Encoded within the Stars – and more specifically, the Constellations, the manner in which we project out up, upon them – is a wealth of archaic mythic meaning. We have earlier looked at some of these manifestations as applies Orion and the Pleiades (Krittikas) – now we shall turn our attentions briefly to an intricately complex similar grouping of Seven. Indeed, per the Vedic understanding, the Husbands of the Seven Pleiades. But more upon that in due course.
I am speaking, of course, of Ursa Major – Arktos, the Great Bear. Known in Vedic either as the SaptaRsis [‘Seven Seers’] or as the Riksha ( ऋक्ष ) – a name which, surprise surprise, means “Bear”. And I say it is utterly unsurprising because all of these terms – Ursa, Arktos, Riksha (Rksa is an alternate anglicization), are from the same root term – PIE ‘Hrtkos’. The same root that underpins Hittite 𒄯𒁖𒂵𒀸 , anglicized as Hartaggas – and worth mentioning due to the frequently encountered supposition that the Anatolian IE languages ‘branched off’ from the PIE sphere very early on.
Yet there are at least two glaring contradictions here. One of which concerns the fact that – at least upon the surface – a Rsi is not a Bear. Except when He Is.
To address the matter most directly, we have the Shatapatha Brahmana – which sets out that the Seven Rsis were “in former times called the Rikshas (bears)”. There is no direct exposition which I am aware of for how the Rsis, famed seers and poets of the Vedic Hymnals, had shape-shifted from an ursine form to a more human one.
Or is there?
For this, we must turn to the Ynglinga Saga of the Norse:
“When Odin of Asaland came to the north, and the Diar with him,
they introduced and taught to others the arts which the people
long afterwards have practised. Odin was the cleverest of all,
and from him all the others learned their arts and
accomplishments; and he knew them first, and knew many more than
other people. But now, to tell why he is held in such high
respect, we must mention various causes that contributed to it.
When sitting among his friends his countenance was so beautiful
and dignified, that the spirits of all were exhilarated by it,
but when he was in war he appeared dreadful to his foes. This
arose from his being able to change his skin and form in any way
he liked. Another cause was, that he conversed so cleverly and
smoothly, that all who heard believed him. He spoke everything
in rhyme, such as now composed, which we call scald-craft. He
and his temple priests were called song-smiths, for from them
came that art of song into the northern countries. Odin could
make his enemies in battle blind, or deaf, or terror-struck, and
their weapons so blunt that they could no more but than a willow
wand; on the other hand, his men rushed forwards without armour,
were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong
as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither
fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserker.”
Why am I quoting this at length here? Well, what is presented here is Odin acting as the teacher and instructor of holy-men – “temple priests”, referred to as “song-smiths”. What is a Rsi, why He is a “song-smith”; and most definitely functions Himself as a Priest. He carries out great metaphysical workings via His command of the sacred language, just as Odin does. And He is taught and empowered to do these things by Divine Instruction – hence, that is why we refer to these works of the Rsis as being ‘Shruti’ rather than ‘Smriti’ – that is to say, as ‘That Which Is Heard’ rather than ‘That Which Is (merely) Remembered’, respectively.
I have earlier set out how various other elements from these passages of the Ynglinga Saga are directly cognate to Vedic verses detailing the exploits of Brihaspati and Agni (but, then, I repeat myself) – the God Who Instructs, Guides, And Empowers Priests. I shall not seek to repeat that work here. Interested parties are instructed to consult ‘On Odin Brihaspati As Song-Smith – The Sung Seizing Of The Wealth Of Cows’, and the imaginatively entitled ‘On Odin As Agni’. Although to this I would speculatively add that the Sons of Rudra are referred to in RV V 56 3 as charging with the force of Bear or Bull (with ‘Bear’ there being, again, ‘Rksa’).
The key point is: Odin’s men are described as Berserker. Bear-Serker – Bear-Shirted or Bear-Skinned. And we have already met Odin engaged in shape-changing. So, it would appear that particular of Odin’s favoured followers, presumably those instructed in certain sacred phrasings and abilities through the Power of Speech by Him, gained the ability to transform into Bear shape.
