Autumn is upon us, my favorite time of the year.
Some practitioners of the Northern Tradition are celebrating Winter Nights (Vetrnætr, Haustblót ) around now, the time of the autumnal equinox so it is more in sync with mainstream pagan Mabon celebrations. Yet many more won’t be celebrating it until mid to late October, when it will be more in sync with the pagan celebration of Samhain. There are others who may not even celebrate it until November as that would be the approximate time when the harvest has concluded in their area.
The reason for the discrepancy is that as much as we sometimes treat the pre-Christian ancient German, Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon cultures as being part of a somewhat synonymous culture, the fact remains that we have regional differences as it applied to both methods of time-keeping, as well as it applied to when agriculturally related festivals were held based on that geo-specific culture’s natural cycle.
This has led today to a number of celebrations and observances including: Haligmonath, Winter Finding, Winterfylleth, Winter Nights, Vetrnætr, Haustblót, Völsi blót, etc.
So then what are all these different observances, and what do they have to do with this time of year?
In ancient Icelandic laws, as well as Bede’s description of the Anglo-Saxons, we see that the year is clearly divided into only 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, which denoted a major mark in the change of the year.
Snorri Sturluson tells us in Ynglinga Saga that there were three high holy tides: “There should be a sacrifice at the beginning of winter for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop, the third in summer day, that was the sacrifice for victory.” Based on the understanding of how their seasons were divided this would translate today roughly as Start of Autumn, Mid-Winter/Yule, and Start of Spring.
In the more extreme Northern climes most of the harvest by this point in the year had been reaped and preparations for storage had been made. There would only be enough fodder to help the breeding stock through the winter, so the livestock animals would begin to be slaughtered for their meat. To mark this part of the agricultural cycle offerings of harvested crops, as well as offerings of livestock slaughtered for winter meat would be appropriate.
In this regard, Winter’s Night becomes a thanksgiving-like type affair where the people gave thanks for what they had, and made ritual sacrifices to the Gods to ask for a good year. Harvest Deities in particular would be thanked at this time like Freyr and Sif. Modern practitioners also tend to honor Idunna, since it is at this time of year that apples are harvested.
In a time before central heating, modern refrigeration and air-tight storage methods anyone’s food could become contaminated by vermin. When people remained indoors disease would spread more in the enclosed areas, and people were left at the mercy of nature. Any winter could potentially last weeks longer than others. If the harvest had been lean the year before that could spell disaster. Thus, it is always a good idea to show respect to the natural world and those Holy Powers that affect it. It’s also a good idea to be kind to your neighbors… if your house burns down mid-Winter, or you find most of your food stores ruined by vermin you may just need to impose on one of them for shelter and food.
Ynglinga saga also talks about Haustblót, a sacrifice of what we in modern terms would define as the autumn sacrifice. One such story surrounding this blot is of the reign of King Domalde of Sweden. There was a great famine, so at the time of sacrifice they offered up oxen, but conditions worsened, and so that next autumn they sacrificed men, but yet things continued to worsen so the following autumn the Swedes sacrificed their king. Obviously, I’m not saying you should go sacrifice people. But rather I mention this story to convey the importance that this ritual sacrifice was given by ancient peoples. This was the sacrifice that was used to speak to the winter and next growing season ahead.
In some (not all) ancient communities in the Northern Tradition umbrella we know Winter Nights was celebrated for as long as three days. During this time all would gather and honor the Gods for the harvest and pray for a good year, and a good winter. But in some select communities, we know that they did more, such as special rituals to honor the disir and/or the alfar, these rituals were known as dísablót and álfablót respectively.
Dísablót and álfablót
Disir are understood to be numinous females that may be comprised of select Goddesses, demi-Goddesses, powerful local wights (i.e. local river spirit), as well as female ancestral members of a tribe and or familial line. Many scholars theorize that the Norns and the Valkyrie may be specific types of Disir. In Sweden according to Ynglinga Saga, this was conducted by the royal family in a communal festivity. One account in the Hervarar saga, mentions that the horgr (altar) was being blooded by Alfhildr, the daughter of King Alfridr who was kidnapped during the process thereof. Not only was the abduction shocking, but to do so during a holy rite would have been an even greater affront too!
