Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Month: November 2016

St. Thomas the Brewer revisited


Last year I took a first stab at going through some of the lore regarding the feast of St. Thomas the Brewer, aka “Doubting Thomas.” This post is going to be something of a repost of that material, but with some added refinements based on my more recent researches. The original can be found here, but this article should be considered to supersede it, as I use it as more of a launching platform here.

In mainstream Christianity, Thomas is known as one of the apostles, famously the one who doubted that Jesus had been resurrected, and who had to put his fingers in the wounds to be convinced (hence “doubting Thomas”). His feast day is December 21st, the day of the Winter Solstice, in the Gregorian calendar. The key here, I think, is that we see a conflation of customs that go with the solstice, and some that belong more properly to the “shifted” Julian date, which would place them around December 29 or thereabouts. That date will be important in a minute.

But in Norway (and in a more limited sense Sweden), he is also known as “Thomas the Brewer”, by whose day all work in preparation for the Christmas season must be completed, lest some accident befall the person who was behind their time, including the baking, butchering, wood chopping, and of course the brewing. This is key to identifying northern traditions that have been superimposed onto Christian saints; when they exhibit behaviors or have associations that are unknown elsewhere.

Besides the northern-only tradition of brewing being associated with this day, on St. Thomas’ day, English tradition includes begging for alms or cakes, sweets, or fruit, whence comes the ditty, “Christmas is coming / the goose is getting fat / go and throw a penny in the old man’s hat / if you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do / if you haven’t got a ha’penny then god bless you.” In Germany, this sort of charity was practiced by employers towards their employees. But the website Catholic Culture gives it thus:

In England, this was a day of charity, when the poor women went a “Thomasing” or begging. Wheat was cooked and distributed for the poor.

That brings to mind what we discussed earlier regarding St. Lucia, whose feast day should fall on the solstice. She was associated with wheat and grain… I daresay that could be a transposition of a bit of St. Lucia onto the “right” day. It’s of course impossible to say for sure, but it would make sense given the shift in dates with the calendar change. Things are going to be messy.

This association of Saint Thomas with brewing (and charity) is not found in other Christian contexts, nor is his feast day near the Winter Solstice in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and it was moved from December 21 (where it was placed in the 9th century, just as Christianity was coming up into northern Europe, which I think is very significant, and also when the Julian calendar was in use) to July 3 (in 1969, so it wouldn’t “interfere” with the other Advent activities) in the Catholic tradition. It’s still celebrated on the 21st by Anglicans and Episcopalians, and some others.

So what we have at this point:

  • A tradition associated with brewing
  • A tradition that was originally held 8 days after the solstice (using the Julian calendar), or (more significantly, I think) two weeks before the Yule celebration in the middle of January

Why is that last bullet important? Quite simple. It takes two weeks to brew beer.

The brewing of beer for Yule is enormously important. In fact, the Older Gulathing Law made the brewing of beer or ale mandatory for Christmas/Yule:

We have also promised that every husbandman and his wife shall join in an ale feast, all sharing equality, and bless it on Holy Night with thanks to Christ and Saint Mary for peace and a fruitful harvest. And if this is not done, they shall pay a fine of three marks to the bishop. And if a man allows three winters to pass without giving an ale feast, and he is accused and convicted of this, or the penalties that we have added to our church law, he shall have forfeited his goods to the last penny; and the king shall have one-half of it, and the bishop one-half. But he has the choice of going to confession and doing penance; remain in Norway; but if he refuses to do this, he shall depart from the king’s dominion.

The working assumption being that, just as the date of Yule had been moved up three weeks to correspond with the Christian Yule, so too were traditions and requirements similarly moved up. That would mean that the brewing of ale, and the holding of an ale-feast, would have been regarded as mandatory for the Yule season as well.

And when would you start brewing that ale for the feast? A week or so after the solstice. Two weeks before the celebration of Yule. December 21st, O.S. If you didn’t start brewing by then, you wouldn’t have any ale for the expected (and perhaps mandatory) ale feast. It could take longer to make a good brew, but this was the last chance. And that last chance was recognized in the popular imagination, and because of the date, eight days after the solstice, it became superimposed onto St. Thomas, because that was his newly-minted feast day.

I don’t see this as a “major” holiday by any stretch. Merely a marking of the fact that the brewing better be done by now. But it’s something to mark in the calendar, and especially those who do their own brewing should take note of this important deadline!

