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, such as Lugnasadh. In the Northern Tradition, we do not call these celebrations sabbats. Instead, based on words (like the Old Norse hátíðir) 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, Swedish, Danish, etc.) 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, or some celebrations may be unique and not echoed in extant sources elsewhere.
Hlæfmæsse translates in our modern English tongue to Loaf-Mass, and is sometimes also called Lammas, we have numerous instances in Anglo-Saxon literature that talk about this particular Christianized celebration and some of the traditions attached to it. 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. That theory may not be far off reality. The ninth century text, Old English Martyrology, refers to August 1st as the day of hlæfsenunga, which translates to ‘blessing of bread’.
And for anyone having difficulty reading the image the text is quoted below:
The Theodosian Code 16.10.11 tells us that on this day, February 24, in the year 391 CE, Roman Emperor Theodosius I decreed the closing of the temples and shrines. In the next few years there were further erosions to religious practice including the destruction of those holy sites, and the punishment of those polytheists who tried to worship their Gods.
Over 1600 years later and the Gods and Goddesses are still worshipped, new temples and shrines are being erected.
So on this day, let us post pictures of the new temples and shrines, post pictures of your altars to the Gods and Goddesses. Greet the Gods by name, lay offerings out to them, give them your prayers. Long may the Gods be hailed!
While the decree by Emperor Theodosius I obviously had a huge impact on ancient Roman polytheism, these restrictions also impacted other traditional polytheisms as well within the width and breadth of the Empire.
So yes, I think it’s a great idea to post my current altar in testament that the Gods are still hailed. In that spirit here is Weyland, Gerd, Freya, Eir, Hlin, Nott, Odin, Heimdall, Nerthus, Thor, Frigga & Baldr.
All too often among modern worshippers of the ancient gods of Germania and Scandinavia, they focus on rites like blot (or the modern alternative faining), and traditions like sumble. But they tend to ignore other religious ritual customs we have ample evidence of in both historic textual accounts and archaeologic artifacts, especially including the religious processionals of yesteryear.
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.
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 temporumratione, 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).
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.
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, we have a description of the ancient holy tide of Disting. A sacrifice was offered at Uppsala for both peace and victory to the king. 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.
For many pagans, this is the time of year where they honor and celebrate Beltane one of the pagan holidays that comprise their Wheel of the Year. For those of us in the Northern Tradition (referring to the religious belief rooted in ancient Germania, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England with a common worship to Woden/Odin), we have our own celebrations known as holy tides (from the Old Norse hátíðir). Traditions can vary from one community to another in this area, and timing of the celebrations can vary as well. But while our pagan cousins might be looking forward to Beltane, for Heathens we’re getting ready to celebrate Walpurgis, May Day, and Summerdaeg, but trying to discern the pre-Christian celebrations and origins of this holy tide can be a bit tricky.
Typing ‘Walpurgis’ into the ever-handy google… turns up detailed information about the Catholic saint Walpurga, but when it comes to the pre-Christian past the details seem vague at best. One has to do some digging to find anything of more substance. E.L. Rochholz’s 1870 folklore study, Drei Gaugtinen (Three Local Goddesses), describes Walpurga as a white lady with flowing hair, wearing a crown and fiery shoes. She carries a spindle and a three-cornered mirror that foretells the future.
