Tolkien’s Invocation of the Star Goddess

©Copyright 2004 by Dr. Strange. All Rights Reserved

Close onto forty years ago when I discovered Tolkien’s magical trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, it was a vastly different world. Magic was rather thin on the ground in those days, what with the Cold War, Civil Rights struggles and the growing Vietnam conflict. It was a mean, hard reality and one didn’t have to look far to find the Black Gates of Mordor or examples of the still surviving spirits of Sauron and Saruman.
But I knew magic when I saw it, and like Sam Gamgee, I wanted to see some more Elven magic and eventually come to understand it. Even on that first reading, there was one all too brief portion of the book that caught my spirit and made me a true believer.
It comes toward the end of the first chapter of book two, “Many Meetings.” The scene is the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, Elrond Half-Elven’s Last Homely House of the West. Bilbo has just recited his long poem on Elrond’s ancestor, Earendel the Mariner, to the more than polite interest of the Elves, even though Aragorn, according to Bilbo, thought it a little above his understanding.
As Frodo and Bilbo leave to talk quietly of more personal matters, we hear “a single clear voice” singing:

A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
Silivren penna miriel
O menel aglar elenath!
Na-chaered palan-diriel
O galaddhremmin ennorath,
Fanuilos, le linnathon
Nef aear, si nef aear!

   Tolkien does not translate the verse for us. But he does give us a perspective, this time Frodo’s, from which to understand, if we can, this glimpse of the high and inexplicable. Frodo looks back and sees in the firelight a tableau of human and elven relationships. Elrond sits in his chair, and Arwen and Aragorn stand talking beside him. Suddenly, Arwen turns to look at Frodo, “and the light of her eyes fell on him from afar and pierced his heart.”
Frodo stands “enchanted, while the sweet syllables of the elvish song fell like clear jewels of blended word and melody.” Then Bilbo pulls him away to his own small and hobbitish room overlooking the gardens, where, still under the spell of the Hall of Fire, they sit quietly talking “of Elves, of stars, of trees…”
Through the years and repeated readings, this brief scene has come to symbolize for me the depth, the magical complexity, of Tolkien’s spiritual insight as well as his literary ingenuity. The distance between the high magic of the Hall of Fire and the homey and contemplative hobbit’s room gives us a sense of scale, a way to feel the remoteness of the Elves from our small human creature comforts. It also shows how we are connected, as even hobbits are inspired to talk “of Elves, of stars, of trees…” But this connection goes even deeper, for only at the end of this very long tale do we find out the meaning of the light-filled glance Arwen gives Frodo. For love of Aragorn, and ultimately for love of middle-earth and humanity, Arwen will give up her place in the last boat sailing for Valinor. Frodo, pierced and healed by the Elven Queen, will take her place.
Tolkien uses this same level of ingenuity and complexity when it comes to his spiritual and magical implications. He leaves the Hymn to Elbereth untranslated because it works its spell in a direct fashion; we hear the words and the rhythm and our mind supplies a meaning. In that sense, its use in the book is that of a magical incantation, and a fragment of it is used as such by Sam in Shelob’s lair. This incantation causes the vial of Galadriel, filled with water reflecting the star of Earendel, to virtually explode with white brilliant brightness, banishing Shelob and her vapours of darkness.
Such is the power of an Elven incantation.
The Hymn to Elbereth is not completely inscrutable, however. As early as chapter three of book one, Tolkien has given us a common speech version, apparently Frodo’s translation, of Elbereth’s hymn sung by Noldorian Exiles in the Woody End of the Shire. While this has a similar rhythm and metrical pattern to the Rivendell version of the Hymn, the effect is lessened, made somehow more prosaic and at the same time more understandable.
The last verse of this first version and the Rivendell hymn might be supposed to be the same, since they have the same first line and the same meter. But there the similarity ends. The Woody End verse has four lines, with a rhyme scheme of a/a, b/b. The Rivendell version has a rhyme scheme of a/a, b/a/b, c/d(d), and takes, when we translate it, five lines to cover the information in the four lines of the Woody End verse.
Here’s the Woody End verse:

O Elbereth, Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.

      And here’s my translation of the Rivendell hymn, trying to match as closely as possible the meaning, rhythm and rhyme scheme of the original. (Note that the beauty of that last line in the Elvish seven line version is that it contains an internal rhyme, aear/aear, that can only be expressed in English by adding another line. In the original it actually drops the last syllable, having only seven instead the usual eight, which gives the line a sense of incompleteness that calls for its repetition. In the English version the new line runs long by a beat, which creates the same effect.):

O the Star-Queen, Star-Bright-Kindling…
Thy whiteness shines like gems sparkling,
Glorious firmament star-field?
Having seen the far-light shining
Remote from this tree-woven world,
White Brilliance, to thee I chant
On this side of the starry sea,
Here, on this side of the starry sea…

