Our only written accounts to this Goddess comes to us from Tacitus’ Germania:
There is a sacred grove on an island in the Ocean, in which there is a consecrated chariot, draped with cloth, where the priest alone may touch. He perceives the presence of the goddess in the innermost shrine and with great reverence escorts her in her chariot, which is drawn by female cattle. There are days of rejoicing then and the countryside celebrates the festival, wherever she designs to visit and to accept hospitality. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, all objects of iron are locked away, then and only then do they experience peace and quiet, only then do they prize them, until the goddess has had her fill of human society and the priest brings her back to her temple.
There is a theory that connects Gefjon to Nerthus, one of the bits of interest in this theory is that the medieval place name for the modern-day city of Naerum in Denmark was Niartharum, which etymologically may connect to Nerthus’ name.
Much is made of Her as a fertility Goddess, while this is true, I also see her as a Goddess associated with fresh waters (rivers, lakes, ponds) and how that water is necessary for the fields. I also personally see Njord as a God of waters at the boundaries (beaches, marshlands, etc), and Ran/ Aegir more the ocean depths.
A Prayer to Nerthus
We hail the generous earth. Ripe lie your sustaining fields; swollen with the promise of blessings yet reaped.
We hail you Nerthus, And we thank you For the plenty you provide For the gifts you bestow. May we thrive in health And fortitude for life.
So we hail!
A little over a year ago I sponsored a prayer card (available for purchase) to this Goddess, with art from Grace Palmer.
For those of us in the Northern Tradition, the high holy tide of Ostara is upon us. Some are gearing up to celebrate during the astronomical spring equinox (which varies slightly but always occurs between March 19-21), and others may postpone their celebrations so that they coincide more with the observed Christian date of Easter instead, which is April 16th this year. The later allows heathen children to be able to participate in more mainstream activities such as egg hunts with their peers at school and at community parks.
Even in antiquity there wasn’t one set, collective date across the peoples who worshipped the Aesic gods such as Odin. Observances varied based on a manner of different time keeping methods, as well as localized, regional cues based on the local climate and life cycle. For the Norse peoples, the warmer weather would arrive much later than it would in Anglo-Saxon England.
The Venerable Bede gives us our only specific information about the Anglo-Saxon Goddess known as Eostre in his De temporibus ratione, where he informs us that the month of April was called Ēostur-monath, and that he believed the name was derived from a Goddess that had been worshipped in ancient times. Some scholars, and even certain pagans consider the information unreliable and so dismiss the claim. I would counter however that we have ample evidence of not only a heathen religious holy tide celebrated at this time of year, but other evidence, which while not direct, only adds credence to Bede’s claim.
Just as the Anglo-Saxon month of April was Eoster-monath, as we know from Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni the Germanic Franks shared a similar name for their month of April: Ostarmanoth. So here we have some supportive evidence of the Anglo-Saxon practices from continental Germans.
If we look to the Norse sources, and at the collection of sagas that comprise the Heimskringla, we see multiple mentions to three high holy tides throughout those sagas, such as mentioned in Ynglinga Saga, and is echoed again in Óláfs saga helga which states: “It is their custom to perform a sacrifice in the fall to welcome winter, a second at midwinter, and a third in the summer to welcome it’s arrival.”
Now most modern people would interpret this incorrectly, because today we have a concept of there being four seasons in the year (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter), but we know from both ancient Icelandic laws as well as Bede’s description of the Anglo-Saxons that the ancient people’s had a cultural concept that the year was only comprised of 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. By following this reasoning the midwinter celebration is therefore Yule. We see this timing echoed when we hop back across to the Anglo-Saxons.
