…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.
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.
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.