Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Asatru Page 1 of 15

New Book: Heathen Garb and Gear

Another new book alert from Ben Waggoner! This time he has given us Heathen Garb and Gear: Ritual Dress, Tools, and Art for the Practice of Germanic Heathenry.

The book includes sections on Heathen Dress (including an entire chapter on the Case Against Garb, and another on the Case for Garb); Jewelry, Amulets, Symbols, and Designs; Hair and Grooming; and Stall, Harrow, and Hof.

Especially as someone who comes down solidly on the pro-garb side of the argument, but who is also very interested in anything to do with the practicum of Asatru and Heathen practice, this should be a terrific book. Very much looking forward to reading it!

A Personal Note

Although I’ve been eschewing active participation in Heathen groups, events, and group practices for many months now, I just formally left the last Heathen group to which I still belonged. It was a fairly easy decision, as it was clear that the group had changed radically in its mission and purpose since I originally founded it.

My plan to concentrate inwards, and focus on my own practice and researches, is unaffected, except perhaps in the sense that I have one less distraction in that facet of my life. It’s a liberating feeling.

I don’t rule out some sort of group activity at some point in the future, but it’ll be very carefully done.

Beards and Asatru

A few days ago, the Army Times reported that a soldier was given a religious accommodation to wear a beard, in deference to his “Heathen; Norse Pagan” beliefs.

Now, I’m all for religious accommodation when it’s needed, but I confess I’m not sure where the soldier in question, or his superiors, got the idea that there is some sort of religious compunction to wear a beard in Heathenry.

If anything, the wearing of a beard seems quite inconsistent in contemporary art works. In such things as the Bayeux Tapestry, there are figures with beards, mustaches, and those who are clean-shaven. The Lewis Chessmen are similarly shown having various styles of facial hair, or none at all. The Torslunda Helmet Plate (at the top of this article) clearly shows a man in a horned helmet, possibly Odin due to the punched-out left eye, without a beard. The Salians (the tribe whence the Merovingians came) were noted for their long hair, but not their beards, while the Franks were known for short hair. The Langobards, of course, got their name from their long beards, but it is that very thing that makes them distinctive and thus unusual.

Now, I am not an expert on religious accommodations in the US military, but it would seem to me that what’s being granted is a personal exemption. If having a beard was necessary, we’d certainly see it more consistently in the contemporary art, and have it mentioned in the sources.

Why the Move?

Out with the old and in with the new, as they say.

The old blog is down, now, and I’ve set up shop over here. I have some big plans, but there’s just too much history associated with the old place. Too many associations with people, organizations, and ideas that I no longer share. Too many arguments with individuals, rather than ideas.

If you’ve followed me for the move, you’ll have noticed that a lot of posts didn’t make the transition. I’ve tried to take out the political stuff wherever I could find it. So too the full-throated defenses of folkishness, and sniping at individuals. There are still a few posts where my skills at such are still very much on display, but I’ve tried to re-place the emphasis on history, scholarship, and ritual.

As for the new year and beyond, I’m planning to stay on that course. I’m turning inward, and will be focusing a lot of my time on individual religious observance. The local group I founded is moving in a different direction than me, and although I don’t wish them any ill, it’s no longer the spiritual home I had hoped it would become. I’m also going to recommit to my magical practices, which have been left neglected for several years now.

I’m intending to chronicle those observances and practices here, and continue my researches into a more robust, organic, and holistic type of faith and practice, which I’m calling Traditional Asatru. Come with me as I explore just what that looks like, and how one person can embrace it.

Reconstructionism isn’t Enough

I had an interesting conversation with a friend tonight, discussing setting up a reconstructionist tribe/group/whatever. While I, and the tribe to which I belong, are firmly in the reconstructionist camp, I can also say that it’s not enough to be reconstructionist.

