take a step back, allowing Demeter to think she’s won this round. Hades comes up with a plan to outright kidnap/abduct Kore while she is out gathering flowers. Zeus is in on this too and plants a narcissus flower to attract Kore’s attention.
While Kore is distracted by this new, unusual flower, behind her, a chasm opens up in the earth and out comes Hades, riding in his chariot to snatch up Kore to carry away with him back to the Underworld.
Of all of Kore’s Nymph friends, only the Naiad, Cyane tried to rescue and stop her abduction. Overpowered by Hades, Cyane in a fit of grief cried herself into a puddle of tears, forming the river Cyane.
Demeter, hearing the nymph’s cry out that something was amiss, came running, only to find that her daughter is missing and none of the nymphs in their crying could tell her what happened. Angry, Demeter cursed the nymphs that they turned into Sirens. Only the river Cyane offered any help with washing ashore, Kore’s belt.
In vain, Demeter wandered the earth, searching for her daughter. Unable to find her, Demeter went and hid herself in sorrow at the loss of her daughter. Once plant life begins to die, the other gods go in search of her. Especially once all their followers begin to cry out there’s no food, help them.
Pan is the one who eventually finds her in a cave. Demeter in her despair, reiterates that without Kore, nothing will grow.
The way this gets told in most retellings, Demeter is threatening to refuse any new life or plant growth. To appease her and prevent people from starving, the gods agree to find Kore so that life can return. It seems that way if you don’t know or forget Kore’s already existing role as a fertility goddess.
Hecate realizes and knows there’s a problem. Hence, she intervenes. All isn’t lost if Kore hasn’t eaten the food of the Underworld, the dead, she can return to the world above.
Down in the Underworld, a frightened and despairing Kore is refusing the advances of Hades and refusing to eat any food. Kore knows that if she eats the food, she won’t be able to return to the living world.
Now at some point, Hecate comes and talks with Kore. At some point, Kore falls in love with Hades or she sees the state of what the Underworld is like. A plot twist comes and Kore does, either willingly or tricked into it, eats some pomegranate seeds. The number of which varies from one to four, Persephone is bound to the Underworld and must spend part of the year there. The rest, she can spend above in the mortal world with her mother Demeter.
This way, Hades doesn’t lose his wife and queen and Persephone can fulfill her role as a fertility goddess, bringing life to the land.
As a note, I came across commentary that says there are some 22 variations in Antiquity about the story of Persephone’s abduction. I doubt I could find all of them. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter written between 650-550 B.C.E. is thought to be the oldest story.
Overly Simplified – One version of the above story is drastically simplified and glosses over a lot of details to the story of Persephone and Hades. In it, Hades just happens to be out and about in the mortal realm when he spots Persephone. It’s easy enough to say Hades has love and first sight and he simply grabs Persephone and carries her off with him down to the Underworld. Persephone is unhappy at first with her lot, but eventually she grows to love Hades and comes to accept her fate as his wife.
As to Demeter, she is so overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter that she neglects her duties with creating plant growth. It is Zeus who makes a decree that Persephone may be reunited with her mother, but only for part of the year. Zeus sends the god Hermes down to the Underworld to retrieve and bring Persephone back.
Hades held no desire to give up the goddess whom he intended to marry. Coming up with a plan, Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Now because she had eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone was bound to stay.
Persephone needed to only stay part of the year and the rest, she could be with Demeter. This way too, Hades didn’t lose his bride for she would have to return to him.
Not the best version of the story to give as it removes many details and robs Persephone of any agency or choice in the matter. Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
Version 2 – Regarding the Narcissus flower, Zeus commands Gaia to create it to distract Persephone when she is out picking flowers. As it is far from any lakes or rivers where her Naiad friends can follow, Persephone is all alone for when Hades comes. Sure enough, when Persephone picks this strange new flower, a chasm opens underneath her, and she falls down into the waiting arms of Hades and the Underworld.
Version 3 – When Demeter becomes distraught over the loss of Persephone, she goes mad and wanders the land disguised as an old woman carrying a pair of torches in her hands. She searches for some nine days and nights.
Eventually Demeter meets Hecate on the tenth day who takes pity on Demeter’s miserable appearance. Hecate tells Demeter to seek out Helios, the sun god who can tell her of what happened. Demeter finds Helios who informs her about Hades abducting Persephone.
Demeter begs Hades to release Persephone and allow her to come back to the living world. Hades consults with Zeus about the matter. Hecate returns and lets Demeter know that Persephone hasn’t eaten four pomegranate seeds and because of that, Persephone will still be able to return to the living world. There is a catch and that is, because Persephone has eaten some of the pomegranate, she will have to return to the Underworld for part of the year.
Both version 2 and 3 retellings go for making it look as if Demeter is responsible for refusing to allow anything to grow and does so out of anger or spite. Or that in her grief, Demeter simply neglects her duties for making things grow. This idea originates in Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” that gives the idea that Demeter is in charge of fertility.
Those versions work if you want to ignore that Kore/Persephone is a Fertility goddess, she’s the one who is responsible for new plant growth.
Hades’ Role In The Myth
In the story for the Rape of Persephone, Hades fits into the story as he is an Underworld deity himself. Among the Greeks, it was believed that Hades rode around in his chariot catching the souls of the dead to carry back down to the Underworld.
With Persephone being a chthonic goddess, the Greeks likely came up with the story to better fit the goddess to her role as a Queen of the World. It unfortunately greatly diminishes her role and what her functions were from a much earlier era.
In the myths where Hades is called Pluto or Ploutos, he is not only a god of the Underworld, but wealth where the riches of the earth can be found. Partnering him up with Persephone is meant only to add to his power and domain for now it is the riches of the earth in terms of fertility.
Homeric Hymn – More like a side note, this hymn tells how the shepherd Eumolpus and the swineherd Eubuleus see a girl being carried away to the Underworld in Hades’ chariot. Eubuleus looses his pigs to the Underworld as they fall into the chasm that opens up for Hades on his descent below.
Ascalaphus – In what seems to be padding the story, Ascalaphus, the keeper of Hades’ Orchard is who tells the other gods that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds. Demeter becomes so enraged with this news that she buries him beneath a huge rock in the Underworld.
Altered States of Mind – Most people think of rape as having to be a something violent for it to be valid? I’m sure the in the original Greek tellings of the story, it’s obvious what Hades’ intent is. Never mind later retellings that seem to gloss over and not really make it clear as they want to give you a happy fuzzy feeling that Persephone just accepted her fate and this is how we got the four seasons of the year.
Looking at the older, archaic definition, this is the forcible carrying away of a woman to have sexual intercourse with her. So looking at how the story of Persephone’s Abduction is originally titled and knowing older definitions of a word, I’d say it’s pretty clear.
Stockholm Syndrome – This is when a prisoner or someone being abused comes to identify with their captor, to the point of identifying with them and possibly helping them.
After my research into Persephone, the views of Persephone coming to just accept her fate or where Hades tricks her into eating a pomegranate seed, so she’s forced to come down to the Underworld part of the year don’t sit well with me.
It’s abusive and greatly diminishes Persephone’s agency to have versions of the stories where Zeus and Hades (or just Hades) conspire to have her abducted. That’s forced marriage, no one likes it. Plus, when you compare Persephone’s story to Hebe’s story with coming of age and marrying, they’re inconsistent.
Once Kore has married Hades, she changes her name to Persephone. This is used to signify Kore transitioning to being an adult. If this happened with other gods and goddesses, I’d say this is cultural. Just Kore to Persephone, no one else that I have researched so far in Greek Mythology.
The only other example I have is that of Hebe when she marries Hercules once she’s considered old enough. Unlike Kore/Persephone, Hebe never changes her name. The Eleusinian Mysteries do predate Grecian Culture. So maybe the name change is a remnant of that. Or trying to combine different local deities under one name.
The change of names definitely notes a change to Kore’s function with the Greek interpretation of the myths. She is no longer strictly a fertility goddess, she is now also Queen of the Underworld, ruling alongside Hades. That Kore/Persephone returns part of the year, makes her a goddess of life and death, resurrection deity like other deities such as Attis, Jesus, Osiris, Minoan Crete among others.
Knowing now that Persephone is an ancient chthonic goddess whose worship predates the Greeks, it shows strongly the influence of the Greeks and a more patriarchal religion imposing their views and versions on these stories.
After all, we have how many male dominated stories among the Grecian stories? How many people perceive the Greek pantheon being male dominated? No wonder Demeter is angry and no wonder we have so many stories where Hera takes out her frustrations on Zeus’ children.
You said earlier that Persephone is a chthonic goddess? Yes, I did, I was getting a bit ahead of myself there.
Now that we got the main story for Persephone out of the way, it’s easier to get into the rest of Persephone’s aspects as an ancient goddess who predates the Greeks and not just merely the daughter of Demeter, who gets married off to Hades against her will.
As said, an ancient chthonic deity worshiped by many agriculture cultures in ancient Greece. In this role, Persephone would receive the souls of the dead down into the earth. In return, Persephone would cause the fertility of the earth for there to be new growth.
Queen Of The Underworld – She Who Must Not Be Named
There is a tradition in Greek beliefs not to speak Persephone’s name. This dates to the Arcadian beliefs where Persephone is equated with another deity, Despoina who’s name could not be spoken except to those who had been initiated. As a goddess of death, Persephone is said to be the daughter of Zeus and Styx. Homer gave description of Persephone as capable of carrying out the curses of men upon the souls of the dead. In the Orphic traditions, Dionysus and Melinoe are said to be the children of Zeus and Persephone.
Goddess Of Fertility & Springtime
One of Persephone’s important roles is that of a fertility goddess. The very myth and story of Persephone’s abduction is the basis for the explanation of the annual growth of vegetation in spring and its subsequent dying in the fall. Her myth is comparable to other, often male gods of life and rebirth myths such as Attis, Adonis and Osiris.
Agriculture is an important aspect of life, for without a bountiful harvest, it can spell disaster come winter time. The Eleusinian mysteries emphasized this importance with Persephone’s return every year, that there would be the promise of new life and growth. A sort of immortality.
It’s unfortunate that this important aspect of Persephone seems to have been forgotten and overlooked, oftentimes simply relegating her to the of Hade’s wife and Queen of the Underworld.
Though perhaps it makes sense that in her dual role of Fertility goddess and Queen of the Underworld, where she is responsible for putting forth new life and growth everything spring and then come fall, it is destroyed with her departure back to the Underworld.
Grain – This crop was of great importance to the ancient Greeks as it was rare and hard to come by in the Grecian country sides. Persephone’s close association with this crop held the promise of renewal, regeneration and possibly immortality, knowing that she would return every spring.
Seasonal Cycles & Changes
The more simplified Greek influences on Persephone’s story greatly diminish her role, reducing her to an almost non-person status who gets no say in what happens to her. She just goes with the flow, unable to change her fate. Ultimately, what we get, a watered-down version that is used by the Greeks to explain the changes of the seasons from Spring to Winter and back.
When you understand Persephone’s role as a fertility goddess, this isn’t Demeter in a mood, sad or angry that her daughter isn’t there and refuses to allow anything to grow. Doing it out of spite because her daughter married Hades and she’s mad with Zeus. As a fertility goddess, nothing can grow on the earth if Persephone isn’t there. Demeter knew this, the other gods, especially Zeus and Hades didn’t listen.
By assigning Persephone’s role as a fertility goddess to her mother Demeter, the story that is then told and passed on, makes it seem as if Demeter is the one acting out of spite and grief towards Zeus to neglect her duties or outright as a means of blackmail, to allow anything to grow on the earth until she gets her way. That is, the return of her daughter Persephone.
With that understanding, Zeus than, by allowing Hades to marry Kore, created the problem of winter. Not because Demeter is depressed and vengeful, refusing to allow anything to grow, but because without Kore, nothing can grow. Sure, Demeter is depressed. Sure, all children grow up and leave home. It would explain Hecate getting involved. The world above needs you as much as the underworld
Remembering Persephone’s dual role as a fertility goddess and a chthonic goddess, now her descent to the underworld and the subsequent winter makes sense. Winter becomes a fallow period in which the earth is asleep and plant life is dormant. It won’t be forever, for come Spring again, when Persephone returns, a new season of growth begins again.
Nearly all versions of Kore/Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld and her return have being tricked into or choosing to some pomegranate seeds.
Sometimes the number of seeds eaten seems to matter as that represents the number of months in the year that Persephone must return and stay in the Underworld. So, mentioning three to four seeds tend to represent the winter months in which she is with Hades.
In ancient mythology, to eat the food of one’s captor meant that one would have to return to that captor or country, especially anything from the Otherworld, Faerie or the Underworld. Persephone is doomed to return to the Underworld for a part of the year. The other part, she is allowed to remain with her mother, Demeter.
Remember, the seeds themselves are merely symbolic. Persephone in her original role is a chthonic deity and would have returned to the living world and back to the Underworld as part of her seasonal traveling in her role as a fertility goddess.
As a symbol, the pomegranate seeds, under the Greek versions of the myth are looking to explain the seasonal cycle of the year and why it is that Persephone must return for a part of the year to her husband Hades.
Touching back on what I commented earlier about Altered States of Minds and Stockholm Syndrome, continuing a narrative of Persephone being tricked into or choosing to eat the seeds seems to perpetuate an abusive ideal of taking away her agency.
Either an abusive husband who forced himself on her, rape. Or an overbearing mother who doesn’t want to let her little girl go and will throw a tantrum refusing to allow anything to grow if Persephone isn’t with her. Then Persephone, even if she’s but I want to stay with Hades, mom’s willing to starve the entire world for her pettiness. This interpretation just doesn’t work for me.
I have to look at ancient chthonic goddess who’s going to travel back and forth anyways. As she’s a goddess of the Underworld and Hades is also a god of the Underworld, they are a perfect match in heaven…. Well the Underworld and the pomegranates were the food of choice to join in holy matrimony. No forced coercion.
Renewal Of The Earth & Soul – Another bit of commentary I came across is that by Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds, a flowering plant, it symbolizes that she would return in Spring just as all flowers bloom at this time. In the Eleusinian Mysteries, this speaks for the renewal of the soul.
Persephone & Minthe
For being a rather important deity, Persephone doesn’t have too many stories regarding her as she seems to be relegated to being little more than Hades wife. So where Hera often took complaint to Zeus’ many lovers and affairs, Persephone only has one such story.
That would be with the nymph, Minthe who may have been a mistress or lover of Hades before he abducted Persephone. In an act of hubris, Minthe boasts about how she is more beautiful than Persephone and that she would manage to win Hades back.
Persephone took exception to this boast and to prove her power, might and indignation, she turned the nymph into a plant of the same name.
Mmm…. Mint. Gotta love that sweet smell.
A slight variation to this story has Demeter being the one to avenge her daughter’s honor and be the one to change Minthe into the plant of the same name.
If we go by the Greek legends and stories, Persephone wasn’t always so loyal with Hades. She did take Adonis and Hermes as lovers at different points. Granted nothing came of these affairs.
Even though Persephone is married to Hades, that doesn’t stop the heroes Pirithous and Theseus from descending down to the Underworld with the aspirations of Pirithous marrying Persephone.
The two had it in their heads that they would marry daughters of Zeus. They clearly didn’t think the plan through. Of course, Theseus had the bright idea of being the one to try kidnapping Helene, Zeus wasn’t happy with that. Some accounts have the mighty Zeus sending a dream to the two with the idea of going off to have Pirithous marrying Persephone.
Hades is there to welcome the pair sure enough. Soon as they are seated, their chairs magically bind and holdfast the would-be suitors. There they would remain prisoners until the hero Hercules comes to the Underworld to free them.
Just let that be a lesson, don’t mess with another man’s wife or daughters if he thinks you’re unworthy of such a thing.
