Holy Tides of the Northern Tradition – Charming of the Plough

For many pagans, this is the time of year where they honor and celebrate Imbolc one of the eight sabbats that comprise the Wheel of the Year. For those of us in the Northern Tradition however, we have our only celebrations known as holy tides (from the Old Norse hátíðir) that we may currently be celebrating instead: Charming of the Plough or Disting.

Explore the holy tide known as the Charming of the Plough celebrated by Northern Tradition polytheists.
Gefion Fountain in Copenhagen, Denmark

Since Northern Tradition religious practices can vary because some groups and individuals opt to recreate the celebrations of geo-specific historic cultures, others look at the vast umbrella that we see amongst the Æsic-worshipping peoples as they appear throughout ancient Germania, into Scandinavian countries (like Sweden, Norway, Iceland, etc.), and into Anglo-Saxon England.

The timing of these holy tides varies based on regional differences in the seasonal transition of climate, as well as in the different time-keeping and calendar methods that were employed by the different cultures when compared to the modern-day calendar used today. Some timing may have also shifted as pagan observances were shifted and syncretized in an intentional joining by early church leaders in post conversion Europe. As a result, while some Heathens opt to sync the timing up with the quarter-day of Imbolc so that their holy tide celebration occurs at the same time as their pagan cousins, others have already celebrated, and yet others more may not be celebrating for a few weeks yet.

Still, in my experience, most Heathens sync up their observance with the astronomical midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox in a more generalized Charming of the Plough observance. This also coincides approximately with the modern Groundhog Day. For those unfamiliar with the custom of Groundhog Day (and I’m not referring to the movie), the folk tradition comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch. Despite the name being ‘Dutch” these weren’t settlers from the Netherlands, but rather they were Deutsch, or German. Specifically speaking their own dialect called Deitsch with language ties to West Central Germany. English speaking Americans misheard this and thought it was ‘Dutch’ and the name stuck. There’s a lot of interesting folk traditions from these European settlers, and if you look among those Pennsylvania Dutch traditions you’d find an array of folk traditions including hex signs, runes, and folk stories about gods–like Wudan (Odin), Dunner (Thor), Holle (Frau Holle or Holda) etc. This presence of folk tradition has given us another branch (albeit it far less known) within the Northern Tradition umbrella: Urglaawe. The settlers we call the Pennsylvania Dutch have a tradition of using a groundhog as a weather predictor for when spring would arrive. The custom back in Europe where these settlers originated seemed to have used the badger instead. Knowing when spring might arrive would be a very important indicator for people to know when to make ready the fields and more importantly plant the crops for the year ahead. Too early, and you’d lose the crop to winter’s frosty bite. So this folk tradition operated as a nature based omen as a sort of farmer’s almanac. While there is no scientific evidence that this custom has any true accuracy, I think the key takeaway here is the timing of early February and the fact this custom ties to the importance of agricultural timing while balancing the change of the seasons to make ready for the year ahead.

According to Bede’s De temporum ratione, the Anglo-Saxon month of February was known as Solmonad, and meant month of mud. Most likely mud month refers to the act of ploughing the fields. According to Bede, this was a time celebrated by people offering cakes to their Gods. The only other time we see offerings of cakes ever mentioned as occurring is with the celebration of Hlæfmæsse (loaf mass), which occurs at the opposite time of year at the time of the harvest. So here we have a mirrored tradition of offerings of cakes or loaves given to the land as a bookmark to the growing season (planting to harvesting).

In England, there is a folk tradition known as Plough Monday (which was the first Monday after the Christian celebration of the Epiphany or Three Kings Day which marked the end of the Christmas/Yuletide). Today that means Plough Monday is celebrated the first Monday that falls after January 6, and features the ceremonial act of ploughing the first furrows in the fields. While the earliest written depictions of this tradition come from post conversion (1400s CE), it is in all likelihood a surviving remnant of the pagan past. Plough Monday is celebrated today in many communities across the United Kingdom (Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, etc.), while some local traditions vary, typically a village plough was blessed, decorated, and a ceremonial ploughing around the village was carried out. This tradition mirrors what we see in the Anglo-Saxon land ritual the Æcerbot (or Field Remedy).

As an aside, I find it striking that we see this timing of just after January 6th echoed for another major rite among heathen lands, save this time in what we associate with Lejre in Denmark (the probable real world setting for the mythic tale of Beowulf). In chapter 17 of The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, it states “Because I have heard strange stories about their ancient sacrifices, I will not allow the practice to go unmentioned. In those parts the center of the kingdom is called Lederun (Lejre), in the region of Selon (Sjælland), all the people gathered every nine years in January, that is after we have celebrated the birth of the Lord [Jan 6th], and there they offered to the gods ninety-nine men and just as many horses, along with dogs and cocks— the later being used in place of hawks.” We see similar types of sacrificial offerings mentioned by Adam of Bremen in chapter 27 of History of the Archbishops of Hamburg in regards to the rites at Uppsala in Sweden (though the specific timing is not mentioned in the source). But we know from Ólafs saga helga that the sacrifices at Uppsala did coincide with Disting (which usually took place typically in February (but it did vary base on the lunar cycle). [More on Disting further below.]

Among the traditions of Plough Monday there is also a tradition of going around trying to earn everything from drink to money, which to me is reminiscent of other caroling and wassailing traditions. Additionally there’s also dancers, and a straw bear (man in straw outfit) which to me evokes other traditions like the Perchten and Krampus processionals. January seems awfully early for some of us to think about readying the ground for new plantings. England while it exists at a more northern latitude that typically would mean much colder winters (see how much colder it is in parts of Canada at the same latitude), the land benefits from its proximity to the Atlantic oceanic currents, or Gulf Stream, which keeps England much warmer than it would be otherwise. So this is but one example of why some Heathens choose to observe this holy tide when it makes sense to do so in their own local climate.