Any group that is reconstructionist in orientation has to, unfortunately by default, take a side in the major fault lines in Asatru today, and have a strong answer as to why reconstructionism is compatible with those stances. Some of those fault lines include:

  • Folkish vs. universalist
  • Lokean vs. anti-Lokean
  • Gender roles
  • Radical individualism
  • Sacral kingship

Those answers do not, however, need to be “reconstructionism supports this decision.” It can be as simple as “the lore is silent or contradictory on this issue, but we as a group have decided X.” And that’s perfectly okay, especially since there are so very many gaps in our understanding of how our ancestors did things. It must always be done with the understanding that, if new evidence comes up, it will be duly considered, of course, and the door remains open to changing the way things are done. That’s one of the cornerstones of reconstructionism; being open to new evidence, and willing to change one’s beliefs and practices based upon that evidence.

One of the (justified, in my opinion) criticisms of reconstructionism is that we recons tend to be more interested in research than in practice. It is indeed a potential pitfall, and I offer my own tribe’s example as a way to avoid it. We follow a traditional holiday calendar, and tend to eschew modern holidays, “days of observance”, and things that are imported from Wicca such as the Eightfold Wheel of the Year. But we also do a lot of things that have nothing to do with strict reconstructionism; we have trips to folk festivals, movie nights, nature hikes, etc. Nothing that would, on its face, be considered “recon”.

The fact that we are reconstructionists doesn’t mean we cannot add to our practice, as long as we don’t contradict what our ancestors did. Too often, radical political ideas, or other far-out positions on any of those fault lines mentioned above, run up against the historical record. But short of extreme positions, there’s a huge spectrum of middle ground on many of those issues that can accommodate a reconstructionist approach.

So (to take the most prominent example), while I cannot point to any place in the sagas and say “this says blámenn should worship their own ancestral gods” (tortured arguments by the ultra-folkish to the contrary) I can also not point to anywhere that explicitly says they were welcomed into Norse societies as fellow worshipers of the Aesir (tortured arguments by the universalists to the contrary). Thus, there is ambiguity, and that is where modern sensibilities must fill the gap, and those must be decided by each individual or group.

It’s great to say that you’ll be strictly neutral on all such things, but I guarantee you will be forced to deal with it the first time someone insists on adding an “inclusivity clause” to your charter, or someone tries to hail Loki at sumbel. You cannot hide from these issues if you’re going to be anything other than yourself and your family. That’s why they’re so prevalent in modern Asatru as divisive issues.

Ultimately, within a reconstructionist framework, where you come down on those fault lines is immaterial, as long as you’re:

  1. Not contradicting what we know of our ancestors’ practice, and
  2. Are open-minded to change your own views in the face of new evidence or compelling interpretations of existing evidence
Which is not to say reconstructionism isn’t valid or viable. But there are gaps, and those don’t just exist in the more academic realm of ritual, the calendar, and so forth. The real-world practical stuff will intrude on you and force you to make decisions on these issues. 
My point is merely that, as a reconstructionist, you need to be prepared for when that happens. Because it will.

Mixed-Race Gods?

Hilmar Hilmarsson, current allsherjargoði of the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið, recently said: “The gods are of mixed races.”

From time to time, I’ve dealt with this particular canard that the Norse Neopagans keep trying to trot out in an off-handed manner, in the context of other things, but it’s something that appears with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season, so I thought it was about time I took it on directly.

Let’s take this step by step. When someone like Hilmar says “the gods are of mixed races” he is referring to the fact that some of the gods are either said to have parents who are Jötnar (giants) or who are counted among the Jötnar or Vanir themselves and then marry into the ranks of the Æsir. Týr is an example of the former, with the famous account of his visit to his father Hymir’s hall to get a cauldron in which to make mead. Skaði is an example of the latter, the daughter of the slain Þjazi, who marries Njörðr as recompense.

But are the Æsir and the Jötnar different “races”? That depends on the definition of race, of course. The simplest definition is “a group of persons related by common descent or heredity.”

