It took me several days to bring myself to read the unclean column over on Wild Hunt by Siegfried. Just the headline alone gave me a headache. Making a comparison from a mortal to a God is a problem. Painting a God with a wide brush as evil is a problem. To see a column that devalues religous expression and our Gods is disheartening and deeply troubling.
I’ve been a bit distracted, I meant to re-share this several days ago in celebration of the Sigyn Agon running over at Gangleri’s Grove. Click on the link for a thorough exploration into the Goddess Sigyn, from what we know about here from lore and the archaeological record, spotlighting various artistic depictions of Her, correcting common misperceptions that arise in connection with Her, and poetry in Her honor. You can read it in full here: Exploring Our Gods and Goddesses – Sigyn
When it comes to religious, pagan celebrations most people are familiar with the eight holy days or sabbats that comprise the Wheel of the Year. In the Northern Tradition, we do not call these celebrations sabbats. Instead, based on words (like the Old Norsehátíðir) used to describe the most holy of these celebrations (like Yule) as high tides, we tend to call the various religious celebrations we recognize today as holy tides (since not all of the holy tides are considered high tides).
Since we practitioners of the Northern Tradition are dealing with a general umbrella culture that existed in vast plurality we look to ancient Germanic, Scandinavian (Norse, Icelandic, Sweden) and Anglo-Saxon sources. It is important to understand that these ancient cultures reckoned time in different ways in comparison to one another or to the modern world. They existed in different latitudes, lived amongst different types of geography with unique climate conditions that affected the local agricultural cycle. This means that sometimes the timing between when one group would celebrate and another would celebrate a similar type of holy tide could be several weeks apart.
Sometimes we can see an obvious and clear link between these cousin cultures to a specific holy tide like Yule, in other cases things are a bit less clear, or the celebrations of the different groups can sometimes seem vastly different even when they have a similar root. Case in point: the Northern Tradition holy tides in August known as Hlæfmæsse, or Freyfaxi.
Hlæfmæsse translates in our modern English tongue to Loaf-Mass, and is sometimes also called Lammas. Since mass denotes a Christian ritual, some have theorized that the pre-Christian name for this holy tide may have been Hlæfmæst (feast of loaves), and for this reason some heathens will use this name instead.
We have numerous instances in Anglo-Saxon literature (like the poem Mologium) that talk about this particular Christianized celebration and some of the traditions attached to it. One of the hallmark traditions of this celebration was that after the reaping of the first grain crop of the year, the grain was taken and baked into loaves or cakes which were given to the Church in offering. It’s quite easy to see that this sort of practice speaks strongly to a heathen past where at major points in the agricultural cycle, such as the reaping of a harvest, offerings were made to the Gods and Goddesses.
In terms of the agricultural cycle, because this was the time when the grain was cropped many modern day Heathens see connections symbolically with Sif and the cutting of her hair. While this may be the first grain harvest of the year, there are more harvests to come. As such Thor is honored as well that he continues to bring rain, but not too much because either drought or flood is bad for the crop. Although while Thor appears in Anglo-Saxon sources (as Thunor) we have no definitive proof of Sif in those sources (though there is a theory she may be represented in Beowulf); of course Thor and Sif do appear amongst the Norse sources.
Unlike Hlaefmasse, Freyfaxi is a holy tide that is a bit trickier to pin down. Mainly because the name Freyfaxi appears to be a modern attachment to an ancient holy tide whose name has not survived into the present. So then where did the name come from, why was it probably attached to this festival? And what exactly is the holy tide of Freyfaxi?
An examination of the lore (Hrafnkel’s Saga and Vatnsdæla Saga) reveals that Freyfaxi was a name used to describe two different horses, both owned by people strongly dedicated to Freyr. The name of the horse reveals much, first the inclusion of the name Frey references that horse’s special connection to the God, and faxi meaning eye-catching mane was a common name used for horses. We also know that in Norway, Freyr’s holy sanctuary Thrandheim held sacred horses dedicated to the God. But if we look back to even older sources, we’ll see not only similarities but we’ll begin to unravel what horses may have to do with this festival.
