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Planets and Parhelia

broken image

Confined to my room with essays to write, somehow the day is not completely devoid of the outside. This morning when I stumbled bleary-eyed from my room, a flatmate accosted me: “I've got something to show you.” “What?” I mumbled sleepily as Magnus strode past me and I followed him out onto the balcony. It's the second frost this season and my coldest morning in Aarhus, but somehow it's insignificant. “Look, there,” Magnus said, as he pointed into the sky at two small spheres of brightness. For just a short time before first-light Jupiter and Venus were visible: so close to each other they could be touching; two sharp pinpricks hovering above the horizon in the pale light before dawn. Within fifteen minutes the sun had risen and the planets were gone.

Eight hours later, the sun is creeping towards the horizon; the clouds dissect the sky in thin bands, and between the bands a sun-dog glares. A sun-dog, or parhelion, is caused by the reflection of sunlight on ice crystals in the sky; it usually resembles a bright spot of light, one of a pair occurring on either side of the sun. Parhelion is partly a borrowing from Latin and partly a borrowing from Greek: para in the sense of parallel to but separate from; and helion meaning sun. They lie on the same altitude from the horizon as the sun, and sometimes the 22° halo on which they lie is also visible.

They can be seen anywhere in the world during any season, but they are clearest and most often seen when the sun is near the horizon. Before now, I’ve only ever seen them in the Icelandic summer months when the days are long, horizons are wide, and the light is always clear. Today, completely irrationally, I associate it with the frost; I can almost feel the refracting ice crystals, its muted rainbow-fragment fits the spectral light of the day.

Gísli Sigurðsson talks at length about how Norse mythological material can, in part, be explained as a discussion of astronomical knowledge – that celestial processes were conveyed in narrative, and mythological narrative in particular [1]. This isn't hard to grasp; in the twenty-first century so many incredible phenomena can be explained rationally, without recourse to gods and monsters, yet grand natural events still evoke wonder and mystery. Folk-etymology for sun-dog even suggests that the origin of the term can be explained with recourse to Norse mythology, referring to a story of two wolves hunting the sun and the moon. This story is told in both Grímnismál, one of the so-called Eddic poems contained in the Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, and in Gylfaginning in Snorra Edda, the two main repositories of Norse mythological information.

Grímnismál uses kennings and oblique language to describe the sun and the moon but the essence of the two renderings differ only in who chases who. In Gýlfaginning a wolf called Sköll chases the sun, and a wolf called Hati chases the moon; this is reversed in Grímnismál. What follows is the narrative from Gylfaginning, which is framed as a dialogue between Gangleri – an alias for the mythological king Gylfi – and High, Just-as-High, and Third (possible pseudonyms for Óðinn):

“Then says Gangleri: ‘Quickly goes the sun, and near so as she is afraid, and she would not then speed up more on her way if she was afraid for her death.’


Then replies High: ‘It is not wonderful that she goes so quickly, near goes the one who seeks her. And there is no way out except to run away.’


Then says Gangleri: ‘Who is that who gives her trouble?’


High says: ‘There were two wolves, and that one who goes after her is called Sköll. She is frightened of him and he will take her, and he who runs before her is called Hati Hróðvitnisson, and he wishes to take the moon, and so will that be.’” [2]

Winters in Iceland are hard: it rains endlessly and the days shorten by ten minutes each day until the winter solstice finally arrives and you can barely remember what the sun looks like. With no electric lighting, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine medieval Icelanders turning both to the stars above their heads, and memories of the sun in warmer months, explaining their patterns, movements, and phenomena with colourful stories – articulating their vision of the world using the palette of the sky.

But it is not yet mid-winter, and I am not in Iceland. Though my day has been spent almost entirely indoors gazing at a screen, it was impossible not to be affected by the world outside the window. The day has been buttressed by two incredible luminary phenomena like two sun-dogs flanking the sun. As the days get shorter and darkness prevails, I will remember Jupiter, Venus, and my small rainbow-fragment, framed by clouds.

Copyright © Jack Threlfall Hartley 2017

[1] Gísli Sigurðsson “The Sky Described in Mythological Terms” in Nordic Mythologies Interpretations, Intersections, and Institutions (2014) edited by Timothy R. Tangherlini.

[2] Translation my own. Old Norse-Icelandic text taken from Snorri Sturluson: Edda (2005) edited by Anthony Faulkes: “Þá mælir Gangleri: ‘Skjótt ferr sólin, ok nær svá sem hon sé hrædd, ok eigi mundi hon þá meir hvata göngunni at hon hræddisk bana sinn.’ Þá svarar Hár: ‘Eigi er þat undarligt at hon fari ákafliga, nær gengr sá er hana sœkir. Ok øngan útveg á hon nema renna undan.’ Þá mælir Gangleri: ‘Hverr er sá er henni gerir þann ómaka?’ Hár segir: ‘þat eru tveir úlfar, ok heitir sá er eptir henni ferr Sköll. Hann hræðisk hon ok hann mun taka hana, en sá heitir Hati Hróðvitnisson er fyrir henni hleypr, ok vill hann taka tunglit, ok svá mun verða.’”

High, Just-as-High, and Third holding forth to Gangleri on a page from the so-called Melsteðs Edda (SÁM 66).  Photo credit: Jóhanna  Ólafsdóttir (

High, Just-as-High, and Third holding forth to Gangleri on a page from the so-called Melsteðs Edda (SÁM 66). Photo credit: Jóhanna Ólafsdóttir (

11th century bronze harness pendant from Thetford, Norfolk, purportedly showing two wolves (Sköll and Hati?).

11th century bronze harness pendant from Thetford, Norfolk, purportedly showing two wolves (Sköll and Hati?).

“The Wolves Pursuing Sol and Mani” by J.C. Dollman (1909).

“The Wolves Pursuing Sol and Mani” by J.C. Dollman (1909).