“Nine nights before the first of May is Walburga in flight, unceasingly chased by wild ghosts and seeking a hiding place from village to village. People leave their windows open so she can be safe behind the cross-shaped windowpane struts from her roaring enemies. For this, she lays a little gold piece on the windowsill, and flees further. A farmer who saw her on her flight through the woods described her as a white lady with long flowing hair, a crown upon her head; her shoes were fiery gold, and in her hands she carried a three-cornered mirror that showed all the future, and a spindle, as does Berchta. A troop of white riders exerted themselves to capture her. So also another farmer saw her, whom she begged to hide her in a shock of grain. No sooner was she hidden than the riders rushed by overhead. The next morning the farmer found grains of gold instead of rye in his grain stook. Therefore, the saint is portrayed with a bundle of grain.” – Drei Gaugöttinen: Walburg, Verena und Gertrud, als deutsche Kirchenheilige. Sittenbilder aus germanischen Frauenleben. by E.L. Rochholz
For those of you that LOVE to really read into the meat of the matter with academic factoids, you might find this article by Winifred Hodge a fascinating read. An excerpt follows:
In Bavaria there is a very old Walburga’s chapel that is said to be located on the site of an older Heathen temple. The chapel stands on its own hill, surrounded by linden trees. Hills–especially hills standing alone–are in Germany traditionally the dwelling places of Holda and other Heathen holy female beings later seen as witches. Linden trees have always been holy to Frigga. Place-names and chapels stemming from Walburga (many associated with linden trees, hills, and holy wells) litter the landscape in Bavaria, Austria, and other germanic homelands. “The greatest number of the oldest churches in lower Germany are dedicated to this same saint.” (Rochholz, p.17). “Lower Germany” includes what are now the Netherlands, Belgium, Saxony, and other regions of northern Germany–all regions where formerly the goddess Nehalennia was widely worshipped.
One of Saint Walburga’s chapels is found at Heidenheim Kloster, or Heathen-Home Closter, built by a holy spring there known as Heidenbrunnen, or Heathen Well. The name alone points to a pre-Christian origin, and holy springs were a common connection to cultic sites of pre-Christian worship, as we see in Tacitus’ description of Nerthus‘ holy spring in his Germania, and also in a large corpus of surviving folklore including stories to the Goddess Hel’s pond found in modern Berlin.
But for a more down-to-earth understanding May Day numbers as one of the Summer holy-days, the first being Eostre/Ostara. Do I hear a few mental thought processes screeching to a halt at that statement among my readers? Let me explain. Today, our culture embraces the concept of the 4 seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. But, in the countries of the ancient Northern Tradition by their cultural worldview there were only two seasons: Summer and Winter. Summer began at the time of Eostre… for summer was viewed as life thriving in the land. Thus, the Summer Solstice (which is viewed as the start of our summer today) was their MidSummer. Winter was characterized by the decay and dormancy of the land. A time when food was scarce, people were dwelling indoors within close quarters and the combination of the cold, potential malnourishment, and disease took many lives.
As the first summer holy-day, Eostre coincided with the awakening of the land from its sleep. Even though some plants were growing, it was still a season where cold snaps and the stinging breath of winter still came to nip the noses of ancient Heathens. This awakening of the land told those who worked the fields that it was time to prep the fields. Time to plow the fields and prepare them for the crops to come. May Day is a demarcation, that winter’s lingering sting should be passed and that the awakened earth now laid ripe and powerful with fertility, in other words it was a perfect time for planting as you should be past the season of freezes. The Goddess Walpurga became Christianized as Saint Walpurga, who was prayed to by German Christians for aid in overcoming “pest, rabies and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft.”
There is no doubt to my mind that the burning of witches, was a Christianization that vilified the so called ‘witchery’ and other pre-Christian practices originally associated with the night. But if we look at these prayers as a whole, I think they speak to her having an ability to chase away some of the illnesses that run rampant in winter. There are also Christian traditions tied to the Saint in France and Germany that tied to warding against bad weather. May Day embodies the final chasing away of the Winter, while honoring the local landvaettir, as well as the Gods and Goddesses for a bountiful harvest, good weather, and good health. Although prayers to insure there were no blights be it by insects, disease, or the weather were especially merited.
In De temporum ratione, Bede mentions ever-so-briefly about the existence of the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Hrethe (latinized by Bede as Rheda) who was given sacrifices in Spring. Just as we have certain Gods tied to days of the week (Woden’s Day is Wednesday), Her name was used for a month: Hrēþmōnaþ, just as Eostre‘s was used for Ēostermōnaþ. In the Old English Dictionary by Gerhard Köbler, he suggests Hrēþmōnaþ also meant ‘month of Wildness’. While very little is known about this Goddess, the wildness of the transitional season between Winter and Spring may be somewhat analogous to what we see with the wildness of Walpurga. While in Anglo-Saxon areas the months went Hrēþmōnaþ followed by Ēostermōnaþ, we have records in Old High German that the corresponding months on the continent were Lenzin-mānod (Spring Month) followed by Ōstar-mānod (Ostara / Easter Month).May in the Anglo-Saxon calendar was the month of three milkings, and in Old High German it was the pasture month. This to me supports that we are in warming weather, and things are more stable than they can be in early Spring. It may very well be the wildness was part of the Spring season, and the celebration of Walpurgis Night was a culmination to the end of the worst of the turbulent weather patterns, and the end of the Wild Hunt’s influence for certain geo-specific communities in Germanic areas in antiquity.
