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, such as Lugnasadh. 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, Swedish, Danish, etc.) 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, or some celebrations may be unique and not echoed in extant sources elsewhere.
Hlæfmæsse translates in our modern English tongue to Loaf-Mass, and is sometimes also called Lammas, we have numerous instances in Anglo-Saxon literature that talk about this particular Christianized celebration and some of the traditions attached to it. 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. That theory may not be far off reality. The ninth century text, Old English Martyrology, refers to August 1st as the day of hlæfsenunga, which translates to ‘blessing of bread’.
The first extant reference to the term Lammas in written form may be from the Old English Orosius, which references it in passing as being a name for August 1. The Old English Metrical Calendar poem, Menologium, touches upon it briefly as “hlafmæssan dæg” (Loaf-mass Day) which is used as a time mark of the coming autumn. (English translation from A Clerk of Oxford)
And þæs symle scriþ
ymb seofon niht þæs sumere gebrihted
Weodmonað on tun; welhwær bringeð
hlafmæssan dæg. Swa þæs hærfest cymð
ymbe oðer swylc butan anre wanan,
wlitig, wæstmum hladen. Wela byð geywed
fægere on foldan.
And [after the feast of St James] after seven nights
of summer’s brightness Weed-month slips
into the dwellings; everywhere August brings
to peoples of the earth Lammas Day. So autumn comes,
after that number of nights but one [i.e. on August 7],
bright, laden with fruits. Plenty is revealed,
beautiful upon the earth.
Lammas, is also briefly mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, mentioned in passing by Ælfric of Eynsham (aka Alfricus Grammaticus) in his homilies, and within sources like Mologium/Monologion by Saint Anselm of Canterbury. It has survived as a Christian celebration referenced through the centuries. Shakespearean scholars have long been aware of how Juliet’s death while still so young, was reinforced symbolically by the fact her birthday was Lammas-Eve, thus her tragic death was poetically emphasized because she died before being fruitful. References to Lammas have survived most strongly by the Church of England, both in their Book of Common Prayer and in traditions where the Lammas loaf is sometimes used for the eucharist. Plus continued into a variety of still surviving folk practice within the island nation.
There’s some folk traditions in areas under the Northern Tradition umbrella that point to the cakes being split into various parts, to be spread across the fields/gardens/land, or a barn as a blessing instead (more on the later further below). 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. In the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the Christianized version of this observance was described as being the Feast of First Fruits, where locals brought their harvested food to their local church to be blessed, and it later evolved in some Christian traditions into the feasts of the: Transfiguration of Christ, Saint Peter in Chains, etc.
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. Lammas is the reaping of what was planted at Charming of the Plough. The Æcerbot (or Field Remedy) in Lacnunga, specifically tells us what that ritual was for ploughing and planting in Anglo-Saxon England, especially to help bless the field to overcome any blight. Of note, the Æcerbot suggests a deified earth goddess surviving as a remnant of what was most likely pre-Christian belief. This, along with the prevalence of the similar Gaelic festival Lugnasadh in neighboring areas that also had contct with the pre-Christian areas, is part of why I do not agree with the theory by some that Lammas was only ever a Christian rite. We seem to have the Æcerbot‘s counterpart in an Anglo-Saxon Lammas ritual to protect the harvest from pests. This is briefly mentioned in “Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England” and found in specific quotation within “Tapping the Power of the Cross: Who and For Whom?’, in The Place of the Cross in Anglo-Saxon England“, by Karen Louise Jolly:
[…] lange sticcan feðerecgede 7 writ on ægðerne sticcan[…] ælcere ecge an pater noster oð ende 7 lege þone […]an þam berene on þa flore 7 þone oðerne on […] ofer þam oðrum sticcan. þæt þær si rode tacen on 7 nim of ðam gehalgedan hlafe þe man halgie on hlafmæssedæg feower snæda 7 gecryme on þa feower hyrna þæs berenes. þis is þeo bletsung þærto. Vt surices garbas non noceant has preces super garbas dicis et non dicto eos suspendis hierosolimam ciuitate. ubi surices nec habitent nec habent potestam. nec grana colligent. nec triticum congaudent. þis is seo oðer bletsung. Domine deus omnipotens qui fecisti celum et terram. tu benedicis fructum istum in nomine patris et spiritus sancti. amen. 7 Pater noster.