Persephone & Zeus
Sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G…. this is a story from the Orphic tradition. Zeus (yes, her father) comes and seduces Persephone in the guise of a serpent. From this union, she bares a son, Zagreus. Zeus put his son up on the throne of heaven only to have him attacked and torn apart by the Titans.
Zagreus’ heart is recovered, and the young god is reborn through Semele to become the god Dionysus or Sabazius. This is to be a second Dionysus and not to be confused with each other.
Another goddess, Melinoe is also reputed to have been born from the union of Persephone and Zeus.
Persephone & Adonis
In this story, both Aphrodite and Persephone fell in love with the same mortal named Adonis. Naturally he is a handsome youth and neither goddess could agree as to who deserved him more. Zeus took the matter into his own hands and divided the year into three parts, saying that Adonis would spend on third with Aphrodite, another third with Persephone and the third part of the year as time to himself.
Having his own agency, Adonis came to love Aphrodite more. When it was time for him to go to the Underworld, Adonis refused. This angered Persephone so that she sent a wild boar to kill Adonis. As Adonis died in Aphrodite’s arms, he was transformed into the anemone flower.
Phoenician Connection – It has been commented that the story of Persephone and Adonis is nothing more than the Greeks adopting the story the Phoenician story of Ashtarte and Adon.
Orpheus & Eurydice
In the story of Orpheus’ descent to the Underworld, wherein he hoped to bring back his wife, Eurydice from the dead. Persephone takes compassion on Orpheus and allows him a chance to try and bring his deceased wife back to the lands of the living.
Persephone & Sisyphus
Ah Sisyphus forced to forever roll that boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down on him. Before dying, Sisyphus had told his wife to just throw his body to be thrown out into a public square where eventually his body made its way to the river Styx. Sisyphus then tricked Persephone into allowing him to return to the living world, so he could scold his wife for not giving him a proper burial.
Naturally, the trick worked and once Sisyphus “told off” his wife, he refused to return to the Underworld. It took the god Hermes to forcibly drag Sisyphus back to the Underworld.
Another version of the story has Sisyphus simply pleading to Persephone that he was taken to Tartarus by mistake and the Queen of the Underworld orders his return.
Some people just don’t want to face the music.
Persephone & Alcestis
Which takes us to Alcestis, married to King Admetos. He didn’t want to die either.
The Fates told Admetos that he could escape his time to die if someone else would take his place. That person ended up being Alcestis. Wise to the shenanigans, Persephone sent Alcestis back to the living world.
Another version has the mighty Hercules coming to fight Hades so Alcestis can be released back to the living world.
Look, when your time comes, it comes.
I always thought it was Prometheus who did this. There’s a rather obscure myth in which Persephone is credited with the creation of man or humankind using clay. There was then a dispute among the gods over who should get to claim humans. An agreement came with the god Cronus presiding as judge, that while living, humans would be subjects of Zeus (who initially gave the clay figures life and controls their fate) and Gaia (who provided the clay in the first place) and when they died, they would go to the Underworld to be with Persephone as she came up with the idea to begin with.
The Twelve Labors Of Hercules
In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules was tasked with a series of twelve labors by King Eurystheus that needed to be performed as penance for the killing of Hercules’ family. One of Hercules’ tasks was to descend to the Underworld to retrieve the three-headed hound Cerberus. In some accounts, it is said that Persephone, not Hades is who allowed the hero to take the hell hound. While Hercules was at it, Persephone also allowed the hero to free Theseus from his confinement.
In Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, Hercules decided it was a good idea to slaughter one of Hades’ cattle in order to give the souls of the dead some fresh blood. Menoetes, Hades’ keeper of cattle challenged the titular hero to a wrestling match. It is only after Hercules breaks the ribs of Menoetes that the hero sets him down at the behest of Persephone.
In the versions told by Diodorus Siculus in his “Library of History” and Pseudo-Hyginus’ Fabulae, Hercules freed both Theseus and Pirithous.
Seven Against Thebes
During this event, Hades and Persephone ended up sending a deadly plague to the city of Thebes when King Creon refused to bury any of the dead warriors. When two maidens Coronides, the daughters of Orion sacrificed themselves to appease Hades and Persephone, they were transformed into a pair of comets.
Well, you’re gonna get a plague and diseases if you leave a bunch of corpses out rotting in the field of battle and don’t bury or clean them up.
In New Age and Wiccan practices, Persephone is often seen as the Maiden aspect of the “Triple Goddess” with Demeter representing the Mother and Hecate the Crone.
Proserpina – Roman Goddess
Among the ancient Romans, Persephone is known as Proserpina. Her mother is said to be the goddess Ceres. The Romans first heard of Persephone from the Aeolian and Dorian cities in Magna Graecia. It’s an error on the part of the Roman’s, believing the name Proserpine to be derived from the Latin word proserpere, meaning: “to shoot or creep forth” and is a verb related to the germination of plants.
In the Roman retellings of the story, Pluto (Hades) is out riding in the mortal realms, inspecting the land to make sure that after the fall of the titans, the borders to his realm in Tartarus are still secure. When Venus and her son Cupid see the lord of the Underworld out riding, the opportunity is too much for them and Venus instructs her son to hit Pluto with an arrow so that when he sees Proserpine, he is stricken with such love and lust that he carries her off to his shadowy realm of Tartarus. The rest of the story is much like the Greek versions where Ceres sets off in search of her missing daughter.
Protector Of Marriage
In Locri, Proserpina is the protector of marriage. This role is usually Hera’s domain. There are votive plaques in Locri that show Persephone’s abduction and her marriage to Hades, serving as a symbol of the marital state. The children of Locri were dedicated to Proserpina and maidens would bring their peplos to be blessed before getting married.
Proserpina And Psyche
This story is from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, a second century Roman novel. In it, Venus (Aphrodite) forces Psyche to perform a task for her. Psyche is instructed to deliver a box from Venus down to the Underworld, to Proserpina. It seems simple enough that Venus wants some beauty cream from Proserpina, enough for one day so she can dress up for the Deities’ Theatre later that evening. Except this task is just one of many harsh tasks that Venus has Psyche perform.
Off to the Underworld she goes, a talking tower informs Psyche how to gain entrance. First, she has to offer a cake to Cerberus, the three-headed hound who guards the gates of the Underworld. That done, she will be welcomed readily enough by Proserpina who will invite her to sit on a soft cushion and enjoy a feast. This she, Psyche must not do, she must instead sit on the ground and ask for some course bread. If she does that, Psyche can then tell Proserpina what she is there for. Once she has what she seeks, Psyche is to come straight back, giving the last cake to Cerberus so she can leave the Underworld. The final instructions are, that Psyche is not to look within the box. She must retrace her steps back to Venus straight away.
Following the instructions, Psyche is able to get the box filled with beauty cream to bring back to Venus. The return trip back up to the Living World goes smoothly enough. Only now, past the seeming difficult parts of the journey, curiosity gets the better of Psyche and she decides to open the box, reasoning that she can take a drop for herself to look even more beautiful for her lover, Eros.
When you get instructions from the Otherworldly Guides and Deities, it’s best to heed them. As soon as Psyche opened the box, to her surprise it’s filled with the stygian sleep of Pluto. The sleep of death and it at once envelops her. Psyche’s limbs go rigid and she falls to the earth, stiff as a corpse laying there. Luckily for her, Eros finds Psyche and wipes the sleep off her and restores it to the box.
Proserpina And Euphemea
When the nymph Euphemea stopped worshiping Diana, the goddess struck the nymph full of arrows. At the very last, Proserpina snatched her up, still alive to take down to the Underworld.
Etymology: Sigr- (Old Norse), Sig- “Victory” (Sieg- Germanic, Zege- Dutch) and -mundr (Old Norse) “Protector”
Pronunciation: Zeek-muwnt (German), Seeg-mund (Swedish), Sig-mənd (English)
Also known as: Siegmund
Alternate Spellings: Sigmundr (Old Norse), Sigimund, Sigismund (Ancient Germanic), Sigmundr (Ancient Scandinavian), Zikmund (Czech), Siegmund, Sigismund (German), Zsigmond, Zsiga (Hungarian), Sigismondo (Italian), Zygmunt (Polish), Žigmund (Slovak), Žiga (Slovene), Segismundo (Spanish), Sigge (Swedish)
The hero Sigmund is best known from his exploits in the Völsunga saga. Sigmund’s fame comes from being the one who could pull the sword, Gram from a tree and being the father of another hero, Sigurd.
Parentage and Family
Father – Völsung, for whom the Völsunga saga is named.
Mother – Ljod, also spelled Hljod, Sigmund’s mother in the Völsunga.
Borghild – His first wife.
Sieglind – His wife in the Nibelungenlied.
Sisibe – His wife in the Thiðrekssaga.
Brother – It’s mentioned that Sigmund has nine brothers, though none of them are ever given any names.
Sister – Signý, his twin
Helgi – Son by way of Borghild.
Sigurd – Son by way of Hljod. A famous dragon-slayer of many Norse, Scandinavian and German sagas.
Sinfjötli – Son by way of incest with his sister Signý.
Hamund and Helgi – Sons by way of Borghild.
The oldest source for Sigmund’s legend are found in Sweden on seven runestones. The most notable of these are the Ramsund carving dating from about 1,000 C.E. based on events from the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.
This is a 13th century Icelandic saga from the Völsung clan that follows several generations of Völsung’s lineage. While this saga is best known for the story of Sigurd and Brunhildr and the destruction of the Burgundians, this is the main source for the story regarding Sigmund.
Backing up a little bit, the saga begins with Völsung, known of his great strength and size, who is the king of Hunland. Völsung marries Hljod with whom he fathers ten sons and a daughter, Signý, the twin to Sigmund.
So great is Signý’s beauty, that King Siggeir of Gautland (Västergötland) sends a missive to King Völsung requesting his daughter Signý’s hand in marriage. Now, Siggeir had a reputation for being fierce in battle and Völsung and his sons knew that they couldn’t hope to fend off Siggeir and his men once they saw them. Add to this, Signý doesn’t want to marry Siggeir.
Against her better judgment, Signý marries Siggeir. A wedding feast, one that would last for several days commenced shortly after. At a time when both Völsung and Sigmund are in attendance, the god Odin came, disguised as a beggar and thrust the sword Gram into the a large oak tree known as Barnstock. Völsung’s hall was built around this large oak. The beggar (Odin) announces that the man who is able to pull the sword free may have it as a gift. Of all the men present, only Sigmund succeeded in pulling the sword free.
Signý’s new husband, Siggeir became very envious and greedy for Sigmund’s sword. When Sigmund refused an offer to buy the sword, Siggeir than invites Völsung, Sigmund and his nine other brothers to come visit him and Signý a few months later in Gautland.
When Völsung and the rest of his clan arrived, they are attacked by Siggeir’s men. In the fight that followed, Völsung is killed and his sons captured. Signý pleaded with Siggeir to spare her brothers, to have them placed in stocks instead of killing them outright. Siggeir agreed to Signý’s pleas only because it went along with his ideas of torturing the brothers before killing them.
It turns out that Siggeir has a mother who can shape-shift into a wolf. He lets dear old mother kill one of the Völsung brothers each night. Signý, much as she tries, is unable to save her brothers. One by one they are killed by this she-wolf until finally only Sigmund remains.
With only last chance to save any of her brothers, Signý gets a servant to smear some honey on Sigmund’s face. When Siggeir’s shape-shifted mother arrives that night, the she-wolf licks the honey off Sigmund’s face, causing her tongue to stick to the roof of her mouth. The opportunity allowed Sigmund to bite off the she-wolf’s tongue. The resulting blood loss killed the wolf. Shortly after, he freed himself and Sigmund took off to hide in the forest.
Hidden safely in the woods, Sigmund has everything he needs and what he doesn’t have, Signý would bring to him. Seeking revenge for the death of their father herself, Signý would send her sons out to the forest to be tested by their uncle. As each one failed the test, Sigmund would kill them until he finally had enough of it and refused to kill any more children. A distraught Signý came to Sigmund disguised as a völva (a type of Scandinavian Witch or Shaman). Disguised, Signý gave birth to Sinfjötli, whom, a child of incest is able to pass Sigmund’s test.
Living the life of outlaws, both Sigmund and Sinfjötli lived in the forest. During their time, the two came across some men sleeping in some wolf skins. The two kill the men and on donning the wolf skins for themselves, discover that the skins are cursed. With their new-found abilities or curse, Sigmund and Sinfjötli are able to avenge Völsung when they kill Siggeir by way of setting his place on fire. The only person to escape the blaze was Signý, whom if Sigmund hadn’t known the truth about his nephew/son Sinfjötli, she now came clean to tell him she had tricked Sigmund into sleeping with her. After revealing the truth, Signý walked back into the raging fire to die with Siggeir.
Returning To Hunland
The story doesn’t end there as both Sigmund and Sinfjötli continue their exploits of banditry when they return to Hunland. Sigmund’s plan is to reclaim his lands from the king who took over after Völsung’s death. After reclaiming his rightful throne, Sigmund marries Borghild and they have two sons, Hamund and Helgi.
It’s known that Helgi, at the age of fifteen would go on to fight many battles and win his own kingdom. He earned the name Helgi Hundingsbani when he killed Hunding and his sons after two battles. Helgi wasn’t done yet and would continue on to defeat Hodbrodd and Grannar in order to win the hand of Sigrun, the daughter of King Hogni in marriage. This is a story for another post.
Borghild became jealous of her stepson Sinfjötli’s abilities and when he killed her brother, she plotted Sinfjötli’s demise. Both Sinfjötli and her brother had been competing for the hand of the same woman. Killing Sinfjötli wouldn’t be easy for Borghild as he was immune to all poison. That didn’t stop Borghild from trying. She offered Sinfjötli two cups of poisoned wine that he drank without problem. However, with the third cup, that did Sinfjötli in. For her efforts, Borghild was banished from Hunland.
The narrative continues that Sigmund carried Sinfjötli’s body into the forest where he meets a ferryman at a fjord. The ferryman had only enough room on his boat for one passenger at a time and offered to take Sinfjötli’s body across first and come back for Sigmund. When the boat reached the middle of the fjord, it vanished along with the ferryman and Sinfjötli’s body. This ferryman would be none other than Odin in disguise, come to personally take his descendant to Valhalla despite not meeting the prerequisite to die in battle.
Marrying Hjördís & Sigmund’s Doom
Sigmund goes on to marry again, this time to Hjördís, daughter of King Eylimi. Hjördís had another suitor who sought her hand in marriage, King Lyngi along with other suitors. The would be suitors competed for Hjördís’s hand in marriage and Sigmund won, despite being much older than other kings. Lyngi refused to give up and concede to Sigmund.
After enjoying a brief period of peace, Sigmund’s kingdom is attacked by King Lyngi as he was jealous and wanted revenge on Hjördís for marrying Sigmund.
It is during this battle, Sigmund fought alongside his father-in-law, King Eylimi who is killed. It is this day, that the Norns have decreed will be when Sigmund dies. The god Odin returns in this battle, disguised as a beggar and when he comes face to face with Sigmund, the sword Gram is shattered by his spear Gungnir.
The sword shattered, Sigmund easily falls at the hands of others in battle. As he lays dying, Sigmund tells Hjördís that she is pregnant, and their son will one day receive the broken remains of his sword. That their son will be named Sigurd who would go on to avenge his father’s death and slay the dragon Fafnir.
As to Lyngi, he was thwarted in trying to win Hjördís for she had fled and was found by King Alf who married and took her and her unborn son in.
Other Germanic Sagas
In many of the sagas about the hero Sigurd (Siegfried), Sigmund or Siegmund is often cited as being Sigurd’s father. None of these other sagas have the same level of detail regarding Sigmund that is found within the Völsunga.
