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’.
Every religion and culture has an iconography which is uniquely it’s own, and the Northern Tradition is no different. Common symbols found in conjunction with this religion are the Valknut, Mjolnir, Irminsul, magical staves (known as a galderstav, such as the Ægishjálmur & Vegvisir), Sunwheels (including solar crosses and the misappropriated swastika), etc. But what do they mean?
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.
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.
So there’s been a bit of a push in recent years that somehow male facial hair was extra special to ancient Heathens, and this has been the basis for some today to ask for special waivers who are serving in the military, such as stories of US service men who are being granted these waivers. I am glad to see that the military is open to these religious accommodations for not only Heathens, but those of other religious and cultural groups too.
While I have no problem with people making a personal choice in their appearance, or making symbolic outward choices as a way to express their own devotions, I do find it highly problematic that the notion that a Heathen man >must< have facial hair (as an aspect of religious identity) is being so strongly pushed and spreading into the community at large.
So I decided to do a deep dive into the supposed sources for this drive from the lore, but in the process also discovered that this push in modern times is in particular coming from a fringe males only ‘religious’ group whose focus is on masculinity, not the Reginn (Holy Powers).
FROM THE HISTORICAL SOURCES
Most who are arguing for it are using Njal’s Saga as their point of reference, where the eponymous Njal is repeatedly insulted as being unmanly for his lack of being able to grow a beard. (In much the way some men will mock adolescent males who can’t grow a full beard yet today). The entire saga is one of the feud sagas, and really can be seen as being exaggerated with a lot of commentary over what is manly and what is unmanly, in addition to the overly hyped up importance of what is or isn’t honorable. You have Thorhall Asgrimsson ashamed to be caught grieving, but he’s not crying tears rather he is weeping blood out of his ears when he learns of Njal’s death. The saga itself is full of absurdity, and has very little to do with religion at all.
To dive a little deeper it is important to note that Njal’s Saga was written in the 13th century, a good two centuries or more after the events it supposedly describes (and well into the Middle Ages and Christian Europe). Respected scholar Gabriel Turville-Petre reminds us to take the story with a grain of salt, “It was not the author’s purpose to write a work of history, but rather to use a historical subject for an epic in prose”. It was penned in Christian times, and so the entire concept of it being representative of pre-Christian custom is entirely suspect. We have ample evidence from the later sagas showing a cultural milieu by the scholars penning those tales, where they alluded to other great literary works (Greek, Roman, or occasionally Biblical) within their own tales, like Snorri’s claim Odin was the Trojan King and Thor was the hero Hector. So we clearly see these late scholars adding things of their own choice to the stories. So we need to be mindful of this when looking at Njal’s saga. To assume the tale is 100% authentic is folly at best.
Another reference often used to build the case for sacred beards, derives from the Guta Lag (Law of the Gotlanders), that lists a penalty for injury to a beard. Again this dates to the 13th Century (by which time the area is under Christian control). But this is also the same source that makes it clear performing a blot (a pre-Christian religious rite) was a criminal act. So you know it’s entirely possible hair customs by this point and time are counter to pre-Christian times. There were many laws enacted throughout Scandinavia about anything that was tied to old religious custom. So if a custom was rooted in religious heathen practice, like the consumption of horse-meat, it was outlawed in the legal code. So if hair (including facial hair) was a religious custom of pre-Christianity, there’s a strong likelihood it would have legal prohibitions against practicing/wearing it if it denoted Heathen religious significance.
Looking at the mention in Guta lag from a secular point of view, so much of our pride of self is reflected in our appearance, and the choices we exert in how we choose to appear and style ourselves. So it seems reasonable to me there’d be a penalty for taking that choice away from someone, especially if the intent was to somehow ridicule, denigrate, or degrade a person. Considering there are also laws that outline what the penalty is for giving someone a facial scar, it seems to fall more into a category of personal appearance, than it does to any sort of religious signifier.
