Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: folklore Page 1 of 4

Landvættir, Fae, and Faeries

The topic of “nature spirits” and “fae” seems to have bubbled up on the neo-pagan blogosphere of late (for instance here and here and here). So it seemed perhaps timely to address a common point of confusion regarding Norse mythology; namely, where to the landvættir fit in to this question?

What might jump out at you from those examples is a maddening omission of definition. They purport to discuss the question of whether “faeries” and and “fair folk” and “fae” are “nature spirits” but none seem to go to the trouble to actually define any of those terms. We get muddled gems of circular reasoning such as “a nature spirit is a spirit of nature”, or (better) outright admissions that “I’m not really sure what folks mean when they use the term “nature spirit”.”

So I’m going to start my own discussion by defining terms.

  • Nature spirit: A supernatural being associated with a particular type or specimen of natural features, such as hills, waterfalls, streams, trees, etc.
  • Landvættr: An Old Norse term translated as “land-being” which take the form of giants and animals, and who defend a given region against aggressors. They generally help a territory (and particularly the head of that territory) in an unspecified manor (by assisting with its general prosperity), and if they are driven off (by a curse, or by seeing the dragon-prows of ships), that would bode ill for the territory and its leader.
  • Fae: Also known as faeries, and euphemistically as fair folk, little folk, etc. An Old French term (derived from Latin fata) for a class of spirits, possibly of pre-Christian origin, some of which dwell in natural surroundings, some of which dwell underground, and some of which cohabitate with humans. Some are friendly, some are hostile, and others are neutral towards humans.

So. Where does this leave us?

Well, by these definitions, which I don’t think are at all off-base, landvættir wouldn’t qualify as nature spirits; they’re not necessarily connected with specific or general natural features.

That said, some fae could be considered nature spirits by these definition, although by no means all. If we include (as I have in my definitions) house-spirits, then they are most definitely not. However, since we include (ditto) things like fossegrim in the umbrella of “fae”, and such creatures are connected to a single natural feature (a waterfall, in this case), it would seem that at least some of them definitely are.

There is, of course, a load of history that goes unsaid in these definitions and in the question itself. Without a doubt the human conception of these creatures changed over time (whether their nature changed along with those conceptions remains an open question), and the definition of “fae” expanded to include a number of creatures who a thousand years earlier would have been thought of as distinct beings.

Take, for instance, the alfar (elves). In pre-Christian times, they were seen as beings on a par with the Aesir, master craftsmen and powerful creatures. By the later medieval period, they had dwindled in both stature and power to more like the sprites we think of today. We still see glimpses of their former status in some of the Grail romances, however, where they are presented as powerful and human-like beings.

So I think the answer to the question lies in the need to carefully define one’s terms of use. Once that is done, the answers to such seemingly thorny questions become clear. That said, a certain ambiguity and morphing of the definitions over time is an undisputed historical fact, but whether or not such changes reflect actual changes in the nature of the creatures being described, or simply a change in the human perception of those creatures (or some combination of the two), remains an open question.

Harvest Home – Germanic Thanksgiving

Here in America there is a tradition of holding a Thanksgiving feast in November, as a sort of harvest festival remnant. However, what a lot of people don’t know is that there was actually a sort of cultural war between the New England Protestants and the Pennsylvania-Ohio German immigrants, who celebrated something similar, but two months earlier.

That celebration was called by the Pennsylvania Germans De Ern Karrich; literally “The Harvest Church.” It was more widely known among the English as Harvest Home or Ingathering, was still widely celebrated in the early 20th century (until FDR made Thanksgiving a Federal holiday in 1939), and is still celebrated in places today, especially in the Berks County region of Pennsylvania and surrounding areas (source). By the way, that’s a really cool article, and well worth reading even if you’re not just source-checking.

Although it clearly has roots in the Germanic tradition in both Germany and England, there’s an interesting fork in the road, so to speak, in the latter country. Apparently, up until the mid-19th century in England, Harvest consisted of “degrading scenes with which the close of harvest was too often attended” until several reformers, such as the Rev. William Beal, promoted “the Parochial Harvest Home” starting in the mid-19th century (source). Given the nature of Victorian morality, it’s easy to imagine what these “degrading scenes” might have consisted of — dancing, feasting, and generally enjoying oneself in public. (gasp!)

The Encyclopedia Britannica gives us a little more context for what those pre-reform celebrations might have looked like, and they sound decidedly pagan:

Participants celebrate the last day of harvest in late September by singing, shouting, and decorating the village with boughs. The cailleac, or last sheaf of corn (grain), which represents the spirit of the field, is made into a harvest doll and drenched with water as a rain charm. This sheaf is saved until spring planting.

The ancient festival also included the symbolic murder of the grain spirit, as well as rites for expelling the devil.

Oh, I only wish we had specific sources for those references!

In that description we of course immediately see parallels to the Scandinavian custom of leaving the last sheaf of grain in the field for Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse, so that he and the Wild Hunt will pass by the farm without molesting it, as the horse has fodder. Here’s a reference to it in the Orkneys, which are a mixture of Norse and English culture. James Baldwin’s The Horse Fair (1917) mentions the custom in Sweden, Benjamin Thorp’s Northern Mythology (1851) mentions it in several regions of Germany, and the Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (1914) places it firmly in England, as well.

And the “symbolic murder of the grain spirit” is a direct reference to the legend of John Barleycorn, which has its own Germanic parallels and deserves an article unto itself. John Barleycorn must die, in order that the beer can be made.

There’s a lot of information on that whole “last sheaf” thing, the corn spirit, corn dollies, and Odin and the Wild Hunt. It deserves its own article, methinks.

But I digress...

Whether parochial or “degrading”, Harvest Home made its way into America early on, becoming a prominent celebration, especially among the Pennsylvania Germans.