Perhaps this is the same mythic transition reflected in the Shatapatha Brahmana, a text from perhaps two millennia prior to Sturluson’s efforts, which so pointedly tells us of the SaptaRsis being once regarded as having been Bears.
However, I said earlier that there were several points of complication at hand here. And the actual one of significant difficulty for us does not concern shape-shifting Seers – no, it concerns matters of gender.
For you see, Ursa is not, strictly speaking, Ursus. Ursa is female, a female mother bear in fact. And this is also reflected in the Greek (and, for that matter, Roman) presentation of the mythology – wherein there is … well, there are an array of traditions about how the constellation came into being and what its nomenclature ought refer to. The major one concerns the figure of Callisto, and Her being turned into a Bear. There are quite some peculiarities to this myth, especially in a comparative IE sense, but we shall not delve into those in especial depth here. It is enough to know that we also find Artemis referred to Calliste; and that the transformation of a figure important to the Sky Father and also to the Goddess of Law occured as the result of Divine Intercession.
However, of perhaps greater immediate interest to us is another Classical perception of this constellation. There, instead of a lover of Zeus (I hesitate to suggest an ‘ill-starred’ one), we find that it is Zeus’ nurturers as an infant Who are accorded the honour of immortalization via the Stars. There is, again, no unanimous agreement between Classical sources of the Greeks and Romans as to just which of the Nymphs of Milk and Honey are to be found as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor – some suggest that it is one such Nymph, others have Two (Ida and Adrasteia, or Helice and Cynosura, to name but four epithets – and Amalthea as a third member in various renderings), and others suggest Three Nymphs to be involved. It is, again, enough to notice that we have a general consensus for this mytheme of the (Ash) Nymphs (Meliae), Those Who nourished the young Zeus via oblations of Milk and Honey, are to be found up there once more … continually circling (Helike – like ‘Helix’) the Pole Star.
This, to be sure, introduces another set of … complexities into our reconciliation of the theology of the stars. For it is evidently no longer just Ursa Major we are concerned with – but also Ursa Minor (intriguingly, occasionally thought of as a ‘Wolf’), and Bootes (sometimes suggested to be a Cow, at other times suggested to be a Herdsman or ‘Bear-Watcher’ (Arctophylax), and even a ‘Wagon-driver’ – to go with Ursa Major as the ‘Wagon’, a name which that latter constellation also appears to have retained amidst the Norse); all of whom have, as we should perhaps expect, multiple other potential associated mythic origins.
Personally, I think that it is telling that Homer does not refer to multiple ‘Bears’ amidst the Stars – as this would accord with the lack of Ursa Minor in the Sanskrit constellationary perception, and thus suggest that the ‘Phonecian Bear’ (as Ursa Minor was also occasionally referred to as – Ursa Phoenicia) was, indeed, a Near Eastern incorporation with something else (likely the aforementioned Wolf, or at the very least, the aforementioned Nymph) being more directly understood prior to this. But I have not looked into this matter in any great depth nor detail, so we shall move on and back to our major, main flow.
The notion of three ‘Ash Nymphs’ tending to the Pole is most definitely something with archaic Indo-European precedency:
To quote from the Gylfaginning:
“It is further said that these Norns who dwell by the Well of Urdr take water of the well every day, and with it that clay which lies about the well, and sprinkle it over the Ash, to the end that its limbs shall not wither nor rot; for that water is so holy that all things which come there into the well become as white as the film which lies within the egg-shell,–as is here said:
I know an Ash standing | called Yggdrasill,
A high tree sprinkled | with snow-white clay;
Thence come the dews | in the dale that fall–
It stands ever green | above Urdr’s Well.
That dew which falls from it onto the earth is called by men honey-dew, and thereon are bees nourished. Two fowls are fed in Urdr’s Well: they are called Swans, and from those fowls has come the race of birds which is so called.”
