Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Yule Page 1 of 3

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.

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

Dinner for One

It has been a New Year’s tradition in Germany since 1972, and in other parts of Europe since then, including Austira, Switzerland, and as far as South Africa and Australia. It holds the Guinness World’s Record for most repeated single broadcast television show, and has a cult following across the world, although it is little-known in the United States. The full story of this wonderful sketch can be found here, but for now I present to you, “The 90th Birthday, or Dinner for One.” (The host begins in German, but the sketch itself is in English.)

Julbord – traditional Yule dishes

Of course Christmas itself has just passed (and I hope that those of you who celebrate it had a wonderful holiday, even if you only do so as a secular holiday of family, plenty, and generosity, with no religious overtones, like my family does), but the traditional date of Yule is still more than two weeks or so away, so we’re continuing to Make Yule Great Again here at the Garden.

This time, I would like to present a few traditional dishes for your Yule feast. Most are more modern Scandinavian dishes from the traditional julbord, or Christmas buffet.
Swedish meatballs. It’s not particularly a Yule dish, but come on. Can you really do a traditional Scandinavian buffet without them? Recipe here.
The Christmas ham. This is the centerpiece of the julbord; the ham, or julskinka, is first boiled, and then served cold, with a crust of mustard and breadcrumbs. Also note the continuing references to boars and pork (associated with the god Freyr) with the holiday. The Local (a Swedish news outlet) mentions that the pigs are killed on Lussinatta, at night. Recipe here.
Pickled herring. Pickled fish is a staple in Scandinavian countries as a rule, but it is especially brought out in the cold winter months, when fresh fish would be something of a rarity. Generally, this is something to be store bought, but the adventurous might try to make their own with the recipe here.
Lutefisk. Errr… yum?
Lutefisk. Take air-dried whitefish, soak it in lye and salt for days, and then rinse it off and cook it once it becomes gelatinous. I’ve never dared try it (and I eat just about anything) but it’s a staple in Norway and Sweden in the traditional Julbord, eaten with boiled potatoes. Want to make it? There’s a recipe here. Good luck Paisan!
Yule bread. A traditional Viking recipe, flavored with cardamom and almonds. Recipe here.
Norwegian Christmas Bread. Another recipe, almost akin to an English pudding rather than a bread, with raisins and walnuts. Recipe here.
Dopp i grytan. Called “dip in the pot” in English, this is a custom of dipping bread into the reduced juices used to cook the ham, like a fondue. I’ve never done it, but it sounds amazingly good. Recipe here.
Janssons Frestelse. If you want to get more adventurous than the boiled potatoes mentioned above (and nothing says you can’t do both!), try this sort of scalloped potato dish, with anchovies (I happen to love anchovies, and the thought of the salty fish mixed in with the creamy potatoes and onions sounds great). Recipe here
Marzipan Pig. Obviously a new addition to the menu, this dessert course made of shaped almond paste seems obviously tied back to the recurring themes of boars and Freyr and Yule. And isn’t the little apple in its mouth adorable? Marzipan recipe here.
Glad Yule to all!

The Big Day: Yule (Part Two)

Now we move on to the second day of Yule.

As we saw last year when I compared the traditions surrounding the feast of St. Stephen as celebrated in the North, there are a number of connections between the figure and the god Freyr, specifically the connection to both boars and horses. 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, which don’t appear in accounts of the saint elsewhere. So it seems reasonable to bring in those practices associated with St. Stephen’s Day in Scandinavia, on the assumption that the exclusively Northern attributes are, in fact, Heathen survivals of Freyr-cult activities associated with Yule.

Some interesting Swedish pieces of folklore from the 19th century conflate “St. Staffan” with the founder of the Archdiocese of Uppsala of the same name, where he is said to have been the first to preach the gospel there, and denounced its Heathen practices, only to be cast into prison and then escape to finally meet his fate as the Christian ur-martyr. While the echo of the association with Uppsala is interesting, much moreso is this legend that clearly relates St. Stephen to the god Freyr:

A saying is still common amongst the people, that once every week he visited them all, and proclaimed God’s word. In the performance of this duty, he folowed the course of the sun; so that in the morning he rode from Norrala, where he dwelt, passed the night at Arbrä, and from thence continued his journey to Järfsö, and Ljusdal, Sundhede, and Nordanstigen, and returned home within the above-named time*. 