The better sources to me are the earlier ones. We see in eye-witness reports at least among that men were described as having both facial hair or preferring shaven faces. Ibn Fadlan’s account comes to us from 951 CE from his travels among the Rus & Volga. This source is at least a contemporaneous resource and eye-witness account (not written centuries after the fact, but rather written and penned during Heathen times).
Descriptions from Ibn Fadlan describe the heathen men as wearing their beards plaited, or presenting a shaven face, thus the issue of facial hair seemed to be a personal choice. However, those with beards bleached them to a saffron yellow using a strong lye soap. This isn’t the first occurrence of a bleaching or coloring custom among the historic areas of the Northern Tradition.
The Viking Age peoples of Northern Europe had a lot of influence and ancestry in many cases from the Germanic Tribes. The later Viking Age peoples and the powerful tribes of the time either came from descended offshoots of those Germanic tribes (the Yngvonnes become the Angles for example), or settled in areas where those tribes had once held sway and in the process there was cultural blending. Many Germanic tribes shared cultural touchstones like Odin or Woden (as well as other common deities) with what we see pop up later in Viking Age Scandinavian religion, so while one has to be careful NOT to say the cultural values and practices are the same, we can look to these earlier sources and see where we can find parallels, and it is worth examining what was happening among them as well.
So as we look even further back to the customs of the Germanic tribes, we find some interesting references to hair and facial hair customs. In the first century text Historia Naturalis by Pliny the Elder, he noted a custom of bleaching hair and beards commonly done among Germanic men of the tribe that evokes what we see later in Ibn Fadlan’s time among the Rus nd Volga. “Soap is the invention of the Gauls and this is used to redden the hair. It is made from fat and ashes. The best is beech wood ash and goat fat, the two combined, thick and clear. Many among the Germans use it, the men more than the women.” We’re not sure if this was an aesthetic choice for the yellow blonde color, or if (as has been suggested by other scholars) the dye was a secondary effect and the primary purpose was to be used to treat and prevent any infestations of lice, fleas and other pests.
In Chapter 31 of Tacitus’s Germania (also a first century text) we learn about the Germanic tribe of the Chatti. Among them, once a male Chatti achieved manhood they let their beard and hair grow as a symbol of their warrior duty to their family and tribe. Only those who stood over the bleeding bodies of their defeated enemies could then shave their face and cut their hair. So long hair and a beard was seen as the mark of a coward, or those who were unwarlike.
Tacitus’ also talks in chapter 38 about the Suebi tribe, and mentions a particular hair style, the Suebian Knot. “One mark of the race is to comb the hair back over the side of the head and tie it low in a knot behind: this distinguishes the Suebi from other Germans, and the free-born of the Suebi from the slave.” So here we see a cultural custom that denotes free membership of a particular tribe, so thereby denotes status, but seemingly has no mention to it having any religious import. Tacitus goes on to describe how the custom does occasionally crop up outside the Suebi, “In other tribes, whether from some relationship to the Suebi, or, as often happens, from imitation, the same thing may be found; but it is rare and confined to the period of youth.” He provides us with more information to, of how the custom is kept until old age, and how there is a special style worn to denote status of elevated rank too: “Among the Suebi, even till the hair is grey, the rough locks are twisted backward, and often knotted on the very crown: the chieftains wear theirs somewhat more ornamentally, to this extent interested in appearances, but innocently so.”
Sidonius, in his Letters (written in the 5th century), talks about the sea-faring blue-eyed Saxon and their tendency to shave back their hair, “along the extreme edges of his pate the razor, refusing to restrain its bite, pushes back the frontier of his hair and, with the growth thus clipped to the skin, his head is reduced and his face enlarged.” Some debate is had on if it was just hair, or hair and facial hair that rendered the appearance of such a wide face.
