When it comes to religious, pagan celebrations most people are familiar with the eight holy days or sabbats that comprise the Wheel of the Year. In the Northern Tradition, we do not call these celebrations sabbats. Instead, based on words (like the Old Norse hátíðir) used to describe the most holy of these celebrations (like Yule) as high tides, we tend to call the various religious celebrations we recognize today as holy tides (since not all of the holy tides are considered high tides).
Since we practitioners of the Northern Tradition are dealing with a general umbrella culture that existed in vast plurality we look to ancient Germanic, Scandinavian (Norse, Icelandic, Sweden) and Anglo-Saxon sources. It is important to understand that these ancient cultures reckoned time in different ways in comparison to one another or to the modern world. They existed in different latitudes, lived amongst different types of geography with unique climate conditions that affected the local agricultural cycle. This means that sometimes the timing between when one group would celebrate and another would celebrate a similar type of holy tide could be several weeks apart.
Sometimes we can see an obvious and clear link between these cousin cultures to a specific holy tide like Yule, in other cases things are a bit less clear, or the celebrations of the different groups can sometimes seem vastly different even when they have a similar root. Case in point: the Northern Tradition holy tides in August known as Hlæfmæsse, or Freyfaxi.
Hlæfmæsse translates in our modern English tongue to Loaf-Mass, and is sometimes also called Lammas. Since mass denotes a Christian ritual, some have theorized that the pre-Christian name for this holy tide may have been Hlæfmæst (feast of loaves), and for this reason some heathens will use this name instead.
We have numerous instances in Anglo-Saxon literature (like the poem Mologium) that talk about this particular Christianized celebration and some of the traditions attached to it. One of the hallmark traditions of this celebration was that after the reaping of the first grain crop of the year, the grain was taken and baked into loaves or cakes which were given to the Church in offering. It’s quite easy to see that this sort of practice speaks strongly to a heathen past where at major points in the agricultural cycle, such as the reaping of a harvest, offerings were made to the Gods and Goddesses.
In terms of the agricultural cycle, because this was the time when the grain was cropped many modern day Heathens see connections symbolically with Sif and the cutting of her hair. While this may be the first grain harvest of the year, there are more harvests to come. As such Thor is honored as well that he continues to bring rain, but not too much because either drought or flood is bad for the crop. Although while Thor appears in Anglo-Saxon sources (as Thunor) we have no definitive proof of Sif in those sources (though there is a theory she may be represented in Beowulf); of course Thor and Sif do appear amongst the Norse sources.
Unlike Hlaefmasse, Freyfaxi is a holy tide that is a bit trickier to pin down. Mainly because the name Freyfaxi appears to be a modern attachment to an ancient holy tide whose name has not survived into the present. So then where did the name come from, why was it probably attached to this festival? And what exactly is the holy tide of Freyfaxi?
An examination of the lore (Hrafnkel’s Saga and Vatnsdæla Saga) reveals that Freyfaxi was a name used to describe two different horses, both owned by people strongly dedicated to Freyr. The name of the horse reveals much, first the inclusion of the name Frey references that horse’s special connection to the God, and faxi meaning eye-catching mane was a common name used for horses. We also know that in Norway, Freyr’s holy sanctuary Thrandheim held sacred horses dedicated to the God. But if we look back to even older sources, we’ll see not only similarities but we’ll begin to unravel what horses may have to do with this festival.
In the Germanic tradition, and seen also among the Scandinavian sources horses were incredibly sacred. Tacitus’ Germania describes them as being milk-white, and similar to the sanctuary we see centuries later at Thrandheim the equines were housed in sacred groves where they were never used for the purposes of riding or working the land. Horses in Germania were described as being more sacredly close to the Gods then even their priests; somehow these horses were in the Gods’ confidence. For this reason horses were used to divine the will of the Gods. They were yoked to a special sort of chariot and their behavior observed. In the neighboring Slav culture we also see horses used in divination as well (but via a different method). We have even older evidence of an active cultic presence connected with horses in even the Bronze Age.
Near Gallehus, Denmark there was an archaeological discovery of ornately decorated drinking horns. These drinking horns depicted all manner of activities: riding, dancing, shooting, acrobatics, ball-playing, warriors and the like. Of particular interest to us, two horses are depicted on the decorated drinking horns: one horse slain next to a woman bearing a horn. While it’s difficult to precisely interpret the story being told in these depictions it is entirely possible that it was describing the type of activities that occurred in conjunction to an ancient holy tide, and that the slain horse was part of a religious ritual and sacrifice. We certainly know from a number of sources that horses were sacrificed.
