by Ashley Cowie
My last article “The Solar Secret of Scotland’s Magic Piper” featured a 30 feet (9 m) high grassy hillock called Sysa, which was located behind a cottage I had rented in Weydale, 3 miles east of Thurso in Caithness, in the north east coast of Scotland. This enigmatic grassy mound played a central role in an enduring local Celtic myth – The Piper of Windy Ha‘ – in which a Caithness farmer was seduced by the Faerie Queen into the Sysa hillock, never to be seen again.
Sysa is located at Ordnance Survey grid reference ND169647.
Uncovering a series of clues within the archetypes and motifs of that myth I rediscovered a significant summer solstice sunrise alignment from Sysa, to the top of the nearby hill of Olrig.
Possibly as far back as the Neolithic period (4000bc – 2500bc) this special summer solstice sunrise alignment marked a key stage in the agricultural year and great festivals would have been held at Sysa in honour of the sun god, who on this date was believed to fertilise the fields of female golden wheat with its powerful male energy.
In direct contrast to the seductive charms of the Celtic Faerie Queen told in the tale of the Piper of Windy Ha’, this second myth associated with Sysa describes an altogether more gothic and deeply esoteric story. The powerful otherworldly beings described in this tale are of ancient Norse origin and within the events in this myth I have discovered another hidden truth relating to the sacred geography of ‘our world’, this time of an lunar nature.
Compiled at the turn of the 12th century the Icelandic Sagas are an early source of Norse history and the volume most specific to the ancient Earldom of Caithness is the Orkneyinga saga. It tells the story of a semi-mythical Viking leader, Jarl Sigurd Hlodvirsson, Earl of Orkney and Caithness, famed for defending Caithness against the Scots and for his successful summer plundering expeditions to the Hebrides, western Scotland and Ireland.
Sigurd’s history is woven together with tales of magic, sorcery and miracles. Fighting with “the power of the Old Gods at his side” in the year 1014 AD Sigurd sailed west for Ireland to assist a Norwegian chief in a war with Brian, the King of Ireland. Norwegian annalists wrote that before sailing, Audna, Sigurd’s mother, presented him with “a magical standard made by her own hand” bearing “a raven with outspread wings, and in the act of soaring upwards” – the sacred bird of the Scandinavian god of war, Odin. She then prophesied that “whoever carried it before him would he victorious, but that the standard-bearer himself was doomed to fall”.
HER PROPHECY WAS FULFILLED THREE MILES NORTH-EAST OF DUBLIN AT THE BATTLE OF CLONTARF, WHERE BOTH THE KING OF IRELAND AND THE NORWEGIAN JARL WERE KILLED.
Helgi und Sigrun (1901) by Johannes Gehrts.
The Norse Poetic Edda was a book of poems and stories compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources. Chapter 157 of Njáls Saga records the curious occurrence of something that was seen at Sysa in Caithness, in the north east of Scotland, at exactly the same time as the Battle of Clontarf was unfolding in Ireland.
On the day of the battle a Caithness a man named Daraddus witnessed 12 women riding together into a hillock in Caithness (Sysa).” Looking through a chink in the wall he saw “12 giant women spinning on a loom made with the heads of men as weights, and the entrails of men are the warp and weft”. The 12 women wove a “web of fate” and sang a mournful song foretelling the death of King Brian and the Earl of Caithness at the battle in Ireland.
It was after reading the last line of this myth that a gateway appeared leading into the deeper levels of this myth; “When the bloody cloth was woven the Valkyries tore it into twelve pieces. Each took a piece and remounted her horse. Then the twelve rode furiously away, six to the north and six to the south.”
ODIN’S SPIRITUAL WAR CABINET
The Old Norse word valkyrie (pronounced “val-ker-ee” means “choosers of the fallen/slain”) was a title given to powerful female serving spirits of the god Odin, who, much like the ravens Hugin and Munin, were semi-independant aspects of Odin’s larger self.
VALKYRIES ARE MOST OFTEN PORTRAYED AS NOBLE, ELEGANT MAIDENS, BUT THIS HIGHLY SELECTIVE PORTRAYAL EXAGGERATES ONLY THEIR PLEASANT QUALITIES WHERE AS IN HEATHEN TIMES THEY WERE MUCH MORE SINISTER.