Given the ancestry of the Æsir and the Jötnar, it’s clear that they are of the same “race”. That is, they are all of them descended from Ymir (in Odin’s case, via Ymir’s descendant, Bestla). Odin is also descended from Borr, whose own father Buri was licked out of the primordial rime-ice independent of Ymir, but there is nothing to indicate that Buri and Borr were of any different “race” than Ymir. All were born of the same rime-ice at the dawn of time; Ymir from the interaction of the ice with the sparks from Muspell, and Buri from being licked out of the ice by the cow Auðumbla. The common factor is the ice, and Odin embodies the merging of the two sons of the ice, Ymir and Buri.

At best, the Æsir and the Jötnar are cousins, and are quick to marry within that boundary if it suits their desires or needs. They share a common descent and heredity, and are thus of the same race, according to the definition. We might refer to these individuals as the “sons of Ymir”.

Thus, intermarriage between Æsir and the Jötnar isn’t an example of interracial marriage. It is, in fact, nothing more than an exchange of individuals between clans (the Æsir and the Jötnar) who both stem from the same seed.

In other words, the Æsir and the Jötnar are the same race. They simply have separated themselves into different clans, much like the Swedes and the Norwegians and the Danes. Different clans, or nations, but the same race.

What further attests to this fact is that when a Jötunn (or a Van, for that matter) marries or is otherwise brought into the Æsir, they are called Æsir thereafter. Thus does Snorri refer to Skaði and Loki as Æsir.

So what about other races mentioned in the lore? We have several; the Vanir, the Alfar, and the Dvergar. Unfortunately the vagaries of what has survived makes the question somewhat less than easy to quantify. We don’t know the origin (or, really, the nature) of the Vanir at all. They simply show up to go to war with the Æsir, leave three of their number to join their former enemies, and then disappear from the lore completely, except for a throwaway line in the description of Ragnarök. There is a strong case to be made that the Vanir and the Alfar are the same (see, for example, Alaric Hall’s Elves in Anglo-Saxon England), but it’s far from settled.

The Alfar are similarly mysterious in their origin, although see above regarding their possible association with the Vanir. They are something of a moot point, however, as there are no examples of an Alfar joining the Æsir.*

For both, however, if the genealogy of Ymir’s line is considered to be accurate, then they must be of  Jötunn origin themselves, because there isn’t any other possibility that is described for us in the written sources. Of course, it’s entirely possible that some now-lost legend referred to the origin of the Vanir and/or the Alfar, but that would be pure speculation, and we can’t draw conclusions from it.

The Dvergar, on the other hand, have an origin which is known to us outside of the continuity of the offspring of Ymir, Buri, and Bor. Snorri tells us they are the maggots who infested the flesh of the slain Ymir, while Völuspá states that they come from “Brimir’s blood and from Blain’s limbs” (both of which could be seen as alternate names for Ymir, and thus reinforcing Snorri’s origin). The point is that the Dvergar are the only group of beings which qualify unequivocally as a separate “race” in the sense of being “related by common descent or heredity.” Everyone else in the lore either comes from Bor or their origin is unknown. The Dvergar give us an excellent opportunity to check to see if there is any example of true, unequivocal, inter-racial mingling in the lore.

And, indeed, there are no instances of one of the Dvergar joining the Æsir, through marriage, adoption, or any other means.

That certainly seems suggestive.

Of course, it is true that we do hear of the goddess Freyja sleeping with the four Dvergar in order to secure the necklace Brisingsamen. But there is nothing in the account to suggest that there was any sort of marriage, no crossing of the boundary between the two races from one clan to another. Indeed, the fact that Freyja did sleep with these Dvergar is held out to be something very shameful, and is used by Loki to taunt her in Lokasenna.