Plough Monday may be an English tradition, but so too is the Anglo-Saxon Æcerbot. While the earliest known recording of this tradition references Christian belief, many believers and scholars believe it was adapted from pre-Christian practices. The daylong ritual was intended to act as a means to restore fertility to land that may not be yielding properly, or was potentially suffering from some sort of blight or infestation. In the ritual described the land is symbolically anointed and blessed before being plowed, we see that the plough is hallowed and even anointed with soap and herbs too, and the personified (and no doubt deified) earth is invoked and entreated for her blessings.

The ritual may have lasted a day, but in most likelihood it would take even longer to prepare. It required taking four sods of earth from each of the corners of your land. The earthen sods would be anointed with a mixture combining oil, honey, yeast, milk (from each cow on the land, and possibly any milking animal like goats too), bits of each tree growing on the land (except hornbeam which is a type of tree in the birch family, this caveat is suggested to refer to all trees not harvested for food), bits of each named herb growing on the land (except glappan, we’re not sure what that herb was referring to in England some have tried to liken it to buck bean used for a plant native to the Americas known for being both bitter and growing in marshy areas so it most likely referred to some sort of unwanted weed), combine with water. The mixture (probably combined into a paste like what we see in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm) is then dripped 3 times on the bottom (soil side) of each of those pieces of earthen sod. All this while essentially praying over it to grow, and multiply in bounty followed by an invocation (of the saints in the remnant we have that was recorded).

Not done yet, the rite then has the farmer/landowner taking those sods of anointed earth into town to the church where a priest would bless it (singing four masses over it). There was a ritual structure in turning the earth while this occurred so the green and growing side faced towards the altar. Then the farmer had to hurry home before sunset to put the anointed and now blessed earthen sod back from whence it came. Praying over it again. Marking it with symbols (the cross) made from mountain ash (possibly rowan) and ground meal in those corners. Each corner invoked the name of a saint (and pre-Christianity probably invoked various deities). The earth is then re-interred from whence it came, one corner of earthen sod at a time. Each time the farmer prays over it, tuning the earthen sod eastward, after which the farmer would bow nine times praying (possibly originally to the Goddess Sol as her brightening days would be key to agricultural cycles and growing). The farmer with arms outstretched was to turn 3 times sunwise while reciting even more prayers. (As an aside this Anglo-Saxon source isn’t the only time we see bowing to the east, in the Icelandic Landnámabok it mentions bowing to the east to hail the rising sun. So this teases to a cultic habit that may have existed across the Germanic tribes.)

Now that the earthen sod that has been cut from the land, anointed, blessed, re-interred and prayed over we proceed to the next step: ploughing of the fields and sowing of the seeds. The farmers/landowner is handed seed by his men (presumably those in service to him, or other members of the household). This would make sense to divide some of the labor, as the farmer/landowner has bee very busy up to now with the ritual requirements of the earthen sod. So his people bring out the plough and related gear, they are the ones to anoint you, the ones to hand the farmer his seed. The plough is described as being anointed with soap, salt, frankincense and fennel–obviously this has been influenced by Christianity which we can tell by the inclusion of frankincense, and salt makes it a market of Medieval Europe too. Some in the Northern Tradition umbrella look to another Anglo-Saxon reference, that of the Nine Herbs Charm and use that mixture–consisting of the nine herbs Mucgwyrt Mugwort, Wegbrade Plantain, Stune Lamb’s cress, Stiðe Nettle, Attorlaðe (theorized to be either cockspur grass or betony), Mægðe Mayweed, Wergulu Crab-apple, Fille (theorized as either thyme or chervil), and Finule Fennel–combined into a paste with old soap and apple residue.

The farmer begins to plow, and to pray to the personified earth. In Tacitus’ Germania we see a mention to the Germanic tribe of the Angli (eventually after migration they would settle into a land that would become named for them: Angle-Land or England) “were goddess-worshippers; they looked on the earth as their mother.” Scholar Kathleen Herbert argues that the Æcerbot comes from the Angli’s religious traditions.

Whole may you be [Be well] earth, mother of men!
May you be growing in God’s embrace,
with food filled for the needs of men.

– Æcerbot

Afterwards, special offerings of cakes or baked loaves (made from whatever was the farmer’s grain crop) were placed into the first furrows that had been ploughed. Really consider the level of detail and preparation needed for a ritual like this. This was a MAJOR undertaking, and as such makes it clear this was a major celebration of great import. I think sometimes when so many of us don’t work the land directly, and rely on grocery stores and uber for our food we can forget the amount of time, the vulnerability that can come with being the sole provider of your own food. Farming was very much a matter of life and death.

Aspects of the ritual structure in Æcerbot, are reminiscent of hallowing land or even land-taking rituals that we see in a variety of other sources. These land-taking customs can be seen in the Icelandic Landnamabok, where men might walk around their property with fire, or women who were claiming land could only claim what they could plough in a day from sunrise to sunset. There are folk-traditions in areas of Russia (so named for the Viking Tribe known as the Rus) that describe women ploughing around their communities as a charm against disease outbreaks, so like the Æcerbot which is to make well the land again, we see another tie between plowing and health in this folk tradition.

The ploughing story and land-taking we see most famously with the Danes, when the Goddess Gefjon is seen ploughing the fields with her Jotun (giant) sons in the form of great oxen. The ploughing of this Swedish soil was so deep that the land was uprooted, leaving a lake behind, the uprooted land was named Zealand, and is the most agriculturally ripe part of the Danish countryside today. For this reason, those Heathens who celebrate the Charming of the Plough may honor Her in their celebrations, though others may opt to honor instead the other Goddesses found in our tradition of the Earth, such as the Germanic goddess Nerthus.

