Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Holidays

Calendrical Thoughts – When to celebrate?

Something that has come up in my researches on holidays and calendars and related things is the very practical question of when to celebrate holidays whose customs have been shifted from a traditional pre-Christian date to a Christian calendar date, Saint’s feast, or the like.

One example of recent relevance is the transition from winter to summer.

Historically, our ancestors marked this transition around April 22, in a ritual the Norse called Sumarmál (“summer meal”). It lasted three days, was noted for being the time when the “sacrifice for victory” (ON sigrblót) was made. This was also the beginning of the Icelandic month of Harpa, which was the first month of the summer season (the Anglo-Saxons transitioned from winter to summer a month earlier, doubtless due to the different climate in England).

In more modern times, however, we see the folk-calendar transition from winter to summer taking place on May Eve/May Day (and the whole Walpurgisnacht/Hexennacht/etc. complex). This was the final victory of summer over winter, as seen by the custom of teams of youths engaging in mock battles, playing out the final defeat of the forces of winter at the hands of the forces of summer.

So it seems that, when our ancestors moved not only from a Heathen calendar to a Christian one, but also when they then moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, the final end of winter/start of summer got moved about eight or nine days later. Bear in mind that we’re not talking about the astronomical or solar calendar; to our ancestors, summer started when the birds returned and the plants began to bud, not when some arbitrary astronomical alignment happened.

This raises two very interesting (to me, anyway) questions.

First, I wonder if the “sacrifice for victory” mentioned in Heimskringla might not be related to those mock battles between winter and summer? I (and I think most of us) have always assumed that it was a reference to a sacrifice to Odin for victory in the coming summer season, in a generic sense. But what if it’s really a reference to a final victory over winter? I think there might be something there.

Perhaps the most important question of all – when do you
turn over the primstav calendar?

Second, on a more practical level, it brings us to the question of when to celebrate the transition from winter to summer? Do we do it closer to April 22, to match the Norse holiday that marks the event, or do we celebrate it on Walpurgisnacht and May Day, because that’s what modern sensibilities tell us to do, and we’ll be celebrating with thousands of others, at least vicariously.

For that matter, do we celebrate it in March, like the Anglo-Saxons? And do you time it around the lunar cycle, or a fixed calendar of some sort? Our Heathen ancestors did both.

I don’t pretend to have an answer. Ultimately, I think this is a question that will need to be answered by each tribe for its own purposes, according to it’s own custom. But I think it’s a decision that should consciously be made, rather than simply going with the modern date. “Because we never thought about it and that’s when everybody else does it” is the worst of all possible reasons for choosing to do something at a given time.

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!

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* 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.

Thorrablót

While the modern celebration of Thorrablót has been set to January 20 in recent times (having been revived in Iceland in 1873, although with nationalistic, rather than religious, overtones, and more recently and popularly in 1958, with an emphasis on rustic peasant food), the fact that the name of the month Thorri so closely aligns with it, as does the start of that month, that it is likely that the ancient celebration of the holiday moved with the start of the ancient month of Thorri; that is, the first Friday after January 18.

The celebration itself is attested in the Icelandic Sagas, although in a semi-legendary fashion to explain an already-ancient practice (Thorri here is a euhemerization of the god Thor):

Thorri was a noble king; he ruled over Gothland, Kvenland, and Finland. To him the Kvens sacrificed that it might be snowy, and that there might be good going on snow-shoes. That was their harvest. That sacrifice was to be at midwinter; and the month Thorri was called after it. King Thorri had three children; his sons were named Norr and Gorr, but the daughter Goi. Goi was lost and gone; and Thorri made a sacrifice a month later than he was wont to sacrifice; and they afterwards called that month in which this began Goi. 

So, in essence, we have a sacrifice to Thor about a week after the conclusion of the Yule festivities. Given the nature of the fierce Scandinavian winter, having excuses to feast and see neighbors at this time makes perfect sense.

However, there is a bit more to the celebration that brings in Sif, the wife of Thor.

