The wolves bit ... but the sun escaped their clutches yet again
The solar eclipse on the equinox day 20th March was most fearfully exciting, wasn’t it! My eyes pinged open early in the morning, my tummy feeling all bubbly like 7-up. Having braced myself for solid cloud – or even fog, as on the 31st May 2003 when there was an eclipse at sunrise and Orkney was so weighed down in soup-thick fog that not even my step-father-in-law’s promise of a trip in the flying club plane could save the day – I was thrilled to see that this time, the sun was shining and light cloud was blowing happily across the sky.
The children and I were well prepared. We had listened to the warnings saying not to look at the sun, not even through sun-glasses, and we had built ourselves an eclipse viewer. It was a method we found online. We took a large cardboard box and cut a window at either end. Then we covered one window with a sheet of tin foil, and the other window with a sheet of tracing paper. Lastly, we took a pin and made a tiny hole in the tin-foil. When the sun then shone through the hole, the image was projected onto the tracing paper, and we could see it as clear as anything.
At Papdale school that morning, the moon started to eat into the sun just before line-up time. I directed the eclipse viewer towards it, and before I knew what was happening, a hundred children had flocked around me like seagulls, eager for a look. The school was really well prepared: They had shifted assembly time to allow the bairns to experience the eclipse, and teachers and parents had brought in ideas and devices: Some had special glasses, some had welding masks, and I observed one class walking backwards through the playground to feel the eclipse.
In my son Mansie’s P4 class, the sun was coming right in through the classroom window, and we all looked at it through the viewer, while also keeping an eye on BBC’s live broadcast. We played with a model of the solar system, and with different sized balls to explain how the moon could cover the sun. The children all had strips of paper to draw how the eclipse looked at various points in time. All of this led to some excellent questions – I really do think Papdale has some future scientists in the making here: One 8-year-old asked if Mercury and Venus could also cause an eclipse, as they are between the sun and us. I said, yes they can, but they are further away from us, so they don’t look the same size as the sun. So when Mercury or Venus get in between the sun and us, it looks like a tiny peedie dot moving across the sun. This is called a Transit of Mercury or Transit of Venus. Another child noticed, while drawing, that through the box viewer the eclipse shadow was coming in from the left, while on the BBC broadcast it was coming from the right. Why was that? I really had to do a “deep think” here, as Mansie’s teacher says. But at the last moment I realised that it’s because the pinhole in the box flips the image as the light squeezes through it. Just like our eyes do: The picture is upside-down on the inside of our eyes, after passing through the pupil, but the brain has the sense to flip it back again for us. The same thing also happens in cameras.
But since this is the Centre for Nordic Studies’ column, I suppose I had better get onto the topic of how solar eclipses were experienced in the past, among people in Scotland and Scandinavia. Steve Roud’s Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland has the following vivid description of how people in Scotland in the 16th and 19th centuries experienced a solar eclipse, quoted from an 1879 source:
“An eclipse of the sun was looked on as an omen of coming calamity. In 1597, during an eclipse of the sun, it was stated by Calderwood that men and women thought the day of judgment was come. Many women swooned, the street of Edinburgh was full of crying, and in fear some rat to the kirk to pray. I remember an eclipse about 1818, when about three parts of the sun was covered. The alarm in the village was very great, indoor work was suspended for the time, and in several families prayers were offered for protection, believing that it portended some awful calamity, but when it passed off there was a general feeling of relief.”
A similar fear was observed in Iceland in 1187, when some people thought the world would end, according to Sturlunga Saga.
The Vikings believed that the sun was always being chased across the sky by two wolves: one named Hati, chasing behind, and the other Skoll, running in front of her. One source also says she is being pulled by two horses, named Árvakr (‘alert’) and Alsviðr (‘very fast’). The sun was always thought of as feminine, while the moon was masculine. This Norse way of thinking even carried over into relatively modern Orkney dialect: Hugh Marwick remarks that “While in modern English usage the moon is often personified as a female, in the old Orkney tongue moon was masculine” (The Orkney Norn).
The two wolves are always running with the sun across the sky. One day, about a year and a half ago, I was contacted by the artist Andrew Wilson, who had the idea that if we could just distract these wolves with a squeaky dog’s toy, it would distract the wolves so that the sun could stay and create eternal summer. He wanted to know how to translate “a squeaky dog’s toy creates eternal summer” into Old Norse and runes, so that he could incorporate it into his artwork. This is so far the most creative translation job I have done, and the resulting piece of art was great and I was fortunate enough to receive one, which now hangs in the Centre for Nordic Studies.
It has been suggested that Hati and Skoll would have been understood as the two spots of light that you can sometimes see at either side of the sun in certain weather conditions. (Eldar Heide mentioned this in his very exciting talk on weather phenomena as understood in the Norse world, and later in Orkney and Shetland, during the St Magnus Conference organised by the Centre for Nordic Studies last April. You can view it here: https://vimeo.com/91839451 ).
When this world comes to an end at Ragnarok, the sun will finally be eaten by a wolf, according to Norse belief. No wonder people were alarmed when they saw a dark “bite” being taken out of the sun! Thankfully, in some sources, the sun will then have a daughter, who will take her mother’s place in the path across the sky.
We have a saga account of a solar eclipse happening in Orkney in 1263. It is in the saga of King Hakon Hakonsson, who was here as part of his attempt to safeguard his rule over the Western Isles and the region south to the Isle of Man. Later that year, he lost the Battle of Largs and died in the Bishop’s Palace in Kirkwall. There is an inscription to him on the floor of the Cathedral, where he was temporarily buried.
At the time of the eclipse, which seems to have been in the late summer of 1263, King Hakon was at Ronaldsvoe in South Ronaldsay. It was an Annular Eclipse, which is the type of eclipse where a ring of light is seen around the outline of the sun. This happens because the moon’s orbit wobbles a bit so that it’s sometimes closer and sometimes further away from us, and when it’s a bit further away it allows some sunlight to escape around the outer perimeter of an eclipse. (This is what we would have seen in 2003 if the fog hadn’t been so thick!). The saga records: “While King Hakon stayed in Ronaldsvoe, a great darkness pulled across the sun, so that there was only a small ring outside it, which shone. This lasted for a while that day.”
There is also a tradition about Saint Olaf, involving a solar eclipse as an omen or portent. Although not certain to be historically accurate, the tradition says there was an eclipse at the time of the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, where Olaf died. The sun being a symbol for Christ, and Olaf being a king campaigning for conversion who later was elevated to Saint, it is easy to see how later accounts would see a solar eclipse during the battle as symbolic and suitable for a Saint’s life.
The next total solar eclipse in the UK will be on the 23rd September 2090. However, for those of us who will be dead by then, it’s perhaps better to start looking forward to the 12th of August 2026, when over 90% of the sun will be covered when seen from Orkney.
By Ragnhild Ljosland
Originally published in The Orcadian, 2nd April 2015, page 20.