Are Heathen Beards Sacred?

So there’s been a bit of a push in recent years that somehow male facial hair was extra special to ancient Heathens, and this has been the basis for some today to ask for special waivers who are serving in the military, such as stories of US service men who are being granted these waivers. I am glad to see that the military is open to these religious accommodations for not only Heathens, but those of other religious and cultural groups too.

While I have no problem with people making a personal choice in their appearance, or making symbolic outward choices as a way to express their own devotions, I do find it highly problematic that the notion that a Heathen man >must< have facial hair (as an aspect of religious identity) is being so strongly pushed and spreading into the community at large.

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Image depicting an Assortment of Modern Beard Styles

So I decided to do a deep dive into the supposed sources for this drive from the lore, but in the process also discovered that this push in modern times is in particular coming from a fringe males only ‘religious’ group whose focus is on masculinity, not the Reginn.

FROM THE HISTORICAL SOURCES

Most who are arguing for it, are using Njal’s Saga as their point of reference, where the eponymous Njal is repeatedly insulted as being unmanly for his lack of being able to grow a beard. (In much the way some men will mock adolescent males who can’t grow a full beard yet today). The entire saga, is one of the feud sagas, and really can be seen as being exaggerated with a lot of commentary over what is manly and what is unmanly, and the overly hyped up importance of what is or isn’t honorable. You have Thorhall Asgrimsson ashamed to be caught grieving, but he’s not crying tears rather he is weeping blood out of his ears when he learns of Njal’s death.  The saga itself is full of absurdity, and has very little to do with religion at all.  

To dive a little deeper it is important to note that Njal’s Saga was written in the 13th century, a good two centuries or more after the events it supposedly describes. Respected scholar Gabriel Turville-Petre reminds us to take the story with a grain of salt, “It was not the author’s purpose to write a work of history, but rather to use a historical subject for an epic in prose”. It was penned in Christian times, and so the entire concept of it being representative of pre-Christian custom is entirely suspect. We have ample evidence from the later sagas of those scholars that penned them alluding to other great works like Snorri’s claim Odin was the Trojan King, and Thor was the hero Hector. So we clearly see these late scholars adding things of their own choice to the stories. So we need to be mindful of this when looking at Njal’s saga. To assume the tale is 100% authentic is folly at best. Another reference often used to build the case for sacred beards, derives from the Guta Lag (Law of the Gotlanders), that lists a penalty for injury to a beard. Again this dates to the 13th Century (by which time the area is under Christian control). But this is also the same source that makes it clear performing a blot was a criminal act. So you know it’s entirely possible hair customs by this point and time are counter to pre-Christian times. There were many laws enacted throughout Scandinavian about anything that was tied to old religious custom. So if a custom was rooted in religious heathen practice, like the consumption of horse-meat, it was outlawed. So if hair (including facial hair) was a religious custom of pre-Christianity, there’s a strong likelihood it would have legal  prohibitions against practicing/wearing it if it denoted Heathen religious significance. 

Looking at the mention in Guta lag from a secular point of view, so much of our pride of self comes to our appearance, and the choices we exert in how we choose to appear and style ourselves. So it seems reasonable to me there’d be a penalty for taking that choice away from someone, especially if the intent was to somehow ridicule, denigrate, or degrade a person. Considering there are also laws that outline what the penalty is for giving someone a facial scar, it seems to fall more into a category of personal appearance, than it does to any sort of religious signifier.

 

The better sources to me are the earlier ones. We see in eye-witness reports at least among the Rus that men were described as having both facial hair or preferring shaven faces. Ibn Fadlan’s account comes to us from 951 CE. This source is at least a contemporaneous resource and eye-witness account (not written centuries after the fact, but rather written and penned during Heathen times). 

Descriptions of the Rus men from Ibn Fadlan describe the heathen men as wearing their beards plaited, or presenting a shaven face, thus the issue of facial hair seemed to be a personal choice. However, those with beards bleached them to a saffron yellow using a strong lye soap. Now the Viking Age peoples of Northern Europe had a lot of influence and ancestry in many cases from the Germanic Tribes.

While the term “Germanic” is as culturally nuanced as the term “Viking” (and can be defined differently by scholars and contemporaries), the later Viking Age peoples and the powerful tribes of the time either came from descended offshoots of those Germanic tribes (the Yngvonnes become the Angles for example), or settled in areas where those tribes had once held sway and in the process there was cultural blending. Many Germanic tribes shared cultural touchstones like Odin or Woden (as well as other common deities) with what we see pop up later in Viking Age Scandinavian religion, so while one has to be careful NOT to say the cultural values and practices are the same, we can look to these earlier sources and see where we can find parallels, and it is worth examining what was happening among them as well.

So as we look even further back to the customs of the Germanic tribes, we find some interesting references to hair and facial hair customs. Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, he noted a custom of bleaching hair and beards commonly done among Germanic men of the tribe that evokes what we see later in Ibn Fadlan’s time among the Rus. “Soap is the invention of the Gauls and this is used to redden the hair. It is made from fat and ashes. The best is beech wood ash and goat fat, the two combined, thick and clear. Many among the Germans use it, the men more than the women.” We’re not sure if this was a aesthetic choice for the yellow blonde color, or if as has been suggested by other scholars that the dye was a secondary effect and the primary purpose was to be used to treat and prevent any infestations of lice, fleas and other pests.

In Chapter 31 of Tacitus’s Germania we learn about the Germanic tribe of the Chatti. Among them, once a male Chatti achieved manhood they let their beard and hair grow as a symbol of their warrior duty to their family and tribe. Only those who stood over the bleeding bodies of their defeated enemies could then shave their face and cut their hair. So long hair and a beard was seen as the mark of a coward, or those who were unwarlike.

