Wytch Hazel Cottage

Reclaiming Our Ancestral Folkways

Year: 2017

The Folkways Of Yule

Scandinavia has many ancient traditions, especially at Yule, which are rich in history and folklore. If you would like to add some ancestral meaning to your Yuletide, then here are some easy customs that you can integrate into this holiday season.

According to Norwegian tradition one should bake seven types of pastry at Yule. These include, gingerbread biscuits (pepperkaker), waffles (goro), ginger nuts (ingefaernotter), Berlin wreath butter biscuits (berlinerkranser), sand cakes (sandkaks), doughnut rings (smultringer) and syrup snaps (sirupsnipper). Just baking one of these would be a fun activity to do with friends or family.

Many Scandinavians today still believe in the tomten or fjosnisse; gnome like creatures that look after the home and surrounding land. At Yule or Christmas, people leave out a bowl of porridge with plenty of butter on the top or left over food from the Christmas dinner. By leaving gifts of appreciation for these little folk who work hard at keeping the land and home safe and happy, the tomten in return will bring good luck to the household.  If you offend one of them, then beware, as you risk bringing terrible misfortune. The tomten are shape shifters and are very hard to see, so an empty bowl of porridge is the only sign that will let you know that they are around. Leaving out a bowl of porridge is something that I will be doing over the next couple of days as part of my Yuletide celebrations.

Lille Julaften or Little Christmas Eve takes place on the 23rd of December in Norway. This is the time of making final Christmas preparations including the decorating of the tree and the cooking of rice porridge called risgrot (risengrysgrot) where an almond is hidden inside before serving to family. Lots of this porridge is eaten, as you can imagine, as everyone wants to find the lucky almond in their bowl. The lucky person wins a marzipan pig and in Germany these are given out in the New Year for good luck and are called glucksschwein.

On Mothers’ Night, the eve of Yule, it was traditional to honour the mothers of our ancestral line and the female spirits that looked over our families, as well as the Goddesses Freyja and Frigg. This can be done anytime throughout the year, but Yuletide is an extra special time as the veil between our worlds is thin, making it easier for them to hear and talk to us. Just lighting a small candle and conveying our gratitude to them is a meaningful gesture; for without their sacrifices and love we wouldn’t be here today.

The ancient symbol of the sun wheel or cross, used in sympathetic fire magic to invoke the return of the sun, can be easily crafted with small branches and evergreens. Thrown onto a Yule fire as an offering to the gods or just simply hung up as a decorative wreath, the sun cross is a powerful image that brought hope to our ancestors during the long harsh winters of the north. Small ones can also be crafted and put on the Yule or Christmas tree.

The Yule Goat is a Yuletide figure from Scandinavian mythology, going back to the myths of Thor and his magical goats who pulled his wagon across the skies. Modern day versions are crafted out of straw and decorated with red ribbon and used as Yule ornaments. Yule Goats made out of felt or clay would also be a great craft to do.

If you are wanting to build a relationship with the gods and goddesses of the north, then those who have a connection with winter and the dark half of the year are Skadi the goddess and giantess associated with winter, hunting and mountains; Ullr the god associated with hunting, skiing and sledding (these two did not get married after Skadi’s failed marriage to Njord), Nott the goddess of night, Freyr the god associated with fertility and agriculture and Odinn, the allfather. Two of his names are actually Jolnir and Ylir which associate him with Yule. Thor would have been honoured at this time as well, as he is the protector of mankind. And last but not least, Sunna or Sol the goddess of the sun.

There is much debate as to whether the figure of Odin eventually morphed into the Father Christmas that we know of today. Earlier depictions of Father Christmas were of an older man, dressed in blue and green, much thinner than the Coca Cola version and much more Odin like. The eventual story of the eight reindeer could possibly be descended from the eight legs of Odin’s horse Sleipnir and the reindeer names Donner (German) and Blitzen (Old English) which mean thunder and lightning might be a connection to Thor. Whatever the truth, many children in Scandinavia leave straw in their boots or stockings as a treat for the reindeer or Sleipnir. Much better than a carrot!

Without doubt, food plays an important role at this time of year, so if we want to feast like a viking what do we need to serve up for the Julebord (Jule feast)? Ham, sausage, meatballs, pork ribs, mutton ribs, dumplings, pickled herrings, salmon, red beet salad with pickled vegetables and potato salad are some of the many delicacies eaten. Quite often there are dishes of moose and reindeer too.

The Scandinavians love Yuletide so much that there is an extended period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve called Romjul or Julefred which means Christmas Peace. This is a quiet time where many of the shops are closed and people spend this week with family, enjoying some downtime or winter sports. All hunting is prohibited during this period as well. This time is a perfect excuse to reflect on the past year and to think ahead to the next twelve months; learning from past lessons and setting future goals. Then perhaps swearing an oath to the gods on Nyttar (New Year’s Eve). At your peril of course 😉

Wishing you all a God Jul and Happy New Year.