Nibelungenlied – In this saga, his wife was Sieglind
Thiðrekssaga – In this saga, Sigmund is the son of Sifjan, the king of Tarlungland. He has a son with Sisibe, the daughter of King Nidung of Spain.
This is an Old English poem. In the story Beowulf, the story of Sigemund is told to the title character and involves the slaying of a dragon, not unlike that of Sigurd slaying a dragon. The child conceived by Signý and Sigemund the Wælsing is known as Fitela, not Sinfjötli.
The Sword In The Tree – Arthurian Legend!?!
The Branstock tree was a massive oak tree that Völsung built his hall around.
For those familiar with Arthurian legend, Sigmund’s pulling the sword Gram from the Branstock tree sounds very familiar to the story of Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone.
In addition, it’s been noted that the characters of Sinfjötli and Mordred are both nephew and son to the respective figures of Sigmund and Arthur.
Gram – A Gift From Odin
In the Völsunga saga, the name of Sigmund’s sword is Gram. Other Norse sagas will give the name of Balmung for Sigmund’s sword. Gram’s name means: “wrath.”
Being an enchanted sword gifted by the god Odin, Gram holds the magical ability of giving its wielder the power to win all their battles.
As for who forged Gram, the myths and legends say that Volund, or Wayland the Smith is who crafted this blade. In the Nibelungenlied, Gram is known by the name of Balmung and Mimung in Germanic myths. In Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” the sword is known as Nothung.
It was said that Volund (or Wayland the Smith) made the sword, and the magic sword was later called Gram (Balmung or Mimung in German myth).
Tolkien Middle Earth Connection – I mentioned in my post for Sigurd that the shattering of Gram served as the inspiration for Aragorn’s shattered sword that he reforges.
Odin’s Role In The Völsunga
It should be noted that Odin is the great grandfather of Völsung who founds the clan of the same name. Effectively making Völsung at least a demigod of sorts and later descendants being more extraordinary in their deeds and destiny.
So, it makes sense at the first, that Odin would appear, favoring the Völsung’s when he impales the sword Gram into the Branstock tree, saying that whoever can pull this sword can have it and it’s Sigmund who succeeds.
However later, Sigmund appears to fall out of favor with Odin when the god shatters Gram and leaves Sigmund to fall at the hands of his enemies.
God of Prophesy
Surely a god of prophesy would know what events would transpire. Which could mean that’s exactly what Odin wanted to have happen. Or he’s trying to change the fates of his kinsmen even though the Norns have told Odin that no, you can’t change fate, no you won’t get your descendant at all. That as punishment, Sigmund won’t die in battle at all.
Even a god can try?
If a person’s fate is truly set and there’s no avoiding destiny or changing one’s stars, even a god of prophesy would know you can’t change the future. Unless predicting the future is nothing more than being able to see what the most likely outcomes and probabilities are. That if you don’t change the variables, X event is the most likely event and course of action to happen.
Of course, the other thing to remember, is that Odin is also a god of battle and as such, like many other war gods, he thrives on the conflicts and strife that happen. Even if only for the sake of it.
With the whole impending doom of the gods and Ragnarok among the Norse, Odin is going to try and bolster his forces by recruiting from the various fields of battle, the fallen and slain warriors. Isn’t that what the Valkyries are for? Well sure, so unless there’s a constant steady source of conflicts and battles, the Valkyries aren’t likely to be doing much recruiting. One can see Odin going about instigating some of these conflicts, so he can try to recruit promising warriors for his Einherjar, ya’ know, the slain warriors of Valhalla. And let’s not forget that Freya is going to get half of those warriors for her hall of Folkvangr.
Sigmund! I don’t choose you!
Sigmund also has a date with destiny, for the Norns have decreed that he would die on that day. There is however a hitch to this, so long as Sigmund has the sword Gram, there’s no way he’s going to loose or die. So there’s Odin off to the field of battle to make sure that Sigmund can meet destiny by making sure he doesn’t have the sword.
Now it could be that he has angered Odin when Sigmund tries to interfere with protecting his father-in-law, King Eylimi during the battle against King Lyngi. Odin attacks Sigmund, shattering the sword Gram and leaves him to die.
It might be too how dare a descendant of his defy the mighty Odin and shatter the sword, hoping somehow that Sigmund will die in battle to join his forces in Valhalla. Odin’s efforts to sow contention earlier at a wedding only resulted in nine other of his grandsons getting killed by a wolf while tied up. That’s not exactly the heat of battle there and the loss of nine potential warriors to join him.
So, Odin cuts his losses with Sigmund and gifts a final prophesy to his grandson about the birth of Sigurd and that Gram will be reforged and passed on to another hero.
Lastly, the Völsunga saga was written in the 13th century C.E. several centuries from when the events are to have initially occurred. That’s more than enough time for the skalds to have embellished the stories. To add Odin to the events in an effort to make sense of narrative as well as give a more mythic quality to the tales to explain why events turn out the way they did.
Etymology: Sigr- (Old Norse), Sig- “Victory” (Sieg- Germanic, Zege- Dutch) and vörðr- (-ward Proto-Germanic)“guardian” or “protection” (Old Norse), -fried – “peace”
Also known as: Siegfried, Sigfred, Sifrit, Sîvrît (High German), Sivard (Danish), Sigevrit, Zegevrijt (Middle Dutch), Seyfrid, Seufrid (early modern German)
Alternate Spellings: Sigurðr (Old Norse)
Sigurd is a legendary hero from old Germanic, Norse and Scandinavian mythologies, where he is best known for slaying the dragon Fafnir, rescuing the Valkyrie maiden Brynhildr and the disastrous events that come after with his death.
As I discovered when first doing my article for Brynhildr, there are a number of different stories and various spellings or names for the main character, all of whom and which seem to be the same story and characters. With the differences, we’re likely just seeing different regional and cultural versions. Plus, the addition of Wagner’s famous Opera cycle goes and confuses that matter a bit as he takes from a the Völsunga and Nibelungenlied, mixing them together.
All I can say, is I’ve done my best to keep all of this straight. Also, it’s not like the ancients had access to e-mail and the internet to keep their sources straight, one tribe tells the story one way, another tribe tells it slightly different. The stories also alter and change when you start looking at when one is written and recorded compared to another.
Parentage and Family
Father – Sigmund, regardless of variant spellings, nearly all sources list him as Sigurd’s father.
It is in the Völsunga that Odin is mentioned as being Sigurd’s real father, making the hero a demigod of sorts and would explain why in some versions of the story, Odin goes out of his way to offer advice and aid him. It’s more accurate that Sigurd is a descendant of Odin’s though.
Mother – Hiordis, Sigmund’s second wife in the Völsunga. In the Þiðrekssaga, it is Sisibe who is Sigurd’s mother. The Nibelungenlied lists Sigelinde as Siegfried’s mother.
Brunhildr – The Valkyrie maiden whom Sigurd falls in love with and would have married had outside sources not interfered.
Gudrun – She is who Sigurd marries in the Völsunga. In the Nibelung, her name is Kriemhild.
Aslaug – Sigurd’s daughter by way of Brynhildr in the Völsunga. Aslaug goes on to marry Ragnar Lodbrok.
Sigmund & Svanhild – Twin sons by way of Gudrun in the Völsunga. Sigmund is named after Sigurd’s father.
What’s In A Name?
At first glance, due to the similarity of their stories, both Sigurd and Siegmund appear to be the same character. Perhaps they are, at the same time, I think it helps to remember regional variations from very similar cultures. Thanks in part to Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” Opera cycle, there gets to be further confusion to the matter.
It should be noted that what the names of Sigurd and Siegfried mean are different, however they do share the first part of the names do have the same etymology. The second part of the names have very different meanings.
In all cases, the different names all share the commonality of the first part or prefix name of “Sig-“ which means “victory.” The second part of the names have different meanings. “-fried” meaning peace in the name Siegfried and “-vörðr” meaning protection.
Sigurðr – Or Sigurd, is not the same character as the Germanic Siegfried no matter how much the sources seem to want to confuse them. This name translates to Victory-Protection or Protector of Victory.
Siegfried – With this spelling, he is the hero of both the Germanic Nibelungenlied and Richard Wagner’s operas of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The Old Norse name for Siegfried would have been Sigfroðr. This name translates to Victory-Peace or Peaceful Victory. The name Siegfried doesn’t appear until towards the end of the seventh century. So it’s possible that Sigurd is the original form of the name.
Sivard Snarensven – This is the name of the hero from several medieval Scandinavian ballads. He’s noted here as his name is known for being a variant spelling to Sigurðr.
The oldest source for Sigurd’s legend are found in Sweden on seven runestones. The most notable of these are the Ramsund carving dating from about 1,000 C.E. and the Gok Runestone dating to the 11th century C.E.
Ramsund Carvings – These runes show Sigurd sitting naked before a fire as he prepares to cook the heart taken from the dragon Fafnir. As the heart isn’t fully cooked yet, Sigurd burns himself when he touches it, promptly sticking the burnt finger in his mouth. One he tastes the dragon’s blood, Sigurd is able to understand the birds’ song.
The birds inform Sigurd not to trust his foster-father Regin as he won’t keep his promise. To which, Sigurd chops off Regin’s head. Smithing tools laying around Regin’s head that were used to reforge the sword Gram.
Other carvings show Regin’s horse loaded down with the dragon’s gold, Sigurd slaying Fafnir and Otr, Regin’s brother from the start of the saga.
Hylestad Stave Church – Other carvings and runes can be found on doorways and stones at this church, showing more of Sigurd’s legend.
This is the main source for Sigurd’s story. It is a 13th century Icelandic saga from the Völsung clan that tells the story of Sigurðr and Brynhildr and the subsequent destruction of the Burgundians.
Within this saga, Sigurd is the son of Sigmund and Hiordis, his second wife. So, this is where the story begins, with Sigmund attacking a disguised Odin. Attacking a deity is never a good idea and Odin kills Sigmund while also shattering his sword. As he lays dying, Sigmund hangs on long enough to tell Hiordis about her pregnancy and to bequeath the shattered fragments of his sword to his unborn son.
With Sigmund dead and pregnant, Hiordis then marries King Alf. When Sigurd is old enough, Alf sends the boy to Regin to be fostered. When Sigurd gets older, nearing being an adult, Regin begins to try putting into Sigurd’s head that his station and position isn’t very much.
In a seemingly benign series of questions, Regin asks Sigurd if has any control or say over how Sigmund’s gold, Sigurd’s inheritance by right. Sigurd responds that Alf and his family take care of all of the gold and that he has everything he needs or desires. Regin continues his questioning by asking Sigurd why he accepts such a low position in Alf’s court. Again, Sigurd says he’s treated as an equal and that he has everything he needs or desires.
Not letting up, Regin again asks Sigurd why he settles for being a stable boy to the Kings or have any horse of his own for that matter. That last bit does get to Sigurd who decides he’s going to have his own horse. On the way to the castle to get one, Sigurd is met by an old man (Odin in disguise) who gives some advice to the young man on which horse to choose. This advice does lead Sigurd to getting the horse Grani, a decedent of Odin’s own horse, Sleipnir.
Regin’s Story – Otr’s Gold
When Sigurd returns with a horse of his own, Regin then tells the young man the story of Otter’s Gold. How Regin’s father is Hreidmar, a powerful magician and about his two brothers Otr and Fafnir. How he is a master smith and that Otr himself also held many magical talents. That Otr would go out swimming near a waterfall in one of his favorite forms, that of an otter. That another, a dwarf by the name of Andvari would take the form of a pike and swim too.
Then one day, the Aesir gods came across Otr in his otter form. Not realizing him to be a person and instead, believing the otter to be the real animal, Loki killed Otr and took his pelt. The Aesir then took the pelt to Hreidmar to show off what they caught. Knowing the pelt to belong to their brother, both Fafnir and Regin detain the Aesir; demanding a weregild or restitution be paid for Otr’s death.
Realizing what had happened, the Aesir agreed to pay compensation and fill Otr’s body with gold and cover him with an assortment of treasure. Before Otr’s body is returned to his family, Loki took a net from the sea goddess Ran and used it to catch Andvari in his pike form. In exchange for his freedom, Loki commanded Andvari to give him all of his gold. Grudgingly, Andvari gave up his gold to Loki; except for one ring, that one, Loki had to take by force. Loki took this ring more by force. Unknown to Loki, Andvari cursed this ring with a death curse on it that for whoever wielded the one ring.
Gold in hand now, the Aesir proceed with stuffing Otr’s pelt with it and covering it with treasure, the one ring placed over a whisker and present it to Hreidmar. Greed over coming him, Fafnir killed Hreidmar and took all of the gold, refusing to give Regin his rightful share or inheritance. For this, Regin is looking for someone who can help him seek revenge.
Reforging His Father’s Sword
Caught up by the injustice of it all, Sigurd readily agrees to the plan of killing Fafnir, thereby avenging Hreidmar. As Regin is a master smith, Sigurd requests that a sword be made for him. The first sword made is tested against an anvil, breaking. So, another sword is crafted by Regin, only be broken too.
Third times the charm, Sigurd went to his mother to request the broken pieces of his father’s sword. Sigurd then has Regin take the shattered remains of his father’s sword and reforge those into a sword. This new sword would be known as Gram and it was able to split the anvil in twain. The blade is so sharp, Sigurd can even cut wool with his sword in the river.
First, I Must Avenge My Father
Seeing that Sigurd finally has a sword, Regin tries to get Sigurd to promise to slay the dragon Fafnir to which Sigurd agrees, but not until he has gone to avenge the death of his father.
First, Sigurd set off for his uncle Griper on his mother’s side. It seems dear old uncle Griper can foretell the future and Sigurd wanted to know the Norns had in store for him. Griper refused at first to admit anything to young Sigurd. After much persistence, Griper told Sigurd what would befall him.
Armed with this knowledge, Sigurd went now to King Alf, requesting a fleet of ships and enough men that he could wage war against the Hunding tribe and there by take revenge upon King Lynge for the death of his father Sigmund.
While sailing towards Lynge’s kingdom, a storm broke. A sailor that Sigurd had taken on, by the name of Fjorner sang a runic song that calmed the storm, allowing Sigurd’s fleet to arrive safely. Now Sigurd could lay waste to King Lynge’s kingdom and kill Lynge, thus avenging his father.
Sigurd returned home, having claimed the lands and treasures held by Lynge and earning a lot of prestige and renown as a warrior.
Now I Will Do The Thing!
With Sigurd back, Regin asked him again about slaying the dragon Fafnir. Sigurd was ready now and set off for the task.
Ready, Regin advised Sigurd on a plan to kill Fafnir. He was to dig a pit and wait for Fafnir to come, walking over it. Once the dragon, Fafnir fell in, Sigurd was to stab him.
Sounds like a solid enough plan if you ask me.
Odin added to Regin’s plan, appearing as an old man before Sigurd and told him to dig some trenches to drain Fafnir’s spilled blood. The idea being that Sigurd would bathe in the dragon’s blood after killing Fafnir. It seems the dragon’s blood would bestow invulnerability. When Sigurd does bathe, a leaf is stuck to his back, making a part of him still vulnerable. This point of note is important later on.
Heeding the instructions of both, Sigurd does just that with digging the pit and trenches. He succeeds in killing Fafnir.
Now, Regin had told Sigurd to cut out Fafnir’s heart. Before doing so, Sigurd also ended up drinking some of Fafnir’s blood. This too had the effect of granting Sigurd to understand the language of birds. From them, Sigurd learned that Regin had been corrupted by Andvari’s ring with greed and planned to kill Sigurd as soon as he handed over the heart and gold.
Sigurd instead roasts Fafnir’s heart and eats part of it, gaining yet another benefit, that of wisdom or that of prophecy. If he truly had that, he would know what happens in the next part that comes.
