Gefjon and her plow
The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson (AD 1179 - AD 1241) remains one of the most important compendiums of Norse mythology. Snorri was an accomplished poet and the probable author of Egil's Saga, considered one of the finest Icelandic sagas, and his Prose Edda contains major sections which explain the construction and poetic techniques used by skalds and poets, illustrated by verses from other poets. Snorri clearly had an ecyclopedic knowledge of the poets and poetry of his people, and of the construction of eddas and sagas and verse of all types.
Based on this fact, we can conclude that his choice of opening lines for the Prose Edda was no accident. How did Snorri choose to begin his master work? With what myth does he begin the Edda?
The Prose Edda begins with a section called the Gylfaginning, or the contesting or tricking of Gylfi (Snorri wrote an important prologue to the Gylfaginning, in which he converses with the reader about the origins of the myths and other worthwhile subjects, but the his formal recital of the sacred stories really begins at the opening the Gylfaginning itself).
Here is how he commences the Gylfaginning, and how he introduces and describes King Gylfi:
King Gylfi was ruler in what is now called Sweden. Of him it is said that he gave a certain vagrant woman, as a reward for his entertainment, one plough-land in his kingdom, as much as four oxen could plough up in a day and a night. Now this woman was one of the race of the Æsir. Her name was Gefiun. She took four oxen from the north, from Giantland, the sons of her and a certain giant, and put them before the plough. But the plough cut so hard and deep that it uprooted the land, and the oxen drew the land out into the sea to the west and halted in a certain sound. There Gefiun put the land and gave it a name and called it Zealand. Where the land had been lifted from there remained a lake; this is now called lake Mälar in Sweden. And the inlets in the lake correspond to the headlands in Zealand. Thus says the poet Bragi the Old:Gefiun drew from Gylfi, glad, a deep-ring of land so that from the swift-pullers steam rose: Denmark's extension. The oxen wore eight brow-stars as they went hauling their plunder, the wide island of meadows, and four heads.
The above translation is from that of Anthony Faulkes (1987) from the 1995 Everyman paperback edition, page 7. Some of the names have been Anglicized in that edition, including that of the goddess Gefjon or Gefjun, as well as the name of Jotunheim (which is rendered "Giantland"). For another translation of Snorri's Prose Edda, available online, see here.
Regardless of the exact wording of the translation, however, if we are familiar with the system of celestial allegory which underlies the world's sacred mythology, we might suspect that this myth of the creation of Sjaelland (or Zealand) by the action of the plowing in a single day and a single night by a goddess and her four oxen sons, has a celestial component as well.
In fact, this myth is fairly easy to sort out: the clues given are abundant, and the appearance in mythology of ploughing by celestial oxen is well established, and refers to the familiar constellation of the Big Dipper (in Ursa Major). The stars of the Big Dipper circle the north celestial pole, and they make a full circuit in "a day and a night" (that is to say, in twenty-four hours), due to the rotation of the earth upon its axis. That this motion may correspond to the plowing in a circle of a piece of land by the goddess Gefjon and her sons seems quite likely.
In their seminal work Hamlet's Mill, Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend do not specifically address the myth of Gefjon and her sons, but they do address the many appearances of the Dipper (which in fact is also known as the Plough) in the sacred myths of the world. After first addressing texts from as early as AD 150 which describe the turning of the stars in the region of the northern celestial pole as the turning of a heavenly mill-stone in the descriptions of the ancient Greek astronomer Cleomedes and the Persian or Arab astronomer and writer al-Qazwini (spelled al-Kazvini in Hamlet's Mill), they continue:
Farther to the east, in India, the Bhagavata Purana tells us how the virtuous prince Dhruva was appointed as Pole star. The particular "virtue" of the prince, which alarmed even the gods, is worth mentioning: he stood on one leg for more than a month, motionless. This is what was announced to him: "The stars, and their figures, and also the planets shall turn around you." Accordingly, Dhruva ascends to the highest pole, "to the exalted seat of Vishnu, round which the starry spheres forever wander, like the upright axle of the corn mill circled without end by the labouring oxen."
The simile of the oxen driven around is not alien to the West. It has remained in our languages thanks to the Latin Septemtriones, the seven threshing oxen of Ursa Major: "that we are used to calling the Seven Oxen," according to Cicero's translation of Aratus. 138.
Thus, there is mythological precedent for seeing the stars of the Big Dipper as celestial oxen, as early as the poetry of Aratus (c. 315 BC - 240 BC), who was versifying the earlier work of Eudoxus (408 BC - 355 BC), as well as in the Hindu Bhagavata Purana (whose original date of composition is difficult to know, and which probably incorporates much material from far earlier than its own date of composition). These oxen are seven in number according to Aratus. However, when we look at the Big Dipper itself, it is certainly understandable that it might also be encoded in star-myth as four oxen, the Dipper's remaining stars making up the handle of the plow:
The clues in Snorri's description of the myth of Gefjon (and that of Bragi the Old, which he quotes, citing a poem which has not survived except in fragmentary form such as these quotations by other authors) that we are talking about the Dipper and its daily circling of the pole are numerous.
First, as already mentioned, is the fact that Gylfi promises Gefjon as much land as "four oxen could plough up in a day and a night." She is not offered as much as could be plowed in a single day, or a single night, but rather as much could be plowed up in "a day and a night." The Dipper makes a full circuit as the earth makes its full circuit, and thus it cannot be said to plow a complete "ring" of space until a whole day and night have passed -- and neither, then, could Gefjon and her four sons, if they in fact represent the motion of the Dipper.