Winter Rites Of Northern Europe

Yule as a twelve day celebration is a modern concept inspired by the Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. In fact, this midwinter celebration only spanned three night and possibly took place over the three nights of the full moon, much like other pagan Scandinavian festivals such as Winter Nights.

The word Yule has Indo European roots that are still visible in northern Europe today. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden it is called Jul and in Iceland and the Faroe Islands it is Jol. The proto Germanic word for Yule was Jehwla and the old English word used by the Anglo Saxons was Giuli. The whole season which roughly corresponded to the months of December and January was called Geola. December, in Anglo Saxon England was referred to as aerra Geola meaning the time before Yule and January was called afterra Geola meaning the time following Yule. In Bede’s ‘The Reckoning of Time’, he wrote that Giuli was the day that the sun turned back before increasing in light again. The Anglo Saxons made this day the first of their new year and began their celebrations with Modranecht (Modraniht). Bede explained that these old festivities were celebrated at the same time as Christmas. This is because back when the Julian calendar was used, the 25th of December was the time of the Winter Solstice. Bede, being a Christian monk, does not go into any details about how these rites were celebrated.

Modranecht took place on the eve of the midwinter festival. Mothers’ Night was spent honouring all mothers and also the Disir (female spirits who looked over the family). There is plenty of evidence of there having been a Germanic Mother cult, but no one is sure whether this cult had a connection with Mothers’ Night. There is no evidence of Modranecht ever being observed in Scandinavia, however that doesn’t mean that it was never practised there.

The word Jol in Swedish means wheel; the seasonal wheel that is continuously turning and represents the cycle of life. Goddess Frigg, while in her palace, spun clouds that floated down to the human world of Midgard. Perhaps this wheel is reminiscent of Frigg’s own spinning wheel.

Yule is rarely mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas, but from what little is written we do know that this time of year was celebrated with much feasting, singing and drinking. However, nothing is said about the rituals or prayers that were performed, due mainly to the fact that the authors of these Medieval texts were Christian.

In the Saga of Hakon the Good, the Norwegian Christian king Hakon passed a law that all Pagan and Christian festivities were to be celebrated at the same time. He also stipulated that during this period four gallons of ale were to be drunk by every man. This was known as ‘drinking jol’. King Hakon was very tolerant of Pagan practices and did not force his own faith upon his people and they were very accepting of their Christian king as well.

Animals would have been sacrificed for the Yule feasts and were also offerings to the gods, especially horses. King Hakon was once invited to a pagan Yule feast where he refused to eat the horse meat that was being served because the act of doing so was pagan. Eventually, to keep the peace, he compromised and just smelt the aromas of the cooked meat. At another Yule feast, things didn’t go as smoothly and it is said that Hakon was forced to eat some horse liver without even being able to make the sign of the cross beforehand.

In Svarfdaela Saga, there is mention of a warrior who postpones a fight until after Yule and there is a detailed account of a Yule feast in Egil’s Saga Skallagrimssonar. In the Saga of Grettir, two Norwegian farmers drink ‘Yule’ together and in the Saga of the Greenlanders, Eric the Red is worried that he will not be ready to host a Yule feast. Thankfully, the feast is saved when Thorfinnar brings malt with him to make the ale. Lastly, there is a funny story about a farmer called Ingjaldur who pushes aside his dislike of foreigners so he can buy some decorative Yule evergreens for his feast from a Norwegian merchant. Being a good host was seen as extremely important, so the food, drink and even the decorations was a serious undertaking.

The swearing of oaths was seen as extremely important during the Viking Age. Oaths were viewed as ironclad and if broken could be punished by death if they were not fulfilled. Oaths made at Yule were even more serious and some appear to have been marriage related, such as in Hervarar saga ok Heidreks and Sturlaugs saga starfsama. The oaths were made by swearing on a boar’s head like Helgi did in Helgakvida Hjorvardssonar.

There was once a ritual where men would toast to their future deeds; much like New Year’s resolutions, but more meaningful and serious. Again hands were laid on a boar’s head and the sacrificial animal was offered up to the gods with the sworn oath. A sacred oath to Freyr perhaps because the boar was associated with him.

One of the oldest symbols of this time of year is the Yulebukk or the Yule Goat, which is believed to have its roots in Indo European folklore. In Scandinavia today, the Yule Goat is an ornament made out of straw and decorated with red ribbon. Traditionally, some people burn the straw Yulebukk as an offering on their Yule fire. This is a remnant of our forbears sacrificing goats to the God Thor in return for favours. There is an ancient connection to Thor and goats. He has two goats, Tanngrisni (Gap Tooth) and Tanngnost (Tooth Grinder) who pull his wagon across the sky. Large versions of the Yule Goat can be found in towns and cities all over Scandinavia at this time of year. The most well known is the Gavle Goat which goes up at the beginning of Advent.