According to Gladys M. Lutz, a folk artist associated with the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University:

“It was the custom of these Pennsylvania Dutch to display the fruits of the field, garden and orchard around the altar to thank God for the harvest. Parishioners brought sheaves of wheat and cornstalks to decorate the display of pumpkins, squash, homemade preserves, ears of corn, clusters of grapes, homemade bread and all kinds of fruits and vegetables.” (source)

I find the mention of sheaves of wheat and cornstalks to be quite significant, in the context of what we saw above regarding the last sheaf, Sleipnir, and John Barleycorn.

We also seem to have an end date for this practice, from the laws of small farming villages in England. According to Open-Field Farming in Medieval England: A Study of Village By-Laws by Warren O. Ault (2006), the removal of that last sheaf of wheat, when (presumably) the Wild Hunt had passed and it was safe to do so, was firmly entrenched in law. It had to be, because turning animals loose in the fields to graze on the stubble was a coveted right, and strictly regulated by law:

Village landholders could hardly wait to turn their cattle into the field. ‘No one shall pasture the stubble until all the grain of the whole village is brought in’ is the way one by-law read. Another said, ‘No horse, bull, steer, heiffer, cow or calk shall be fed or feed on the stubble of the fields until the corn is entirely carried away unless they are securely tethered or watched.’ The men of Wimeswold were agreed that there should be no cattle either in the wheat field or hte pea field until the whole crop had been gatehre and carted away; then the cattle ‘may go togeder as thei schud do, in peyn of ech a beast a peny to the kyrke’. But if all must wait until the last sheaf has been carted away should there not be a time fixed for the field to be cleared? In many midland villages a date was set, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. The Feast of St. Michael was the day elsewhere. In certain other villages no precise date was set but ‘the consent of all the tenants’, or ‘the reasonable assent of all’ was stipulated. Some such flexibility was desirable, one might suppose, for the season of harvest varied from year to year. On the day appointed a ‘shack’ bell was sounded, or announcement was made from the pulput on the nearest Sunday. (Ault, p. 42)

Writing as he is about the law and not mythology, it’s understandable that Mr. Ault wouldn’t put these findings together with the folk custom of the last sheaf. We’re obviously seeing a deadline imposed, as one cannot be expected to wait indefinitely for the Wild Hunt to pass, leaving the last sheaf unhewn. It’s especially telling that one of the options is for the animals to graze the stubble while “securely tethered or watched.” This could very well mean the rest of the field could be grazed, as long as steps were taken to ensure that the last sheaf was left for Sleipnir and Odin’s Wild Hunt.

The dates mentioned, by the way, are September 8 (Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin) and September 29 (Feast of St. Michael). Remembering always to apply our 8-day lag for the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, we’re only a few days shy of the Autumnal Equinox. So that puts our Harvest Home celebration, which happens “in late September” right at the end of when the Wild Hunt was deemed to be looking for forage.

Harvest Home, then, is not only a celebration of the end of the harvest, but also the end of the danger from the Wild Hunt (for a while, anyway), and the celebration of the grain-god’s death. That’s John Barleycorn in English, and Byggvir in Old Norse. And Byggvir is mentioned in the Eddaic poem Lokasenna.

Now that we’ve established the connection between Harvest Home and the pre-Christian calendar, and the mythological figures of the Wild Hunt and John Barleycorn/Byggvir, we can turn our attention to what those celebrations might entail (aside from “degrading scenes”). Tune in next time!

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.

__________

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

Beyond Blót and Sumbel

From the early days in the Asatru revival in the 1970’s and 80’s, the ceremony of blót, or sacrifice, has predominated. It has lost its original primary meaning of an animal sacrifice, although the practice has not entirely died out, and many of the more traditionalist groups within Asatru embrace it, but on the whole, the blót remains the primary ritual within Asatru in North America, and I daresay around the world.

And what does that blót entail? Usually, based on the early works of Edred Thorsson and Kveldulf Gundarsson, it consists of a sacrifice of mead, which stands in for the original blood of the animal sacrifice. Often, the participants are sprinkled with the sanctified mead, in emulation of the description of the disablót in Heimskringla.

Also often, the participants will make a toast to some god, often the god to whom the blót is dedicated, in a circle:

“Hail Thor!” (drinks from a horn)

“Hail Thor!” (drinks from a horn)

“Hail Thor!” (drinks from a horn)

Over, and over, and over (and over, and over, if you’re in a large ritual with a large group of people). I’ve personally seen it go on for half an hour. Shoot me now.

This sort of blót / sumbel hybrid has been christened a “bumble” by certain wags in the early 2000’s, as it is a combination of the rituals of blót and sumbel, and is entirely ahistorical.

No, not that sort of bumble!

At some point in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the ritual of sumbel came into fashion within Asatru. My personal theory is that the Theodish emphasis on sumbel had an influence on its adoption within Asatru. This is the ritual drinking of toasts as described in Beowulf and other sources. The “toasts to three gods” described in Heimskringla was somehow morphed into three “rounds” of toasts, where the first round consists of toasts to gods, the second round is toasts to ancestors and/or heroes, and the third is an “open” round for various other sorts of toasts, gifting, and so forth. And no food is to be eaten; it’s all about the drinking.

This, too, is a somewhat inaccurate interpretation of the sumbel as a ritual, but perhaps not as wayward as the blót as it is currently practiced.

As might be surmised, I’m not a fan of either the bumbel or the sumbel as it exists today, from an historical perspective. But what I’m really aiming at here is that this emphasis on the blót and sumbel has blinded most modern Asatruar to other forms of ritual that are no less traditional and historical, but which have largely been ignored for the last forty-plus years of the modern Asatru revival.

Processions

English, Scandinavian, and German folk-practices are replete with procession ceremonies. But what strikes me is that the goal of the ritual isn’t to process to a specific place, where another ritual will then be held, but the procession itself is the ritual. This recalls the mentions of perambulations of god-images in Tactitus’ Germania, as well the Sagas of Icelanders and Heimskringla.

