The Solar Woman and Lunar Male

Saturday, August 26 2006 @ 10:19 AM PDT

Contributed by: Blood Eagle

This qualifies as a "rough sketch" of a larger idea - I leave out numerous examples and references. I'm not an expert at anything, and don't pretend to be. My knowledge of Old Icelandic is only literary. Most importantly, the piece is written with the assumption that a reader knows nothing of the subject. I wrote this to use as an example of the kinds of topics I wanted to cover in an Old Norse Reading group that has yet to form. To this end the piece is merely a catalyst to provoke further discussion.

The Solar Woman and Lunar Male

One of the more interesting features of Old Norse literature - at least on the poetic and linguistic level, is the apparent gender role reversal of sun and moon. In Old Norse, the word for "Sun" (ON - sól) is feminine gendered and "Moon" (ON - máni) masculine. Throughout the body of Old Norse poetry, the sun is consistently referred to as "she" and the moon as "he." This contradicts, somewhat, a notion of the solar man and lunar female which recurs throughout Western literature, language, mythology and folklore.

In Greek myth, Apollo was the sun-god and Artemis the goddess of the moon; and the Romans preserved these traits when they incorporated Greek mythology with their own. In both Latin and Greek words for Sun (sol, helios) are masculine gendered and words for Moon (luna, selene) feminine. In many modern-day romance and indo-european languages that possess grammatical gender, the words for "sun" are masculine and words for "moon" feminine.

Going even further back, in ancient Semitic, Egyptian, Hindu, Babylonian (and other ancient near-east mythologies) this same feature remains intact. There are exceptions - Thoth, the Egyptian patron of science, learning and magic shared lunar qualities with Hathor, the moon goddess as the measurer and creator of the months. There's also the very ancient Sumerian mythology, which also had a Moon God; but as a whole, the general rule in Ancient Near East myth is one of the Solar god and Lunar Goddess.

Modern literary “critical-theory” (the consensus paradigm dominating most Universities) assumes that all gendering, mythologizing or poeticizing of nature simply reflects back a human author/inventor. All such creations tell us nothing about things in themselves. The moon is just a big cold rock, the Sun a ball of gas; Solar Gods and Lunar Goddesses are only symptoms of mankind's overactive imagination and thus qualify as pure invention. But is this really the case? Is there possibly a more substantial relationship between any given mythology and objective universe it seeks to render meaningful?

The most modern of modern-day physics (itself an ornate mythology, rich in abstractions) tells us that the two major celestial luminaries in no sense qualify as "dead" inert matter - the sun's not just a ball of gas and the moon a dead clump of rock. Far from it; they both continually bombard us with radiation in the form of visible and non-visible light, and light itself is a form of matter and therefore "information." So in a very real (albeit sub atomic) sense we puny humans are in an on-going dialogue with the sun and moon. And this of course says nothing about the gravitation exerted by these two luminaries upon our terrestrial habitat.

So, even from the point of view of modern science, the cyclical relation between the two largest celestial bodies observable from earth might seem to suggest a sort of masculine/feminine relationship. The fact that the moon reflects back the sun's light, the stronger force of sunlight compared to moonlight, the moon's apparently more erratic movement across the sky when contrasted to that of the sun - all of this reflects, again, a subtle notion of lunar femininity in relation to a solar masculine.

Getting back to Norse mythology, our only real evidence of this "role reversal" between sun and moon is linguistic and literary. The ancient poem Voluspá (narrated from the perspective of a female "shaman," or wise woman, a common figure in Norse mythology) clearly distinguishes between a masculine moon and solar woman ("Sun knew not where her hall was - Moon knew not what power he had" - 5th stanza).

The Voluspá is one crucial primary source for much of what is known about the Norse mythic universe. As if in deferral to this authority, subsequent authors in the later medieval era stuck with this gendering of sun and moon. Snorri Sturlusson in his "prose" Edda also retains this gender relationship. Getting even more complicated, he makes day masculine and night feminine - again, a feature consistent with the grammatical gendering of these words in Old Norse.

As a side note on Old Norse literature, the Voluspá is traditionally the first of the poems to be encountered in the so-called "Poetic Edda." This is a medieval era manuscript collection of Norse mythic poems, many in a fragmentary state. There is no known author of this "Edda" just as there is no real definitive source for Norse mythology. The other "Edda," the "Prose Edda," was written by Snorri Sturlusson in the 13th century. The “Prose Edda” is also a major source for what is known of Old Norse myth, but in it, Snorri continually defers to more ancient poems (some of which haven’t survived) and leaves his indelible stamp of authorship on several of the stories related.

In the late and heavily Christian influenced Sólarljóð (or "Sun-Song") the poet still refers to the sun as "she": "The sun I saw - with blood red beams beset... mightier she appeared - in many ways - than she was before" (40th Stanza). As another side note, the very Christian influenced "Song of the Sun" has been edited out of almost all Modern English translations of the Poetic Edda. This does no justice whatsoever to the poem itself, remarkable for it's imaginative use of Old Norse alliterative meter and imagery. And again, it's interesting that the author of this last mentioned piece, despite his obvious Christian leanings, decides to preserve this older association of a solar feminine.

There are other literary instances of this gendering, both implied and specific - suffice to say the solar woman and lunar male is a feature preserved in both Old Norse and even related languages (including Anglo Saxon, the great grand parent of Modern English).

But what does this mean - if anything?

Some 19th and early 20th Century scholars took a look at this linguistic curiosity and concluded that the Vikings or their ancestors must have worshipped a Moon God and thought of the Sun as a Goddess, but this seems a premature conclusion to draw. A lot like followers of the modern day “new-age” movement, the interpreters of the “modern” era were quick to project their own ideas and preoccupations onto the past.*

If we must come up with an answer, I would suggest this gendering of sun and moon may have something to do with the Norse and Germanic cultures counting time by the moon - ie - using a "lunar calendar" - at some point in the distant past. Use of the lunar calendar is something common enough among the less settled and domesticated peoples of history, and several lunar calendars are still in use throughout the world. Perhaps also the apparent ambivalence of the sun in the northern latitudes - ie - the "winter-sun" - might also have contributed to the idea of a more receptive solar force and more potent moon. So, the moon would appear to be the more "masculine" of the two major celestial luminaries.

But this gendering could just as easily be literary. The obscure world of Old Norse poetics is replete with words and diction that only receive poetic usage. So maybe this grammatical gendering of sun and moon reflects merely this sort of obscure poetic nuance.

Who knows. The idea of a masculine moon and solar female is interesting and poetic enough on its own without "criticism."


* As another side note, and speaking of the 19th and 20th Centuries, it's interesting to note that both Nietzsche (in Zarathustra - "On the Immaculate Perception" 2nd Book, and other places) and Tolkien (Frodo's song in Chapter 9 of the Fellowship, and other places) make reference to the sun as "she" and the moon as "male."