Since the day is a deadline unto itself, I don’t have a Helpful Planning Tip for this post, but here’s a cool Viking brewing link: Where were the Viking Brew-Houses?

Lussinatta: Celebrating the Light

St. Lucy’s Day, better known in Scandinavian circles as St. Lucia’s Day, is a Christian feast day celebrated today on December 13. Before the conversion from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, however, it was associated with the winter solstice (as they knew it, the longest night of the year).

St. Lucy was originally Sicilian, and martyred in 304 CE. She quickly became a very popular saint, and her feast day was honored at least by the 6th century in Anglo-Saxon England. In southern Europe, she is associated with grain, and there is a later (16th century) tradition of her eyes being gouged out; neither of these attributes is particularly associated with her northern European incarnation.

It is quite telling that in very Lutheran (Protestant) Sweden, the celebration of St. Lucia’s Day has survived and thrived. The image of young blonde girls with crowns of greenery and candles is iconic, and has been exported to the surrounding nations (Finland, Norway, and Denmark) within the last century or so. Here, the tradition holds that the saint was helping Christians hiding in the catacombs, and put candles on her head to be able to hold more food in her hands. This doesn’t seem to be a tale originally associated with her in southern Europe; it could be a “retro-fit” to explain her explicit connection with light in northern Europe, and in any event the crown of candles isn’t attested until 1820, so it’s likely a modern invention based on an earlier association with light in general (appropriate for the solstice-based celebration).

However, it is important to note that St. Lucy’s story is probably not historical; even the Catholic Encyclopedia agrees that:

This beautiful story cannot unfortunately be accepted without criticism. The details may be only a repetition of similar accounts of a virgin martyr’s life and death. Moreover, the prophecy was not realized, if it required that Maximian should die immediately after the termination of his reign. Paschasius, also, is a strange name for a pagan to bear. … and it is to be hoped that these [miracles she is said to have done] have not been introduced by the pious compiler of the saint’s story or a popular instinct to link together two national saints. The story, such as we have given it, is to be traced back to the Acta, and these probably belong to the fifth century. Though they cannot be regarded as accurate, there can be no doubt of the great veneration that was shown to St. Lucy by the early church. (Emphasis added)

Since they seem to have just imposed a generic female saint “template” on the figure of Lucy, it seems likely that the celebrations around her were already there, and they were simply trying to impose a Christian veneer on these practices.

And the celebration of St. Lucia in Sweden is marked with songs, and a young girl being selected to play the role of Lucy, wearing a crown of lingonberry greens and seven white candles (in modern times, these are usually electric, rather than real flames). She is at the center of a procession of children singing songs and holding food (special cakes) and drink. (Some traditions hold that if you hear the sound of the Wild Hunt behind you, you should toss one of the cakes, called lussekatter, over your shoulder to appease them.)

Native Swedish lyrics with a Neopolitan melody, and still beautiful

So far we have:

  • A feast day on (or as close as they could approximate it) the winter solstice, the longest night of the year
  • Association with light that is largely absent from the southern European version (aside from the name, Lucy, which comes from the Latin lux, “light”)

Still doesn’t seem definitive, although it’s certainly suggestive. And who would be the most logical choice to celebrate on the shortest day of the year? The goddess Sunna, as a way of urging her to elude the wolf (or be reborn after the wolf consumes her) through sympathetic magic.

However, there’s another piece of the puzzle; the witch-like figure Lussi (or, more rarely, the male Lussigubben). Lussi is a Scandinavian figure, closely parallel to the southern German Holle or Perchta, Lussinatta is the traditional start of the Wild Hunt, or as it’s called in context with her, lussiferda (it has different names in different locations, and the details vary; we’ll discuss the Wild Hunt in particular in its own post). All the work of the household to prepare for the coming winter is to be complete by Lussinatta, lest the lazy households who haven’t gotten their chores done be punished (again, parallels with Holle and Perchta).

There is also a tradition known as lussivaka, which is an all-night vigil on the night of the solstice, along with a feast, to keep an eye out for the lussiferda flying by. In modern times, this takes the form of an all-night party, which traditionally breaks up at dawn. There are also reports from the 18th century of offerings of food being left outside on the Lussinatta, probably to appease the troupe of trolls led by Lussi; this is doubtless related to the above-referenced custom of tossing the lussekatter saffron buns over your shoulder to elude the hunt. A recipe for the buns can be found here.