It was traditional to sacrifice boars as well as cattle and horses during the long dark winter months, but with the arrival of Christianity, animal sacrifice was forbidden. Pagans, therefore, began to dress up as animals instead, especially wearing goat skins and masks, going from door to door, singing, dancing and offering blessings to the household in exchange for food, drink or money. Even today children in Scandinavia dress up in masks and go knocking on people’s doors, singing and receiving sweets.

In Finland children are visited by the Joulupukki, the Yule goat, and this is very similar to an ancient Finnish tradition where people called the Nuutipukkis used to dress up in goat hides and dance around singing.

The Joulupukki goes from house to house on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, knocking on doors and asking if there are any good children living there. If so, then presents are given and opened. The Joulupukki wears a red coat and walks with a wooden walking stick. His workshop is in Korvatunturi, Lapland and he is married to Joulumuori (Mother Yule).

Another Yule character was the Yule Cat and in the 19th century good children used to receive new clothes at Yule while naughty children were taken away by the Yule Cat. Farmers left out food for the village cats in the hope that this would please the Goddess Freya and in return she would bless their crops.

One of the most ancient symbols of all is the sun cross that goes back as far as the Neolithic and Bronze age periods. The sun cross looks like a circle with a cross inside of it and can also resemble a wagon wheel with spokes. Also known as Odin’s wheel it was often made with evergreens and tree branches (like a wreath) and thrown onto the Yule fire to invoke the sun’s return. Other folk would set a large sun wheel on fire and roll it down a hill, with the same intention of invoking the sun that blessed the earth with life and abundance.

There was an old Scandinavian custom that used the last ear of corn reaped at the last harvest to bake a loaf of bread in the shape of a boar.

A tomte (Sweden), nisse (Norway and Denmark) or tonttu (Finland) is a little creature from Scandinavian folklore that is associated with Yule. He has a long white beard, a tall pointy red hat and is a mischievous gnome who looks after the farm and its inhabitants including the livestock. His name means ‘homestead man’.

A tomte doesn’t ask for much in return for his hard work, just a bowl of porridge at Yule or Christmas with plenty of butter on top. A well looked after farm is one that has a happy tomte living there. Tomten are even prepared to steal from neighbouring farms to keep things running smoothly. A solitary figure, the tomte does not take kindly to interference or foolery and can resort to nastiness if he isn’t pleased; from small pranks to killing livestock. In Sweden, the Yule Tomte accompanies the Yule Goat who pulls a sleigh full of gifts for all the children. The tomte was also known as the haugkall which translates to ‘mound farmer’. As the ancestors were buried in mounds and were believed to live there, it is more than likely that this figure from folklore has roots in an ancestral cult. If a farm was doing much better than its neighbours, then a farmer could be accused of having a tomte that was carrying out ungodly work and stealing from other farms. At the time this was seen to be as terrible as witchcraft.

Wishing you all a lovely Yuletide. 

An Old English Christmas (3)

The 26th December commemorates the death by stoning of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen. On this day there was bird shooting, as well as wren and squirrel hunting. Hunting squirrels was a very ancient sport that was practised for many centuries in England especially in the New Forest. This day is still called ‘Boxing Day’ and in Norfolk it was called ‘Offering Day’, from an ancient custom of giving and receiving gifts, usually money, clothes and food. Those who normally received a Christmas Box were servants and workers such as errand boys and postmen.

The Christmas box was an earthenware box with a slot in the side or top which was large enough for coins to be pushed through it. To access the money, the box had to be broken. As the years passed, the Christmas box turned into gifts such as books, gloves and chocolate.

Hunting the wren was a very old custom which is steeped in oral tradition. Young boys would carry a cage of dead wrens, going from door to door asking for money. A wren’s feather was then given in return. It appears that a feather from a wren killed on St Stephen’s Day averted the danger of a shipwreck. St Stephen’s Day was also known as Wrenning Day.

In Brighten there was a custom of bowling with oranges along the high streets. The one who hit another player’s orange with his own won that orange.

It used to be a common practice to bleed horses and cattle on St Stephen’s Day because it was believed that periodical bleeding was good for the health of hard working animals. “If you bleed your nag on St Stephen’s Day, he’ll work your ‘wark’ for ever and A.”

The wish to end the Old Year and begin the New Year has been a tradition for hundreds of years. Joyous gatherings in the home and street, drinking from the wassail bowl and the pealing of the church bells all signalled the start of another twelve months.

It was customary in the 16th and 17th centuries to have late evening parties at home or to join merry crowds in the streets, where young boys and girls went freely among the gatherers disguised as mummers. Many kept up the old tradition of sitting up until half past midnight to listen to the ringing of the bells and to exchange New Year’s wishes with family and friends.

