El Dia De Los Muertos

Living in Texas one cannot deny the growing influence of Day of the Dead celebrations. As the Hispanic/Latinx population becomes the largest demographic group second only to the Anglicized population here in Texas (and growing strongly in a population boom across the nation), I have begun to notice major retail store chains starting to carry Day of the Dead themed décor.

As a Heathen, I love seeing this ancestral celebration growing in both awareness and popularity, but there are a few things to know before you decide to incorporate the Day of the Dead into your own celebrations. The most important of which is the Day of the Dead is not Mexican Halloween.

The Day of the Dead (or el Día de los Muertos, sometimes simplified to just Dia de Muertos) is a cultural celebration most strongly connected to Mexico (but does appear in other parts of the Americas, especially in what one would consider the traditional region of Mesoamerica, and the connected diaspora of its descended cultures and peoples). At its core the Day of the Dead is a celebration of life, while embracing the knowledge that death is a natural part of the cycle of life. The focus of the celebration is the dead: one’s family, one’s friends, one’s ancestors.

Centuries ago in what we think of as Mexico, there was an Aztec festival in the summer dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl who was Queen of Mictlan (the Underworld). In Aztec art she was represented with a flayed body, and mouth open to swallow the stars during the day. She is married to the God Mictlantecuti who presides over the underworld with her. The flayed body is a common motif among Mesoamerica and neighboring cultures to the Aztecs. Having part of the flesh missing symbolized the connection of that deity to death. For Heathens (Northern Tradition Polytheists) this is a somewhat similar concept to what we see in Gylfaginning, where the Goddess Hel is described as having flesh of two colors, the dark cold of the grave, and the color flush with life.

Aztec Goddess Mictecacihuati from the Codex Borgia

Some modern persons equate the Aztec Goddess with folk cultic practices that have cropped up to Santa Muerte (also known as Saint Death, or Holy Death). Outcastes and the downtrodden flock to her in large numbers, but she has believers from all walks of life and status, from successful college educated career professionals to members of the drug cartels. Personally I suspect that Santa Muerte as we know her today has become a syncretization of the old Aztec Goddess Mictecacihuatl with the newer influence of Catholicism’s Virgin Mary (and/or the Lady of Guadalupe).

Santa Muerte is not a figure recognized by the Catholic Church, in fact the Vatican has condemned her cult as being blasphemous. She is estimated to have more than 10 million followers in the Americas and is believed to be the fastest growing religious movement in the world. Scholars have found evidence of cultic practice continuing to her through the centuries of Catholicism in the region. Though how widespread these practices were is unclear, as these were underground cultic practices until the 20th Century. While there are some who are Catholics who have an unsanctioned cultic practice to her, there is also a trend where people are cutting ties with the church and founding independent churches and temples dedicated to Santa Muerte. Worshippers come and bring offerings, they pray to her to intercede on their behalf, they crawl on their knees to her in worship and in need.

Santa Muerte

Many scholars feel that the ancient festival to the Goddess Mictecacihuatl was the regional origins of today’s Day of the Dead celebrations. During the Spanish colonization of the Americas, the observance became syncretized and thus adjacent to the observance of the Catholic Church’s Allhallowtide (October 31-November 2), which is comprised of the observances of All Saint’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. The Catholic Church’s AllHallowtide was in its own way syncretized with European pre-Christian practices as well.

While the timing of the celebration today may be adjacent to Halloween, this holiday is about remembrance of the dearly departed dead, from friends to family members and ancestors going back in time. The heart of the celebration is about the dead: decorating their graves with marigolds, setting up ofrenda (altars) for the dead where offerings are put out of food and drink, music is played for the dead, tokens of remembrance are put out, and most important of all the dead are remembered.

This is the heart of the celebration in its intimacy at the foremost personal and family level observed in homes, neighborhoods and cemeteries. Dia de Muertes is undergoing a metamorphosis in modern times as it is commercialized and growing into something that has more of a feel of celebrations elsewhere in the world of carnival or Mardi Gras as a festive and jubilant time for community wide parties. In the last few years this has really exploded in Mexico, a huge driving force for this coming straight out of Hollywood.

In 2014, 20th Century Fox brought us the animated movie Book of Life, which was one of the first mainstream introductions to the Day of the Dead celebration for many. A year later, Hollywood presented to us an incredible fantasy Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City during the 2015 installment on the James Bond movie franchise, Spectre. James Bond, portrayed by Daniel Craig in the film, navigates the parade to get into position to carry out his mission. Before the film’s release, Mexico City had never had a Day of the Dead parade, but in 2016 started one because of the James Bond film, using it to build up tourism to the city. Also gaining access to some of the parade props used in the film.


And shortly after the international box office hit Spectre, there was another major movie that released from Hollywood: Pixar Studios’ Coco, released by Disney. This animated movie had global box office success almost on par with with the success of Spectre. Thus firmly placing Day of the Dead into the mainstream consciousness.

In very recent years kids in some of the major cities in Mexico now go door to door and receive sweet treats in the form of skulls, so they literally are given sugar skulls to eat in a custom in part inspired by trick or treating customs from the United States. Chocolate decorated skulls are common, as cacao (or chocolate) originates from the Mesoamerican region. Some are made from marzipan, and others from sugar pressed into skull shaped molds.

While commercialization is impacting the Day of the Dead, pushing it into an evolution that many in Mexico are crying out against, the modern Day of the Dead iconography that many are familiar with really dates to the early 1900s and the work of political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada. Posada used skeletons in his work to remind people that life is short, and whatever you are in life, in the end we all die and are just bones. While the term calaveras is for skulls, it can also be used as a term used for a very specific type of poetry that was very popular during Posada’s life, and his work was often attached to these poems. The calaveras poems were highly satirical, and were written as epitaphs to famous living figures as if they were dead. In this way they were politicized as a satirical take on those who were betraying Mexican culture, trying to take on the airs of Europe, or simply mocking the arrogant pride of believing or presenting oneself as better than another.