Tacitus’ also talks in chapter 38 about the Suebi tribe, and mentions a particular hair style, the Suebian Knot. “One mark of the race is to comb the hair back over the side of the head and tie it low in a knot behind: this distinguishes the Suebi from other Germans, and the free-born of the Suebi from the slave.” So here we see a cultural custom that denotes free membership of a particular tribe, so thereby denotes status, but seemingly has no mention to it having any religious import. Tacitus goes on to describe how the custom does occasionally crop up outside the Suebi, “In other tribes, whether from some relationship to the Suebi, or, as often happens, from imitation, the same thing may be found; but it is rare and confined to the period of youth.”  He provides us with more information to, of how he custom is kept until old age, and how there is a special style worn to denote status of elevated rank to: “Among the Suebi, even till the hair is grey, the rough locks are twisted backward, and often knotted on the very crown: the chieftains wear theirs somewhat more ornamentally, to this extent interested in appearances, but innocently so.”

Sidonius, in his Letters, talks about the sea-faring blue-eyed saxon and their tendency to shave back their hair, “along the extreme edges of his pate the razor, refusing to restrain its bite, pushes back the frontier of his hair and, with the growth thus clipped to the skin, his head is reduced and his face enlarged.” Some debate is had on if it was just hair, or hair and facial hair that rendered the appearance of such a wide face.

 

We need to also consider that there’s definitely a difference between a cultural aesthetic norm of the time, and a religious tradition. In Greece, those who served Vesta had a specific hairstyle to denote them, that’s religious. Automatically anyone who saw that hairstyle KNEW it denoted something specifically religious in that culture. We also know that as part of a rite from boyhold into adulthood, that in Greek culture boys grew their hair long, and upon their ephebeia (coming of age) their hair would be cut short and the shorn locks would be given in offering to Apollo in his aspect of Apollo Kourotrophos (protector of the young). These are authentic examples of a religious oriented hair custom.

But a woman with a short bob hairstyle from the 1920s was just wearing something that was a cultural fad of fashion and aesthetics, the way a handlebar mustache was normally worn during the 19th century as a mode of fashion by many men. Men of a certain time may have culturally had a norm for their hair to appear a certain way, that had nothing whatsoever to do with it being an indication of religious practice. Some fashions and aesthetics had to do about hierarchical rank, and nothing to do about religious station. We see this especially with the dress codes of what men and women of notable rank could wear, versus the rest of the populace in England for instance, with even degrees of separation between ranks among the aristocracy. Or we see this with the Suebi and the Suebian knot, as a special version was worn by chieftains versus other free men of the tribe, and those without it were slaves or outsiders of the tribe. 


The Eddas and Sagas usually describe men and Gods with beards. But these sources come to us post-conversion, sometimes centuries later, and are being penned by Christian scholars. The few exceptions are some of the skaldic poetry that is widely ignored. Some of those skalds were in fact heathens, or had formerly been heathen but converted to Christianity in their lifetime. So when it comes to what is in the sagas and eddas we always need to take it with a grain of salt and recognize it is not going to be 100% authentic. So even if persons or deities in the lore are described with or without a beard is immaterial when it comes to the issue at hand: did beards import sacredness? We have no reference anywhere to the time period, that the way a man’s hair was worn, or a man’s facial hair was treated (bearded and styled, or kept shaven) had any specific religious significance. If we look to the Germanic tribes we can make a case about cultural norms of the tribe, and even status, but we cannot make a case for a beard being perceived as being tied to sacred expression.

 

When we look to the archaeological record from bodies, to depictions in art we see a vast array of examples of hair and facial hair ranging from:

  • long beards (conical or plaited) – Kirkby Stephen Stone believe to depict Loki, Bone Gamepiece from Lund, Þórr Figure from Akureyri, Ithyphallic Freyr Figure from Rallinge, Tängelgårda Rune Stone
  • mustache with close trimmed beard – Carved head from Oseberg Ship Burial, Gunnar in the Snakepit Carving on Sledge from the Oseberg Ship Burial, Vendel Helmet Plate of Odin
  • beards but no mustaches
  • mustaches with no beards – Helmet Plate from Torslunda, Loki Snaptun Stone, Carved Head on Sledge from the Oseberg Ship Burial
  • and clean shaven faces – Bayeaux Tapestry, Sutton Hoo Burial Mound 1, Gold Bracteates from Funen Denmark,  
If we look across the guldgubber kissing figures, a motif found across a multitude of goods at various sites, created roughly in the same period, we see that the male usually has a pointed chin indicating a beard, but in some depictions the male figure appears clean shaven. In more than one case in the archaeological evidence, we find a site that gives us multiple depictions of men’s facial hair at the same site, with artifacts dated to within very short period of time to each other. The Oseburg Ship Burial has given us depictions of men with mustaches and close trimmed beards, as well as a man with a mustache and no beard. In Sutton Hoo Mound 1 we have two men with mustaches and conical beards, one man with no mustache but a conical beard, and then a combination of men with mustaches but not beard, or men who were clean shaven.  Similarly the Bayeaux Tapestry depicts both clean-shaven men, and men who only had thin mustaches.


At best we can only make the argument that beards and the wearing of them is a matter of personal choice and cultural aesthetics of a time period, possibly a symbol of some sort of social status for a geo-specific culture but not a widespread symbol of religious dedication.

 

THE MODERN – YET FRINGE- DRIVER OF SACRED BEARDS

I discovered one of the big pushes for this modern surge for sacred beards in Heathenry is coming from a Norwegian based males-only organization homed at FornSidr.com, who will give support to US or Canadian soldiers wanting to make the request, but ONLY if they are a dues paying member (which also requires you to sign up pay an annual membership fee, and complete certain coursework which has additional price tags attached to it first). Funny, how a Norwegian organization is so interested in what’s happening in North America. Is this push just some tactless cash grab? Probably, at least in part.