In Northumberland it was customary to decorate the last ‘corf’ of coal brought up from the coal mine with lighted candles in anticipation of the coming New Year.

In the north of England and in Scotland, the last day of the old year was and is still called ‘Hogmanay’ and so was the gift of an oatmeal cake for which children went around begging on that day. Spice bread and cheese were also eaten. The oldest forms of the name were ‘Hogmena’ and Hagmena’. The Scandinavian celebration was called Hoggo-nott’ and it is most likely that the Vikings brought this tradition with them when they landed in the Orkney Islands. The church disapproved unsurprisingly of these celebrations, “It is ordinary among some Plebians, in the south of Scotland, to go about from door to door upon New Year’s Eve, crying Hagmane.” (Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, 1693).

It was customary in Yorkshire for the keeper of the pinfold (an Anglo Saxon word for an area where stray farm animals were rounded up) to knock on people’s doors singing. He was followed by a group of adults and children who would shout “Hagman Heigh” at the end of every verse.

In many parts of England the most popular form of divination at midnight on New Year’s Eve was to simply open and read the bible at a random page to glean any message, good or bad for the coming year. The text on which the fore-finger of the right hand rested was suppose to foretell the future. A pin was sometimes used for this. It was normally older women who practised this.

Young women who wanted to know the first letter of their future husband’s name turned to bible and key divination. A large key was inserted into the pages of the bible, exactly over the 6th and 7th verses of the last chapter of Solomon’s Song. The girl who was wanting an answer then tied the bible with the garter from her right leg and with a female friend placed each a finger under the bow of the key. The girl then repeated the two verses for each letter of the alphabet. It was believed that when she reached the letter of his first name the bible moved. If the bible didn’t move then she was to remain unmarried (The Vocabulary of East Anglia 1830).

There were many ways that young women used divination to discover the identity of a likely husband. A table might be laid for herself and her future husband or a fresh egg was pricked with a needle and three drops of the white were allowed to fall into a bowl of water. The unusual shapes that appeared were then read for omens. Some young women washed their sark (a Scottish word for a night shirt or chemise) and left it to dry on the back of a chair. They would lie awake waiting and hoping to see the form of their future husband appear and turn over their sark.

In Suffolk it was known for four girls to prepare dinner for five and then for each of them to sit in a corner of the room until midnight and wait for one of their future husbands. (Country, vol. 1 by Lady Eveline Camilla Gurdon 1893).

To know of any warnings for the coming year, there were divinations by means of reading ashes and the midnight watch in or near a church porch.

These are some popular sayings and beliefs of the time.

“It is very unlucky to let the fire go out on the night of New Year’s Eve.”

“It is unlucky to give fire or a light out of the house on New Year’s Eve.”

To take a silver coin out of the house during the night of New Year’s Eve, to hide it and then to bring it back into the house the following morning was believed to insure a supply of money during the coming year ( In Cornwall).

“It is unlucky to continue the knitting of a stocking into the New Year.” (Household Tales, Sidney Oldall Addy, 1895).

It was seen as unlucky to start a journey or venture on New Year’s Eve because of the assumption that there was a connection with Judas.

The well of St Euny in Cornwall was believed to be at its most powerful healing capacity on the last day of the year (The History of Cornwall, Rev. R. Polwhele 1816).

I am sad to say that this is the final part of An Old English Christmas. I must say that I have learnt so much. Some of these traditions are fantastical, while others I can actually see myself adding to my own practice.

Sources:

British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936

A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978

An Old English Christmas (2)

One of the most popular customs of this season for our Christian ancestors was the Christmas decorations. Long before the arrival of Christianity, evergreens were used to decorate homes and sacred spaces such as groves. The early Christians later adopted this tradition for their churches.

The holly, one of the most common evergreens, was used in the Roman festival of Saturnalia which took place around the third week of December and it seems that the Roman Catholics brought this custom with them to England. Rosemary, laurel, bay, holly and box were frequently used where as fir, yew and mistletoe were avoided in churches decorations. Perhaps their connection to the old traditions was the reason for this. However, all of these evergreens were used to decorate homes, market crosses and other public places.

“Now with bright holly all your temples strow, with laurel green and sacred mistletoe”. John Gray’s book ‘Trivia’ 1716.

Over the centuries rosemary has been a symbol of love, death and remembrance. One legend describes how the Virgin Mary once rested by a rosemary bush while travelling and her cloak touched the flowers turning them from white to blue. This is where the herb’s name comes from, the ‘Rose of Mary’. Rosemary garlands were wrapped around church pillars and sprigs were placed on the floor and altar. Roman priests used rosemary as an incense and it was also burned in homes where someone had died. It was also thought to protect against witches.

Like many evergreens, bay laurel was thought to protect against thunder and lightning. Sacred to the sun it was used to get rid of household smells.