Jose Guadulupe Posada’s “Catrina”

While Posada’s work had many skeletal figures it is the creation of his Catrina that has become the most iconic. La Catrina, is a skeletal female figure who traditionally is dressed in Spanish influenced clothing worn in early 1900s Mexico. She wears an exaggeratedly large hat (so large it could be used as an umbrella) with fancy ostrich feathers. She is often called La Calavera Catrina (Skull Catrina) because usually her skeletal face is all you see of her bones. While Posada created Catrina, he never named her. To him she was La Calavera Garbancera. Her iconography was further propelled in 1947 into the cultural zeitgeist through a painting by Diego Rivera, the husband (and artist in his own right) of Frida Kahlo. Diego was the one who named her Catrina, as a feminine version of the term Catrin which described males of the social and wealthy elite who lived a luxurious lifestyle and focused on matters of style. Contextually, it had the colloquial overtones of calling a man a dandy. Catrina has become probably the most distinctive figure of modern Mexico, and ironically is a statement now of Mexicanness. [Arts and Culture news site Glasstire, has an amazing article you can read up on to learn more about Posada and Rivera.]

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon along Central Alameda, by Diego Rivera


Today, Catrina while still rendered as a skeletal female figure, can be dressed in a variety of ways. She usually still has some sort of head covering: the traditional huge plumed feather hat, a flower crown, a Saint like crown with metal spikes in lieu of heavenly light, or a mantilla (traditional lace veil head covering from Spain). She is depicted usually in fanciful dress, whether the traditional 1900s European influenced fashion of Mexico, to elaborate ball gowns, or traditional Mexican dress (think similar to what Frida Kahlo herself wore which was a blending of various ethnic styles from Mexico), as well as other such very Mexican garments. La Catrina’s popularity has led her today being paired with other skeletal figures from men, children, and animals. To be clear, skeletal figures have been connected to the festival before Posada, but this current style of the iconography is more recent. They are never rendered as grotesque, bloody, scary, or mournful.

While today’s celebration is becoming more of a large community party with a family friendly carnival feel, it’s important to note that even if you have received an invitation to a Day of the Dead themed party, that there are very finite parameters for what is appropriate to wear. There is a fine line between cultural mockery and appropriation, and cultural respect. The dress should always be family friendly. These costumes shouldn’t look like they belong in a horror slasher or creature feature film. This is not the place for vampires, werewolves, mummies, zombies and witches. This is not the time to wear your Wizard of Oz costume, or try to woo the ladies as a Roman legionnaire. Anything that says “Sexy Day of the Dead” costume is a hard, hard pass. Do not buy it, do not wear it. Usually dressing up like Catrina or as a skeleton is accepted whether or not you have Mesoamerican heritage.

In Mexico, this also becomes a day to celebrate Mexican culture so you’ll see performing mariachi players in charro suits, and ballet folklorico dancers too in their ribbon star forming Jalisco or Escaramuza styled dresses with high collars. Some of the performers will pair this with the skeletal face makeup to make this more special than a performance at another time of year. Women wearing huipil (which are sleeveless tunic like tops in a variety of lengths and regional styles that are traditionally paired with a long skirt) feature prominently too. This look may be recognizable to many outside of Mexico because iconoclast Frida Kahlo was known to wear these garments sometimes. You will also see other Mexican garments worn like the blusa or camisa, which was influenced by the European chemise (sometimes also called a Mexican peasant blouse by those outside Mexico) and adapted by locals usually in more rural areas accented with distinctive local embroidery designs. There are now versions of this which are simple long dresses usually in an A line cut which are a modern evolution. You’ll also see other regional variants of women’s dresses from Campeche, Chiapas, Michoacan, Tehuana etc. Women might be seen with a shawl garment known as a rebozo. For men you might find sombreros being donned, or sarapes which were woven overgarments worn over their shirts as a small blanket-like shawl. Panchos which are also overgarment pieces are distinctive from sarapes as they are made with a hole in them for the head.

Frida Kahlo in traditional Mexican dress with a rebozo



Sometimes, harkening back to the Aztec ties of the festival you may also see indigenous Mesoamerican clothing worn. (For lack of a better comparison, this is of the type of outfits you’d see worn to a powwow but for those harkening from the Aztecs, or other Mesoamerican cultures). This is one outfit and approach you should definitely leave to only those with that specific heritage. This prohibition also extends to the indigenous, Mesoamerican style feathered headpieces worn by those cultures, or their Gods (as seen in archaeological depictions). Some may add a subtle accent of artistic elements to personalize their Catrina to nod to the Aztec origins by bringing in accents of the geometric patterns found in archaeological designs, or by using a few quetzal feathers for accent. But this requires a very light handed approach, as there is a fine line before you cross cultural boundaries of what isn’t appropriate. More recently you’ll also see some dress up as Monarch Butterflies, or women in vast ball gowns made to look like they are a marigold brought to life. This isn’t mere whimsy, but rather very intentional symbols to the dead.


Monarch butterflies journey as much as 3,000 miles in an annual migration into the forested mountains of southwestern Mexico every autumn by the millions to winter in the mountainous forests. Here in Texas we start seeing the monarchs passing through in late September, with the peak coming in October. According to local Mexican folk belief, the butterflies represent the souls of the dead, which is why you will see them used sometimes in Day of the Dead decorations, or as people dressing up as the butterflies during Day of the Dead events.

