Stephen Hawking Is Wrong!

…about Norse mythology.

Last night I watched an episode of Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design, called “Did God Create the Universe” on Discovery. The series is based on his book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow). At the beginning of the episode, Hawking discusses how people have invented gods to explain natural events they didn’t understand. In particular, he mentions Norse beliefs. We are treated to footage of actors pretending to be scraggly Vikings looking in terror at the sky. Hawking mentions that the Norse feared Thor, who made lightning, and Ægir who brought storms. But the god they feared the most was…Sköll.

Sköll?!

Yes, Sköll. Hawking explains that Sköll was a wolf who chased the sun, and when he caught up with her chariot, he ate her, causing an eclipse. He describes it somewhat differently in his book. He begins with a quote from Grimnismál, from the Poetic Edda:

Skoll the wolf who shall scare the Moon
Till he flies to the Wood-of-Woe:
Hati the wolf, Hridvitnir’s kin,
Who shall pursue the sun. (qtd. in The Grand Design, ch. 2)

Nowhere does he give credit to the translator. Most people who quote the passage on the Internet also fail to give the translator credit. The translation is by renowned twentieth-century poet, W. H. Auden, with Paul B. Taylor. You can find the complete translation here. Auden’s translation is lovely, but a bit…poetic. A more literal translation:

Sköll is the name of the wolf who pursues the bright-faced god to the defending wood. The other [is] Hati; he is Hróðvitnir’s son; he shall [be] in front of the bright bride of heaven. (My translation, based on the edition by Guðni Jónsson)

The sun is both the bright-faced god(dess) and the bright bride of heaven. One wolf pursues her, and the other is in front of her, presumably chasing her brother, the moon. Auden seems to have his wolves backwards. Hawking goes on to say:

In Viking mythology, Skoll and Hati chase the sun and the moon. When the wolves catch either one, there is an eclipse. When this happens, the people on earth rush to rescue the sun or moon by making as much noise as they can in hopes of scaring off the wolves. (The Grand Design, ch. 2)

Now, it is absurd to suggest that Sköll was the most feared of Norse gods. Outside this mention in Grimnismál and an elaboration on it in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, he isn’t even named. Also, he’s not a god or a “wolf-god,” as Hawking calls him. The two races of gods, the Æsir and the Vanir, were on one side, and supernatural wolves were in the opposing camp, along with giants. It’s true that Hati is said to be the son of Hróðvitnir (Fenrir)*, and Fenrir is the son of Loki, and Loki lived among the Æsir. But Loki was not quite one of the Æsir: while several gods (including Odin and Thor) had giantess mothers, Loki’s father was a giant (Fárbauti), which seems to be much more problematic. Many of Loki’s offspring were monsters who fought against the gods (one notable exception is Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed, but Loki was Sleipnir’s mother, not his father).

The main problem with Hawking’s discussion of Norse mythology is his claim that the wolves’ attacks on the sun and the moon were used to explain eclipses. They weren’t, no matter what the Internet says. The passage in Grimnismál is a bit obscure, but in paraphrasing it, Snorri says:

There are two wolves, and the one who is chasing her [the sun] is called Skoll. He frightens her, and he eventually will catch her. The other is called Hati Hrodvitnisson. He runs in front of her trying to catch the moon. And, this will happen. (Gylfaginning, Prose Edda, tr. Jesse Byock, p. 20)

Notice the use of the future tense? These are not events that happen regularly: they are extraordinary events that have not occurred yet. Later Snorri says,

First will come the winter called Fimbulvetr [Extreme Winter]. Snow will drive in from all directions; the cold will be severe and the winds will be fierce. The sun will be of no use. Three of these winters will come, one after the other, with no summer in between…. Next will come an event thought to be of much importance. The wolf will swallow the sun, and mankind will think it has suffered a terrible disaster. Then the other wolf will catch the moon, and he too will cause much ruin. The stars will disappear from the heavens. (Gylfaginning, The Prose Edda, tr. Jesse Byock, p. 71).

The disappearance of the sun, the moon and the stars heralds the beginning of Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse. I don’t know how the Norse interpreted eclipses. I suppose it is possible that they thought, “Oh no, Ragnarok’s coming,” but I tend to doubt it. They were used to the idea of the sun going away for most of the winter, so I wouldn’t think they’d be too worried if it disappeared for a few minutes. Oh, and I have no idea where he got the thing about making noises to scare the wolves away.