While Pliny, Tacitus and Sidonius’ works give us some understanding of aesthetic customs relating to hair (and sometimes facial hair at that) we need to also consider that there’s definitely a difference between a cultural aesthetic norm of the time, and a religious tradition. In Greece, those who served Vesta had a specific hairstyle to denote them–that is a religious custom. Automatically anyone who saw that hairstyle KNEW it denoted something specifically religious in that culture. We also know that as part of a rite from boyhood into adulthood, that in Greek culture boys grew their hair long, and upon their ephebeia (coming of age) their hair would be cut short and the shorn locks would be given in offering to Apollo in his aspect of Apollo Kourotrophos (protector of the young). When I had an opportunity to travel to Denmark years ago, I was struck by some of the discoveries found in the archaeological record found in the northern Jutland region of what today is Denmark. On display in the National Museum in Copenhagen, along side precious metal worked objects, were also discovered the braids of women’s hair that had been cut and sacrificed in the bog as a form of religious offering around 350 BCE. These are authentic examples of a religious oriented hair custom, even though we’re not sure what precisely was the motivation for the offering of the hair.
But a woman with a short bob hairstyle from the 1920s was just wearing something that was a cultural fad of fashion and aesthetics, the way a handlebar mustache was normally worn during the 19th century as a mode of fashion by many men. Men of a certain time may have culturally had a norm for their hair to appear a certain way, that had nothing whatsoever to do with it being an indication of religious practice. Some fashions and aesthetics had to do about hierarchical rank, and nothing to do about religious station. We see this especially with the dress codes of what men and women of notable rank could wear, versus the rest of the populace in England for instance, with even degrees of separation between ranks among the aristocracy. Or we see this with the Suebi and the Suebian knot, as a special version was worn by chieftains versus other free men of the tribe, and those without it were slaves or outsiders of the tribe.
The Eddas and Sagas usually describe men and Gods with beards. But these sources come to us almost entirely post-conversion, sometimes centuries later, and are being penned by Christian scholars. The few exceptions to this, can be found among some of the skaldic poetry which tends to be overlooked and ignored. Some of those skalds were in fact heathens, or had formerly been heathen but converted to Christianity in their lifetime. So when it comes to what is in the sagas and eddas we always need to take it with a grain of salt and recognize it is not going to be 100% authentic. So even if persons or deities in the lore are described with or without a beard is immaterial when it comes to the issue at hand: did beards import sacredness? We have no reference anywhere to the time periods of heathen custom that the way a man’s hair was worn, or a man’s facial hair was treated (bearded and styled, or kept shaven) had any specific religious significance. If we look to the Germanic tribes we can make a case about cultural norms of the tribe, and even status, but we cannot make a case for a beard being perceived as being tied to sacred expression.
When we look to the archaeological record from bodies, to depictions in art we see a vast array of examples of hair and facial hair ranging from:
long beards (conical or plaited) – Kirkby Stephen Stone believe to depict Loki, Bone Gamepiece from Lund, Þórr Figure from Akureyri, Ithyphallic Freyr Figure from Rallinge, Tängelgårda Rune Stone
mustache with close trimmed beard – Carved head from Oseberg Ship Burial, Gunnar in the Snakepit Carving on Sledge from the Oseberg Ship Burial, Vendel Helmet Plate of Odin
beards but no mustaches – various guldgubber kissing figures
mustaches with no beards – Helmet Plate from Torslunda, Loki Snaptun Stone, Carved Head on Sledge from the Oseberg Ship Burial
and clean shaven faces – Bayeaux Tapestry, Sutton Hoo Burial Mound 1, Gold Bracteates from Funen Denmark
If we look across the guldgubber kissing figures, a motif found across a multitude of goods at various sites, created roughly in the same period, we see that the male usually has a pointed chin indicating a beard, but in some depictions the male figure appears clean shaven. In more than one case in the archaeological evidence, we find a site that gives us multiple depictions of men’s facial hair at the same site, with artifacts dated to within a very short period of time to each other. The Oseburg Ship Burial has given us depictions of men with mustaches and close trimmed beards, as well as a man with a mustache and no beard. In Sutton Hoo Mound 1 we have two men with mustaches and conical beards, one man with no mustache but a conical beard, and then a combination of men with mustaches but no beards, or men who were clean shaven. Similarly the Bayeaux Tapestry depicts both clean-shaven men, and men who only had thin mustaches.