With the onset of Christianity the valkyries were demoted from the ‘Old God’s hall of heroes’ to becoming associated to shieldmaidens – mortal women permitted to fight along side their men. The meaning of the word valkyrie is “choosers of the slain” encapsulating their two predominant functions; determining who died in battle and went to Valhalla and applying very old and malicious Nordic magic to assure their prophecies were fulfilled.
Nobody is sure precisely where the original concept of valkyries stemmed from but their arts are rooted in a dynamic, complex and extensive series of rituals and cosmological beliefs that permeated every subsequent pre-Christian Germanic religion and later became generalised as shamanism.
In the Norse mythologies of Shetland and Orkney, and to a lesser extent Caithness, the Norns (pronounced “norms” replacing the “n” with an “m”) were three divine females who were believed to have had more influence over the destiny of the cosmos than any other beings. While modern history rarely mentions more than three norns there were countless others as the word in generic Old Norse meant “practitioner of magic.”
The Norns Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld under the World-tree Yggdrasil, by Ludwig Burger, 1882.
The three norns were believed to have dwelled within the Well of Urd/fate located beneath Yggdrasil, the great ash tree at the centre of the universe, holding in its roots and branches the Nine Worlds of Norse cosmology. The norns shaped the destiny of humans by carving runes into the trunk of a tree and by weaving destiny like a web or tapestry.
The story of the 12 women at Sysa perfectly reflects the mythological description of the norns and their archetypal environment, for example; the Well of Urd/Fate corresponds to the Sysa healing spring on the east slope of the hillock. And just like the norns weaving the destiny of men in a web, so did the 12 women at Sysa in their “web of fate”.
Translated form Old Norse the nords names were: Urd (What once was), Verdandi (What is coming into being) and Skuld (What shall be). At first glance the three norns correspond with the past, the present and the future, but this simplistic interpretation only stands up when interpreted against a linear conception of time. The ancient Germanic/Nordic conception of time however, was cyclical, and it is more probable that the names corresponded with the past, the preset and necessity – that which needs to occur. This way, together, the three norns represent destiny, being intrinsically connected to the flow of time.
The Vikings didn’t use solar years to date events in the way that we do today – with our ‘absolute chronology.’ Viking chronology was relative to the number of years after important occurrences and events, for example; a person’s age was counted in the number of winters he had lived and something might have happened “seven winters after the Battle of Clontarf”.
Ride of the valkyries. John Charles Dollman
It was after asking how ancient Celtic cultures conceived and perceived time, that I found the first myth associated to Sysa was wholly allegorical for the suns annual cycle, and that Sysa was an important place of solar worship at the heart of Caithness’s rich agricultural land. Might this Norse myth connected to Sysa also have a deeper meaning relating to an occurrence in the sky, an alignment in the landscape, or some other practical meaning in our world?
VIKING COSMOLOGY AND SACRED GEOGRAPHY
Between 1100 and 1150 AD, Oddi Helgason, also known as Star Oddi, developed accurate astronomical tables which enabled advancements in calendrical calculations, determining the time of solstices and equinoxes and measuring the height of the sun and its rising and setting azimuths on the horizon.
Vikings had long since been skilled navigators who boldly explored wild ancient seas and invaded distant land masses applying a rich knowledge of how solar days, lunar months and stellar years related to space and time not only on earth, but across all levels of Viking reality – Asgard, Midgard and Niflheim.
Asgard in Norse mythology was the upper world, the dwelling place of the gods, comparable to the Greek Mount Olympus, the Khmer Mount Meru and Scotland’s Ben Nevis.
LEGENDS DIVIDED ASGARD INTO 12 REALMS, INCLUDING VALHALLA “THE HOME OF ODIN AND THE ABODE OF HEROES SLAIN IN EARTHLY BATTLE” AND THRUDHEIM, “THE REALM OF THOR; AND BREIDABLIK, THE HOME OF BALDER.”