Hawking makes the mistake of thinking the mythic future applies to the historical present. This is similar to what ancient alien theorist Graham Hancock does in Fingerprints of the Gods, as I have discussed previously. Both Hancock and Hawking speak of an event that is supposed to happen in the future and apply it to real events that have already happened. This is not company you want to be in, Professor Hawking.

*In Vafþruðnismál, it is Fenrir himself who swallows the sun.

ES

REFERENCES:

Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam, 2010. Kindle edition.

Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Tr. Jesse L. Byock. Penguin Classics Ed. London: Penguin, 2005.

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10 Responses to Stephen Hawking Is Wrong!

  1. Pacal says:

    Another example of what happens to an expert in one field who says talks or writes about matters in another field not his/her field of expertise and gets things wrong. not a huge surprise, However I’m still disapointed no fact checker seems to have gotten that one.

    So i’m a little disapointed in Stephen Hawking but not terribly surprised. It doesn’t lower in the slightest my estiem for the man.

    As for Ragnarok. it is my understanding that the version we have from the Voluspa poem is Icelandic. Certainly it seems to show the influence of living in Iceland with its volcanic eruptions, huge glaciers and volcanos erupting in the midst of massive ice sheets.

    I’m curious if there is any other version of Ragnarok. (Aside from that in the two Eddas which are basically the same thing.) I don’t remember reading anything much like it in Saxo but it has been quite sometime since I’ve read him, since Saxo was a pretty miserable writer in my opinion. The Eddas are just so well written and beat Saxo in that department so completely which is why I have translations of the Prose and Poetic Eddas. Saxo i can do without.

    Another reason I ask is some accounts of Norse myths I’ve read have mentioned versions of the end of the world in which the god Thor survives to preside over the new world. I wonder what that is based on?

    However I should mention that if my translation of the Poetic Edda’s Voluspa translation is anything to go on the poem seems to be incomplete and some verses are missing. Any thoughts on if this is so and perhaps why? I’m also wondering about possible Christian influence on the whole concept of Ragnarok. It is my understanding that the consensus is that Ragnarok is in fact basically independent of Christian influence and a independent tradition. Still given the probable date of the composition of the poem I suspect some Christian influence on elements in the story although it appears the whole concept of a twilight of the Gods and end of the world is not a pagan adaption of the Christian idea of the end of the world.

    • Eve says:

      Pacal, your questions don’t have easy answers. Voluspa, like all the poems of the Poetic Edda, was written down in Iceland, but–as with a number of the eddic poems–we don’t really know exactly when or where it was composed originally. It could have been an oral poem composed in Norway, or it might be Icelandic. There are two full texts of it, in the Codex Regius (main text of most of the eddic poems) and in Hauksbok (a massive collection of works). The Hauksbok version lacks the death of Baldr. Snorri also quotes Voluspa extensively and there are enough minor differences between what he quotes and the two main manuscripts that it is impossible he used either of those two manuscripts as his exemplar.

      I don’t know if anything significant is missing from the Codex Regius text (which, I believe, is probably the base text for most editions and translations). Both full texts contain a possible interpolation, Dvergatal, or the Catalogue of Dwarves (or The Place Where Tolkien Got All the Names for His Dwarves [and Gandalf]).

      I don’t know about Thor surviving. He is killed by the poison of the world serpent. There is survival and regeneration, though. Some of Thor’s and Odin’s sons survive and Baldr and his killer Hodd return from Hel (at least in some versions of the Ragnarok story).

      Here is what John Lindow says about Voluspa: “But [though it lacks the killing of Baldr] the Hauksbok text sends to earth ‘the powerful one, he who rules all,’ which looks much like an intrusion of the Christian god. Indeed, even without this stanza, there is much in the poem that is reminiscent of Christianity, and in part because it seems to indulge in millennial thinking, scholars have been inclined to date it to the last decades of the tenth century. This dating is uncertain, and attempts to assign the poem’s origin to a specific location are even more uncertain.”

      The combination of fire and frost, both at the formation of the world and at its (near) destruction, do suggest Iceland’s mix of glaciers and volcanoes, but fire is also a well-known destructive force.

      Voluspa and the Prose Edda are certainly the main sources for Ragnarok. I know other works mention or allude to it, such as Vafthrudnismal, Lokasenna and Baldrs draumar, but they don’t go into as much detail. Like you, I find Saxo a bit dull. I don’t know if he mentions Ragnarok, but since he firmly euhemerizes his version, I don’t really think he would be interested in the Doom of the Gods–he doesn’t treat them as gods, but as men. But, again, I don’t know for sure whether he mentions it (by the way, even Saxo used Icelandic oral stories among his sources. Icelandic influence is fairly overpowering when it comes to Germanic mythology).