At best we can only make the argument that beards and the wearing of them is a matter of personal choice and cultural aesthetics of a time period, possibly a symbol of some sort of social status for a geo-specific culture but not a widespread symbol of religious dedication.
THE MODERN – YET FRINGE- DRIVER OF SACRED BEARDS
I discovered one of the big pushes for this modern surge for sacred beards in Heathenry is coming from a Norwegian based males-only organization homed at FornSidr.com, who will give support to US or Canadian soldiers wanting to make the request, but ONLY if they are a dues paying member (which also requires you to sign up to pay an annual membership fee, and complete certain coursework which has additional price tags attached to it first). Funny, how a Norwegian organization is so interested in what’s happening in North America. Is this push just some tactless cash grab? Probably, at least in part.
They seem AWFULLY concerned about perceptions of masculinity. Here’s a couple of screenshots from their page:
And quoting their statement from the screenshot (in case anyone has difficulties viewing it):
We are defined by innate and natural biological traits and characteristics essential to the very survival of our species, and based on hundreds of millions of years of evolution.
Our fair skin has allowed us to thrive in the winter darkness of the north and our exceptional fitness, stoicism, and resilience to settle the harshest environments on earth. We have built western civilization with our genes, blood and sweat.
We celebrate our ancestral primal, tribal and warrior nature, and we foster our óðr through channelled aggression and sexuality outside of modern societal as well as abrahamic constructs. We protect our lands, our resources, our culture, and our own, against all threats.
We embrace equality of opportunity, competition, as well as natural selection, and we welcome as our brothers, through life and beyond, all those men who share our identity and ethos.
We are the sacred essence of life and we perpetuate mankind complemented by women whose essential and primary nurturing role has been defined by nature from times immemorial.
WE ARE MEN
I don’t know about you, but this description makes me highly suspicious of the group’s motivations. And as of 2019 they’ve trademarked the term Forn Sidr, a term used to describe religious identity for decades across areas of Europe and are going after other groups using it, such as Forn Sidr of America. In one such article about the brouhaha between FS and FSoA by the fringe ‘news source’ Helluland National Broadcasting Service (which realistically is highly editorialized propaganda pieces as their self-descriptor is “Uncensored news from a Viking Perspective” that is of course ironic considering the Vikings were a historical occupation (pirates comprised of various ethnicities and religious groups from a wide area) from centuries ago and there’s no nation of Helluland) wrote “Is there anything women of all genders will not ruin?” referring to the women and transgendered women behind Forn Sidr of America as HNBS’ article on the subject clearly could be summarised by stating FS is awesomely right, and this FSoA is disgusting. As I dug down I clearly saw links between FS, HNBS, Helluland.org, Wall-of-women.org and Norskk.com as they seem to have some sort of inter-connected relationship in the clickable links between them.
So I am going to state here that I’ve stumbled upon part of the crazy fringe of modern Heathenry. Anyone letting (at least partially misogynistic), hyperly masculine groups drive what is and isn’t sacred (in this case beards as they have an entire page dedicated to it) really needs to stop and think things through. Their rhetoric makes it very clear their focus is more on masculinity and themselves, than it is the Reginn and other holy powers. They have a page devoted to the statement “We are Men” in multiple languages, and a page devoted to beards on their site. Do I see a page devoted to any of the Gods or Goddesses? Not a one. In fact they oxymoronically call the beard a religious symbol, while also making it clear they neither pray nor worship any of the Holy Powers: “In fact, we do not pray or worship per say the Æsir, Ásynjur, Vanir, Jötnar, Aðrir, Kindir, or Kynja.”