Monarch Butterflies Wintering in Mexico



If you don’t feel like going all out, or are concerned about crossing the fine line of cultural appreciation to mockery, you can always wear nice clothes (dress, suiting) and style it up with some accessories that celebrate the dead, and if you choose go for a skeletal face makeup usually in the sugar skull style. Black is the classic for this, but orange and yellow are also popular colors because of its ties to both monarch butterflies and marigolds. Purple is sometimes worn as it is a color connected to mourning and the dead, and red and green will show up as well in connection with the nation’s flag. Leave the jack o’ lanterns, bats, black cats, ghosts and pumpkins at home as those are not tied to this tradition.

Please keep in mind though that the Day of the Dead is just that, a day to pay respects to the dead. Dressing up to party, is not the same as actually venerating the dearly departed. If the dead aren’t part of your celebration, then you’ve clearly missed the point, and you’re really just partying to party.

When parties are hosted, there will be community ofrendas, where people are invited to decorate the altar and honor their loved ones. Marigolds are such a huge staple of these decorations. They are known for big blooms in late fall and early winter in Mexico, and feature as a common decoration during the Day of the Dead festivities because their bright blooms and their accompanying sweet fragrance are believed to guide the spirits of the dead to the altars erected in their honor. Blankets of marigolds are laid up as a path to lead the dead to their altar. You may also find papel picado, which are perforated, brightly colored pieces of paper usually strung together as a banner. The perforations are used to create designs. In some areas there is a folk belief that says the perforations allow the spirits of the dead to pass through. Some families will actually make these papel picado from scratch, and use this as a family craft project with the kids. Skeletal figures are also used to decorate the altar as a stand in for the dead.


Treats in the form of calaveras (skulls) are left out to decorate the altar. These are not meant to be scary. The classic sugar skull shape always renders the skull in a cheery manner. The saying goes they are given a smile because the dead are happy to be remembered and to visit the living. The sugar skull aspect of the tradition is believed to tie to 18th century Italian immigrants from Palermo who brought it with them, and overtime Mexican style decorations were added to the treats. These sugar skulls are not only a symbol of the dead, but are there to feed them too. Pan de Muertos (Bread of the Dead) follows traditions we see elsewhere in Catholic areas of Europe as a common feature. In some areas of Europe the pastries for the dead are more like cookies. This Mexican pastry however is a sweet rounded bread prepared for the Day of the Dead, commonly shaped with crossed bones on the top.

Drinks like atole (also known as atol de elote) is a common part of the offerings too. Atole is usually a corn and masa-based hot beverage originating from MesoAmerica, although some variants may use rice, wheat or oatmeal as the liquid base. You can find atole served in Mexico year round. Champurrado is a type of atole that has chocolate added to it, and is a popularly served hot drink during Day of the Dead celebrations, and into the winter holiday season. It has all the comfort of a hot cup of cocoa, with some cinnamon and vanilla too.  (I’m sipping some now thanks to the palateria nearby. Yum.) It’s not as heavily chocolate as “hot cocoa” usually is, but it is tasty. Some Catholics will also put on the ofrenda a cross they make of salt to help feed their departed loved ones and in so doing it helps to purify their souls of sin. Of course favorite drinks and dishes of the dead are also put out. So if you bring food to the party potluck style, make sure the dead on the altar are fed first, before other servings are fed to the living.

The final touches of course are the dead themselves so pictures feature prominently. For a community ofrenda (versus one in your own home) I recommend bringing a copy of a picture so if you forget it, you don’t lose the original.  Some will also bring out special items connected with the dead, heirloom pieces (though this happens more in one’s own home). Candles are lit to light the way, and music is played or voices raised in song to help draw the dead to the party in their honor so they can join with friends and family again.

This is a time to build ties across generations, the living and the dead. Share the ancestral stories, remember fond memories of the dead and tell those stories to those who may never have known them.

There are regional variances in the customs. In some areas a great deal of importance is placed on the cemeteries and vigils there. Others have ofrendas and celebrations in their homes. Some areas, for whatever reason have very little folk practice to this at all. Some regional custom may be very community minded inviting all, and others may be more insular and private in their observance.

As a Heathen, living in Texas I’m more than happy to add pictures of my departed friends and family to community ofrendas when I am invited to do so. I will also incorporate some of the food and drink into my ancestral altar as it is a regional taste of my location, as an addition to my normal practice.

So if you’re invited to participate in some Day of the Dead celebrations, be respectful and remember the whole purpose of the celebration is to honor and remember the dearly departed dead.


I’ll leave you with some links to some stunning pictures to help capture a bit of what Day of the Dead is like in Mexico.

🤦‍♀️ Karl, what a pile 💩

Yet again, the Wild Hunt publishes some drivel by Karl Seigfried. Galina does a good job of cutting to the heart of the matter and calling stupid is as stupid does, but there’s a couple of points I wanted to expand upon.

how-about-no-karl
Egads.

The importance of knowing one’s ancestors is the most basic of things, you must know your roots, your tradition, your origins. And I don’t just mean that by genetic legacy, but by the legacy of the tradition itself. We see there are laws, that if you couldn’t identify the graves of those on the land, you couldn’t inherit the land. There were special rituals for the ancestors. For crying out loud, he wants to gut the religion of one of it’s pillars of praxis. What a fuckin idiot.