Now, it is intriguing to notice that this concept of ‘honey-dew’ in association with Ash Tree is also known to the Greeks – hence its naming as Meli (‘Sweet’) according with the ‘Melia’ (μελία) which is their term for the ash tree, and the Meliae, the Ash-Nymphs we have earlier met nurturing the young Zeus with milk and honey.
The reason that this is of import to us – is that the Sky Father is also frequently encountered as the Axis Mundi. In this context, it is the Ash Tree. In the Greek mythosphere, we find the Infant Zeus’ stone double as the Omphalos at Delphi (a stone that was the ‘center of the world’). In the Vedic texts, we find a chariot-axle, the spokes being numerous as tree-branches, and with invocations of Milk from the Cosmic Cow amidst the Hymnals sung by the Seven Sisters, and a certain Chariot most definitely also being involved. It should also be tempting to link the Vasu (‘Radiance’/’Celestial’) Dhruva (the specific Sanskrit reference for the Pole Star in contemporary Hinduism; ‘Fixed’ / ‘Immovable’ being the meaning) to this complex likewise, especially considering the reference for (a) Dhruva as (a) Rudra.
To make things clearer, here, as to what I believe is occurring – in Hinduism, we have a ritual which is frequently performed. ShivLing Puja is its name. A ShivLing is a ‘Mark’ of Shiva – although it may also be translated, perhaps rather delicately, as a ‘Herm’ of Shiva. It is a stone of ovular shaping, and conventionally represents Lord Shiva in His aniconic form (and, in another way, yes, it does have phallic connotations – although these have often been over-emphasized by Colonial era texts looking to denigrate our religion). Its ritual saliency is descended from the Sthambhas (Sacral Posts) of the Vedic Age, and we also find scriptural material stating that not only are these equivalent – but that Trees, too, may be utilized in similar fashion. ShivLing Puja is carried out via the pouring of libations of milk or milk-and-honey (Panchamrut – technically there are other ingredients involved, although these two are the major constituent components) to stand for Soma / Amrit. The SataRudriya Rite of the Shatapatha Brahmana, we have already demonstrated to be quite coterminous with the Greek mythology featuring the Infant Zeus, and the Stone Zeus which is vomited forth by Kronos. We have also shown that the Stone Zeus aforementioned has some degree of resonancy to the ShivLing, and also that these Axis Mundi representations are just exactly that … tangible, ritually propitiable ‘resonancies’ or ’emanations’/’expressions’ for the actual Axis Mundi. We have also demonstrated that there is a key role for milk(-and-honey) oblations to nurture and to nourish the Axis Mundi and the God so closely correlate thereto. (It would be tempting to likewise position the Irminsul of the Germanics as a similar ‘resonancy’ with the Axis Mundi, especially given ‘Irmin’ – that is to say, Odin – in relation to Rudra).
And, funnily enough, the processional around said Altar is also a part of ShivLing Puja (as with many other Hindu rites) – we call it Parikrama, ‘marching/going around’ (‘Pari-‘ is from the same root as ‘Perimeter’, etc.). What was that other name for Ursa Major in Greek mytho-astronomia again? Why, Helike – that is to say ‘Turning’, ‘Going Around’, ‘Circling One’. So, in both cases we have those who have nourished the Axis Mundi via the oblation, thence proceeding to move around the Axis Mundi, in the fashion resonant with the circling of Ursa Major about the Pole (Star). I do not think this is coincidental. I am also wondering whether the fact that a four-fold tracing of the arc of the Seven-Starred Constellation at hand about Polaris appears to make a ‘Swastika’ pattern is likewise related – although there are quite some theories about the symbolic resonancies of the Swastika shape, so we shall perhaps leave that for another time.