Our best sources from the Northern Tradition are seen in Germanic traditions that survived late into the Christian era and persist today, many of them penned by folklorists such as Jacob Grimm. But May–as it does in many places that feel the especially cold bite of Winter–holds a special affinity for the local people.
Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Knospen sprangen,
Da ist in meinem Herzen
die Liebe aufgegangen.
In the wondrous month of May, When all buds were bursting into bloom, Then it was that in my heart love began to blossom.
Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Vögel sangen,
Da hab, ich ihr gestanden
mein Sehnen und Verlangen.
In the wondrous month of May, When all birds were singing, Then it was I confessed to her my longing and desire.
Excerpt from “A Poet’s Love” by Heinrich Heine (1779-1856), translation by Richard Stokes, The Book of Lieder.
These stanzas express all the romantic feelings Germans associate with the month of May. But more than just this, as we see in the surviving traditions most especially in Germany, this was a time associated with witchcraft and the things that go bump in the night. While Americans tend to think of the time around Samhain or Halloween as the ‘spooky’ time, in Germany these associations are more prevalent with Walpurgisnacht rooted in the pagan Frƒhjahrsfest (Spring Festival). Folk tradition talks about such things as women flying around on broomsticks, witches throwing curses, mysterious blue flames, and the Wild Hunt pursuing the Goddess Walpurga through both snow and hail. (In other areas of the Northern Tradition, we see the Wild Hunt associated with Odin or Holda/Perchta during either Winter Nights, or Yule as there was regional variance).
“There is a mountain very high and bare, whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis Night,” writes folklorist Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology about the Brocken, sometimes shown on old maps as the Blocksberg. “Our forefathers kept the beginning of May as a great festival, and it is still regarded as the trysting time of witches.” He notes that witches invariably resort to places where justice was formerly administered, or blood was spilled: “Almost all witch mountains were once hills of sacrifice.”
The mountains described are in Germany’s Harz Mountains, which straddle the former border between East and West Germany. The mountain range is known for moody river valleys dwarfed by towering cliffs, gloomy forests, and a multitude of craggy peaks, add in some fog and it’s the perfect setting for the classic horror yarn. Plus it has a unique meteorological phenomenon all its own: the Brockengespenst, which is an optical illusion that during the setting sun a person walking at certain spots will have their shadow cast in such a way that it becomes greatly magnified and it will appear on clouds or in the mist far, far removed from where the person actually is. This shadow in turn, can even sometimes be surrounded by an aura of rainbow like bands or rings, which science tells us is the result of the diffraction of sunlight by water droplets in the clouds.
It is no wonder that this mountain range has so long held symbolic ties to witchcraft and the other worldly, this is even where Goethe chose to set the Witches’ Sabbath scene in Faust. The mountain range is also the unfortunate site of a multitude of real world ‘witch’ burnings. In 1589, ecclesiastical authorities of Quedlinburg’s St. Servatius Abbey sentenced 133 “witches” to be burned at the stake covering everything from herbalism, folk healing, or anything that was deemed “heathen”, and everything from failing crops, convulsions and seizures were deemed to be caused by witches.
Even after the end of the ‘Dark Ages’, during the so-called Age of Enlightenment “witches” were still being burned in large numbers, between 1623 and 1633, the prince-bishops of the Bavarian communities of Wƒrzburg and Bamburg, had executed at least 1500 “witches” alone. Even the bishop of Wƒrzburg’s own nephew could not escape the death sentence.
Science may have found the true culprit behind the “witches’ curses” that caused the failed crops, unexpected livestock illnesses and loss, as well as convulsions and seizures in humans: a fungi known as ergot. One of the staple crops, rye, is particularly vulnerable to this fungi when there’s been an abundance of both warm and damp weather. The fungi contains nerve toxins that can cause very vivid hallucinations, muscle spasms, pinpricking sensations, convulsions and even death in both humans and animals. The drug LSD is in fact derived from ergot.