So to recap:

  1. The Æsir and the Jötnar are cousins, and should be considered the same “race”. Their mixing together is thus not proof of “mixed race gods”.
  2. The origin of the Vanir is unknown, but according to the available evidence they would also be of the same “race” as the Æsir and the Jötnar, being descended from Ymir. Thus, their mixing with the Æsir does not count as “mixed race gods”.
  3. The origin of the Alfar is also unknown, but since there is no example of an Alf joining the Æsir, the example is irrelevant.
  4. The Dvergar are expressly stated to have a different origin than the Æsir, so they do count as a separate “race”.
  5. There are no examples of the Dvergar joining the Æsir. The only example we have of a goddess even sleeping with the Dvergar is presented as a very shameful and unacceptable act. Thus, the only example of cross-racial intercourse, not even marriage, is given as a negative thing to be avoided.
There we are. While it may be emotionally satisfying to try to apply modern notions of “progressive” politics as being the norm as seen by our pre-Christian ancestors, and applying it to the lore concerning our gods, when we actually look at the lore that comes down to us, it turns out not to be an accurate portrayal. Once again, politicization of religion to accommodate some left-wing agenda fails, when compared against the facts.

EDIT: Updated slightly to clarify the point of common ancestry between the Æsir and the Jötnar.
__________

* There is a reference to Idunn being one of the Alfar, but it appears in Hrafnagaldur Óðins, which scholarly consensus holds to be a very late, 16th century, work imitative of the style of the Eddaic poems, but not truly belonging to the corpus. Some disagree, of course, but I’m going with the opinion of modern scholarship. It wouldn’t damage the argument about race either way, especially if they are all still descended from Borr.

On Those Muslim Vikings

Last week headlines rocked around the Internet with an amazing discovery by Annika Larsson of Uppsala University. Apparently in a Viking-era grave, there was Islamic writing showing the name of Allah in gold thread. The Independent wrote a very lengthy article describing the news. Even the Drudge Report linked to the story. It was a Big Deal – there were Muslims in Viking-era Scandinavia, and that meant their views of the afterlife – their very religious and cultural identity – was influenced by, and beholden to, Muslims:

“It is a staggering thought that the bands, just like the costumes, [were] made west of the Muslim heartland. Presumably, Viking Age burial customs were influenced by Islam and the idea of an eternal life in paradise after death.”

Needless to say, there was a certain crowd of the regressive left that absofuckinglutely loved this news. Enter the Pathetic Nonreligious channel, with the blaring clickbaity headline, Some Vikings Were Likely Muslims, and White Supremacists Hate It:

This is welcome news to historians and people who enjoy learning new things. But white supremacists — who have leached on to Vikings and their symbols as representative of pure white power — are not happy.

If learning new information offends you so much that you have to write off archaeological evidence as fake news, you might have a problem.

This isn’t a cut-and-dry declaration that all Vikings were actually Muslims, but it is evidence that some likely were. At the very least, it’s proof that these Vikings appreciated the culture of Islam, and did their best to imitate it and incorporate Islamic beliefs into their own. They shared ideas, instead of blindly hating Muslims. And that’s something white supremacists just can’t handle.

Wow, an atheist putting up a straw man argument? Who’dathunkit? Well here we have two, plus an enormous leap of illogic that would make Benny Hinn blush.

First, the idea that the only people who met this news with skepticism are “white supremacists.” As if it were not possible to be a perfectly mainstream academic and find the evidence and/or reasoning questionable.

Second, the idea that those who find fault with the theory think that it means “all Vikings were actually Muslims…”. Nobody said that. That’s not at all the point of the criticisms. It’s a meaningless straw man, and a channel that prides itself on its logic and reasoning should be ashamed to have included that.

Third, and most damning (if I can be permitted to apply that word to an atheist), we have this gem:

“…it’s proof that these Vikings appreciated the culture of Islam, and did their best to imitate it and incorporate Islamic beliefs into their own.”

Really? A single scrap of tunic-trim that one person (who has been known to make unwarranted and discredited claims in the past) says something, so that counts as “proof”? The Vikings did their best to imitate … Islam???

Are you out of your mind? 