Second, we are specifically told that Gefjon took "four oxen from the north," who also happen to be her sons, fathered by a jotun. Of course, the constellation of the Big Dipper is associated with the north, circling closely as it does the north celestial pole.
Finally, as has just been noted, Snorri chooses to cite here a snippet from an older poem, and in those lines which he chooses to quote, we hear that, "The oxen wore eight brow-stars as they went hauling their plunder." This is very interesting: the oxen are specifically described as "wearing stars" as they perform their labor. Further, the stars are described as being eight in number. The Big Dipper, of course, is usually described as having seven stars (we have already seen that Aratus -- and Cicero's Latin translation of Aratus -- describe the stars of the Big Dipper as the Seven Oxen).
However, it has long been known that sharp-eyed observers can see eight stars in the Dipper. If you look carefully at the Big Dipper in the star-chart reproduced above, you will see that at the position "one in" from the end of the Dipper's handle are two close-together stars: Alcor and Mizar, sometimes referred to as "the horse and rider" and sometimes as a bride and groom or married couple. The two have sometimes been said to act as a celestial test of vision. In any case, while it is certainly appropriate to describe the Dipper as having seven stars, the fact that Snorri chooses to cite a poem which tells us that the oxen in question are wearing stars and that they are eight in number would also seem to be a very strong clue that the myth is referring to the circling stars of the Big Dipper around the north pole.
Considered together, all of these clues almost certainly indicate that the myth of Gefjon and her four "oxen from the north" plowing a hole in Sweden and creating Sjaelland or Zealand (the largest island in the Baltic Sea, and the island upon which Copenhagen is located) really refers to a plowing that takes place in heaven, among the stars.
But, some might object that Snorri (and Bragi, whom he quotes) identify the plowing with a piece of undeniably terrestrial real estate: the island of Sjaelland, or "Denmark's extension" in the words of Bragi. Snorri even tells us that the removal of the island by the action of the plow left a large lake, whose inlets correspond to the headlands of the new island. This fact should not really throw us off the scent of the celestial origin of this myth: the authors of Hamlet's Mill demonstrate time and again that star-myths which ostensibly have terrestrial counterparts almost invariably refer to a heavenly location first, with the earth-bound location having been seen by the ancients as an earthly copy fashioned after the heavenly model (they cite as examples the Biblical Mount Ararat, the Babylonian Eridu, and the Greek Mount Ida).
Further, as modern commentators invariably remark, Snorri somewhat confusingly tells us that the place where the land was lifted out by the action of the goddess left a large lake whose shape corresponds to the outline of Zealand, and identifies this lake as lake Mälar in Sweden. But (as can be seen from the map above) the outline of Zealand much more closely resembles in both size and shape the outline of the lake Vänern in Sweden instead! The map above shows an arrow going from this larger lake to Zealand. The much smaller and narrower lake Mälar is indicated by an orange arrow (it is much closer to Stockholm as well, and farther from Zealand itself).
Was Snorri simply confused, or is he perhaps by this device telling us that the simple geographic fable is not the real meaning of the myth? There is no way of knowing at this late date what exactly was going through Snorri's mind, but it is undeniable that Snorri was a master of the riddle, of the hidden meaning, and of the cryptic saying which causes the listener to exercise advanced levels of abstract "connecting the dots."
To return to the thought with which we opened this discussion, it would probably be a mistake to believe that a craftsman of the caliber of Snorri Sturluson did anything by accident.
And this brings us back to the question of why Snorri chose to begin the incredible treasure of Norse mythology that is his Prose Edda with this particular myth. I believe that the answer may lie in the fact that this myth is almost transparently celestial: the metaphor of the Big Dipper as a plow composed of heavenly oxen (or even "northern oxen") was well established, and unmistakeable to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the system of celestial metaphor. By beginning his magnum opus with this particular story, Snorri may be hinting to his listeners and readers that this story sets the pattern for all that will follow.
All of the myths, in other words, have their celestial counterparts and metaphors, although they may not be so easy to spot as the plowing oxen making their heavenly circle in a day and a night.
We have already seen this to be the case with the myth of Odin and Gunnlod and the theft of the marvelous mead of poetry (and the pursuit of Odin in eagle-form by the jotun Suttung, the father of Gunnlod), as well as with the story of Loki and Skadi and the smiling of Skadi, and the story of Loki and the theft of Freya's necklace the Brisingamen, and the story of Loki and the theft of Sif's hair (both of these discussed here in the post about Brisingamen).
We can further speculate that, as the northern celestial pole is the center point around which all of the stars make their silent circles in the sky, Snorri's choice of the myth of the heavenly plow which is located so close to that central pole was a way to "begin at the very heart" of the issue, and to indicate that all of what follows has to do with this motion in some way -- a motion which the ancients considered to be so very important that it was also at the heart of all their sacred myths, whether those of ancient Egypt or of ancient Greece or the Maya or Inca or the Maori of New Zealand.
The stars which circle the pole, including in fact the stars of the Big Dipper, were described in the ancient myth-system as "the undying stars" or the "imperishable stars" or "the never-setting stars," and they are part of the key to the meaning of the entire system (see for example the previous post entitled "The undying stars: what does it mean?"). For, just as the myths themselves have a metaphorical connection to the motions of the stars, the motions of those stars in turn have a deeper meaning, one which relates to the human condition, the nature of the cosmos, and the "ultimate mystery of life" itself!
It is tempting to believe that Snorri was indicating all of this as he chose to open his Edda with the story of Gefjon and her plow.