Our only written accounts to this Goddess comes to us from Tacitus’ Germania:
There is a sacred grove on an island in the Ocean, in which there is a consecrated chariot, draped with cloth, where the priest alone may touch. He perceives the presence of the goddess in the innermost shrine and with great reverence escorts her in her chariot, which is drawn by female cattle. There are days of rejoicing then and the countryside celebrates the festival, wherever she designs to visit and to accept hospitality. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, all objects of iron are locked away, then and only then do they experience peace and quiet, only then do they prize them, until the goddess has had her fill of human society and the priest brings her back to her temple.
There is a theory that connects Gefjon to Nerthus, one of the bits of interest in this theory is that the medieval place name for the modern-day city of Naerum in Denmark was Niartharum, which etymologically may connect to Nerthus’ name.
Much is made of Her as a fertility Goddess, while this is true, I also see her as a Goddess associated with fresh waters (rivers, lakes, ponds) and how that water is necessary for the fields. I also personally see Njord as a God of waters at the boundaries (beaches, marshlands, etc), and Ran/ Aegir more the ocean depths.
A Prayer to Nerthus
We hail the generous earth. Ripe lie your sustaining fields; swollen with the promise of blessings yet reaped.
We hail you Nerthus, And we thank you For the plenty you provide For the gifts you bestow. May we thrive in health And fortitude for life.
So we hail!
A little over a year ago I sponsored a prayer card (available for purchase) to this Goddess, with art from Grace Palmer.
One of the religious staples of the Northern Tradition, is the honor and reverence shown for not only our ancestors, but also for our heroes. All too often when reading some of the grand exploits, battles and wars found in the sagas we associate the word hero to that of being a warrior, but while there are indeed many great heroes who are warriors, sometimes heroes are simply those who stay true to their beliefs.
It is a historical fact that the Christian conversion of the pre-Christian peoples wasn’t always a peaceful affair. Some of the early Norse Kings have an especially bloody reputation when it came to killing the ancient heathens within their lands, and these accounts are preserved in part within the Heimskringla, a collection of various historically oriented sagas about the Norse Kings.
In the annals of history, we know far more about the Christian conquering leaders, than we do the names of the devout heathens that would not submit to conversion. Occasionally, we do have preserved the names of some of those ancient pagan martyrs who were determined to continue to honor their Gods and the traditions of their people. One such account occurs in the 11th Century during the reign of King Olaf II of Norway (canonized as Saint Olaf), and it is at this time of year in particular, as we approach the holy tide of Ostara that I always remember and honor in ritual: Olvir. He was a renowned local leader from a powerful family in the Trondheim area of Norway, and as such it fell to him to represent his people to the King, and to conduct religious rites within his local community.
King Olaf II learns that the farmers found within the inner reaches of the Trondheim Fjord observed the heathen holy tide of Winter Nights, by offering drink, food, animal sacrifices, and prayers to the Gods for the purpose of improving the harvests. The report that reached the King’s attention also noted that the people were all of a communal thought that the Gods were angered because a nearby community had allowed themselves to be baptized and converted into Christianity. Displeased, King Olaf II summons forth a group of men from the area including Olvir to give an accounting of themselves.
When the men go before the king, Olvir uses some clever wordplay when he responds to the king that “no one can be responsible for what fools and drunken people say” while being evasive in what he tells the king. Olvir was really in this case an early example of a diplomatic spin-doctor as he downplayed the significance of the gathering to make it seem like it was more a bunch of folks enjoying a feast and some drinks together. While sometimes there is that over-emphasis of the prowess of a warrior in battle, the ancient Norse loved a person of keen-mind and clever-tongue as well, and Olvir definitely had the later skill in spades.