They seem AWFULLY concerned about perceptions of masculinity. Here’s a couple of screenshots from their page:

 

And quoting their statement from the screenshot (in case anyone has difficulties viewing it):

WE ARE NORÐMENN

We are defined by innate and natural biological traits and characteristics essential to the very survival of our species, and based on hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

Our fair skin has allowed us to thrive in the winter darkness of the north and our exceptional fitness, stoicism, and resilience to settle the harshest environments on earth. We have built western civilization with our genes, blood and sweat.

We celebrate our ancestral primal, tribal and warrior nature, and we foster our óðr through channelled aggression and sexuality outside of modern societal as well as abrahamic constructs. We protect our lands, our resources, our culture, and our own, against all threats.

We embrace equality of opportunity, competition, as well as natural selection, and we welcome as our brothers, through life and beyond, all those men who share our identity and ethos.

We are the sacred essence of life and we perpetuate mankind complemented by women whose essential and primary nurturing role has been defined by nature from times immemorial.

WE ARE MEN

I don’t know about you, but this description makes me highly suspicious of the group’s motivations. And as of 2019 they’ve trademarked the term Forn Sidr, a term used to describe religious identity for decades across areas of Europe and are going after other groups using it, such as Forn Sidr of America. In one such article about the brouhaha between FS and FSoA by the fringe ‘news source’ Helluland National Broadcasting Service (which realistically is highly editorialized propaganda pieces as their self-descriptor is “Uncensored news from a Viking Perspective”that is of course ironic considering the Vikings were a historical culture from centuries ago and there’s no nation of Helluland) wrote “Is there anything women of all genders will not ruin?” referring to the women and transgendered women behind Forn Sidr of America as HNBS’ article on the subject clearly could be summarised by stating FS is awesomely right, and this FSoA is disgusting. As I dug down I clearly saw links between FS, HNBS, Helluland.org, Wall-of-women.org and Norskk.com as they seem to have some of of inter-connected relationship in the clickable links between them.

So I am going to state here that I’ve stumbled upon part of the crazy fringe of modern Heathenry. Anyone letting (at least partially misogynistic), hyperly masculine groups drive what is and isn’t sacred (in this case beards as they have an entire page dedicated to it), really needs to stop and think things through. Their rhetoric makes it very clear their focus is more on masculinity and themselves, than it is the Reginn and other holy powers. They have a page devoted to the statement “We are Men” in multiple languages, and a page devoted to beards on their site. Do I see a page devoted to any of the Gods or Goddesses? Not a one. In fact they oxymoronically call the beard a religious symbol, while also making it clear they neither pray nor worship any of the Holy Powers: “In fact, we do not pray or worship per say the Æsir, Ásynjur, Vanir, Jötnar, Aðrir, Kindir, or Kynja.”

Screenshot 2020-07-25 06.01.23

The only time I see Gods mentioned at all are only in passing, like when they’re trying to make their cases about the need for male warriors to have access to violence and sex, and when violence isn’t an option they need to offset it with more sex. Oh and the only warriors are men (also proclaimed by the sister organization who likes to debunk shield-maidens and women warriors all while sporting anatomy differences for why women shouldn’t fight, funny how the sister organization’s content all links to the Norskk page instead of being a true stand alone site).

So my distillation summary of the group is that they are an extreme fringe faction that promotes a modern fantasy cultural way of life for the self-inflated male ego along viking warrior themed lines. Their religion is that of their SELF.

There are other increasingly fringe extremist and white supremacy groups on the edges of our religion also pushing for the beard for their own reasons. While not every soldier wanting to wear a beard is from such a group, I think the problem is that so many of these groups have gotten so good about hiding their real intent when they promote various types of propaganda, that it confuses others.

 

MY FINAL THOUGHTS

 

I personally don’t care if some decide to wear a beard as a sign of their personal devotion. Such a choice is to me synonymous with the person who chooses to wear period garb for ritual as it puts them into sacred mindfulness, or how another will get a tattoo, or wear a certain piece of jewelry as representational of their religious devotion. Those are indeed beautiful acts of religious expression, and things not to be mocked. Nor do I want to mitigate those who feel that a deity has asked them to do a thing as well in honor of Them. But the insistence I see by some that it was irrefutably the case, that it MUST be done, is neither factual or historically accurate. Nothing in lore or found in the archaeological record definitively points to facial hair as a religious codifier. Don’t let the propaganda of a fringe group that doesn’t even worship the Gods and Goddesses muddy the issue: we have no evidence that beards were perceived as being sacred. But to an individual heathen man who makes a choice to wear one for that reason, it can be sacred to him.

Norse Mythology for Kids — Gangleri’s Grove

Re-blogging. ^_^ My copy just arrived in the mail.

 

A few years ago when visiting Denmark, I was able to spend part of a day with Mathias Nordvig, who showed my oath-sister and I a lovely time around the Moesgard Museum, and then lunch afterwards. At the time he was still deep in his student studies in pursuit of his Nordic Mythology PhD from […]

via Norse Mythology for Kids — Gangleri’s Grove

Black Lives Matter, Wotan Network, and Taking a Knee

There’s an ancient curse “may you live in interesting times” and I think each and every one of us can say that 2020 certainly fits the bill. The pandemic, and the attendant economic crisis resulting from it was shocking enough. But now the news for days and days has been about protestors who are rightfully marching about the police brutality experienced disproportionately by minorities.