[Take two] long pieces of four-edged wood, and on each piece write a Pater noster, on each side down to the end. Lay one on the floor of the barn, and lay the other across it, so that they form the sign of the cross. And take four pieces of the hallowed bread which is blessed on Lammas day, and crumble them at the four corners of the barn. This is the blessing for that; so that mice do not harm these sheaves, say prayers over the sheaves and do not cease from saying them. ‘City of Jerusalem, where mice do not live they cannot have power, and cannot gather the grain, nor rejoice with the harvest.’ This is the second blessing: ‘Lord God Almighty, who made heaven and earth, bless these fruits in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit.’ Amen. And [then say] a Pater Noster. (English translation by A Clerk of Oxford.)
In terms of the agricultural cycle, because this was the time when the grain was reaped many modern day Heathens see connections symbolically with Sif and the cutting of Her hair (Skáldskaparmál). While this may be the first grain harvest of the year, there are more harvests to come. As such modern believers venerate Thor 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 first presented by Magnus Olsen and supported by other scholars since); of course Thor and Sif do appear among Old Norse language sources in manuscripts used to create the Poetic and Prose Eddas.
Unlike Hlaefmasse, Freyfaxi is a controversial holy tide that is a bit trickier to pin down. The name Freyfaxi is a modern creation. So then where did it come from? And what exactly is the holy tide of Freyfaxi that some modern Asatru observe?
Freyfaxi is best understood as a modern observance inspired by the historical religious past from a range of cultic practices across what we perceive as Northern Tradition Europe that happened not at one specific time, but comprised by elements spread throughout antiquity. The concept of Freyfaxi was spearheaded in modern times by the controversial Stephen McNallen who had an intentional desire to fill in a Northern Tradition counterpoint to the more mainstream pagan Wheel of the Year (and somehow found Hlaefmasse not worthy of the position in a Heathen Wheel of the Year).
So then what specifically was the historic inspiration for this invented holy tide?
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.
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, and we see in the law codes in Europe during the period of Christian conversion that the eating of horse-flesh was forbidden because it had ties to heathen religious tradition. We see in the Historia ecclesiasstica Islandiæ that Christian priests were forbidden from attending horse-fights as well (most likely for a similar reasoning).
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 (such as Sturlunga saga, Heimskringla, Frostaþing, Flóamanna saga, Jónsbók, etc.), and these horse duels, which appear to have been connected with some sort of cultic practice. Horse fights (hestavígs) as well as horse racing (skeið) were in antiquity quite common, we even see assemblies called hestaþing occur, which were comprised of horse fights, races, and even a market as well. The timing of which across Norway and Iceland seemed to occur after midsummer through the autumn. In some areas it appears to have coincided with the réttir (sheep roundup still observed today). Where some of the sheep are sheared and selected for slaughtering. The gathering is accompanied by feasting, and singing and most likely did have some sort of religious component in the past.
The horse duels may have had a religious meaning, in a way potentially similar to pitz – the ancient Mayan soccer-like ball game where the loser (at least sometimes) 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. Like what we see with bull cult customs and sports that arise from it like bull-fighting in other parts of Europe, horses may have held a similar function. There is evidence that legal proceedings may have been part of some of the horse gatherings, and if so then it starts to overlap with functions we see with other Things, and we know the althing had religious ritual as a component of the gatherings, so it’s not to my mind a stretch to imagine there was some sort of religious observance as a component of the gathering. While it is hardly conclusive, when we examine the evidence from other stones of this period that show dueling horses we see sometimes on them a wheel like symbol with arms (which perhaps might be a representation of the sun) with the literary references it is suggestive of religious-significance even as it also has connotations of sports and entertainment too. Horses had not only a divine connection, but also have a role in the agricultural cycle as well. (Horses also pull the chariots that draw the Sun, and Moon through the sky).