There are several scholars (as well as Heathens today) who see a link between Nerthus and Gefjon. In Tacitus’ Germania, he writes of Nerthus:

“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.”

Here are two Goddesses, both associated with cattle and the earth, and both who dwell on islands. But more than just this similar motif, scholars see that the medieval place name for the modern-day city of Naerum in Denmark was Niartharum, which etymologically may connect to Nerthus’ name.

In addition to Charming of the Plough, we also have the Swedish known holy tide of Disting as observed in Uppsala. Disting was partly comprised of the Disablot (a special communal ritual to the Disir) as well as a regular Thing gathering. Rituals to the Disir exist at several different times in sources, some we see at the Winternights celebration, another at Yule’s Mother’s Night, and another in the aforementioned Disting, which suggests that observance of the Disablot varied. While the worship of the disir existed throughout the Northern Tradition umbrella, the timing of ritual observances varied by unique geo-specific cultures and their own traditions. The Disir embody the protective female spirits that look after individuals, their families, and the tribe or community. As such Goddesses and female ancestors comprise the Disir, but also most likely the spirit loci as well.

Things, as seen throughout the ancient world, were gatherings of people with appointed representatives where legal matters were discussed, people came together in the spirit of trade, marriages might be sought, and typically were also marked by religious rituals. In pre-Christian times the Swedish Thing at Uppsala happened several times a year at this location, but after the conversion to Christianity only one Thingtide was still observed, the one that fell at this time of year, specifically at Candlemas (a Christian feast day celebrating the presentation of the child Jesus to the Temple observed on February 2nd). While this Thingtide kept its original timing, (no doubt from syncretization of old traditions with the newer Christian religion) the religious aspects of the gathering were removed post conversion.

In Heimskringla’s Ólafs saga helga, we have a description of the rites at Svithjod (The Thing of All Swedes, of which Disting/Disablot was a component): “In Svithjod it was the old custom, as long as heathenism prevailed, that the chief sacrifice took place in the month Gói  (sometime around Feburary 15th until March 15th) at Upsala. Then sacrifice was offered for peace, and victory to the king; and thither came people from all parts of Svithjod. All the Things of the Swedes, also, were held there, and markets, and meetings for buying, which continued for a week: and after Christianity was introduced into Svithjod, the Things and fairs were held there as before. After Christianity had taken root in Svithjod, and the kings would no longer dwell in Upsala, the market-time was moved to Candlemas, and it has since continued so, and it lasts only three days. There is then the Swedish Thing also, and people from all quarters come there.”

In another section of that text, 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 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.

Land-taking isn’t just for the past either. If you look at the way the “Freedom to Roam” laws operate, as seen throughout Europe (including Norway, Sweden, England, Scotland, Wales, etc.), this ancient concept is still in a sense being used. In the case of the Freedom to Roam, it grants rights to citizens who responsibly and without harm to the property, traverse it so they can have access for the purposes of exercise and recreation to these undeveloped parcels of land, or lands specifically set aside for community use like common land and village greens. In other areas, these rights of access to the common land are only upheld so long as at least once in a stipulated period of time it has been used. In some areas there are community-wide traditions where all the able-bodied people will go on a walk to make sure they keep these areas ‘claimed’ as common land. For this reason, some of the more hardy Heathens may opt for a camping trip at this time of year.

There is an 8th century text, indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum, that mentions that in the month of February there was a celebration still on-going in Germany called Spurcalia. Spurcalia is a Latin name used to describe the celebration, and it is believed that it roots to the German word Sporkel, which meant piglet. In fact in parts of Germany the month of February was actually called piglet-month, or Sporkelmonat, and the Dutch name of the month is the very similar Sprokkelmaand. The assumption is made that with the first livestock births of the year occurring, that pigs were most likely sacrificed at around this time. While this is an obscure reference even to most Heathens, there are a handful who use Spurcalia as their inspiration for making sure there’s some pork on the altar given in offering to the Gods and Goddesses.

So how can we celebrate this today?

While most of us when we consider agricultural celebrations we think of deities of the earth and the associated fertility Gods and Goddesses, such as Freyr, Freyja, Gerda, Gefjon, Nerthus, etc. Aurboda is the mother of Gerda and mother-in-law to Freyr. While little is known of her she is a deity of healing and one presumably with a tie to the earth as well. I suspect her skill probably comes with the knowledge and application of herbs: how to find and grow them, how to reap them, how to store and prepare them, and how to use them. For this reason I will also make sure she is honored at this time. 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.” Thor also has connections with this time, not just as a god of storms and rain but with healing too. We have one reference to him as being a protector for the health of a community. In the Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, Adam of Bremen records that at the Temple of Uppsala, “if plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor.” So we see him tied specifically to famine, which of course would come about by impacts to the crop by weather. With his wife the Goddess Sif being a deity of grain crops it might make sense to honor her as well. Sunna makes sense as well since it is by her light that plants grow.

I also like to incorporate into the festivities Wayland (or Volund), who was a blacksmith. After all, blacksmiths represented the luck of a community. They helped to craft the tools used in the agricultural process: ploughs, hoes, shovels, pick axes, shoes for the livestock, etc. By connection we can also think of this as a time of the dwarves (many who we see are tied with the blacksmithing creation of certain tools for the Gods), for where does the metal come from that a blacksmith uses, if not from us mining the earth?

While most of us today don’t make our livelihoods directly from the land, we can still understand this time of year as the time meant to prepare ourselves for the workload ahead, which is why many Heathens who celebrate the Charming of the Plough may ask for blessings regarding career prospects, job offers and other related elements for the coming year. Some groups may have rituals where people and the ‘tools’ of their trade are blessed.  A tailor might bring their scissors to be blessed, a writer might bring a pen, people may bring their security badges for places they work, or anything else that seems appropriate.

