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 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.
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.