In more modern times, we see this sort of procession-ritual in the parades of Krampus and his associated figures in the Alpine regions. The parade and its associated customs are the point of the ritual. There are specific skits, or short plays and readings, that accompany these visits by the performers. It’s not difficult to draw a line between processions of god-images in pre-Christian times and processions of pagan-like figures in post-Christian times.

This is likely linked to both ritual guising, wassailing, and visiting traditions that have endured for more than a millennium after the conversion.

Ritual dramas

That some of the poems that survive to us in the Poetic Edda might be recordings of “scripts” for ritual dramas is an old theory, and one that is not only well-supported by an examination of the poems themselves, but which has been embraced by modern scholarship as a whole. The use of present-tense case in some of the poems (“Freyr says” instead of “Freyr said”), and the inclusion of what could be termed in modern parlance as stage directions in the text, leads to this conclusion.

Several years ago, as I have mentioned more than once on this blog, we did a three-part ritual drama enacting the exile of Odin, the rape of Rindr, and the return of Odin, linked to the tale of Balder’s death, and leaning heavily on Saxo’s account. But the possibilities for modern dramas around mythological themes are nearly endless.

Dances

We know for a fact that the pre-Christian Gemanic peoples danced in a religious context, and we know it precisely because the Christians wrote extensively about how awful it was that people were still engaging in such awful pagan practices. Obviously, we don’t know what the dances themselves looked like, but there is a full and vibrant tradition of folk-dance from England, Scandinavia, and Germany to draw upon.

There’s a whole “code”, almost, of telling stories through the dances themselves, as we see in English Morris dancing particularly. There are also images from pre-Christian Scandinavia that show sword-dances and spear-dances, performed by warriors in animal guise. The theory is that this is somehow linked to the ulfedhnar and berserker cults, but the practice is widespread enough in pre-modern times, especially because of the many, almost hysterical, Christian prohibitions, to warrant assuming that ritual dance was a part of pre-Christian religion.

Rites of Passage

These sorts of rituals can take a whole array of forms. Water-sprinkling of newborn children to give them a name. Weddings have several distinct steps, none of which particularly involve a sacrifice. Funerals have a whole other series of rituals, culminating in the arvel feast. Each of these has a whole rhythm and structure to it, beyond the standard blót format into which everything seems to be squeezed nowadays.

Conclusion

There’s so much out there that our ancestors did that don’t fall into the neat categories of blót and sumbel. It’s a shame that modern Asatru seems so fixated on blót, and to a lesser extent sumbel. There’s so much else that we could be doing that is just as much a religious ritual as a blót, and it all seems like it could be so very engaging. Much more so than standing around a field saying “Hail Thor!” over and over again…

Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne

I just posted the following update to my post on Some thoughts on Ēostre, specifically dealing with the quote from Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne that Ms. Emerick claimed was “backup” for Bede’s claims. Here’s the passage from Einhard, and then my new analysis, which has been incorporated into my original post.

In fact, here’s the relevant passage from chapter 29 of Einhard’s work:

He gave the months names in his own tongue, in place of the Latin and barbarous names by which they were formerly known among the Franks. He likewise designated the winds by twelve appropriate names; there were hardly more than four distinctive ones in use before. He called January, Wintarmanoth; February, Hornung; March, Lentzinmanoth; April, Ostarmanoth; May, Winnemanoth; June, Brachmanoth; July, Heuvimanoth; August, Aranmanoth; September, Witumanoth; October, Windumemanoth; Novemher, Herbistmanoth; December, Heilagmanoth. He styled the winds as follows; Subsolanus, Ostroniwint; Eurus, Ostsundroni-, Euroauster, Sundostroni; Auster, Sundroni; Austro-Africus, Sundwestroni; Africus, Westsundroni; Zephyrus, Westroni; Caurus, Westnordroni; Circius, Nordwestroni; Septentrio, Nordroni; Aquilo, Nordostroni; Vulturnus, Ostnordroni.

In re-reading the passage from Einhard, I realized that, rather than being a “backup” of Bede, the passage from Einhard actually undermines the idea that what Bede is presenting is a pan-Germanic concept. Note that the passage says “He gave the months names in his own tongue, in place of the Latin and barbarous names by which they were formerly known among the Franks.”

Those weren’t the original names the Franks called the months. In fact, Einhard goes out of his way to say Charlemagne replaced the Frankish names with these names. In the specific case of April, he replaced it with a form derived from Bede’s account. Why would the Champion of the Faith replace a “barbarous” Frankish month-name with a pagan Anglo-Saxon month name? Wouldn’t he replace it with a name that was by the early 9th century (Einhard states the month renaming happened after Charlemagne’s coronation in 799 CE) associated with Christianity, rather than paganism? One which was popularized not only by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, but which was ensconced in one of the most widely-distributed works of Christianity at the time?

No, this doesn’t “back up” Bede at all. It derives from Bede. Charlemagne replaced the “barbarous” (i.e., pagan) Frankish name with a good Christian name, because that’s what the Anglo-Saxon missionaries were calling the celebration of the resurrection, and that would be completely consistent with Charlemagne’s political and social policies of the time.

Some thoughts on Ēostre

Recently, in relation to my previous post on Bede’s Spring, a good friend pointed me to an article entitled Ēostre – Real Goddess or Bede’s Invention? It was published in 2015, but it’s still a very good encapsulation of the pro-Ēostre side of the argument, so I thought I’d do a bit of a response/analysis of a two year old blog post. Ahem.

I won’t be reposting the entire article here, but it’s all there in the link at the top. Emphasis in the original, throughout.

Although Northern European indigenous religion was actively repressed by the Church, modern Easter celebrations are still very much intertwined with the old pagan holiday. Since the holiday traditions could not be stomped out, it appears that the best way to combat a resurgence of ancestral European religion is to deny it ever existed.

