So you want to learn about the Northern Tradition, but don’t want to read scholarly analysis, or any ruminations from modern practitioners. You just want one source from the culture to learn everything that’s historically authentic to the culture but tells you about the cosmology, and the details of all the rituals? Well sorry to burst your bubble, but that doesn’t exist.
There is an old joke, that ours is the religion with homework (and really, all religion has homework). There’s a lot you need to understand in the big picture before you can really start to tease out the details of pre-Christianity.
Before I go down the very nuanced rabbit hole, I want to make one thing abundantly clear: the history, the stories, the folk customs, the archaeology are all useful and important. But a faith is a living thing, and you have to live a religion, which means finding ways to practice it. How do you conduct rituals? What offerings do you give? What prayers do you say? What are your devotions? How do you live a religion? You can find helpful resources and inspiration from the past but at some point you have to venture out and find your own way of living the religion.
I also want to stress that you do not need to be a scholar to follow this religious path. The only thing standing between you developing a relationship with our Gods, the ancestors, and the vaettir is simply you. Some enjoy delving into the history, to immerse themselves and tease out nuances. Others don’t, and merely want a framework of understanding so they can then move onto living the religion through the customs that come with a living and ever evolving practice. But for those of you who want to delve into the vast knowledge from antiquity, the following should help define a helpful framework to have in mind before you start your own explorations of the sources. This is useful as well to read, even if you only ever plan to do a little bit of exploration into the ancient sources on your own.
We can find a lot of information if you’re patient by going through the old literary and archaeological sources, but it’s not easy. For those of us in the Northern Tradition we have the misfortune that so little has survived to us from ancient believers. Unlike some other major polytheisms, like the unbroken tradition of Hinduism, or other major polytheistic traditions that have a large corpus of work by believers from antiquity about their own religious culture that survives into the present day: Kemetic, Hellenic, and Cultus Deorum, etc.
First you have to understand the history, the various sources (and how they connect to the historical context). Then comes the harder element, the fact even when rituals are mentioned it’s usually in passing, or only in vague context. In order to obtain our creation story you have to look at five different sources: Völuspá, Grímnismál, Vafþrúðnismál, Gylfaginning, and Alvissmal. So it’s very common that we have to take little puzzle pieces from a range of material to try to piece together specific details. This means to fill in the gaps many look at the entirety of the Northern Tradition umbrella from the lore (various literary sources including (but not limited to) the sagas, eddas, & skaldic poetry, various Anglo-Saxon sources, as well as Byzantium, Roman & Arab accounts, late appearing folk customs & tales, and even archaeological finds. Approaching this material with an understanding of how this culture viewed the seasons, and drafted their calendar can help you tease apart the timing of some of the rituals too. While we can find commonalities in the over-arching shared worship to Odin/Woden, there were also unique traditions tied to specific settlements or tribal groups that to our knowledge did not appear elsewhere too. This has led in the modern movement to a range of different approaches, some are strictly reconstructionist from a specific area, and others may be more universal across the entirety of the umbrella, plus a range of other denominations in between.
Yule is a magical time of year, and when we look to the various holiday traditions from Krampus and Saint Nicholas, to the celebration of Saint Lucia Night, we see the pre-Christian customs as remnants scattered across all of December. But I wanted to acknowledge Lussi, as her feast day approaches. Unfortunately most information about her doesn’t appear in English, but primarily in folk traditions and their accounts from Norway and Sweden (and therefore, in those languages). Usually what we find in English relates more to the Christianized syncretization, and the church’s “Saint Lucia” story.
Some scholars have posited that the Christianized Saint Lucia and the customs tied to her celebration in modern times is most likely a syncretization of pre-Christian customs of Lussi (from areas of Norway and Sweden) with the Italian Christian martyr Saint Lucia. Folk traditions describe Lussi having a Wild-Hunt (oskorei) like horde called the Lussiferda.