Druids performed rituals in yew groves as well as oak groves. Connected to sacred wells and springs the yew’s symbolism of death clung to it more than its symbolism of eternity.

It was recorded in Derbyshire that at least one of the leaded diamond shaped windows of a cottage should have a sprig of holly, yew and box in it. However, the yew was not be taken from a churchyard tree and the box had to be cut from a garden. In many parts of England it was seen as unlucky to bring holly and mistletoe into the house before Christmas Day and everyone had a different opinion as to when all of these decorations should be taken down. Ranging from Old Christmas Day (5th or 6th January) to Candlemas Day, the reason for their choice of date was always tempting ill luck or death if one didn’t follow what they saw as the customary day.

Some people used to burn the old evergreens while others believed this to be unlucky. In Staffordshire, people were known to keep some of their Christmas evergreens all year to prevent their house being struck by lightning. In old farm houses a mistletoe bush hung from the kitchen ceiling until the following Christmas Eve, when it was burned and a fresh one was put up.

Leaves that stay green all year round have always been seen as a symbol of eternal life. They are usually the only greenery available in the middle of winter and the only trees and shrubs to bear berries.

In Medieval times, holly was believed to possess special healing powers and was used to treat fevers, rheumatism and colds. A lost traveller would have always looked to shelter under a holly bush to stay safe from evil spirits and a sprig of holly taken from a church decoration and hung at home would bring happiness and holiness to the household for the whole year.

Mistletoe was a sacred plant in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. It was used in Druid rituals to thank the gods for the end of the winter and the coming of spring. Just like holly, mistletoe was supposed to have healing powers that could heal anything from toothache to epilepsy. It was also seen as a powerful protector from witchcraft.

In the northern counties of England, mistletoe was not easy to come by, so as a substitute people would have the ‘kissing bush’ instead. The Kissing Bough, as it was also known as, was a circle of evergreen on a framework of either iron, wood or willow shoots.  There was a ring of candles above it and a ring of red apples below it. Sometimes small toys, dolls, oranges, nuts and trinkets were hung from it on ribbons. It was hung like a crown from the ceiling and was just high enough for two people to kiss underneath it.

The custom of decorating a tree at this time of year originates from northern Germany, in the valley of the Upper Rhine. There is a legend about St Boniface who is said to have offered the pagans he was trying to convert a young fir tree to replace their sacred oak. The fir tree was a symbol of the new faith he was preaching. During the Middle Ages, a play called The Paradise Play was performed around a fir tree decorated with apples inside a ring of lighted candles. After the play was no longer popular, the fir tree continued to be decorated at Christmas and people eventually brought it in to their homes. At first it was decorated with small white wafers that represented the body of Christ and eventually those were replaced with stars, angels, hearts, flowers and bells made out of pastry.  In Strasbourg, at the beginning of the 17th century people decorated their fir trees with apples, sweets and paper roses. And by the middle of the century, candles and glittery decorations were added.

It is widely believed that Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband introduced the Christmas tree to England when he brought one back from his native Germany  in 1841 to Windsor Castle. But actually, it was a member of Queen Caroline’s household who brought one over from Germany twenty years previously for a children’s party. In some regions it was traditional to fasten a large yew branch to a table and decorate it with taper candles and tissue paper. The children would also leave presents that they had made themselves for their parents underneath it on Christmas Eve. Then on Christmas day the parents would lay out the children’s presents on the table itself.

We all know about the tradition of ‘letting in the New Year’, but long before this there was the custom of letting in Christmas Day which was generally celebrated in the northern counties of England. A dark haired man would be paid to come into the house on Christmas morning before any other person was allowed to enter. The man usually walked in the front door and then walked straight out the back door. The concept of ‘first footing’ was to bring good luck to the household. Women were excluded from this custom and were quite often not allowed to enter the house at all on Christmas Day as it was feared unlucky.  It is thought that the reason why no red haired men were ever given this important role was due to the fact that many Viking raiders probably had red hair and over the centuries this dark memory grew into a superstitious tradition. After the conversion of Christianity the man with the red hair morphed into Judas Iscariot.

Before the conversion of the Germanic peoples to Christianity it is believed that they decorated their trees outside at this time of year. As it was a pagan custom, it was viewed with disdain, so for those pagans who wished to continue to practice the old ways, they brought the trees inside their homes to avoid persecution.

In Cornwall, there was a children’s game that had them dancing around a basket filled with sand and lighted candles. The girls would dance around first and then the boys, all singing in a circle. This is more than likely a remnant of an ancient fire rite that was once performed at the Winter Solstice.

I will end this Christmas post with some popular sayings of the time.

“If the sun shines on the apple trees on Christmas day, there will be a good crop next season.”

“If the sun shines through the church windows on Christmas morning, the next year will be a good one for fruit.”

