Look It Up

Since oar first met wave, we have looked to the night sky for guidance. Without the stars, navigation upon the open seas would never have been possible, and the horizon would have remained a distant dream. No wonder those ancient seafarers imbued the constellations with such rich histories. They were trusted friends and advisors. Different cultures, of course, interpreted the constellations as they saw fit — much as one person might look at a wall and see a grease stain, while another looks at that same wall and sees the Virgin Mary shaking hands with Elvis. For example, let us consider how some well-known constellations were viewed by the Vikings, rulers of the North Atlantic. Scorpius What we see today as the scorpion was known by the Vikings as Dagrustýrfål, a scar that runs across the forehead of Týr, the Norse god of war. As it is told in the songs of Valhalla, Týr was notoriously self-conscious about his scar, and would have been horrified to learn of its immortalization in the stars. The idea for the name was likely planted in the heads of mortals by the trickster god Loki, who liked to make fun of Týr but was actually quite envious of his popularity.

Cygnus Cygnus the swan, which graces the summer sky, was called Mängaflicka, or "The Dancing Maiden." However, for Cygnus to be seen as a dancing maiden, the 3 stars in her left arm would necessitate a third arm segment, joined by a second elbow. Though rare, this condition does exist among women of Scandinavian descent. The medical term is tertiary limb segmentation. To someone less polite, such women are called "mantis jointed."

Orion Orion the hunter is one of the most widely recognized constellations. To the Vikings, he was seen as a squid, locked in eternal life-or-death struggle with a reindeer, while a mouse watched. The squid (Utveck) represented the sea, and the reindeer (Frågfråg) represented the land. These were the two primal elements of Nordic culture, and Viking imagery is rich with the contrast between them. The mouse watching was just a mouse watching. Mice are curious, and like to watch things.

Ursa Major & Ursa Minor These went by the names Stor Huvud and Föga Huvud, or "Great Head" and "Little Head." They were the heads of the conquered, trophies earned through blood and honor. The Vikings used to bring them home as presents for their wives, to show them the various places they had been on their latest voyage. The woman with the most diverse collection of heads was in charge when the men were away.

Draco The mighty dragon of today was then Den Lågg, "The Kite." The 9th century Viking warlord Algot the Wrathed named the constellation for his young son Ragnar, who had a kite he loved dearly. By all accounts, Algot was a good family man, though the long hours of pillaging caused tension in the home. Ragnar refused to follow into the family business of raiding, which infuriated his father. He was never able to earn his respect, despite opening a successful chain of fur and leather outlet stores. After the death of Algot's wife Ingegard, the two men grew apart, and rarely spoke in the later years of Algot's life. Ragnar's son Torgny claimed in his autobiography, "We Burned His Body Upon A Boat Of Wood," that Ragnar kept the actual kite all his life. Their story was the basis for the 1974 Harry Chapin hit, "Cat's in the Cradle."

Cassiopeia The Vikings called it "W," because it is clearly a W in the sky. To think of it as a crown, or whatever the hell it is we call it now, is asinine.