In some regions of Sweden there would be the lussebrud (the Light Bride). Sometimes the lussebrud was merely a female dressed for the occasion, but sometimes this may be a male or female dressed up in straw as a bride, or the lussebrud may be a straw doll. The lussebrud may also be accompanied by the lussebock (Light buck). This is similar to other Wild Hunt figures in the Northern Tradition: Perchta & the Perchten, Saint Nicholas (possibly influenced from Odinic origins) and the Krampus. Like other Wild Hunt figures, she has ties to the reward/punishment folk traditions. Lussi or her horde would come down chimneys and steal misbehaving children. Lussi might destroy chimneys if certain tasks weren’t done before her night: spinning of thread or yarn was to be finished, cleaning finished, slaughtering for the year to get through the winter, and other such tasks. Symbolically, these were all tasks you’d need to help you survive a winter. If people hadn’t finished all their work, they feared Lussi would smash their chimneys.
The celebration of Lussi’s Night was meant to be culturally connected with the winter solstice, and that is what we see with the older Julian calendar. We can tell this from the clue we have of the celebration’s name from parts of Norway, where it was called ‘Lussia Langnatte’ (or Lussi’s Long Night). In Sweden it’s usually referred more simply as Lussinatta (Lussi’s Night). When a new calendar methodology was adopted, the Gregorian Calendar, we ended up with her celebration on December 13, and the astronomical solstice falling about a week later.
Today in Sweden, Lussinatt falls on the evening of December 12. There exists a multiplicity of folk traditions that can mark the celebrations. Some are secular, some are tied to the church. Previously as we near the modern era, you would have lussegubbar, or youth dressed up like Lussi and go carousing door to door in the countryside singing, in a tradition that seems reminiscent of caroling and wassailing traditions we see elsewhere. Today the songs are still sung especially the Sankta Lucia (which is believed to originate from an Italian folk song, rebranded with Swedish lyrics), but the processions are a bit less wild as they tend to wind their way through town from schools and churches, to nursing homes and hospitals. Today many towns will have an elected (or chosen by random lottery) Lucia who leads the procession (Luciatåg) wearing a candled wreath (known as a luciakrona, which was traditionally worn as a crown decorated with evergreen lingonberry branches), accompanied most usually by young girls as her handmaidens (tärnor) in evergreen wreath crowns and more recently young boys as star boys (stjärngossar) in pointed white hats holding gold stars. Everyone is all dressed in white holding candles. Sometimes they are also accompanied by gingerbread men (pepparkaksgubbar), or in some places they might dress as the local elves.
Traditionally the crowns were adorned with real candles and open flames. But in a move towards safety most places have shifted to using electric lighted versions of the candled wreath instead. In addition to the crowns there are also more candle-ladened items associated with the observance called Ljuskrona (ceiling mounted chandelier) or Ljustaken (table-top candelabara) usually, though some other names include: julstaken, julkrona, or jul tradet. Sometimes they were adorned with handcut and fringed paper decorations, different patterns were known to be prevalent in specific communities in Sweden. These Ljustaken are usually hidden until December 13, then brought out and decorated. It’s quite common for this to be a family activity. They would be part of the decorations in the home throughout the entirety of the yuletide until January 13, when they are put away again until next December.
The practice of Lussevaka – to stay awake through Lussinatt (the evening of December 12) 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 from Bede that Mother’s Night was observed for the entire night as well. Today it’s not uncommon for their to be parties as part of the lussevaka observance, sometimes with people actually cooking and making the lussekatter rolls they’d eat in the morning. People may use the time to work on handcrafted projects. Some will drink and be merry with their peers. There are old references to folk traditions of writing Lussi’s name on doors and fences, or in other areas of having weapons at hand (or hanging them up) while you observed the vigil. In some areas you were meant to feast to keep you strong through the terrors of the night. It was a night where animals were said in some areas to be able to speak. Livestock in some areas were given a treat of extra food, or a lussebit, meant to help them survive the evil that may lurk during the long night. There’s some folk customs that include women invoking Lussi for oracles on their future husbands. Others that have the eldest daughter in her role as light bringer might walk the property with her candle from house, through barn and stable, and around the boundaries of the farmstead to ward it from evil. One imagines in pre-Christian times this was probably accompanied by prayers of invocations to the Holy Powers for protection.
