Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Saints

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. Thomas the Brewer

A few months ago I posted about the likely connections between the god Freyr and the Scandinavian incarnation of Saint Stephen, who had markedly different lore and customs attached to him in the North that was found elsewhere. The same thing seems to apply to another Christian saint who is venerated around the Yuletide in Norway – Saint Thomas.

In mainstream Christianity, Thomas is known as one of the apostles, famously the one who doubted that Jesus had been resurrected, and who had to put his fingers in the wounds to be convinced (hence “doubting Thomas”). His feast day is December 21st, the day of the Winter Solstice.

On St. Thomas’ day, English tradition includes begging for alms or cakes, sweets, or fruit, whence comes the ditty, “Christmas is coming / the goose is getting fat / go and throw a penny in the old man’s hat / if you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do / if you haven’t got a ha’penny then god bless you.” In Germany, this sort of charity was practiced by employers towards their employees. Also in Germany, there is a custom of “spinning night”, wherein spinners would stay at their tasks all night in order to be able to enjoy the upcoming holiday (which is somewhat related to the Scandinavian custom, below).

But in Norway (and in a more limited sense Sweden), he is also known as “Thomas the Brewer”, by whose day all work in preparation for the Christmas season must be completed, lest some accident befall the person who was behind their time, including the baking, butchering, wood chopping, and of course the brewing. On this day neighbors and friends would visit one another to sample the Yule ale that had been brewed.

This association of Saint Thomas with brewing (and charity) is not found in other Christian contexts, nor is his feast day near the Winter Solstice in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and it was moved from December 21 (where it was placed in the 9th century, just as Christianity was coming up into northern Europe) to July 3 (in 1969, so it wouldn’t “interfere” with the other Advent activities) in the Catholic tradition. It’s still celebrated on the 21st by Anglicans and Episcopalians, and some others.

That leads one to the conclusion that there was some pre-existing association with brewing and the Winter Solstice, and/or the figure of St. Thomas was conflated with some pre-Christian figure, as we saw with St. Stephen and Freyr.

Naturally, the figure in Norse mythology chiefly associated with brewing is the giant Aegir (aka Gymer). However, there is no evidence for any cult associated with Aegir, unlike his counterpart Njord, who is also associated with the sea, but not particularly with brewing. It is interesting, however, that his children, Freyja and Freyr, are also associated with the Yule holiday. Could it be some sort of transposition of one of Aegir’s attributes to Njord? Could there be some long-lost correspondence between the two? Or is it simply a practical matter, wherein brewing ale for the Yule feast is something that needs to be done prior to the feast?

There aren’t any definitive answers to these questions, but the association of the day of the Winter Solstice with finishing up work prior to the Yule holiday, the start of the season, charity towards the young and elderly so they too might be able to enjoy the holiday, and the sampling of the ale that has been brewed in a spirit of friendship and camaraderie, seem like traditions that fit in perfectly with Asatru celebrations.

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:

St. Stephen and Freyr

It’s well-known that certain Celtic deities were imported nearly wholesale into the Christian pantheon of Saints, with the most obvious example being the Celtic goddess Brigid, who is now known as St. Brigid. However, there are also similar correspondences with Germanic deities. One such is St. Stephen, known from the New Testament as the first martyr (or proto-martyr, since his death came before Christianity was founded, as such; see Acts 6-7). Some sources report an 11th century missionary named Staffan, with whom the Biblical figure may have been conflated. I first became aware of this saint, and his possible connections with the Norse god Freyr, in Pamela Berger’s The Goddess Obscured: Transformation of the Grain Protectress from Goddess to Saint, pp 110-112, although she goes further and conflates him with the goddess Freyja, which doesn’t seem all that justified (or necessary).

What’s intriguing is that when the North began to be converted, and the saints of Christianity began to enter the public consciousness, they were mapped onto pre-existing Heathen religious and folk-customs. In the case of St. Stephen, this mapping occurred due to the proximity of his feast-day (December 26th, known as Boxing Day in England) with the Heathen Yule (ON Jól) celebration, which was held around the winter solstice.

The winter solstice celebration was associated with the god Freyr. According to Ynglinga Saga (ch. 8), the mid-winter, or Yule, sacrifice was made “for a good crop”:

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

On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle.

While Gylfaginning (ch. 24) makes it plain that it is in fact Freyr to whom such supplications for good harvests were made:

Freyr er inn ágætasti af ásum. Hann ræðr fyrir regni ok skini sólar ok þar með ávexti jarðar, ok á hann er gott at heita til árs ok friðar. Hann ræðr ok fésælu manna. 

Freyr is the most renowned of the Æsir; he rules over the rain and the shining of the sun, and therewithal the fruit of the earth; and it is good to call on him for fruitful seasons and peace. He governs also the prosperity of men. 