Stallion fights in the wild determine, via Darwinism, which horse has the right to propagate their genetic material among the fertile mares. Rarely are such fights to the death, usually the vanquished stallion joins up with a bachelor herd. But in horse fights being arranged for human entertainment, often times the stallions are riled up to fight, and serious injury or death is more common an outcome for the losing horse. So the fights could have also been used as a component tied to animal husbandry of the fertility of the livestock, with one presumes the vanquished horse(s) perhaps perceived of as a sacrificial offering to the Gods. Horses are not only used to work the land and for transportation, but also some were slaughtered to feed the people. It’s another aspect of harvesting, that ties not to crops, but to the larger agricultural cycle and food supply.
If we skip back to the Anglo-Saxon side of the pond, the Venerable Bede 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 (and thus these plants can help return nitrogen to the soil). Tares were sometimes identified as unwanted vegetation, made famous by a parable in the biblical book of Matthew that grew in the midst of wheat crops. Both tares and vetches 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. Though eventually you’d be faced with having to decide which animals you’d keep for breeding stock, and which you’d slaughter to eat. Though most of the butchering season would come much later into the autumn and start of winter.
Some theorize that this may have kicked off two months of mini rites. Bede tells us that September was known as 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 the end of the harvest season in antiquity for Northern Tradition areas. So it makes sense to me in my theories that we start with Hlaefmasse as a special observance for the first harvested grain, and then have mini rites as each additional harvest was reaped for August and September, until the time of Winter Nights.
Adam of Bremen talks of the temple of Uppsala and Freyr in 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 an equine phallus as a symbol of worship to a deity. It does provide yet more evidence of cultic horse worship. We don’t know which numinous power the cultic phallus was connected with, but the fact it’s a phallus seems to suggest that there was a possible tie with fertility. I speculate that it could potentially be connected with Freyr, especially when you consider that the practice of sacred horse sanctuaries was specifically tied to Freyr. Archaeological sources give us ithyphallic figures of the god Freyr, it could easily be used to describe the God as (in our more modern vernacular) ‘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 (Gerd). 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. We see with the folk legend of Wayland’s Smithy (near the Uffington Horse in England), that any who left their horse and wages, would find the horse shod. (Fun trivia, earliest surviving records for horse shoes comes to us from 400 BCE, and we know the tradition is even older). Or if you left your coin with a broken tool, it’d be repaired. In modern times while we usually see ‘commerce’ tied more to May Day, tools of agriculture would continue to be repaired or created new. So Wayland may be specifically venerated by some modern practitioners at this time.
Both Hlaefmasse and the invented festival of Freyfaxi therefore are indeed (to my mind) holy tides connected to the harvesttime. Since we’ve got a little variety here, you will see that also reflected in the actual practices and observances of this holy tide among modern-day Heathens. Some will strictly observe Hlaefmasse, others (usually more among Asatruar) 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 actively reject any observance of Freyfaxi because it’s a modern invention, and one that came from the controversial Stephen McNallen propelled by the organizations he helped found: the Asatru Free assembly, and it’s successor the Asatru Folk Assembly. Some instead will re-name it Freyr Blot divesting it of the invented name from McNallen in an attempt to distance themselves from him. Materials about Freyfaxi have become so ubiquitous that there are many who have no idea about the nuances and controversy surrounding Freyfaxi. 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.
In the end this holy tide is all about giving thanks for 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 give libations of beverages infused or flavored with seasonal fruit in offering. Thor, Sif, Freyr, and Freya and deities connected with the fertility of the land and crops are popularly honored at this time.
Some of my information (on the Old English/Anglo-Saxon side of things for Lammas) came from A Clerk of Oxford’s research presented in this blog entry.