Heimdallr – The God with the Wet Back

 by Peter Krüger

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Heimdall painting by Emil Doepler

The god Heimdallr is still very obscure. There is no conclusive translation of his name and many aspects in the descriptions of him in poetry remain unclear. Using an astronomical approach to learn more about his character we will focus first on his main attributes and screen the constellations of the Romans and Greeks for parallels. This approach has already lead to an identification of Völund with the constellation Hercules, the kneeling man, his nemesis Nidud and Völund's sword with Böotes and Arcturus respectively, and Virgo with Spica, the golden ring given to Nidud's daughter Bödvild.
The most famous attribute of Heimdallr is surely his horn, called the Gjallarhorn. This horn is attested several times in the Eddas. The only mention of Gjallarhorn by that name occurs in the Eddic poem Völuspá, wherein a völva foresees the events of Ragnarök and the role which Heimdallr and his Gjallarhorn will play at its onset; Heimdallr will raise his horn and blow loudly. Due to its relative obscurity,  translations of this stanza vary:


 46.  Leika Míms synir,
en mjötuðr kyndisk
at inu galla
Hátt blæss Heimdallr,
horn er á lopti,
mælir Óðinn
við Míms höfuð.

"Fast move the sons of Mim and fate
Is heard in the note of the Gjallarhorn;
Loud blows Heimdall, the horn is aloft,
In fear quake all who on Hel-roads are."
(Henry Adam Bellows translation)
"Mim's sons dance,
but the central tree takes fire,
at the resounding Giallar-horn.
Loud blows Heimdall,
his horn is raised;
Odin speaks with Mim's head.
(Benjamin Thorpe translation)
Heimdall's horn is also mentioned earlier in Voluspa:
She knows that Heimdall's horn is hidden
under the heaven-bright holy tree.
A river she sees flow, with foamy fall,
from Valfather's pledge.
Understand ye yet, or what?
(Benjamin Thorpe translation)
"I know of the horn of Heimdall, hidden
Under the high-reaching holy tree;
On it there pours from Valfather's pledge
A mighty stream: would you know yet more?"
(Henry Adam Bellows translation)
However, not in all translations it is translated as a horn:
She knows that Heimdall's hearing
is hidden under the radiant, sacred tree;

she sees, pouring down, the muddy torrent
from the wager of Father of the Slain;
Do you understand yet, or what more?

(Carolyne Larington translation)

If we now search the Roman and Greek constallations for a horn we find a constellation that includes the word 'horn' in its name. This is Capricornus, usually translated as the “horned male goat” or “goat-horn”. In Anglo-Saxon, the constellation was called  buccan horn or bucca, 'the buck’s horn'; in German, Steinbock. Despite its faintness, Capricornus has one of the oldest mythological associations and has been represented since ancient times as a hybrid of a goat and a fish, the Goat-fish. 

On one hand, an identification of the Gjallarhorn with Capricornus would make sense, because among other points, Snorri closely associates Heimdall's epithets Heimdali, Hruthr, and Vedr with a ram. Snorri also tells us that the kennings Heimdall’s head and 'Heimdall’s sword' have the same meaning, while Rydberg suggests that this could refer to the ram's weapons, figuratively his 'sword', which are located on his head. On the other side, this conclusion may seem surprising,  and thus requires a closer examination.
In Völuspá 27, Heimdall's horn is said to be hidden under the high-reaching holy tree. This tree, with good reason, has often been identified as the Milky Way. Capricornus is a constellation located near the Milky Way. What is interesting is that Capricornus is part of the so-called 'watery region' of the night sky represented by Pisces the Fishes, Aquarius the Water-bearer, Delphinus the Dolphin, Capricorn the Sea-goat, and others. This observation might explain a similarly obscure comment made by Loki in Lokasenna: 

48. "Þegi þú, Heimdallr,
þér var í árdaga

it ljóta líf of lagit;
örgu baki þú munt
æ vera ok vaka
vörðr goða."

"Be silent, Heimdallr!
For thee in early days
was that hateful life decreed:

with a wet back
thou must ever be,
and keep watch as
guardian of the gods."

(Benjamin Thorpe's translation)

Keeping in mind that Capricorn is depicted with a fish-tail this would be a perfect explanation for the “wet back” of Heimdallr. It also explains why a mighty stream is said to be pouring from the horn. The location of Capricorn may also also explain his role as a guardian of the Gods. He is the first sign of the Zodiac outside the arch of the Milky Way (assuming that we will find more gods associated with the signs of the zodiac in this region of heaven). His role as a guardian is mentioned in Grímnismál 13:

Himingbjorg is the eight, and Heimdall there
O'er men hold sway, it is said;
In his well-built house does the warder of heaven
The good mead gladly drink.

The poem Völuspá hin skamma (contained in the Eddic poem Hyndluljóð) contains three stanza that scholars have frequently interpreted as referring to Heimdallr and his nine mothers. According to the stanzas, long ago, a mighty god was born by nine jötunn maidens at the edge of the world. This boy grew strong, nourished by the strength of the earth, the ice-cold sea, and the blood of a sacrificial boar. The names of these nine maidens are listed as Gjálp, Greip, Eistla, Angeyja, Ulfrún, Eyrgjafa, Imðr, Atla, and Járnsaxa. The stanzas in question read as follows:

"One there was born
in the bygone days,

Of the race of the gods,
and great was his might;

Nine giant women,
at the world's edge,

Once bore the man
so mighty in arms.

"Gjalp there bore him,
Greip there bore him,

Eistla bore him,
and Eyrgjafa,

Ulfrun bore him,
and Angeyja,

Imth and Atla,
and Jarnsaxa.

The location of Capricorn can in fact be seen as being at the edge of the world. The nine mothers have been interpreted as nine waves, fitting the connection with the watery region.
There is another interesting fact; in Völuspá 45, cited below, Heimdallr is also brought into connection with all who are on the Hel-road:

"Fast move the sons of Mim and fate
Is heard in the note of the Gjallarhorn;
Loud blows Heimdall, the horn is aloft,
In fear quake all who on Hel-roads are."
(Henry Adam Bellows translation)

In Sagittarius, the Greek saw the Golden Gate of the Gods, an entrance to the netherworlds. Here, the Milky Way crosses the ecliptic. It seems that the Hel-roads start at Capricorn, pass Sagittarius (the guardian of the netherwolds), touching Scorpius (the hel-hound with three heads) and Niflhel (Ophiuchus the Snake-handler) before coming to Libra, the place of judgement.
So, having considered these aspects, the identification of Heimdallr with Capricorn the Sea-goat should not seem as surprising or as unrealistic as it may have on first view.
If we can identify Heimdallr as the Sea-goat, a constellation of the zodiac known from Greek myths, then we should also be able to find an equivalent in the Norse myths for the neighboring constellation Aquarius the water-bearer, offering further proof of this identification.

Who is Aquarius and what does the cup represent?

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