Eventually the king let the men return home, but a short time later he heard once again that the people had assembled to observe the ancient heathen traditions of Yule. Furious he summoned forth the men again to report to him. This time however, the men who had gone last time before the King did not want to make the journey. While their exact motivations are not known, I think it is reasonable to assume that they were nervous and really did not relish going before a King known for killing heathens again. I also believe that they also recognized that Olvir had been particularly clever in the last exchange with the King. So instead of all the farmers going to the king, the farmers prevailed upon Olvir to go as a representative of all of them.
Again the two exchange words, Olvir attempting to downplay matters and describing it as more or less a grand party and King Olaf II pretty certain that these heathen practices had indeed occurred. The king eventually sends Olvir home, but with a warning: that he shall discover the truth, so Olvir better not participate in heathen practices again.
Yet even this warning would not dissuade the people of Trondheim from the religion of their ancestors. So it came to pass that after the King had celebrated the Christian Easter, his ships were made ready, and he summoned a man loyal to him, Thoraldi, who had recently moved into the area. Before telling the King the truth, Thoraldi made it clear that Olaf must protect him and his family from reprisal, and with that promise in hand Thoraldi became the Judas of the heathen peoples of the Trondheim Fjord.
Thoraldi’s statement to the King is damning, despite the fact many of the people there have been baptized, they’re still heathen in their practices. Observing the major religious holy tides of old (those we call today Winter Nights, Yule and Ostara), and that for this area there are 12 men who it falls to oversee the planning and facilitating of such events and that this year it falls to Olvir to make ready the feast, and that he is doing so even as Thoraldi was speaking to the King.
Furious, the King summons his contingent of more than 300 men who were standing by and they set sail in five ships for the inner reaches of the Trondheim fjord, reaching the area by nightfall. The troops rapidly surround the homes and ensnare the local pagans in the dark of night. Olvir and some of his men were captured and killed immediately. Other homes are ransacked as the King tries to find others he feels are guilty. Some manage to successfully flee, but others still are caught. Their property is confiscated in penalty. The prisoners are then held awaiting a Thing (which was a large gathering of the people where much business was conducted including legal judgments and sentences). These other prisoners represented members of powerful families, and they were essentially being held hostage to force their families to capitulate and convert.
Here was part of the death rattle of a religion in this area, propelled in part by King Olaf’s Christian agenda, political expediency for power and control, as well as what to my mind is no doubt motivated by greed as King Olaf and his soldiers greatly profited from the possessions of the people from the Trondheim fjord. Although it would take quite some time for Christianity to firmly take root.
Some groups specifically honor Olvir in March 9th yearly. This Ostara, I encourage all of you to take a moment this year as part of your celebrations to honor the memory of a man who paid the price for his faith. To honor a man who would not turn away from his Gods. We know his name, we know the story, and by honoring him we honor the unnamed compatriots who also died and suffered along with him. He also becomes a symbolical representative of all those who felt so passionately about their religious beliefs they could not in good faith turn their backs on their gods or their ancestral pathways.
So while the Christians celebrate the resurrection of their martyr this Easter, let us pagans celebrate the rejuvenation and return of not only the Spring, but of the old ways, the ancient Gods, and our ancestral traditions.
For those of us in the Northern Tradition, the high holy tide of Ostara is upon us. Some are gearing up to celebrate during the astronomical spring equinox (which varies slightly but always occurs between March 19-21), and others may postpone their celebrations so that they coincide more with the observed Christian date of Easter instead, which is April 16th this year. The later allows heathen children to be able to participate in more mainstream activities such as egg hunts with their peers at school and at community parks.
Even in antiquity there wasn’t one set, collective date across the peoples who worshipped the Aesic gods such as Odin. Observances varied based on a manner of different time keeping methods, as well as localized, regional cues based on the local climate and life cycle. For the Norse peoples, the warmer weather would arrive much later than it would in Anglo-Saxon England.
