Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Matronae

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???

Bede’s Spring

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

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called. … Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.  (Wallis translation, ch. 15)

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

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

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

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

So we have:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now to look at Fastelavn!

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

Mothers’ Night Part Two

Some photos from our family’s Mothers’ Night celebration. We also ended up singing along to Chase Hill’s song “Mother, Listen”, off their new CD “Sing the Sun’s Return” (accompanying booklet with music and lyrics available here) which coincidentally arrived today. Highly recommended!

Eclipse awaits the setting of the feast

The table is set

The Feast is presented to the Mothers
with song

Louisiana accepts the Feast on behalf of the Mothers…

…as does Eclipse…

…and finally Hobbes

This was the first time we’ve done a Feast of the Mothers, and I found it to be a wonderful and fulfilling experience. I definitely like the richness and texture that these sorts of celebrations bring. It really makes the season come alive, rather than just being “Heathen Christmas”.

Mothers’ Night Part One

The Yuletide celebration is not just a single day, but a whole season of festivities lasting nearly two weeks.

As our own tribal Yule celebration will be held on Saturday, January 2nd, the start of our Yuletide begins twelve days earlier, on Monday, December 21st. The traditional beginning of the season was called Mothers’ Night in Anglo-Saxon England, and it’s very likely that it was the same as the “Feast of the Parcae” (or, as we call them, Norns or Fates) described by early Christian writers as being a Heathen celebration that they wished to suppress.

As described by those who sought to stamp it out, the Feast of the Mothers (the Norns are also related to the Matronae whose worship is known from hundreds of Roman-era altars in the Rhineland and beyond) consisted of laying out a fine meal for the Fates that guided a family’s past, present, and future.

Bear in mind that every person was said to have their own Norns, which may well be the origin of the tradition of the “fairy godmother”. This meal was left out all night long, and if the Norns/Mothers found it worthy, they would reward the family with good fortune in the coming year.

So the basic connections are:

  • The Feast of the Parcae is attested to in the contemporary penitential sources around the beginning of Yule
  • The Matronae (“Mothers” – triple goddesses worshiped in the Migration Era) are associated with fate, life, death, and abundance, thus connected with the individual Norns
  • Mothers’ Night is attested to in the works of the Venerable Bede around the beginning of Yule
  • The Feast of the Parcae becomes the Feast of the Mothers

As this is more of a family or solitary tradition than something done together as a tribe, I present the following as a brief ceremony to accompany your own offering of a Feast of the Norns. It should consist of a regular plate of food, just like you were serving an honored guest in your family, and should be set out on regular dishes (not disposable plates). If you wish, you can recite the following three times to invite your Norns to partake:

The three Mothers traveled to the table,
They found the feast filling;
Meat from the table,
Bread from the board,
Wine from the cask.
Boons brought the Mothers, bright fortune,
Success for the supper they saw;
One Mother was there,
One Mother is there,
Another Mother will be there.
Look upon us with kindly eyes, oh Mothers,
Bless us for the feast we give.

And remember, if the animals in your house partake of the feast, that’s a sure sign that the offering has been accepted. 🙂

If there is anything left in the morning, be sure to set it outside with some care. Don’t just throw it into the garbage; give the animals outside a change to claim it for the Gods.

God Jol!

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