“A windy Christmas day is followed by a good year for fruit.”

“A cricket chirruping at Christmas is a sign of good luck during the coming year.”

“A person born on Christmas day will be able to see spirits.”

“It is unlucky not to have both holly and mistletoe in the house at Christmas; they should be taken in together and part of the holly should be of the smooth and the remaining part of the prickly kind.”

If you bring yew into the house at Christmas among the other evergreens, you will have a death in the family before the end of the year.”

“No fire, in any form, must be given out of the house on Christmas day, nor some say, on any following day until Old Twelfth day is gone.”

“Christmas day is a lucky day on which to be born.”

“You will have a lucky month for each different person’s pudding you taste at Christmas.”

“To keep Christmas cakes or parts of them for a year will bring luck.”

“Hours of sun on Christmas day, so many frosts in the month of May.”

“If it rains much during the twelve days after Christmas day, the country people say that the following year will be wet.”

“If Christmas on a Sunday be, a windy winter we will see.”

“If Christmas day fall on a Monday, the winter will be severe and windy and tempests will be experienced in the summer.”

“If Christmas fall upon a Thursday, the year shall be temperate and healthy, but the summer will be rainy.”

“A Saturday’s Christmas is supposed to bring about a foggy winter and a cold summer.”

Well, there you have it, the second part of An Old English Christmas. This was another fun one to research and I hope that you enjoyed reading it. If you want to find out more about holly, ivy and mistletoe or about the origins of Yule you can find those posts under the category entitled ‘An Old English Winter’.

Sources:

British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936

A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978

An Old English Christmas (1)

Christmas Eve, since the time of the conversion of Christianity, was and still is the last day of preparations for the second most important Christian festival of the year. The Yule log was brought into the home and traditional food was served such as bread and cheese (the latter had crosses cut into it before it was eaten), ale, hot elderberry wine and also frumenty; a kind of porridge made from wheat that was boiled in milk with added sugar and spices. There was Yule cake too which was not to be cut before this day.

In many parts of the country carol singing was in full swing, especially in the evening and church bells were rung at different times of the day and night. Mummer’s plays and wassailing were popular too, taking place on either Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or St Stephen’s Day.

The Yule log was traditionally brought to the kitchen hearth or fireplace where it was lit at dusk on Christmas Eve and left to burn for at least twelve hours so as to avert bad luck. Sometimes the Yule log was even a root of a tree. It was seen as unlucky for the log to be lit before then and even more unlucky if the fire went out before the log had fully burned. Where these customs and superstitions originate from is not known exactly, but they are clearly steeped in ancient pagan spiritual beliefs and it is funny to think that Christian folk unknowingly celebrated the birth of Christ by continuing  their ancestors’ traditions. The custom of burning the Yule log continued up until the early 20th century, when the log was called the Christmas Braun (Christmas Brand). In other parts of England it was called the mock or clog.

Into the fire with the Yule log was thrown a fragment of the previous year’s log as it was believed that the house would burn down if this was not done. People sat around the fire and told each other stories, played music and cards, sang songs and danced. The larger the log the better, as the smouldering ash could be re-ignited at any time during the following twelve days, which suggests much merriment and hospitality was enjoyed. After the Yule log had finished burning, a remnant was saved and put under the bed for the following Christmas.

In Devonshire, an ashen faggot (a bundle of sticks) was generally used instead of a Yule log. On Christmas Eve, 1836, in the old Torwood Manor House, Torquay, the bundle was bound together by as many binds of withe (willow or hazel)  as possible and when it was held by two chains, the ashen faggot was taken to the house by four oxen. One ox would have been enough, but four was customary. The ash tree which burns very well was venerated in these parts and was also used for charms. Gipsies were known to burn an ash tree at Christmas too. The bundle of ash sticks was placed on the blazing hearth and while the young folk played cards and the elders talked of old times, their gazes would have been locked on the fate of the binds as they burned. These were used for divination. Before the faggot was lit each young person would choose a binding. It was believed that the binding that burnt through first indicated the first to marry.  (Trans. Devon Assoc, vol. 6, Plymouth 1873).

The Yule candle which was usually about 18 inches high was lit at the same time as the Yule log  and set in the centre of the table. To avoid bad luck the candle was not moved during the meal, nor blown out. If the candle had to be extinguished then it was done with a pair of tongs. Sometimes the Yule candle was red, blue or green in colour and decorated with evergreens. Again a piece of wax may have been kept for good luck.

In the Middle Ages, the lord of the Manor, sitting on a raised platform at the end of his hall would have watched as the boar’s head was brought in for the feast. Sprigs of rosemary would be sticking out of its ears and an apple or orange in its mouth. The rosemary represented the return of the sun and the symbol of the boar was associated in ancient times with the Norse God Frey, the God associated with fertility. The feast would have had other delicacies such as peacock and swan. Turkeys were unknown until the 16th century when they were brought over from Mexico.