Helsingland was in those days, as at present [1870] celebrated for its good horses, Staffan had a great love of horses, understood their treatment, and had always give with him wherever he went. When one was wearied he mounted another, and in this manner traversed the country. [He was killed by the Heathens and interred at Norrala.] 

For a long time after the martyr’s death, his friends and the Christians in the country were accustomed to meet at this his place of burial, which to them was looked on as holy, when they prayed together, and strengthened each other in faith and love. But when Christianity at a subsequent period began to lose its original simplicity and purity, the monks, profiting by the reverence the people entertained for the spot, seduced them by pretended miracles and prodigies to make offerings, and seek cures for diseased animals, especially horses, and also to worship St. Staffan, who, however, was never canonized, as their patron saint. (Peasant Life in Sweden, p. 204-6).

Here we see not only the association of “Staffan” with horses, but also an echo of the passage from Ynglingatal, which describes Freyr’s establishment of Uppsala as a cult center, and the continued worship he enjoyed at his burial mound after his death:

Frey built a great temple at Upsal, made it his chief seat, and gave it all his taxes, his land, and goods. Then began the Upsal domains, which have remained ever since.  Then began in his days the Frode- peace; and then there were good seasons, in all the land, which the Swedes ascribed to Frey, so that he was more worshiped than the other gods, as the people became much richer in his days by reason of the peace and good seasons. His wife was called Gerd, daughter of Gymis, and their son was called Fjolne.  Frey was called by another name, Yngve; and this name Yngve was considered long after in his race as a name of honor, so that his descendants have since been called Ynglinger.  Frey fell into a sickness; and as his illness took the upper hand, his men took the plan of letting few approach him.  In the meantime they raised a great mound, in which they placed a door with three holes in it.  Now when Frey died they bore him secretly into the mound, but told the Swedes he was alive; and they kept watch over him for three years.  They brought all the taxes into the mound, and through the one hole they put in the gold, through the other the silver, and through the third the copper money that was paid. Peace and good seasons continued. (Ynglingatal chapter 11)

The key elements being the worship of Freyr/Staffan at his grave, specifically connected with the offering of money (the monks’ profit in the Staffan legend, and the taxes in the mound in Ynglingatal).

And there is also the tradition (as written in Ögmundar þáttr dytts) of the god Freyr going about on a peregrination, with a statue of the god being carried about in a wagon throughout the district, drawn by horses. Originally, the god Freyr traveled about in a horse-drawn wagon, and later on Staffan traveled about on horseback.

Suffice to say, I think the identification of the Northern Staffan/Steven with the Heathen Freyr is sound. That said, what does it mean? What sorts of practices do we see on St. Steven’s Day that might be applicable to Heathen worship? It turns out, there are quite a few, mostly involving horses, as one might expect.

One cares for the horses of some stranger in some not-close village, or even another parish; grooming, feeding, watering, rubbing down, etc. The deed is expected to be repaid with a fine breakfast.

Horses are given the leftover ale from the previous night, and bled in order to make them healthy (bleeding was regarded as a healing practice at the time).

A procession, known as Staffanskede, is also undertaken, where mounted youths take off before dawn and go from village to village in a sort of race, singing the Staffansvisa from house to house, in return for which they are to be treated to ale:

The custom recalls other visiting traditions, such as caroling, wassailing and the like. The Swedish lyrics of the carol can be found here. If I find an English translation, I’ll post it as well. But I must say I like the music; it’s quite haunting in this rendition.

On the evening of St. Staffan’s Day, there are games, music, dancing, and of course more feasting.Lloyd also tells us of a custom involving bringing in a Jul Baske; what we now know as a Christmas Tree.

This, then, is the second of the three days of Yule. Horse-racing, visiting and caroling, feasting and dancing and music.

And the third? I think we found the third day of Yule in our exploration of St. Knut’s Day. The last of the food is eaten and drink is guzzled, the decorations are taken down, there is guising in spirit-costume to scare the neighbors, and a ritual drama is enacted to cap the celebration.

When the Yule celebration was merged with the Christmas holiday, it necessarily lost two of its three days (but Christmas itself was extended into twelve, to match their obsession with the number, between Christmas and Epiphany, and since become our Twelve Days of Christmas). What was Knut’s Day, until it was moved yet again to prevent confusion with the “more important” dates of the Christian calendar. The third day of Yule.

