Observations in Eddic Astronomy
Thor Goes Fishing

by Dr. Christopher Johnsen
© 2014

Hymiskviða - The Lay of Hymir - (Codex Regius and AM 748 I 4to) is the Norse Poem that describes the quest that Tyr and Thor go on in order to fetch a giant kettle for the giant Aegir to use in order for him to brew mead for the gods.  Hymiskviða is one out of three Eddic poems that tell an entire tale rather than just citing one.  The other two are Skírnismál and Þrymskviða. All three describe visits to the home of the Giants. In Hymiskviða, Thor goes with Tyr to fetch a kettle from Tyr’s father (or foster father) but while at Hymer’s dwelling, Thor eats so much that he ends up going with Hymir to fish in order to get more food.
The poem at one point uses the kenning “floating goat” to refer to Hymir’s boat.  One day after reading it, I thought to myself “How many floating goats are there in the sky?”  Only one came to mind - the half goat, half fish Capricorn, part of the Zodiac.  I then looked at the rest of the poem and several other things occurred to me: the quest is for a giant kettle and right next to Capricorn in the sky is Aquarius, and it seemed clear that Thor and Tyr’s quest was an astral one.

In the poem, Tyr’s mother (or foster mother as it may be) speaks to Thor and Tyr when they get to Hymir’s abode, and says “Scion of giants, I think I'd better hide you two brave lads beneath the cauldrons” – thus she is referring to both Tyr and Thor as “lads” or young men. Thor is introduced to Hymir as a Véurr "guard of the shrine" or possibly "hallower”.  Aquarius in Greek mythology is Ganymede (the young lad who is the cup bearer to the gods) who is set into the stars by Zeus.  But is Aquarius to be seen as Thor or as Hymir?
I decided that Aquarius would most likely refer to Hymir, since Hymir is the possessor of a giant kettle and Aquarius holds a giant urn (or kettle) whose Babylonian astrological symbol was a man or boy pouring water from a bucket or urn and the poem says Hymir “owns a kettle, a capacious cauldron, which is a league deep."  The constellation Aquarius is made of faint stars and the water from the urn runs down into the mouth of the Southern fish, Piscis Australianus.  So, even though Veurr is a “young lad” like Ganymede, the quest is to fetch Hymir’s kettle which would seem to associate Aquarius with Hymir. 
Hymir by Heather Sterling
© Chris Johnsen
The sign next to Aquarius is Pisces, the 10th constellation in the Zodiac, and all three of these Zodiacal constellations so far mentioned comprise the area of the sky known as “the sea”.  A cord joins the tails of Pisces, the two fish and this brings to mind the part in the poem where “The mighty, ferocious Hymir had soon caught two whales with his hook”.
Before they go out onto the water, the poem states: “Véurr said he wanted to row out to sea, if the fierce giant would provide him with bait.  [Hymir says:] "Go to the herd, if you dare, you smasher of cliff-Danes, and fetch us some bait!  I dare say it won't be easy for you to get bait from an ox! The lad dashed nimbly towards the forest, where he came upon an ox, as black as pitch.  The high abode of two horns was snapped off the bull by the ogre's death-wisher.[Hymir says:] “Your handiwork seems much worse to the boat-master, than what you do when you are sitting still!"
The “ox, as black as pitch” certainly seems to be a good description of Taurus, particularly since it is only the head that is snapped off and the constellation Taurus is black, (black space outlined by stars).  In this scene from the poem, Thor is the one who snaps off the head of the Ox to use as bait.  Around Taurus there are a number of constellations which would seem close enough to be able to snap off the oxens’ head:  Auriga, who is just above the constellation, Gemini, the twins, who are just to the left and are part of the Zodiac, and also Orion who lies just below the circle of the Zodiac. 

Only one out of the three constellations is a good fit for Thor: Orion, who holds a large club over his head.  The club could be perceived as Mjolnir (or perhaps a fishing pole) and Orion is also aptly placed to be the wielder of Mjolnir (striking the head of the Ox to “snap” it off) if Mjolnir is to be thought of as the stars of the Pleiades (as Peter Krüger has conjectured).


Thor is the god famous for wading through a river to reach the heavens whereas the other gods arrive in the sky via chariot (in my Norse Gods & Goddesses book, soon to be released, I share my musings about this starry scene at Baldur’s death).  The river Eridanus winds around the sky and ends up at Orion’s foot, strengthening the identification of Thor with Orion.  Thus Thor seems to be Orion in this mythological “scene in the stars.”
When Hymir and Thor actually row out to start fishing, Hymir catches “two whales.”  Thor’s hook, baited with the ox head (Taurus), catches something else: Jormungand.  What constellation would seem most likely placed to be Jormungand?  Firing up the program Stellarium gave me the most obvious answer: Cetus – the sea monster, which lies just below Thor (Orion) and the ox head (Taurus).  Cetus is sometimes called “The whale” but would Cetus be a better choice than Pisces for the “two whales” that Hymir catches?  The placement of Orion (Thor) and Taurus (ox head) would seem to argue against it and Cetus is the sea serpent constellation. 
Why does Thor pull up the sea monster from the bottom of the ocean?  The most likely answer seemed clear to me when Thor (Orion) hooks “From below, the one whom the gods hate, girdle of all lands”, Jormungand.  The kenning “girdle of all lands” seems a perfect description of the Milky Way which looks very much like a giant serpent that wraps around the earth, since each end disappears into the horizon (at certain times of the year, also depending upon your position on the earth, wheareas at others the Milky way looks like a tree standing straight up from the ground).  Thus, in the myth, Jormungand begins as Cetus, and when pulled up out of the water, becomes the Milky Way.
Why start at Capricorn?  Capricorn is a cardinal sign and begins the winter in the northern hemisphere.  In the tropical zodiac, the sun transits this area of the sky between December 25 - January 20 and January 15 to February 14 in the sidereal Zodiac.  Orion is also a constellation that is observed in the winter and it is quite prominent during the winter solstice.  The myth describing the death of Baldur seems most appropriately placed at the summer solstice and the two myths make a great pair, each describing the scenes in the heavens around their respective solstices.