In the 17th century, a Christmas pie was served in some households with a wonderful filling of beef’s tongue, wild bird, game, poultry, goose  eggs, sugar, raisins, lemon and orange peel and a variety of spices. Christmas cake in Cornwall consisted of saffron and currants and in Durham and Northumberland currant filled Yule dough made of flour, barm (old English word for yeast), lemon peel and nutmeg or gingerbread was given to children in the shape of a doll or Yule baby. There were also currants for the eyes, mouth, nose and buttons for down the front. The Yule cake was sometimes as large as a dinner plate and three inches thick.

Some households baked a large apple pie on Christmas Eve which was served with a posset of ale and milk mixed together. A large spoon was placed in the posset pot which was then passed around the table for everyone to drink from the spoon. The apple pie was passed around in the same way. Ale posset was the last thing people drank on Christmas Eve and frumenty was the first thing eaten on Christmas Day (Household Tales, Sidney Oldall Addy 1895).

Mince pies were eaten in England long before they became associated with Christmas. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land brought with them many spices including cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg. These were mixed with minced meat, seasoned and covered with pastry. Before the Reformation the mince pie was oblong in shape to represent a manger and often had a little figure of Jesus on the top. When the Puritans abolished Christmas festivities, the mince pies were eaten in secret. By the end of the 1700’s  the meat part of the pie had disappeared and in its place was just a sweet filling and it was now circular in shape. Plum porridge was also popular at this time and it too morphed into something else and by 1670 became the Christmas pudding that we know of today. The custom of stirring the pudding and making a wish is a very old one and some people put a silver coin, a thimble and a ring into the mixture as well. Good fortune for the person who found the coin, a wedding for the ring finder and a happy, but unmarried life for the person who came across the thimble.

It was customary to give cattle, horses, sheep, pigs and birds extra feed on Christmas Eve because it was believed that the animals knew that it was a holy time. In Cornwall the last sheaf of corn that was cut at the harvest was taken down from the farm house kitchen ceiling and taken down to the cattle (The Dialect of Hartland, Richard Pearce Chope, 1891)

The old custom of wassailing apple trees and other trees with the view of insuring a good fruit harvest in the autumn was celebrated on different days between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night which is 5th January (Old Twelfth Night was 17th January). In Warleggan, Cornwall it was the custom to pour some cider into the fire and then take the rest with a gun out to the orchard. Putting a small branch in the cider they said, “Here’s to thee, old apple tree, hats full, sacks full, great bushel bags full. Hurrah!” And then the gun was fired. In Tavistock, Devonshire, farmers and their men would take a large bowl of cider out to the orchard and toast the trees; saluting them first before sprinkling the cider on the roots and the branches.  Forming a circle they would sing,” Health to thee, good apple tree, well to bear, pocket fulls, hat fulls, peek fulls, bushel bags full. ( Western Antiquity, vol. 3 Plymouth 1883) (Old Church Life 1900 William Andrews).

For almost one thousand years a regular fixture of Christmas was mumming. Young men and women would dress up, wear masks and dance and play hoping for money or food in return. However, these performances were meant for the common folk and not for the stage. The words for these plays were never written down, but were passed down from generation to generation, so in time there were many variations in dialogue and action. Despite these changes the central theme stayed the same; good defeats evil. St George kills the dragon or the Turkish knight. However, the play is so old, like many customs, that its roots cannot be traced, but we can be sure that the mummers’ play stems from pagan rites most certainly connected to the Winter Solstice as well as the arrival of summer.

The play usually began with a sword dance which showed a mock death and resurrection. The victim stood or knelt in the centre of a ring and the rest of the dancers locked their swords around his neck. The swords were drawn and the victim fell ‘dead’. So died the spirit of life or the old year. A dance of rejoicing followed when the victim came back to life and the year was renewed. During the 15th century the dance became an acted play with rhyming couplets and it has hardly changed since.

Only in Stourton in Wiltshire was there the Christmas Bull. A strange tradition where the head of a bull which was crafted with large bottle eyes, large horns and a lolling tongue was supported and manipulated by a man stooping over a broomstick and covered by a sack. The head of the bull was attached to one end of the broomstick and the other end had a tail made of a piece of rope. It was very much like riding a hobby horse. The bull’s head was used to knock on people’s doors and if entry was permitted the bull would chase any children around the house. Apparently this bull was kept by the same family for over 100 years and was last used around the 1890’s (The Antiquary, vol. 44, 1908).

In various newspapers and church records it was noted that mistletoe was blessed and put on the altar, after which it was handed out to those who needed its medicinal properties, especially in cases of fever (The Midland Weekly News, 30th December 1893).