Now, I’m no expert on medieval Islamic burial customs. But I do claim some familiarity with Norse concepts of the afterlife. I’m trying to think of this “eternal paradise” of which she speaks. It’s not Hel, which is more of a quiet, misty resting place. It’s not Valhalla, since entry is extremely limited (and has a very different set of criteria), and while it possibly comports to a Viking warrior’s view of paradise, with the fighting and the feasting, it doesn’t seem very much like the Muslim Jannah:

“… They will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold, and they will wear green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade.  They will recline therein on raised thrones.  How good [is] the recompense!  How beautiful a couch [is there] to recline on!” (Quran 18:31)

But most of all, because it’s not eternal. Even the afterlife in the Germanic conception has an end. At Ragnarok. Nothing remotely like the Muslim idea.

Nobody is saying the Vikings didn’t have contact with the Muslim world. Of course they did, for centuries, as traders, raiders, and explorers, in both directions. But that’s a far cry from the claim that one scrap of cloth is, in this jackass’s mind, “proof that these Vikings… did their best to imitate [the culture of Islam] and incorporate Islamic beliefs into their own.”

Which beliefs are those, exactly?

The Islamic paranoia about idolatry? That would be odd, considering the Viking penchant for carved idols, graven images, runestones, representational art, and all the rest.

It would also be odd considering the Vikings’ polytheism. (Hint for the moron: Islam tends to frown on that.) The Muslims freaked out at the Christians’ concept of the Trinity. You think that having dozens of gods, and landwights, and giants, and all the rest, counts as “doing their best to imitate the culture of Islam”?

Are you really that stupid, or just so blinded by your reflexive “white supremacists oppose it, so I have to support it” ideology?

Which is especially dunderheaded, considering that the people who have come out to criticize this theory aren’t white supremacists at all. They’re experts and mainstream academics.

First we have A String Geek’s Stash, whose author knows a lot more about the technical aspects of weaving than I do, apparently from personal experience. This is what we call experimental archaeology, and she completely destroys the notion that this is what Larsson claims it is:

Larsson’s “discovery” is predicated on unfounded extensions of pattern, not on existing pattern. 

She then goes into (very technical ) detail why this is significant, and why the underside of the weaving pretty much makes this a non-issue. At the same time, she goes out of her way to say she has no problem with the idea that the design is kufic (a form of Islamic writing), because that’s not her specialty.
Well, guess what? It is the specialty of others.
Stephanie Mulder, who is indeed a specialist in medieval Islamic writing, makes the case quite definitively that the kufic writing that Larsson claims to see in the cloth is, in fact, 500 years later than the cloth itself.
Ouch.
So the weaving itself undermines the claim, the pattern she bases her idea on is her own invention, and the script itself cannot possibly be what Larsson says it is without re-writing pretty much all of Islamic script history. But it’s not like she’s ever come out with some radical crackpot theory that’s been discredited before, right?
Well, yes, she has.
About ten years ago, she tried to make the claim that the brooches that are well-known adornments for woman’s clothing in the Viking Era were, in fact, worn way lower than anyone previously thought, and dresses were worn differently than everyone else ever thought, all in a feminist “lookit me I’m sexy” thing. Groundbreaking! Exciting! But, unfortunately, dead wrong. Her theory was laughed out of academia for lack of any evidence other than her own desire to be in the news.
And that, I think is the heart of this. We have someone desperate to have a Big Insight attached to her name in the field of Norse clothing. If nipple-brooches didn’t do it, maybe Muslim Vikings would. 
And of course the regressive left loves the idea because of the well-documented problems in Scandinavia because of Muslim integration. If the ancient Vikings had a place for Islam, and even based their whole religious beliefs on Islam, well, then, it makes sense that the modern-day Scandinavians should, too.
Except it’s all horseshit.

Snorri and the Ember Days

In light of some recent discussions about holidays and the calendar held over on the Facebook Reconstructionist Heathenry page (which I highly recommend for quality and erudite discussion on matters of historicity), I’ve been thinking about the origin of the three sacrifices Snorri attributes to Odin in Ynglinga Saga. Here’s the ON (via heimskringla.no):

Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót.