Anyone who knows history, knows we have ample evidence that these peoples weren’t a “white race” but a multi-cultural one. The true “VIKINGS” those who went a-viking, were pirates, people would join up and drop out wherever they went. We see trade, and other cultural exchanges. There’s a genetic study that shows a chunk of modern Icelanders are descended from an indigenous north american tribe. In the Bibliotheca Augustana we see a text that speaks of cultural groups joining up with the raiding vikings. The Annals of Ulster show mixed cultural groups across the countryside. An analysis of skeletons at sites linked to Vikings using the latest scientific techniques points to a mix of Scandinavian and non-Scandinavian peoples without clear ethnic distinctions in rank or gender. Studies from genetics, to isotope evidence, point to a culturally diverse group. Archaeological trade goods also show great exchange.

The early Vikings’ success stemmed in their ability to embrace and adapt from a wide range of cultures: Christian Irish, Muslims of the Abbasid Caliphate, and all parts in between. Some great academic books on the subject are James Graham-Campbell’s Viking World and Dubois’ Nordic Religions in the Viking Age.

Basically “Karl” is buying into the “oh so white” theory, and that just shows his own lack of credentials in this subject area.

So since Karl has wrongly appropriated our religion, can we get rid of him? Maybe have an auction and see if some other religion wants to adopt him?

Not to mention, it’s so absurd to allow a fringe to dictate the practices of the mainstream. You never see people saying because of crazies like the Branch Davidians, or The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project (aka Jonestown) that Christianity should redefine it’s entire praxis.

Remembering Olvir – A Heathen Martyr

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One of the religious staples of the Northern Tradition, is the honor and reverence shown for not only our ancestors, but also for our heroes. All too often when reading some of the grand exploits, battles and wars found in the sagas we associate the word hero to that of being a warrior, but while there are indeed many great heroes who are warriors, sometimes heroes are simply those who stay true to their beliefs.

It is a historical fact that the Christian conversion of the pre-Christian peoples wasn’t always a peaceful affair. Some of the early Norse Kings have an especially bloody reputation when it came to killing the ancient heathens within their lands, and these accounts are preserved in part within the Heimskringla, a collection of various historically oriented sagas about the Norse Kings.

In the annals of history, we know far more about the Christian conquering leaders, than we do the names of the devout heathens that would not submit to conversion. Occasionally, we do have preserved the names of some of those ancient pagan martyrs who were determined to continue to honor their Gods and the traditions of their people. One such account occurs in the 11th Century during the reign of King Olaf II of Norway (canonized as Saint Olaf), and it is at this time of year in particular, as we approach the holy tide of Ostara that I always remember and honor in ritual: Olvir. He was a renowned local leader from a powerful family in the Trondheim area of Norway, and as such it fell to him to represent his people to the King, and to conduct religious rites within his local community.

Continue reading “Remembering Olvir – A Heathen Martyr”

The Holy Tides – Yule, its traditions, and religious observances

Just as our pagan cousins celebrate the eight major sabbats that comprise the Wheel of the Year, for those of us in the Northern Tradition we too have somewhat similar key celebrations that we call holy tides (from the Old Norsehátíðir). Some of these celebrations are more significant and special than others, and these especially important holy-days are known as high holy tides: such as Ostara, Winter Nights, and Yule which is now upon us.

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Continue reading “The Holy Tides – Yule, its traditions, and religious observances”

The Holy Tides – Haligmonath / Winter Finding / Winterfylleth / Winter Nights / Vetrnætr / Haustblót / Völsi blót, & Autumn Weddings [Expanded]

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.

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Photo of a previous Winter Nights altar.

So then what are all these different observances, and what do they have to do with this time of year?

Continue reading “The Holy Tides – Haligmonath / Winter Finding / Winterfylleth / Winter Nights / Vetrnætr / Haustblót / Völsi blót, & Autumn Weddings [Expanded]”

Northern Tradition Musings on Memorial Day [Redux]

For those of us who are so lucky, we have a lovely three-day weekend before us. Memorial Day is far more than an occasion to exercise your checkbook (or should I say debit card swipe) in pursuit of retail bargains. Rather it is a holiday rooted in American history that has shifted overtime in the American consciousness, and yet it is also a holiday that many in the Northern Tradition have taken to claim as their own.


Memorial Day is a U.S. national holiday. The official birthplace of Memorial Day is in Waterloo, New York, which since 1866 has annually observed the holiday of decorating the war dead in their nearby cemetery. The original holiday was known as Decoration Day, when local communities would visit their grave yards and decorate the graves of soldiers who had died in battle. It began first to honor Union Soldiers who had died in the course of the American Civil War. After the First World War the holiday was expanded to include the honoring of any military man or woman who died in battle. Today the holiday is also used to not only honor those who died in military combat, but also to pay respect to those who served in the military but either died later from injuries received in combat but were removed from the field of contention, or those who died after leaving the military service.

In the Northern Tradition, respect for the comitatus (war-band) and the warrior cultus is well documented. Even people unfamiliar with the vast histories and stories of our lore are usually familiar with the more popular aspects of this literature like the later occurring story of Beowulf. Let’s face it, this tale has been adapted to cinema numerous times, has become an aspect of popular culture in its modern adaptations. Many of us read it in school as part of our core curriculum as a classic and early example of English literature along the likes of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Beyond the reverence of the war band, we also know the importance of the ancestors to the Northern Tradition. We have evidence in surviving lore of religious rituals performed to honor the ancestors: the disir and the alfar*. One of these rituals was known as disablot. In ancient Sweden it was held near the Vernal Equinox, in other areas it was held at Winter Nights. So the timing of the celebration varied.

The respect that those of the Northern Tradition have for the military can be seen in the wide variety of programs out there supporting the military community: including the Open Halls Project (and it’s also on Facebook), free hammers via The Mjolnir Project (currently suspended due to a backlog), for years Heathens fought to have symbols of our faith approved by the Department of Veteran Affairs for use on soldiers tombstones, a journey which took years to come to fruition: this spanned from a rally July 4, 2007 on the national mall in Washington, D.C. to get both the pentacle and the hammer as approved symbols for military tombstones, and in 2013 the Thor’s Hammer symbol finally was finally approved.

