Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: History Page 1 of 5

The Ember Days, Part One

In Part One of my posts on Saint Germain of Auxerre, I mentioned and briefly digressed on something called the Ember Days. This is a phenomenon not widely known nowadays, but I suppose hardcore Catholics might still get the reference.

The Ember Days refers to a grouping of three days — Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday — that happens four times per year in the Catholic liturgical calendar. The weeks in which they fall are called (unsurprisingly) the Ember Weeks, and the Wednesday-Saturday arc is called the Embertide.

Historically, and in theory still today, the Ember Days are held to be days of fasting and abstinence. Due to their kindasorta being spread evenly around the calendar, it’s felt they originally had an agricultural connection. I’d like to explore this phenomenon in some detail, as I think that connection might run deeper than it appears on the surface.

The timing of the Ember Days, according to the Medieval Christian liturgical calendar is: after December 13 (Saint Lucia’s Day!), Ash Wednesday (which marks the end of Carnivale, and can happen anytime between February 4 and March 10, average February 22), Pentecost (some Sunday between May 10 – June 13, average May 28), and September 14.

Taking those average dates, it’s fairly consistent with an agricultural calendar. The largest gap (109 days) is between the May and September Embertides, when people would be too busy in the fields to do or need a holiday, while the shortest (71) is between the December and February Embertides, when people are cooped up indoors and a holiday and diversion is more welcome.

Of course, those explanations make more sense for a pre-Christian view of what a holiday is meant for. Celebration and feasting, rather than fasting and abstaining. Like much else, this presumes the Christians appropriated Heathen and Pagan holidays for their own devices, which the Catholic Encyclopedia itself fortunately gives as the exact motive for the establishment of these holidays:

The Romans were originally given to agriculture, and their native gods belonged to the same class. At the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their deities: in June for a bountiful harvest, in September for a rich vintage, and in December for the seeding; hence their feriae sementivae, feriae messis, and feri vindimiales. The Church, when converting heathen nations, has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose. At first the Church in Rome had fasts in June, September, and December; the exact days were not fixed but were announced by the priests.

Might there be anything to suggest that is this case, other than the dates themselves being coincident with Roman agricultural holidays?

Turns out, there might well be.

Originally, there seem to have only been three Embertides; the Ash Wednesday one in the middle/end of winter wasn’t there (source). That was as of at least the early 3rd century CE, when they were ascribed to Pope Callistus. By the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I mentioned four. So what happened in between the early third and late fifth centuries? Why would the Catholic church feel the need to expand the Embertides from three to four?

The Germanic peoples invaded and toppled the western Roman Empire.

Once the Vandals, Goths, Huns, etc. had broken through the Roman frontiers and either outright conquered or culturally infiltrated the western half of the Empire, the Church had no choice but to adopt its own ways in order to better appeal to the newcoming Germanic peoples. Just as they mapped their three Embertides to the existing Roman Pagan calendar, so did the introduction of the Germanic Pagans necessitate the addition of a new holiday, to complete the set of four.

This points to the existence of a late-February/early March holiday that could or could not mark the end of some long period of merry-making (the aforementioned Carnivale). Setting aside the latter for a second, do we have any indication of a Germanic holiday in that time-frame?

Of course we do; the Dísablót, which takes place exactly then. I submit that the dominance of Germanic culture brought about the introduction of a fourth Christian holiday to map to the Germanic “agricultural” calendar. The Roman festivals of the Parentalia et al, and the Lupercalia, don’t seem to have warranted inclusion as a full-blown quarterly festival, but the introduction of a new fourth Embertide to correspond to the Germanic Dísablót points to its importance in the Germanic calendar.

The mere fact that these holidays aren’t evenly spaced, but are irregular, corresponding to these important Germanic holidays, points to their nature as having their origin in something less systematically organized than the solar-based calendar we know today, depending as it does on precise astronomical measurements of solstices and equinoxes, rather than the more irregular but organic Pagan and Heathen holidays that arose as a result of observations of local conditions.