The only time I see Gods mentioned at all are only in passing, like when they’re trying to make their cases about the need for male warriors to have access to violence and sex, and when violence isn’t an option they need to offset it with more sex. Oh and the only warriors are men (also proclaimed by the sister organization who likes to debunk shield-maidens and women warriors all while sporting anatomy differences for why women shouldn’t fight, funny how the sister organization’s content all links to the Norskk page instead of being a true stand alone site).
So my distillation summary of the group is that they are an extreme fringe faction that promotes a modern fantasy cultural way of life for the self-inflated male ego along viking warrior themed lines. Their religion is that of their SELF.
There are other increasingly fringe extremist and white supremacy groups on the edges of our religion also pushing for the beard for their own reasons. While not every soldier wanting to wear a beard is from such a group, I think the problem is that so many of these groups have gotten so good about hiding their real intent when they promote various types of propaganda, that it confuses others.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
I personally don’t care if some decide to wear a beard as a sign of their personal devotion. Such a choice is to me synonymous with the person who chooses to wear period garb for ritual as it puts them into sacred mindfulness, or how another will get a tattoo, or wear a certain piece of jewelry (like a Thor’s hammer) as representational of their religious devotion. Those are indeed beautiful acts of religious expression, and things not to be mocked. Nor do I want to mitigate those who feel that a deity has asked them to do a thing as well in honor of Them. But the insistence I see by some that it was irrefutably the case, that it MUST be done, is neither factual or historically accurate. Nothing in lore or found in the archaeological record definitively points to facial hair as a religious codifier. Don’t let the propaganda of a fringe group that doesn’t even worship the Gods and Goddesses muddy the issue: we have no evidence that beards were perceived as being sacred. But to an individual heathen man who makes a choice to wear one for that reason, it can be sacred to him.
There’s an ancient curse “may you live in interesting times” and I think each and every one of us can say that 2020 certainly fits the bill. The pandemic, and the attendant economic crisis resulting from it was shocking enough. But now the news for days and days has been about protestors who are rightfully marching about the police brutality experienced disproportionately by minorities.
I don’t personally know what it is to live as a black person in America. My complexion is not only fair, it’s so pale that even the lightest of makeup is too dark for me. But there’s no doubt in my mind that racial inequality not only exists, but they have a bull’s eye painted on their backs. Yes, all lives matter, but there is a disproportionate amount of violence and bad or fatal outcomes by law enforcement with people of color as seen more recently by cases like Treyvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and a sad litany of so many other names. This isn’t new, the fact we have video of George Floyd’s death, and the clear fact he wasn’t resisting has galvanized a nation. Much as the death of another black life incited a nation decades ago.
In August, 1955 fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was attacked by two white men in Mississippi in a lynching that left him dead and mutilated because he had spoken with a white woman who was the proprietor of the grocery store he was in (it’s hard to know exactly what was said, since various witnesses later admitted they lied). Her husband and brother-in-law tracked him down days later, abducted him from his great-uncle’s house, and proceeded to brutally kill him, tossing his body weighed down with a 75-pound metallic fan and wrapped up in barb wire into the Tallahatchie River. The body was discovered three days later. His mother raw with rage and grief, insisted on an open casket. She wanted people to see what had been done to her son, and see they did. Fifty thousand people saw his corpse with their own eyes at the funeral in Chicago. Thousands more saw it when photographs (with the mother’s permission) were published in Jet Magazine, and his death especially with the visual violence seen on his body by so many became a major catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. You can see one of those photos here: The 100 Most Influential Images of All Time (view at your own discretion). The perpetrators were acquitted of his murder, and because of double jeopardy laws bragged a short time later as they confessed in interviews they had in fact killed him.
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.
Today when we hear people talk about the so-called war on Christmas, it is a battlecry of Christians who feel they have a monopoly on the winter holidays. A common refrain being Christ is the reason for the season. But in Early America, Christmas was outlawed as a criminal act, or was viewed as having no consequence at all by some of our founding forefathers–especially those of Puritan background.