Meeting The Beautiful Brunhildr
After his adventures with slaying the dragon Fafnir, Sigurd meets the Valkyrie and shieldmaiden, Brynhildr. Sigurd pledges himself to her and promises to return. Before leaving, Brynhildr gave Sigurd a prophecy that he would die and marry another, not her.
Eventually, Sigurd travels to Heimar’s court. Heimar it should be noted, is married to Bekkhild, the sister to Brynhildr. From there, Sigurd makes his way to Gjuki’s court. Gjuki’s wife is Grimhild who conspires to have Sigurd marry her daughter, Gudrun. Grimhild wants the magical ring and gold that Sigurd for her own family. Grimhild creates a magical potion, an “Ale of Forgetfulness” that she manages to get the hero to drink. Doing so, Sigurd forgets all about Brynhildr and the promise he’s made to her to be wed. Sigurd now marries Gudrun.
A while later, Gjuki dies and the oldest son, Gunnar becomes king. Gunnar while seeking for a suitable wife, learns about Brynhildr and decides he will court her. The only difficulty is that where Brynhildr is at, she’s surrounded by flames.
Of course, Brynhildr has promised that she will only marry the man brave enough to ride through the flames to her. As Gunnar is not brave enough to ride through the flames and even with trying to use Sigurd’s horse, Grani, still can’t ride through.
Gunnar’s brother, Hogni eventually speaks up and proposes the idea that Sigurd could use magic to shapeshift (by use of his magic helmet) and take Gunnar’s shape. Now now, Sigurd, disguised as Gunnar, ride through on his own horse, Grani to claim the fair Brynhildr.
When Brynhildr sees another man besides her Sigurd enter the flames, she despairs and demands to know who this stranger is.
The disguised Sigurd responds that he is Gunnar, the son of Gjuki of the Nibelungs. Angry at the response, Brynhildr as this isn’t Sigurd, fights him. During the fight, Sigurd manages to pull the ring Andvaranaut of her finger, rendering the Valkyrie powerless. Sigurd would later give the ring Andvaranaut to Gudrun.
Before leaving, both Brynhildr and Sigurd stay in the castle for three nights. Despite this, Sigurd in a symbolic gesture, lays his sword between them to signify that he won’t take Brynhildr’s virginity.
Maybe they meant chastity if you remember Sigurd’s earlier visit. He may not remember, but I know I do.
Eventually, Sigurd and Gunnar switch back places so that Gunnar can marry Brynhildr. Poor Brynhildr believes that Sigurd has forgotten her and keeps the promise she made of marrying the man whom she believes rode through the flames for her.
A Woman Scorned….
We’re not to any sort of happy ending yet, much of this is found under my article for Brynhildr. Later, Brynhildr and Gudrun are out bathing in a nearby river when they get into a heated argument over whose husband is better and braver.
Brynhildr boasts that her husband, Gunnar was brave enough to ride through flames for her. Knowing the truth, Gudrun smugly reveals that it was actually Sigurd who rode through the ring of fire. At this revelation, Brynhildr becomes enraged, making her marriage to Gunnar a sham as she is still in love with Sigurd.
Just remember, Hel hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Due to the trickery and deceits involved, Brynhildr just assumes that Sigurd went back on his word to marry her. It is still unknown to Brynhildr that Sigurd had been given a potion to forget all about her.
In the articles that focus on Sigurd, the notes state Brynhildr is so angry with Grimhild, not Sigurd himself directly. At this time, Brynhildr withdraws and refuses to speak to anyone, to the point that Sigurd is sent by Gunnar to try and talk to her. An angry Brynhildr uses the opportunity to claim that Sigurd has taken advantage of her and was inappropriate with her.
This of course gets Gunnar angry and wanting to kill Sigurd for sleeping with his wife.
It is that ring I tell you. That and Grimhild’s mettling in people’s love lives.
Gunnar and his brother, Hogni were reluctant to kill Sigurd as they had sworn oaths of brotherhood with him. Instead, the two got their younger brother Gutthorm to kill Sigurd after giving him a potion of enragement.
Under the influence of the potion, Gutthorm killed Sigurd in his sleep. As his final act before dying, Sigurd manages to pull his sword and kill Gutthorm in return.
A still enraged Brynhildr mocks Gudrun’s grief for the death of Sigurd and confesses to Gunnar that she had lied about Sigurd sleeping with her. She then tells Gunnar and Hogni, that her brother Atli will come avenge her death. Poor Brynhildr had always loved Sigurd, even when he betrayed her.
As Gunnar’s wife, Brynhildr then orders that Sigurd‘s three-year old son, Sigmund be killed. In a final act of desperation, Brynhildr kills herself by throwing herself onto Sigurd’s funeral pyre.
If that’s not a Shakespearean Tragedy, the two were then reunited together in Hel’s realm, the realm of the dead.
Also called the Thidrekssaga, this is another Nordic saga that relates the story of Sigurd, specifically chapters 152-168. It’s mostly similar to the Völsunga with parts very similar to events in the Nibelungenlied.
Mainly that it has Regin who is the dragon, not Fafnir and that the dwarf Mimir is Regin’s brother and who is the foster father to Sigurd.
Starting the story with Sigmund, whom on returning from some extended traveling, hears of some rumor that his wife, Sisibe has been engaged in an affair with a thrall (that’s a fancy term for a slave during Viking era Scandinavia).
Sadly, believing the rumor and lie told to him by his noblemen, Sigmund orders the same nobles to take Sisibe out to the forest and kill her. The nobles had intended to get back at Sisibe for refusing their advances while her husband was away. One of the nobles changed his mind about this turn of events and was just going to let her live while the other noble intended to take on his full petty revenge.
Yes, how dare a woman say no to a man. Really? No means no.
Anyways, the two nobles duke it out in a fight. While that’s happening, (did I forget to mention that Sisibe is pregnant?) she goes into labor and gives birth to a healthy boy. Whose baby, it should be noted is Sigmund’s.
Sisibe places the infant into a crystal vessel, I’m not sure where she got that from. It’s part of the narrative, just go with it… Sisibi kicks this vessel into a river where it floats down the stream. After which, Sisibi dies, whether by blood loss from birthing or the one nobleman out to kill her wins the fight and comes over to finish the job.
As in all stories of lost babies lost and abandoned in the wilderness, the baby is found by a doe, ya’ know, a female deer who nurses and raises the infant as her own. The infant is later found by a smith by the name of Mimir who names the boy, Sigurd (though in some places in the Þiðrekssaga, he is called Sigfred), raising them as his own.
When Sigurd is older and like any adolescent, becomes willful, Mimir asks his brother Regin, who happens to be a dragon to kill the kid. Not quite so, Sigurd turns the table on the two, first killing the dragon and then his traitorous foster-father.
Sigurd’s story from here, picks up again in chapters 225-230 where he marries Gudrun, Gunnar’s sister. Like the Völsunga, Sigurd had promised Brynhild first that he would marry her. Gunnar also marries Brynhild but is unable to consummate the marriage. Why? Because Brynhild is still in love with Sigurd. So, thinking to appease her, it is arranged to have Sigurd sleep with Brynhild and then after, she is compliant and gives into Gunnar. Mainly because Brynhild’s strength came from her being a virgin. So without it, she’s helpless before Gunnar.
That sounds so messed up.
The saga ends commenting how there would be no man now living or after who could equal Sigurd’s strength, courage or character. That Sigurd’s name would live on forever in the German tongue.
The Nibelungenlied is a Germanic epic poem dating to the 1200’s. The events within the poem can be traced to oral traditions from the 5th and 6th century. Siegfried is a prince hailing from a kingdom of Niederland with the seat of power being in the city of Xanten. While some would want to say this is the Netherlands, it’s not the same locality.
In this poem, Brynhildr is known as Brunhild or Prunhilt. With this version of the story, she is a queen or princess of Iceland. Gudrun is known as Kriemhild, Gunnar is known as Gunther and Hogni and known as Hagen.
Siegfried (or Sifrit) is a prince from Xanten who succeeds at killing a dragon and claiming a massive fortune and land from a couple of brothers.
Now Siegfried was very willful and head strong, so much so, that his father, King Siegmund sent the lad to the wonder smith, Mimer for fostering. It was hoped by Siegmund that Mimer would manage to teach discipline and humbleness to the lad.
While under Mimer’s tutelage, Siegfried comes to blows with Wieland, another of the smiths in Mimer’s service. However angry Mimer was with the incident, Siegfried demanded that the master smith forge him a sword worthy of a prince of his strength. Which is what Mimer then proceeded to forge for the young man.
The first sword that Mimer forged didn’t hold up to Siegfried’s might strength as it broke when the prince struck it with a great hammer. Siegfried proceeded to punch Mimer and his assistant before demanding another sword be made for him.
Mimer swore to forge another. Though he was also very angry and went out to the forest where his brother Regin resided, who due to other evil acts, was changed into a dragon. Mimer enlisted his draconic brother to get revenge. Regin agreed and Mimer went back tot his smithy, where he sent Siegfried off to a local charcoal-burner to get fuel hot enough to forge a sword.
Taking up a club, Siegfried sets off on his task. He passed through a forest swamp crawling with numerous venomous snakes, large toads and giant lind-worms. When the lad reached the charcoal-burner’s place, the man informed him that if Siegfried returned the way he came, that the dragon Regin would be awaiting him.
Scoffing at the news, Siegfried picked up a burning brand that he had been sent for and went back into the forest, setting fire to all the trees and underbrush so he could destroy all the loathsome reptiles.
Little fire bug there aren’t we?
Sure enough, the dragon Regin comes and spits out his venom at Siegfried. Undaunted, even as the earth is shaking with the dragon’s approach, Siegfried takes his club and knocks the fearsome dragon upside the head, killing it.
The dragon now dead, Siegfried cuts it up and discovers when the blood pours out, that where it has touched his skin, he’s become hard as horn. In a flash of insight, Siegfried goes and bathes himself in the dragon’s blood, so he can become invulnerable. The only part of him that is still vulnerable is a spot on his back where a leaf had stuck to him.
That done, Siegfried dressed himself again and set about to eat the pieces of dragon meat, looking to take in the dragon’s strength to himself. As the meat cooked, Siegfried took a piece and ate it. Instantly, Siegfried could hear voices and realized it was the birdsong that he was hearing and that he could understand it.
Listening to the birdsong, Siegfried learned from the birds that Mimer had sent him out to his doom with the intention of being killed by the dragon. Angry at what he heard, Siegfried cut off the dragon’s head and took it back with him to the smithy to fling at Mimer’s feet. The assistants took off and fled while Mimer tried to appeal to Siegfried and offered up the horse Grane, a descendant of Odin’s steed Sleipner.
Remembering what the birds said, Siegfried accepted the gift horse and then killed Mimer anyways. The young prince then returned to his father, King Siegmund. When Siegmund hear of what happened, he admonished his son over slaying Mimer, but he was proud of his son for having slain a dragon. Armor was then presented to Siegfried and he was now seen as a warrior and acknowledged as the heir to the Netherlands.
A warrior now, Siegfried set out to further prove himself by traveling to a distant land of Isenland. Despite a storm that threatened to delay Siegfried’s voyage, the young warrior pressed on towards his destination.
There, at Queen Brunhild’s castle, Siegfried found the gates to be locked. Undaunted, Siegfried broke them down and attacked Queen Brunhild’s knights. Finally, Queen Brunhild entered and stopped the melee. She gave the young prince welcome to her castle.
Seeing that Brunhild was very fair to behold, her being a battle maiden of great strength and prowess, was not whom Siegfried wanted to marry. Even though many knights had come to try and prove their skill in combat to court Brunhild, all had been slain.
Even though Siegfried says that Brunhild is not whom he would seek for a wife and that he preferred someone gentler; he does stop to lift up a boulder to fling it as far as he can. Just to show he wasn’t intimidated by Brunhild’s strength or weak.
Siegfried went his way until he came to the land of the Nibelungs. Here, Siegfried found that the king had recently died and that his two sons were fighting over their inheritance. The brothers offered Sigurd payment the sword Balmung, forged by dwarves if he would help divide their father’s wealth and lands.
The brothers then accused Siegfried of withholding part of the treasure for himself. An argument ensued, and the brothers called upon some twelve giants to seize Siegfried and imprison him within a mountain’s treasure cave.
Undaunted yet again, Siegfried fought the giants. Spells were cast, and a thick mist formed around the combatants. Wielding the sword Balmung, Siegfried held his own against the giants while a thunderstorm coursed, and the earth shook.
Eventually all of the giants were slain. The dwarf Alberich now fought Siegfried. This was not an easy match for Siegfried as Alberich wore a cloak of invisibility to aid him. At long last, Siegfried had Alberich at his mercy. Sparing the dwarf’s life, Siegfried claimed the cloak of invisibility for his own.
Siegfried killed the two brothers and placed Alberich in charge of watching the treasure horde. The Nibelung clan proclaimed Siegfried to be their rightful ruler. Though Siegfried didn’t stay long, he still had other places to go and took with him twelve men back to the Netherlands.
Siegfried’s fame began to spread before him as bards and skalds began to spread word of his deeds and accomplishments.
One day, these same bards and skalds would bring word to Siegfried about a beautiful and fair maiden by the name of Kriemhild. Deciding that this is whom he wanted to marry, Siegfried set out for the country of Burgundy to seek her hand in marriage.
Siegfried’s parents, the King and Queen tried to warn him not to go to Burgundy. The Burgundians held a reputation for being very war-like. As if warnings never stopped Siegfried before, he insisted on going, saying if he couldn’t get Kriemhild’s hand by request, he would win her by force of arms.
Siegfried went with a retinue of eleven other knights. Queen Sigelinde made sure the retinue left with rich and lavish apparel to make sure they were taken for being nobles.
How exactly Siegfried did it, I don’t know. Siegfried marries Kriemhild and aids her brother, Gunther who is the king of the Burgundians, to court and marry Brunhild, a queen or princess of Iceland.
As a queen (or princess) and a powerful woman in her own right, Brunhild declared that the man she would marry must be someone able to best her in three contests meant to show strength and courage.
Gunther wanted to marry Brunhild and with the help of his liege man, Siegfried (who has a cloak of invisibility), he is able to overpower Brunhild in her three contests. In the first game, Brunhild manages to lift and throw a spear at Gunther that three men together could barely lift. Siegfried with his cloak of invisibility on, blocks and keeps the spear from hitting Gunther. In the second game, Brunhild throws a boulder that requires the strength of twelve men to heave some twelves fathoms. In the last game, Brunhild leaps over the same boulder.
In an act of cheating and with Siegfried’s aid using the invisibility cloak, Gunther is able to defeat Brunhild and claim her for his wife.
That sounds like dirty pool to me.
Rightfully so, on their wedding night, Brunhild refuses to give up her virginity to Gunther. Instead, she ties up Gunther and leaves him dangling from the ceiling of their chamber. Coming to Gunther’s aid, Siegfried wearing his invisibility cloak, attacks Brunhild, breaking her bones and then taking both her girdle and ring.
It seems both girdle and ring are the source of Brunhild’s supernatural strength and without them, she was forced to be docile and submit to be Gunther’s wife.
At the Worms Cathedral, Brunhild and Kriemhild, Siegfried’s wife gets in a rather heated argument about their husbands. Brunhild takes the stance that Siegfried is nothing more than a lowly vassal beholden to Gunther. Kriemhild reveals the dirty pool and trickery used by Gunther and Siegfried, by showing off the girdle and ring that were stolen from Brunhild.
Unlike the Völsunga, Brunhild’s fate is never mentioned and it’s assumed she out lives Kriemhild and her brothers.