The Prose Edda describes Asgard as having 12 kingdoms, ruled by 12 chiefs, with a temple for the 12 gods, Gladsheim, and another for the 12 goddesses, Vingólf. I considered it highly possible that the 12 Sysa valkyries with their web of 12 segments corresponded with one, or maybe all, of these numerical motifs relating to the structure of Valhalla from ancient Norse cosmology. However, I was soon to find several other plausible interpretations.
Vikings divided/allocated their agricultural territories into sections known as ouncelands, pennylands and marklands. The name ‘pennylands’ is still existent in many parts of Caithness today. An ounceland (Scottish Gaelic: unga) is a traditional Scottish land measurement Norse origins found in the West Highlands and Hebrides, while in Eastern Scotland other measuring systems were used. An ounceland was equivalent to 20 pennylands and/or one eighth of a markland and although there were local variations in the equivalences, in Islay for example, eight ouncelands were equal to 12 marklands.
Discovering eight ouncelands equalled12 marklands, Following this line if inquiry I plotted Sysa onto a 19th century map and drew in the north – south and east – west alignments followed by a line every 30 degrees, so that Caithness was was divided into 12 equal sections.
Having spent several months looking for manmade features, especially Viking, which may have been situated upon these 12 alignments, in my theoretical geographical system. However, I had to accept that I had reached the boundaries of my own creative imagination and that this entire idea was a dead end. However, rather than turning back, I directed my upwards, and found answers.
Viking calendars reflected the seasons. Knowing the hight of the sun in the sky told them when to plant seeds, harvest crops, fertilise animals and launch plundering expeditions and war campaigns. In William Charles Livingston’s Fundamentals of Solar Astronomy, 2005, we are told of importance of the sun in Viking astronomy and cosmology:
“There are a large number of Norse myths about the Sun, for example; in the epic of Sigurd, the Sun’s magic sword was named Blaming, which means ‘Sun beam’…Today in Scandinavia on the eve of the summer solstice, thousands of people flock to the hillsides to light bonfires and to watch the sun set, following a tradition started at the dawn of time.”
From the few wooden navigational and calendrical devices that have been recovered across the Viking’s nordic empire we know they had 2 seasons: summer and winter, consisting of 6 dark months named “Skammdegí” (the Dark Days) and 6 light months called “Nóttleysa” which translates to “insomnia”.
The 6 winter moon phases (months) were named: Gormánuður, Ýlir, Mörsugur, Þorri, Goa and Einmánuður and the 6 summer months were; Harpa, Skerpla, Sólmánuður, Heyannir, Tvímánuður and Haustmánuður.
The 12 Sysa valkyries extended their 12 sections of web 6 to the north and 6 to the south. Might this correspond with the 12 lunar months of the Viking year? If so, the 6 valkyries who rode south would represent the 6 winter months, Skammdegí, and the 6 north bound riders would correspond to the 6 summer months, Nóttleysa.
My last article established Sysa as being located at the centre of an ancient Neolithic wheat growing territory. It was located upon a summer solstice alignment with the top of Olrig hill, shown in the following graphic. Was this ancient hillock not only a centre of solar observation and worship, but also of the moon?
The Norse Poetic Edda tells us Sol (pronounced “soul”) and Mani (pronounced “MAH-nee”) were the divine personified forces of the sun and the moon, a brother and sister pair who first emerged as the cosmos was being created. They ride through the sky on horse-drawn chariots, a very old conception among the Norse and other Germanic peoples as is evident on Bronze Age artefacts and rock carvings.
Considering the solar and lunar astronomical evidence presented within the last article and the first, it appears that Sysa was at one time a revered spot within Caithness around which observation and worship of both the sun and the moon was conducted.
Sysa it would appear was a multi-platform device serving as both an astronomical observatory and most probably a centre for solar and lunar worship. Since the Neolithic period 6000 years ago, Sysa’s solar and lunar heritage survived until the age of the Vikings when they were embedded into the myth of the 12 women and their web of 12 sections. And Sysa’s astronomical origins continue to be passed on to this day, being whispered through this myth and in the myth of the Piper of Windy Ha’.
It would appear, we just have to listen correctly.
Copyright 2017 by Ashley Cowie
Presented with permission
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Exploring the world making films, writing books and blogging about lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and arts, the origins of legends and myths, architecture, symbols, artefacts and treasures.