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The Chariot of the Sun by W. G. Collingwood. (Public Domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: Svalinn, the Most Important Shield in the Norse World

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In the incredible complexity and richness of the old Norse mythology, amidst the pantheon of gods, giants, and cosmic beings, stands the enigmatic epic shield known as  Svalinn. Its presence is shrouded in mystery, its purpose veiled in symbolism, yet its significance resonates throughout the Norse mythological cosmos. Svalinn, often referred to as the “cooling shield,” is a celestial artifact of immense importance, for it stands as a barrier between the fiery radiance of the Sun and the world below. What do we know about this key part of Norse belief?

The Chariot of the Sun by W. G. Collingwood. (Public Domain)

Svalinn, the Shield That Blocks the Sun’s Heat

At the heart of Norse cosmology lies Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which supports and connects the nine realms of existence. Among these realms is Midgard, the realm of mortals, encircled by the vast sea and protected by the realms of gods, giants, and other mythical beings. Above Midgard stretches the celestial dome, where the Sun and Moon traverse their eternal paths, casting light and shadow upon the world below. These were the beliefs and observations of the Old Norse.

And according to Norse mythology, the Sun is not merely a luminous celestial body, but a divine chariot driven by the goddess Sol, whose radiant presence illuminates the heavens and blesses the Earth with warmth and light. Yet, this benevolent force also possesses the potential for great destruction if left unchecked. It is here that Svalinn enters the narrative, serving as a protective barrier that shields the mortal realm from the full intensity of the Sun’s scorching rays.

The etymology of Svalinn offers insight into its nature and purpose. The Old Norse term “svalr” translates to “cool” or “cold,” suggesting a shield that provides respite from the searing heat of the Sun. This symbolism is reinforced by the shield’s role as a barrier, preventing the full force of solar energy from engulfing the world in flames.

The gilded side of the Trundholm sun chariot. (Nationalmuseet/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The gilded side of the Trundholm sun chariot. (Nationalmuseet/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Duality of the Sun

While Svalinn’s exact origin and creator remain uncertain, its presence is attested in the mythological texts and poems of the Norse tradition. In the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems compiled in the 13th century, Svalinn is mentioned in the poem “Vafþrúðnismál,” where the wise giant Vafþrúðnir challenges the god Odin to a contest of knowledge. When asked about the origins of the sun, Odin responds by invoking Svalinn, affirming its pivotal role in preserving the balance of the cosmos. Odin says:

“Árvakr ok Alsviðr
þeir skulu upp heðan
svangir sól draga;
en und þeira bógum
fálu blíð regin,
æsir, ísarnkol.

Svalinn heitir,
hann stendr sólu fyrir,
skjöldr, skínanda goði;
björg ok brim,
ek veit, at brenna skulu,
ef hann fellr í frá.”

“Early-waker, All-swift:
from here they have
to drag wearily on Sun;
but under their saddle-bows the Aesir have concealed,
kind powers, cooling irons

Chill is the name,
of what stands before the sun,
a shield before the shining god.
mountains and oceans
I know should burn,
if it fell from in front.

The significance of Svalinn extends beyond its function as a celestial shield; it embodies the interplay of elemental forces and the delicate equilibrium of the natural world. In Norse cosmology, the sun represents not only light and warmth but also potential chaos and destruction. Svalinn’s presence underscores the importance of moderation and balance, reminding mortals of the fragility of existence and the need to respect the cosmic order.

The symbolism of Svalinn resonates with various cultural motifs found in Norse mythology, reflecting humanity’s perennial fascination with the celestial realm and its profound impact on terrestrial life. The image of the protective shield evokes themes of guardianship and vigilance, reminding us of our collective responsibility to steward the earth and preserve its fragile ecosystems. Beyond its mythological significance, Svalinn serves as a cultural touchstone, inspiring artists, writers, and thinkers across the ages. Its enigmatic presence invites interpretation and speculation, inviting us to ponder the deeper mysteries of existence and our place within the cosmos. The Scandinavian peoples for long admired Sol, and the shield Svalinn that was its integral part.

The Myths That Persevered Through the Ages

In conclusion, Svalinn stands as a testament to the enduring power of myth and symbol in shaping our understanding of the world. As a celestial shield that stands before the sun, it embodies the delicate balance between light and darkness, order and chaos. Its presence in Norse mythology serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness of all things and the eternal struggle to maintain harmony in a universe fraught with peril. It also reminds us that in the belief of ancient Europeans, the Sun was both a life-giver, and a life-taker. And through the lens of Svalinn, we glimpse the profound wisdom of our ancestors and the timeless truths encoded in myth and legend.

Top image: AI Representation of the legendary shield Svalinn in a forest. Source: Misha/Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Bellows, H. A. 2004.  The Poetic Edda: The Mythological Poems. Dover Publications.

Dronke, U. 2011.  The Poetic Edda. Clarendon Press.

Orchard, A. 2011.  The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore. Penguin Books.





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