In terms of other astro-nomia for this stellar grouping, it would likewise be possible to link these to ritualine understandings. The aforementioned tendency for the Germanics to refer to it as a ‘Wagon’ may be perhaps explicable in the context of the utilization of such constructs in Germanic rites – something attested as far back as Tacitus (writing about the rites honouring Nerthus, a Goddess – where the Wagon is pulled by ‘bubus feminis’ … ‘female cattle’, perhaps cows; which would most certainly fit with the other patterns of association on show here), and potentially recorded in both the tapestry of Oseberg and perhaps the Wagon found there likewise (of additional interest given the cats which are depicted upon it – after all, a Chariot drawn by Cats, is prominently associated with Freyja … Whom we have already shown to possess important resonancies with Vak Devi, the Goddess of Speech Who also can occur in Cow Form in the Vedas and similarly nourishes the Sky Father). There are also references to the grouping as a ‘Wagon’ in Greek perspectives, associated with Bootes as the rider or farmer; although these are, as we know, in amidst an array of other perspectives. It might be intriguing to speculate as to whether the ‘Wain’ in question was, in more archaic times, a Chariot given the Vedic emphasis upon a Chariot-spoke – but that is a matter for another time. The references to the constellation as “The Plough” presumably derives from a combination of its shape, and a dim memory of when ox-pulled mechanisms were a major form for ploughing, which now lacks both propulsion-mechanism and anything pulled except for the blade-on-a-yoke.
A particularly interesting alternate term for the asterism in question comes to us from Latin – where it is referred to as the Septentriones. Septem, we should be unsurprised to find, means ‘Seven’; whilst ‘Triones’, contrary to what one might expect (i.e. English ‘Trio’), in fact refers to a plough ox. The Latin term at its heart, ‘Tero’, has a few meanings – although it is only when considered in light of its PIE ultimate origin and several comparable Indo-European cognates of other languages that we see what is truly intended. ‘Tero’ can mean ‘to rub’, ‘to wear away’, ‘to tread’, and would at first seem a rather mundane reference for just exactly what an ox-drawn plough does. Except PIE ‘Terh’, more means ‘To Turn’ – indeed, it is where modern English ‘Turn’ actually derives from (along with German ‘Drehen’, French ‘Tourner’, etc. – all of which have this ‘Turn’ meaning). It would be tempting to speculate that the ‘pierce’ meaning for ‘Terh’ is also relevant here – certainly, that is how the plough ‘turns’ the sod in the field; although there, too, we find that it is the act of ‘turning’ which informs the PIE understanding of the concept: Greek ‘Tornos’ ( τόρνος ), as in a lathe (or, for that matter, something ’rounded’), ‘Teretron’ ( τέρετρον ), a borer, the way in which one makes a hole (‘Tormos’ – τόρμος ); Proto-Celtic ‘Taratrom’ and its descendants Breton ‘Tarar’ and Welsh ‘Taradr’ to refer to a ‘Drill’ or a probe,; etc. . It would be tempting to ponder these in light of the ‘fire-drill’ utilized in archaic Indo-European rites (especially as ‘Terh’ can also mean ‘to rub’), but I do not think that such speculation is at this time required. It is enough to know that ‘Septentriones’, in its PIE antecedent roots, ought have meant ‘Seven-Turners’. Just, as we have seen, the constellation of the Bear is hailed as in the Greek as Helike. Whether or not there is a bovine-drawn vehicle involved for this perambulation (‘Parikrama’) or otherwise. And certainly, the milk of the bovine provides an intriguing ‘vehicle’ for the flight of the Seer – but, again, more upon that some other time.
The major manner in which many in the modern era refer to Ursa Major is, of course, “The Big Dipper”. I am unaware of any hard evidence as to the phrase’s ultimate origins in modern English – some suggest a connection with a water-bearing vessel amidst African slaves, and the strong desirability of ‘heading north’ (i.e. toward the Pole and Pole Star, demarcated by this constellation) … although to my ears that sounds rather fanciful. It would be tempting to suggest that it is merely a connection of the shape with a name – the square at the end of a stick looking like a ladle or ‘dipper’ for those unfamiliar with a plough, perhaps. Except it is not so simple as that.