      • Eve says:

        Crap, I forgot to give the bibliographic info for the Lindow quote: John Lindow, Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs (Oxford UP, 2001) 318.

  2. tungl says:

    I always brace myself for the worst when Icelandic/Norse/Germanic mythology comes up anywhere on TV. My “favourite” is the use of Tacitus without even the smallest disclaimer that it is difficult to assess the accuracy of his depiction or even without mentioning him as a source at all, just citing everything as established fact.

    Also, you mention that Ægir is listed among the gods as a bringer of storm… I don’t know how this is phrased in the show, but isn’t Ægir actually described as a personification of the sea and/or a jötunn? He’s definitely not one of the Æsir, as far as I remember.

    • Eve says:

      About AEgir, I could have it wrong. The show alternates between Hawking on camera speaking and a voice-over narrator speaking for him. As I recall, the introductory material was in his own voice, and it was a little difficult to understand when his computerized voice spoke some of the god’s names (at first I thought he said “Skuld,” who’s a Norn, rather than “Skoll”). So, I think he said “AEgir, and I think he associated him with storms.

      AEgir is a personification of the sea and/or a sea-deity. As you say, he doesn’t appear to be one of the gods, but plays host to them (Lokasenna takes place at a feast hosted by AEgir). He could be considered responsible for shipwrecks and storms at sea, although Ran often gets credit or blame for those. There was a visual of a Viking ship and drenched Vikings looking up at the sky: lightning (Thor), storm (AEgir), eclipse (Skoll).

  3. Where did the idea that mythologies arose to explain natural phenomena come from? Lucretius? Is there any basis for thinking this is actually the case? It seems more like a post-hoc assertion to me.

    If anything, it seems to me that people would more likely point to natural phenomena in order to reinforce the myth, rather than the other way around. I mean, that’s the pattern we see today with natural disasters, and I don’t see why it would’ve been any different during the Bronze Age.

    • Eve says:

      Interesting question. I think in some cases, people invented gods to explain natural phenomena. Look at solar deities, for instance. Some, like Apollo, were multipurpose gods, but some only dealt with the sun. Either they were the sun or they carried it across the sky. Often the name means “sun.” In such cases, I think people looked at the big bright shiny thing in the sky, observed it (apparently) moving and figured there must be some god who was responsible.

      In other cases, I’m not sure which came first: the phenomenon or the god. There is evidence that sometimes one god overtakes roles of other gods. For instance it seems likely that Tyr (Tiu, from whom we get Tuesday) was at one point a very important god, perhaps the main god. His name is cognate with Greek “theos” and Latin “deus.” In other words, his name means “god.” However, all we really know about him is that Fenrir bit his hand off and that he and the hell-hound Garm will kill each other at Ragnarok. He may have lost attributes to Odin and Thor.

      There are some folklorists/mythographers (such as Adrienne Mayor and Elizabeth Weyland Barber and Paul Barber) who try to explain every single myth as stemming from a real event. I worry, for instance, whenever anyone–whether creationist, ancient alien theorist or scholar–says that ALL flood myths actually are the same flood myth and they all refer to a real event. The Barbers, for instance, suggest that flood myths all refer to the precession of the equinoxes. I’m unconvinced.

      • Actually, Adrienne Mayor clearly states in her books “The First Fossil Hunters” and “Fossil Legends of the First Americans” the obvious fact that not all myths are based on fossils, only those that specifically refer to physical remains. Many places with no fossils have tales of monsters and giants. She also emphasizes that there is no way of knowing which came first, a myth about a a giant or monster, or observation of unfamiliar fossils. Indeed, she points out that the stories may well have preceded any observation of fossils –but if and when large remarkable bones were seen later, they would reinforce the myth. She never claims that fossils inspired myths, only that fossils may have influenced them.

  4. [...] Stephen Hawking Is Wrong! (skepticalhumanities.com) [...]

  5. Janell says:

    I am not sure that was the point of the show as much as people had many beliefs and worshipped many things that were not proved. Cows, multiple Gods, statues etc. I think the title of “Stephen Hawking is Wrong” was kind of like a entertainment magazine ploy to make people think they are going to read something of value. People worshipped all kinds of things, exactly why Stephen Hawkings wanted to set out and prove God is not needed. There have billion many of them including interpretations. I would have like to seen something in response to his theory but I felt like I clicked on a yahoo article.

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