To understand why this notice even existed, first a bit of a history lesson is necessary.
In colonial America, the Puritanical leaders (for this article I am including the Pilgrims in this group) felt that Christmas was indeed a ‘Pagan’ celebration (as explained by Puritan leadership including the minister Increase Mather of the Massachusetts Colony, such festivities were rooted in the practices of Saturnalia) and the observance of the holiday was heretical and had no part of building the Godly society they had fled Europe to create. In addition to the umbrage they took to those “Satanical” practices, the Puritans were also anti-Christmas because the Bible did not talk about celebrating the nativity, nor being clear on when it was, therefore the Puritans viewed it as not being a part of their religious observation. Their attitude created the original American ‘War on Christmas’, of course they preferred to call Christmas ‘Foolstide’, in part because only the ungodly fools would celebrate such ‘Satanical Practices’, and no doubt as a further scathing reference to the ‘Lord of Misrule’ seen in some Christmas traditions found in parts of Europe, including England.
The very first Christmas in Colonial America at the Plymouth Colony in 1620 went unobserved. In fact there’s an account from 1621 in the colony, that governor William Bradford yelled and chastised people he caught at merriment on Christmas Day. The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony went one step further and actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas beginning in 1659 and anyone caught celebrating it was monetarily penalized. Christmas Day was so insignificant to our founding forefathers that Congress was in session during Christmas, and on occasion they did actually meet for business: the earliest occurrences being first in 1797 when the House of Representatives met, and 1802 when the Senate also met on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until the 1850s that Congress began to have formal recesses for Christmas.
In Early America it was common to find in parts of the country that people were expected to work or attend school on Christmas Day, many churches didn’t hold any observance on the day at all. In some areas, particularly in parts of New England, Christmas celebrations continued to be criminalized until it became a National holiday in 1870.
I for one, am glad we’ve got our festivities now, and I like today’s growing climate of greater inclusiveness, there are dozens of special religious observances and festivities in this time frame. Tis the season to be merry and bright!
To understand the ‘pagan connections’ (or rather we should say origins) that the Puritans had such criticism about, only takes an exploration of human history and world religions.
In the earliest days of the Christian Church, Pagan Romans were the elite powerhouses of that ancient world, and most Christians numbered among the lowest of the social classes in the empire. So when the Roman Empire celebrated their festivals, the Christians in the Empire got a bit of a break as well.
Many Pagan cultures have had various forms of celebrations around this time of year. In Ancient Rome, the celebration of Saturnalia spread in popularity. Saturnalia was a time to eat, drink, and be merry while honoring the Roman God Saturn. Just as Christians might use Merry Christmas as the seasonal greeting, for those ancient Romans the common greeting during the festival was, io Saturnalia. The festival was characterized with a modest type of role reversal where slaves could get a little taste of what it might be like to be at the other end of the social ladder. The one-day festival spread into a multi-day affair lasting for about a week, roughly correlating to our December 17-23. While work was still being carried out, this was a festival that the slaves and servants really loved as they were able to have a break, and their masters got a bit of a glancing lesson about the work the servants did for them. In the revelry gambling occurred, and gifts were given. Most gives were specially made for the day and were called sigillaria, these were inexpensive gifts, or what we might think of as gag-gifts. We have records that children were given toys during such observances too. We see from Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis vast writings into Saturnalia and gift-giving, he even has some verses that appear to be meant to go with gifts, as like a modern precursor to the greeting card tradition we have today.
Overtime the celebration of Saturnalia appears to have expanded from one day to many, and we see develop a tradition of the Ruler of Saturnalia (Saturnalicius princeps), which is somewhat analogous to the Lords of Misrule we see develop in other areas around Europe. Tacitus records some details about the practice. We know he was chosen by lottery, those present had to obey, and their might be commands like “sing naked”.