The Venerable Bede gives us our only specific information about the Anglo-Saxon Goddess known as Eostre in his De temporibus ratione, where he informs us that the month of April was called Ēostur-monath, and that he believed the name was derived from a Goddess that had been worshipped in ancient times. Some scholars, and even certain pagans consider the information unreliable and so dismiss the claim. I would counter however that we have ample evidence of not only a heathen religious holy tide celebrated at this time of year, but other evidence, which while not direct, only adds credence to Bede’s claim.
Just as the Anglo-Saxon month of April was Eoster-monath, as we know from Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni the Germanic Franks shared a similar name for their month of April: Ostarmanoth. So here we have some supportive evidence of the Anglo-Saxon practices from continental Germans.
If we look to the Norse sources, and at the collection of sagas that comprise the Heimskringla, we see multiple mentions to three high holy tides throughout those sagas, such as mentioned in Ynglinga Saga, and is echoed again in Óláfs saga helga which states: “It is their custom to perform a sacrifice in the fall to welcome winter, a second at midwinter, and a third in the summer to welcome it’s arrival.”
Now most modern people would interpret this incorrectly, because today we have a concept of there being four seasons in the year (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter), but we know from both ancient Icelandic laws as well as Bede’s description of the Anglo-Saxons that the ancient people’s had a cultural concept that the year was only comprised of two seasons: Summer and Winter. Thus the first day of Summer occurs sometime in what we might think of as the Spring today, and ‘midsummer’ or the summer solstice (known sometimes as Litha) occurs in the middle of the summer. The beginning of Winter occurs in the Autumn and is marked by the celebration known as Winter Nights. By following this reasoning the midwinter celebration is therefore Yule. We see this timing echoed when we hop back across to the Anglo-Saxons.
We know that the Witans, or ruling councils of the Anglo-Saxons, gathered during specific days from the Christian calendar: Saint Martin’s Day, Christmas, and Easter/Whitsunday. These three Christian religious observances sync with the pagan timing of the three high holy tides we find amongst the Scandinavian sources: the start of Winter or Winter Nights, midwinter or Yule, and the start of Summer or Ostara. Not only did the Witans meet at these times, but when these councils came together to meet the Anglo-Saxon Kings of old would also specifically wear their crowns at this time. No doubt this is an old carry-over from expected duties of the King during the heathen religious celebrations. We certainly see in Ynglinga saga that the King of Sweden in his role as high priest at the temple of Uppsala conducted religious rites.
In Óláfs saga helga we see that shortly after King Olaf II of Norway had observed the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, he heard news that Olvir of Egg was making ready the preparations for a pagan religious celebration occurring within a matter of days of the Christian Easter. While the timing didn’t sync precisely, remember that we have different methods of time-keeping at play between pagan customs and the way the Christian Church put together the calendar for their observances, and the Church has a long history of moving many of their celebrations to capitalize on ancient pagan rites, or to adapt those ancient celebrations to their new religion.
While the Norse sagas do specifically mention Winter Nights and Yule, the springtime celebration is never specifically called Ostara. We do however find ample celebrations held at this time amongst the Scandinavians: Sigrblot (which translates to victory sacrifice), Sumarmál or Surmanaetr (Summer Nights, sometimes occasionally called Summer Finding by modern heathens).
Now, I’m sure a few of you might be puzzled about why there would be a ‘victory sacrifice’ at what amounts to the beginning of the modern-day concept of Spring. In part the warmer months are generally when ancient peoples would conduct war-fare. But more than that, Spring is that balance between forces of Night (Nott) and Day (Dagr), and the transition has somewhat of a combative flare to it at times as well. (which was touched on by fellow Pantheon contributor Galina Krasskova when she writes of the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Hretha and the Roman God Mars). We also see that ‘balance’ as well as the importance of victory reinforced again in Sigdrifa’s Prayer. There also abound a number of theories by academics and modern heathens that look at possible connections between Eostre & Hretha, Eostre and Idunna, Eostre and Walpurga.