I don’t personally know what it is to live as a black person in America. My complexion is not only fair, it’s so pale that even the lightest of makeup is too dark for me. But there’s no doubt in my mind that racial inequality not only exists, but they have a bull’s eye painted on their backs. Yes, all lives matter, but the problem is it’s the non-white lives that are bearing the brunt of the problem at hand. Black lives most notably as seen by cases like Treyvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and a sad litany of so many other names. This isn’t new, the fact we have video of George Floyd’s death, and the clear fact he wasn’t resisting has galvanized a nation. Much as the death of another black life incited a nation decades ago.
In August, 1955 fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was attacked by two white men in Mississippi in a lynching that left him dead and mutilated because he had spoken with a white woman who was the proprietor of the grocery store he was in (it’s hard to know exactly what was said, since various witnesses later admitted they lied). Her husband and brother-in-law tracked him down days later, abducted him from his great-uncle’s house, and proceeded to brutally kill him, tossing his body weighed down with a 75-pound metallic fan and wrapped up in barb wire into the Tallahatchie River. The body was discovered three days later. His mother raw with rage and grief, insisted on an open casket. She wanted people to see what had been done to her son, and see they did. Fifty thousand people saw his corpse with their own eyes at the funeral in Chicago. Thousands more saw it when photographs (with the mother’s permission) were published in Jet Magazine, and his death especially with the visual violence seen on his body by so many became a major catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.  You can see one of those photos here: The 100 Most Influential Images of All Time (view at your own discretion). The perpetrators were acquitted of his murder, and because of double jeopardy laws bragged a short time later as they confessed in interviews they had in fact killed him.

Continue reading “Black Lives Matter, Wotan Network, and Taking a Knee”

The Holy Tides – Walpurgis, Summerdaeg, May Day

For many pagans, this is the time of year where they honor and celebrate Beltane one of the pagan holidays that comprise their Wheel of the Year. For those of us in the Northern Tradition (referring to the religious belief rooted in ancient Germania, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England with a common worship to Woden/Odin), we have our own celebrations known as holy tides (from the Old Norse hátíðir). Traditions can vary from one community to another in this area, and timing of the celebrations can vary as well. But while our pagan cousins might be looking forward to Beltane, for Heathens we’re getting ready to celebrate Walpurgis, May Day, and Summerdaeg, but trying to discern the pre-Christian celebrations and origins of this holy tide can be a bit tricky.

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Maypole by Eli Reiman

 

Typing ‘Walpurgis’ into the ever-handy google… turns up detailed information about the Catholic saint Walpurga, but when it comes to the pre-Christian past the details seem vague at best. One has to do some digging to find anything of more substance. E.L. Rochholz’s 1870 folklore study, Drei Gaugtinen (Three Local Goddesses), describes Walpurga as a white lady with flowing hair, wearing a crown and fiery shoes. She carries a spindle and a three-cornered mirror that foretells the future.

“Nine nights before the first of May is Walburga in flight, unceasingly chased by wild ghosts and seeking a hiding place from village to village. People leave their windows open so she can be safe behind the cross-shaped windowpane struts from her roaring enemies. For this, she lays a little gold piece on the windowsill, and flees further. A farmer who saw her on her flight through the woods described her as a white lady with long flowing hair, a crown upon her head; her shoes were fiery gold, and in her hands she carried a three-cornered mirror that showed all the future, and a spindle, as does Berchta. A troop of white riders exerted themselves to capture her. So also another farmer saw her, whom she begged to hide her in a shock of grain. No sooner was she hidden than the riders rushed by overhead. The next morning the farmer found grains of gold instead of rye in his grain stook. Therefore, the saint is portrayed with a bundle of grain.” – Drei Gaugöttinen: Walburg, Verena und Gertrud, als deutsche Kirchenheilige. Sittenbilder aus germanischen Frauenleben. by E.L. Rochholz

For those of you that LOVE to really read into the meat of the matter with academic factoids, you might find this article by Winifred Hodge a fascinating read. An excerpt follows:

In Bavaria there is a very old Walburga’s chapel that is said to be located on the site of an older Heathen temple. The chapel stands on its own hill, surrounded by linden trees. Hills–especially hills standing alone–are in Germany traditionally the dwelling places of Holda and other Heathen holy female beings later seen as witches. Linden trees have always been holy to Frigga. Place-names and chapels stemming from Walburga (many associated with linden trees, hills, and holy wells) litter the landscape in Bavaria, Austria, and other germanic homelands. “The greatest number of the oldest churches in lower Germany are dedicated to this same saint.” (Rochholz, p.17). “Lower Germany” includes what are now the Netherlands, Belgium, Saxony, and other regions of northern Germany–all regions where formerly the goddess Nehalennia was widely worshipped.

One of Saint Walburga’s chapels is found at Heidenheim Kloster, or Heathen-Home Closter, built by a holy spring there known as Heidenbrunnen, or Heathen Well. The name alone points to a pre-Christian origin, and holy springs were a common connection to cultic sites of pre-Christian worship, as we see in Tacitus’ description of Nerthus‘ holy spring in his Germania, and also in a large corpus of surviving folklore including stories to the Goddess Hel’s pond found in modern Berlin.

But for a more down-to-earth understanding May Day numbers as one of the Summer holy-days, the first being Eostre/Ostara. Do I hear a few mental thought processes screeching to a halt at that statement among my readers? Let me explain. Today, our culture embraces the concept of the 4 seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. But, in the countries of the ancient Northern Tradition by their cultural worldview there were only two seasons: Summer and Winter. Summer began at the time of Eostre… for summer was viewed as life thriving in the land. Thus, the Summer Solstice (which is viewed as the start of our summer today) was their MidSummer. Winter was characterized by the decay and dormancy of the land. A time when food was scarce, people were dwelling indoors within close quarters and the combination of the cold, potential malnourishment, and disease took many lives.

As the first summer holy-day, Eostre coincided with the awakening of the land from its sleep. Even though some plants were growing, it was still a season where cold snaps and the stinging breath of winter still came to nip the noses of ancient Heathens. This awakening of the land told those who worked the fields that it was time to prep the fields. Time to plow the fields and prepare them for the crops to come. May Day is a demarcation, that winter’s lingering sting should be passed and that the awakened earth now laid ripe and powerful with fertility, in other words it was a perfect time for planting as you should be past the season of freezes. The Goddess Walpurga became Christianized as Saint Walpurga, who was prayed to by German Christians for aid in overcoming “pest, rabies and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft.”