Others of us have also personally donated to service men and women. I know of variouspagan and Northern Tradition authors who have donated books to various military circles. I have sent off care-packages of altar items to the Bagram Pagan Open Circle, and sent items off to the Wiccan group Circle Sanctuary’s Operation Circle Care. I always offer Free Sigdrifa’s Prayer Bookmarks to American pagan and polytheist veterans and current active duty soldiers.

If you ask most Americans to explain the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the sad and simple fact is that most can’t. The two days have slowly morphed over time into a seeming amalgam of sameness. Veterans Day is intended to specifically honor those veterans of military service who are still alive. This confusion can even be seen mirrored in the Asatru community.

The Asatru Alliance, has taken Veteran’s Day and recycled it as the Feast of the Einherjar, which like Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day is a solely modern invention–not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with this. Einherjar is a term used to specifically refer to the battle dead escorted by the Valkyries to Odin’s hall Valhalla. Now since I’m not a member of the AA, I don’t know what their motivation was in the choosing of this date for this invented festivity. Perhaps since May and June already had traditional rituals associated with those months (Walpurgis and Litha respectively), they were looking for something that seemed appropriate to a heathen religious viewpoint to place into the month of November.

Regardless of the AA’s motivations for associating this feast with Veteran’s Day, the simple fact remains that like the larger mainstream American culture, many in the smaller Asatru religion also confuse the true meaning of Memorial and Veteran’s Day.

Of course, just as words can shift meaning over time influenced by the culture that uses them, so to can holidays. Today while Memorial Day still honors the war dead, has slowly shifted in the American consciousness to become this vast amalgam Memorial Day/Veteran’s Day celebration, as well as a day like El dia de los muertos where families may also tend to other graves regardless of military service to the persons resting therein.

Some of the Northern Tradition take this more all-inclusive approach to this holiday. Others opt to honor the war dead at Veteran’s Day instead, and a few of us (like me) make it a point to honor the war dead at Memorial Day. In my case I specifically look to my own line and those who served there. My grandfather who was a chief petty officer in the Navy for the first great war, my Uncles who served in World War II or in Vietnam… to my great-grand father who served in the Confederacy and as my late grandmother told it “even after losing an arm to them, he never asked those ‘damn yankees’ for a thing!”

Regardless of when people opt to honor the war dead, I believe it’s important that sometime during the year you do take the opportunity to honor them. These can be both your ancestors, but also just dead soldiers known and unknown. ‘Texatru’ that rare breed of Asatru who happen to hail from Texas and LOVE being Texans can be just as patriotic about the Lone Star State as they are patriotically American; They have a tendency to give a shout out to Daniel Boone on the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo. Just as some Anglo-Saxon Heathens may honor the late Mercian king Penda.

Of course, it should go without saying that honoring the war dead is something you should do as part of a periodically regular routine of respecting your ancestors. Sure just as we had disablot to honor the mothers in ancient times (and today)… it’s certainly not a foreign concept that we at times of our own determination have ‘themed’ celebrations to pay homage to the different types of dead.

So somewhere between the 50% off sales, the picnics and bar-b-q, I’d suggest taking a page from our Presidents who tend to lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown solider in Robert E. Lee’s former residence reinvented as Arlington National Cemetery. Take the time out to honor the war dead and those who have served the military in ways that enabled you to the type of life and freedoms we now enjoy. Don’t be shy in just honoring your war dead, but if you’re lucky to live near a veteran’s specific cemetery, or even a normal cemetery with a veteran’s section… why not pick up some flowers, and decorate each grave with a single bloom. And don’t feel that you HAVE to go to a cemetery to honor the war dead.

If you don’t live near the grave of your war dead, you can always put out pictures on your ancestral altar of them, or items that remind you of them. If you don’t have pictures, you can also write out their names and place them into a small basket or trinket box on the altar. You can set out offerings of items they enjoyed in life perhaps tobacco, cornbread, steak, etc. My uncle had proclivities for candy corn, popcorn, peanut butter, Diet Coke, and Mr. Goodbars. He always had a deck of cards lying around too. So when I’m honoring him it’s not uncommon for me to incorporate all or some of those items into the ancestral altar.

But to get your creative juices flowing, here is one of my prayers for Memorial Day:

If not for my ancestors,
if not for those soldiers who fought for my current government,
or those who fought to defend the multitude of cultures of all my ancestors… 
I would not exist.

I would not know the life that I know.

My life has been hallowed in their struggles to survive,
to make the world renewed,
invigorated,
Better than it was before.

To these men and women I owe a debt of gratitude,
and at this time,
and at this hour,
And for all time evermore I hail thee–
those who fought,
who persisted,
who endured,
who took up arms and when none were in grasp fought with bare hands–
your sacrifice is remembered,
your devotion honored.

You did not die in vain,
and the promise of your efforts still bears fruit.

May it follow like sweet reverb to future generations who will hear the call, and add their own harmonies to strengthen it.
So do I hail!

Honoring Our Mothers [Redux]

Sometimes the perception other pagans and polytheists have of the Northern Tradition is that we are focused on a patriarchal system due to the overwhelming popularity of Gods like Odin and Thor, but the truth is simply that all powers, or Regin, were respected and honored, including those mothering and protective spirits or wights known as the Disir.

When looking up the etymology and usage of the word wight, I discovered it was used not just to describe land wights, but also for ancestral spirits, and the Gods and Goddesses, and even the genius loci. So it was an umbrella term used to describe anything that was numinous, or not of this world and therefore not wholy human.