So here, I think, we can really start to fill in some details. We have a confluence of several traditions (or, perhaps like we see with Nicholas/Krampus, a mixed tradition to start with). First, we have a celebration of the sun goddess, Sunna, on the longest night of the year, in order to help her through her weakest time. A vigil is held overnight, in order to make sure she returns through this darkest time.

Second, we have the appearance of Lussi, who exhorts the people to have their chores done in preparation for the long winter, just as we see in southern Germany with Perchta and Holla. In some ways, there are a lot of parallels between such figures and the goddess Frigg, whose domain over the domestic household has long been established.

Third, we have the appearance of the Wild Hunt, in the form of the lussiferda, which sticks around until the celebration of Yule (which would happen in mid-January). During this time, it is hazardous to be out and about at night, lest the hunt seize the unwary traveler, and on its first night of appearance, offerings are left outside (to distract the hunt from finding the sun goddess???).

And of course, in keeping with the methodology of orienting everything around the solar-defined solstice, rather than the calendar-defined Christmas, we would place this observance on or around December 21st, conveniently mapping very well with the conversion from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

HELPFUL PLANNING TIP: If you’re planning an all-night lussivaka party, now’s the time to send out the invitations.

A paucity of celebrations

If I may be permitted a brief interlude in my series on Yule and pre-Yule subjects, I’ve noted that Asatru tends to have a lot fewer holidays than other Indo-European religions. And here I am talking about well-attested historical celebrations, not modern inventions that (for instance) honor heroes such as a Day of Remembrance for Ragnar Lothbrok, or convert modern holidays into deity-specific holidays through dubious folk etymology such as celebrating Vali’s Day or Einherjar Day in lieu of Valentine’s or Veterans’ Day.

Historically, we really know only of a few holidays that are described even briefly; Winternights, Yule/Midwinter, Sumarmal/Sigrblót/Ostara, Disablót, Alfablót, and Thorrablót. From the Anglo-Saxon, we can add Charming of the Plow and Mother’s Night. Maybe one or two more. But even these are but sparsely described. and leaves us with only eight celebrations on the calendar, and a total of 20 days if we are generous and give all of the blóts three days spans.

Contrast this with some other Indo-European religions. Hindus have scores of holidays holidays, the Athenians had over 60 holidays of varying duration, and the Romans had dozens more than that, if one counts the various ludi (games) on the calendar, again some lasting many days. So why do the Germans get stuck with a measly 8? Bear in mind that we’re talking about largely agrarian cultures without the concept of weekends off; these sorts of holidays would be vital.

I submit that the Germans had just as many holidays as their southern and eastern neighbors; we simply haven’t identified them yet. My research on these Yule and pre-Yule celebrations has pointed me strongly in this direction. What we’re seeing, for instance, with the subject of yesterday’s post – a celebration involving a celebration of the story of Thor’s goats, possibly with animal guising and faux child-napping – isn’t “part of Yule”, but rather was simply another holiday, which didn’t get mentioned in direct attestations, but which survived through having its outward features adopted by the church, and surviving in mutated fashion through to the current day. We moderns have lumped all these sorts of things together in our zeal to categorize and reduce complexity, not to mention the modern secular and commercial effort to make the start of the Christmas season ever-earlier. When you look at some of the 19th century folklorists’ accounts of rural life and peasant and folk customs in England, Scandinavia, and Germany, the year is positively crowded with celebrations and customs.

If this is true, then we could have an inkling at a living year of holidays and celebrations undreamed-of (with several of these sort of folk-holidays each month), as well as a possibly methodology to suss out some details (looking for Christian saint’s day or other holy day celebrations with incongruous elements that are unique to northern Europe). This would yield something closer to the medieval European folk-calendar, which the church deliberately designed to emulate the old Heathen cycle of celebrations, in order to supplant it, or the old pre-Christian Roman calendar.

Of course, not everything that “seems” pre-Christian is indeed pre-Christian, and care has to be taken to separate the wheat from the chaff. I doubt that the full extent of these celebrations will ever truly be recovered, but I think it’s at least worth investigating beyond the December/January examples I’m laying out here.

Kicking off the Yuletide: St. Nicholas Day / Krampusnacht

How… jolly

The first Christian feast day associated with the Christmas/Yule season falls on December 6 (N.S.)*. This is well-known to many people nowadays, as it is the date of many krampus festivals in southern Germany and Austria. Nicholas himself was noted for secret gift-giving, and the tradition of leaving stockings by the fireplace stems ultimately from the story of St. Nicholas and the dowry for the three virgins.