A ladle finds utilization when pouring oblations, too. And not just any oblations, either – to quote from two passages of the AtharvaVeda which the great modern-day Sage, Manasataramgini alerted me to (indeed, I shall simply quote from his own work via way of further explication) …
“aditer hastAM srucham etAM dvitIyAM saptaR^iShayo bhUtakR^ito yAm akR^iNvan |sA gAtrANi viduShy odanasya darvir vedyAm adhy enaM chinotu || AV-vulgate 11.1.24
aditi’s hand, this second ritual ladle, which the seven seers, the makers of beings, made; may that ladle, knowing the limbs of the rice-offering, gather it on the altar.
Here the darvi (ladle) is described as being made [up of] by the seven seers, i.e. the 7 stars of the Ursa Major.
In another place the atharvaveda describes the seven seers constituting the ritual ladle (chamasa) that contains within it the glory of all types:
tiryag bilash chamasa Urdhva-budhnas tasmin yasho nihitaM vishvarUpam |
tad Asata R^iShayaH sapta sAkaM ye asya gopA mahato babhUvuH || AV-vulgate 10.8.9
A ritual ladle with slanting opening and bottom-side up, in it is placed glory of all forms; there sit the seven seers all together; these have become the guardians of the great one.”
To phrase it succinctly: we have direct Vedic precedency for the Seven-Starred asterism in question being ‘The Big Dipper’; a ladle utilized in sacral offerings. And utilized by Whom? Well, the surrounding context of AV XI 1 makes it clear:
She is Aditi, the Great Goddess and directly commensurate with Cosmic Law Herself. The actual hymnal is the process of a ritual offering of Brahmaudana by a woman, undertaken in the hopes of obtaining various sought-for Boons from the Divine. The woman, therefore, is assuming the mythically resonant role of Aditi, and so we are treated to the panoply of mythic associations which help to congeal and make accessible the skeins of the world she is stepping into as Aditi. Aditi is, of course, also the Mother of the Gods – and we may suggest that this is in keeping with the role for Rhea as Mother of Zeus (and various of the rest of the Olympians) in the Greek mythology, especially given the aforementioned strong concordancy for Zeus (and moreso the Infant Zeus’ Stone ‘Twin’ Effigy) in relation to Rudra and the ShivLing in terms of both mythic emanation and consequent ritualized understanding.
We likewise find hailed in Callimachus’ First Hymn to Zeus, the nursemaids of the young God as the Diktaian Meliai; which, whilst loka-lized to the Dicte Mountains of Crete, must surely recall a far more archaic Indo-European understanding. Deyk, as we know, is PIE for ‘Point’, as in ‘Dikaiosune’ – “That Which Is Pointed Out”, as a mechanism to refer to Cosmic Law. And what do we find immediately preceding the line of AV 11 1 which I have quoted above? The statement that the original and mythic performance of the Rite was “Fashioned at first by Right, set by the spirit, this altar of Brahmaudana was appointed.” The word used for “Right” is, of course, “Rta” in the Sanskrit – ‘Cosmic Order’.
Now how do we say ‘Cosmic Order’ in Old Norse? ‘Orlog’. What is the name of a particular being Who presides over this in a sense, and has a great reservoir of liquid (Urðarbrunnr) with which the Axis Mundi is nourished? Urðr. What is the etymological root of ‘Urdr’? PIE ‘Wert’ – Turn. (The association of certain Sacred Trees of Zeus with a female Oracle dispensing Prophecy must surely have similar roots in this archaic PIE understanding!) Three Norns? The sacral portion in AV 11 1 is similarly “triply” divided; and the notion of ‘Triple Refractions’ of the Goddess is something not unknown to the Vedic sphere, either. Certainly, ‘Fate’ resonates with ‘Adrasteia’ (the name of one of Zeus’ Three ‘Meli’ providing nurse-nymphs), the “Inescapable”. And we also find Aditi in Cow form, with the Milk thusly dispensed being, as with Urðarbrunnr, a most potent source of empowerment indeed. In the Havamal, the poet states thus: “By the wells of Urd I was, I saw and was silent, / I saw and thought, / And heard the speech of Hor.” These are the words of Loddfafnir, and they chronicle something which should be immediately familiar to us from the very start of this (a)arti-cle – wherein the Divine imparts to the Seer the verses in question, so they are ‘Heard’ [Shruti] rather than composed. The ‘Empowering Elixir’ of Soma, or the Mead of Poetry as it is known amongst the Germanics, is most useful for this for obvious reasons – although it is not the only mechanism via which the Divine Inspiration may be bestowed. We find amidst RV X 125, the famed DeviSukta (and my personal favourite Hymnal of the entire Vedic Canon) – that it is the blessing/choosing/love of Devi Vak which renders a man capable to be a Rsi. And thusly to make Him capable of ‘pouring forth’ the divinely received Speech in question!