Alfar are always elves. But the term can mean both a race of beings (or more generally used to refer to any sort of supernatural spirit or wight), and in a few instances in the lore is also used to denote a male ancestor. Among modern Northern Tradition practitioners some consider álfablót the rite for the male ancestors that may indeed include those who weren’t human, others consider it the rite specifically for the elves. There is very little surviving reference to álfablót, but it appears to be a more localized celebration conducted by individual families instead of as a major community festival. In Austrfararvísur, a skaldic poem, we see a story of a foreign traveler (from Norway) who tried repeatedly to find lodgings for the night at various homesteads in Sweden, but was continually turned away as the rite had begun and the doors must remain closed. This was quite notable, as this was a huge divergence to the norms of hospitality at the time, and thus normal cultural norms were suspended in observance of the sacrifice to the alfar.
In this we begin to see the sort of specialized rituals that honor the dead that pagans might identify more with Samhain celebrations, and other traditions honoring of the dead as seen with el dia de los muertos. It is important to note that while some areas in antiquity were holding special rituals for the Disir at this time, in other communities this was practiced at completely different times of the year, such as: Disting, Mother’s Night.
Summer was a time known for plenty, warmth and health… but Winter was a time known for cold, sickness and rationing. For this reason, as well as the fact that supplementing one’s food supply by hunting no doubt helped to give raise to the tendency among modern practitioners to honor the hunting Gods Ullr and Skadhi as well. At this time we also have more ominous type of hunting stories surface, that of the Wild Hunt.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt exists in many different variations throughout not only the Northern Tradition itself, but also into other parts of pre-Christian Europe. The Northern Tradition version of the Wild Hunt was associated with the dead, in some cases populated by the worst of criminals, in other cases a hunt that could catch someone living up into it, and thus killing them to become part of it. Populated with horses and hounds… suddenly you have a mobile army of spooky things, which seems more and more similar to Halloween as we think of it today. In the Northern Tradition depending on region, the Wild Hunt is most often under the dominion of the God Odin, or either the Goddess Holda, or Perchta. The timing of the Wild Hunt and when it ran varies, in some areas it could encompass the entirety of the Autumn/Winter seasons, in other areas the timing was more focused around the time of Yule, etc.
Some who look more to Anglo-Saxon sources look to the names of the month as described by Bede. September is Haligmonath, or Holy Month. We know that many different types of rituals were held then, we just don’t know extant details about what in particular. My gut tells me, that as the various crops were coming in, there were little mini-rites for each crop harvested and were probably done more intimately between the farmer and his family than as a big communal gathering. Especially as England, thanks to the Mid-Atlantic Ocean current, tends to have far more temperate weather than it should at the latitude it inhabits. This translates to winters that are far warmer than one might otherwise expect, and also means that the true bite of winter comes a bit later to the island nation. This translates to a longer growing season and therefore a longer harvesting window. So when faced with a “Holy Month” it seems reasonable that there were rituals of gratitude held as each individual harvest crop came in, but the farmers would be too busy to have a big communal gathering, at least not until the true end of the harvest season and after the last and final crop had been collected. Then it would be far easier for people to have a larger gathering, which is also why we see a great prevalence for weddings at this time of year in antiquity.
Similarly, the month of November was in the Anglo-Saxon calendar, Blōtmōnaþ, or the month of Blot (Blood Sacrifice). So just as September was the holy month, no doubt with many observances for the harvest coming in, November was a month when the majority of the livestock would be slaughtered, some giving in offering to the Gods, the rest used as food stuffs for the cold months ahead.
In Völsa þáttr, we see another reference to a different type of rite that we know took place in the autumn: Völsi blót. In the account, there is a horse who has been slaughtered, the phallus preserved, and a ritual surrounding it where the sacrifice is clearly given to Mornir. [Mornir’s identity is a subject of much debate, though theories range from a local wight or elf, an ancestor, a giant, etc.] This was not a community wide rite, but rather one of the household, similar to how alfablot was also a household rite, and what I suspect was a series of household observances during the month of Haligmonath.
Some will go ahead and hold one big Harvest style celebration under the eponymous ancient month’s name or might call it more generally Second Harvest (since the first one is usually celebrated as either Hlaefmasse or Freyfaxi). In turn they will in October celebrate Winter Nights, usually called by them as Winterfylleth, which meant winter full moon (which tends to fall around mid-month), and thus designates it as the first month of the winter roughly equivalent to our modern day mid-October.