I think in the early foundations of the religious practices, there wasn’t a great deal of distinction made between the types, anything that was supernatural fit as they all held sacred roles we mortals should respect and there were regional variances and regional preferences for each geo-socio-politico community. Therefore it is my belief that overtime more of a tiered, hierarchical structure emerged in human civilization, and thus we begin to see more of a separation of ‘ranks and tiers’ between Gods, the ancestors, the land wights, etc.

In Guðrúnarkviða, the text calls the valkyries “Odin’s Disir”, and we also see in Reginsmal and Krakumal more connections to the valkyries. We see in another text, Atlamál, that they are specifically referred to as being dead women. 

In Hamðismál and Grimnismal the disir appear to be synonymous with the Norns. All throughout the lands of ancient Germania the archaelogical record is full of more than 1000 found votive stones and altars erected to the Matronae (The Mothers), and within that vast number we find groupings of stones in specific regions to specific deities, such as those honoring the Austriahenae. Suggesting, and to my mind proving, that there existed genius loci or a region specific variety too. But as the term Matronae/Mothers alone suggests, they also have associations with fertility as well.

As such, Goddesses, Norns, valkyries, genius loci, as well as female ancestors comprise the Disir, or Idis. While that can seem a bit overwhelming to wrap your mind around, at the end of the day the Disir embody the protective and beneficial female spirits that look after individuals, their families, and the tribe or community.

The Disir or mothers were so revered that they had their own celebrations within the Northern Tradition umbrella, with regional variance. The Anglo-Saxons had Modraniht (Mother’s Night) during December, the Swedes had Disting in February, yet texts like Víga-Glúms and
Hervavar show celebrations in the Autumn instead.

In modern times Northern Tradition polytheists will also use Mother’s Day as another opportunity to honor the Disir.

So on this Mother’s Day…

Let us honor our Mothers, who through joy and suffering endured so that their children, and their children’s children might not just survive, but thrive.

I call to our mothers, the light and the life bringers who have guided us from darkness onto the paths our ancestors have traveled, and now the paths we walk down.

All-mother Frigga I hail thee, and I thank thee. For the immeasurable blessings, your guidance and your wisdom. You see all things, even if I may not know them. May your counsel follow me into the year ahead and be the compass from which I navigate.

May the blessings of the Disir be upon you all.

Mother’s Night: The Start of Yule

Of these three documented High Holy Tides, it is Yule that far and away seems the most sacred to modern practitioners in the Northern Tradition, if for no other reason than so many of the ‘Christmas’ traditions that have survived into the present day. While the association of Christ with this ancient pagan holiday came about in Roman times as connected to the festival of Saturnalia and the Mithraic cult, the spread of Christianity into Europe brought the pagan customs in the root cultures of the Northern Tradition (Germania, Scandinavia, and Anglo-Saxon England) into direct connection with the newly Christianized holiday export. While some aspects of other pagan solstice practices were common throughout, it is explicitly a number of Northern Tradition practices that we see surviving in our modern Christmas traditions, including: carols, feasting and drinking, gift-giving, Santa Claus (and other variants), evergreen decorations and the Yule log.

Since customs vary between the modern day countries where these ancient cultures once stood, there is some variance in these customs, and in how modern day Heathens choose to celebrate them. Some mirror their practices more precisely after a geo-specific historic culture, whereas others will look at the width and breadth of what we know of Northern Tradition customs.

 

If you’ve ever heard the Christmas Carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” modern heathens opt to celebrate this as the Twelve Days of Yule, with the last day culminating on 12thNight. Since ancient calendars followed a different method of time, the solstice celebrations as well as later ‘Christmasy’ style observances can vary from place to place as to when they occur. Today, most pagans and heathens celebrate the yuletide as running from approximately December 20 – December 31 (but there are variations).

We do know that the celebration of Yule wasn’t always twelve days long. In the Norse text Heimskringla: The Saga of Hakon the Good talks about it once lasting for three days, or as long as the ale lasted. The night it began was known as the slaughter night, where animals would be ritually slain. Their meat later used to feed the community, as well as the Gods.  It was King Hakon of Norway, who as a Christian passed a law that the Christian Christmas Day (which was already a weird bastardization of the Christian story of the Nativity and Saturnalia/Mithraic customs) AND the pagan yuletide celebrations were to henceforth be celebrated at the same time. While this only specifically impacted Norway (and its territories), it illustrates an intentional combining of the holy-days into one celebration.

Today, the high holy tide is celebrated for twelve days. Whether this was because in some areas it was celebrated for that long originally, or was perhaps some odd creation that came from blending old pagan time-keeping methods and calendars with the modern ones together the end result is the same.

It is customary that NO work is done during the yuletide. From Germanic sources we see stories of the Goddess Berchta punishing those who had left work undone. In the Icelandic Svarfdæla saga, we see a warrior who postpones a fight until after the Yuletide. The  Saga of Hakon the Good also speaks that the Yule was to be kept holy. Some practitioners of the Northern Tradition will even opt to completely withdraw and go incommunicado from online mailing lists, bulletin boards, and social media outlets like facebook so they can stay focused on spending the yuletide with friends and family. While it’s not always an option for everyone, there are those who choose to use vacation time from work so they can have the entire yuletide off as well.