As for Siegfried and Gunther, they make peace with each other despite their wives quarreling. Unfortunately, Gunther’s courtier, Hagen von Tronje had other ideas and plotted to kill the two. Hagen managed to convince Kriemhild to place a cross on Siegfried’s back, covering the vulnerable spot on him. While Hagen and Siegfried are out hunting, Hagen spears him in the back when Siegfried stops to take a drink from a stream.
Supposedly this had been part of a prophecy that whomever Kriemhild ended up marrying would suffer a violent death. Out of spite, Hagen then threw all of Siegfried’s wealth into the Rhine so that his widow, Kriemhild would be unable to raise an army and avenge her husband.
Das Lied Vom Hürnen Seyfrid
“The song of horn-skinned Siegfried” is a late medieval & modern heroic ballad that first appears around 1500 C.E.
This version of the story tells of Siegfried’s youthful adventures. For the most part, it follows the events found in the Nibelungenlied.
By this account, Siegfried had to leave his father Siegmund’s court for his unseemly behavior to live with a smith in the nearby forest. Siegfried is so uncontrollable that the smith deems it fit to try and have the youth killed by a dragon.
Turning the tables, Siegfried is the one who kills the dragon and not just one, but several dragons by trapping them with log traps and setting them on fire! Wow.
Seeing that the dragon skin is hard as horn though it melts in the fire. Siegfried discovers after sticking his fingers in it that his own skin becomes hard as horn too. At which point, Siegfried covers himself in the melted skin of dragon except for one spot on his back.
Not stopping there, Siegfried discovers the tracks of another dragon and discovers it has the princess Kriemhild of Worms held captive. With a little help from the dwarf Eugel, Siegfried defeats a giant by the name of Kuperan who holds the key to the mountain where Kriemhild is held prisoner.
In true heroic fashion, Siegfried slays the dragon and in the process finds the Nibelungen treasure within the mountain cavern. Eugel than prophesies that Siegfried will only have eight years to live. As he won’t be able to make use of the treasure, Siegfried dumps it into the Rhine as he returns to Worms. There, Siegfried rules with Kriemhild’s brother who eventually plot to have him killed.
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Richard Wagner’s famous four opera cycle. Wagner took of the mythology for Siegfried from the Nordic sagas rather than the Nibelungenlied. Siegfried mainly appears in the last three operas of this cycle, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung where he plays a major role. The legends of Sigurd from the Völsunga form the basis for which the opera Siegfried is based on and thus influences both Die Walküre and Gotterdammerung.
For those who don’t know or may have guessed already, this is the opera cycle that inspires a popular saying of “It isn’t over until fat lady sings.” Especially with Brünnhilde’s famous immolation in the finale of Gotterdammerung. Adding to this, thanks to the costume designer, the idea of Viking helmets having two horns was firmly ingrained in people’s minds after a visit to the museum for ideas and saw the ceremonial two horned helmet on display.
In this opera cycle, Brünnhilde is one of many Valkyries born from the union between Wotan and Erda, the personification of the earth. In the Die Walkurie, Wotan tasks Brünnhilde with protecting the hero Siegmund, his son by a mortal woman. When the goddess Fricka contests this, she forces Wotan to have Siegmund die for his infidelity and incest. Brünnhilde disobeys Wotan’s order and carries away Siegmund’s wife and sister Sieglinde along with the broken pieces of Siegmund’s sword Nothung.
After hiding them away, Brünnhilde then faces the wrath of her father, Wotan who makes her a mortal woman and then places her in an enchanted sleep who can be claimed by any man who comes across her. Brünnhilde argues against this punishment, saying she had obeyed Wotan’s true will and doesn’t deserve this harsh of a punishment. Wotan is persuaded to lessen the punishment to protect her enchanted sleep with a magical circle of fire and that she can only be awakened by a hero who knows no fear.
Brünnhilde doesn’t appear again in the operas until the third act of Siegfried. Here, the title character is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde. He was born after Siegmund’s death and raised by the dwarf Mime, the brother of Alberich.
It should be noted that Alberich is the one who stole the gold and made the ring from which the entire Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle is based on. If you’re thinking “my precious” and the “one ring” as in Tolkien’s Middle Earth series, you’d be more or less correct as this is where J.R.R. Tolkien got inspired and took his ideas from with Norse mythology.
Back to the main story, Siegfried kills the dragon Fafnir that was once a giant. Siegfried takes the ring and finds himself guided to the rock hiding Brünnhilde by a bird. It seems Fafnir’s blood allowed Siegfried to understand the language of birds. Wotan tries to stop Siegfried who instead breaks the god’s spear. Wotan defeated, Siegfried than awakens the sleeping Brünnhilde.
The two appear again in the last opera, Gotterdammerung. Siegfried gives Brünnhilde the ring, the very ring that Alberich made. The two separate and Wagner goes back to following the Norse story though with notable changes.
Siegfried does go to Gunther’s hall where he is given the magical potion that causes him to forget all about Brünnhilde. That way, Gunther can now marry her. This is all possible thanks to Hagen, Alberich’s son and Gunther’s half-brother. Hagen’s plans are successful as Siegfried leads Gunther to where Brünnhilde is at.
During that time, Brünnhilde had been visited by a sister Valkyrie, Waltraute who warns her of Wotan’s plan for self-immolation and urges her to give up the ring. Brünnhilde refuses to give up the ring.
However, Brünnhilde is overpowered by Siegfried, who, disguised as Gunther using the Tarnhelm (a helm of invisibility instead of a cloak of invisibility) and takes the ring by force.
The enchanted Siegfried goes on to marry Gutrune, Gunther’s sister. When Brünnhilde sees that Siegfried has the ring taken from her, she denounces and calls him out on his treachery. Brünnhilde then joins with Gunther and Hagen in a plot to murder Siegfried. She informs Hagen that Siegfried can only be attacked from behind.
So, when Gunther and Hagen take Siegfried out on a hunting trip, Hagen takes the opportunity to go ahead and stab Siegfried in the back with his spear.
After the two brothers return, Hagen ends up killing Gunther in a fight over the ring. Brünnhilde ceases the moment to take charge and has a pyre built on which she will sacrifice herself, thereby cleansing the ring of its curse and sending it back to the Rhinemaidens.
Brünnhilde’s pyre becomes the signal by which Valhalla and all the Norse gods perish as Ragnarok is brought about with everyone dying in a fire.
There a couple of other sources for the story of Sigurd. Seeming minor sources, they do contribute to the overall story of Sigurd and can confuse people if they try to make the numerous sources for Sigurd and Siegfried all match up and be consistent. The story of Sigurd slaying the dragon is combined with another story of two brothers fighting over their inheritance as an example.
Atlakviða – The lay of Atli, this poem is found in the Poetic Edda and has a story similar to the Völsunga. Here, Atli (as in Attila the Hun) sending a message to Gunnar of the Burgundians and his brothers, inviting them to a feast. Suspicious of the message, their sister Gudrun sends a warning not to come. The brothers go anyways and are killed. Later in an act of revenge, Gudrun tricks Atli into eating the flesh of their two sons. After which Gudrun kills Atli and burns down his hall.
One thing this story is noted for is that it lacks any of Sigurd’s involvement with the destruction of the Burgundians that other sources try to connect. It’s the Nibelungenlied that tends to make this connection. As stories grow and change, it does show where Sigurd’s widow Gudrun seeks out revenge for her brothers.
Poetic Edda – One poem tells the story of Sigurd awakening the Valkyrie from an enchanted sleep.
This is the name of the magical ring that Brynhildr already possesses or is given to her by Siegfried. In Wagnar’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, it was forged by the dwarf Alberich and has a curse placed on it.
In the Völsunga, the ring is part of the cursed treasure that Siegfried takes after slaying the dragon Fafnir. Either way, it explains all of Brynhildr and Siegfried’s bad luck and subsequent deaths.
The ring had been cursed by its creator, Andvari when Loki tried to force him to give it up. Andvari cursed it that all his treasure and the ring would be the death of those who owns it. Aside from being cursed, Andyaranaut could also make gold.
1st – Sigurd bathes in it, gaining invulnerability. Except for one spot on his back where a leaf is to have stuck to him. This is important as some versions of Sigurd’s story, once Brynhildr is seeking revenge against him, tells Gunnar that Sigurd’s vulnerable spot is on his back.
Where have we heard this before? Ah yes, Achilles being dipped into the river Styx so he would become invulnerable because his mother feared for her child’s wellbeing. Of course, Achilles has a vulnerable spot of his heel, where his mother held onto him so he wouldn’t fall in.
And if Odin is really Sigurd’s father, not Sigmund… same thing. So Achilles’ Heel for the vulnerable spot… Sigurd’s Back for the vulnerable spot. Achille’s Heel has the better ring to it.
2nd – Sigurd drinks some of the blood, gaining the ability to speak the language of birds.
3rd – Sigurd eats part of Fafnir’s heart, gaining wisdom and prophesy. I’m not so sure how effect that one was as it didn’t stop his demise with Brynhildr’s revenge plan and getting killed.
A Sword For A Hero!
In the Volsunga, the sword that Sigurd wields is called Gram.
In the Nibelungd, the sword that Siegfried wields is called Balmung.
Both are correct, it’s just a matter of which saga and source you’re using or prefer.
Possible Reality Behind The Legends
The legends surrounding Sigurd/Siegfried are considered by scholars and mythographers as coming from a mythic age before any confirmed written history can be verified. There’s a dispute and disagreement about if the figure of Sigurd/Siegfried even existed. If they did, the legends certainly grew around them to make them larger than life.
As far as an actual historical figure goes, it’s been suggested that any one or more of the figures or kings in the Merovingian dynasty among the Franks could have inspired the legend of Sigurd. One notable king is Sigebert I who had been married to Brunhilda of Austrasia. The names are close when you consider the possibility of Brunhildr as a likely historical person. There’s just too much uncertainty for some scholars. Though if it has any truth, the connection comes with Sigebert’s murder at the hands of Brunhilda and Fredegund and not that of Gudrun/Kriemhild and Brunhildr/Brynhild.
Another idea put forth seen in the elements of Sigurd slaying the dragon, is that this could be a mythological retelling of Arminius’ defeat of Publius Quinctilius Varas during the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 C.E. This idea often seen as not very likely or tenuous.
Paderborn – An Icelandic Abbot, Nicholaus of Thvera recorded in his travels through Westphalia how he was shown where Sigurd is to have slain the dragon, Gnita-Heath near two villages in Paderborn.
City of Worms – When Emperor Frederick III visited the city in 1488 C.E., he learned of the legend how the “giant Siegfried” was buried in the cemetery at St. Meinhard and St. Cecilia. One account ordered the graveyard dug up and found nothing. A German chronicle says that a skull and some large bones were found.
Dragons & Dinosaurs
Both the legends of Sigurd and Siegfried feature prominently the titular hero slaying a dragon. Anyone doing a cursory glance at history and paleontology, it’s not hard to imagine our ancestors taking one look at fossilized skeletons of giant creatures and believing them to still be around. A lack of understanding about fossils and just how long ago something lived would have been beyond them.
In 1941 Germany, the German paleontologist H. Kirchner speculated on the idea that two sets of prominent, yet massive dinosaur tracks in Siegfriedsburg, in the Rhine Valley could very well have contributed to the legend of dragons and Siegfried slaying one.
Other dinosaur tracks have been found in northern Europe. Some like the ones found in a quarry at Rehburg-Loccum, close to Hannover, Germany or another set in Muenchehagen, Germany.
Another place, Drachenfels (“Dragon Rock”), Konigswinter on the Rhine has a large statue of a dragon near the ruins of a castle. Below this castle, there is a cave that is attributed to having been Fafnir’s lair.
A 2005 production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Neibelung” showed Siegfried battling Fafnir as fossilized dinosaur monster.
Sigurd & Beowulf – Comparison
For those who have read Beowulf’s story, towards the end of Beowulf, the titular hero battles a dragon, thus spelling his doom and the end of all of his adventures. It’s been pointed too that Beowulf and even Thor’s encounters with dragons were more about defending their homelands to keep them safe.
For Sigurd (or Siegfried), slaying the dragon merely marks the beginning of all of the hero’s adventures for more is to come. Where Beowulf and Thor are defending their homelands, Sigurd is all about going out to make a name for himself and gaining wealth. By slaying the dragon, then bathing in and drinking its blood along with eating it’s heart, Sigurd gains super human powers.
When Christianity became more prominent throughout Europe, many of the dragon symbols came to be associated with the devil or Satan. As a side note to this, dragons too in Western myths tend to represent greed.
So images of Sigurd slaying the dragon Fafnir were often depicted in Scandinavian churches.
Tolkien And The Lord of the Rings!
As I previously mentioned above, J.R.R. Tolkien took his inspiration for his Middle Earth series from Norse mythology and the inspiration for the One Ring from that of Andyaranaut. The inspirations for Aragorn’s sword are clearly seen too in the broken and reforged swords of Gram and Balmung.
A fun note to add is that Tolkien did not like Wagner’s take on the German myths. I can see it too, Taking and combining the Völsunga and Nibelungenlied together can make it a bit harder to figure out which myth and legend is which.
Now, J.R.R. Tolkien did write a version of the Völsunga saga in “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun” circa 1930. It was published later by his son, Christopher Tolkien in 2009. The book comprises of two narrative poems: “The new lay of the Volsungs” and “The new lay of Gudrun” done in the meter of ancient Scandinavian poetry while using Modern English.
Etymology: Uncertain, the name Narcissus has come to be associated with a species of daffodil. Pliny the Elder wrote that the flower is named for its fragrance. There’s a connection to “narko” meaning “I grow numb” and not for mythological figure.
Alternate Spellings: Nárkissos
Narcissus hailed from Thespiae in Boeotia and was very well known for his beauty. He was so proud of his beauty that he held disdain and scorn for those who professed their love for him. This of course, attracted the attention of Nemesis, the goddess of retribution who sought to punish Narcissus for his arrogance.
Father – Cephissus, a river god or Endymion by Nonnus in his Dionysiaca
Mother – Liriope, a nymph or Selene by by Nonnus in his Dionysiaca
There are several variations to the story of Narcissus.
For one, with Narcissus’ parentage of a minor river god and nymph, Narcissus himself is a minor god. This makes it a little more likely for why other gods, albeit minor take an interest in him.
Conon was a contemporary of Ovid. Unlike Ovid’s telling of the story, in this one, there is a young man by the name of Ameinias who falls in love with Narcissus. Now, Narcissus had already spurned the love and advances of several other male suitors already. So Ameinias is just merely the latest of who’s been turned down.
What makes Ameinias different from the others is that Narcissus gives him a sword. Ameinias prays to the gods, specifically Nemesis, that Narcissus would get his comeuppance and feel all the pain that he has caused others. The prayer said, Ameinias takes his own life on the steps to Narcissus’ home with the sword given to him.
In answer, when Narcissus walks by a pool of water, he sees his own reflection after stopping to get a drink. Falling in love with his own reflection, Narcissus kills himself as he’s unable to have what he wants, his reflection.
Or, when Narcissus realizes that he is cursed for the humiliation he inflicted on Ameinias, he kills himself. From Narcissus’ blood, a flower springs up, bearing his name.
Sometimes it is the goddess Artemis who answers Ameinias’ call for vengeance.
By Conon’s account, Narcissus is still in the Underworld, gazing at his reflection in the waters of the Styx river.
Edith Hamilton’s Mythology
One story mentioned in this volume is that Zeus had created the narcissus flower in order to help Hades with kidnapping Kore (Persephone), the daughter of Demeter down to the Underworld while she was out with friends gathering flowers and playing. When Kore went to pick the strange, new flower, that is when a chasm leading to the Underworld opened up and Hades carried her away to become his wife.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses has the version of Narcissus’ story that most people are familiar with.