Winterfylleth / Winter Finding
In addition to Winterfylleth, some additional names for the holy tide used in the community are Veturnætur, Winter Nights, and in very rare instances Winter Day. Winter Nights is a more accurate term, considering that the passage of time was marked by nights, not days. An example of this can be seen from Anglo-Saxon times as it applies to the English word ‘fortnight’ as a reckoning of time for two weeks. Just as traditional Jewish sabbat begins at sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday… it appears that the festivities traditionally kicked off at night. This allows participants to work to prepare for the party during daylight hours too. On occasion you may even see reference to the term Winter Finding. Some groups use this as being synonymous and interchangeable with the term Winter Nights. But others will call the harvest celebration at the autumnal equinox Winter Finding, and call the later October celebration Winter Nights instead.
So today we have a range of practice as it applies to this time of year. Some opt to celebrate it at the time of the autumnal equinox for sheer simplicity. But many others will instead decide to observe Winter Nights in October as that’s more in keeping with the traditional calendars. I’ve seen others who split the celebration up, observing a Harvest-tide celebration in September, and then in October they will instead opt to specifically come together to honor the ancestors. If you have children, incorporating ancestor veneration at this time helps to sync up to the Halloween décor that is on the market, and allow the children to have some similar dialogue among their peers at school.
As someone who lives in Texas, since the days are still reaching highs above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s hard for me to get into the colder winter spirit just yet. So I’ll be looking forward to celebrating it in a few more weeks personally, with some apple cider, and a seasonal feast I’ll be cooking up.
While mainly this was a very important time for rituals related to the agricultural cycle, it was also a time uniquely suited for the rituals that come with joining a bride and groom together in marriage.
Just like today, when a wedding was to occur you needed to allow for sufficient time for guests to travel to the location of the wedding, allow for the wedding to be planned, and you would also need to make sure traveling conditions were favorable for the families, friends, and other guests. But you also needed to find a time where food was plentiful so that the wedding feast (which was usually a week-long affair!), could truly be a feast and able to support a large gathering of people. The time of greatest food surplus in a pre-industrial society will always happen in that period around the harvest-tide.
Respected scholar H. R. Ellis-Davidson’s Gods & Myths of Northern Europe, stated that Frigg’s Day, or Friday, was the traditional day for weddings to be held in Northern Europe, as it honored and no doubt was seen as asking for blessings from the Goddess so closely associated with marriage. The celebration itself tended to last for about a week, having to supply guests (a number of whom may have traveled from afar) and keep everyone fed for a week, meant that autumn was the ideal time for such festivities as food was the most abundant. The tradition of the honeymoon, originates in the customary legal requirements found in the Grágás that a bride and groom must drink together the wedding-ale (usually the honey base mead) during the wedding festivities, usually there was enough such ale/mead prepared to last for the duration of for a full four weeks following the nuptials. This practice helped to lubricate the meeting of the bride and groom, as sometimes they may have had very little knowledge of one another before they were wed. But while food is needed for the wedding feast, a bride also needed to make sure there were ample supplies of wedding-ale too, and brewing such ample supplies took time and careful planning.
After the wedding ceremony is when the bride would take up the mantle of serving ceremonial drink, and would serve drink to her new husband. One example in the lore is as follows:
Ale I bring thee, thou oak-of-battle,
With strength blended and brightest honor;
‘Tis mized with magic and mighty songs,
With goodly spells, wish-speeding runes
—Sigrdrífumál, Poetic Edda, Hollander translation
Following this, we have reference in another part of lore how now the bride was blessed, specifically in the hopes of offspring to come.
Bring the Hammer the bride to bless:
On the maiden’s lap lay ye Mjolnir;
In Vor’s name [Frigga] then our wedlock hallow!
—Þrymskvida, Poetic Edda, Hollander translation
This seemingly customary blessing, kicked off the rest of the merry-making for the week, which from what we see in Sturlunga Saga included contests of physical skill, and a range of entertainments of verse and even the sharply-skilled, sly tongues needed for flytings (insult contests) and lygisogur (lying stories).