However, it is those practices associated with the veneration of St. Nicholas that are unique to northern Europe, and those Germanic additions to the Nicholas myth, which are of interest to me as an Asatruar. Since he was originally from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and his worship is fairly widespread, it is easy enough to distinguish those elements that were grafted onto the Saint’s veneration due to his feast day being on or close to the traditional date for these practices to be held.

In England, it was an occasion for teenage boys to put on the robes, miter, and cozier of the bishop and perform a sort of “lords of misrule” type game. This tradition was first abolished by Henry VIII, but to be honest seems more like a transference from the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which happened later on in the month, than a true Germanic custom, since it’s not really recorded anywhere else.

Zwarte Piet. SJW heads explode in 3… 2… 1…

In France (specifically the northeast and easternmost portions of the country), there are two traditions that point to some relationship with krampus. First, there is a story of Nicholas saving three children from a wicked butcher; iconography shows the butcher with a barrel full of children, recalling the krampus’ basket. Second, there is the character of Père Fouettard, who accompanies Nicholas on his rounds (this is acted out in the villages of the region) and chases or threatens naughty children with a switch, again reminiscent of the south German krampus.

In Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, we have Sinterklaas (whence we get the name Santa Claus), who shows up with his servant Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”, whose black face and red mouth evoke the traditional krampus figure of the southern Germanic areas) and once again hands out gifts to good children and switches for naughty kids. And early songs about Sinterklaas talk about naughty children being put into his bag and taken away. Again, shades of krampus…

The wonderful Sinterklaas scene from the original Miracle on 34th Street

In the Alpine regions (Bavaria, Austria, Tyrolia, and eastern Switzerland) we have the now-famous krampus tradition. Krampus is way more involved than can be covered in this post, but the highlights include the fact that krampus (or differently-named creatures with similar attributes) accompany Nicholas as he visits the villages of the region (these visits are acted out by specialized troupes who dress in elaborate costume). While Nicholas makes a sermon and rewards good children, krampus is famed for threatening bad children with switches (see above re: France), or carries them away in baskets (ditto). The pagan antecedents of the krampus figure are uncertain; the quintessential attributes (long red tongue, horns, hair) can be traced back to the 16th century, but references to the Devil in St Nicholas plays (which were enacted on his feast day) go back to the 11th century, well within the time of the conversion era.

By the way, if you’re interested in a really first-rate book on the history of the krampus tradition and modern krampus plays and festivals, you can do no better than Al Ridenour’s recent book on the subject. Highly recommended. If you read that and don’t come away with ideas for your own Nicholas Day celebration, you don’t have an imagination.

Which brings me to the practicum. How to incorporate this material into modern Asatru practice? We’ve got gifts for children given by one figure, naughty children being whipped or abducted by another figure, and maybe a “lord of misrule” thing going as well

Let’s start with the date. While the modern date of St Nicholas Day is December 6, in the old Julian calendar, this would have been pushed forward a week or more. That could easily put it a week prior to the solstice. There’s some symmetry in having a celebration the week before the winter solstice, to harbor in the season. Perhaps not coincidentally, that is the start of the Icelandic month Mörsugur (“bone-marrow sucking”), which begins on December 14. That’s where I would plant this celebration.

But what to do? Oh, the possibilities! The ambitious could put on a proper Nicholas/krampus visit, with costumes and candy/presents for good children and switches for wicked children and so forth. The tradition isn’t one just done in the streets; the troupe usually enters private homes as well to go through their revels. As I mentioned elsewhere, it would be great to revive the “visiting tradition”, and arrange for such visits among Asatru families in a given area. Let’s see this all over the country!

Obviously, I would “re-Heathenize” the Nicholas figure, My suggestion here is Thor. Not only does the association with the color red fit (Nicholas is traditionally, if not exclusively, shown in red, befitting an Orthodox bishop, completely unrelated to the modern red and white association with Coca-Cola), but one of the stories associated with him also has him punching a heretic in the face. Even if it’s not completely connected, I think Thor would appreciate the irony.