I have my own theory, or at least a partial insight. In Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology he describes several folk-practices, one where women appeared clad in white at the first dawn of the Summer (i.e. the modern day concept of Spring). This isn’t the first time we see women in a context with light clad in white. We see another folk tradition amongst the Scandinavians at Yule where there are females of the community acting as ‘light bringers’. While this is most commonly connected with the Christian observance of Saint Lucia’s Day, Lucia may in fact have pagan origins to the ancient figure of Lussi. As midwinter marks the return of the light from the darkest time of the year, the start of the summer represents the balance of light and dark. So could it be that these white clad females brought light on darkest night at Yule, and at the dawn of Summer are revealed as a symbolic representation of the changing cycles of the year?
The connection with dawn with this holy tide isn’t coincidental. Ostara, or Old English Eastre or Northumbrain Eostre, is believed to etymologically derive from a proto-germanic term meaning to shine, and that also relates to the east or the dawn (and this placement of the dawn and the east, correlates to the “Venus” star of the spring). Please also note that the etymology for the Old English term Eastre is believed to derives from the Old English ēast (in other words the cardinal direction), and thus suggests again another association with the dawn. While evidence is inconclusive, there are references to a possible Proto-Germanic goddess known as Austro. Still within the same etymological family, we then have the term Austriahenae or “Eastern Ones”, which is a known matron cultus (disir) from the Germanic Rhine-land, that has well over 100 votive stones found dedicated to them in the archaeological record. Could it be, that the folk custom described by Grimm of white clad women appearing at dawn might have its roots in this particular matron cultus? We don’t know. But it certainly is tantalizing food for thought.
Now, if we decide to branch out beyond this specific umbrella grouping of cultures and instead look at other cultures within the Proto-Indo European family we also see correlating Goddesses in other traditions, including the Roman Goddess Aurora and the Greek Goddes Eos, and even the Indian Goddess Ushas. Etymologically speaking, the names of these Goddesses all appear to be ‘in the family’.
While there’s no bit of history connecting the phenomena of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights that we know of to the aforementioned Goddesses… I personally think that the timing of this natural phenomena is of special note. It begins at the start of our autumn, and concludes around the start of our spring. Syncing up with the ‘winter’ of this ancient culture. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the Vikings or Teutonic tribes thought about the Northern Lights.
While we have a very strong prevalence of the east associated with a Goddess, there are two masculine Eastern references as well. The first is to the dwarf Austri who is one of four dwarves named for the cardinal directions that support Ymir’s skull, which in turn is the foundation for the sky and heavens above us. We also see from the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, a ‘eastern’ connection with Freyr, or rather very specifically with his aspect as Ing Freyr coming “from the East’, and its in part for this reason and his known connections with fertility that many heathens opt to also honor and make offerings to him on this day. In fact, Freyr is known as not only a god of fertility, but also as a god of peace. In Gylfaginning, Freyr is said to rule over “rain and sunshine and thus over the produce of the earth; it is good to call upon him for good harvests and for peace; he watches over prosperity of mankind.” Now doesn’t that sound like exactly what you might need at the start of the crop-growing season for the agricultural cycle ahead?
We’ve touched on the Holy Powers in our tradition that all relate to the etymological root word to ‘shine’ or ‘dawn’, and the related ‘east’. So let us now examine the term Easter. Simply put the term is not rooted in Abrahamic tradition, but was rather appropriated for use by the Church to apply to the Passover/Resurrection tradition. While to Christians the term Easter refers to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the symbolism of moving from death back into life stem from pagan understandings of the cycles.
If we think in very vague general terms about ancient rites and what was going on in the calendar year we see a pattern emerge. Since this was very much an agricultural religion, much of the holy tides revolve around the necessary life cycles. Spring was about re-seeding life, and new life, and new growth. Summer was the continuance of growth ‘maintenance’ of the crop, and also the time for war, travelers, and traders. The fall marked the harvest of the crop, and preparations to survive winter. And winter was a time to hold up, rest, and sleep, and a time of death as well.