The son of Cephissus, the river god of the Boeotian river and the nymph Liriope, Narcissus was born in Thespiae, Boetia. Liriope was worried about the fate of her baby boy and took him to a blind seer by the name of Tiresias. The seer told Narcissus’ mother that the baby would enjoy a long life so long as: “he didn’t get to know himself.” In some accounts, in response to this prophecy, Liriope removed all mirrors to try and prevent Narcissus from ever catching sight of his reflection.
When Narcissus reached sixteen years of age, he spurned the love and advances of all those, men and women alike, who showed any interest in him. Yes, the ancient Grecian heart-throb leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him without any second thoughts.
Narcissus is out wandering the forests one day with some friends hunting deer when Echo, a mountain nymph or Oread sees and instantly falls in love with him.
What’s not told when starting off with just Narcissus’ side of the story is that Echo had been cursed by Juno, Jupiter’s wife after finding out that Echo was only running distraction to keep her from finding out about her husband’s affairs. Angry, Juno curses Echo that she can only repeat what someone else has said.
With that context in mind, when Narcissus gets separated from his friends and calls out: “Is anyone there?” That Echo can only repeat back what he says with: “Is anyone there?”
This startled Narcissus who then asked: “Come here.”
Because of the curse, Echo could only respond with the same “come here” reply.
When no one came out into the glade he was standing in, Narcissus figured that the other person must be moving away from him. So, he called out again: “This way, we must come together.”
Echo, taking this to heart as confirmation for her love, called back: “We must come together!” As she came running out, ready to throw her arms around Narcissus.
On seeing the nymph running towards him, Narcissus became affronted and pushed Echo away exclaiming: “Hands off! May I die before you enjoy my body!”
Hurt, all Echo could respond with was: “Enjoy my body.” Before she turned to flee back into the woods, rejected and humiliated by Narcissus. By this account, Echo wasted away, her body becoming stone until only her voice remained.
Narcissus would have his own comeuppance coming, for he continued to spurn the advances and loves of others. Including the previously mentioned Ameinias, who in his love-sickness, called out: “O may he love himself alone and fail un that great love.”
Nemesis, the goddess of revenge heard Ameinias’ cure and decided to respond. She cursed Narcissus, attracted him to a pool where he fell in love with his own reflection. Not realizing it was merely an image and unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died.
Echo, her own love unrequited and unable to do anything, watched on as Narcissus pined away for his reflection.
It is said, that just before he died, Narcissus told his reflection: “Oh darling boy, I loved you in vain, good-bye.”
Echo repeated the words: “Good-bye.” As she was now completely stone and unable to do anything else.
When the nymphs came to gather up Narcissus’ body for funeral, it was gone and in its place was a flower.
Nemesis – It should be noted that she is sometimes seen as an aspect of Aphrodite and not a separate entity.
Another note, Ovid connecting Echo to Narcissus’ myth seems to have been his own invention. However, its now the official one.
Pausanias’s Guide To Greece
In a Greek travelogue, Pausanias retells Narcissus’ story in which he ends up falling in love with a twin sister, not his own reflection. When his sister died, Narcissus would go to a spring and look at his reflection, imagining that it was his own sister that he saw. Narcissus eventually dies, pinning away for the loss of his sister.
Pausanias doesn’t think the story of Narcissus falling in love with is reflection and not being able to recognize it as such is unlikely.
Mirror, Mirror On The Wall….
One idea I came across says that Narcissus’ story may originate in an ancient Greek superstition that it is unlucky, possibly even fatal, to see one’s reflection.
Other sources to Narcissus’ story have him drowning in the pool as he tries reaching for his reflection.
That’s a bit heavy and deep to take. Ovid, Parthenius of Nicaea and Conon all have versions of Narcissus’ story where he commits suicide as he’s unable to what he desires, that being his reflection give love back.
After Narcissus’ death, a flower sprang up in the very place that he died. This flower of course bears Narcissus’ name and is a genus of daffodil.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Or Narcissism. Obviously, Narcissus’ story is the basis for a personality disorder in which a person is very self-absorbed, vain and everything is always about them whether that is their own physical appearance or public perception. Psychologist have studied this disorder for years.
A little bit of self-care and self-love is good. We should care about ourselves and want to do good as well as look good. When taken to the extremes and a narcissus is that self-absorbed with themselves that they don’t care about others or make everything about them, then you get a problem.
Etymology – The Altar (Latin), Incense Burner or Censer (Greek – Thymiaterion)
Also known as: θυτήριον, θυμιατήριον, Thymiaterion (Greek), Ara Centauri (Roman), Focus, Lar, and Ignitabulum, Thuribulum (Latin),
Ara is the name of a constellation in both Greek and Roman mythology that represents the altar that sacrifices to the gods were made on. The Milky Way galaxy was said to represent smoke rising up from the offerings on the altar. It is a southern constellation that lays between the Scorpius and Triangulum Australe constellations along the southern horizon on the Northern Hemisphere.
The constellation known as Ara is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Ara was noted as being close to the horizon by Aratus in 270 B.C.E. Bradley Schaefer, a professor of astronomy, has commented that the ancient star gazers must have been able to see as far south on the southern hemisphere for where Zeta Arae lays, in order to pick out an alter constellation. The stars comprising of Ara used to be part of the Centaurus and Lupus constellations until the astronomer, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille created the Ara constellation during the mid-eighteenth century. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is one of the smaller constellations, ranking 63rd in size.
Constellations bordering with Ara are: Apus, Corona Australis, Norma, Pavo, Scorpius, Telescopium, and Triangulum Australe. The best time to spot Ara is during July in the Northern Hemisphere.
The stars for Ara are found in Dōng Fāng Qīng Lóng or the Azure Dragon of the East. In modern Chinese, Ara is known as Tiān Tán Zuò (天壇座), meaning: “the heaven altar constellation.”
Guī – Five of the stars (most likely Epsilon, Gamma, Delta, Eta, and Zeta Arae) in Ara form a tortoise that lived in the river formed by the Milky Way. Since tortoises are land animals, this likely a turtle as they were a prized delicacy. Another turtle found in Chinese astronomy is Bie who is located on the banks of the Milky Way in the Corona Australis.
Chǔ – Three stars (most likely Sigma, Alpha, and Beta Arae) in Ara form a pestle that is seen as pounding rice and separating the husks into a basket, Ji that is found in Sagittarius. Sometimes Chǔ is placed within the constellation Telescopium and depicted by the stars Alpha and Zeta Telescopii.
In Christian astronomy, Ara represents the altar that Noah built to make sacrifices to God on after the great flood.
In Greek myth, Ara represents the altar that Zeus and the other Greek gods swore their oaths of allegiance on before they went to war against the Titans to overthrow Cronus. This particular altar that the gods swore on is held to have been built by the Cyclopes.
It should be noted that Cronus was one of twelve Titans who had also usurped his own father, Uranus, the previous ruler.
What comes around, goes around. A prophecy was given that Cronus would suffer the same fate of being displaced by one of his own children. To prevent this from happening, Cronus swallowed all of his children whole as they were born. These children being: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon who would all go on to be the Olympic gods.
When Rhea, Cronus’ wife gave birth to her youngest son, Zeus, she hid him in a cave on Crete and gave Cronus a stone, telling him that this was Zeus. Duped, Cronus swallowed the stone. Later, when Zeus had grown up, he managed to get Cronus to vomit up his siblings. Cronus’ children swore vengeance and to help Zeus overthrow Cronus and the other Titans.
The war lasted many years and had come to a standstill at one point and Gaia, goddess of the Earth and spouse to Uranus instructed Zeus to free the ugly, deformed kin of the Titans. These kin were the Hecatoncheires (hundred-handed giants) and the one-eyed Cyclopes who sorely wanted revenge against Cronus for having been imprisoned down in Tartarus.
Making his way down to the depths of the underworld of Tartarus, Zeus freed the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes, asking them to join his side against Cronus and the other Titans. In gratitude for their freedom, the Cyclopes created a helmet of darkness for Hades, Poseidon’s trident and thunderbolts for Zeus.
Victory didn’t take long after, bringing a ten-year war to an end. Zeus would become the god of the sky, ruling over the other gods from Mount Olympus, Poseidon would become the gods of the sea and Hades would become the god of the underworld.
To commemorate their victory over the Titans, Zeus placed the alter up into the heavens to become the constellation Ara.
Alternatively, Ara has been seen to represent the altar of King Lycaon of Arcadia. Yes, that Lycaon, who held a feast for the gods and dished up one of his sons, Nyctimus as the main course.
Why? Because Lycaon wanted to test Zeus to see if he was omnipotent. Okay dude, not a good idea, this sort of thing with testing and challenging the gods is called Hubris. It is never a good idea to anger the gods.
Needless to say, Zeus was not amused by this affront and turns Lycaon into a wolf (represented by the constellation of Lupus) before killing Lycaon’s other sons with lightning. As for Nyctimus, Zeus restored the child back to life.
Another version of this story given by an Eratosthenes, holds that Lycaon had served up his grandson Arcas at this feast. This would really anger Zeus as Arcas is his son by way of an affair with Callisto, who happens to be Lycaon’s only daughter.
In terms of predicting the weather forecast, it was said by the Greek poet Aratus, that if sailors saw the constellation of Ara, it meant that there would be wind blowing in from the south.
Other weather forecasting held that if the Ara constellation was the only visible constellation in a cloudy night sky, that there would be a storm coming.
The Romans called Ara by the name of Ara Centauri as it represented the altar that Centaurus used when sacrificing the wolf, Lupus.
In this version of the myth, Centaurus is shown in the night sky as carrying the wolf, Lupus to sacrifice on the altar, Ara.
Altar To The Gods, Hearths & Oaths
A more minor bit of lore, is that the Ara constellation represents the actual altar that people would burn incense on to show respect for Zeus.
Out of all the constellations for Ptolemy and other ancient Greek Astronomers to point out, why an Altar? It’s clearly important to the ancient Greeks. Many heroes in the Greek & Roman mythologies made sacrifices to different deities, so it does make sense that something so important would find a place of note in the heavens.
It is very likely that this is just a smaller constellation taken from a larger whole that tells a story narrated out in the night sky, much like the constellations for the story of Perseus and Andromeda or the three constellations that make up the Argo Navis for the story of Jason and the Argonauts.
Usually I want to roll my eyes when I come across an article while researching for a bit of mythology that gets too long winded about the etymology of a word and seems to try and make far too many linguistic connections.
This time it seems to bear some strong merit.
The interesting tidbit I came across is how the Latin word altar was adopted into the Old English word altar as a derivative from the plural noun “altaria”, meaning: “burnt offerings” and likely from the verb “adolere” meaning: “burn up.”
This word connection and etymology has been linked to Hestia, the goddess of the Hearth. The center of the home. That the description of Ara with the smoke from the Altar is that of smoke rising from the hearth of Greek and Roman homes.
More significant is that the Altar was the place where people would swear their oaths. Further etymology games and connections have brought up that the Greek word for oath is horkos and where the modern word exorcise, meaning: “’to bind by an oath” or “to drive out evil spirits” as seen in the Greek word of exorkizein (ex – out and horkos – oath). That seems to make sense in the story of the Titanomachy when Zeus swears an oath on the altar to kill his father and over throw the other Titans. Thus, making way for a new era ruled by the Olympian gods
Making a jump to Roman mythology, you have Orcus, a god of the underworld and punisher of broken oaths. There wouldn’t be this aspect to a deity unless it wasn’t considered important. Again, comes the linking of the Roman Orcus to the Greek orkos or horkos, meaning to swear and the variations of exorkezein, “to bind by an oath,” orkizein ‘to make to swear’, from the word orkos, ‘an oath.”
Continued word etymology has me looking at how the root orkos is very similar to the Greek erkhos or serkos, meaning: “an enclosure, hedge or fence” and is a cognate to the Latin “sarcire” meaning: “to patch or mend” with similar words of sark “make restitution,” sartoruis and sarcire, “to mend or repair.”
It used to be that your word was your bond and that giving one’s word or oath really meant something. Nowadays it feels like you need to have it in writing with the possibility of needing to take people to court if they don’t fulfill any contractual agreements of significant importance.
The constellation of Ara, along with 18 other constellations of: Aquila, Centaurus, Corona Australis, Corvus, Crater, Crux, Cygnus, Hercules, Hydra, Lupus, Lyra, Ophiuchus, Sagitta, Scutum, Serpens, Sextans, Triangulum Australe, and Vulpecula.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
Stars of Ara
Alpha Arae – Also known in Chinese as Tchou or Choo, meaning “pestle.” Is the second brightest in the Ara constellation.
Beta Arae – This is the brightest star in the Ara constellation.
Gamma Arae – Is a blue-hued supergiant star thought to be 12.5 to 25 times bigger than the Earth’s own Sun.
Mu Arae – Is a sun-like star that has four known exo-planets orbiting it.
Delta Arae – Also known in Chinese as Tseen Yin, meaning “the Dark Sky.”
Zeta Arae – This is the third brightest star in the Ara constellation.
Named for the distinct “stingray” shape, this Nebula is located roughly 18,000 light years away from the Earth. As of 2010, this is the youngest known planetary nebula found within Ara. While smaller than many other planetary nebulae that have been discovered so far, the Stingray Nebula is still 130 times larger than our solar system. The light for this nebula was first observed in 1987. It is a planetary nebula some 18,000 light years away from the Earth.
Water Lily Nebula
Also, catalogued as IRAS 16594-4656, this is a pre-planetary nebula found within the Ara constellation that is in the process of forming planets. It was first discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Westerlund 1 (Ara Cluster)
This is a compact cluster of relatively young (a few million years old) stars located some 12,100 to 16,000 light years from Earth. Westerlund 1 is named after the Swedish astronomer, Bengt Westerlund who first discovered it in 1961.
Also called: Dyok, Jo-Uk, Joagh, Joghi, jok, Joogi, Jouk, Jok Odudu, Ju-Ok, Juong, Jwok or Nyikang
Etymology: Creator, Jok Odudu – “god of birth”
Juok is the main Creator God of the Shilluk, Dinka, Nuer and other tribes along the upper areas of the Nile river. It is generally believed that Juok controls the destinies of all living creatures. The legendary Shilluk king, Nyikang is often seen as being Juok’s earthly representative or avatar much like the Egyptian pharaohs were often seen as the living god Ra in earthly form.
God Of Creation
Creating Mankind – According to stories, Juok created or molded all of the people from the earth. While busy with creation, Juok wandered the earth. In the land of the white folk, Juok found a pure white earth or sand in which to create the first whites. In the land of Egypt, Juok made the red or brown people from the mud of the Nile river. When Juok finally came to the land of the Shilluks, he found some black earth in which to create black people from. Eventually, Juok gave people sex organs so they could reproduce themselves without his help.
Creating All Things – In this story, Juok created several different creatures such as the elephant, buffalo, lion, crocodile, dog and finally the first humans, a boy and girl. Juok wasn’t too happy with the humans he had created and told the dog to get of them. Proving to be man’s best friend, the dog instead raised and took care of the children until they grew up.
When Juok had finished with all of his creations, he started to divide up the land as to where each would live and providing each with weapons to defend or attack. Juok saw that the humans were still alive and decided he would wait until the last to deal with them. This way, he hoped, there would be no more land or weapons to give out.
The dog, figuring this out, told the man to tell Juok that they were the elephant, buffalo and lion. That way, when Juok came to pass out weapons, he gave them all spears.
When the real animals showed up for their weapons, there were no spears left. Juok then gave the elephant tusks, the buffalo horns, the lion claws and the crocodile teeth. The man used the spears he was given to drive and ward off the animals and took the best land for himself.
The Origins Of Death – In the beginning, death was not a permanent thing. For when people died, they would be dead for three days before returning to life. Juok decided to make death a permanent thing by throwing a rock into a river.