Mother’s Night
The modern yuletide usually begins for most Heathens with Mother’s Night. In Bede’s De Temporum Ratione he describes what he knows about an old Anglo-Saxon celebration that he states was called Módraniht, which marked the beginning of a new year and was celebrated at the time of Christmas. Apparently Mother’s Night was observed the entire evening through.  While little information exists to describe what Mother’s Night was, by looking at the Northern Tradition umbrella we see what appear to be similar rituals. While Yule marks the start of the year for the Anglo-Saxons, we see in Scandinavia that this distinction was at least for some geo-specific locations given to Winter Nights, which had a separate observed ritual to the Disir as part of their celebration. The disir can be understood to be the ancestral mothers, and other female spirits that oversee the family, clan, or tribe. When we reach back to ancient Germania, we also see a thriving cultus dedicated to the “matrons” or the Idis. Female deities are also sometimes included with the disir.

I personally theorize that Saint Lucia’s Day (celebrated primarily in Scandinavian countries) occurs on December 13th and features a female ‘light-bringer’ may be a Christianized remnant of an ancient disir-related ritual. The Christianized Saint Lucia Day, may have pagan origins related to the figure of Lussi. The practice of Lussevaka – to stay awake through Lussinatt to guard oneself and the household against evil, not only fits symbolically well with a solstice celebration of longest night, but also brings to mind the description of Mother’s Night being observed for the entire night as well.

 

A MOTHER’S NIGHT PRAYER

Tonight we honor our Mothers, who through joy and suffering endured so that their children, and their children’s children might not just survive, but thrive.

I call to our mothers, the light and the life bringers who have guided us from darkness onto the paths our ancestors have traveled, and now the paths we walk down.

All-mother Frigga I hail thee, and I thank thee. For the immeasurable blessings, your guidance and your wisdom. You see all things, even if I may not know them. May your counsel follow me into the year ahead and be the compass from which I navigate.

May the blessings of the disir be upon you all.

For those curious about how to potentially have a rite around this night, or how the Yule log connects, keep reading.

Most folks have heard of bonfires as part of solstice celebrations, in the Northern Tradition we also have traditions concerning the yule log, as well as the ashen faggot which was a collection of bundled branches that were burned instead. We see in the Christian practice of Saint Lucy’s Day, what I feel is a pre-Christian practice of bringing light on the darkest and longest of nights. We see folk traditions of Lussi where the lussebride or representative lucia would walk the property with her candle from house, through barn and stable, and around the boundaries of the farmstead to ward it from evil. In Heimskringla, we have a description of a Disablot, which suggests that the King in Sweden oversaw the ritual in his role as High Priest while ritually riding around the sacred hall. Just as we have aspects of land-taking in stories of Gefjon, or as exhibited in the Æcerbot (which was a ritual) or Plough Monday traditions, we can understand that it is likely that the King’s riding on his horse probably ritually connected to some aspect of land-taking or boundary making as well. One imagines in pre-Christian times this was probably accompanied by prayers or invocations to the Holy Powers for protection, and can be part and parcel of some of the hallowing traditions for rituals too. 

Among English sources, we know that remnants of the previous years yule log, was used to help light the next year. By doing so we have a tradition that has the light (while now extinguished) ‘kept’ throughout the year. In part this becomes something like a folk amulet of good luck, but also a means to ‘restart the light’ on the coldest, darkest, and longest night of the year when it roles around again.

Based on this, here is how I like to celebrate Módraniht.

If your rite is attended by others outside of those who live under the same roof with you, ask them to turn off all lights in their homes before they come to the rite you’re hosting.

Some groups let the children decorate the Yule Log before it is set ablaze, using 100% natural fiber ribbons, construction paper cut outs, etc. This is a great activity to do before ritual if you wish too. 

Have prepared enough candles so everyone in attendance has one. 

Set up your ritual area: including prepping the area for the yulelog (ash removal, fire extinguisher/water/sand in reach, adding tender, etc.), an altar with any representations you may wish to include of the Disir / Idis / Matrons upon it, and any and all offerings. A traditional disablot would feature an animal sacrifice, but that’s not always practical today (especially with so many of us no longer raising and slaughtering livestock ourselves). But you can make sure there is still food and drink on the altar to give in offering. Remember, if you have come together for a feast even pot luck style, the powers (in this case the Disir) should always be fed first before any person. Historically, the feasting occurs after ritual (as the animal sacrifice would have portions cooked for those gathered). With small kids, or people who may have medical conditions it’s ok to have snacks, but always remember the Gods and ancestors are served first especially when you come together for ritual. So you open a bag of chips, put some on a plate for the powers, before any humans grab one to munch. (Save the big feast and the most special treats for after the rite). 

Before you begin, please take a moment to address everyone present about how the rite will go, expectations on behavior and ritual etiquette, and allow them to ask questions. All too often I have seen newcomers given no warning, and then they make horrendous faux pas. A good host (or their representative) helps to set people at ease. Taking a few moments to explain things is such an easy preventative measure to take from offending a holy power. This is a great opportunity to teach about the Disir, the Matrons, some of our traditions with Yule, etc. Then I recommend one last comfort break for everyone before it’s time for ritual. 

This ritual presumes you are doing a faining, not a blot with animal sacrifice.

The Ritual

Extinguish all light (electrical, fire, candles, etc.).  Allow darkness to descend and give pause to it in silent observance by all. After that pause (approximately a minute or so, adapt to your gathering by what seems best) then set your yule log alight (with some means of firestarter). You can do this very traditionally, or make it easier on yourself with a lighter. 

The host or gythia(or godhi), then will light a candle from the yule log, then precede to walk the boundaries of the ritual space to hallow. I would invoke Sunna that her light may follow you and ward away the darkness, and shine blessings and protections upon you and all those assembled. Many invoke Thor for hallowing, but for Mother’s Night I like to keep the energy to the female powers. I went with Sunna because the solstice is in part a time sacred to her. The flame of a candle can be perceived as a microcosm of the flames of the sun. You could just as easily choose another female power that is appropriate for your group: Frau Holle, Berchta, Freya, Frigga, etc. 