So this very obviously sets up the author in the pro-Ēostre camp, and somewhat disingenuously suggests that the only people who would deny the existence of Ēostre as a pan-Germanic deity are those who somehow have an interest in suppressing a revival of Asatru. I am constrained to point out that there is a lot of variation within contemporary Asatru on a variety of subjects, and that includes very much the question of whether some deities (such as Hreda/Hreða and Ēostre) are legitimate historical pan-Germanic deities, local tribal deities that have been “jumped up” to a higher status, or literary inventions.

The Venerable Bede is the source most often used in arguments both for and against the existence of the cult of Ēostre. The main opposing argument states that Ēostre is a “made up” goddess invented by the Medieval Church historian, Bede.

What this argument neglects to consider is that Bede was a Christian monk who was bent on driving paganism out of Britain. He wrote his book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, in the 8th Century. This was a time when English Pagan customs still survived out on the outskirts and heaths.The term “heathen” refers to the country folk out on the heath practicing the “Old Ways”.

Eradication of the Old Religion was a main priority of the Church in this period. Why, then, would a Christian monk invent a pagan goddess to encourage pagan practice? His goal would be to downplay any Spring fertility goddesses and emphasize the resurrection of Christ.

Well, no.

First of all, the references to Ēostre come from On the Reckoning of Time, not from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Just to get the facts straight.

But in a more general sense, all throughout Medieval church literature we see references to past pagan practices. The penetentials, Saints’ lives, and sermons are filled to the brim with the Christians telling us what not to do. The Medieval mindset didn’t see such things as encouraging pagan worship, but as a corrective measure.

It is also the case that medieval literature (particularly the Sagas of Icelanders, but examples can be found throughout) made use of presumed pagan practices to emphasize the “otherness” of the pre-Christian world. Thus we see descriptions of children being exposed in pagan times, offerings being made to idols, etc. as examples of how awful things were in the bad old days, before Christianity came to those benighted folk. Hel, even the Bible includes descriptions of pagan worship. In short, Bede wouldn’t have seen a simple reference to the source of a month-name as “encouraging” anything at all, whether or not it was invented or taken from a local tribal goddess,any more than William of Monmouth was encouraging pagan religion when he claimed that the original Britons came from Troy.

Further, if I may be permitted to quote Philip A. Shaw in Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World (p. 65):

As Herren (1998)* has shown, moreover, the early eighth century saw considerable interest in Graeco-Roman mythology and its correspondences with native pagan mythology in southern Anglo-Saxon centres, including Canterbury. Such interests would certainly be consonant with the production of a listing of Anglo-Saxon month-names in relation to their Roman equivalents, as in chapter 15 of De Temporum Ratione.

So there’s really nothing to support the assertion that 8th century scholars in England would be concerned about “encouraging” pagan practices. Ms. Emerick continues:

But, wait. Bede has backup!

As it happens, another monk recorded a reference to Ostara which corroborates Bede’s claim. Einhard, in The Life of Charlemagne (written in the 9th Century), mentions that the month of April is known to the Saxons as Oster-monath (Ôstarmânot), backing up Bede’s mentioning of April as Ēastermōnaþ (Easter month).

The Anglo-Saxons in England were cousins to the German Saxons in continental Europe. They spoke a related language and practiced variations on the same religion. Ēostre to the English is the linguistic counterpart to Ostara of the continental Saxons. Both groups named the month that roughly corresponds with our April for the goddess whose festival was celebrated then.

“Genocide not make one great,”
as Yoda might say

Yes, absolutely. In fact, here’s the relevant passage from chapter 29 of Einhard’s work:

He [Charlemagne**] gave the months names in his own tongue, in place of the Latin and barbarous names by which they were formerly known among the Franks. He likewise designated the winds by twelve appropriate names; there were hardly more than four distinctive ones in use before. He called January, Wintarmanoth; February, Hornung; March, Lentzinmanoth; April, Ostarmanoth; May, Winnemanoth; June, Brachmanoth; July, Heuvimanoth; August, Aranmanoth; September, Witumanoth; October, Windumemanoth; Novemher, Herbistmanoth; December, Heilagmanoth. He styled the winds as follows; Subsolanus, Ostroniwint; Eurus, Ostsundroni-, Euroauster, Sundostroni; Auster, Sundroni; Austro-Africus, Sundwestroni; Africus, Westsundroni; Zephyrus, Westroni; Caurus, Westnordroni; Circius, Nordwestroni; Septentrio, Nordroni; Aquilo, Nordostroni; Vulturnus, Ostnordroni.

UPDATE (3/22/2017) 

In re-reading the passage above, I realized that, rather than being a “backup” of Bede, the passage from Einhard actually undermines the idea that what Bede is presenting is a pan-Germanic concept. Note that the passage says “He gave the months names in his own tongue, in place of the Latin and barbarous names by which they were formerly known among the Franks.”

Those weren’t the original names the Franks called the months. In fact, Einhard goes out of his way to say Charlemagne replaced the Frankish names with these names. In the specific case of April, he replaced it with a form derived from Bede’s account. Why would the Champion of the Faith replace a “barbarous” Frankish month-name with a pagan Anglo-Saxon month name? Wouldn’t he replace it with a name that was by the early 9th century (Einhard states the month renaming happened after Charlemagne’s coronation) associated with Christianity, rather than paganism? One which was popularized not only by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, but which was ensconced in one of the most widely-distributed works of Christianity at the time? (See below)

No, this doesn’t “back up” Bede at all. It derives from Bede. Charlemagne replaced the “barbarous” (i.e., pagan) Frankish name with a good Christian name, because that’s what the Anglo-Saxon missionaries were calling the celebration of the resurrection, and that would be completely consistent with Charlemagne’s political and social policies of the time.

END UPDATE

But note that all that this corroborates is the name of the month (Eostermonath / Ostarmanoth). It gives absolutely no information as to the source of the name. To claim Einhard is “backup” for Bede’s claim that the month is named after the goddess Ēostre is simply untrue.