There is no doubt to my mind that the burning of witches, was a Christianization that vilified the so called ‘witchery’ and other pre-Christian practices originally associated with the night. But if we look at these prayers as a whole, I think they speak to her having an ability to chase away some of the illnesses that run rampant in winter. There are also Christian traditions tied to the Saint in France and Germany that tied to warding against bad weather. May Day embodies the final chasing away of the Winter, while honoring the local landvaettir, as well as the Gods and Goddesses for a bountiful harvest, good weather, and good health. Although prayers to insure there were no blights be it by insects, disease, or the weather were especially merited.

In De temporum ratione, Bede mentions ever-so-briefly about the existence of the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Hrethe (latinized by Bede as Rheda) who was given sacrifices in Spring. Just as we have certain Gods tied to days of the week (Woden’s Day is Wednesday), Her name was used for a month: Hrēþmōnaþ, just as Eostre‘s was used for Ēostermōnaþ. In the Old English Dictionary by Gerhard Köbler, he suggests Hrēþmōnaþ also meant ‘month of Wildness’.  While very little is known about this Goddess, the wildness of the transitional season between Winter and Spring may be somewhat analogous to what we see with the wildness of Walpurga. While in Anglo-Saxon areas the months went Hrēþmōnaþ followed by Ēostermōnaþ, we have records in Old High German that the corresponding months on the continent were Lenzin-mānod (Spring Month) followed by Ōstar-mānod (Ostara / Easter Month).May in the Anglo-Saxon calendar was the month of three milkings, and in Old High German it was the pasture month. This to me supports that we are in warming weather, and things are more stable than they can be in early Spring. It may very well be the wildness was part of the Spring season, and the celebration of Walpurgis Night was a culmination to the end of the worst of the turbulent weather patterns, and the end of the Wild Hunt’s influence for certain geo-specific communities in Germanic areas in antiquity.


Our best sources from the Northern Tradition are seen in Germanic traditions that survived late into the Christian era and persist today, many of them penned by folklorists such as Jacob Grimm. But May–as it does in many places that feel the especially cold bite of Winter–holds a special affinity for the local people.

 

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Knospen sprangen,
Da ist in meinem Herzen
die Liebe aufgegangen.

In the wondrous month of May,
When all buds were bursting into bloom,
Then it was that in my heart
love began to blossom.

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Vögel sangen,
Da hab, ich ihr gestanden
mein Sehnen und Verlangen.

In the wondrous month of May,
When all birds were singing,
Then it was I confessed to her
my longing and desire.

Excerpt from “A Poet’s Love” by Heinrich Heine (1779-1856), translation by Richard Stokes, The Book of Lieder.

 

These stanzas express all the romantic feelings Germans associate with the month of May. But more than just this, as we see in the surviving traditions most especially in Germany, this was a time associated with witchcraft and the things that go bump in the night. While Americans tend to think of the time around Samhain or Halloween as the ‘spooky’ time, in Germany these associations are more prevalent with Walpurgisnacht rooted in the pagan Frƒhjahrsfest (Spring Festival). Folk tradition talks about such things as women flying around on broomsticks, witches throwing curses, mysterious blue flames, and the Wild Hunt pursuing the Goddess Walpurga through both snow and hail. (In other areas of the Northern Tradition, we see the Wild Hunt associated with Odin or Holda/Perchta during either Winter Nights, or Yule as there was regional variance).
“There is a mountain very high and bare, whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis Night,” writes folklorist Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology about the Brocken, sometimes shown on old maps as the Blocksberg. “Our forefathers kept the beginning of May as a great festival, and it is still regarded as the trysting time of witches.” He notes that witches invariably resort to places where justice was formerly administered, or blood was spilled: “Almost all witch mountains were once hills of sacrifice.”
The mountains described are in Germany’s Harz Mountains, which straddle the former border between East and West Germany. The mountain range is known for moody river valleys dwarfed by towering cliffs, gloomy forests, and a multitude of craggy peaks, add in some fog and it’s the perfect setting for the classic horror yarn. Plus it has a unique meteorological phenomenon all its own: the Brockengespenst, which is an optical illusion that during the setting sun a person walking at certain spots will have their shadow cast in such a way that it becomes greatly magnified and it will appear on clouds or in the mist far, far removed from where the person actually is. This shadow in turn, can even sometimes be surrounded by an aura of rainbow like bands or rings, which science tells us is the result of the diffraction of sunlight by water droplets in the clouds.

 

brockengespenst1
Brockengespenst

 

It is no wonder that this mountain range has so long held symbolic ties to witchcraft and the other worldly, this is even where Goethe chose to set the Witches’ Sabbath scene in Faust. The mountain range is also the unfortunate site of a multitude of real world ‘witch’ burnings. In 1589, ecclesiastical authorities of Quedlinburg’s St. Servatius Abbey sentenced 133 “witches” to be burned at the stake covering everything from herbalism, folk healing, or anything that was deemed “heathen”, and everything from failing crops, convulsions and seizures were deemed to be caused by witches.

Even after the end of the ‘Dark Ages’, during the so-called Age of Enlightenment “witches” were still being burned in large numbers, between 1623 and 1633, the prince-bishops of the Bavarian communities of Wƒrzburg and Bamburg, had executed at least 1500 “witches” alone. Even the bishop of Wƒrzburg’s own nephew could not escape the death sentence.

Science may have found the true culprit behind the “witches’ curses” that caused the failed crops, unexpected livestock illnesses and loss, as well as convulsions and seizures in humans: a fungi known as ergot. One of the staple crops, rye, is particularly vulnerable to this fungi when there’s been an abundance of both warm and damp weather. The fungi contains nerve toxins that can cause very vivid hallucinations, muscle spasms, pinpricking sensations, convulsions and even death in both humans and animals. The drug LSD is in fact derived from ergot.