Elves in 16th Century Iceland

But some [beings], who live int he hills close to men, are more amicable and not so dangerous unless they chance to have been harmed by some kind of injury and provoked into wickedness. They seem, indeed, to be endowed with bodies of incredibly subtlety, since they are even thought to enter into mountains and hills. They are invisible to us unless they wish to appear of their own volition, yet the properties of certain men’s eyes are such that the presence of no spirit can ever escape their sight (as was Lynceus’s unhappy situation). They know a thousand devices and an infinite number of tricks with which they harass men in wretched ways, but their young people are said to have a similar stature, clothing, and even way of life to that of their human neighbors, and to take excessive pleasure in coupling with humans. Examples are not lacking of a number of the rogues who are said to have impregnated women beneath the earth and had access to them at fixed times or as many times as they wished. And from time to time the women of our land have been oppressed by these earth-dwellers and innocent boys and girls and the young people and adolescents of both sexes have very often been taken away, though quite a few are restored safe and sound after a number of days, or sometimes a number of weeks, but some are never seen again, and certain ones are found half-alive, etc.

Oddur Einarsson, bishop of Skálholt, translated by Richard Firth Green in “Elf Queens and Holy Friars” pp. 13-14.

That quote comes from the first collector of Icelandic manuscripts, in a geographical treatise describing Iceland, written in the late 1500’s. I quote it here because it offers a terrific snapshot of the tenacity with which beliefs in elves (landvaettir in Iceland, of course) held the imagination of the people centuries after the conversion to Christianity.

It’s worth noting that the quote goes on to say how similar beliefs have hold all over Europe; this isn’t an Icelandic phenomenon. But what I love is the fact that it shows a continuity in folk-belief between the pre-Christian beliefs in land-spirits and 16th century (and even modern!) beliefs in elves.

At some point the Alfar of Norse mythology got superimposed upon the landvaettir, which is definitely something that points to some sort of overlap between their relative cults, and also brings Freyr (as lord of Alfheim) into the mix, but for now the continuity expressed by that passage is impressive enough to my mind.

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.

__________

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

When does reconstructionism end?

By the title of this article I do not mean when does the process of reconstructionism end (which might be an interesting topic in and of itself), but rather when does reconstructionism stop looking for source material? To use a term popular in the SCA*, what is reconstructionist Heathenry’s “period”? In other words, when can or must we stop looking at sources, because they’re too far removed from the Heathen period?

The obvious off-the-cuff answer is “after the conversion to Christianity.” Which is all well and good, but does pose a few problems. The first is that the Germanic nations weren’t converted at the same time. The process was a long one spanning centuries, and every time a barbarian tribe was converted, there seemed to be another Heathen one spring up behind them. So one would have to go place by place and tribe by tribe.

The second problem is that conversion wasn’t an instant process. More often than not, a king or other leader would himself convert, or marry a Christian woman who would pressure him to convert, and this new faith would trickle down to the nobles and eventually to the peasantry. Sometimes this was a peaceful process, and sometimes it was done in an orgy of violence to promote the religion of the Prince of Peace. So the “official” dates of conversion are a misnomer; long after those dates, there would still be thriving Heathen communities and the folk-faith would endure. In many cases, we are told of Heathen “revivals” where the new faith was (temporarily, at least) cast off and the old ways reinstated. So during this “period of dual faith” there is still useful information that can be gleaned, although it is possible that it will be influenced by Christianity.

The third problem is that even purely Christian sources hold much value to those of us attempting to learn more about pre-Christian practices. This could come in the form of penitentials, sermons, Saints’ Lives, histories, and the like that list out (often in great detail) what the Heathens did as a tool for helping Christians avoid such practices. Or, it could be more subtle, in the use of language and terminology that provides insight into pre-Christian religion, because in order to describe Christian concepts, the author had to use Heathen vocabulary, such as we see in the Gothic Bible of Ulfilas, or the Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood (which paints Jesus as the leader of a warband, and the Apostles as his thegns, and which itself might be modeled on a now-lost myth of the god Ingve).