Ms. Emerick continues:

Scholars have suggested that the early Medieval Church in England actively studied Anglo-Saxon indigenous religion as a strategy to combat it. … It is likely that Bede, like the monks in Bate’s [sic] story [The Way of Wyrd], was conducting his own research on the heathen people within his geographic vicinity. By understanding the elements of the Easter festival, the Church could incorporate some of the themes into the new Christian festival, thereby making the transition more palatable to the “natives.”

This hardly seems “likely” at all, for a couple of reasons.

First, although Ms. Emerick points out (rightly) that Brian Bates wrote his book based on a lot of historical research, he is himself a practicing Anglo-Saxon pagan, and thus comes at his subject from a certain point of view that is naturally inclined towards sympathy towards the pagans. This isn’t disqualifying by any means, but it must be borne in mind.

Second, Brian Bates’ book is set in 674 CE, already in the twilight of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, which was largely complete by that time. Bede wrote his On the Reckoning of Time fifty years later, long after the “official” conversion process had been completed. Even Wessex, the last pagan Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Britain proper, had a Christian law code in place by 695. Pope Gregory’s famous letter to Mellitus, in which he encourages Mellitus and Augustine to make use of existing pagan practices, was written in 601 CE. Nearly three generations had passed, and although pagan practices may have endured under Christian guise, actual paganism was largely wiped out by this time, except perhaps in the remotest hinterlands, and even then, it was known to be on its way out. And Bede was writing in 725 CE, several decades even later into the Christianization process. In short, the missionary work in Anglo-Saxon England was well over by the time Bede was writing. What was left was just cleanup; there wasn’t any “research” needed.

Congruence with other known European goddesses

Given that European pagans were so frequently portrayed with gross inaccuracy, it seems odd that a Christian monk would invent a gentle fertility goddess associated with things that elicit positive feelings, such as furry bunnies (more accurately, hares), flowers, fuzzy baby chicks, and eggs which symbolize new life, regeneration, and sustenance. … An invented goddess, constructed by someone culturally separated from pagan culture, who has an intrinsic heavy bias, would likely fall outside of the paradigm of what we know of pagan spirituality. Ēostre does not. She is a perfect fit.

Again, it must be pointed out that Bede did not do anything of the sort. He only supplied a name; all the associations with bunnies (which probably come from the release of rabbits during the Roman Floralia in late April) and the rest aren’t mentioned in Bede at all. All he does is give a name. Any other associations are either later imports from other sources, derivative from the etymological meaning of the name itself (more on that below), or, as I suspect, from the character of the celebrations in the month of April, which still survived in folk-memory and very likely folk-custom, in a Christianized form. The key is that those celebrations don’t necessarily have to be linked to Bede’s goddess.

Bede names the goddess Ēostre. He never gives any details other than “in [her] honour feasts were celebrated in [April].” That’s it.

If there are pagan practices and iconography that have crept into Christian Easter celebrations over the years (and I think there very definitely are), then all that tells us is that there were pagan celebrations that had those same qualities at around roughly the same time as Easter. It does not necessarily mean that Bede’s identification of Ēostre as the object of those pagan celebrations is accurate.

Etymological Connection to Other Spring/Dawn Goddesses

Eostre and Ostara are etymological cousins of the Greek Eos, Roman Aurora, and Baltic Ausrine. If Bede were to invent a goddess, would he scratch his head and make sure his fake goddess lined up perfectly with similar goddesses of other Indo-European cultures?

Further, much work has been done to reconstruct the proto-Indo-European (PIE) pantheon. This is the language/culture group from which most of Europe descends. Aeusos or Ushas is the PIE goddess that the goddesses mentioned above descend from. The linguists show that Eostre and Ostara fit within the paradigm. …

In Danish and Norwegian, it is called Påske – a variation of Pascha! This corroborates with the notion that the name of Easter is associated with the Old English Ēostre and Ostern with Ostara. **There is no other way to explain why English and German use Easter/Ostern while the Scandinavian languages use Pascha.**

To my mind, this is really the heart of the argument, and the one which might have the strongest weight. But it should be pointed out that the commonality among all those goddesses is not spring, but rather dawn. A lot of people sort of hand-wave the “dawn is symbolic of spring” thing, but there really isn’t anything to point to that in the sources. Eos, Aurora, Aušrinė, etc. aren’t specifically celebrated in the springtime, as far as I’m aware.

But as for the last statement, I am once more constrained to point out that just because a month of the year had a given name, and that name was appropriated for the Christian celebration that happened around that same time of year, does not necessarily mean there was a goddess by that name!

But later on, Ms. Emerick invokes Jacob Grimm, who was admittedly both a founding light in the field and a proponent of the Ostara-as-pan-Germanic-goddess theory.

Grimm hypothesized that Ostara was a pan-Germanic goddess of fertility, the spring, and the dawn. If Bede invented her in England, then how did illiterate peasants in Germany know of her over one thousand years later? Either she was genuinely worshiped, or Bede had an excellent PR team!

In point of fact, there is a school of thought amongst scholars that the popularization of the name “Easter” instead of “paschal” in Germany was due to the presence of Anglo-Saxon missionaries, who were regularly sent there to finish the job that Charlemagne so vigorously pursued. They spoke a very closely related language, and if they were instructing their new charges in Christian celebrations, they would naturally use the term they knew back home, and precisely because it had appeared in Bede’s work, which was “one of the essential ecclesiastical textbooks of the early Middle Ages” according to Philip A. Shaw in Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World, p. 69. So what Ms. Emerick dismisses with a joke is actually a scholarly theory for precisely what happened.

It is worth pointing out that in the Scandinavian countries, as well as in the Old Norse sources, variations on “paschal” are used for Easter. It’s only in English-speaking countries and Germany (where those Anglo-Saxon missionaries were employed at exactly the right time to imprint their native term on a new Christian holiday; at the moment of conversion) that we see terms relating to Easter/Ostar/etc.