Today, the shops in the mountain villages sell Harzhexen in droves (little felt witches on broomsticks) as Walpurgisnacht approaches, and witch hats or devil horns are also sold. In the village of Schierke there’s a kindergartener-led parade with the kids dressed up as witches and devils. When evening falls, the atmosphere has changed, as now there are shield maidens, kobolds, witches, devils, vampires and more. It becomes a giant village-hosted faire with entertainment, fireworks, and a bonfire.

 

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Harzhexen

The bonfire was used here in these mountain villages as a way to protect house and home against evil spirits and witches. But we also know that bonfires in other areas of the Northern Tradition were used by some to burn away the garbage of the year: broken items, and old clothes, symbolic representations that by burning them in somewhat effigy one gained good health and protection from ill-intended sorcery. Others leapt the flames, or their broomsticks.  I can see many of these customs boiling down to key concepts, such as a symbolic representation of chasing away the winter with summer heat, and by getting rid of the bad times and bad items to start renewed.

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Walpurgis Night by alinnman

Farmers who had been lazy and hadn’t yet plowed their fields were ‘gifted’ with little dolls to “shame” them into work. Folklorist E. L. Rochholz, says these dolls were called Walpurga, which may be yet another tie to that Goddess, and harkening to similar pre-Christian traditions such as how the Goddess Holle would punish those that hadn’t finished their work by the yuletide. These admonishments… were critical to community survival. Failure to contribute could, especially in a lean year, might mean starvation not only for the farmer but his neighbors.

So, in a day and age where many of us do not work the land, and certainly don’t farm for a living, sometimes there can be a bit of a disconnect with just how important these agricultural cycles are to the health and prosperity of a community. In the dead of winter, we can import strawberries from South American countries. If we have a hankering for some meat we just go to the store. Most of us don’t have to balance out which animals should be slaughtered, which kept for breeding or labor later in the year.

In fact, not only is May Day about the transition of Winter to Spring, but it also denotes a key time of industriousness. We see this represented in conjunction with the more obvious fertility aspects of May Pole traditions.

From ancient times, through to the present day many communities will erect a May Pole that has iconography or guild crests at the top to represent the ‘industry’ in the town. This is a symbol of pride, but it also shows the ‘growth’ that can happen, and needs to happen to help their community both survive and thrive.

 

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Maypole Topped with Local Bavarian Industries

 

While there is usually a larger communal May Pole erected, there are also smaller May Poles erected sometimes that are more for personal use. In parts of Germany, especially in the Rhine, men (usually younger ones) may erect a May Pole outside of the home of a woman he fancies (a girlfriend, a fiancée, or the girl he won at the village’s auction). The bachelor’s club of the village has certain rules for the man and his ‘prize’ they must observe from the time of the auction (usually around Ostara/Mardis Gras until May Day). Whichever man paid the most of any of the auctions that were held, becomes the May King and his lady the de facto Queen. In some regions, these May Poles need to be guarded, or men from other villages may steal them. This custom of the ‘auction’ we know dates back to at least the 1500s, and therefore I think dates back still further still, and it would not surprise me that it is a surviving folk tradition from a pagan practice. In other areas of Germany, the May King is determined through the “scramble” as they see who can climb the May Pole first, and he can choose his Queen.

The May Pole is quite clearly understood as a phallic object, and many academics have made much about the fact that most polytheistic and pagan traditions have a combination of earth-mother and sky-father (or vice versa). So, the pole can be seen as the union that brings fertility between land and sky (sun and rain). In the Northern Tradition we have the God Thor & the Goddess Sif as a rather obvious example of this symbolic formula.

There are a plethora of regional folk traditions associated with this holy tide throughout the modern-day places where Northern Tradition polytheism once reigned supreme. Today in Sweden for instance, their practices are tied quite intimately to song. On the evening of April 30th, you will hear voices raised in musical tribute to the Walburga, all throughout every village in Sweden as they celebrate Valborgsmässoafton (Walpurgis Eve). Huge bonfires are lit at dusk, and choral groups sing songs that celebrate Winter’s ending and the much-heralded arrival of Spring. This choral tradition dates back several centuries of continuous observance by student singers at both Uppsala and Lund Universities. There’s no doubt in mind that this is yet another example of the wassailing / caroling traditions we see in other places that also had once worshiped Odin as well.

For graduating high school seniors in Sweden, those young adults wear special clothing: their white studentmossor (caps). Celebrations tend to go through the night long after the fires have died down, and since May first is a national holiday it enables the revelry to be unreserved without worries of missing an early class, or shift at work.

 

So how can we celebrate this today?

Instead of burning old clothes, donate them. We may not have so many broken items that we haven’t already gotten rid of like in olden days, but it can even be a time to try to put past mistakes and grief behind you. You may not plow the land or reap the crops… but even if you make your livelihood as an artist you can pray that you may grow in skill and in customers.

Hailing and honoring your local vaettir is always a good idea. Traditional gifts are bread and butter, milk and honey. But vaettir are known for local tastes. So, if you’re in Texas your local vaettir may just appreciate some cool fresh water, Shiner Bock, or Cerveza with lime in addition to other offerings.

Hailing the Gods and Goddesses is (of course) always welcome. Many will hail those associated with the land or the working thereof: Goddesses like Nerthus, Jörd, Gefjon, Sif. The Vanic deities of Freyr and Freya are also popular because of their strong associations with fertility of the land, most especially Freyr. In fact Adam of Bremen in the Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. writes how Fricco (believed to be Freyr) had a statue fashioned with a phallus, was known for bringing pleasure to mortals, and libations were given to him upon marriage too. We see some of this echoed in the Gylfaginning “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” (Brodeur’s translation). Scholar Britt-Mari Näsström writes of how Freya was targeted by Christianization: “Freyja is called “a whore” and “a harlot” by the holy men and missionaries, whereas many of her functions in the everyday lives of men and women, such as protecting the vegetation and supplying assistance in childbirth were transferred to the Virgin Mary.” Despite the Christianization some folk remnants have remainds, for instance in Sweden, we have surviving folk tradition that lightning is Freya checking to see if the rye is ripe.