Today, the shops in the mountain villages sell Harzhexen in droves (little felt witches on broomsticks) as Walpurgisnacht approaches, and witch hats or devil horns are also sold. In the village of Schierke there’s a kindergartener-led parade with the kids dressed up as witches and devils. When evening falls, the atmosphere has changed, as now there are shield maidens, kobolds, witches, devils, vampires and more. It becomes a giant village-hosted faire with entertainment, fireworks, and a bonfire.
The bonfire was used here in these mountain villages as a way to protect house and home against evil spirits and witches. But we also know that bonfires in other areas of the Northern Tradition were used by some to burn away the garbage of the year: broken items, and old clothes, symbolic representations that by burning them in somewhat effigy one gained good health and protection from ill-intended sorcery. Others leapt the flames, or their broomsticks. I can see many of these customs boiling down to key concepts, such as a symbolic representation of chasing away the winter with summer heat, and by getting rid of the bad times and bad items to start renewed.
Farmers who had been lazy and hadn’t yet plowed their fields were ‘gifted’ with little dolls to “shame” them into work. Folklorist E. L. Rochholz, says these dolls were called Walpurga, which may be yet another tie to that Goddess, and harkening to similar pre-Christian traditions such as how the Goddess Holle would punish those that hadn’t finished their work by the yuletide. These admonishments… were critical to community survival. Failure to contribute could, especially in a lean year, might mean starvation not only for the farmer but his neighbors.
So, in a day and age where many of us do not work the land, and certainly don’t farm for a living, sometimes there can be a bit of a disconnect with just how important these agricultural cycles are to the health and prosperity of a community. In the dead of winter, we can import strawberries from South American countries. If we have a hankering for some meat we just go to the store. Most of us don’t have to balance out which animals should be slaughtered, which kept for breeding or labor later in the year.
In fact, not only is May Day about the transition of Winter to Spring, but it also denotes a key time of industriousness. We see this represented in conjunction with the more obvious fertility aspects of May Pole traditions.
From ancient times, through to the present day many communities will erect a May Pole that has iconography or guild crests at the top to represent the ‘industry’ in the town. This is a symbol of pride, but it also shows the ‘growth’ that can happen, and needs to happen to help their community both survive and thrive.
While there is usually a larger communal May Pole erected, there are also smaller May Poles erected sometimes that are more for personal use. In parts of Germany, especially in the Rhine, men (usually younger ones) may erect a May Pole outside of the home of a woman he fancies (a girlfriend, a fiancée, or the girl he won at the village’s auction). The bachelor’s club of the village has certain rules for the man and his ‘prize’ they must observe from the time of the auction (usually around Ostara/Mardis Gras until May Day). Whichever man paid the most of any of the auctions that were held, becomes the May King and his lady the de facto Queen. In some regions, these May Poles need to be guarded, or men from other villages may steal them. This custom of the ‘auction’ we know dates back to at least the 1500s, and therefore I think dates back still further still, and it would not surprise me that it is a surviving folk tradition from a pagan practice. In other areas of Germany, the May King is determined through the “scramble” as they see who can climb the May Pole first, and he can choose his Queen.
The May Pole is quite clearly understood as a phallic object, and many academics have made much about the fact that most polytheistic and pagan traditions have a combination of earth-mother and sky-father (or vice versa). So, the pole can be seen as the union that brings fertility between land and sky (sun and rain). In the Northern Tradition we have the God Thor & the Goddess Sif as a rather obvious example of this symbolic formula.
There are a plethora of regional folk traditions associated with this holy tide throughout the modern-day places where Northern Tradition polytheism once reigned supreme. Today in Sweden for instance, their practices are tied quite intimately to song. On the evening of April 30th, you will hear voices raised in musical tribute to the Walburga, all throughout every village in Sweden as they celebrate Valborgsmässoafton (Walpurgis Eve). Huge bonfires are lit at dusk, and choral groups sing songs that celebrate Winter’s ending and the much-heralded arrival of Spring. This choral tradition dates back several centuries of continuous observance by student singers at both Uppsala and Lund Universities. There’s no doubt in mind that this is yet another example of the wassailing / caroling traditions we see in other places that also had once worshiped Odin as well.