In Northern Europe, especially some of the most extreme latitudes there can be very, very little daylight indeed. We know that lack of sun, can be a lack of both mental well-being, but physical well-being as well causing vitamin D deficiencies. The celebration marks the start of the holiday season. On the morning of December 13, households will designate a member of the household (usually the eldest daughter) to serve drinks and baked treats from pepparkakor (ginger snap cookies), mulled wine (glögg), coffee as well as saffron baked goods like cookies or the more iconic treat lussekatter in honor of Lucy’s Day. The yellow color used in those saffron spiced treats are a nod to Lussi’s connections as a light bringer. One presumes this could be the conclusion in some areas to the warding of the property from the night before, and the corresponding nightlong vigil.
While there’s a few different Christian origin stories for Saint Lucia (or Lucy), one of them has her bringing light to persecuted Christians hiding in the catacombs surrounded by the dead with nothing but a lit wreath to guide her. Symbolically, traversing the dark and realm of the dead with light, seems to fit with pre-Christian symbolism. There is another story of how a woman with golden radiance appeared in a boat with food during a time of great hunger as well, who disappeared once the food was delivered. Another comes from what seems to be an attempt by the Church to demonize her, saying she was another wife of the Biblical Adam that consorted with Lucifer, and the unholy product of their union would be the demons or lussiferda.
The traditional depiction of Saint Lucia is of a woman clad in white. We know this is sacred iconography that is referenced time and again in Northern Tradition areas. We see this mentioned in Tacitus’ Germania that priest or priestesses wore white, we also see in the folk traditions mentioned by Grimm that women clad in white appeared at dawn for Ostara/Eostre.
Lussesang – A Song for Lussi
While I don’t agree with the song’s description saying this is for Freya (and thus assuming that Lussi is an aspect of Freya), the lyrics only mention Lussi and Alfrodul (an attested name for Sunna) and the lyrics are perfect for Lussinatt. If you visit this song on youtube, you can find the lyrics in Swedish and English if you expand the description.
At its heart this is a festival of lights in the darkness where observed in Europe, including Sweden, Norway, Finland, as well as parts of Estonia, Croatia, and Italy. Denmark began observing it in 1944 when Franz Wend imported it from Sweden as a cultural counter protest to Nazi Germany and their occupation of Denmark. Plus across the diaspora of communities created through Swedish immigration elsewhere. The Nordic Museum has a small gallery of photos of Lussinacht celebrations from the first half of the 20th Century.
I will leave you with this striking, cinematographic observance of Lussi’s Night “Light in the Darkness” by Jonna Jinton, an artist, musician and filmmaker living in the northern woodlands of Sweden.
*Update: December 2, 2021 with Swedish terminology.
The Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum) has a bibliography of resources (alas, not in English).Skjelberd's "Jul i Norge" is a recent book re-collating together much older folk tradition research, including information on Lussi.
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 12th Night. Since ancient calendars followed a different method of time, the solstice celebrations as well as later ‘Christmassy’ 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). For Christians in 567 AD the Council of Tours would officially proclaim that the 12 Days were to be celebrated from Christmas Day through to the Epiphany.
We do know that the celebration of Yule wasn’t always twelve days long. In the Norse text Heimskringla: The Saga of Hakonthe 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. Ynglingna saga also talks of animal sacrifice. The meat later used to feed the community, as well as the Gods. We know there were practices as well of human sacrifice too during other ritual observances across the Northern Tradition umbrella for various rites. In Ynglinga saga ( in Snorri’s Edda) is that of the Swedish King Domalde being sacrificed to help during years of drought and famine, the scene famously imagined by Swedish painter Carl Larsson in his Midvinter’s Blot.
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.