Milk, as has long been known, makes for an excellent suspension medium – it bears psychoactives in certain ritual preparations (along with honey); and also bears the imprinting of Speech and even Life Itself in the Vedic conceptual understanding. Its coming from the Goddess in Cow form, to nourish the Tree of Life, and via extension the whole Universe Entire, is therefore quite strongly appropriate. It is ‘Law’ nourishing Law’s immanentizer and spreader – Law protecting, upholding, empowering and en-charging Law, we may say.
As the Axis Mundi represents the immanent axial of Cosmic Order here in this universe of ours – hence why it is under constant, gnawing assault from demon-dragons in the Grimnismal etc.; and also why one of our foundational, fundamental duties is to look after and nurture it, protect it even with our very lives (whilst still living, I mean – through precious, pious devotion and sacral conduct and auspicious awareness!) – it is therefore logical that we find the Goddess Who Is Law tending to this Shaft. And, for that matter, empowering the Seven Singers – the Rsis – to do the same.
I do not think that there is an easy answer for the seeming ‘contradictions’ between the various Indo-European accounts which are inarguably of this very same astro-mythic perception. We have varying numbers – Three and Seven – and we have varying genders, varying patterns of iconographic association, even. Yet we may nevertheless addeuce a series of fundamental, literally foundational interlocking patterns to each of these latter-day descended perceptionings. And therefore eminently sensibly conclude that the pattern we see played out in the course of the Heavenly twirls and wheels about the Pole Star – is also the ritual template for our current conventional modus operandi in the sacral sphere. We are, in short, re-enacting the patterned conduct of the Stars – quite literally ‘Guided by a signal in the Heavens’ and retracing the pathway of the Astra ( आष्ट्र ) Above.
It would be tempting to surmise the differences overlaying these functional core coterminities with a quote from Terry Pratchett:
“No one remembers the singer. The song remains.”
Or, for that matter, from earlier in the same (excellent) book (The Last Hero, in case anyone is wondering):
“‘In the olden days,’ she said, ‘when a hero had been really heroic, the gods would put them up in the stars.’
THE HEAVENS CHANGE, said Death. WHAT TODAY LOOKS LIKE A MIGHTY HUNTER MAY LOOK LIKE A TEACUP IN A HUNDRED YEARS’ TIME.
‘That doesn’t seem fair.’
NO ONE EVER SAID IT HAD TO BE. BUT THERE ARE OTHER STARS.”
And yet … as we have demonstrated here, it is not quite so … ‘callous’ might be one term for it (and yes, that is an intentional ‘Callisto’ resonancy). It is most definitely the case that various interpretations and perceptions change and shift and turn; and yet, with the right eyes … and the right half-madman armed with four thousand years plus of Indo-European comparanda in both the mythic and linguistic spheres … it remains admirably possible to re-trace the charted courses of the descent, and show the essence-tial underlying unity to these seemingly-diverse perceptions. And how this must therefore guide our ensuing present-day understanding as the directly attributable consequence and righteously mandated result.
So: Star-Maiden(s) or Star Sages, an instrument for Their conveyance, or a ‘ground-breaking implement’ (I shall not call it a Spade) – what matters here, what Mata’s here, is the ‘functional relationship’ between These and the Pole. The Axis. The Rta. The Root.
Hail to the Rksas (‘The Stars’).