But let’s explore Grimm’s work in this context as well, since it seems to figure largely in this part of the essay:

In the Edda a male being, a spirit of light, bears the name of Austri, so a female one might have been called Austra ; the High German and Saxon tribes seem on the contrary to have formed only an Ostarâ, Eástre (fern.), not Ostaro, Eastra (masc). And that may be the reason why the Norsemen said pâskir and not austrur : they had never worshipped a goddess Austra, or her cultus was already extinct. (Teutonic Mythology Vol. I, p. 291)

In volume II, p. 781, Grimm unfortunately seems so enamored of a connection between a hypothetical Ostara and various well-attested goddesses that he makes an unwarranted leap, inferring absence of evidence as evidence of absence:

May we then identify Ostara with the Slav goddess of spring Vesna, the Lith. vasara (aestas), Lett, vassara, and with ver and ȇap in the forms ascribed to them on p. 754? True, there is no counterpart, no goddess answering to Marzana; but with our ancestors the notion of a conflict between two male antagonists, the giants Summer and Winter, must have carried the day at a very early time [to the exclusion of the goddesses].

In short, he’s saying that Ostara should be held as equivalent to those other goddesses, without any sort of real evidence, based entirely on the hypothetical construct that there was a such a myth that would justify doing so, but it was replaced early on with a myth involving male giants. No real justification at all, just wishful thinking and saying “it must have been so, because it would make my theory work.”

I’m a huge fan of Grimm’s work, but sometimes his 19th century roots are showing, and don’t hold up to the standards of modern scholarship. This would seem to be one such place.

Ms. Emerick leaves us with yet another parting shot attempting to speak at motive:

Based on a review of the evidence, the only conclusion for such a heated rejection of fact is that the pagan Ēostre is still considered a threat to those who would appropriate her holy day. 

Despite the efforts to erase her from history, she lives on not only in the symbols of Easter, but in the very word “Easter” itself.

Yeah, not remotely a Christian here, but very much an Ēostre-skeptic. Let’s not try to ascribe nefarious motives to what you claim is an “historical analysis of evidence that is often overlooked in the assessment of the historicity of the “cult” of Eostre/Ostara.”

Let us review.

  • Bede and Einhard both agree there was a month (April) with the name cognate to “dawn” in many languages. 
  • Doubtless many pagan things happened in April, like they do in all months. 
  • The Christian Easter most often happened around that same time. 
  • There are a lot of obviously pagan practices and iconography that are associated with Christian Easter. 
  • Bede claims there was a goddess from whose name the month-name came.

None of that adds up to “the goddess that Bede names is connected to the practices that got associated to Easter.” I think it’s far more likely that there was some sort of April/spring celebration with all the symbols and associations of fertility and the like in Germanic culture, and those associations got connected to the Christian Easter celebration in order to assist the transition from pagan culture to Christian culture, but ultimately the only evidence for a Germanic goddess of the dawn, celebrated in the spring, is Bede, and he was writing generations after the conversion, and centuries after the month itself was named, so it’s entirely likely he gave a folk-etymology of the name of the month, either creating it out of whole cloth, or connecting it to a genuine local tribal deity who happened to have a linguistic connection.

The truth will, ultimately, never be known, but let no one say it’s a done deal that Ēostre existed as some pan-Germanic goddess. The evidence  is strong supporting the idea that some sort of spring celebration with a lot of our modern Easter trappings once existed. It is also evident that the name of the month was cognate to our modern Eostre/Ostara/Easter. But the leap becomes the notion that this month got its name from some pan-Germanic goddess (unknown in the Germanic lands of Scandinavia) whose existence was completely forgotten until Bede recalled it and wrote it down in his book, which happened to be highly influential at the time the Christian Easter celebration was introduced in exactly the lands outside of England where the name was later recorded.

I’m frankly inclined to go with Shaw’s explanation of the origin of the goddess Ostara; that she was associated with a local Saxon tribe in Kent, and Bede, having obtained much of his information from the region, associated the goddess with the month name, without any real cause, in order to provide an explanation for it. The meaning of “shining” or “golden” (Proto-Germanic *austrōn) could very well make sense to a month (April) which sees a retreat of winter weather and the start of sunnier days. An association with a personified “dawn” is superfluous.

__________

* The reference as given in Shaw is; “Herren, Michael W. 1998. “The Transmission and Reception of Graeco-Roman Mythology in Anglo-Saxon England, 670-800”, Anglo-Saxon England, 27: 87-103.

** Many of us prefer to call him Charles the Butcher, for his genocide against the Saxons who refused to give up the worship of the gods of their Folk at the Massacre of Verden, but I use the common term here for ease of understanding.

Bede’s Spring

Recreating pre-Christian Germanic calendars is not an easy task for a variety of reasons. But even some of the better sources we have can be misleading, as seems to be the case with one of the most often-cited texts on the subject; The Venerable Bede’s The Reckoning of Time. I’d like to discuss the two spring months he associates with goddesses who are otherwise almost completely unknown; Hrethmonath and Eosturmonath, which he states are named for the goddesses Hretha and Eostre, respectively:

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called. … Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. 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.  (Wallis translation, ch. 15)

Philip Shaw, writing in his wonderful Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World*, posits that Hretha** is in fact a local goddess associated with a particular tribe or even more local group living in England. Eostre either falls into this same category or doesn’t exist at all, being a mere invention of Bede’s to explain a name for which he had no true explanation. The same, it must be said, might also be true of Hrethmonath and the goddess Hretha.

Setting aside the question of the existence of these goddesses, it is difficult to dispute the fact that the months themselves were named for some sort of feast / sacrificial offering that were made therein; that fits the pattern of other Germanic months such as Goiblót, which is attested in the written sources (see the Saga of Olaf Haraldson). That leads us to the logical question; are these simply Anglo-Saxon names for other feasts known from later Norse sources, taking place in, as he says, March and April?