If you’re a farmer you may want to create a modified version of the Æcerbot for your own practices. On a smaller scale whether you are a homeowner, or merely live in a place without access to your own land you can plant your own edible plants and do a mini version of the rite, even if it’s just a potted plant of kitchen herbs, or perhaps a gardening plot to grow some of your own fruits and vegetables for the year. The baking of loaves and the offering thereof is still incredibly relevant, and probably the most common element of this holy tide among modern practitioners today.

When talking about the ritual structure of the Aecerbot, I mentioned the nine herbs charm and how it was create as a mixture with soap, apple residue and the noted nine herbs. If we look to the Northern Tradition we see that Idunna the goddess with the golden apples that gives vitality to the gods, has Bragi the god of music as her husband. We know in some areas around the end of the Yuletide the apple orchards were sung to as part of wassailing traditions, in order for them to bear fruit in the coming year. So when I see similar wassailing folk traditions with Plough Monday, I see a continuation and a thought of the need to sing to the land. To invoke the deities of the land. The reference to apple residue being used in the Nine Herbs Charm, depicts to me a connection with the concept of vitality in our tradition because the apple is the fruit and source of vitality: vitality of life, and vitality of the land. You won’t have fresh apples anymore, but even in their residue and seeds there is power. So, while Idunna tends to be more regularly invoked from fall through the end of Yule, there may be something poignantly appropriate about adding something related to apples to your offerings. Not fresh apples as that’s not seasonal, but the sort of products that can be made and stored from apples picked in the fall. Maybe some apple butter to go with your offering of loaves. This can be part of other seasonally appropriate herbs, flowers, and produce for your offerings too.

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A Mother’s Night Prayer

Tonight as the sun sets begins the Yuletide for me with Mother’s Night.

To friends near and far, may you have a joyous Yuletide blessed with the laughter or friends and family (even if socially distanced). May the Gods and our ancestors continue to bestow their blessings upon us, and strengthen our luck for the days that lie ahead.

For those with difficulty reading the graphic…

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.

Wyrd Dottir, Mother’s Night Prayer

Krampusnacht and Oski’s Day

On the eve of December 5th throughout parts of Europe, Krampus makes his appearance. The strange creature sent to punish naughty children. On the morning of December 6th however, Saint Nicholas has made his appearance leaving small gifts or sweet treats for those children who were nice.

If we look to Europe we can see a connection between Wild Hunt figures and the Santa Claus mythos tied to a concept of reward and punishment. We also see that the Norse god Odin has connections to the Santa Claus mythos as well in more than one way, but especially as he has three epithets that connect to the holytide listed in the skaldic poem Óðins nöfn: Oski (God of Wishes), Jólnir (Yule Figure) and Jölfuðr (Yule Father).

Oski, God of Wishes, is an epithet for Odin

There is a small movement among Northern Tradition polytheists to reclaim December 6th, and celebrate it not in honor of Saint Nicholas, but rather in honor of Odin in his guise as Oski. The purpose is not to break the bank with this, but rather to share a little yuletide cheer. Edible treats typical of the season (cookies, candy, chocolate, apples, oranges, nuts) would be appropriate, and other small trinkets. In other parts of the world, including America, we have instead the tradition of setting out stockings Christmas Eve for Santa to deliver some goodies for us. So to think of ‘stocking stuffers’ is a good rubrik in terms of what to gift, but I offer this caution: the ‘stockings’ we so commonly use in our decorations are ridiculously big. In Europe, for December 6th it is shoes that are filled, most commonly a shoe is placed outside the door, though in some households they may opt to have a designated area where the shoes are left. Some will use their actual shoes, but others will use special clogs kept just for the holiday for these purposes (which is a nicer way to avoid shoes that are stinky). So there’s not alot of real estate available to fill up with goodies. This is not where to show your gift giving American largesse.

Shoes left out for Saint Nicholas


Just as there are traditions for leaving out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, and maybe some carrots for the reindeer, in parts of Europe they may leave some hay, carrots or other appropriate treat in the shoes for St Nicholas’ white horse. Many Northern Tradition polytheists will instead include treats for Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. This is a tradition that lends itself well to the magic of the season, and especially to those with younger children. But even as I write this I set on a small collection of wrapped goodies I’ve received from friends and kindred members, waiting to open them on December 6th, and I have a few small things that I’ve sent off to others as well with instructions they have to wait till the 6th.


May Day Punch – Recipes for Waldmeisterbowle

Our holy tide of Walpurgis, known and celebrated by others as May Day or as Beltane is only days away! To help get in the mood (and to allow you guys a chance to pick up ingredients) here’s  recipes for a traditional May Day Punch from Germany, known as Waldmeisterbowle.

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Of course finding the main ingredient, the waldermeister or woodruff, can be a bit tricky. Sweet woodruff is a perennial herb whose small white flowers bloom in May and June. It is widely available at garden nurseries in many parts of the US, and makes for an excellent ground cover (especially in shaded areas). Woodruff has a scent that’s been described as being a combination of part fresh mown grass/hay, part vanilla, & part cinnamon. Varying on the recipe you’ll either need to use the woodruff directly, or a syrup made from the woodruff.

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Do keep in mind that woodruff is a poisonous plant (but you have to ingest a very large quantity of it for it to be harmful), however many of the woodruff syrups available commercially today are artificially flavored and don’t actually contain woodruff.