And there we have the cycle of holidays leading up to Yule. I may well have a few more posts on specific topics (because even with all this, I’ve only scratched the surface), but I think we have a very solid foundation for a plethora of celebrations designed to discourage disobedient children and reward the good, mark the triumph of the sun over the longest night of the year, the changing of the year itself, and the middle of the winter season as people experienced it.

I personally think that’s a whole lot more worthy of celebration than cramming everything into a single day. Our gods and ancestors deserve a lot more.

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* It should be noted that all the places named are in or near Gävleborg County, Sweden, just north of Uppsala, which largely overlaps Halsingland. We’re talking about a very small district within modern Sweden, which just happens to be just north of the highest concentration of Freyr-related place-names in Sweden, around Uppsala.

The Big Day: Yule (Part One)

What a wealth of winter traditions we’ve uncovered so far, leading up to Yule:

  • A week before the longest night of the year, also the start of the old Heathen month of Mörsugur (“marrow-sucking”), we see Krampusnacht, originally connected with the story of the laming of Thor’s goats. Thor and the goats visit homes, punishing naughty children and rewarding good ones. 
  • On the longest night of the year, we have Lussinatta, where the goddess Frigg visits homes to make sure they are prepared for the long cold winter, the Wild Hunt begins its ride, and an all-night vigil is held to welcome the return of the goddess Sunna and celebrate her return to strength as the days begin to grow longer.
  • A week after the solstice, we have a reminder that the Yule Ale had better be brewing, because if it’s not started by now, it’ll be too late for Yule. 
  • On New Year’s Eve, we have Mothers Night, when the Three Mothers (aka the Norns) are invited to our homes with a feast, in return for their favor in the coming year. It’s also a good night for divination, to foresee the coming year’s events.
  • On New Year’s Day, we have a number of customs and traditions around the Calends of January, which sets the tone for the entire year to come. First-stepping, New Year’s wishes and resolutions, marking the weather, setting up effigies of livestock and game animals to ensure prosperity, as well as donning animal guises for the same purpose, and more are all designed to influence the luck of the coming year.

And now we come to the mid-winter sacrifice and celebration itself; Yule. Specifically, sónarblót, or “Son’s sacrifice” (which is interesting to contrast to Mothers’ Night earlier), which takes place on the first night of Yule. The practice is specifically 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 (i.e., the first evening of Yule) the sonar-boar was led into the hall before the king; then people laid their hands on its bristles and made vows.

It is also mentioned in one of the poems of the Poetic Edda, Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar (IV):

Heðinn fór einn saman heim ór skógi jólaaftan ok fann trollkonu. Sú reið vargi ok hafði orma at taumum ok bauð fylgð sína Heðni. “Nei,” sagði hann. Hon sagði: “Þess skaltu gjalda at bragarfulli.” Um kveldit óru heitstrengingar. Var fram leiddr sónargöltr. Lögðu menn þar á hendr sínar ok strengðu menn þá heit at bragarfulli. 

Returning home alone from the forest on a Yule Eve, Hedin met a troll-wife riding on a wolf, with serpents for reins, who offered to attend him, but he declined her offer; whereupon she said: “Thou shalt pay for this at the council.” In the evening solemn vows were made, and the son-hog was led forth, on which the guests laid their hands, and then made solemn vows at the council. 

This recalls very strongly the English tradition (since exported to the United States and elsewhere) of the Boar’s Head Feast, where the cooked and garlanded head of a boar is brought into the hall to inaugurate the celebration, accompanied by specific carols, dating back to at least the 15th century (although the ceremony itself goes back to at least 1340):

The association of the boar with both Freyr and Yule is well-known. Freyr is said to ride a golden-haired boar, named gullinbursti (“golden-bristles”). 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, and Christmas Ham is a staple across Scandinavia. 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 (add 8 days for the calendar conversion, and Sow Day becomes Christmas Day, upon which Yule traditions were mapped during the conversion process, as we have seen).

The winter solstice sacrifice 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.

Remembering that “the middle of winter” here is describing the actual climactic winter, not the astronomical solstice, which in reality happens way before the point where there are as many colder days behind it as ahead of it. So, approximately the middle of what we call January.

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. 

And that, I think, is the kick-off of the three-day Yule celebration. We have the “son’s sacrifice” on the first night, of a boar or swine, in honor of Freyr, accompanied by a great feast, and specifically the swearing of oaths on the head or body of the sacrificial animal.