The question is complicated by the fact that Bede makes it clear that the English “months” were based on the phases of the moon, rather than our modern system of having months that are independent of lunar and solar phases***, and states that the pagans started their months on the full moon and their year at Christmas (whether this is true or not is irrelevant for the current discussion; the point is, that’s what Bede thought, so that’s how he’s calculating dates).

So, when Bede says that Eosturmonath was the Anglo-Saxon name for April, what he really means is that it was the name for the 28 day period starting on the 4th full moon after Christmas, which is when he says the new year began. This could, in theory, place the month of Eosturmonath starting anywhere from late March to late April, and ending anywhere from late April to late May, depending on how the moons fell. Hrethmonath, and the sacrifice (“to Hretha”) which occurred then, happening the month before.

So we have:

  • Hrethmonath starting anywhere from February 21 – March 21, and ending anywhere from March 21 – April 17. That gives us an “average” of March 7 – April 4.
  • Eosturmonath starting anywhere from March 22 – April 18, and ending anywhere from April 19 – May 16. That gives us an “average” of April 5 – May 3. 

Whew! That’s a long spread to try to identify a corresponding Norse holiday. Perhaps the names of the months can yield some clue as to the nature of the holiday.

Turning back to Shaw, Hretha has two possible etymologies, depending on whether one thinks Bede meant hreda or hreða (apparently when he used “d” in a manuscript, it could fill in for both letters). Shaw deems a meaning of “speed” most likely as a straight translation based on linguistic evidence (as opposed to other, less likely candidates such as “victory” or “glory”), but thinks the name really derives from some ethnic/tribal ancestor-deity, similar to Saxnot or Gapt.

Eostre is no easier, and Shaw comes to a similar conclusion, believing her to be an ethnic goddess relating to a local tribe, possibly settled in Kent (due to an abundance of place-name evidence). He all but discounts the more popular meanings relating to “dawn,” “east,” and “shining.” Continental names relating Eostre to Easter he ascribes, not without warrant, to Anglo-Saxon missionaries carrying back the name, which by that time had been completely absorbed into the Christianity practiced in Anglo-Saxon England.

While I think highly of Shaw’s theory about the goddesses being local, I also think that the holidays described were more broadly Germanic in nature. So the evidence he gives for the goddesses not being pan-Germanic is largely irrelevant to my point, that the holidays he’s describing are relevant.

To take the two out of turn, fortunately we do have a very well-attested Norse holiday that happens in the period described for Eosturmonath. What the Icelanders call Sumarmál (“summer meal), which marks the beginning of summer, and at which Snorri tells us the “sacrifice for victory” was offered; sigrblót. This happened at the beginning of the Icelandic month of Harpa (“harp”), later (in Christian times) called gaukmánuðr (“cuckoo-month”; i.e., the month when the cuckoos would return). And that happens around April 21 (one month later than Bede says the pagan Anglo-Saxons marked the beginning of summer, interestingly; that is possibly due to the different climactic conditions between England and Scandinavia).

Note that this has nothing to do with the spring equinox; that’s a modern association made out of ignorance as to when the historical Ostara was, combined with a conflation of the modern idea that “spring begins on the astronomical Equinox” with the ancient idea that “spring begins when the birds return and the plants bud.”

So I think what Bede was describing was the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the later Icelandic holiday of Sumarmál / sigrblót. The timing is right, and the transition from one season to another (bearing in mind the Germanic peoples formally divided the year into summer and winter) fits with some of the more tangential associations of the name of the month, assuming the goddess was either a literary invention as most scholars seem to think, or a local deity pressed into service as Shaw implies.

That still leaves us with Hrethmonath and the associated goddess Hreda/Hreða. Unfortunately March is a slow month when it comes to Norse holidays, with nothing being attested that I’m aware of in either the Sagas or in later Scandinavian folklore. However, there is one thing that happens around that time of year, which is associated with a Christian celebration still very much practiced today, which could very well have some pre-Christian origins for at least a few of its associated customs.

The pre-Lenten season of Fastelavn, or what English speakers know better as Carnival or Shrovetide.

Fastelavn  tradition in Denmark. We’ll get to this later.

The timing is right; early March, and it is marked by a feast, as it is the last opportunity to eat well before the privations of Lent. And there are elements of Fastelavn that are unique to northern Europe, and distinct from Carnival as it is known closer to the Mediterranean. It’s also worth noting that this could be seen as the capstone of a series of holidays that deal with the symbolic fight against winter, trying to dislodge it, as seen in Thorrablot and Goiblot.

I’ll discuss the specifics in a future post, but for now, it seems like we’ve come to a very neat and tidy conclusion. Vestiges of the sacrifices that Bede speaks of around Hrethmonath might survive on in modern or pre-modern Fastelavn customs unique to northern Europe, but the goddess Hreda may or may not be a literary invention or a local tribal goddess pressed into service to give her name to the month.

The feasts that Bede describes as being definitive of Eosturmonath are equivalent to the later Norse sacrifice for victory at the beginning of summer (the connection to the change in season being lost due to the differences in climate). The goddess Eostre may or may not be a literary invention or a genuine local tribal goddess.

Now to look at Fastelavn!

__________
* I reviewed this book back in 2013, here.
** Note that this is an Anglicization; the name is more properly either hreda or hreða (see below).
*** This is a different arrangement than the later Icelandic calendar devised in 955 by Þorsteinn the Black, which has set a set duration for each month.

Beyond the Eddas and Sagas

One of the things that I lament most about the state of current Asatru is the seemingly self-imposed limitation to look at written sources such as the Sagas of Icelanders, the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, and a handful of other sources (Beowulf, usually, and maybe Saxo and a few others), and then stop. This is usually supplemented by a little bit of information from archaeology, inscriptions, and the like.

I think this is an enormous shame and missed opportunity. There’s so much other material out there of interest and relevance to our recreation of the religion of our pre-Christian ancestors*.