After the host/gythia has hallowed and warded the space, return to the altar. 

The sacred drink (mead, or some other beverage to stand for it) should be poured into the mead cup/horn and the invocation should be said to start things off. Pour from the cup/horn into a special vessel like a blot bowl for it in offering to the gods, part of this liquid will be used to dip a branch in and anoint blessings on the altar, offerings, and blessings upon those gathered.  [If you plan to do OPTION 2 below, don’t pour it all out. Pre-plan so there’s either a designated helper to bear the horn or cup, or there’s a means to have it stowed on the altar without it splashing everywhere. Keep some in the original bottle to pour more into the horn/cup if needed.]

 

OPTION 1

  • Now hand out candles to everyone in attendance, and from the candle lit by the yule log, light everyone’s candles.
  • Then offerings are set afire on the yule log. I especially like to use fragrances like dried lavender, clover, etc. I’ll actually collect dried blossoms I’ve had from throughout the year and save them for the rite. I’ve even burned in offering before needlepoint that I crafted for them. Anything you go to burn should be natural and free of harmful chemicals. Maybe you have jewelry you want to offer, or some other item? Those can be buried as long as they’re made of components that wont poison the land or ground water. Libations poured out (not in the fire or you’ll douse the flames). 
  • Collectively everyone can recite the prayer above, or the host/gythia can lead the prayer but prompt everyone (call and response style) into a ‘Hail the Mothers’. You can end it there and move on, or you can tack on OPTION 1b. 

OPTION 1b

  • Have each person one at a time add their own words and what they may wish to say. You can do so via a horn or mead cup. But it may be a bit troublesome juggling the candles and the drinking vessel. I personally prefer OPTION 2, but if you have a group that has a lot of newcomers they may need you to lead them more collectively as a group.

OPTION 2

  • Instead of OPTION 1 entirely, after the space has been hallowed and warded, invocations said, blessings bestowed. The host/gythia will invite everyone (one at a time) to come forward to the yule log with a handful of fragrance to toss into the fire in offering (or some other offering they have prepared). [Groups have different etiquette for the order of speaking over the horn. Some may focus on elders either by age and/or a hierarchical rank within their group, this approach usually provides for more experienced examples to go first for newcomers to see. Some groups may ask certain classifications of people to come forward first. For a night honoring the Disir and Matrons, they may ask mothers to come forward. For a different rite they might ask Veterans, etc. Some groups keep it more casual and merely go in a clockwise circle.] When an individual comes forward, they receive the horn or mead cup and speak their personalized words in honor of the Disir. When they are finished, they return the drinking vessel to the horn/cup bearer, and then the host/gythia will light that person’s candle from the yule log’s flame (or the candle the gythia first lit from the yule fire).

     

The host/gythia should close out the rite, with any final offerings, invocations, prayers, songs, etc. Adapt as best suits your gathering. 

The last act should be everyone’s individual candles being extinguished. In olden days, fire would be carried from the yule log to restart the hearth fires throughout the community (assuming a certain level of proximity). That’s not practical today (unless you’re in walking distance), so instead the candles lit by the yule log are extinguished, and each individual takes the candle home with them. When people return home, they can set the first fire in their home (be it a candle or at the hearth) from the candle lit by the yule log to carry the good fortune and blessings into their homes for the new year.

At this point while the rite is concluded, the festivities have not. Time for feasting, the vigil, and for those so inclined this is the time to tell stories, or to sing. 

Traditionally at least one person should sit vigil with the yule fire the whole night through, It’s easier if you can share the burden, or do so in shifts. Some may simply spend the time in conversation throughout the night. Some may prefer to be in meditation. 

Once dawn arrives, those groups so inclined will then cast runes to see what is in store for them in the next year.

Afterwards to bookend and conclude this last bit of religious observance I recommend that those left should recite or sing Sigdrifa’s Prayer, (or perhaps something more specifically geared to Sunna such as a song or a prayer) with their attention to the east (In the Landnámabok it mentions bowing to the east to hail the rising sun) and then extinguish the yule fire. (Unless you have the means to safely keep the fire burning. and the intention to keep the fire burning. Even if you do, you should collect some of the embers now before they are ash to use to start the fire next year.)

If you’re the host, save part of the Yule log to start the fire at next year’s Yule after you extinguish it when morning comes. The candles are being sent home for the same symbolic reason for everyone (including those who may not be able to stay for the vigil through until dawn).  Craft tins are great for storing the wood, and large enough ones will work for the candles too. The metal tins should provide an environment that if there’s any lingering heat or chance for the flame to reignite you’ll quickly deprive it of any oxygen. I’ve seen cookie tins used, or if the wood was thoroughly doused and left to soak a few minutes in water, I’ve seen it then retrieved and wrapped in aluminum foil. I like the idea of the craft tins, because they’re small, portable, and individuals can decorate the container to make it something special. 

And last but not least grab some breakfast, clean up, say goodbye to anyone leaving, and go get some sleep! 

What lies above is just an example of how you could conduct a ritual for the evening. Don’t be daunted by it, be inspired, adapt as best befits your situation. As long as the focus is on the Disir/Matrons, and there is sincerity and respect in what you are doing it will all fall into place. 

 

King Radbod and the Importance of the Ancestors

This week on August 9th many Heathens who are members of the Asatru Alliance, or who opt to use their calendar, set aside time to celebrate the life and memory of the Frisian King Radbod (680-719 CE), who is a hero to many living Heathens and Pagans today.

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16th Century Embroidery depicting the story of King Radbod's near-baptism on display at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht.

Continue reading “King Radbod and the Importance of the Ancestors”