The fourth problem is that even long after the people were nominally converted to Christianity, there remained a living undercurrent of pre-Christian remnants, often surviving under a Christian veneer. These can take many forms; popular superstitions, belief in and practices around elves/fairies/hidden folk/brownies/etc., holidays and folk-celebrations, nursery rhymes, dances and songs, and even Saints’ feasts, as we have seen in other articles.

Personally, I’m inclined to cast a wide net when I look for sources, and I don’t see that as in any way against reconstructionist principles.

__________
* Society for Creative Anachronism

Sex and Asatru

Asatru, like most pre-Christian religions, is what might be called a “sex positive” religion in modern parlance.

That is, we shouldn’t have the same intense hang-ups about sex and sexuality that plague the Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The sort of thing that leads to mandatory celibacy for Christian priests and the insistence that sex is only for procreation as seen in Christianity, odd compulsions regarding menstruation in Judaism, and female genital mutilation and rules regarding female education and socialization designed to ensure female fidelity in Islam.

We like to fuck*, and we’re not afraid of fucking and people who do fuck. It’s natural, it’s pleasurable, and it’s something to be encouraged.

That’s not to say that Asatru endorses complete licentiousness, especially within the bonds of marriage. There are definite moral proscriptions around men who seduce the wives of other men (along with oathbreakers and murderers, the only people destined for torment in the afterlife), and Lokasenna 30 implies that women sleeping with married men were equally ill-regarded. Ibn Fadlan’s account supports the view that adultery was a serious crime. Incest was regarded as a vice among the Aesir, and so presumably among mortals as well, although it’s highly dubious as to whether the tales of the gods were intended to be models for human behavior in all instances. And divorce was almost ridiculously easy for a woman to do (she even got her dowry back!). The law codes are harder to interpret, because so many of them were written down in Christian times, but those that scholars deem the oldest do seem to agree with this.

However, it should be noted that polygamy wasn’t unknown, especially among men of high rank, if Adam of Bremen is to be believed. The Germanic people practiced exposing unwanted children, so it’s difficult to imagine they’d blink twice at aborting a child in the womb if they had the technology (as far as I’m aware, the jury’s out on whether or not they did, in the form of abortifacient herbs and the like; the Romans certainly did, so it wouldn’t be a stretch). Ditto for birth control; they almost certainly had some form of condom. And rape? I realize it’s a common stereotype, but it might very well have been much less common in Viking society than other contemporary societies, even after battle.

I should point out that none of this negates the idea of traditional gender roles. They weren’t exactly iron-clad Commandments brought down from the Mountain, but even though there were defintiely exceptions, they were still only the exceptions that proved the broader rule. (Part of the problem with modern society is that everybody feels the need to be special, so they’re the ones who get to be that exception, just to prove they’re an individual; I put the blame on our postmodern, secular, atomized society; but that’s for another article.)

Homosexuality and gender and the like are larger questions that deserve articles of their own, if not entire books. Suffice to say that our pre-Christian ancestors were a lot more liberal and forgiving about such things than many conservative Jews, Christians, and Muslims are today**, but it’s also true that the exacting categorization that modern society insists upon simply didn’t exist back then. There was no “gay lifestyle.” There was a Viking lifestyle, or a Gothic lifestyle, or a Saxon lifestyle. The ones complaining about the “womanly clattering of bells” were the Christians on the outside looking in.