We know that the Witans, or ruling councils of the Anglo-Saxons, gathered during specific days from the Christian calendar: Saint Martin’s Day, Christmas, and Easter/Whitsunday. These three Christian religious observances sync with the pagan timing of the three high holy tides we find amongst the Scandinavian sources: the start of Winter or Winter Nights, midwinter or Yule, and the start of Summer or Ostara. Not only did the Witans meet at these times, but when these councils came together to meet the Anglo-Saxon Kings of old would also specifically wear their crowns at this time. No doubt this is an old carry-over from expected duties of the King during the heathen religious celebrations. We certainly see in Ynglinga saga that the King of Sweden in his role as high priest at the temple of Uppsala conducted religious rites.
In Óláfs saga helga we see that shortly after King Olaf II of Norway had observed the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, he heard news that Olvir of Egg was making ready the preparations for a pagan religious celebration occurring within a matter of days of the Christian Easter. While the timing didn’t sync precisely, remember that we have different methods of time-keeping at play between pagan customs and the way the Christian Church put together the calendar for their observances, and the Church has a long history of moving many of their celebrations to capitalize on ancient pagan rites, or to adapt those ancient celebrations to their new religion.
While the Norse sagas do specifically mention Winter Nights and Yule, the springtime celebration is never specifically called Ostara. We do however find ample celebrations held at this time amongst the Scandinavians: Sigrblot (which translates to victory sacrifice), Sumarmál or Surmanaetr (Summer Nights, sometimes occasionally called Summer Finding by modern heathens).
Now, I’m sure a few of you might be puzzled about why there would be a ‘victory sacrifice’ at what amounts to the beginning of the modern-day concept of Spring. In part the warmer months are generally when ancient peoples would conduct war-fare. But more than that, Spring is that balance between forces of Night (Nott) and Day (Dagr), and the transition has somewhat of a combative flare to it at times as well. (which was touched on by fellow Pantheon contributor Galina Krasskova when she writes of the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Hretha and the Roman God Mars). We also see that ‘balance’ as well as the importance of victory reinforced again in Sigdrifa’s Prayer. There also abound a number of theories by academics and modern heathens that look at possible connections between Eostre & Hretha, Eostre and Idunna, Eostre and Walpurga.
I have my own theory, or at least a partial insight. In Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology he describes several folk-practices, one where women appeared clad in white at the first dawn of the Summer (i.e. the modern day concept of Spring). This isn’t the first time we see women in a context with light clad in white. We see another folk tradition amongst the Scandinavians at Yule where there are females of the community acting as ‘light bringers’. While this is most commonly connected with the Christian observance of Saint Lucia’s Day, Lucia may in fact have pagan origins to the ancient figure of Lussi. As midwinter marks the return of the light from the darkest time of the year, the start of the summer represents the balance of light and dark. So could it be that these white clad females brought light on darkest night at Yule, and at the dawn of Summer are revealed as a symbolic representation of the changing cycles of the year?
The connection with dawn with this holy tide isn’t coincidental. Ostara, or Old English Eastre or Northumbrain Eostre, is believed to etymologically derive from a proto-germanic term meaning to shine, and that also relates to the east or the dawn (and this placement of the dawn and the east, correlates to the “Venus” star of the spring). Please also note that the etymology for the Old English term Eastre is believed to derives from the Old English ēast (in other words the cardinal direction), and thus suggests again another association with the dawn. While evidence is inconclusive, there are references to a possible Proto-Germanic goddess known as Austro. Still within the same etymological family, we then have the term Austriahenae or “Eastern Ones”, which is a known matron cultus (disir) from the Germanic Rhine-land, that has well over 100 votive stones found dedicated to them in the archaeological record. Could it be, that the folk custom described by Grimm of white clad women appearing at dawn might have its roots in this particular matron cultus? We don’t know. But it certainly is tantalizing food for thought.
Now, if we decide to branch out beyond this specific umbrella grouping of cultures and instead look at other cultures within the Proto-Indo European family we also see correlating Goddesses in other traditions, including the Roman Goddess Aurora and the Greek Goddes Eos, and even the Indian Goddess Ushas. Etymologically speaking, the names of these Goddesses all appear to be ‘in the family’.