In modern practical terms, when most Asatruar don’t have it within their means to sacrifice an actual boar, it seems clear that at least featuring pork (as the famous Christmas Ham of Scandinavia, or in some other form) would be indicated. A ceremony involving the swearing of oaths would also seem to be a critical piece of the celebration (again, setting the stage for the coming year with events happening near its start); I might go so far as to roast a swine head specifically for the occasion, even if it didn’t necessarily form part of the feast itself. In my own tribe, we use a pig effigy made of straw, and make our promises and state our hopes upon it, before offering it to Freyr.

The only mystery, to my mind, is the significance of the name of the sacrifice. I might have expected something like Jólablót, but it turns out that the word doesn’t exist in Cleasby-Vigfussion’s dictionary of Old Icelandic. So why sónarblót? Why “son’s sacrifice”? I think I might have an idea.

Yngve-Freyr is said to have been the progenitor of the Swedish line. His name appears in the royal lineages, he founded Uppsala, most of the place-names associated with him are found in Sweden (in and around Uppsala, as a matter of fact), and is even referred to as the father of the Swedes:

Shall it be said of Frey’s brave sons,
The kingly race, the noble ones,
That they have fought in deadly battle
With the head-gear of their cattle?
(Ynglingatal 23)

It’s purely speculative, of course, but it seems to fit the available information. I’ll keep digging, and if I unearth additional information, I’ll certainly pass it along. But it seems to point to the Yule sacrifice to Freyr as being particularly ancient, and eventually disseminating across the Norse world, only to be co-opted by the incoming Christian empire.

Welcome Yule Lads!

(This is a repost from 2015)

Today marks the arrival of the first of the Yule-lads (IS jólasveinarnir); mischievous spirits who arrive one per day for the next twelve days, and each stays for exactly thirteen days, so on the 25th of December, they’re all present. They are the sons of the Icelandic trolls Grýla and Leppalúði, and each has a specific attribute.

Of course, in modern times their hard edges have been smoothed over, and they’re seen as mostly-benevolent, Santa-like figures, but all the good wishes in the world won’t change the fundamental nature of a wight. They’re basically cautionary tales for children, as they would come out of the mountains and glaciers to frighten naughty children during the Yuletide.

Now that I’ve seen this story about a woman in Peoria who has the Yule Lads on her lawn as decorations (much like Christians might have a nativity), I want a set of my own for next year!
So today, watch out for Stekkjarstaur, and keep your sheep safe.

St. Knut’s Day


Mother’s Night and the New Year behind us, we find ourselves more than two weeks from the solstice, and a week before Yule itself. We now find ourselves at St. Knut’s Day, which is celebrated in Sweden and Finland, but not Denmark or Norway. The timing of this feast day deserves a little attention, as it’s got a somewhat involved history. The day is named for Knut Levard of Denmark, who was killed in a civil war and canonized in 1169. It should be noted that that is a pretty late date, and well into the era of Christianization.

Originally, Knut’s Day was celebrated on January 7, the anniversary of his death. In the 17th century, it was moved to the 13th of January, presumably because it was interfering with the celebration of the Epiphany on the 6th. I’m going to ignore that later date, because it is way outside my era of interest for this analysis, and has little if any significance when it comes to replacing already-established Heathen celebrations. 
Dancing around the soon-to-be-taken-down tree
Traditionally, Knut’s Day represents the end of the Christmas season in Sweden and Finland. There are “plundering parties” as the Christmas tree is taken down and the edible ornaments that traditionally adorn it (candies, cookies, and cakes) are removed and devoured. 
More interesting, perhaps, is a tradition that is akin to our modern Halloween, where children and adults go from house to house in scary costumes of ghosts and scarecrows, attempting to frighten neighbors and friends.
There is dancing, and what has been described by L. Lloyd in his “Peasant Life in Sweden… Illustrated” (written in 1870, pp. 217-218) as:

…”Gästabuds-Krig,” or war of hospitality. The master of the house comes into the apartment where the “Jul” festivities have taken place, and affixes his axe into the middle of the floor; the housemaid follows him with a broom, the kitchen-maid with a knife and a spoon, or rather ladle, the “Källare Drang,” or tapster, he whose duty it is to look after the cellar, with the spigot of the ale barrel, with other like company, and makes pretense to drive away the guests, and should there be any present who can read and sing, they read aloud King Orre’s Legend, and sing his ballad, the words of which I have not at hand, but which in some degree resemble our own doggerel:

“Old King Cole
Was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe,
And he called for his wine,
And he called for his fiddlers three.”

