After the Bronze Age: The Sun-disk by Hilda Ellis Davidson (1969)

Source: ‘Part II: After the Bronze Age,’ Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, 1969, pp. 139-145.


The Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age

The apparent breakdown of organized religion at the close of the Northern Bronze Age poses a problem for the archaeologist. The religious historian also must be concerned over the subsequent fate of the symbols so familiar in the Bronze Age rock-carvings. Did they fall into decay and pass from memory, or were they reshaped by new religious insights and patterns of belief which came into Scandinavia in the Iron Age? In default of literary sources we are forced back to symbols and pictures for an answer, and this evidence must be used with caution, resisting the temptation to oversimplify in order to establish a theory or fill out a faintly discerned pattern. Sound conclusions can only be based on long and patient examination of the evidence, supported by a knowledge of religion and art going far beyond the period and region under scrutiny.

In the early part of this book the question arises more than once as to whether the beliefs of the later pagan period in Scandinavia may be viewed as a direct development of the religion of the Bronze Age. If there is a continuous line of development from the rock-carvings to the Vendel and Viking periods, this is of the utmost importance, and the study of one period may throw valuable light on the religion of the other. But can this be proved? Clearly the first step is to examine the subsequent history of the symbols which are found in such abundance on the rock-faces of Scandinavia, and on the metalwork of the Northern Bronze Age.

The Sun-disk

Predominant among the symbols is the motif of a disk or wheel, which has been identified with the image of the sun moving across the heavens. This did not disappear with the Bronze Age. in the last two or three centuries B.C., when Scandinavian finds are few and poor, there are nevertheless many brooches from southern Sweden and Denmark in the form of a wheel or disk. These are also found as votive offerings in shrines or places of pilgrimage in Germany and Roman Britain in the Roman Period (Kyll, p. 26; Ross, pp. 44, 51). It has been noted that in the early Iron Age there are brooches which appear to represent the fertility goddess in a stylized form (Glob, 1965, pp. 135-6), and there are others which bear a marked resemblance to the disk-men of the rock-carvings (Fig. 60). In the Roman Iron Age there are more impressive brooches which suggest a whirling wheel or a swastika with curved arms, like one beautiful example from a late Roman cemetery in Denmark, which is a series of complex variations on the disk motif )Fig. 61). Cruder brooches are found in graves of the Migration Period in Norway and Anglo-Saxon England, with whirling arms like flames pricked out on a silver disk to form a three- or four-armed figure. A rich fourth-century grave at Saetrang in Norway had the cairn over the burial chamber built in such a ‘starfish’ shape as is found on the brooches, according to drawings made at the excavation in 1834 (Slomann, Pl. I), so it would seem that this figure had associations with the dead.

Chariot of the Sun Fig 60

The swastika with straight arms was a very popular device in the Migration period. It appears on gold bracteates from the fifth century onwards, and on swords from the Danish bog-find at Thorsbjerg and from sixth-century graves (Fig. 62) in Anglo-Saxon England (Davidson, 1962, pp. 67, 78). It is also a frequent symbol on cremation urns from the pagan period in Anglo-Saxon England, and on some elaborate examples, in particular one huge urn from Lackford in Suffolk (Lethbridge, p. 40), it is depicted with such care and art that it must surely have been more than a mere decoration. Sprockhoff (1954, p. 109) has pointed out that one urn from the Lackford cemetery shows a figure which resembles the symbol of the disk with its serpent-horse from the Bronze Age (Fig. 59c). There is another example of this in the form of a swastika and a serpent on a fragment of an urn in the Fries Museum at Leeuwarden,1 and in view of these it is possible that other patterns on cremation urns might be simplifications of the same symbol. A comparison may be made also with the runic spear-head from Kowell, thought to be of third-century date and of Gothic origin (Marstrander, 1929, pp. 27, 35), which has a serpent-like figure in front of a crescent and a concentric circle (Fig. 63). A second runic spear-head from Dahmsdorf shows a swastika and a figure with three arms which suggests a whitling disk. Thus there is scattered evidence for the use of the symbol of the traveling sun among the Germanic peoples long after the close of the Bronze Age, although if the spears come from south-eastern Europe it is possible that the symbol was reintroduced into the north during the Roman period. The signs on these spears may be linked with the series of figures known as tamgas which appeared in the Bosphoran kingdom from the first to the third centuries A.D., themselves associated with sun-cults (Sulimirski, pp. 29-32).