Known as St. Agnes Eve in England, the 21st of January is associated with young girls finding out who they will eventually marry was made famous by the poem by Keats, “The Eve of Saint Agnes.” Largely confined to England (there is even a 16th century doggerel that specifically says “Then comes in place St. Agnes; Day, which here in Germanie / Is not so much esteemde nor kept with such solemnitie.” ), this is a day deemed to be particularly significant for that specific form of divination:

Saint Agnes Day comes by and by
When pretty maids do fast to try
Their sweethearts in their dreams to see,
Or know who shall their husbands be.

The official story of the saint’s life goes that, as she was being dragged through the streets of Rome naked, as punishment for her fidelity to God, her hair grew instantly to cover her body, thus thwarting the pagans who wanted to rape her. I find in this story a distant echo of the story of Sif’s golden hair, although it is admittedly a thin connection. Interestingly, however, although there is no specific Scandinavian parallel of this practice, there is a variation of the story of the saint’s death which seems to be exclusive to England. In it, it is said that “her virginity was miraculously preserved by thunder and lightning from heaven.”

Especially coming the day after the Thorrablót, the connection between this day and Thor’s bride Sif become a little stronger, as thunder and lightning are of course associated with Thor, and are not found in the more southern versions of the story. Fortunately, there is yet another piece of evidence to support the idea that St. Agnes, at least as seen in Britain, is related to Thor’s wife Sif. That is Sif’s name itself, which literally means wife, and is used in compounds and verbs related to marriage. As Rudolf Simek puts it:

“The most likely interpretation is to see her as a goddess who originated as a complement to Thor when he played an increasingly important role as a god of fertility; the name Sif can be seen to support this view as Sif can hardly mean anything else but ‘relation by marriage’, originally therefore ‘the wife (of Thor)’.”

As such, I think we’re seeing something that was probably not originally a practice unto itself, but connected to the Thorrablót celebration. Although the date became attached to the feast day of St. Agnes, the fact that it falls in the same range as Thorrablót would definitely allow for it to be mapped to a similar figure, and ultimately separated. Over time, worshipers of Thor may dwindle, but maidens wanting to know their lovers’ identities endure forever.

For the magic to work in earnest, the would-be diviner must not be kissed on the lips by any man, and fast for the entire day. That night, after putting on clean night-clothes, she should say the following charm before falling asleep; “Now god of Love send me my desire.” Alternatively, the following prayer may be said (the following is a “Heathenized” version of the traditional prayer):

Now, good Sif*, play thy part,
And send to me my own sweetheart,
And shew me such a happy bliss,
This night of him to have a kiss.

Having done all that, her future sweetheart will be revealed to her in her dreams.

So to wrap up, what we have is a post-Yule sacrifice to Thor, which is made more significant by the addition of a divinatory rite for maidens looking for husbands. We already know that blót in general was associated with divination, but here we have the possibility of a much more specific divinatory practice, which fits in thematically.

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* “St. Agnes” in the original

St. Anthony’s Day

January 17th is both the Feast Day of Saint Anthony the Great (not to be confused with St. Anthony of Padua, whose feast day is in June and is often celebrated with much merriment) and the traditional day for wassailing the orchards in England. This post will deal with the former. The latter will come later.

Unfortunately, despite his association with pigs (which are well-attested to be connected with the god Ingve-Freyr), it seems that there really isn’t much to be gleaned from St. Anthony and any possible associations. The association with pigs does not appear in the official hagiography of Anthony. Indeed, the story of Anthony having been a swineherd prior to his monastic life seems to be a Mediterranean addition to his life.

Since our methodology looks for elements of Saints’ lives and celebrations that are unique to northern Europe, in order to suss out possible connections with lost Germanic gods, this would seem to be a dead end. And one of the things about scholarship is, if the evidence doesn’t line up with the theory, you ditch the theory. Sometimes you have to be able to give up something that looked promising at first, if the evidence doesn’t line up. This is one of those times.

So long, Anthony, we hardly knew ye.

Things to Come

While I’ve had a great time investigating the connections between pre-Christian Yule celebrations and Christian Saints’ feast day celebrations (among other things), as part of my Make Yule Great Again series, I didn’t really intend to continue on.

But now I’ve come across some new information on other celebrations taking place in the second half of winter. We know about the Christian Candlemas, and the Celtic Imbolc, and Bede’s Charming of the Plow, and the Swedish Disting/Disablot in Uppsala, and so forth, but I suspect there’s just as complex a series of holidays after Yule in mid-January as there was leading up to it.