Scary costumes for guising on the day,
with some similarity to the guising
done at the beginning of the season
on Krampusnacht
And presumably the plundering of the pantry of the last edibles that were cooked and baked and brewed for the Yule celebration would be polished off by the guests.
One fascinating tidbit, the “King Orre’s Legend” mentioned above is also mentioned in a tantilizing tidbit from Bertha Fillpott’s most excellent The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama (p. 123):

It has recently been suggested that the dramatic Yule game in Sweden in which “King Orre” figures originated in a representation of the defeat of King Erik of Pomerania.

With a footnote referencing “H Jungner, Om Kung Orre, Maal og Minne, 1914, pp. 123 ff” that I have been unable to follow-up on. Anyone able to help track that reference down is invited to contact me in the comments below. Sounds fascinating.
Terry Gunnell, in his Origins of Drama in Scandinavia (pp. 96-97), adds a little more meat to Knut and Orre’s bones:

The superficial nature of some of the Christian festivals is especially clear in the case of the figure of Knut, since the saint obviously never had anything to do with ‘sweeping’ or ‘knocking out’ Christmas. Magnus Olsen has thus sought to establish an early relationship between the traditional figure of Knut and other figures such as the legendary King Orre, and the spirit of Þorri, a personification of the early Scandinavian fourth winter month beginning c. 13 January. Considering the fact that Knut is often acted in folk tradition, it might be noted that both Knut and Þorri are identified in the rhymes sung about them by the same sole characteristic of a beard. A faint possibility exists that this shared feature has roots in a visual tradition of disguise which originally applied to both figures at this time of year. The vestiges of such a tradition might possibly be found in the unique account given by Jón Árnason of how Icelandic farmers used to ‘welcome Þorri onto the farm’ (‘að bjóða Þorra í garð’) by hopping around their farms half-dressed on the first morning of Þorri, their wives following suit the first morning of Góa, the following month.

I still want to know exactly what goes on with this acted-out Knut folk tradition (other than apparently an elder version of the Polar Bear Challenge). To the BOOKS!
So, to bring this all back to the subject at hand, all we need to do is make our standard 8 day correction for dates, because of the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and I think we have the answer to all this mummery. Adjust 8 days from the original date of January 7, and we get January 15. Right around the middle of winter. 
A day or two after Yule.
I think what we see in Knut’s Day are the events of the end of Yule. Exact dates are of course fungible when it comes to the ancient calendars, but I think what we’re seeing here are the equivalent of modern “Boxing Day” traditions. The last of the food prepared for Yule needs to get eaten, the decorations need to be taken out, and, let us not forget, this also marks the end of the “out and about” time for the Wild Hunt, which began waaaay back on Lussinata, on the solstice. That’s combined in a visiting tradition involving scary costumes; made all the more relevant by the fact that there’s still excess treats to be handed out (in the “war of hospitality”), and the gag is all the funnier because everyone knows that the Wild Hunt isn’t out and about after Yule. 
Man, this really works.
We’ve been circling the big one for a while now, but we’re homing in on Yule itself. We’re getting there, dear readers, have just a little more patience!

Mother’s Night

This is a follow-up (and correction) to last year’s post about Mother’s Night. Additionally, it will be something of an addendum to my post on New Year’s Traditions a few days ago, which sort of conflated New Year’s Eve with New Year’s Day. Properly, they should be separate, as we shall see.

Just to lay out the evidence that had been previously presented, we have:

  • The Feast of the Parcae is attested to in the contemporary penitential sources around the time of Yule (I had originally said “beginning of Yule” but that seems to be not the case)
  • 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
Let’s turn to the sources.
Burchard of Worms tells us what not to do with the Parcae:

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)

Gimme that old-time foolishness!
And what might those “certain times of the year” be? Our old friend St. Eligius comes to the rescue:

 …nothing is ominous or ridiculous about the Calends of January. [Do not] make little women [i.e., corn dollies], little deer or iotticos or set tables at night [for house spirits or the Mothers] or exchange New Years’ gifts or supply superfluous drinks. (Life of Saint Eligius)

Bernadette Filotas puts it:

In another clause [of the Corrector of Burchard] the Parcae seem less ominous: “certain women” at “certain times of the year” (the New Year?) were accustomed to try to bribe “those three sisters whom ancient tradition and ancient stupidity named the Parcae.” They set a table in their house with food, drink, and three “little knives” for the sisters’ refreshment, in the hope that if they came, they would help their hostess either at present or in the future: “thus they attribute to the devil the power that belongs to merciful God.” Here the Parcae appear to be less figures of pitiless destiny than sprites, small ones at that who can handle only “little” implements, and who make their way into the house but seldom (but in medieval Latin, the diminutive was often used to indicate contempt, not necessarily to refer to size). The identification with the classical goddesses is made by Burchard, not the common people. (Pagan Survivals; Superstitions and Popular Cultures, p. 77)

Bede fills in more information with his description:

… began the year on the 8th calends of January, when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, “mother’s night”, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night. (Faith Wallis, tr., 1999)

What the heck is “the 8th calends of January”, you might ask? In the original Latin, one counts from the start of the next month, in the latter half of the month. So the 8th calends of  January is December 24. And in the Germanic mindset, the date starts at dusk. What we would call the evening of December 23.

But… let’s correct for the change in calendars. If we add the 8 days we’ve been using as a corrector between the Julian and Gregorian dates, we get… December 31. New Year’s eve.

So where I had Mother’s Night on the night of the solstice, it seems to be more properly put on December 31. Not related to the calendar date, or the Christian date of the Christmas celebration, but on the very day that we now celebrate New Year’s Eve.

Thus do I think that the Feast of the Mothers, known to Bede as Mōdraniht, is more properly placed on New Year’s Eve, rather than the night of the winter solstice. It has the double-meaning, then, with the night in question being the “mother” of the New Year, as well as being that time when the Three Mothers (aka the Norns) are honored and given a feast in hopes that they will be well-disposed towards we mortals.

I covered the significance of the “little deer” in the New Year’s Customs post, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that the “little women”, or corn dollies, are very possibly images of the Three Mothers themselves, possibly even set at the table to stand in for, or encourage, the participation of the real thing, in much the same way that we use god-posts and statues to represent the real gods.

So there we are; New Year’s Eve is Mother’s Night. Set out a meal for the Three Mothers, with three knives, that they will visit your home and bestow fortune for the coming year. It fits together perfectly.

HELPFUL PLANNING TIP: Get a copy of Chase Hill’s song “Mother, Listen”, off their CD “Sing the Sun’s Return” (accompanying booklet with music and lyrics available here). Also, start planning on a feast for the Mothers on New Year’s Eve. Do it in style!

Gruß vom Krampus!

Tonight kicks off the traditional series of winter festivities of our Folk, using the Gregorian calendar (it was probably a week before the solstice, using the old Julian calendar).

We celebrate Krampusnacht, with roots in the tale of the laming of Thor’s goats and the taking of disobedient children as consequence.

Gruß vom Krampus!

If you can’t have a Krampusnacht celebration of your own, be sure to check out this documentary, order this awesome book, or check out this video!

New Year’s customs

So Thor and his goats (now in the form of the krampus) have come to reward good children and punish the wicked (December 14); Frig/Holde/Perchta has made sure the farmstead is ready for the coming winter season, the Wild Hunt is about in the land (make sure you have saffron buns with you if you need to go about at night between now and Yule, to throw over your shoulder and elude the hunt), we’ve held a vigil to make sure that Sunna comes back on the longest night of the year (December 21); and the Yule ale has been laid down (December 28).

What’s next? The coming of the New Year, of course!

New Year’s Eve (also known as St. Sylvester’s day), and New Year’s Day (also known as the Calends of January), is a time when the pattern for the coming year is laid down. This is a time not only for divination to see what the coming year will bring, but also positive actions to make sure it is prosperous, healthy, and fertile. The early Christian church was well aware of Pagan customs associated with the day:

 …nothing is ominous or ridiculous about the Calends of January. [Do not] make little women [i.e., corn dollies], little deer or iotticos or set tables at night [for house spirits or the Mothers] or exchange New Years’ gifts or supply superfluous drinks. (Life of Saint Eligius, France, c. 650 CE)

Nor celebrate Thursday in honor of Jupiter or the Calends  of January according to pagan tradition. (Penitential of Bede, England, c. 730’s CE)

Hast thou done anything like what the pagans did, and still do, on the first of January in [the guise of] a stag or a calf? (Corrector of Burchard, Germany, 1023 CE)

What a wonderful set of descriptions; omens, idols, offerings, gifts, drinking, celebrations, and animal guising. Thanks for writing all that down, guys!