Certainly the whirling disk appears on a series of memorial stones on the island of Gotland in the Baltic, depicted with a new sureness of touch and clarity. Lindqvist (1941–2, vol. I, pp. 22, 91-2) dates these to the fifth century A.D., and their central symbol is a great disk with whirling arms, thought to have been originally painted in colours.

Chariot of the Sun Fig 61

Chariot of the Sun Fig 62Some disks have a border of tiny ‘rays’ recalling some of Sprockhoff’s examples from the Bronze Age, and there are further parallels with Bronze Age symbolism to be noticed. Particularly striking are the circles with rims extended in the form of curving serpents with bird-like heads, strange animals which resemble horses but have antlers or crescent horns (Fig. 64), borders of horses or serpents formalized into regular patterns (Fig. 65), and on one stone from Vallstena, little men holding up shields with patterns resembling those on the disks (Fig. 64). It is also noteworthy that the disk is associated with ships, birds and horses. There is in general no indication that the disk is drawn or carried along, but one stone from Västkünde Björkome (Fig. 66) might be regarded as a simplified symbol of the chariot with its serpent-horse shown above a ship, and has a close resemblance to some of Sprockhoff’s designs from metalwork of the Bronze Age.


Lindqvist found the closest parallels to the Gotland stones with their disk symbols among Roman gravestones in Spain, especially one in the museum of León, but it seems likely that the symbol was taken there from the Near East (Cumont, p. 204). There are simpler examples on Roman stones elsewhere; one for instance from Lincoln and another on an altar to Jupiter at Great Chesters on Hadrian’s Wall (Wright, I, Nos. 254, 1725)2 (Fig. 67). The rosette is more common than the disk, and this also appears on some of the Gotland stones, associated with both ships and horses. After the Migration period the disk disappears, but the swastika, found on at least one early stone from Hablongo Havor, with its ends joined to form a continuous pattern (Fig. 65), continues to appear in various contexts until the close of the heathen period. It is reasonable to suppose that it replaced the whirling disk as a symbol for the moving sun.

Chariot of the Sun Fig 63

When we turn to written sources, there is not much evidence for the symbol of a disk or wheel linked with the worship of the pagan gods. The name Fair Wheel is given to the sun in the Edda poem Alvismál, and is there said to be the name used by the elves. Two kennings, or poetic metaphors in conventional form, used in skaldic verse for the sun’s disk are Wheel of Heaven and Wheel of the Sun. there is also a tradition that horses drew the sun’s chariot across the sky (see p. 171 below). In the Old English Runic Poem there is a reference to the wagon of Ing departing eastwards over the waves, following after him. If this were based on a memory of the sun’s chariot, it would presumably be making its reverse journey eastwards through the underworld during the hours of darkness, but it may be a reference to the wagon of the fertility deity journeying from one region to another to bring prosperity and good seasons (Davidson, 1964, p. 93). Certainly the wagon of the thunder-god, Thor, was pictured as moving across the sky, while the wheels rolled with the noise of thunder and sparks were struck from the rocks. This idea is found at least as early as the ninth century in the north, since Thor bears the names of Wagon-Tyr and Driver Thor, and his wagon drawn by goats is mentioned in Haustlong, one of the earliest poems.