You might find the herb at a specialty gourmet spice store near you, sometimes you can find it on amazon, or you may need to track down the plant from a nursery. There’s also a very common alternative instead of using genuine woodruff you can go find the faux Waldmeister syrup at specialty grocers or amazon. In Germany Waldmeister syrup is added to beer, soft drinks, sports drinks, ice cream, baked goods and more! There are other food products that are also made to capitalize on this traditional, seasonal flavor of Germany: gelatin, hard and soft candies including the crocodile treats that have been made for almost 100 years. Woodruff, or waldmeister, is very much a seasonal, and cultural taste of spring in Germany.

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WALDMEISTERBOWLE RECIPES

A Modern Traditional Recipe

  • 1 bunch of Waldmeister, known in the US as sweet woodruff* (about 0.2 to 0.35 ounces)
  • 2 squirts of lime juice or lemon juice
  • 2 bottles of dry white wine
  • 1 bottle of semi-dry sparkling wine
  • ice cubes

Let the bunch of woodruff dry somewhat and poor one bottle of white wine into a punchbowl. To prevent the toxic substances of the woodruff from entering the punch, you should dip the bunch of woodruff into the wine, tied together with a string so that the stem ends stick out; let steep for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the woodruff and discard. Add the remaining white wine and top off with the sparkling wine. Chill with ice cubes placed under the bowl. If you would like it sweeter, you may add some sugar.

Alcohol-free version

  • 1 tablespoon of sweet woodruff syrup
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 600 ml apple juice
  • 400 ml sparkling water

Mix all the ingredients and serve chilled.

An Alternative Recipe: IVAR’S MAY PUNCH
This appears to be from the Southern U.S. and represents an American twist from German descendants.

  • 1 gallon white wine (Riesling is best)
  • 1 pint Southern Comfort (gives it a peachy flavor), or Yukon Jack for a different flavor
  • 1 quart fresh strawberries, thoroughly cleaned and stems removed
  • 1/2 cup dried sweet woodruff herb (waldmeister), crumbled
  • 1/2 cup superfine sugar

Begin your preparation the day before the punch is to be consumed. This enables the flavors to bloom.

The day before the punch will be served:

Heat the Southern Comfort until it is very warm to the touch, but do
not let it boil. Steep the sweet woodruff in the Southern Comfort overnight (there is no need to refrigerate, but it is best to cover the mixture to prevent evaporation). Thoroughly dredge the
strawberries in the sugar. Place the sugared strawberries in a covered
container and refrigerate overnight. Chill the wine overnight.

The day the punch will be served:

Strain the Southern Comfort/woodruff mixture and discard the solid
material. The Southern Comfort may have a somewhat cloudy appearance
now. Not to worry.

Add the strained Southern Comfort / woodruff infusion to the wine and stir well. Add the sugared strawberries and any juice that may have leached out of them overnight. Stir. Chill the mixture for at least two hours before serving. If the punch bowl will be sitting at room temperature for a substantial period during the festivities, a single block of ice may be floated in the punch to keep it cold. Do not add small ice cubes or crushed ice, since they will melt quickly.

When you dole out the punch, try to make certain that every cup gets at least one of the strawberries.

Make Your Own Woodruff Syrup from Scratch

1st recipe

  • 1 bunch sweet woodruff (for this recipe, one that is not blooming yet)
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice (+ 1 teaspoon citric acid)

1. Cook a syrup from water, sugar, lemon juice and citric acid.

2. When the syrup is cool, pour into a bottle and add sweet woodruff in it. Let stand for about 5 days in the fridge or any other cool place.

3. After 5 days, remove the plant from the syrup, straining as necessary. Close the syrup in the bottle. Optional: In Germany people would add a few drops of green food coloring, since there everything related with sweet woodruff should be green. 

2nd recipe

  • 1/2 l apple juice (without sugar!)
  • 250 g honey
  • 1 bunch sweet woodruff

1. Steep woodruff in apple juice for 20 minutes. After this time, strain the juice from the plant.

2. In a saucepan, cook (very briefly) the apple-woodruff juice mixture with honey. While still hot, fill the bottle. To prepare a delicious drink, dissolve 1 part of apple-sweet woodruff syrup in 4 parts mineral water.

3rd recipe

  • 300 g (1 & 1/4 cups) water
  • 250 g (1 cup) sugar
  • 25 sweet woodruff blooms
  • lemon juice

1. Add blossoms to water, and stir.

2. Cover container of blossom water with cling film (plastic wrap) and let it rest at room temperature for 24 hours.

3. Add sugar to a pot, and drain the blossom water through a sieve into the pot. Now turn the cooktop to high, and bring the mixture to a boil. Once it starts to boil, turn off the stove.

4. You’ll want to let the mixture cool to room temperature, and now you can store it, or use it. When it’s time to use it, it’s recommended you add some lemon juice (1/4 cup) as it brightens the flavor, and then add that to your punch.

This recipe comes with a youtube video on how to make it here.

HAVE FUN, BUT REMEMBER TO DRINK RESPONSIBLY.

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Polytheism is the Reason for the Season

Today when we hear people talk about the so-called war on Christmas, it is a battlecry of Christians who feel they have a monopoly on the winter holidays. A common refrain being Christ is the reason for the season. But in Early America, Christmas was outlawed as a criminal act, or was viewed as having no consequence at all by some of our founding forefathers–especially those of Puritan background.

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This image is from a real public notice from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, published 1659 in what will later become Boston.

To understand why this notice even existed, first a bit of a history lesson is necessary.

In colonial America, the Puritanical leaders (for this article I am including the Pilgrims in this group) felt that Christmas was indeed a ‘Pagan’ celebration (as explained by Puritan leadership including the minister Increase Mather of the Massachusetts Colony, such festivities were rooted in the practices of Saturnalia) and the observance of the holiday was heretical and had no part of building the Godly society they had fled Europe to create. In addition to the umbrage they took to those “Satanical” practices, the Puritans were also anti-Christmas because the Bible did not talk about celebrating the nativity, nor being clear on when it was, therefore the Puritans viewed it as not being a part of their religious observation.  Their attitude created the original American ‘War on Christmas’, of course they preferred to call Christmas ‘Foolstide’, in part because only the ungodly fools would celebrate such ‘Satanical Practices’, and no doubt as a further scathing reference to the ‘Lord of Misrule’ seen in some Christmas traditions found in parts of Europe,  including England.