The Haggeby Stone from Uppland, Sweden depicts two horses fighting. References to horse fights can be found in other historical sources, and these horse duels, which appear to have been connected with a holy tide celebration. Horse fights were in antiquity quite common around this time of year held at various local festivals held in Iceland. These duels may have had a religious meaning, in a way potentially similar to pitz – the ancient mayan soccer-like ball game where the loser became the sacrifice. The battle could also represent mythological, religiously significant stories and forces, or perhaps could be used in divination determining how the harvest would fair or how harsh or long the coming winter would be. When we examine the evidence from other stones of this period that show dueling horses in the context of a wheel like symbol with arms… while it is hardly conclusive it is suggestive of religious-significance in terms of a holy-tide celebration and how that in turns connects with the agricultural cycle. For these reasons, modern believers have decided to connect the name of the sacred horses Freyfaxi, to the ritual duels and festivals we see in Iceland at this time.
If we skip back to the Anglo-Saxon side of the pond, Adam of Bremen tells us the month of August was known as Weodmonað, or month of weeds. Weeds in this case are not simply the unwanted items in one’s garden, but appear to encompass other types of plants as well: such as tares and vetches. Vetches were a crop definitely used in Roman-Britain, and harvested throughout the island nation. While most vetches aren’t particularly helpful directly to humans, some can be processed as a grain humans can eat, others can manifest as an edible legume. But most would have provided great fodder to feed the livestock called on especially to work at this time of year, including horses. Since this is only the beginning of the harvest season, and there are many more crops not yet mature that will be reaped later, keeping your livestock in good fodder was also important for the harvesting to come.
Adam of Bremen talks of the temple of Uppsala and Freyr and his role, describing him as the god of plenty and peace who was invoked at marriages. His idol was depicted with a rather large phallus as is to be expected for a fertility deity. I find it interesting to note that in the Völsa þáttr we have a mention in the lore to the use of a horse phallus as a symbol of worship to a God. While Freyr is not mentioned in the saga, it does provide yet more evidence of cultic horse worship, but could potentially also be a symbolic representation of fertility and therefore Freyr as well. The scale of his phallus as depicted in archaeological sources could easily be used to describe the God as being ‘hung like a horse’.
As a fertility deity Freyr would be intimately tied to the land and the food grown upon it. It is for this reason why Freyr is also a very popular God to hail at this time of year for modern practitioners. Many will also reach out to include other Deities connected with the earth like Nerthus or Eorde. Some may choose to include the blacksmith God Wayland (or Volundr) in their observance of the holy-tide.
Blacksmiths represented the luck, fortune, and self-reliance of a people. The weapons the blacksmith made defended the home, allowed for cooking or use in domestic chores, and created the tools used to work the land. Having a blacksmith in your community meant not only wealth, but that your community was not vulnerable to being easy prey for others to either literally come in to steal your fortune, or who figuratively would steal your fortune in charging outrageous sums/barters for what you needed.
Both Hlaefmasse and Freyfaxi therefore are indeed (to my mind) holy tides connected to the start of the harvest. I would probably describe them as spiritual cousins, essentially they both represent the same basic holy tide but with very specific regional variations. Since we’ve got a little variety here, you will see that also reflected in the actual practices and observances of this holy tide amongst modern-day heathens. Some will strictly observe Hlaefmasse, others Freyfaxi, and others will merge the two into one massive celebration though they’ll still use one of the names to describe it. Some will celebrate this holy tide at the beginning of August, others will be celebrating it at a different time. As I mentioned previously, because of calendar and regional differences in the agricultural cycle the timing of things isn’t 100% in sync across the board. Try not to let that confuse you.
Regardless of which approach an individual or group might take, in the end this holy tide is all about giving thanks for the first of the harvest, and the asking for continued blessings for the crops yet harvested. As such it is appropriate to share seasonally appropriate food in offering to the Gods, ancestors and land vaettir. Many will opt to bake homemade breads, or beverages infused or flavored with seasonal fruit in offering. Thor, Sif, Freyr, and Freya are popularly honored at this time.