While no one individual piece of evidence is definitive, this overwhelming body of supportive (albeit somewhat indirect) evidence does to my mind make it really clear that yes not only was there a religious holy tide at this time, but that yes there was a Goddess Ostara as well, although it appears just as we have regional variances with the leader of the Wild Hunt amongst the heathen peoples (The Goddess Perchta in Germany, and the God Odin in Scandinavia) that we also had some regional variation here as well. As someone who has invoked Her and given her offerings through the years there is absolutely no doubt to my mind that she is in fact very much real.
Below are the words to an invocation I sing to Her.
Goddess of the sunrise Shining in the east Spring now from your slumber Ostara so we plead
So what about Easter traditions like the Easter Bunny and eggs?
From observations of the ancient world, this is indeed the time of eggs, which often times represented the first substantial food that ancient heathens would have had after exhausting their winter stores. Chickens for instance generally won’t lay eggs until there are so many hours of daylight. As to how the association of hares with eggs came about… well that’s two-fold. First, now that winter was over the hares were entering into their breeding season that would last for a few months. Hares like their distant cousins rabbits, are known to have multiple childbirths, and be able to give birth to several litters in a year and thus have a reputation for “going at it like bunnies”. Unlike their rabbit cousins who live in underground burrows, hares live in above ground nests. And since birds lay eggs in nests… and both hares and eggs were suddenly around at the same time it is a reasonable conclusion that the two were connected.
While there are numerous folkloric traditions with egg decorating, egg fighting, egg rolling throughout the ancient heathen peoples, to my knowledge the oldest known decorated egg comes from outside our tradition and dates to sometime in the Iron Age and was found in Northern Africa (Ancient Carthage).
I do not celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, which is a day of holy obligation for Catholics in Ireland (as well as revered by a few other Christian denominations). Why would I, a heathen, celebrate a 5th Century Saint whose mission in life was to turn pagans from their Gods and ancestral ways? If he lived today he’d be trying to convert me away from the Gods of my life as well.
For those with Irish ancestry who take this day to celebrate their ancestry, that is all to the good. But remember there is a difference between a drunken revelry of green beer, and the celebration of a vast rich culture. There is a difference in remembering your ancestors and laying out offerings, telling their stories, and hailing their names versus urinating on the sidewalk because you’re behaving as a drunken fool.
While there are many stories about Saint Patrick, the tale of him driving out the snakes is the most wide known. Of course it’s also clearly historically impossible as snakes haven’t inhabited Ireland since the last Ice Age. Since the last one concluded more than 10,000 years before Patrick was even born it’s a bit ridiculous to think he drove out animals that weren’t even there. But not only did this story appear very late (centuries after his death), there’s also a belief in some corners that the story was allegorical, and the snakes were symbolical representations for the ancient pagans.
One of the commonly misperpetuated beliefs of the Asatru afterlife is that the end goal is for us all to go to Valhalla. For these individuals that put such importance on the warrior aspects of our religion they overlook a couple of things. Foremost is that Freyja also had choice of the battle-slain, so if you qualified you may end up going to Her hall, and NOT Valhalla. Secondly, while warrior aspects and cultuses were present in antiquity, ultimately the ancient cultures were agriculturally derived. As such, life and the afterlife was more than about war, instead it was representative of the entire culture and worldview.
Unfortunately, much of the information on the afterlife was lost during the time of Christian conversion. However a few select references within our tradition remain about a number of Halls and Gods that play host to the dead, including:
Hel – is both the name of the Goddess of the underworld who plays host to some of the dead, and is also the termreferring to the realm of the dead. Etymologically it’s believed this roots to simply the word for grave, as the place where the dead reside. It has no connotations of good or evil in and of itself. However within Hel there are 2 special subsections for where those who committed evil in life (oathbreakers, murders, etc.) were known to go: Nifolhel – where those who have committed evil go; Nastrond/possibly also Wyrmsele (in OE)- where the most evil are sent.