The very first Christmas in Colonial America at the Plymouth Colony in 1620 went unobserved. In fact there’s an account from 1621 in the colony, that governor William Bradford yelled and chastised people he caught at merriment on Christmas Day. The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony went one step further and actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas beginning in 1659 and anyone caught celebrating it was monetarily penalized. Christmas Day was so insignificant to our founding forefathers that Congress was in session during Christmas, and on occasion they did actually meet for business: the earliest occurrences being first in 1797 when the House of Representatives met, and 1802 when the Senate also met on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until the 1850s that Congress began to have formal recesses for Christmas.

In Early America it was common to find in parts of the country that people were expected to work or attend school on Christmas Day, many churches didn’t hold any observance on the day at all. In some areas, particularly in parts of New England, Christmas celebrations continued to be criminalized until it became a National holiday in 1870.

I for one, am glad we’ve got our festivities now, and I like today’s growing climate of greater inclusiveness, there are dozens of special religious observances and festivities in this time frame. Tis the season to be merry and bright!

To understand the ‘pagan connections’ (or rather we should say origins) that the Puritans had such criticism about, only takes an exploration of human history and world religions.

In the earliest days of the Christian Church, Pagan Romans were the elite powerhouses of that ancient world, and most Christians numbered among the lowest of the social classes in the empire. So when the Roman Empire celebrated their festivals, the Christians in the Empire got a bit of a break as well.

Many Pagan cultures have had various forms of celebrations around this time of year. In Ancient Rome, the celebration of Saturnalia spread in popularity. Saturnalia was a time to eat, drink, and be merry while honoring the Roman God Saturn. Just as Christians might use Merry Christmas as the seasonal greeting, for those ancient Romans the common greeting during the festival was, io Saturnalia. The festival was characterized with a modest type of role reversal where slaves could get a little taste of what it might be like to be at the other end of the social ladder. The one-day festival spread into a multi-day affair lasting for about a week, roughly correlating to our December 17-23. While work was still being carried out, this was a festival that the slaves and servants really loved as they were able to have a break, and their masters got a bit of a glancing lesson about the work the servants did for them. In the revelry gambling occurred, and gifts were given. Most gives were specially made for the day and were called sigillaria, these were inexpensive gifts, or what we might think of as gag-gifts. We have records that children were given toys during such observances too.  We see from Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis vast writings into Saturnalia and gift-giving, he even has some verses that appear to be meant to go with gifts, as like a modern precursor to the greeting card tradition we have today.

Overtime the celebration of Saturnalia appears to have expanded from one day to many, and we see develop a tradition of the Ruler of Saturnalia (Saturnalicius princeps), which is somewhat analogous to the Lords of Misrule we see develop in other areas around Europe. Tacitus records some details about the practice. We know he was chosen by lottery, those present had to obey, and their might be commands like “sing naked”.

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In addition to Saturnalia there were other festivities as well in polytheistic Rome. Roman Emperor Aurelian declared the 25th of December as the birthdate (or nativity) of Sol Invictus, a sun deity very popular with soldiers. So popular that Christians like Augustine were still preaching against the cultic practices against Sol in the 6th Century. It should be noted that known records point this as a rather late development compared to the much older practice of Saturnalia. Sol seemingly appears at a banquet in shrines connected with the Mithraic Mysteries, and so some will also connect the date of December 25th to Mithras and his cultic practices as well. What I find fascinating about Mithraism is that it began in Persia, was transported by Alexander the Great’s Greek soldiers, and then was spread even wider by the Roman Empire itself. But how much changed between Persian practices and the cultic practices we see within Rome may be very different adding to the confusion. While we have a lot of records to Mithraism in the archaeological record, no known writings really describe with clarity the practices, so theories about Mithras related to any celebrations around the winter solstice is much debated in academia.

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Mithraic relief from Rome, 2nd to 3rd century CE, on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

Favored by Roman Emperor Commodus (161-192 C.E.), Mithraism certainly had widespread influence. Of course, everything changed when Emperor Constantine converted in 313 C.E. and Christianity suddenly went from a marginalized religion of the minority to a mainstream religion.  While the tide of destruction that Christianity brought to Pagan practices and temples was briefly halted during the reign of Emperor Julian (who tried to restore polytheistic practices and issued an edict for religious freedom), after his death the machine of destruction continued.

Yet despite early Christianity’s attempts to wipe out the Pagan celebration, the people enjoyed it too much and kept practicing it. While some early Christian leaders (such as Gregory of Nazainzus) fought against the combining of the Pagan practice with Christianity, eventually the church decided that instead of fighting it, it would be smarter to assume power over the festival and slowly Christianize it, leading to the Papal Decree by Pope Julius I in 350 AD formalizing December 25th as the date for Christ’s birth. It should be noted that the various Christian denominations do not have a consensus about the time of Christ’s birth. While some do believe it was at least in the Winter, other groups do not. For instance, the American Presbyterian Church puts Christ’s birthday sometime in the autumn.

An unnamed 5th century Syrian writer had this to say about the change:

It was the custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same 25th of December the birthday of the Sun, at which [time] they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true nativity [of Christ] should be solemnized on that day.