Thor notices his goat is now lame

But the clincher? Remember the meaning of the name of the Icelandic month that starts around this time; “bone-marrow sucking.” It just so happens that there is a myth associated with Thor that revolves around sucking the marrow out of a leg-bone, and it involves his goats:

Öku-Thor drove forth with his he-goats and chariot, and with him that Ás called Loki; they came at evening to a husbandman’s, and there received a night’s lodging. About evening, Thor took his he-goats and slaughtered them both; after that they were flayed and borne to the cauldron. When the cooking was done, then Thor and his companion sat down to supper. Thor invited to meat with him the husbandman and his wife, and their children: the husbandman’s son was called Thjálfi, and the daughter Röskva. Then Thor laid the goat-hides farther away from the fire, and said that the husbandman and his servants should cast the bones on the goat-hides. Thjálfi, the husbandman’s son, was holding a thigh-bone of the goat, and split it with his knife and broke it for the marrow.

Thor tarried there overnight; and in the interval before day he rose up and clothed himself, took the hammer Mjöllnir, swung it up, and hallowed the goat-hides; straightway the he-goats rose up, and then one of them was lame in a hind leg. Thor discovered this, and declared that the husbandman or his household could not have dealt wisely with the bones of the goat: be knew that the thighbone was broken. There is no need to make a long story of it; all may know how frightened the husbandman must have been when he saw how Thor let his brows sink down before his eyes; but when he looked at the eyes, then it seemed to him that he must fall down before their glances alone. Thor clenched his hands on the hammer-shaft so that the knuckles whitened; and the husbandman and all his household did what was to be expected: they cried out lustily, prayed for peace, offered in recompense all that they had. But when he saw their terror, then the fury departed from him, and he became appeased, and took of them in atonement their children, Thjálfi and Röskva, who then became his bond-servants; and they follow him ever since. (Gylfaginning 44, Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur  tr. 1916)

So here we have a tale with:

  • an association with Thor (who can be connected with Nicholas/Sinterklaas in terms of iconography and behavior)
  • goats (who can be associated with krampus/the Devil, as traditionally depicted with goat’s horns and fur)
  • taking away of disobedient children by said goat figures (the husbandman’s children are taken away because they disobeyed the order not to eat the goat’s marrow)
  • the name of the month with which this practice would have been associated (sucking marrow from bones)
  • the date of the celebration matching the start of the Old Icelandic month, once we correct for the conversion to the Gregorian calandar

I won’t lie. I’m really proud of coming up with that association. I think there’s a real there, there.

In keeping with the medieval English tradition noted above, it might also be entertaining to choose a child or two from your tribe or kindred to be “goði/gyðja for a day,” given due respect and honors, if you’re making this a day of celebration in your own tribe. Given the myth with Thor and his goats, I might even “name” them Thjálfi or Röskva for the day…

So here’s kicking off the season, or the month of Mörsugur, once we adjust for the Julian calendar. December 14th, Thor, accompanied by his goat-like companions (perhaps we can fit in the Scandinavian julebok after all!) hands out small gifts to children while the goats chase and chastise the naughty children. If you can arrange the logistics, have Thor and his goats visit the various houses of the members of the tribe (they should receive suitable food and/or libations as they proceed on their circuit), or else have a central celebration.

And thus the Yuletide season begins.

HELPFUL PLANNING TIP: If you will be doing the full-blown visiting tradition, now’s the time to get the costumes done. In fact, it’ll be a bit of a rush, but you can still do it! Goat masks can be found here, and some sort of fleece coat turned inside-out can do for a costume, but by all means go crazy and make the costumes as elaborate and cool looking as possible!

* N.S. = New Style, referring to the Gregorian calendar that we use today. O.S. refers to Old Style, i.e., the Julian calendar that was used prior to the 16th century. The shift in dates between the two calendars will be significant, as we will see, so it’s important to mark which calendar is being used.

Time to start thinking about Yule!

Yes, I know, we’re not even at Thanksgiving yet (here in the U.S., anyway, that informally marks the beginning of the Christmas season, even if the large stores tend to start putting out their Christmas stuff even before Halloween), but now’s the time to start thinking and planning for the coming Yuletide. There are things to be ordered, or made, or planned, or rehearsed, and the time to do all that is now, not a week before you’re going to have a hall full of revelers.

I’ll be reposting some of my previous research on topics associated with Yule, and posting some new stuff as well, but I wanted to kick things off by discussing the date itself.

We know that Yule is one of the “big three” holidays established by Odin, according to Ynglinga Saga, ch. 8:

Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs en að miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hið þriðja að sumri. Það var sigurblót.
On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle.

