Sun cult and sun dancers in the Nordic Bronze Age

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A summer solstice more than three thousands of years ago. A group of people have gathered by an ancient stone structure to wait for the sunrise. Only the crackling of the burning torches breaks the silence. Little by little space is filled by a low, even ghostly sound. A gigantic horn has been raised and a rhythmic drumming begins. Men in the circle are pounding big drums decorated with red images with their axes.

When the first rays of the sun hit the stone three young women step inside the ring of people. They have their hair cut short, short shirts and skirts made of cords. On their waist, they wear a bronze disc decorated with spirals and a protruding point in the centre. Necks and arms are adorned with rings.

Accompanied by the drumming and the low humming of the great horn they start a wild dance with the rising sun. While the women are spinning, jumping and bending to bridges the rays of the rising sun makes the belt plates glint.

Nordic Bronze Age and the sun cult

The Nordic Bronze age is a culture that prevailed mainly in the Southern Scandinavian peninsula and Denmark in 1700-500 BCE. Sometimes also parts of Finland, Estonia and Germany are included.

Along with the agriculture, the sun became more important part of the religion. Sun cult had its most significant role in the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age. Solar symbols of the Bronze Age were the sun cross or wheel, circles and concentric circles, spirals and also spiral decorated shields and circular belt-plates.

More about the Nordic Bronze Age: http://www.dandebat.dk/eng-dk-historie9.htm

The solar ship

Razors

In the images of the rock carvings and razors, the sun is transported in a ship. A Danish archaeologist Hemming Kaul has interpreted Bronze Age razors motifs. According to him:

1. A fish helps the sun from the night ship to the day ship.

2. In the forenoon, a bird eats the fish and takes control over the ship.

3. At noon a horse moves the sun over to another ship.

4. In the afternoon a snake takes the sun into the tail curls and helps it go down.

5. The ships of the razor knives without the sun are night ships where the sun isn’t visible.

Sun ships of the bronze age razors
Bronze Age razors from Denmark with ship and sun symbol images. The picture: Ridpath’s history of the world, Ridpath, John Clark, 1897

Rock carvings

 

Rock carvings in Tanum
Rock carvings in Tanum, Sweden. Men are holding an axe and maybe a shield with the solar cross symbol. Picture: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=297291

Also in the Scandinavian rock carvings, the solar symbol is carried on a ship. Sometimes the symbol is in a way, in a form of a shield. Hemming Kaul has also studied these images. The solar symbols are always on the ships sailing to the right or west. So being, the ships going towards the west would be day ships and the ships sailing to the east night ships.

 

The Sun chariot

The sun could also travel across the sky pulled by a horse like in the images of the razors. The famous sun chariot found in Trundholm, Denmark shows a gold-coated disc decorated with spirals and a horse on wheels dragging the sun. The back side of the disc is dark and not gilded so it’s been stated that the front side is the day side and the other side is the night.

Sun chariot of Trundholm
The Sun Carriage from the Bronze Age, on display at the National Museum (Nationalmuseet) in Denmark. Picture: Nationalmuseet, via Wikimedia Commons

Much later sources tell about the sun goddess Sól or Sunna who drives in her chariot across the sky pulled by horses. Because in the Bronze Age Scandinavia they didn’t know how to read or write all we know about their beliefs is based on the images, objects and constructions. The names of the gods are not known. However, it is likely that the gods of the Iron Age Scandinavian religion are inherited from the Bronze Age.

Sol and Mani
In the Scandinavian mythology, Sól (the sun) was female and Mani (the moon) male. Wolfs chacing Sól and Mani. Picture: Guerber, H. A. (Hélène Adeline) (1909). Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas.

The sun goddess

The sun cult was a cult of fertility. In the Scandinavian rock carvings, the men holding axes and pictured with the sun symbols seem to have an erection. A sword or a spear pierce the sun symbol in some cases. For example, in this kind of connection, the solar symbol seems to be a feminine symbol.

The common symbols in the Bronze Age, a sword and a spear represent deities that have later become Freyr and Odin. But to which deity the solar symbol belonged to? Maria Kvilhaug and Lan Wang have suggested that the fertility and war goddess Freyja (and also her brother Freyr) would be the successors of this sun deity. Read more about it here:

Freyja and Freyr: Successors of the Sun: on the absence of the sun in Nordic saga literature: https://www.duo.uio.no/handle/10852/57994

http://freya.theladyofthelabyrinth.com/?page_id=89 (at least in my browser this is unreadable due to the background picture but the text can be copied and then read)

The sun deities in the more southern and eastern regions have been male but among the Finno-Ugric people, the sun has had a female aspect. Maria Kvilhaug thinks that there might have been influencing from east to Scandinavia. It seems possible since according to the new research at least the ceramic influences were transferred from east to west maybe along with the women themselves.

Egtved girl

In 1921, in Egtved, Denmark a grave of a young girl was excavated. The girl had been buried under a mound, in a carved oak-trunk. She was wearing a peculiar outfit: a short cord skirt, short top and a bronze disc fastened on the waist. Also, her hair was cut short.

Small figurines wearing similar cord skirts have been found. These statuettes represent persons who are performing acrobatic moves. It has been suggested that these figurines are related to the sun cult and represent sun-worshipping rituals.

Bronze Age dancer
Picture of Bronze Age figurines. One of them is wearing a corded skirt and performing a bridge. By Marcus Schnabel – Danish Museum (?), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11468894

The Egtved girl might have been a priestess of the sun who performed a ritual sundance. She was only 16 – 18 years old.

Watch a documentary spoken in German with English subtitles about the Egtved girl

or read more here:

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/05/150521-bronze-age-woman-egtved-modern-archaeology/

https://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-bronze-age/the-egtved-girl/the-egtved-girls-grave/

Egtved girl grave
Remains of the Egtved girl. Picture: By The British National Museum (Collection G. & C. Franke) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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