The association of the boar with both Freyr and Yule is well-known. Freyr is said to ride a golden-haired boar, named gullinbursti, and feasts of pork around the solstice (originally associated with Yule, and transferred to the new Christmas holiday) were traditional well into the Christian era. In modern Sweden, boar-shaped cakes are a traditional Christmas dish. Even as late as the 18th century, December 17th was called Sow Day in the Orkneys, and the best sow of the herd would be slaughtered, obviously a hold-over from the ancient Yuletide boar sacrifice to Freyr, as described in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (ch. 10):

Ok skyldi þeim gelti blóta at sónarblóti. Jólaaptan skyldi leiða sónargöltinn í höll fyrir konúng; lögðu menn þá hendr yfir burst hans ok strengja heit.

And they would sacrifice a boar in the sonarblót. On Yule Eve the sonar-boar was led into the hall before the king; then people laid their hands on its bristles and made vows.

In addition, there are connections between Freyr and horses. Hrafnkel’s Saga tells of a horse, Freyfaxi, that was declared sacred to the god, and which it was forbidden to ride. Skírnir took Freyr’s horse, Blóðughófi, with him to woo the giantess Gerd, and there is some hint of an association with Freyr and the Scandinavian custom of horse-fighting.

Now, the association of St. Stephen with these traditions becomes apparent when we see the differences in how the saint appears in the North, compared to the Mediterranean world of his origin. In the Biblical account, Stephen is a deacon, but in the folk-tales told about him in the Scandinavian nations, he is a stable groom, indicating the association with horses (no such horse associations seem to be native to the Biblical character).

One such tale even specifically states that Stephen was bringing in a boar’s head for Herod’s Yule feast immediately before his untimely demise. The scene is not only recounted in several ballads of the period, but also on the baptismal font at Stänge. (The folktale version of the story also involves a cooked cock coming back to life to announce the divinity of Jesus.) In England, St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses, also echoing the association of Freyr with horses, and an English folk-ballad about Stephen reinforces his connection with the boar’s head feast of Yule/Christmas:

“Stephen out of kitchen came,
With boarës head on hand,
He saw a star was fair and bright
Over Bethlehem stand.”

So on the one hand, we have the god Freyr, associated with a great Yuletide sacrifice and feast, associated with boars and horses. On the other hand, we have the “northern version” of St. Stephen, whose feast-day is during the Yuletide, and whose folk-tales are associated with boars and horses. It does seem to be a bit more than a coincidence, especially since the associations of Stephen with the boar and the horse are northern folkloric additions, and the proximity of his feast-day with the already-extant sacrificial feast in honor of Freyr gives a positive reason for the association.

In other words, when the Church imported their St. Stephen and imposed him on the peoples’ Yule celebration, the people in turn superimposed some of their own folk-beliefs about what the subject of the solstice feast should be like, and that is retained in the various folkloric associations.

On a practical level, I think this gives we modern Asatruar a potential source of color and customs for our own Yule celebrations. Some of the early modern customs associated with Stephen in the northern countries (but not the southern ones) come to mind, but there are doubtless others that are practiced on the saint’s feast-day in Scandinavia and England (and sometimes even as far south as central Europe) that do not exist in the Mediterranean nations, and thus might be survivals from pre-Christian times:

  • Horse racing, with the horses “decorated with many-colored ribbons”, possibly to a north-flowing stream, with the winner being given alcohol as a token of victory
  • Riding horses and making noise at night or in the morning, which stops only when the home owner gives a gift of alcohol, singing the Staffans Visa (see below) or some equivalent
  • Naming a child or young man “Freyr” for the day and having him riding either a real or hobby horse, and making him a living embodiment of the god for the day
  • Taking horses around the fields, to ensure their fecundity
  • Bringing sick animals, especially horses, to a holy spot sacred to Freyr, for healing
  • Paint or otherwise decorate children’s piggy banks with red, to bring prosperity in the coming year
  • Play bandy or other ice-related sports (a bandy match on this day is traditional in Sweden)
  • Bleeding of horses (presumably for their health) was also a custom on this day, but I would not recommend its revival, given modern veterinarian science has pretty well demolished whatever credibility this practice might have had 
Furthermore, the association of the holiday with the practice of guising (dressing up in animal disguises as a celebration of the New Year, which was specifically banned by the early church as they expanded their conquest of the North) seems obvious, but remains I think a topic for a separate discussion.
Additionally, there are a large number of customs associated with “Wren’s Day” on December 26th as well, but since there doesn’t seem to be any association with either Freyr or the biblical Stephen and the wren, it is possible that that is more a survival of some Celtic practice, and might yield fruit to those who are interested in that side of the aisle.

Yeah, I know it’s April, and it might seem weird posting something about Yule traditions, but the time to start thinking about this stuff is now, not two weeks before the actual holiday!

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