So the Abrahamics have it all wrong from an Asatru perspective, as far as sex is concerned. They think it’s something dangerous, something that needs to be suppressed and controlled. We think it’s something to be indulged in, and screw anyone who thinks otherwise.***

But that brings us to those who think that Asatru should espouse some sort of “return to traditional values.” The problem is, their idea of “traditional values” is somewhat at odds with the actual pre-Christian values of our Heathen ancestors. When examined critically, their idea of “tradition” goes back to Eisenhower, or even worse, the Victorian era. It’s entirely understandable, given the society in which we all live, but it’s something that must be actively and consciously resisted.

But when you hear an Asatru leader start talking about “traditional values” you must ask yourself, “what tradition is that?” Is that the “tradition” of the 1950’s, when Protestant Christianity had hegemony over western culture, sex was something you only did once the kids were asleep, indoors (preferably missionary style, with the lights out), and homosexuality got you fired from your job or thrown in jail? Did Egill and Ásgerðr sleep in separate beds like Rob and Laura Petrie?

How was Richie ever conceived with that night stand
stalwartly protecting Laura’s honor? The world may never know.

Or is it the tradition of the 9th century, or the 5th century, or the 1st century, when men and women weren’t afraid to fuck one another, but still knew the importance of marriage? When the only things that were beyond the pale were incest and adultery? When people danced licentious dances around Maypoles, pairing up young boys and girls for some not-so-subtle imagery?

Asatru isn’t afraid of sex. We embrace it, we love it, and we practice it every chance we get.

__________

* My use of the Saxon-derived term is deliberate. If you’re a delicate hothouse flower who can’t stand the use of a perfectly good word of Germanic origin, perhaps Asatru isn’t for you.

** Yes, yes. Ergi. I know. As I say, it’s a very complex subject, and that particular question is quite tangential to this particular article. I mention it here only because someone will give me grief if I don’t.

*** Pun intended. 😉

On Hervör / Hervarðr

Hervör getting the sword Tyrfing from her dead father

In Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek), we read of Hervör, a woman who spent much of her time living as a man.

Hervör is the daughter of Angantýr, who was one of twelve berserker brothers, and had in his possession the magical and cursed sword Tyrfing. At her birth, it was noted that she wasn’t like other girls:

Bjarmar’s daughter was with child. That was an exceptionally fair lass. She was sprinkled with water and given a name and called Hervör, but it was the opinion of most that she should be left outside, and they said she wouldn’t be too ladylike if she took after her father’s kin.

Needless to say, Hervör does indeed take after her father’s berserker-brothers.

She was brought up with the Jarl and was as strong as the boys. And as soon as she could do anything for herself, she trained more with shot and shield and sword than sewing or embroidery. She did more bad than good too. And when these things were forbidden to her, she ran into the woods and killed men for their money. And when the Jarl hears of this highwayman, he went there with his troops and caught Hervor and brought her home, and then she stayed at home for a bit.

Note that there’s no reference here to any specific gender role expectations that were being broken. Rather, the strong implication is that she is forbidden to be manly because “she did more bad than good.”

And note also that when she was captured after her adventure in the woods killing people and taking their stuff, she wasn’t executed, but merely brought into the Jarl’s home again.

She discovers the truth about her parentage, and of the magic sword owned by her father, and assumes the (male) name Hervarðr:

Then she got ready to leave alone with the gear and weapons of a man and made her way to where some vikings were and sailed with them for a while and called herself Hervard.

A little later, the captain died and this ‘Hervard’ took command of the crew. And when they came to the island of Samsey, ‘Hervard’ told them to stop there so he could go up onto the island and said there’d be a good chance of treasure in the mound. But all the crewmen speak against it and say that such evil things walk there night and day that it’s worse there in the daytime than most places are at night. In the end, they agree to drop anchor, and ‘Hervard’ climbed into the boat and rowed ashore and landed in Munway just as the sun was setting.

She then proceeds to challenge her dead father’s ghost for possession of the magic sword Tyrfing, and wins it through her boldness and courage in a famous episode often called Hervararkviða. She then goes on with her life as Hervarðr for many years:

Then she went to the ships. But when it got light, she saw that the ships were gone. The vikings had taken fright at the thunders and fires on the island. She gets herself passage from there but nothing is known of her journey till she comes to Godmund in Glasisvellir, and she stayed there over winter and still called herself Hervard.