   Having made the effort, I can understand why Tolkien never did more than a simple literal translation. The Rivendell Hymn to Elbereth is best in Elvish, and any translation is hard put to better Frodo’s spontaneous version in the Woody End. Since he included it in the book, we may speculate that Tolkien concurred. With that in mind, we can turn to the deeper meaning and implications of this bit of Elvish high magic.
So who is Elbereth? Her closest analogue is probably the ancient Celtic goddess, and later Christian saint, Brigit, whose protective cloak was seen as the starry winter sky. Perhaps the most meaningful comparison is with the Egyptian sky goddess Nut. She also was thought to have created the stars, and the boat of the sun travelled along her body in the course of its cyclical journey through the heavens. But the closest match for Tolkien’s Star-Kindling Valar can be found in Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law.
The first section of this three part “received” work was supposedly given by the goddess Nut, or Nuit. This “Star Goddess” proclaims a new astral gospel – “Every man and every woman is a star.” – that appears to be a kind of illumination: “Worship then the Khabs, [Egyptian star body] and behold my light shed over you!” And in verse 59, the goddess Nuit makes a statement that is decidedly odd in English, but in Elvish it is an illuminated pun derivable from the Hymn to Elbereth.
Nuit proclaims: “…because of my hair, the trees of Eternity.” The phrase conveys an odd, almost surrealistic image; stars are trees, which are the hair of the goddess. It sounds vague, as if it were a bad translation into English of a deeper insight from another language. This insight however only begins to emerge when we look at the concepts in Sindarian Elvish.
There we find a complex of words clustered around similar roots. Gal is shine and gil is star; galad is both radiance and tree. The name of the Elven king Gil-galad therefore means both “Star Tree,” and “Star of Radiance.” In the hymn to Elbereth, the complex Elvish pun on tree-woven and star-radiance is used as a unifying motif. The light of the stars is the tree of eternity, weaving a connection between the scales of reality. So far we have two thirds of our curious comment from the Star Goddess Nuit, but what about that hair metaphor?
The word for hair in Sindarian Elvish is fin, and star-hair is findegil. The word hair, fin, combined with the royal ar gives us the name of the High Elven royal house, Finarphir, of which the most prominent member in Tolkien’s work, and especially the Lord of the Rings, is Galadriel. Her name is complex, and Tolkien worked on its meaning and implications right up to his death, but basically it ties together the strands of “my hair, the trees of Eternity.”
Galad is both tree and radiance, and riel is a maiden’s garland, a metaphor for hair, so Galadriel is literally “maiden whose garlanded hair is the radiant tree of eternity,” or more simply “maiden crowned with a radiant garland of stars.” Her name most closely fits the descriptive phrase in the Book of the Law, and we might suppose that it is one answer to Nuit’s riddle in I:22 – “…I am known to ye by my name Nuit, and to him by a secret name…”
Nuit is therefore Varda, The Exalted in Elf-Latin or Quenya, called also by the Sindarian titles of Star-Queen, Elbereth, and Star-Kindler, Gilthoniel. And she is also Galadriel, the High Elven Queen in Exile in this tree-woven middle earth.
And that’s not all. In verses I:24 and 25, Nuit proclaims a numerical riddle: “I am Nuit, and my word is six and fifty. Divide, add, multiply and understand.” When we follow Nuit’s instructions, we arrive at the solution presented by the goddess in verse I:60 – “My number is 11…”
First we divide, in all possible ways – 6/50 = 8.3, 50/6 = .12, 5/6 = 1.2, 6/5 = .83 – and come up with two numbers to add, our next instruction. Adding 12 + 83 gives 95, the number we must multiply, 9 x 5, to give us our last number, 45. To understand, our last instruction, we must subtract, the only operation left: 56, the number of Nuit’s word minus 45, the key derived from Her instructions, and we have 11, Her number.
When we turn back to the Hymn to Elbereth, we find that it has 56 syllables in its seven lines by four-beat, eight-syllable pattern. The closest English translation, retaining meter and rhyme, has 65 syllables. Both of these numbers add to 11, 5 + 6. The “word” of Nuit might be considered then as the Hymn to Elbereth. Also, when we add these two, 56 + 65, we get 121, which is also 11 times 11.
Nuit is therefore the square, or expansion, of the light of Elbereth/Varda into our consciousness. Galadriel is an analogue for Brigit, a star goddess in exile for the sake of the world. The Book of the Law, received in 1904 when Tolkien was 12, seems to have been a portal through which these metaphors of the star goddess entered our reality. Tolkien in fact wrote his poem on Earendil the Mariner, the original of what would become Bilbo’s performance at Rivendell just before the Hymn to Elbereth, in the summer of 1904. This was his first initial glimmer of the emerging mythos, and he spent the entire summer inventing languages, the beginning of Elvish, and polishing his poem.
The connection is not direct, Crowley certainly was no influence on Tolkien, but the synchronicities indicate a deeper level of inter-connection. Tolkien responded through that most magical of all instruments, language, and after decades of work created a magical landscape where the Star Goddess is openly worshiped, her “word” chanted in the Hall of Fire, her light an inspiration to all of us, human and hobbit alike, who toil in this dim tree-woven world of trapped star light.
It is just possible that the two greatest “magicians” of the twentieth century, Crowley and Tolkien, were invocating the same goddess, working the same line of co-creation, the same magical current. Nuit, whose number is 11, and Varda, whose word or hymn is 56, are expressions of the same force, the same archetype.
And just in case we weren’t completely convinced, The Lord of the Rings movie’s final part, The Return of the King, was nominated for how many Academy Awards? That’s right, 11…
Now that’s some Elven magic.