While there’s no bit of history connecting the phenomena of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights that we know of to the aforementioned Goddesses… I personally think that the timing of this natural phenomena is of special note. It begins at the start of our autumn, and concludes around the start of our spring. Syncing up with the ‘winter’ of this ancient culture. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the Vikings or Teutonic tribes thought about the Northern Lights.
While we have a very strong prevalence of the east associated with a Goddess, there are two masculine Eastern references as well. The first is to the dwarf Austri who is one of four dwarves named for the cardinal directions that support Ymir’s skull, which in turn is the foundation for the sky and heavens above us. We also see from the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, a ‘eastern’ connection with Freyr, or rather very specifically with his aspect as Ing Freyr coming “from the East’, and its in part for this reason and his known connections with fertility that many heathens opt to also honor and make offerings to him on this day. In fact, Freyr is known as not only a god of fertility, but also as a god of peace. In Gylfaginning, Freyr is said to rule over “rain and sunshine and thus over the produce of the earth; it is good to call upon him for good harvests and for peace; he watches over prosperity of mankind.” Now doesn’t that sound like exactly what you might need at the start of the crop-growing season for the agricultural cycle ahead?
We’ve touched on the Holy Powers in our tradition that all relate to the etymological root word to ‘shine’ or ‘dawn’, and the related ‘east’. So let us now examine the term Easter. Simply put the term is not rooted in Abrahamic tradition, but was rather appropriated for use by the Church to apply to the Passover/Resurrection tradition. While to Christians the term Easter refers to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the symbolism of moving from death back into life stem from pagan understandings of the cycles.
If we think in very vague general terms about ancient rites and what was going on in the calendar year we see a pattern emerge. Since this was very much an agricultural religion, much of the holy tides revolve around the necessary life cycles. Spring was about re-seeding life, and new life, and new growth. Summer was the continuance of growth ‘maintenance’ of the crop, and also the time for war, travelers, and traders. The fall marked the harvest of the crop, and preparations to survive winter. And winter was a time to hold up, rest, and sleep, and a time of death as well.
While no one individual piece of evidence is definitive, this overwhelming body of supportive (albeit somewhat indirect) evidence does to my mind make it really clear that yes not only was there a religious holy tide at this time, but that yes there was a Goddess Ostara as well, although it appears just as we have regional variances with the leader of the Wild Hunt amongst the heathen peoples (The Goddess Perchta in Germany, and the God Odin in Scandinavia) that we also had some regional variation here as well. As someone who has invoked Her and given her offerings through the years there is absolutely no doubt to my mind that she is in fact very much real.
Below are the words to an invocation I sing to Her.
Goddess of the sunrise Shining in the east Spring now from your slumber Ostara so we plead
So what about Easter traditions like the Easter Bunny and eggs?
From observations of the ancient world, this is indeed the time of eggs, which often times represented the first substantial food that ancient heathens would have had after exhausting their winter stores. Chickens for instance generally won’t lay eggs until there are so many hours of daylight. As to how the association of hares with eggs came about… well that’s two-fold. First, now that winter was over the hares were entering into their breeding season that would last for a few months. Hares like their distant cousins rabbits, are known to have multiple childbirths, and be able to give birth to several litters in a year and thus have a reputation for “going at it like bunnies”. Unlike their rabbit cousins who live in underground burrows, hares live in above ground nests. And since birds lay eggs in nests… and both hares and eggs were suddenly around at the same time it is a reasonable conclusion that the two were connected.
While there are numerous folkloric traditions with egg decorating, egg fighting, egg rolling throughout the ancient heathen peoples, to my knowledge the oldest known decorated egg comes from outside our tradition and dates to sometime in the Iron Age and was found in Northern Africa (Ancient Carthage).
Yuletide festivities conclude on Twelfth Night. Many modern Heathens will sync this with New Year’s Eve. It’s the last big party to celebrate a new year, celebrate the passing of the darkest (and in theory coldest of times) and to look forward to the lengthening days and warming temperatures. Of all the nights of Yule, this night seems to be the one most closely associated with the custom of wassailing, which embodies in part the customs around caroling as well.