First, of course, there’s medieval Saint’s feasts. I’m finding this a very fruitful avenue of exploration, as has been seen with my investigations into Yule and other holidays on the calendar. Sure, most of it was documented way past the conversion period, but when we see Christian saints with uniquely Scandinavian, English, or German attributes mapped onto dates that coincidentally happened to be close to or on holidays celebrating the Aesir, it’s worth looking into.

I mean, Christ on a stick! Can you look at Krampusnacht and think there’s not a pagan undertone there??? And there’s tons more where that came from.

Then there’s post-Conversion folklore. This comes from several different sources; Scandinavia, Germany, Iceland, and England. All of which were centers of Germanic activity, either during the Migration Era or the Viking Age. There are princesses and trolls, and a ton of lore on how to deal with the huldufolk/elves, tomten/nissen, and the like. It’s here that we see a lot of the day-to-day practices captured; how to deal with the landwights of stone, stream, lake, and tree, and the housewights as well.

It’s worth digressing for a moment into a particular avenue of research that I think has incredible potential. That’s the lore of the Pennsylvania Germans and especially the Amish. Two historical events did more than anything else to obliterate traces of paganism in modern culture; the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution.

With the coming of Protestantism (and its Anglican analogue in England), came a gut-instinctual revolt against anything that was perceived as “Popish” or Catholic. The problem from our point of view is that the Catholic Church, in its zeal to put an “official” church stamp on the whole of Europe, was more than happy to incorporate all sorts of local customs, many (most?) of which were pagan in origin, into their own customs. Thus, we see previously-pagan holidays completely co-opted by Saints’ feasts, but the customs that accompanied them — the songs, the practices, the games, the myths, and the food — endured. With the coming of the so-called reformers, all that was swept away by an austere, even Puritanical in some places, stripped-down Christianity that lost almost all of that pre-Christian practice.

What the Protestant Revolution couldn’t destroy, the social disruptions of the Industrial Revolution did short work of. Primarily by encouraging the old peasant class, in whose quaint customs and celebrations, handed down from time immemorial, a lot of potentially pagan custom survived, to move into the cities and take factory jobs. With the rhythm of the peasant-farming life disrupted, there was no reason to pass down the old customs that went along with it. Indeed, the energetic actions of the Victorian folklorists, both in Britain and on the Continent, were an attempt to at least catalog and capture some of this lore before it was lost forever by this process that was recognized at the time as destructive to these complex memeplexes.

Both of those disruptive forces are why the Pennsylvania Germans, and in particular the Amish and related folk, are so important to the work of reconstructionism. They represent a sort of crystallized “time capsule” into 16th century southwestern Germany. Because the society of the Pennsylvania Germans (especially the Amish) is so conservative**, it is incredibly resistant to change. It is precisely this sort of religiously-inspired agricultural life that has enabled certain pre-Christian beliefs and practices to endure, and that’s what makes them such a treasure-trove of potential lore. If one is interested in continental German lore in relation to Asatru, one cannot ignore the Pennsylvania Germans.

And that includes the practices of Hexerei and Braucherei among them, which has very specific parallels to Scandinavian Trōlldomr magic.

And that brings in a whole other level of source material; the still-living traditions in Scandinavia (which seems to have gone through the Protestant Reformation somewhat less vehemently than their southern neighbors; a number of Saints still endure despite the general aversion of Protestantism to the whole idea). Don’t forget that runes were still used in some of the more remote regions of Scandinavia into the 20th century, and there remains a whole body of lore (not to mention a large number of actual practitioners) who still practice the art.

Plus the whole grimoire tradition in Scandinavia. There are Black Books, Cipriania, and more. Did you know there’s a spell in one of the books that mentions Odin and Satan drinking together in a hall? ‘Struth!

Then there’s nursery rhymes. The vast majority seem to refer to historical events or political happenings from the 16th and 17th centuries, but there are a few bits and pieces that seem to go back way further. It’s a potentially great resource that, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been systematically studied. And there are a ton more nursery rhymes than I ever knew existed. I’ve been starting to collect some sources…

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. There is of course the field of comparative mythology; the Vedic Hindu Indra has a lot in common with Thor, as of course do gods like the Slavic Perun. And oh my gods is there a lot of Slavic material, the surface of which has barely been scratched in an Asatru context. And of course I’m a huge fan of drawing inspiration and details from the old Christian penetentials, sermons, and Saints’ lives; a lot of it comes from the Conversion era, but they often go into exacting detail as to what good Christians are not supposed to do. Absolute gold.

So for you, my dear readers, I implore you; don’t stop with the Eddas and Egil’s Saga. Never stop seeking out potential avenues for research, but also be wary of being too optimistic. Sometimes there really are coincidences, and sometimes something that looked like a good idea at the time pans out badly. Never be afraid to discard an idea that doesn’t work out, no matter how cool it seemed at first.

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* I say “religion” here, but it’s probably more accurate to say religions, as there wasn’t one single unified pan-Germanic pagan faith, but a complex of closely related practices, myths, and beliefs that varied quite consistently from tribe to tribe and geographical region to geographical region. Look, for example, at the use of the name “Holde/Holle”, “Perchta”, and then “Frigga” for what appears to be the same, or at least a closely related, goddess as one moves north from the Alps to Scandinavia.

** To this day there are Groundhog Lodges at whose meetings English is not spoken. And that’s not just the Amish; that’s the “ordinary” Pennsylvania German folk.

Easter Woes

Easter/ Paschal/ Eostre/etc. etc. etc. is proving a tough nut to crack. The problem is that it’s not tied to any specific date; it can occur anytime between March 22 and April 25. When one adds Lent into the calculation, the start potentially goes back as far as February 10. Add Carnival/ Cwarmê/ Fastelavn/ Shrovetide/ Fasching/ Fastnacht/ Vastenavond/ etc., which happens before Lent, and the period is extended even longer. Usually another week. And then the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar complicates things yet more.

As such, the whole thing tends to “sweep up” pre-Christian practices and beliefs during that three month time period like a deep sea fishing net. Parsing them all out is a bitch and a half. But still the work continues!

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