The three times we are given are “í móti vetri” (at the start of winter), “at miðjum vetri” (in the middle of winter”), and “at sumri” (at [the beginning of] summer).

Now, Yule (presumably the “middle of winter” celebration mentioned) is well-attested prior to Snorri writing in the first part of the 13th century. But what about the other two? Is there any attestation for a sacrificial holiday at the start of winter or at the start of summer?

Bede is well worth mentioning, as he was writing in the early 8th century. In his De temporum ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”) he includes a chapter on the English months, which are based on the Anglo-Saxon calendar, and which he explicitly states are lunar in nature. It is important to note that Bede doesn’t speak of specific celebrations, but attempts to link the names of the English months with the significance in the pre-Christian calendar among the Anglo-Saxons.

Of the harvest celebration, Bede merely says:

Winterfilleth can be called by the invented composite name ‘‘winter-full’’. 

He essentially admits defeat when it comes to the meaning of the name of the month. And it doesn’t seem to have any significance beyond “winter is coming.”

Of the spring celebration (marking the transition between the Germanic winter and summer; they didn’t have spring and autumn as such) which Snorri says is a “victory sacrifice”, he says:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. 

The question is, is Bede’s Eosturmonath connected to Snorri’s start-of-summer sigrblót? Since the calculation of the proper time of Easter was of paramount importance to the medieval church, this particular passage has received a lot of attention. None of which has anything to do with “victory”, unless one counts Jesus’ “victory” on the cross. But if that’s the connection, then it leads to other problems with Snorri; specifically that he is drawing his own ideas from Christian sources. More on that below.

As an aside, I will leave that particular conundrum – explaining how being nailed to a piece of wood to die horribly while your lungs slowly fail and you linger in an agonizing death for days counts as “victory” – to other minds. Fortunately that is not my problem to explain.

So I must say I don’t see any concrete evidence that connects Bede’s account of the English months with the “beginning of winter” and “end of winter” accounts we see in Snorri.

So where do they come from?

The obvious answer is that Snorri is reporting accurately, and these were genuine Heathen traditions that go back into the depths of antiquity. But if that were the case, I would expect to see some evidence of them in some other source. Anything. But the evidence for these two celebrations before the 13th century is, as far as I can tell, nil (I welcome folks to point out sources that I am forgetting here, please point me to sources in the comments!).

So, if Snorri isn’t talking about genuine Heathen traditions, where might he have gotten the idea from?

That brings us back to the Ember Days, which we have discussed before. First introduced as early as  220 CE by Pope Callixtus I, it was adopted in fits and starts across the West, first in Britain, then Gaul, then Spain, then Italy. They take place three (four, later on) times a year; Advent (December), Lent (March/April), Pentecost (May/June), and September, thus approximating the solstices and equinoxes.

It’s worth noting that the Lent (Spring) Ember Day was added no later than the late 5th century. So originally there were three (although a different three than Snorri reports).

Without any earlier source than Snorri that specifically mention religious significance to those days outside of a Christian (or Roman pagan) context, I have to wonder. Is he inventing the “Heathen” sacrifices in the transitions between the Germanic seasons, based on the Christian Ember Days? Is this a common Indo-European thing, since the Ember Days were originally based on the pagan Roman ritual calendar? Or is this a genuinely unique Heathen concept that was independent of both the Romans and the Christians, and Snorri is relating a new fact that went unreported for 1300 years?

I don’t claim to have an answer. I’m just asking questions at this point, and gathering data. But it would indeed be significant if Snorri was simply mapping already-extant ideas of when “pagan” sacrifices happened, based on when the Church said religiously significant things were supposed to happen. What I would love to see is irrefutable evidence that the Germanic people made sacrifices in what we today call spring and autumn. Something without contamination by either pagan Roman or Christian sources.

