What Do the Gods Call the Sky? Naming the Celestial in Old Norse
The idea that gods, humans, and other beings have different words for the same things is an archaic one attested in several ancient Indo-European texts from India, Iran, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Greece. The 12th century Old Norse poem Alvissmál ("The Speech of the All-Wise") lists different names for the sky, moon, and sun used among humans, gods, giants, elves, and dwarves. Although similar lists of words used among different supernatural beings exist elsewhere, the Norse text is unique in that it focuses on vocabulary associated with the celestial. The Alvissmál suggests that while the gods may see the sky as an unwavering vault, this same sky may be a "tall house" to the prosaic and earthbound giants, and a "dripping hall" to the dwarves who prefer to dwell underground. In this paper, I argue that the various sets of non-human words for celestial features in Alvissmál express essential ideas of Old Norse religion and cosmology and hint at an underlying awareness that the celestial world does not necessarily carry a fixed meaning, but can be imbued with a range of different mythical interpretations based on the observer's culture, religion, status, and environment.
Signe Cohen received her BA and MA in Sanskrit from the University of Oslo and her PhD in Sanskrit from the University of Pennsylvania. She is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Missouri where she teaches courses on Hinduism, Buddhism, Sanskrit, and Old Norse. Her published works include Text and Authority in the Older Upanisads (Brill 2008) as well as several articles on comparative religion.