Meanwhile, the Cleasby-Vigfusson Dictonary has this to say about Yule (jól), Midwinter (hökunótt), and the date upon which it fell:

The heathen Yule lasted thirteen days, whence are derived the names Þrettándi, the thirteenth = Epiphany, i.e. the 6th of January, as also the Engl. ‘Twelfth-night;’ it is however probable that the heathen feast was held a little later than the Christian (see hökunótt)

…mid-winter night, about the time of Epiphany, when the heathen Yule began … The heathen Yule seems among the Scandinavians to have been celebrated about three weeks later than Christmas; but the Norse king Hakon, who had been brought up in Christian England, altered the time of the festival, so as to make it correspond with the English Yule or Christmas; and so the heathen hökunótt came to represent our Christmas Eve.

The reference here to 13 nights of Yule is questionable, as it seems to be unattested, and is most likely an adaptation of the Christian “Twelve Days of Christmas.” And it is actually flatly contradicted by the second reference, which states that Yule began on Epiphany! In fact, the Saga of Hakon the Good explicitly states that the Heathen Yule was three days long:

He [King Hakon] made a law that the festival of Yule should begin at the same time as Christian people held it, and that every man, under penalty, should brew a meal of malt into ale, and therewith keep the Yule holy as long as it lasted.  Before him, the beginning of Yule, or the slaughter night, was the night of mid-winter, and Yule was kept for three days thereafter.

But it’s still something that might bear more looking into.

Add to this mix is the fact that the Western world switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and most of the traditions associated with the winter solstice, or the longest night of the year, changed with them, moving several days “backward” on the calendar (the exact number of days is complicated, because of a variety of factors, but eight is a good ballpark figure).

Thus, solstice-related activities, which in the 15th century would have fallen on December 13th when the actual solstice was, remained on that calendar date (because they had largely been transformed into Saints’ feast days, which were calendar-driven, rather than driven by celestial events) even though the solstice itself lurched forward to December 21st. This will become very important in identifying Heathen Yule traditions that had become Christianized, as we’ll cover in future posts, but it’s helpful to catalog the relevant Saints’ days for future reference:

The idea being that, if there are attributes of a given saint’s celebration that are unique to the North, it might be a vestige of a Heathen practice superimposed on a Christian holiday.

I submit that from a Heathen point of view, it makes the most sense to bring these solstice-related activities back to the actual date of the solstice, but there’s also the repeated references to the actual Yule celebration itself taking place three weeks after Christmas (so, mid-January). I think there’s an easy answer, and it lies in the giving up of our modern reductionist way of looking at everything as being part of some single Yuletide holiday.

Just because the celebration of Yule was a three-day celebration starting in the middle of January (when the lengthening days would be apparent), that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a whole constellation of observances and folk-practices leading up to it, some connected with the solstice itself, some not. This also fits in with the notion that not every celebration is a collective sacrificial feast; some are more properly brought down to the family level, such as Mothers’ Night. We’ll be exploring all these things as this series continues.

So, it’s time to start thinking about Yule, but also to understand that there’s a whole load of activities and celebrations happening in December and January, and Yule is just the capstone.

Plus, Krampus!!!

HELPFUL PLANNING TIP: If you’re going to be using a Julebokk (Yule-goat) as a part of your Yule offering, now’s the time to order it! You can get a very nice one here.

Must be nice…

I’ve got to say, as someone who practices, and advocates for the rights of, an ethno-tribal religion, I am very jealous of the status of Amerindians when it comes to their group identity and religious practices. After all, they have the full weight of the United States federal government on their side. Take, for example, the case of Sioleski v. Capra et al.

This (I almost hesitate to use the word) “person” was convicted of throwing acid in his step-daughter’s face because he thought her mother had damaged his car, and to this day she fears that he will come after her if he makes parole. He recently sued because Sing-Sing prison wouldn’t let him have a “Cherokee mullet” (is that even a thing?).

But last week the court dismissed the case, and I’m not a lawyer, but it would seem to be because he hadn’t appealed the prison’s decision that he wasn’t Cherokee, and without exhausting all his options, he couldn’t sue:

“plaintiff has not appealed to CORC any grievance regarding defendant Capra’s failure to enroll plaintiff in the Native American religious community while incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility…. In fact, the CORC appeal list indicates that plaintiff has not appealed to CORC any grievances filed at Sing Sing.”