Until that happens, I must question whether Snorri got the ideas for his dates from the Ember Days, or whether those just happened to line up with ancient Germanic sacrificial holidays. I welcome additional sources to plug into the equation.

St. Germain of Auxerre (Part 2)

In my previous installment, I noted that the life of Saint Germain of Auxerre seemed to recall an The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, published in 1275:
episode, or at least a theme, that had a loose connection with the tradition of the Feast of the Parcae, or Mothers’ Night. In this installment, I’d like to examine a similar connection with another Germanic pagan theme. Here is the relevant passage, again from

He [Germain] preached on a time in Britain so much, that the king denied him lodging, and his people. Then it happed that the king’s cowherd went with his portion that he fetched at the palace, and bare it to his little house. And he saw the blessed Germain and his men seek their lodging where they might be harboured that night. And the cowherd brought them into his house, and saw that they had much hunger. But he had not meat enough for him and for his guests. This cowherd had but one calf, which he did do slay for to give to them, and he received them debonairly with the little good that he had. And when they had supped and had said graces, S. Germain bade him bring to him the bones of the calf and to lay them upon the skin. And after made his prayer to God, and anon the calf arose to life without tarrying. 

Naturally, this recalls the legend of the laming of Thor’s goats, which was recorded by Snorri Sturluson in the Edda, around 1220:

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 caldron. 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. 

It’s worth pointing out that the laming of Thor’s goats is alluded to in the Eddaic poem Hymiskviða, so it’s not just an invention of Snorri:

38. Not long had they fared | ere one there lay

Of Hlorrithi’s goats | half-dead on the ground;

In his leg the pole-horse | there was lame;

The deed the evil | Loki had done.

The pattern is, of course, exactly the same. The animal is cooked and eaten, the bones gathered up on the skin, and the animal is resurrected. I’ve previously linked the story of the laming of Thor’s goats with the Krampus legend, and the Feast of St. Nicholas. However, the theme of the resurrected animals, bones, and skins is much more widespread than I had originally realized. We see it mentioned over and over in western Alpine witch trial records, for instance, and the legends of the benandanti, which I mentioned in the previous article. Interestingly, the witchcraft trial evidence mentions that the animals so resurrected are no longer able to work as well, or provide as much milk, as they did before they were resurrected. This connects them more closely with the laming of the goats, while the fact that the saint was explicitly said to raise his animal and have it be as capable of work as before, might be a deliberate counterpoint to then-current ideas about the resurrection of the bones (along the lines of “the pagans do it and lame the animals, but when a Christian does it, they’re fine”).

In terms of St. Germain, it should be remembered that just because the individual died in 450 CE, is no guarantee that the legend of the resurrection of the bones can be dated to that time. I can find nothing in earlier sources that mentions the legend in connection with him, so it’s entirely possible that the connection was an invention of Jacobus de Voragine, or a later source that he used.

That said, we can firmly establish that the resurrection of the bones was a theme current throughout the Germanic parts of Europe in the 13th century. We see it both in Iceland and in the Alps, and, as we shall see in another article, it was much more widespread than that.

We are left with three possibilities regarding the resurrection of the bones:

  1. It is a genuine pre-Christian pagan tradition that was encapsulated in the Old Norse sources and survived in more Christianized regions in a debased and distorted form
  2. It is a post-Heathen invention that was added to the Old Norse literature concerning Thor and his goats
  3. It is a theme that was developed independently in parallel in both Christian and pre-Christian societies
I think it’s fair to discount the third option without some glaring new evidence to support it, given the specificity of the details. That leaves the first two options, and a much more comprehensive examination of the sources, and particularly the timing of the sources, is needed, to be able to track the spread of the idea of the resurrection of the bones.

St. Germain of Auxerre (part 1)

St. Germain of Auxerre. Doesn’t he just
look like a self-righteous prig?