Wassail, Hail, Heilsa, are all different versions of the same root word across a few different languages, which essentially relates to health, prosperity and luck, and was used prominently as a type of salutation. Not only would you use the word to greet someone, but the greeting also had the implication that you wished them good health. During the yuletide there is a specific type of beverage, that of wassail that was imbibed. This drink would vary by household but it was meant to be alcoholic, with some fruit juices in it and other seasonings to help fortify all who imbibed it for the year ahead. Gluhwein/Mulled Wine, or cider with mulling spices are examples of drinks in the wassailing tradition.
If you’ve ever heard the Christmas carol “Here we come a wassailing among the eaves of green” that’s where the tradition comes from– the wishing of good health and the drinking of wassail (a specific type of beverage imbibed for good health) during the yuletide celebrations. In some specific areas, those from lower socio-economic tiers would go singing to those of greater wealth, and the higher socio-economic household was supposed to give wassail to the carolers. We also see a number of folk-traditions that show not only songs sung in ancient yuletide celebrations, but also that people sometimes went into the orchards or fields and sang, no doubt asking for fertility and to reawaken from winter slumber in the time ahead.
For a heathen take on wassailing music (and other music of the season), you can check out Skaldic Hearth Kin’s “Winter Wassail” album available on iTunes, Amazon and other outlets.
While the concept ‘hail’ may seem antiquated, it’s still in use far outside modern heathen venues, or in connection with Christmas or yule celebrations. For instance, the President of the United States has a ‘theme song’ that is played as he makes his ‘entrance’ into many of his public appearances, the song is titled “Hail to the Chief” which colloquially means ‘greetings and good health to the chief/president’. It’s actually really common in many schools (college or high school) fight songs as well, like Purdue University. Infamously, most people remember it used in the ‘Heil Hitler’ of Nazi Germany.
A Twelfth Night Prayer
Hail Mundilfari the time-turner
for another year’s ending,
and another’s beginning
has come upon us again.
In the spirit of the season
we have braved the dark nights and cold,
traversed snow and ice,
to visit and make merry
with our family and friends,
our neighbors and community.
When we have seen those in need
we gave generously of ourselves
to brighten and warm their days,
for the health and well-being of all.
Mundilfari we hail your Children,
through whom we measure the passage of time:
Sunna, the Ever-shining one,
Goddess of the dancing Sun in the sky
Mani, the silver-gleaming,
God of the waxing and waning Moon
Sinthgunt, fair twinkling
Star Goddess of sparkling grace
Their guiding light
reminds us in the darkest of times
that there are paths yet to travel
and hope yet at hand,
and that You are with us always,
as constant as the passage of time.
Hail to Night and Her Daughters,
and Day and His Sons!
May we know no ill-tidings in the days
of promise that lie ahead.
May this new year be ripe
with blessings for us to harvest.
So we hail!
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.
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.
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.
Extinguish all light (electrical, fire, candles, etc.). Set the yule log (in a hearth, or firepit, or bonfire) alight.
Have candles nearby, and everyone in attendance gets one. The host or gythia, then will light each candle from the yule log.
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’. Then one by one each person can add their own words and what they may wish to say.
Some groups let the children decorate the Yule Log before it is set ablaze, using 100% natural fiber ribbons, construction paper cut outs, etc.
Then offerings are set afire on the yule log. I especially like to use fragrances like dried lavendar, clover, etc. Traditionally someone should sit vigil the whole night through, only extinguishing the fire when dawn breaks. Many groups will then cast runes come dawn to see what is in store for them in the next year.
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.
In olden days, fire would be carried from the yule log to restart the hearth fires throughout the community. That’s not practical today (unless you’re in walking distance), so 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.
If you’re the host, save part of the Yule log to start the fire at next year’s Yule.