At least one source says Candlemas was also referred to as “little Yule” in Sweden. Something to look into, at the very least.

And there’s also the whole Easter/Eostre/Paschal celebrations (along with carnival/Mardi Gras/etc.) to work into the mix as well. Most of the time, folks just lump everything together into a single celebration, but I think, as with Yule, that doesn’t do justice to the reality of what our ancestors did.

So I’m probably going to continue my series of investigations on celebrations. It’s proven to be quite fruitful for the month leading up to Yule. I hope it will prove to be as interesting as we progress into spring.

A paucity of celebrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Midsummer

Midsummer is a holiday I choose to celebrate as an Asatruar. I do this not because, but despite, the fact that it is regularly included in the neopagan “wheel of the year” which places holidays at the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days. I also place it not on the actual date of the solstice, but on June 24th, St. John’s Day, which is the traditional day of celebration in Scandinavia (and, it seems, throughout the Germanic world).

While it is quite true that Midsummer is not one of the three sacrifices mentioned in Snorri’s Heimskringla and Óláfs saga helga (Winternights, Yule, and Summer Meal), the date was most certainly not unknown as significant to the people of the North. We see it mentioned in several places in the Icelandic sagas and other Old Norse sources, such as Grettir’s Saga, Grágas (the old Icelandic law code), the Rymbegla (where it is noted as a feast day), and the Saga of the Norwegian king Magnúss Erlíngssonar, wherein we find the word miðsumarskeið, which means “midsummer time”, in the same sense that people today still use the word “Yuletide” to mean a span of days relating to Yule:

When King Sigurd came south in Denmark in Schleswig, he found Eilíf Earl, and celebrated him well, giving him a banquet fit for a hero. That was at midsummertime.

Still, only Rymbegla specifically speaks of any sort of celebration specifically associated with the day (or the span of days), although King Erlíngssonar’s banquet for Eilíf Earl could certainly have been coincident with such a celebration.

If we move but a little southward, however, we begin to see a more definite pattern emerge. In the Vita S. Eligius (who lived in the 7th century in France, which at that time was well-entrenched in Germanic Frankish culture), we see the following admonition given to the people of northwestern Gaul:

No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [solstice rites?] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.

Here we see a clear linkage between the Germanic Midsummer (centuries of domination by the Franks had lent the land a decidedly Germanic cast, although a Celtic or even Roman origin for the tradition cannot be ruled out) and the performance of non-Christian celebrations. (As an aside, I will also note the reference to dancing and chanting/singing, which is a theme I’m developing as part of my own contemporary Asatru practice.) So, it is most certainly not a Christian invention to celebrate on the date, else Eligius wouldn’t have admonished against it.

I would also note that just because the holiday was not mentioned by Snorri does not mean it was not practiced, as his was not an exhaustive list, since we know of other attested celebrations such as Alfablót, Dísablót, DísþingÞorrablót, etc., not to mention the Anglo-Saxon celebrations mentioned by Bede.

That Midsummer is an important holiday in Scandinavia today should be news to no one. Celebrated with fires and drinking, it is a tradition going back at least centuries. I would argue it goes back considerably farther, based on the evidence in Rymbegla and Eligius. A quick glance at the Wikipedia page on Midsummer (never a good source for hard evidence, but illustrative nonetheless) shows traditions of bonfires and other celebrations associated with the day across the Germanic world and beyond.

In Sweden, the midsommarstång (“Midsummer pole”) functions much like a May Pole elsewhere, just moved back a month and a half (possibly explained by the differences in climate between Scandinavia and the Continent), and even in Elizabethan England the association of Midsummer with magic and the fey survived strongly enough for Shakespeare to write A Midsummer Night’s Dream around those themes.

It’s entirely possible that the celebration of Midsummer with fire, and its association with fertility, is something that isn’t completely Germanic in origin. However, I think the fact that it was noted and celebrated is pretty difficult to deny, and the form in which it is celebrated today in the Germanic and Scandinavian nations is as good as any, in the absence of any definitive evidence to the contrary.

And finally, a guide to Midsummer from the folks who do it best:

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