Chariot of the Sun Fig 64

The symbol of the sun-wheel survived the pagan period and continued to be used in folk customs. The practice of rolling a cartwheel covered in burning straw and tow down a hill, so that it appeared to be a wheel of fire, was still common in many parts of central and western Europe in the late nineteenth century. Frazer, interested in the customs of seasonal bonfires, collected much evidence for the burning wheel in his book Balder the Beautiful (1913, pp. 116-19, 161, etc.). In many parts of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Switzerland this was accompanied by the whirling of flaming disks of wood, which boys threw into the air, and by the setting up of a blazing tar-barrel pole. Such practices are recorded also from the British Isles in England, Wales, the Isle of Man and Scotland. At Burghead, near Elgin, half a tar-barrel on a pole, known as the Clavie, was carried by runners round the borders of the town and round the fishing boats in the harbour, before being thrown down a hill (Folklore VII, 1889, p. 11). Chariot of the Sun Fig 65This was a mid-winter ceremony on the last night of the old year, while at Lerwick in Shetland fiery wagons known as ‘tar-barrels’ were drawn by youths round the streets in the early morning of 15th January, which was Christmas Day according to the old reckoning and the beginning of the pagan Yuletide (British Calendar Customs, 112 1878, pp. 44, 85). These consisted of a number of tubs filled with tar and chips, mounted on a wooden platform on wheels and drawn by a chain, so that they formed an impressive sight as they moved blazing through the Lerwick streets. In the mid nineteenth century, however, the custom was given up, because the townspeople objected to the mess made by the tar, and in 1899 the ceremony of the burning of a ‘Viking’ ship was substituted. This now forms the main attraction of the Up Helly-A on the last Tuesday in January.

Chariot of the Sun Fig 66

Yet another type of fire-wheel was that used for the kindling of the New Fire on Easter Eve, or alternatively the Need Fire in cases of plague or calamity (Frazer, 1913, pp. 121, 269 ff.). For this all lights in the neighbourhood had to be extinguished, and the fire rekindled by a fire-drilling ceremony, by the rubbing of dry sticks together, or occasionally by striking a spark by the smith on a cold anvil. The fire-drilling method is particularly interesting, and for this there is much evidence from Germany, central Europe and the British Isles. One method was to revolve a wheel on an axle packed with combustible material until a spark was produced. The custom was carried on in some regions by country folk and children long after it ceased to be a ceremony in which the community took part. In Switzerland children used to kindle fire with a peg, two boards and a string, to send away mist and rain, while an old fisherman in Sundale, Norway, used to practice a similar rite in the nineteenth century in order to get a good catch of fish (Cruikshank, pp. 314 ff.).

Chariot of the Sun Fig 67

Frazer’s evidence is partial and arranged uncritically, but it is sufficient to show that the sun-wheel formed an important part of ceremonies connected with the midwinter and midsummer also be used in spring and autumn. The date is of less importance than the purpose of the rite, which was to maintain the existing order and ensure a good year, warding off disease, hail, thunder and other calamities. There are also examples of the wheel pulled on a sledge, presumably as part of a procession; as was at Braller, in Transylvania (Frazer, 1911, pp. 230-1), where the sledge was drawn by two white and two chestnut horses, and carried a straw-man swathed in white, and beside him a turning wheel. There seems little doubt that the wheel, whether burning or not, was intended to re-enact the sun moving on its accustomed path through the heavens and down under the earth. In the vine-growing area of the Moselle, where the wheel-rolling ceremony was fully recorded by an eye-witness in the last century (Revue Archologique, series 3, iv (1884), 24), the aim of those taking part was to roll the wheel right down the slope and into the river below, an extremely difficult feat. if they succeeded it was the sign of an exceptionally good season, and the wheel’s disappearance into the water would neatly symbolize that of the sun beneath the sea. Similarly at the Pastime held annually on White Horse Hill in Berkshire, the aim was said to be to roll a wheel down the slope to Woolston Wells, the source of the River Ock, which was virtually impossible to do (Woolner, p. 95).

Thus it would seem that the sun-disk symbolism of the Bronze Age did not pass wholly out of use, since the symbol continues to be used throughout the pagan period, and has left a lasting mark on the customs of country people in many parts of western Europe, continuing as a popular part of seasonal festivities up to recent times.


  1. I am grateful to Dr. J.N.L. Myres for bringing this to my notice.
  2. I am grateful to Professor J.M.C. Toynbee for these references.

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