Others may hail Thor (as he has ties to storms) to ask that He brings rain to help the crops, but would He be so kind as to please keep His enthusiasm in check… well at least over the crops.  Many will choose to hail Weyland since His role as blacksmith is representative of all the other types of industry through which we use so that we can provide for ourselves, our family, and in turn strengthen our community.  Some groups put far too much importance on Hailing a specific Deity, but to me the importance is not in any one Deity over another, but that you choose to a Hail a Deity based on the dictates of your own heart and conscience within the theme of the season or what is occurring in your own life at that time. Follow your heart, so long as the words come from a place of sincerity and respect all will be well. But if you’d like perhaps a suggestion here’s a prayer I’ve drafted to the Goddess Walpurga:

 

Hail Walpurga!

The blessings fall from your voice,
carrying over the mountains,
rustling the leaves of the linden trees,
to make the dance grass on the hills,
and the water’s surface shimmer.

Let us drink.
Let us thrive.

Walk through the plowed fields
Nourishing the seeds of your benediction
So wheat and rye grow green in your steps
Flames of summer lip at your white hem
As Your song tames the Windhound.

Let us eat.
Let us thrive.

Garlanded in a floral crown
Your hair tossed in the wind
As new love sprouts and grows
Love’s fortune flourishes
In the gales of your laughter.

Let us love.
Let us thrive.

 

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My personal Walpurgis altar

You can give offerings of flowers and food. Great offerings to give in the way of food are dishes incorporating some of the seasonal fare available in your local area. In Texas the month of May is known for blueberries, blackberries, peaches, pears, all sorts of peppers, cucumbers, honeydew melon and cantaloupe. Not sure what is seasonal? Epicurious has you covered with an interactive seasonal map for the United States. (For any readers elsewhere, sorry! You’ll have to hope your google-fu is mighty!)

In addition to food, libations are always welcomed. A traditional German May Day punch known as Waldmeister Bowle can be made using sweet woodruff.

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Waldmeister Bowle

 

May Day Punch – Recipes for Waldmeisterbowle

So many of us are currently under shelter in place orders, as we all try to collectively cooperate to slow the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The passage of time seems somewhat surreal as we spend so much of our time now solely in our homes. Time is still moving forward, and we’re now less than 3 weeks from our holy tide of Walpurgis, known and celebrated by others as May Day or as Beltane.

To help get in the mood (and to allow you guys a chance to pick up ingredients) here’s  recipes for a traditional May Day Punch from Germany, known as Waldmeisterbowle.

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Of course finding the main ingredient, the waldermeister or woodruff, can be a bit tricky. Sweet woodruff is a perennial herb whose small white flowers bloom in May and June. It is widely available at garden nurseries in many parts of the US, and makes for an excellent ground cover (especially in shaded areas). Woodruff has a scent that’s been described as being a combination of part fresh mown grass/hay, part vanilla, & part cinnamon. Varying on the recipe you’ll either need to use the woodruff directly, or a syrup made from the woodruff.

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Do keep in mind that woodruff is a poisonous plant (but you have to ingest a very large quantity of it for it to be harmful), however many of the woodruff syrups available commercially today are artificially flavored and don’t actually contain woodruff.

You might find the herb at a specialty gourmet spice store near you, sometimes you can find it on amazon, or you may need to track down the plant from a nursery. There’s also a very common alternative instead of using genuine woodruff you can go find the faux Waldmeister syrup at specialty grocers or amazon. In Germany Waldmeister syrup is added to beer, soft drinks, sports drinks, ice cream, baked goods and more! There are other food products that are also made to capitalize on this traditional, seasonal flavor of Germany: gelatin, hard and soft candies including the crocodile treats that have been made for almost 100 years. Woodruff, or waldmeister, is very much a seasonal, and cultural taste of spring in Germany.

 

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WALDMEISTERBOWLE RECIPES

A Modern Traditional Recipe

  • 1 bunch of Waldmeister, known in the US as sweet woodruff* (about 0.2 to 0.35 ounces)
  • 2 squirts of lime juice or lemon juice
  • 2 bottles of dry white wine
  • 1 bottle of semi-dry sparkling wine
  • ice cubes

Let the bunch of woodruff dry somewhat and poor one bottle of white wine into a punchbowl. To prevent the toxic substances of the woodruff from entering the punch, you should dip the bunch of woodruff into the wine, tied together with a string so that the stem ends stick out; let steep for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the woodruff and discard. Add the remaining white wine and top off with the sparkling wine. Chill with ice cubes placed under the bowl. If you would like it sweeter, you may add some sugar.

Alcohol-free version

  • 1 tablespoon of sweet woodruff syrup
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 600 ml apple juice
  • 400 ml sparkling water

Mix all the ingredients and serve chilled.

An Alternative Recipe: IVAR’S MAY PUNCH
This appears to be from the Southern U.S. and represents an American twist from German descendants.

  • 1 gallon white wine (Riesling is best)
  • 1 pint Southern Comfort (gives it a peachy flavor), or Yukon Jack for a different flavor
  • 1 quart fresh strawberries, thoroughly cleaned and stems removed
  • 1/2 cup dried sweet woodruff herb (waldmeister), crumbled
  • 1/2 cup superfine sugar

Begin your preparation the day before the punch is to be consumed. This enables the flavors to bloom.

The day before the punch will be served:

Heat the Southern Comfort until it is very warm to the touch, but do
not let it boil. Steep the sweet woodruff in the Southern Comfort overnight (there is no need to refrigerate, but it is best to cover the mixture to prevent evaporation). Thoroughly dredge the
strawberries in the sugar. Place the sugared strawberries in a covered
container and refrigerate overnight. Chill the wine overnight.

The day the punch will be served:

Strain the Southern Comfort/woodruff mixture and discard the solid
material. The Southern Comfort may have a somewhat cloudy appearance
now. Not to worry.

