Woodcut of Ollerus from "Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus" (1555) PD Courtesy of Wikipedia
It is almost time to celebrate the harvest with the fall festival of Thanksgiving. Perhaps that makes it seem odd to focus on a wintry god, but there is a connection, as you'll read.
It seems whatever pre-Christian stories were told about the Norse god of winter and death have been lost, but his name and relationship with the other gods of Norse mythology endure. His name is Ullr (aka Uller, Oller, or Ull). Later, the 12th century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus wrote about him using a Latinized version of his name, as Ollerus, a wizard. In Chapter 11 of Myths of northern lands: narrated with special reference to literature and art, Hélène Adeline Guerber describes his role in the cosmos in a way that reminds me of Demeter. See if you agree or see even more similarities.
Ullr's father was an otherwise unknown figure, thought to be a frost-giant, in order to help explain the predilections of his son. His mother was Sif, so Thor was Ullr's stepfather. Ullr was a hunter and archer who lived in an area dense with the tree from which longbows were made, the yew. On his feet were bone snowshoes shaped like shields. A powerful god, he took control of Midgard and Asgard every year when Odin snowbirded for the winter. Ullr sent out the Aurora Borealis to light the sky during the period of the longest nights.
"Two gods, Ull and Forseti (sts. 5 and 15), play little part in Old Norse mythology, but were well known among other Germanic tribes. Ull, as the great archer, owns the land of yew-trees which were used for making bows. He is called Ollerus by Saxo, and is said to have been given both the name and kingdom of Odin when the latter was banished for practising magic."
The Elder or Poetic Edda; commonly known as Saemund's Edda. Edited and translated with introd. and notes by Olive Bray. (1908)
When Odin returned, Ullr retreated. While he had an Alps-top or frozen northlands home, he was also said to have spent his summers with the death goddess Hel.
The connection I was making between the grain goddess Demeter (Roman Ceres) (whose fall festival of Thesmophoria is sometimes described as like a Greek Thanksgiving) is that while her daughter, Persephone, was in the Underworld, Demeter was upset and so there was winter, but once her daughter returned from the Underworld, spring returned and plants resumed their growth. In the case of Ullr, while Odin was away it was winter and then, when Odin returned, Ullr went to the equivalent of the Underworld.
Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:
- Hercules Hurls His Guest
- Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
- Hercules the Giant-Killer
- The First Tyrant
- The King and the Harpies
- The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
- Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
- Hero and Leander
- Who Were the Argonauts?
- The Chimera
- Narcissus and Echo
- How Perseus Fits In
- Hesiod and the Bestiary
- The First Olympics Origins I
- Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
- Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
- Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
- Troilus and ... Polyxena
- Who Is the Virgo?
- Pandora's Box
- Achilles and His Heel
- Hercules and His Labors
- The First Humans
- The Death of Pentheus
- Greek Ghosts
- One More Underworld God