In the Germanic tradition, and seen also among the Scandinavian sources horses were incredibly sacred. Tacitus’ Germania describes them as being milk-white, and similar to the sanctuary we see centuries later at Thrandheim the equines were housed in sacred groves where they were never used for the purposes of riding or working the land. Horses in Germania were described as being more sacredly close to the Gods then even their priests; somehow these horses were in the Gods’ confidence. For this reason horses were used to divine the will of the Gods. They were yoked to a special sort of chariot and their behavior observed. In the neighboring Slav culture we also see horses used in divination as well (but via a different method). We have even older evidence of an active cultic presence connected with horses in even the Bronze Age.
Near Gallehus, Denmark there was an archaeological discovery of ornately decorated drinking horns. These drinking horns depicted all manner of activities: riding, dancing, shooting, acrobatics, ball-playing, warriors and the like. Of particular interest to us, two horses are depicted on the decorated drinking horns: one horse slain next to a woman bearing a horn. While it’s difficult to precisely interpret the story being told in these depictions it is entirely possible that it was describing the type of activities that occurred in conjunction to an ancient holy tide, and that the slain horse was part of a religious ritual and sacrifice. We certainly know from a number of sources that horses were sacrificed.
The Haggeby Stone from Uppland, Sweden depicts two horses fighting. References to horse fights can be found in other historical sources, and these horse duels, which appear to have been connected with a holy tide celebration. Horse fights were in antiquity quite common around this time of year held at various local festivals held in Iceland. These duels may have had a religious meaning, in a way potentially similar to pitz – the ancient mayan soccer-like ball game where the loser became the sacrifice. The battle could also represent mythological, religiously significant stories and forces, or perhaps could be used in divination determining how the harvest would fair or how harsh or long the coming winter would be. When we examine the evidence from other stones of this period that show dueling horses in the context of a wheel like symbol with arms… while it is hardly conclusive it is suggestive of religious-significance in terms of a holy-tide celebration and how that in turns connects with the agricultural cycle. For these reasons, modern believers have decided to connect the name of the sacred horses Freyfaxi, to the ritual duels and festivals we see in Iceland at this time.
If we skip back to the Anglo-Saxon side of the pond, Adam of Bremen tells us the month of August was known as Weodmonað, or month of weeds. Weeds in this case are not simply the unwanted items in one’s garden, but appear to encompass other types of plants as well: such as tares and vetches. Vetches were a crop definitely used in Roman-Britain, and harvested throughout the island nation. While most vetches aren’t particularly helpful directly to humans, some can be processed as a grain humans can eat, others can manifest as an edible legume. But most would have provided great fodder to feed the livestock called on especially to work at this time of year, including horses. Since this is only the beginning of the harvest season, and there are many more crops not yet mature that will be reaped later, keeping your livestock in good fodder was also important for the harvesting to come.
Adam of Bremen talks of the temple of Uppsala and Freyr and his role, describing him as the god of plenty and peace who was invoked at marriages. His idol was depicted with a rather large phallus as is to be expected for a fertility deity. I find it interesting to note that in the Völsa þáttr we have a mention in the lore to the use of a horse phallus as a symbol of worship to a God. While Freyr is not mentioned in the saga, it does provide yet more evidence of cultic horse worship, but could potentially also be a symbolic representation of fertility and therefore Freyr as well. The scale of his phallus as depicted in archaeological sources could easily be used to describe the God as being ‘hung like a horse’.
As a fertility deity Freyr would be intimately tied to the land and the food grown upon it. It is for this reason why Freyr is also a very popular God to hail at this time of year for modern practitioners. Many will also reach out to include other Deities connected with the earth like Nerthus or Eorde. Some may choose to include the blacksmith God Wayland (or Volundr) in their observance of the holy-tide.