The facts of the case and his suit notwithstanding, what I find fascinating about this whole affair is the fact that the state of New York is apparently able to decide who can, and cannot, practice Amerindian religion, based on tribal membership. In the specific case of the Cherokee, they apparently go entirely based on genealogical records rather than blood tests, but membership in the tribe, and access to Cherokee religious rites, is still based on ancestry, and enforced by the federal government, at least in prison.

Which brings up an interesting question. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if someone of obvious non-European ancestry requested to be allowed to participate in Asatru rituals. Asatru is recognized as a real faith by the federal bureau of prisons, and thus they control who can, and cannot, practice it while in Federal custody. They’re apparently quite assiduous about making sure that Amerindian religions are only practiced by people of Amerindian descent.

Of course, being in prison isn’t a good thing by any stretch. But even felons have the government on their side when it comes to certain tribal religions. Must be nice to have the boundaries of one’s ethno-tribal religion protected by force of law, even within a Federal penitentiary.

(A tip o’ the horned helmet to Religion Clause)

Gullveig, Heidi, and Freyja

Odin throws his spear over the Vanir

A notable, but often unclear, event is described in Völuspá stanzas 21 – 23:

Þat man hon fólkvíg fyrst í heimi,
er Gullveig geirum studdu
ok í höll Hárs hana brendu;
þrysvar brendu þrysvar borna,
opt, ósjaldan, þó hon enn lifir.

Heiði hana hétu, hvars til húsa kom,
völu velspá, vitti hon ganda,
seið hon hvars hon kunni, seið hon hugleikin,
æ var hon angan illrar brúðar.

Þá gengu regin öll á rökstóla,
ginnheilug goð, ok um þat gættusk:
hvárt skyldu æsir afráð gjalda
eða skyldu goðin öll gildi eiga.

Wikisource gives the literal translation thus:

She [the volva] dispute remember, the first in the home,
when Gullveig geirum [“spears”] supported,
and in Hárs hall they burn her;
three times burned the three times born,
often, not seldom, yet still she lives.

Heidi she height, to the house came
the wise volva, woken she neighbors,
magic she knew, magic she joyfully,
friendly always for angry maidens.

Then went reigns all to their ruling seats,
the high-holy gods held council:
whether Aesir should sacrifice offer,
or should gods all the tribute* own.

* Wikisource has “guild” here, which makes no sense compared to the primary meaning of the ON word gildi.

It’s worth noting that the literal translations of the names are:

  • Gullveig – “gold-drink” (the interpretation “gold-thirst” or greed was an invention of E.O. Turville-Petre and doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny)
  • Hár – “high” (a name for Odin, presumably)
  • Heidi – “gleaming” “honor” “fame” “seeress” “heath”

Many people, rightly in my view, see this as some sort of ritual captured in poetry and metaphor. But it does present certain problems. Most glaringly, the math doesn’t quite work out. If Gullveig was born and burned three times, she should be dead:

born – died – born – died – born – died

…but the text clearly says “still she lives”. Either she was (re)born a fourth time, or there’s something else going on here, like maybe burning her didn’t kill her, exactly. (And it should be pointed out that the ON word borin means specifically “born”; if the author meant “reborn” the word used would have been endrborinn, so the author isn’t just counting rebirths.) It’s also interesting that “still she lives” would imply that whoever (or whatever) Gullveig is, she is still alive at the time the volva in Voluspa is talking.

If the intention was to flesh out the three lives (and by association, three names) of Gullveig, then there would be information about a third name in stanza 23. But it does not complete the expected triptych of the previous stanzas; it begins to describe the Aesir-Vanir war mentioned in stanza 21. If the intention of the poet was to describe the three lives of the creature who started off as Gullveig, why only give details (scanty though they are) about the first two lives?

I don’t think that is what these stanzas are saying. I think they are setting up the events of the war, first showing the Aesir point of view, and then contrasting that with the Vanir point of view, and then describing the start of the war.

Most readers make the assumption that these two figures of Gullveig and Heidi are the same, and the second stanza is merely a continuation of the events in the first. Völuspá is a very tough poem, and tends to jump from subject to subject without warning, and it’s by no means a certainty that stanza 22 is continuing the events of 21. I am going to veer into iconoclasm and state that I do not believe Gullveig and Heidi are the same figure, and stanzas 21 and 22 are talking about two different things.