Add the strained Southern Comfort / woodruff infusion to the wine and stir well. Add the sugared strawberries and any juice that may have leached out of them overnight. Stir. Chill the mixture for at least two hours before serving. If the punch bowl will be sitting at room temperature for a substantial period during the festivities, a single block of ice may be floated in the punch to keep it cold. Do not add small ice cubes or crushed ice, since they will melt quickly.

When you dole out the punch, try to make certain that every cup gets at least one of the strawberries.

 

Make Your Own Woodruff Syrup from Scratch

 

1st recipe

  • 1 bunch sweet woodruff (for this recipe, one that is not blooming yet)
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice (+ 1 teaspoon citric acid)

1. Cook a syrup from water, sugar, lemon juice and citric acid.

2. When the syrup is cool, pour into a bottle and add sweet woodruff in it. Let stand for about 5 days in the fridge or any other cool place.

3. After 5 days, remove the plant from the syrup, straining as necessary. Close the syrup in the bottle. Optional: In Germany people would add a few drops of green food coloring, since there everything related with sweet woodruff should be green. 

2nd recipe

  • 1/2 l apple juice (without sugar!)
  • 250 g honey
  • 1 bunch sweet woodruff

1. Steep woodruff in apple juice for 20 minutes. After this time, strain the juice from the plant.

2. In a saucepan, cook (very briefly) the apple-woodruff juice mixture with honey. While still hot, fill the bottle. To prepare a delicious drink, dissolve 1 part of apple-sweet woodruff syrup in 4 parts mineral water.

3rd recipe

  • 300 g (1 & 1/4 cups) water
  • 250 g (1 cup) sugar
  • 25 sweet woodruff blooms
  • lemon juice

1. Add blossoms to water, and stir.

2. Cover container of blossom water with cling film (plastic wrap) and let it rest at room temperature for 24 hours.

3. Add sugar to a pot, and drain the blossom water through a sieve into the pot. Now turn the cooktop to high, and bring the mixture to a boil. Once it starts to boil, turn off the stove.

4. You’ll want to let the mixture cool to room temperature, and now you can store it, or use it. When it’s time to use it, it’s recommended you add some lemon juice (1/4 cup) as it brightens the flavor, and then add that to your punch.

This recipe comes with a youtube video on how to make it here.

HAVE FUN, BUT REMEMBER TO DRINK RESPONSIBLY.

 

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The Healing Gods and Goddesses of the Northern Tradition

As a gythia (priestess), one of the questions I am asked the most is what deity would be good to pray to for ‘X’. In times of crisis, I field a great many more of these sorts of questions. Currently with the global pandemic of Covid-19, I thought it would be a good idea to spotlight all the deities (and there’s more than a dozen!) who are known to have ties to healing in the Northern Tradition (those cultures from ancient Germania, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England with a common worship to Odin/Woden).

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Continue reading “The Healing Gods and Goddesses of the Northern Tradition”

GIVEAWAY – HEALING GODS

So many of us are worried right now, and I love the fact that Galina is hosting a give away of some of her prayer cards for the various Gods and Goddesses who traditionally are known for ties to healing. There’s prayer cards from Greco-Roman, and Northern Tradition deities offered among the prizes.

Check it out, share it.

via GIVEAWAY – HEALING GODS

Word Heathen Trademarked by Secular Company, Attacking Heathen Artisans

The ancient followers and believers of the old Gods of Germany, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England did not have a name that they called their religion because their religious identity was simply part of their cultural identity. It wasn’t until Christianity encroached on these ancient polytheistic cultures that the term Heathen (used by the 4th Century Christian Goth Ulfilas in his translation of the Bible) was first employed to distinguish between Christians and the ‘other’ in these areas. It is believed that Ulfilas was inspired to follow the example the Romans had created when they termed the word pagan. Ulfilas’ use of the term heathen in his translation of the Bible would trickle down the centuries until the word was used in various Viking Age sagas later. In the modern day the term has been picked up and claimed by tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) across the globe today as a religious identifier.

You can’t and shouldn’t be able to trademark a religious term or identifying phrase. That belongs to those who use it. This trademark protection essentially throttles religious freedom, and threatens our Heathen artisans and small businesses, as they face legal and financial threats for using the word Heathen on goods, or in product descriptions.

Heathen is a religious term recognized by the United States Department of Defense in their “Faith and Belief Codes for Reporting Personnel Data of Service Members”. We have religious books under this identifier, such as: A Modern Guide to Heathenry, Hearth and Field: A Heathen Prayer Book, or Gods’ Own Country: A Heathen Prayer Book. Go to Goodreads and you can find a vast listing of religious books under the heading of Heathen. You can find a number of religious music with titles in it featuring the word Heathen, or find a large amount of religious music online under the heading of being a Heathen Songbook (like at the Odin’s Gift website, http://www.odins-gift.com/wichtig/heathensongbook.htm ). Go to Etsy and type the search term Heathen in and look at all the religious items that show up for our religious community: statues, devotional jewelry, ritual and altar goods. This is our religious expression, and the trademark infringes upon our religious freedoms.

I’ve signed the petition, and I encourage every Heathen, polytheist, and our allies to take a moment to sign it too, and when doing so remind and reinforce in your comments this is a religious term.

Gangleri's Grove

I recently signed a petition, and urge you to do the same. The issue: trademark protection of the word “Heathen”. I’ve seen how luxury brand Hermès has used their trademark to go after religious items for Hellenics and their God Hermes. We have a chance to try to save the Heathen term.

“Dave Lancaster owns a company called Heathen Productions which produces a t-shirt line known as Heathen Nation, who holds a Trademark on the word Heathen. His company has been serving vendors, crafters and merchants who even so much as use the word Heathen in their description box for their product with take down orders and threatening legal action if they do not comply. He is not a Heathen himself but he is affecting the livelihood of many Heathens just trying to support their families and or kindreds.”

You can sign the petition here: https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/heathens-vs-heathen-nation

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