… 

One day, as Godmund [a king of Jotunheim] was playing chess and was on the verge of losing, he asked if anyone could help him. Then ‘Hervard’ went up and advised for a little while until things were looking better for Godmund. Then a man picked up Tyrfing and drew it. ‘Hervard’ saw that and snatched the sword off him and killed him, then went out. The men wanted to run after him.

But Godmund said, “Settle down, there won’t be as much vengeance in that one as you think, because you don’t know who it is. This woman will cost you dear before you take her life.”

Note here that the king knows well that ‘Hervard’ is really a biological woman, but doesn’t begrudge her the male persona she has adopted. But her return to female life is presented as a conscious choice:

Then Hervor spent a long time in warfare and raiding, and had great success. And when she tired of that, she returned home to the jarl, her mother’s father. From then on, she went along like other girls, weaving and doing embroidery.

Now, it is important to note that this is one of the fornaldarsögur (“legendary sagas”), presumably dating from around the 13th century, with the oldest manuscript copy coming from the late 14th/early 15th centuries. Fornaldarsögur are not generally noted for their historicity (as compared to the Family Sagas), but rather reflect what an author 200 years after the Conversion imagined pre-Conversion society to be like.

However, it’s also important to note that this actually works in favor of the story of Hervor, at least in the general sense, reflecting reality. The oldest existing Icelandic law book, called Grágás (“Grey Goose”) specifically bans women dressing and acting as men almost exactly in terms that could describe Hervör:

Staðarhólsbók, one of the existing versions of Grágás, prohibits a woman from wearing male clothing, from cutting her hair like a man, bearing arms, or in general behaving like a man (chapters 155 and 254), however it does not mention behaving sexually in the male role.

But here’s the kicker. Staðarhólsbók was written about 1280 CE. That’s the late 13th century. Around the same time that the saga itself was composed, and nearly 300 years after the official conversion to Christianity. I believe the inclusion of those prohibitions are Christian, rather than Heathen, in nature. It would make a lot of sense; if the Christian author of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks wanted to portray life as it was in pre-Christian times, he would naturally have characters doing things that were anathema to Christians, in order to play up their nature as Heathens.

Hervör’s granddaughter, also named Hervör, dies as her
namesake lived, fighting as a man against the Huns

Just as the early law codes and penitentials guide us to pre-Christian practices through their prohibitions, so too does Staðarhólsbók, written well into the Christian era, and which specifically prohibits the practice of women living as men. What we in our modern world label as transgender.

That said, I am by no means trying to overstate the case and claim that this is something that was normative in Norse or broader pre-Christian Germanic society. It was doubtless a rarity, given the sparse sources that reference it outside of this late but detailed case. But neither was it something specifically banned or viewed as “unnatural”; gender and sexuality in Germanic society prior to the coming of Christianity was a much more complex thing than the reductionist Christians (and, much later, the very puritanical and sexually repressed Victorians who inform our ideas of sexuality to this day) might insist.

Historical pre-Christian Germanic society viewed sex and gender very differently than we do today. They didn’t share our Victorian squeamishness about the subject, and almost certainly didn’t view the so-called “traditional family” of a man, wife, and kids (the modern “nuclear family”) as normative, either. Families were extended, and the interrelationships between family members were very different than they are today (how many boys have the sorts of intense relationships with their uncles that are constantly described in the Sagas, for instance?).

I don’t say it was, or is, normative. I don’t say it’s something that was, or should be, embraced as a widespread thing. But it seems clear that at the very least women assuming male roles for a lengthy part of their life wasn’t completely unknown, and wasn’t banned (unless the specific individual was a complete jackass) until Christianity came along with its ingrained hangups about sexuality that we’re still dealing with today.

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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