The dog who had previously helped men, told the people to work together and pull the rock out of the river. The people, however ignored the dog’s advice. So the dog tried himself to remove the rock. In his efforts, he was only able to break off a large piece of the rock and brought it home. As a result, humans have much longer lives than they otherwise would have.
I would say, looking at these last two stories, Juok doesn’t seem all that nice of a deity.
As Nyikang, he was a legendary king who became deified at death. He is often invoked as an intermediary for the gods.
Tribes such as the Acholi and Lango see Jok as a local and ancestral spirit.
Other tribes like the Alur of Uganda and Zaire saw the world as being full of spirits or Jok/Djok. For them, their ancestors manifested as snakes or large rocks. Whenever there was a drought, the Alur would sacrifice a black goat to Jok in order to bring rain.
I came across a few of the gods or ancestral deities for the Shilluk people. However, the information is sparse enough, I decided to combine all the deities into one article in order to expand this post. Plus, it feels more worthwhile writing it up.
First up is that Shilluk is a corruption of the word Chollo, so a lot of my research did center around looking up Shilluk and not just Chollo.
The Shilluk or Chollo people are a large, native or Luo Nilotic people living along the Nile River of modern, Southern Sudan.
Legend and traditions hold that sometime during the 15th century C.E., Nyikango, the mythical ancestor and founder of the Shilluk or Chollo nation had an argument with Dimo and other Luo groups in a place known as Bahr el Ghazel.
Taking a group of his closest family and friends, Nykango led them northwards up along the Nile in rafts and canoes until they found the place of Otango Dirum to settle. Through the use of war and diplomacy, Nykango managed to conquer over time the entire area of Otango Dirum. For each of the tribes, Nykango granted a name and ritual they were to perform. Legends and tradition hold that Nykango’s son, Dak was the most influential in establishing the Shilluk Kingdom.
Today though, the Shilluk as a nation is recognized by the Sudanese state as only part of native administrations. Since 1837, the Shilluk have never truly free except for a brief period from 1881 and 1898 during the Mahdiya. The Shilluk still have a common territory, language, tribal authority they listen to and their customs and traditions they hold to.
Diang is a cow goddess, she lived along the west bank of the Nile river. She is seen as the wife of the first human Omara that had been sent by the Creator God, Juok.
Diang and Omara have a son, Okwa who grows up and marries the crocodile goddess Nyakaya.
In Shilluk religion and beliefs, this shows a connection of the three major elements of life. Men or humans for the sky, cattle for the earth and crocodiles for water.
Juok is known by a number of other names: Jo-Uk, Joagh, Joghi, jok, Joogi, Jouk, Jok Odudu, Ju-Ok, or Jwok
He is the main Creator God of the Shilluk and other tribes along the upper areas of the Nile river. It is generally believed that Juok controls the destinies of all living creatures. The legendary Shilluk king, Nyikang is often seen as being Juok’s earthly representative or avatar much like the Egyptian pharaohs were often seen as the living god Ra in earthly form. Other tribes such as the Acholi and Lango use the name Jok to refer to local or ancestor spirits.
A crocodile goddess, she is the wife of Okwa and the mother of Nyikang.
Also known as Nyakango.
He is a fertility god and the mythical ancestor from whom all the kings of the Shilluk are descended from. Being an immortal and the avatar of Juok, Nyikang is believed not to have died, but instead, to have vanished in a whirlwind. The later kings of the Shilluk are seen as the reincarnations of Nyikang. The vitality and well-being of the tribe is closely connected to the health of Nyikang.
The son of Omara and Diang, he is the husband of Nyakaya and the father of Nyikang.
The husband of Diang, he is the first man in the mythology of the Shilluk. Omara and Diang fathered Okwa who would eventually found the lineage of Nyikang.
Etymology: “House of Horus (the Elder)”
Hathor is a Pre-Dynastic goddess who was very well known and like many of the Egyptian deities, she is still known by many in modern times. Hathor’s name may be a reference to her domain as a sky goddess and being the Celestial Cow and where too, the god Horus held his domain as well. Where Horus represented the living king, Hathor represented the living queen.
Other Names and Epithets: Athor, Athyr, Hat-Her, Hethert, Het-Hert (House or Womb Above), Het-Heru, Hwt-Hert, Hethara, Hetheru
Hathor is a goddess who is known by many titles. The first of her titles is: “the Great One of Many Names”
An example of a good many of her names and more properly, titles are:
“Lady to the Limit”, “Lady of Heaven”, “The One Who Shines as Gold”, “The Gold that is Hathor”, “Lady of the West”, “Divine (or Celestial) Cow”, “Mistress of Heaven”, “Lady of Gold”, “Lady of Greenstone and Malachite”, “Lady of Lapis-Lazuli”, “Mistress of Life”, “the Great Wild Cow”, “the Golden One”, “the Mistress of Turquoise”, “Lady of Iunet” (Dendera), “Lady Of Denderah”, “Mistress of Qis”, “Lady of Punt”, “the Powerful One”, “Lady of the Southern Sycamore”, “Lady of the Turquoise”, “the Mistress of Turquoise”, “Mother of Mothers”, “The Celestial Nurse”, “Lady of Drunkenness”, “the Eye of Ra”, “Lady of Amenity”, “the Dweller in the Great Land”, “Lady of Ta-Tchesert”, “the Dweller in his breast”, “Lady of the Vulva”, “the Beautiful Face in the Boat of Millions of Years”, “the Seat of Peace of the doer of truth”, “Dweller in the Boat of the favored ones”, “Lady of Stars”, “Sovereign of Stars”, “Hand of God”, “Great Menat”, “Mistress of the Desert”, “Sovereign of Imaau”, “Queen of Heaven”, “Mistress of Heaven”, “the Gentle Cow of Heaven”, “Lady of the House of Jubilation”, “The One Who Fills the Sanctuary with Joy”
Hathor’s roles have been many for the many millennia that she has been known and worshipped. Beyond being one of two of Egypt’s Cow Goddesses, Hathor has been known as a Sky Goddess, a Sun Goddess, a Moon Goddess, the Goddess of the East, and the Goddess of the West, Goddess of Moisture and Fertility, Agriculture, Motherhood, Goddess of the Cycle, Goddess of the Underworld, Mistress of the Necropolis, Goddess of the Dead, Goddess of Love and Beauty, Goddess of Music, Song, Dance, Drinking and Joy. She has been known as the patron Goddess of Women and Marriage.
Animal: Cow, Cobra, Falcon, Hippopotamus, Lioness, Snake
Colors: Red, Turquoise
Festivals: Aug 7th (New Years), Sept 17th, Festival of Het Heret – November 2nd
Gemstones: Emerald, Malachite, Lapis-Lazuli, Turquoise
Month: Third Month by the Egyptian Calendar, Hethara (as the Greeks called it) or Athyr. From September 17th to October 16th. This was the month of Inundation when the Nile River would flood.
Patron of: Sun, Universe, Children, Mothers, Miners, Musicians, Pharaohs
Planet: Sun and Moon
Plant: Myrtle, Rose, Sycamore
Sphere of Influence: Arts, Astrology, Beauty; Children, Childbirth, Dance, Family, Femininity, Fertility, Flowers, Foreign Lands, Joy, Love, Mining, Moisture, Moon, Motherhood, Music, Prosperity, Pregnancy, Sexuality, Sky, Song
Symbols: Cow, Cosmetics, Horns-and-Sundisk Headdress, Menat (a type of ritual necklace possibly used for percussive music), Mirrors; Sandalwood and Rose Incense; Sistrum (a type of rattle), Papyrus Reed
Early depictions of this goddess show her as being a cow with a sun disk between her horns or as a woman wearing the horns-and-sun disk headdress that may or may not have a symbol known as the uraeus on it. Sometimes when Hathor is shown as a cow, she is covered in stars. When depicting Hathor’s role as a fertility goddess and her powers of procreation, she is shown suckling a child.
An early depiction of Hathor and identifying her as a cow is likely from what is known as the Narmer Palette. And it seems Hathor absorbed and took over many of the roles as a fertility goddess from another cow goddess, Bat.
Sometimes Hathor would be shown as a hippopotamus, a falcon, cobra, goose, cat, malachite, sycamore fig or even as a lioness. These forms aren’t as common to Hathor as her more familiar shape of a woman or a cow.
When Hathor is shown as a cow, she is seen having beautifully painted eyes and is frequently a red color, the color of passion. Hathor, along with the dwarf god Bes are the only known Egyptian gods shown in portrait rather than in profile.
The depictions showing Hathor as a woman with a cow’s head are more common of later periods. Also more common to later periods is Hathor being shown with a twin set of feathers and a menat necklace. A number of ancient mirrors and sistras have been found showing a smiling, nude Hathor on them over the years. Hathor’s image of a woman with cow ears is often found on the top of stone columns in Egyptian temples.
An ancient Goddess and one of the main gods of Egypt, Hathor was worshipped for well over 3,000 years and during that time, she has taken on many personas and aspects. She is the Celestial Cow, the protector of women, the Queen of Egypt, a Goddess of Love, Children, Pregnancy, Dancing, Singing and Poetry.
The Egyptians were very fluid in their theology and how the gods were depicted. Different deities were known to merge for a specific reason or to emerge and split away, becoming their own entity. Given the thousands of years the Egyptian Dynasties lasted, its not surprising in many ways for the myths to be fluid and change with the times. It was no problem for the Egyptians who saw such myths as complimentary and not contradictory.
At different points in the continuing development of Egyptian mythology, Hathor has been equated and associated with a good many other Goddesses who are sometimes, if not often seen as just being different aspects of the same Goddess. Hathor has also been shown to be the mother, daughter and wife of Ra and to have later seen many of her roles taken over by Isis who becomes the mother of Horus.
Some of the Goddesses are: Sekhmet, Bastet, Beb and Isis.
Bastet – As the goddess Bastet, Hathor is seen to be more gentle and loving. Particularly when compared to the more harsher image of Sekhmet. Where Bast represented Lower Egypt, Hathor represented Upper Egypt.
Bat – Another primordial, pre-Dynastic cow goddess of fertility. Hathor seems to have absorbed the aspects and roles that this Goddess once held. Bat has also been linked to the Ba, an aspect of the soul and Hathor seems to have gained her associations as a Death Goddess from this connection. The sistrum, a rattle that was once a symbol of Bat also became one of Hathor’s symbols.
Hesat – She was seen as a manifestation of Hathor in earthly form. Like Hathor, Hesat is also regarded as the wife of Ra. As an earthly cow-goddess, milk was said to be the beer of Hesat and part of her link to Hathor. Hesat was also known as the wet-nurse to the gods.
Isis – In the later periods of Egyptian religion, most of Hathor’s roles and aspect have been picked up and taken over by the goddess Isis. As Isis, some two thousand years after Hathor’s first appearances, now has Hathor’s headdress and sistrum symbol. There can often be confusion as to which goddess is meant to be shown. The difference though is that when Isis is shown with horns, she is also wearing the vulture headdress that is typical of another goddess Mut or she is wearing a multi-colored feathered dress.
Mehet-Weret – Her name means “Great Flood.” She seems to be another primordial cow goddess like Hathor and Bat. Hathor absorbed many of her myths, particularly from the creation story of being the mother of Ra, carrying him between her horns.
Nebethetepet – Her name means “Mistress of the Offering.” She was a manifestation of Hathor at Heliopolis where she was associated with the Sun-God Atum.
Saosis – A goddess who is often identified with Hathor. Her symbol was the acacia tree in which death and life were enclosed.
Sekhmet – A rather dark and fierce goddess of justice. This is a harsher side of Hathor that is usually tempered by the gentler image of Bastet.
Tefnut – A primal lioness goddess, she and Hathor share a similar story where they become estranged from Ra and wander off towards Nubia.
As previously mentioned with the goddess Isis, some two thousand years after Hathor’s first appearances, the goddess Isis began to appear and to assume many of the roles and functions that Hathor once held. Where Hathor was once considered the mother of Horus, Isis took over this role along with being the mother of the Pharaohs.
Greek & Roman Connection!
It wasn’t uncommon for the Greeks and Romans to equate many of their deities with those of other cultures. The Romans especially did it to any that they conquered. In the case of Egypt and their gods, Hathor in her role as a goddess of love is synonymous with the Greek Aphrodite, the Roman Venus.
Cults Of Hathor
Being an ancient, primordial deity, Hathor was worshipped in a good many Egyptian cities. Hathor was a patron of the cities of Iunet and Itjtawy. Temples could be found for her every where. The earliest temples and images for Hathor have been found drawn on rocks near Naqada and the Girez settlement. Both of these sites are located in the southern part of Upper Egypt and date back to the Predynastic era of about 4,000 B.C.E. Give or take a few years, this places Hathor around 6,000 years old.
Hathor’s cult thrived in Ta-Netjer (“Land of God”), modern day Dendera in Upper Egypt. Here she was worshipped as “Mistress of Dendra.” Dendra was also Hathor’s main temple, also known as the “Place of Intoxication.” So popular was Hathor’s worship that at one point her Dendera temple had as many as sixty-one priestesses. Hathor’s priests were both men and women, many of whom were capable dancers, musicians and singers. Priests of Hathor were also known for being oracles and midwives. It wasn’t unusual for people to go to her temples to have their dreams interpreted. The temple at Dendera along with the Temple of Deir el-Bahri clearly shows an indication of Hathor as a Sun Goddess. The temple of Dendera was also where Hathor’s cult was primarily found.
In the temple of Nefertari, found in Abu Simbel, Queen Nefertari is frequently shown as the goddess Hathor in many places. And Ramses II is shown in one sanctuary receiving milk from Hathor in her cow form. Not surprising as many of the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt saw themselves as living gods.
Other temple sites dedicated to Hathor have been found in Deir el-Medina, West Bank, Luxor, another at Philae Island, Aswan, Timna valley, Israel, Inerty (Gebelein), Iunet (Dendera), Qis (Qusiya), Tpyhwt (Atfih), Mennefer (Hikuptah, Memphis) and Iunu (On/Heliopolis). As Hathor-Sekhmet, she was the main goddess of Yamu (Kom el-Hisn).
Hathor had been worshipped in this land during the eleventh century B.C.E. as at this time, it was under Egyptian rule. Her holy city of Hazor or Tel Hazor was destroyed by Joshua as mentioned in the Jewish Torah or Christian’s Old Testament in Joshua 11:13, 21.
There were a good many places where Hathor was worshiped, not just Egypt and Nubia. Her worshippers could be found throughout all of Semitic West Asia, Ethiopia, Somalia and Libya, especially in the city of Byblos.
One thought for why Hathor’s worship is so widespread, even during the Predynastic Era is that she appears on the Narmer palette. Many scholars have put forward that idea that the goddess depicted isn’t Hathor, but another cow goddess named Bat or even possibly Narmer themselves.
The Five Gifts of Hathor – Initiation Into Hathor’s Cult
For those wishing entrance into Hathor’s cult, they would under go a ritual of initiation. This initiation ritual was known as “The Five Gifts of Hathor.” An initiate would be asked to name off the five things they were grateful for while looking at the digits of their left hand.
The idea is that the poor of Egypt who didn’t own their own lands, but would work for others in their fields would always be able to see their left hand while working. It was always visible to them as they reached out for the strands of grain to harvest and then cut the sheaths with the blade being held in their right hand.
With the naming of the five things a person was grateful for and identifying them with the fingers of their left hand, a person was always reminded of the good things in life and kept them the sins of ingratitude. Ingratitude was a sin that Egypts viewed as leading towards many others.
For the rich and more prosperous of Egypt, the Five Gifts were a way to keep them from envying others and what they had so that they could stay humble before the gods.
Parentage and Family
Hathor is said to be the daughter of the goddess Nut and the god Ra (or Re).