One Swedish custom holds that one should place one cup of water on the table for each type of grain that is grown on one’s farm. The next day, if air bubbles are on the rim of a particular cup, it indicates that crop will prosper in the coming year. Similarly, all across the Scandinavian and German-speaking world, the custom of molybdomancy, or divination by lead (Bleigießen in German), is common on New Year’s Eve. In Europe, kits are sold, complete with a melting spoon, ingots, and a book to help interpret the shapes.

The process itself is simple, and is often done in groups, at New Year’s Eve parties. Small ingots of tin or lead are melted in a long-handled spoon or small pot and poured into cold water. The shapes formed by the quick-setting metal is interpreted for its significance in the coming year. Bubbles represent money, a broken casting represents misfortune, the shape of a ship indicates travel, etc. Such interpretations are necessarily subjective, of course, and it may be helpful to write them down for later review, and cross-check them with other forms of divination. This is the time for it! (Be careful whenever handling molten metal, of course!)

New Year’s Day sets the pattern for the whole of the coming year. Thus, if one receives money on January 1st, the year will be prosperous and will see one’s wealth increase. If one pays out money on the day, however, the year will be lean and one’s wealth will wane. The same principle applies to annoyances or other troubles; if present, they will persist throughout the year. This is one reason that in many parts of Europe and America it is traditional to wish friends, families, and acquaintances well on New Year’s Day. You’re setting the path for the rest of the year.

The weather of New Year’s Day is also a significant indicator of the coming year. A red sky indicates that evil and war will be present in the coming year. Blustery winds indicate an average harvest, but sunshine will presage a pleasant year overall. In Brittany, they take this even further, saying that the prevailing winds on the first twelve days of the year will reflect the winds for the rest of the year, one day representing each month.

The tradition of “first stepping” is also widespread. Basically, the luck of the house is influenced by the first visitor to cross the threshold in the new year. In some regions, dark hair is considered lucky, in others the first visitor must be male, and so on. It does seem to vary widely by region, so no universal Germanic standard can be applied, but it does seem that an “opposite” type from the norm seems to be considered lucky, so in a place where blondes and redheads prevail, dark hair would be sought out for its lucky properties. Sometimes, cakes, sweets, or drink would be on hand to welcome the lucky visitor.

The other tradition associated with New Year’s Day is animal guising, as mentioned in the Corrector of Burchard of Worms. Animal guising has a long and complex history in Europe, and it’s way beyond the scope of this article to cover it all, but I can heartily recommend Nigel Pennick’s excellent book Crossing the Borderlines. It’s not readily available at Amazon, but that link will take you straight to the publisher, where it appears to be available very reasonably. There’s also E.C. Cawte’s scholarly Ritual Animal Disguise, sadly out of print but available on the after-market or in a good university library,

From Romania, the stag is
resurrected from dancers

Now, the context and purpose of the guising mentioned by Burchard is obviously lost to us, but I think it can be seen in the other connections to Luck that we see across the spectrum when it comes to New Year’s. I think we’re seeing a reference to a sort of sympathetic magic, similar to that seen in some hunting magic practices. Look at the specific animals that are mentioned: stags and calves. In an agricultural culture that relied on husbandry and hunting, those are the things you want to have in abundance. And, in keeping with the theme of, “as goes New Year’s Day, so goes the year,” having stags present in the community on the first of the year will ensure they are plentiful during hunting later in the year, just as having calves on the day will work towards lots of young cows (and, presumably, other baby livestock, by association) throughout the year.

The straw deer mentioned above in the Life of Saint Eligius would serve the same function, I think. If there are deer around the farm on New Year’s Day, they’ll be around during the year. When hunting deer is an important part of survival, that would be significant.

I would imagine there are dances that are associated with the guising, perhaps some sort of stylized hunt, and stylized farm life scene, but that’s just a supposition on my part. More research into that aspect of the tradition is clearly indicated.

HELPFUL PLANNING TIP: Order your lead-casting supplies now! Prince August Toys has a pre-done kit, complete with booklet, but they’re in Ireland, and it might take some time to arrive. Fortunately, bullet-casting is a very popular thing, and you can get a ladle and led pellets easily enough on Amazon.

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