Emperor Justinian in 529 AD made it a civic holiday, and then in 567 AD the Council of Tours officially proclaimed Advent a period of fasting for the 12 days from Christmas to the Epiphany, (thus why it’s 12 Days of Christmas, of course many Pagan observances were multi day too).  Through the years various Popes instructed various Church leaders to further the rebranding of Paganism into Christian significance, such as when Pope Gregory I sent instructions for Augustine, the First Archbishop of Canterbury (England). While the original letter is lost, the letter was preserved in quotation by Bede:

To his most beloved son, the Abbot Mellitus; Gregory, the servant of the servants of God. We have been much concerned, since the departure of our congregation that is with you, because we have received no account of the success of your journey. When, therefore, Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined upon, viz., that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed.

For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God.

For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. Thus the Lord made Himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt; and yet He allowed them the use of the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the Devil, in his own worship; so as to command them in his sacrifice to kill beasts, to the end that, changing their hearts, they might lay aside one part of the sacrifice, whilst they retained another; that whilst they offered the same beasts which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to God, and not to idols; and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices. This it behooves your affection to communicate to our aforesaid brother, that he, being there present, may consider how he is to order all things. God preserve you in safety, most beloved son.

There is ample evidence through the centuries of this institutionalized conspiracy to slowly Christianize the old Pagan ways. With Christianity coming into existence within the confines of the Roman Empire, it’s been only natural that we’ve looked at the interaction between Christianity and Roman polytheism. But as Christianity spread, that also meant it spread into other areas of Europe, such as Northern Europe where entirely different Gods held sway with the populace. We see again that as Christianity comes into contact with those new polytheistic religions it begins to start to force a merging of traditions. 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 Northern Tradition polytheistic 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.

In this case the above church edict from Pope Gregory I is ironically against the dictates found in Biblical passages. Christians should be familiar with prohibitions against Pagan practices. The Bible states:

Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel.  This is what the LORD says: Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good” (Jer 10:1-5).

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One of the biggest hallmarks of Christmas celebrations today is that of Santa Claus, caroling (or wassailing), and the decoration of homes and businesses with evergreens and trees,  which specifically come to us from polytheistic cultures found throughout Northern Europe. And I expand upon that in this other article: Yuletide Origins and Traditions – The Santa Claus Mythos.

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In the skaldic poem Óðins nöfn we see the God Odin called Jolnir (Yule Figure), Jölfuðr (Yule Father), and Oski (God of Wishes).

Eventually, the church did try to crack down on these Christianized Pagan elements. During medieval times they banned gift-giving because of its Pagan origins. But Pope Paul II revived some of the most depraved customs of the ancient Pagan festival and spun them with a Christian anti-semitic tradition. Those traditions were now used to target the Jews who were forced to run naked for Christian entertainment, and to the laughter of the pope.  By the time we reach the 18th and 19th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church forced rabbis to wear clownish outfits while they were force-marched as the Catholic crowd pelted them. In 1881, Polish church authorities riled up the masses to anti-semitic riots across the country leading to the racist murders of Jews, as well as other physical and sexual assaults against others. The riots were so severe that property losses in the millions were suffered, but worst of all lives were lost too.

Puritans in particular took great umbrage with the pagan origins of Christmas, and actively begin to revolt against it. Both in England and later in the American colonies they continued to fight against it.

So Puritan Christians for nearly the first hundred years of “American” history combated Christmas. So here’s some food for thought: To those early Puritan leaders, the sheer fact offended Christians are wasting time on rhetoric on the ‘War on Christmas’ today would mean that those modern practitioners are to their way of thinking, ungodly.

Most of the Christmas traditions that exist — gift-giving, the hanging of the evergreens, “Christmas” trees, gift-giving, feasting, Santa, caroling/wassailing — all originated from a variety of polytheistic practices. While I can understand that to some Christians this is a holy time of reflection as they celebrate their Christ, let us remember we were here first. And Christ is not the reason for the season. He’s just a latecomer to the party.

There are numerous religious observances during the ‘holiday’ season: Channukah, Mawlid el-Nabi, Rohatsu, Zarathosht Diso, Kwanzaa, Pancha Ganapati, Solstice, etc. In fact stating ‘Solstice’ is really misleading as it is one umbrella term encompassing dozens upon dozens if not hundreds of unique celebrations worldwide such as the celebrations from various Native American tribes, Aboriginal peoples, as well as Pagan and Polytheistic observances (both the unbroken traditions and the modern reconstructed ones).

So to the Christians, who do claim that Christ is the reason for the season, I’m not saying you can’t enjoy this time of year for your own religious reasons. Please enjoy your holiday season. But would you do the rest of us the courtesy and please consider the history and context before you get upset the next time when someone doesn’t wish you a Merry Christmas. If you as a Christian want to wish Merry Christmas, that’s fine, but don’t be surprised when I wish you a Joyful Yule back, or someone else wishes you a Merry Solstice, Happy Chanukah, the politically correct Season’s Greetings, its alternative Happy Holidays, or some other cheery salutation for some other happy festival. But to expect by default you will always be greeted at retail with a Merry Christmas is hubris.

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Yuletide Origins & Traditions – The Santa Claus Mythos

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.

Continue reading “Yuletide Origins & Traditions – The Santa Claus Mythos”

Sunwheels & Midsummer

Midsummer (or Litha, Sonnenwende, Sankthansaften, Midsommardagen, etc.), is without a doubt, a day with heavy connections to the sun. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Midsummer is the longest ‘day’ of the year, as the sun appears in the sky for far longer than any other day of the year. In certain places of the Northern hemisphere including parts of Scandinavia, the sun may never fully set, giving locals an eye-witness view to what’s colloquially known as a ‘midnight sun’. As such, it should come as no great surprise that in pre-Christian times, as well as for pagans and Asatru today, the day is marked with celebration honoring the sun itself.