There are some interesting passages in the Life of St. Germain of Auxerre (c. 378 – c. 448), also known as Germanus. Note that the name denotes someone connected with the Germanic tribes, and he lived in Gaul during a time of great Frankish invasion and influence, and he died just before the creation of the first Merovingian dynasty.

The following passages come from The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, published in 1275.

The first deals with a custom that we have seen before, in connection with the pre-Christian Yule-season holiday, the Feast of the Parcae, also known as Mothers Night:

On a time he was harboured in a place where every night the table was made ready for to eat after supper, when men had supped, and he was much amarvelled thereof, and demanded of the host of the house wherefore they made ready for to eat after supper. And the host said to him, that it was for his neighbours, which would come and drink one after the other. And that night S. Germain established him to wake for to see what it was. It was not long after that there came thither a great multitude of devils, and came to the table in guise of men and women. And when the holy man saw them, he commanded them that they should not go away, and after he sent for to wake the neighbours on all sides, in such wise that every body was found in his bed, and in their houses, and made the people to come and see if they knew any of them, but they said nay. And then he showed them that they were devils, whereof the people were much abashed because the devils had mocked them so. And then S. Germain conjured that they never after returned thither ne came more there.

Now, nothing in this account from St. Germain mentions Yule or Mother’s Night, but it does map excellently with later accounts that showed up in early witch trials in southwest Germany and eastern Switzerland, described in detail in Carlo Ginzburg’s Night Battles and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath.

Burchard of Worms, writing nearly 600 years after the death of Germain, describes something very similar, if lacking in detail:

Hast thou done as some women are wont to do at certain times of the year? That is, hast thou prepared the table in thy house and set on the table thy food and drink, with three knives, that if those three sisters whom past generations and old-time foolishness called the Fates [“parcae”] should come they may take refreshment there… those whom thou callest “the sisters” can do or avail aught for thee either now or in the future? (Corrector, 153)

Still another 400 years or so later, Ginzburg describes a very similar ritual among the benandanti (who might be considered “good witches”), who fought the evil witches who were inclined to go into the wine cellars and first drink themselves to satiation, and then piss or shat into the casks to foul the wine. The benandanti simply drank the wine.

As such, we see a progression, but always involving the habit of some persons with supernatural connections entering a home after the inhabitants had gone to sleep, and who eat and/or drink the provisions available, and who can do good or ill.

One interesting further connection is in the timing. Although the story of St. Germain doesn’t mention anything about when he saw his supposed “great multitude of devils”, Ginzberg’s sources are very specific, and often name “the ember days” as times when they when they would perform their rites.

The Parcae, or Fates

The ember days are an interesting phenomenon worthy of a digression. First introduced as early as  220 CE by Pope Callixtus I*, it was adopted in fits and starts across the West, first in Britain, then Gaul, then Spain, then Italy. They take place three (four, later on) times a year; Advent (December), Lent (March/April), Pentecost (May/June), and September, thus approximating the solstices and equinoxes.

So it is entirely possible that the ceremony that St. Germain describes happened before Yule. Even though the account is silent on the time of year, it would agree with both the Corrector and the later witch trial evidence from the western Alpine area, which describe a similar phenomenon. .

So I present this as yet another piece in the puzzle, which can go one of two ways. Either we’re seeing a mythology-based celebration of the coming of the Norns/Fates/Parcae that was gradually transformed into a sort of virtual visiting tradition, or we’re seeing an actual visiting tradition that was slowly mythologized and turned into a virtual “astral” gathering once it was outlawed by the coming of Christianity.

The slight shifting of the dates is easily explained, as the Church deliberately attempted to appropriate already-extant Heathen holidays. It’s only natural that the peasantry, who were accustomed to making their celebrations on or near the solstices and equinoxes, would simply shift the date to conform to the new authorities, without making substantive changes to the event itself. Over the course of centuries, these customs became distorted, and became but a pale shadow of their former, robust Heathen origins.

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* Why don’t modern popes take cool names like that???

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