Blacksmiths represented the luck, fortune, and self-reliance of a people. The weapons the blacksmith made defended the home, allowed for cooking or use in domestic chores, and created the tools used to work the land. Having a blacksmith in your community meant not only wealth, but that your community was not vulnerable to being easy prey for others to either literally come in to steal your fortune, or who figuratively would steal your fortune in charging outrageous sums/barters for what you needed.
Both Hlaefmasse and Freyfaxi therefore are indeed (to my mind) holy tides connected to the start of the harvest. I would probably describe them as spiritual cousins, essentially they both represent the same basic holy tide but with very specific regional variations. Since we’ve got a little variety here, you will see that also reflected in the actual practices and observances of this holy tide amongst modern-day heathens. Some will strictly observe Hlaefmasse, others Freyfaxi, and others will merge the two into one massive celebration though they’ll still use one of the names to describe it. Some will celebrate this holy tide at the beginning of August, others will be celebrating it at a different time. As I mentioned previously, because of calendar and regional differences in the agricultural cycle the timing of things isn’t 100% in sync across the board. Try not to let that confuse you.
Regardless of which approach an individual or group might take, in the end this holy tide is all about giving thanks for the first of the harvest, and the asking for continued blessings for the crops yet harvested. As such it is appropriate to share seasonally appropriate food in offering to the Gods, ancestors and land vaettir. Many will opt to bake homemade breads, or beverages infused or flavored with seasonal fruit in offering. Thor, Sif, Freyr, and Freya are popularly honored at this time.
Fire, is in and of itself an embodiment of polarity: creation and destruction, chaos and order. Fire can burn snuffing out life, destroying both homes and crops. Fire can be used to cook and prepare food, warm one against the cold of winter, used to craft the finest and delicate objects from handspun and blown glass, and used at the blacksmith’s forge in the creation of farming implements, cooking instruments, and weapons for the luck, well-being and good-fortune of the community.
In the archaeological record, there are a scant handful of depictions of Loki. One of these is known as the Snaptun Stone. The stone found in 1950 on a Danish beach, is believed to bare a depiction of Loki featuring the sewn lips described in a story found in the Skáldskaparmál. Scientists have dated the stone to the end of the Viking Age, around the year 1000 CE. As precious as any depiction of Loki is, this stone was not just decorative, but was a functioning hearthstone as well. Beneath the depiction of Loki on the stone there is a hole, through which a bellows would be placed and used to stoke the hearth fire. The hearthstone not only protected people from the intensity of the flames, but also acted as a shield protecting the bellows from catching fire as well.
I was thrilled to see earlier today this post from Galina Krasskova, announcing that a Norse Gods coloring book is coming soon with illustrations of a variety of our Gods and Goddesses, featuring illustrations from Grace Palmer, who has been churning out a lot of devotional artwork for a number of deities from various pantheons over the course of the last few years.
To be a thriving religion, not only do we need artwork, we especially need ways for us to connect the next generation to those Gods and Goddesses as well. Through the years there’s always been a few more mainstream resources, and the odd unofficial resource shared word of mouth, but so many resources are hard to find. So for those who are interested, here are just some other resources…
In the beginning, there was chaos, as characterized by the yawning void known as Ginnungagap. Flanking the void were the first two worlds: Niflheim in the north the ancient world of ice, and Muspelheim in the south the primordial world of fire. The two worlds brushed across one another, and the resulting clash of fire and ice (the very big bang of creation within the Norse cosmology) formed eitr, the waters of life and poison. Drops of these waters slowly coalesced together and formed the frost-cold Jotun (or giant) Ymir, the father of the Jotuns.
We know very little about the Goddess Sigyn. Not much has survived from the pre-Christian era about this Goddess, yet despite the fact that little has survived, there is still much available to us to learn from.