Battle-slain individuals (who were not evil) would go to – Odin’s Valhalla or Freyja’s Sessrumnir believed to be found in Fólkvangr.
We know that the hall Vingolf played host to the dead. But it’s unclear from the lore if this isanother one of Odin’s Halls where those who are not battle-slain may go, or it may also refer to a hall hosted by the Goddesses instead.
Those who die at sea are said to go to the Goddess Ran.
The Goddess Gefjon is said to play host to dead maidens.
Yuletide festivities conclude on Twelfth Night. Many modern Heathens will sync this with New Year’s Eve. It’s the last big party to celebrate a new year, celebrate the passing of the darkest (and in theory coldest of times) and to look forward to the lengthening days and warming temperatures. Of all the nights of Yule, this night seems to be the one most closely associated with the custom of wassailing, which embodies in part the customs around caroling as well.
Wassail, Hail, Heilsa, are all different versions of the same root word across a few different languages, which essentially relates to health, prosperity and luck, and was used prominently as a type of salutation. Not only would you use the word to greet someone, but the greeting also had the implication that you wished them good health. During the yuletide there is a specific type of beverage, that of wassail that was imbibed. This drink would vary by household but it was meant to be alcoholic, with some fruit juices in it and other seasonings to help fortify all who imbibed it for the year ahead. Gluhwein/Mulled Wine, or cider with mulling spices are examples of drinks in the wassailing tradition.
If you’ve ever heard the Christmas carol “Here we come a wassailing among the eaves of green” that’s where the tradition comes from– the wishing of good health and the drinking of wassail (a specific type of beverage imbibed for good health) during the yuletide celebrations. In some specific areas, those from lower socio-economic tiers would go singing to those of greater wealth, and the higher socio-economic household was supposed to give wassail to the carolers. We also see a number of folk-traditions that show not only songs sung in ancient yuletide celebrations, but also that people sometimes went into the orchards or fields and sang, no doubt asking for fertility and to reawaken from winter slumber in the time ahead.
For a heathen take on wassailing music (and other music of the season), you can check out Skaldic Hearth Kin’s “Winter Wassail” album available on iTunes, Amazon and other outlets.
While the concept ‘hail’ may seem antiquated, it’s still in use far outside modern heathen venues, or in connection with Christmas or yule celebrations. For instance, the President of the United States has a ‘theme song’ that is played as he makes his ‘entrance’ into many of his public appearances, the song is titled “Hail to the Chief” which colloquially means ‘greetings and good health to the chief/president’. It’s actually really common in many schools (college or high school) fight songs as well, like Purdue University. Infamously, most people remember it used in the ‘Heil Hitler’ of Nazi Germany.
A Twelfth Night Prayer
Hail Mundilfari the time-turner
for another year’s ending,
and another’s beginning
has come upon us again.
In the spirit of the season
we have braved the dark nights and cold,
traversed snow and ice,
to visit and make merry
with our family and friends,
our neighbors and community.
When we have seen those in need
we gave generously of ourselves
to brighten and warm their days,
for the health and well-being of all.
Mundilfari we hail your Children,
through whom we measure the passage of time:
Sunna, the Ever-shining one,
Goddess of the dancing Sun in the sky
Mani, the silver-gleaming,
God of the waxing and waning Moon
Sinthgunt, fair twinkling
Star Goddess of sparkling grace
Their guiding light
reminds us in the darkest of times
that there are paths yet to travel
and hope yet at hand,
and that You are with us always,
as constant as the passage of time.
Hail to Night and Her Daughters,
and Day and His Sons!
May we know no ill-tidings in the days
of promise that lie ahead.
May this new year be ripe
with blessings for us to harvest.
So we hail!
Most Pagans are quite familiar with the fact that many of the so-called ‘Christmas’ traditions have their origins from ancient polytheistic cultures and their festivities such as Saturnalia, Yule etc. This even includes Santa Claus.