Given how fluid Egyptian mythology can be and the varying, ever changing roles that the gods played over the millennia and as one dynasty gave way to another, there are some accounts where Hathor is the Mother of Ra. Another account will place her as the Daughter of Ra.
This seems better understood when taking note of another primordial cow goddess, Mht wr who was the mother of Ra. Hathor took over her role and place in the creation story. Another explanation has been given that when Hathor is seen as the Daughter of Ra, it is when she is seen as part of the greater whole of the stars of heaven. The stars were known as the “Children of Ra.”
It’s thought that in Pre-Dynastic times and certainly Early Dynastic Egypt, Hathor was the consort to the “Bull of Amenti,” who had originally been the deity of the Necropolis.
In Hermopolis, Thoth is considered the husband of Hathor, with him; she is the mother to Ra-Horakhty, one of many composite deities in Egypti. This could be due to Hathor at one point absorbing the role and aspects of Seshat, the goddess of Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Architecture who is also Thoth’s wife.
When the gods Ra and Amun merged in Egyptian mythology, Hathor becomes seen as the wife of the god Sobek, an aspect of Amen-Ra.
Hathor is more famously known to be the wife of Horus the Elder.
The siblings of Hathor are considered to be: Sekhmet, Bast, Ptah, Shu, Tefnut, Thoth and Serqet
With Horus (the Elder), Hathor is the mother of Ihy (or Ahy), a falcon-headed god who like his mother, becomes a god of music and dancing. He is also shown as carrying a sistrum as well.
Some slight confusion is another child of Hathor and Horus (the Elder) in his aspect as Horus- Behdety is Harsomptus or Hor-sema-tawy (Horus Uniter of the Two Lands).
Sometimes, Ihy is listed as being one and the same as Hor-sema-tawy.
Other children of Hathor are: Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef.
And with Hathor’s divine role as Mother of the Gods, she can claim all of the Egyptian gods as her children, including Ra who is both her father and son.
The Mother Of The Egyptian Pharaoh And Horus
The name Horus is a bit tricky as there is more than one god named Horus. This makes better sense when it is understood and known that Hathor was often considered the mother of the Egyptian pharaoh, who would stylize themselves as the “son of Hathor.”
Many of the Pharaohs would take on the name of Horus as an honorific at death. Plus the Egyptian Pharaohs also saw themselves as living gods who would become deified on death, reborn again when the next Pharaoh took the throne.
And what about the goddess Isis being the mother of Horus? It should be noted that yes, but this is Horus the Younger, a different Horus. There were a lot of deities named Horus, nearly as many as there were Pharaohs. Given that the Pharoahs of Egypt believed themselves to be a living god, that’s not surprising.
Mother Of Mothers And The Celestial Nurse
Hathor’s protection was invoked over children and pregnant women.
In addition to the above information about Hathor’s role as a midwife and protector of children, anytime a child was born in Egypt, it was believed that seven Hathors would appear as seven young women wearing cow horns and playing tambourines. They spoke with one voice, determining a child’s fate in life even to the hour of his or her death, much like the European Fairy Godmother and the three Fates found in Greek, Roman and even Norse mythology.
The Seven Hathors held an extremely great power of being able to alter destinies. They could replace a prince should he have been born with bad fortune with a child who was born with good fortune. The Seven Hathors’ responsibility was to protect the Dynasty and Nation of Egypt. For it was believed among the Egyptians that a person’s destiny and fortune would follow them throughout their life with not ability to change it.
The Seven Hathors seem to be connected to divination and to be the questioners to those souls headed to the after life in the Land of the West.
As goddesses in their own right, the Hathors were worshipped in seven cities. These are: Waset (Thebes), Iunu (On, Heliopolis), Aphroditopolis, Sinai, Momemphis, Herakleopolis, and Keset.
Additionally, found both within the tomb of Nefertari and in the Book of the Dead, these seven Hathors had their own names as follows:
• Lady of the Universe
• You from the Land of Silence
• You from Khemmis
• Bright Red
• Your name flourishes through Skill
Other alternatives names for the Seven Hathors have also been found on papyri. Some of these are:
• Lady of the House of Jubilation
• Mistress of the West
• Mistress of the East
• Ladies of the Sacred Land
During the Ptolemaic Period, when Egypt fell under Greek rule, the Seven Hathors became identified with the Pleiades star cluster.
Hand Of God – The Sistrum
Music was very important in the worship of Hathor who is sometimes shown carrying a sistrum, a type of rattle. This was an ancient musical instrument played by her priests and priestesses. The sistrum often had the face of Hathor on the handle at the joining part. There is thought to be sexual overtones connected with this instrument, particularly for fertility. Hathor’s titles of “Hand of God” and “Lady of the Vulva” seem to be connections to the design of the sistrum and her role in fertility.
The menat is another musical instrument sacred to Hathor. At first glance it looks like a necklace with a special counterweight. This counterweight piece is thought to be similar to fertility dolls found in ancient tombs which in this respect, represented wombs. The menat as an instrument would be held in the hands and rattled to make noise.
Both the Menat and Sistrum connect Hathor as a Goddess of Song and Dance. The ancient Egyptians believed that it is Hathor who first taught mankind how to sing and dance using her sacred instruments. The menat is also important as a symbol of rebirth.
There is a hymn to Hathor that goes:
“Thou art the Mistress of Jubilation, the Queen of the Dance, the Mistress of Music, the Queen of the Harp Playing, the Lady of the Choral Dance, the Queen of Wreath Weaving, the Mistress of Inebriety Without End.”
The Goddess Of Joy
Hathor was very popular among the ancient Egyptians. She was greatly revered by women in her role as wife, mother and lover. This led to a couple of Hathor’s titles as “Lady of the House of Jubilation” and “The One Who Fills the Sanctuary with Joy.”
Such was Hathor’s popularity that there were a lot more festivals dedicated in her honor than any other Egyptian god. Plus a good many children were named after Hathor than any other god. As previously mentioned, both women and men could be priestess of Hathor and not one gender or the other.
The Goddess Of Beauty
In addition to being a goddess of Love and Joy, Hathor was also the goddess of beauty and a patron of the cosmetic arts. As has been previously mentioned, many ancient mirrors showing a smiling, nude Hathor have been found over the years. In addition to Hathor’s image on mirrors, her likeness has been found too on cosmetic palettes. A traditional votive offering was two mirrors.
It must be remembered and noted that this did not mean or make Hathor vain and shallow. This beauty was a mark of Hathor’s own confidence.
Hathor was also closely connected to the fragrance of myrrh incense, which has a long history of being very precious and in ancient Egypt, it embodied all of the finer qualities of a woman. The Egyptians also used ground malachite in their eye makeup which they believed to have a protective property against eye infections.
It must be noted that ancient Egyptian mirrors were made of flat oval copper or bronze that has been polished with a wooden or possibly bone handle. This handle was often enough shaped into the form of the goddess Hathor. It is thought the shape of the mirror represents the Sun Disc symbol of Hathor’s.
Goddess of Moisture And Fertility
Aside from Motherhood and Children, Hathor also ensured the fertility of the land and enough water or moisture from the annual flooding of the Nile for Farmers to grow their crops. In addition to this, Hathor represented the erotic aspects of femininity and procreation. As a fertility goddess, Hathor represents the creative abilities found in all of nature.
As a Vegetation or Fertility Goddess, Hathor was seen as both a giver and taker of life. When spring arrived, the land became fertile, only be destroyed later by the harsh summer sun as the seasons changed.
Hathor’s connection to the annual flooding of the Nile River was also connected to women’s pregnancies with the breaking of the amniotic sac and that she would be about ready to go into labor soon.
Lady Of Greenstone And Malachite – Goddess of Mines
Along with the titles “Lady of Lapis-Lazuli” and “the Mistress of Turquoise”, Hathor represented the very edges of the desert where mines for these gemstones were found at.
There is a major temple site found in Edomite Seir, Timna for Hathor where copper was mined. This temple was constructed by Seti II. Other mining places are Serabit el-Khadim found on the south-west Sinai Peninsula where a lot of turquoise was mined. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of mining camps and a Temple of Hathor in this place.
Lady Of The West
In Thebes, Hathor was seen as the Goddess of the Dead with her title of “Lady of the West.” This title is associated with the sun god Ra and his descent into the Underworld when the sun sets on the western horizon.
Hathor’s image is sometimes found on funerary scenes where she is shown standing behind Osiris, welcoming the dead to their new home. Hathor’s image has also been depicted as a cow suckling the souls of the dead. It is thought that Hathor did this so souls could survive while their bodies were being mummified and make their journey to the Judgment Hall where their hearts would be weighed. Hathor could also be depicted in her cow form surround by tall papyrus reeds. In these images, she would be shown wearing a menat necklace, symbolizing rebirth.
Hathor’s image often appears on sarcophagi with Nut. Hathor appears on the tops of lids and Nut will be found under a lid.
In the cult of Osiris, the morally worthy were promised eternal life. At first, both men and women would become Osiris. By the time of the early Romans, women were identified with Hathor and men with Osiris.
Lady Of The Southern Sycamore
Continuing Hathor’s connection as a Goddess of the Dead, the sycamore tree was sacred to Hathor as she would give water to the dead from the branches of this tree and offer them food. The Sycamore was important as trees were not a common site in ancient Egypt and the shade provided by trees offered much needed protection and relief from the heat of the sun.
Other myths have Amentet, a daughter of Hathor as being the one who handed out water to the dead under a Sycamore tree.
One myth has Hathor using milk from a Sycamore tree to restore Horus’ eyesight as he had been blinded by Set.
Lady Of Stars And Sovereign Of Stars
A celestial goddess, Hathor symbolizes not just the Sun, but the Moon and stars, the entirety of the heavens and creation.
As the divine, celestial cow, Hathor along with another goddess Nut, represented the Milky Way during the third millennium B.C.E. when the both the Autumn and Spring equinoxes appeared to occur at the same spot on the Earth as the sun rose or set. The four legs of Hathor represented the pillars holding up the heavens over the earth.
It must be noted, that the ancient Egyptians viewed the Milky Way as a waterway across the heavens that the sun and moon gods sailed upon each day. They called it The Nile in the Sky. As a result of this and the name mehturt, Hathor was seen as responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile. Other interpretations or later myths will place Wadjet, a snake god as presenting the Milky Way and The Nile in the Sky.
One star in particular, Sothis (Sirius in more modern times) is significant. Originally, the star Sirius rose on the first day of the first month, known as Thuthi and Hethera by Grecian times. This marked a day of celebration for Hathor’s birth by her followers. The Nile River flooded at this time, providing a rejuvenation and growing for Egyptian farmers. During the time of the ancient Greeks, Hathor became the goddess of Hethara, the third month of the Egyptian calendar. The star Sothis would later be associated with the goddess Sopdet.
The Eye Of Ra – The Destruction of Mankind
This story has been found engraved on one of the shrines in Tutankhamen’s tomb and in “The Book of the Heavenly Cow.”
In this story, Hathor, as the Eye of Ra, turns into Sakhmet. How this came about is that Hathor’s father Ra, having grown old, was beginning to fall out of worship. Angry about this, Ra speaks to his daughter who turns into Sakhment and goes out to punish humanity.
As Sakhmet, she was very efficient and nearly wiped out everyone. Realizing that if she continued with killing everyone, there would be none left at all to worship the gods, Ra decided that there has been enough killing and tells her to stop. Only now she can’t quit, Sekhmet’s become so full of bloodlust.
Seeking the guidance of the ever-wise Thoth, he and Ra get large vats or barrels of beer that has been dyed and colored red to look like blood. In some versions of the story, they flood the land with the blood-red beer and in others; Thoth has a hallucinogenic like poppies put into the beer.
Regardless of the final version told, Sekhmet on seeing all this beer drinks it up, getting so drunk, she forgets about her reason for coming to the earth, her great blood lust and forgets all about killing anyone. When Sekhmet returns to Ra, he embraces her and Sekhmet turns back into Hathor. This is the Hathor that everyone knows of as being sweet loving, gentle and nurturing.
Another version of the story has it that this is how Hathor turns into Bast.
As Hathor-Sekhmet, we see Hathor take on a dual role in her aspect as a Sun Goddess. When she is Hathor, she represents the gentle spring Sun. When she is Sekhmet, she becomes a lioness and represents the scorching heat of the summer Sun. It has been noted how in the Zodiac, Taurus the Bull has a fixed sign in Spring and Leo the Lion has a fixed sign in Summer.
The symbolic importance of this story is that of the changing of the seasons from Spring to Summer. As summer comes to its height, so too does the danger of wildfires destroying crops and homes. Sekhmet returns to once more being gentle Hathor with the cooler autumn weather.
The color red is often symbolic of life and rebirth. The red beer again symbolizes the rejuvenation and regeneration of the Earth after the hot Summer weather and turn towards Autumn weather.
The Feast of Hathor
To commemorate this myth, the ancient Egyptians celebrated a yearly festival that marked the beginning of Egypt’s rainy season known as the Season of Inundation (Flooding). This was a time of the year when the glaring heat of the sun was finally stopped by the much needed life-bringing rains. The Feast or Festival was known for wild partying with sistrum music, dancing, love making and lots of beer.
The partying makes sense when realizing that the rise of the star Sothis (Sirius) marked the annual flooding of the Nile River on the Egyptian calendar. This would coincide with the end of August for Western Culture.
The myth of the annual flooding of the Nile would be later associated with Osiris.
New Years Festivities
As we’re on the subject, another popular and religious festival was celebrated on August 7th, the Egyptian New Year. The New Years also marked Hathor’s birthday. Hathor’s image would be taken from the temple and brought out to the rising Sun for the day. The New Years was a day of enjoyment, song and intoxication.
The Destruction of Mankind – Historical Context
This story has a historical context for the founding of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom when the Upper Egyptian pharaoh, Mentuhotep II took control of Lower Egypt. Before this, Lower Egypt had enjoyed a period of independence. Mentuhotep II’s forced unification resulted in a fierce bloody war that lasted for some twenty eight years before ending and peace resumed, when Mentuhotep III came to power. So the story of The Destruction of Mankind does look to be an analogy to this brutal period of Egyptian history.
The Distant Goddess
In this story, Hathor became angry with her father Ra. Maybe she remembered the events in The Destruction of Mankind. Another version of this story doesn’t state why Hathor got angry, she just does and decides she might have the earth covered again in the ocean and maybe return to even older primordial form of a serpent. Anyhow, angry, Hathor took off and wandered about, away from Egypt down towards Nubia.
A great sadness fell upon the land and Ra, missing his Eye and unable to do anything without it, sets out to try and get her back. Hathor by this time has turned into a deadly wild cat, killing anyone who comes near her. A slight variation to this has it that with Hathor turned into a lion, chaos swept the land with everything drying up and that’s why everyone and thing is dying.
As no one else was willing to go near an enraged Hathor, the god Thoth agreed to give a shot. In disguise, he managed to coax an angry goddess back to Egypt through the use of stories.
Once back in Egypt, Hathor bathed in the Nile River, returning to her calmer demeanor. As a result of her bathing, the waters of the river turned red from her cooling rage. With Hathor’s bathing, the Nile river overflowed and flooded the land, giving life giving waters to a parched land so Farmers could have their growing season.
Yeah, don’t make Hathor angry, you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.
In some versions of this story, it is the goddess Tefnut who storms off in a fit of anger leaving Egypt and it’s the god Shu, not Thoth who sets off to bring her back.
Another telling of this story is that it is both Shu and Thoth who set off after Hathor, changing into lions to try and coax their sister back.
The Contendings Of Horus And Seth
Hathor only has a small part in this story. Her father, Ra had fallen into a bout of depression and Hathor, like any child, wanting to cheer up a parent, finds a way to do so. Taking off her clothing, Hathor dances nude around Ra’s throne. She keeps at it until he finally sits up and smiles at her antics.