The traditional view of Gullveig


First we hear about Gullveig, who represents the Aesir ‘s position in the conflict. We know this about Gullveig from the text:

  • Her name means “gold-drink”
  • She was “supported” by spears
  • She was burned three times in Odin’s hall, and “yet still lives”
And, if my theory is correct, she is somehow connected with humans offering sacrifices to the Aesir in the same way that they offered sacrifices to the Vanir, thus beginning the conflict. To my mind, the answer as to Gullveig’s identity is obvious; she is a metaphorical embodiment of the holy mead (or ale) used in sacred feasts and sumbel. This mead, kept in a cauldron supported by a tripod (in Odin’s hall, this tripod is made out of spears, as are the rafters of Valhalla), is passed over the fire three times to hallow it, or metaphorically bring it to life. In essence, she represents the formal ritual structure of those who follow the Aesir, with its use of fire to consecrate and its emphasis on the number three.

And this interpretation also removes the ominous associations with evil that Gullveig has in the minds of many. Her burning is not in the sense of an evil witch being burned at the stake; it’s essential to her being “born”; i.e., sanctified and able to carry the sacrality of ritual. Her life and death is described in the stanza in the same way that the Ballad of John Barleycorn embodies the life and death of the barley plant in the brewing of beer. Her three births are reenacted in every ritual (“often, not seldom”), in the passing of the sacred drink around the fire (“burning” it) three times.

Thus, she is a different individual than Heidi, described in the following stanza, setting up the two sides of the conflict to come.


Heidi is more straightforward. Here is what we know about her from the text:

  • Her name has many meanings, including a generic term for seeress (in other parts of the lore, seeresses are often named Heidi, indicating it may be more title than name)
  • She is a volva, or seeress
  • She teaches others (particularly “angry maidens”) the arts of seiðr

Many scholars have associated Heidi with Freyja, and this makes sense based on Ynglinga Saga 4:

Dóttir Njarðar var Freyja. Hún var blótgyðja. Hún kenndi fyrst með Ásum seið sem Vönum var títt. Þá er Njörður var með Vönum þá hafði hann átta systur sína því að það voru þar lög. 

Njord’s daughter Freya was priestess of the sacrifices, and first taught the Asaland people the magic art, as it was in use and fashion among the Vanaland people. (Samuel Laing translation)

But if there is no real reason to associate Gullveig with Heidi other than the fact they are discussed in successive stanzas in Voluspa, then there’s no reason to associate Freyja with Gullveig, and it removes any negative connotations associated with Gullveig into the bargain. This neatly solves one of the problems with the Gullveig-Freyja association (the fact that the Aesir would have burned her to death three times, but it wasn’t the Vanir who initiated the war, but the Aesir), and I daresay this separation provides a stronger justification for the Aesir-Vanir war than the notion that it was launched because the Aesir burned Gullveig to death (unsuccessfully). The root of the war was the question of which tribe, Aesir or Vanir, deserved the fruits of the ritual offerings.

In the case of the Aesir, those offerings were the holy mead, embodied by Gullveig. In the case of the Vanir, those offerings were enabled through the practice of seiðr, taught by Heidi/Freyja.

I think this interpretation of the stanzas makes a lot more sense than trying to conflate the two figures, which causes all sorts of problems with interpretation of the flow of events, especially when Freyja and the actual instigation of the war is thrown into the mix.

A Halloween visit from the Tomten

So our house-wight (aka the Tomten or Nisse) was feeling a little rambunctious, or lonely, or something last night (Halloween, not coincidentally). My wireless mouse needed a new battery, so I dutifully removed the old one, went downstairs to get a new one, answered the door for some trick-or-treaters, and when I came back upstairs the mouse was gone. Nowhere to be found.

I retraced my steps four times, looked right on the corner of my desk, where I left it, four times, looked in the kitchen, downstairs, even worried that I had absent-mindedly given it to one of the kids instead of candy.

In exasperation, I finally said out loud, to the house-wight, “okay, why are you doing this? Need a little attention? Very amusing!” and kept looking.

So one of our friends who was over and starting to help me look calls over to me, “Is it the gray-and-black one?”

I went over, and there it was, right on the corner of the desk, right where I left it. It had not not been there before. And she couldn’t have hidden it, because it was missing before she had come upstairs.

He’ll be getting an extra-large pat of butter in his porridge this Yule, to keep him happy.

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