Sunna (or Sol) is described in our tradition as the Goddess who in her chariot drawn by horses guides the sun in its track, as her brother Mani similarly drives the moon coursing through the sky. We have no actual depiction in the archaeological record of Sunna herself, the closest we come is the Trundholm sun chariot from the Nordic Bronze Age (1700 BCE – 500 BCE) found in Denmark, which depicts the sun (not the Goddess) being pulled by a horse drawn chariot, and the wheels of the chariot are clearly in the form of solar crosses, or sunwheels.

Symbols of the Sun

From ancient sources going back thousands of years, we have two types of sunwheels present in the archaeological record. The first is known as a solar cross, which is a circle bisected by a horizontal, and a vertical line arranged in the shape of a cross. The other incorporates the sowilo rune (which literally means ‘sun’) and may be known as a fylfot or swastika (which infamously was misappropriated by the Nazi party in World War II). Variations of this later type of sunwheel can incorporate a varying number of sowilo runes (two or more) into its symmetrical design.

This symbol is clearly connected to the Goddess Sunna, she whose chariot draws the sun in it’s path across the sky. The other sunwheel, the swastika is a symbol sacred to many world religions, you’ll find it used among Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Greco-Roman architecture and jewelry, and other Asian and Indo-European cultures and religions. Depictions of the swastika appear on various sundries including jewelry, runestones, swords and spears, cremation urns, etc.  Throughout Germania, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon finds.The symbol has even cropped up closer to home for most Americans, in that it was a sacred symbol of several Native American tribes including the Navajo, Apache, and Hopi.

The word swastsika derives from svastika a much older word from the Sanskrit language, which etymologically is comprised of words meaning both good and well-being, and thus the symbol can be interpreted to mean that it is a charm or blessing for good health. In the Germanic tradition, Sunna, is not only the Goddess that draws forth the Sun, but She is linked with healing in one of the Merseburg Charms as well. Since the Northern Tradition sprung from an agriculturally focused society, they viewed the year as broken up into only two seasons: summer and winter. Winter was the time when food was scarce, when disease ran rampant and illness, malnutrition and the cold weather took lives. Summer was seen as a time of not only warmth, but a time where food was more abundantly available.


Sunwheel Traditions

Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology describes the traditional folk practices for Midsummer celebrations in the areas where the Norse Gods were once (and in some cases still are) honored is to set a sunwheel (or a wagon wheel) on fire. In some cases the wheel was simply lit locally and incorporated into the Midsummer bonfire. In other cases people trekked out into the countryside, found a hill, set the sunwheel on fire, and let it roll down the hill as they chased after it, people watching and cheering as they watched it roll along it’s fiery way, as vegetation caught fire. Sometimes mini-fires were set in the fields, as a way of directly burning in offering the crops that the sun had helped to grow, or fragrant herbs were tossed into local bonfires instead.

It is possible, that just as Native American tribes would regularly set clearings on fire for the sake of agriculture and to lure bigger game to lush fields, that the selective burning on the fields may have also been conducted not only as an offering, but potentially to help the land so that future crops were more bountiful. As we learned after Mt. Saint Helen’s blew its top, fire is actually a healthy part of nature, as it can help fuel rapid growth and renew the land. This is why the Forestry Service has now abandoned their previous policy of total fire suppression in the fight against wildfires. Sometimes they will now let forests burn because it is healthier for the forest in the long run to do so.

While there’s no doubt both types of sunwheels, solar crosses and swastikas, connect to the Goddess Sunna, some scholars including Hilda R. Ellis Davidson theorize that the swastika may be also connected to Thor, and therefore the symbol was a representation of mjollnir. HRED supports this theory by looking to the neighboring tradition of the Finnish Sami. On the shaman drums, it wasn’t uncommon to see a depiction of a man holding either a hammer or axe, or a swastika symbol. This male figure is identified as the Lappish equivalent to Thor, their Thunder God Horagelles. Considering that the symbol is comprised of two or more sowilo runes, and side by side sowilo runes which resembled lightning bolts were used for the Nazi SS, while this connection is less direct than with Sunna, it is to my mind a viable possible connection. Although I would posit a later appearing connection with Thor, and that the symbol was always closely associated with the Sun, and therefore Sunna.

Today, while many Heathens recognize both symbols, many Heathens tend to shy away from the use of the swastika symbol and instead use the solar cross symbol. This shyness with the swastika is firmly rooted in the atrocities performed by the Nazis in World War II. Today, the swastika tends to be far more associated with hate groups. For this reason many of the Native American tribes will no longer create arts and crafts baring this symbol, the symbol is banned from use except when used in historical context in Germany and Brazil.  Yet the symbol is still clearly used on both the Finnish Air Force insignia, as well as in connection with the office of the Finnish President. Of those modern Heathens who do use the symbol, many do so in the privacy of their own homes, or in subtle ways. There are some who do fully embrace the symbol trying to reclaim it and educate in the process, but they are a small minority.

Sunwheels as a Ritual Craft Project

For Litha, I made my very own sunwheel to adorn the altar, which was infused with fragrant herbs and flowers. I opted to make my sunwheel in the solar cross design, and began by going to my local crafts store where I purchased a natural straw wreath, as well as natural raffia. Additionally, I stopped off at the florist and picked up sunflowers, yellow roses, purple mums, and a few other odds and ends that seemed appropriate. Then I used the raffia, and wrapped the wreath with it creating my base solar cross design. Once I had made the solar cross , I then began incorporating the flowers into the sunwheel. The end result only decorated the altar for a few brief hours before it was tossed into the Litha bonfire in offering to Sunna herself.

Or sunwheels I’ve made from other years…

This is an easy project that anyone can do for a modest investment, and can be made both by individuals for their own private rituals or by groups of people as a joint and collective offering. This crafty little project can also serve as a great way of including children into the Litha celebrations.

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