In addition to Saturnalia there were other festivities as well in polytheistic Rome. Roman Emperor Aurelian declared the 25th of December as the birthdate (or nativity) of Sol Invictus, a sun deity very popular with soldiers. So popular that Christians like Augustine were still preaching against the cultic practices against Sol in the 6th Century. It should be noted that known records point this as a rather late development compared to the much older practice of Saturnalia. Sol seemingly appears at a banquet in shrines connected with the Mithraic Mysteries, and so some will also connect the date of December 25th to Mithras and his cultic practices as well. What I find fascinating about Mithraism is that it began in Persia, was transported by Alexander the Great’s Greek soldiers, and then was spread even wider by the Roman Empire itself. But how much changed between Persian practices and the cultic practices we see within Rome may be very different adding to the confusion. While we have a lot of records to Mithraism in the archaeological record, no known writings really describe with clarity the practices, so theories about Mithras related to any celebrations around the winter solstice is much debated in academia.
Favored by Roman Emperor Commodus (161-192 C.E.), Mithraism certainly had widespread influence. Of course, everything changed when Emperor Constantine converted in 313 C.E. and Christianity suddenly went from a marginalized religion of the minority to a mainstream religion. While the tide of destruction that Christianity brought to Pagan practices and temples was briefly halted during the reign of Emperor Julian (who tried to restore polytheistic practices and issued an edict for religious freedom), after his death the machine of destruction continued.
Yet despite early Christianity’s attempts to wipe out the Pagan celebration, the people enjoyed it too much and kept practicing it. While some early Christian leaders (such as Gregory of Nazainzus) fought against the combining of the Pagan practice with Christianity, eventually the church decided that instead of fighting it, it would be smarter to assume power over the festival and slowly Christianize it, leading to the Papal Decree by Pope Julius I in 350 AD formalizing December 25th as the date for Christ’s birth. It should be noted that the various Christian denominations do not have a consensus about the time of Christ’s birth. While some do believe it was at least in the Winter, other groups do not. For instance, the American Presbyterian Church puts Christ’s birthday sometime in the autumn.
An unnamed 5th century Syrian writer had this to say about the change:
It was the custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same 25th of December the birthday of the Sun, at which [time] they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true nativity [of Christ] should be solemnized on that day.
Emperor Justinian in 529 AD made it a civic holiday, and then in 567 AD the Council of Tours officially proclaimed Advent a period of fasting for the 12 days from Christmas to the Epiphany, (thus why it’s 12 Days of Christmas, of course many Pagan observances were multi day too). Through the years various Popes instructed various Church leaders to further the rebranding of Paganism into Christian significance, such as when Pope Gregory I sent instructions for Augustine, the First Archbishop of Canterbury (England). While the original letter is lost, the letter was preserved in quotation by Bede:
To his most beloved son, the Abbot Mellitus; Gregory, the servant of the servants of God. We have been much concerned, since the departure of our congregation that is with you, because we have received no account of the success of your journey. When, therefore, Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined upon, viz., that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed.
For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God.
For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. Thus the Lord made Himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt; and yet He allowed them the use of the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the Devil, in his own worship; so as to command them in his sacrifice to kill beasts, to the end that, changing their hearts, they might lay aside one part of the sacrifice, whilst they retained another; that whilst they offered the same beasts which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to God, and not to idols; and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices. This it behooves your affection to communicate to our aforesaid brother, that he, being there present, may consider how he is to order all things. God preserve you in safety, most beloved son.
There is ample evidence through the centuries of this institutionalized conspiracy to slowly Christianize the old Pagan ways. With Christianity coming into existence within the confines of the Roman Empire, it’s been only natural that we’ve looked at the interaction between Christianity and Roman polytheism. But as Christianity spread, that also meant it spread into other areas of Europe, such as Northern Europe where entirely different Gods held sway with the populace. We see again that as Christianity comes into contact with those new polytheistic religions it begins to start to force a merging of traditions. King Hakon of Norway, who as a Christian passed a law that the Christian Christmas Day (which was already a weird bastardization of the Christian story of the Nativity and Saturnalia/Mithraic customs) AND the Northern Tradition polytheistic yuletide celebrations were to henceforth be celebrated at the same time. While this only specifically impacted Norway (and its territories), it illustrates an intentional combining of the holy-days into one celebration.