For graduating high school seniors in Sweden, those young adults wear special clothing: their white studentmossor (caps). Celebrations tend to go through the night long after the fires have died down, and since May first is a national holiday it enables the revelry to be unreserved without worries of missing an early class, or shift at work.
So how can we celebrate this today?
Instead of burning old clothes, donate them. We may not have so many broken items that we haven’t already gotten rid of like in olden days, but it can even be a time to try to put past mistakes and grief behind you. You may not plow the land or reap the crops… but even if you make your livelihood as an artist you can pray that you may grow in skill and in customers.
Hailing and honoring your local vaettir is always a good idea. Traditional gifts are bread and butter, milk and honey. But vaettir are known for local tastes. So, if you’re in Texas your local vaettir may just appreciate some cool fresh water, Shiner Bock, or Cerveza with lime in addition to other offerings.
Hailing the Gods and Goddesses is (of course) always welcome. Many will hail those associated with the land or the working thereof: Goddesses like Nerthus, Jörd, Gefjon, Sif. The Vanic deities of Freyr and Freya are also popular because of their strong associations with fertility of the land, most especially Freyr. In fact Adam of Bremen in the Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. writes how Fricco (believed to be Freyr) had a statue fashioned with a phallus, was known for bringing pleasure to mortals, and libations were given to him upon marriage too. We see some of this echoed in the Gylfaginning “Freyr is the most renowned of the Æsir; he rules over the rain and the shining of the sun, and therewithal the fruit of the earth; and it is good to call on him for fruitful seasons and peace. He governs also the prosperity of men” (Brodeur’s translation). Scholar Britt-Mari Näsström writes of how Freya was targeted by Christianization: “Freyja is called “a whore” and “a harlot” by the holy men and missionaries, whereas many of her functions in the everyday lives of men and women, such as protecting the vegetation and supplying assistance in childbirth were transferred to the Virgin Mary.” Despite the Christianization some folk remnants have remainds, for instance in Sweden, we have surviving folk tradition that lightning is Freya checking to see if the rye is ripe.
Others may hail Thor (as he has ties to storms) to ask that He brings rain to help the crops, but would He be so kind as to please keep His enthusiasm in check… well at least over the crops. Many will choose to hail Weyland since His role as blacksmith is representative of all the other types of industry through which we use so that we can provide for ourselves, our family, and in turn strengthen our community. Some groups put far too much importance on Hailing a specific Deity, but to me the importance is not in any one Deity over another, but that you choose to a Hail a Deity based on the dictates of your own heart and conscience within the theme of the season or what is occurring in your own life at that time. Follow your heart, so long as the words come from a place of sincerity and respect all will be well. But if you’d like perhaps a suggestion here’s a prayer I’ve drafted to the Goddess Walpurga:
The blessings fall from your voice,
carrying over the mountains,
rustling the leaves of the linden trees,
to make the dance grass on the hills,
and the water’s surface shimmer.
Let us drink.
Let us thrive.
Walk through the plowed fields
Nourishing the seeds of your benediction
So wheat and rye grow green in your steps
Flames of summer lip at your white hem
As Your song tames the Windhound.
Let us eat.
Let us thrive.
Garlanded in a floral crown
Your hair tossed in the wind
As new love sprouts and grows
Love’s fortune flourishes
In the gales of your laughter.
Let us love.
Let us thrive.
You can give offerings of flowers and food. Great offerings to give in the way of food are dishes incorporating some of the seasonal fare available in your local area. In Texas the month of May is known for blueberries, blackberries, peaches, pears, all sorts of peppers, cucumbers, honeydew melon and cantaloupe. Not sure what is seasonal? Epicurious has you covered with an interactive seasonal map for the United States. (For any readers elsewhere, sorry! You’ll have to hope your google-fu is mighty!)
In addition to food, libations are always welcomed. A traditional German May Day punch known as Waldmeister Bowle can be made using sweet woodruff.