In this case the above church edict from Pope Gregory I is ironically against the dictates found in Biblical passages. Christians should be familiar with prohibitions against Pagan practices. The Bible states:
Hear what the LORD says to you, people of Israel. This is what the LORD says: Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good” (Jer 10:1-5).
One of the biggest hallmarks of Christmas celebrations today is that of Santa Claus, caroling (or wassailing), and the decoration of homes and businesses with evergreens and trees, which specifically come to us from polytheistic cultures found throughout Northern Europe. And I expand upon that in this other article: Yuletide Origins and Traditions – The Santa Claus Mythos.
Eventually, the church did try to crack down on these Christianized Pagan elements. During medieval times they banned gift-giving because of its Pagan origins. But Pope Paul II revived some of the most depraved customs of the ancient Pagan festival and spun them with a Christian anti-semitic tradition. Those traditions were now used to target the Jews who were forced to run naked for Christian entertainment, and to the laughter of the pope. By the time we reach the 18th and 19th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church forced rabbis to wear clownish outfits while they were force-marched as the Catholic crowd pelted them. In 1881, Polish church authorities riled up the masses to anti-semitic riots across the country leading to the racist murders of Jews, as well as other physical and sexual assaults against others. The riots were so severe that property losses in the millions were suffered, but worst of all lives were lost too.
Puritans in particular took great umbrage with the pagan origins of Christmas, and actively begin to revolt against it. Both in England and later in the American colonies they continued to fight against it.
So Puritan Christians for nearly the first hundred years of “American” history combated Christmas. So here’s some food for thought: To those early Puritan leaders, the sheer fact offended Christians are wasting time on rhetoric on the ‘War on Christmas’ today would mean that those modern practitioners are to their way of thinking, ungodly.
Most of the Christmas traditions that exist — gift-giving, the hanging of the evergreens, “Christmas” trees, gift-giving, feasting, Santa, caroling/wassailing — all originated from a variety of polytheistic practices. While I can understand that to some Christians this is a holy time of reflection as they celebrate their Christ, let us remember we were here first. And Christ is notthe reason for the season. He’s just a latecomer to the party.
There are numerous religious observances during the ‘holiday’ season: Channukah, Mawlid el-Nabi, Rohatsu, Zarathosht Diso, Kwanzaa, Pancha Ganapati, Solstice, etc. In fact stating ‘Solstice’ is really misleading as it is one umbrella term encompassing dozens upon dozens if not hundreds of unique celebrations worldwide such as the celebrations from various Native American tribes, Aboriginal peoples, as well as Pagan and Polytheistic observances (both the unbroken traditions and the modern reconstructed ones).
So to the Christians, who do claim that Christ is the reason for the season, I’m not saying you can’t enjoy this time of year for your own religious reasons. Please enjoy your holiday season. But would you do the rest of us the courtesy and please consider the history and context before you get upset the next time when someone doesn’t wish you a Merry Christmas. If you as a Christian want to wish Merry Christmas, that’s fine, but don’t be surprised when I wish you a Joyful Yule back, or someone else wishes you a Merry Solstice, Happy Chanukah, the politically correct Season’s Greetings, its alternative Happy Holidays, or some other cheery salutation for some other happy festival. But to expect by default you will always be greeted at retail with a Merry Christmas is hubris.
I’m probably about to get the internet trolls and deniers attacking me in an online community where I recently responded to someone else’s posts where they said in angry response to some asshole: “Even my Gods don’t ask me to kneel. Bye.”
The idea there is no kneeling or similar practices to our Gods is erroneous, there’s references abounding to it in the lore.
The real question is how common it was, or if such practices were unique to specific cultic worship, specific deities, specific celebrations or observances?