In York, after the mistletoe had been placed on the altar of York Minster, amnesty was granted to all men with little worth, loitering about the gates of the city (Yorkshire in Olden Times, William Andrews 1890).

Christmas Eve was a popular time for divination especially for young women wishing to know when they would wed. In Devonshire, when an unmarried girl went to the door of the chicken coop and knocked loudly, if she heard a hen first it was not promising, but if she heard the rooster, then it was believed that she would marry within the year (Nummits and Crummits, Sarah Hewett 1900).

In Northamptonshire, if a young girl went out into the garden at midnight and picked twelve sage leaves it was believed that she would see the shadowy form of her future husband. She had to be careful though not to break or bruise the stems (Dialect and Folklore of Northamptonshire, Thomas Sternberg, 1851).

In Oxfordshire, if a young girl baked a dough cake in silence and pricked her initials on it, then her future husband would walk in through the open door at midnight, prick his own initials next to the girl’s and walk straight out again ( Folk-Lore, vol. 24, 1913).

If a girl walked backwards towards a pear tree on Christmas Eve and walked around it three times then it was believed that she would see an image of her future husband (Household Tales, Sidney Oldall Addy, 1895).

I will end this post about bygone times, with some popular Christmas Eve sayings and beliefs.

“It is very unlucky to give out fire or a light from the house on Christmas Eve”.

“It is unlucky to cut into the Christmas cheese before supper”.

“It is unlucky to have any soap suds or wet ashes in the house during the time between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night”.

“It is unlucky to cut the Yule cake before Christmas Eve”.

“It is unlucky to take down the mistletoe before the following Christmas Eve”.

“A piece of mistletoe tied in a small bag  and hung around the neck is a certain safeguard against witchcraft”.

“On Christmas Eve, when the clock strikes the midnight hour, open all the doors to let out all the bad spirits”.

“On Christmas Eve, the fairies meet at the bottom of the mine and perform a mass in celebration of the birth of Christ” (Cornwall).

It was believed in Bury St Edmunds that on Christmas Eve, at midnight, a spectral coach drawn by four headless horses and driven by a headless coachman used to appear.

Many of these customs, beliefs and superstitions must have been preserved for thousands of years by people who gradually through time sadly lost their true meanings and origins.

Considering how it was frowned upon to be superstitious if you were a Christian, I am surprised how many Christians actually were.

I hope you enjoyed reading these old English traditions as much as I enjoyed researching and writing about them. To think that the traditions we follow today go back much farther than we could ever imagine.

Sources:

British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright 1936

A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978

The Importance Of Tradition

The British Isles were once overflowing with customs and rites that could be found weaved into the landscape and the rhythm of life itself. Isolated tribes sprung forth from camp fires and eventually formed close knit communities that shared the same values, traditions and worldview. Their art, story telling, music and ancestry were things they held dear and protecting them was paramount to the tribe’s legacy. By doing this they created a never ending line of ancestors that rooted them to a place of origin. They all knew who they were and where they came from and they were extremely proud of that.

The quickening tempo of progress, however, brought with it industrialisation and little by little the roots of each community began to erode and all the folk memories of our heritage and traditions with it. It was the church as well, in an attempt to stamp out pagan customs, that was also responsible for the decline of ancestral traditions. Christian churches were built over pagan temples, altars replaced pagan idols and Christian feast days were celebrated at around the same time as earlier pagan festivals. Gradually, although never entirely, the old gods were overthrown and an underground resistance appeared. The old ways were practised behind closed doors and our pagan ancestors did the best they could to pass on their folkways to the next generation until they too faded away.

Today we live in a society that encourages individualism and rejects collectivism. Many people listlessly roam from one thing to another, searching for something meaningful and familiar to feed their souls. They don’t know exactly what this is so they buy themselves useless gadgets and fashions, they over indulge and spend hours on social media, regurgitating other people’s opinions so they feel like they fit in. But those feelings of emptiness and yearning never truly go away and they ignore the truth that they are in fact homesick. They are actually missing their ancestral home. By separating themselves from their past and their heritage they have now become uprooted.

Marcus Garvey once said,” A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

In this day and age it is more important than ever to look back and reconnect the broken thread between ourselves and our ancestors. Once we lose our rich cultural heritage we become lost. We lose sight of our north star and can no longer see the path that our ancestors were guiding us along. If we don’t know where we come from then how can we know where we are headed and if our customs and folklore all die out then we lose the colourful diversity that makes up our heritage.

Psychologists have proven that having an intimate knowledge of our family roots and the history of our people is extremely important if we are to be well adjusted and self confident individuals. Understanding our past and knowing that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves fills us with pride and purpose. Traditions and rituals are part of our human story and provide us with an identity and a sense of place in the world. By sharing and experiencing these with others who have the same values and goals, we create a collective identity which in turn shapes our work ethic, our sense of community, our personal responsibility, our morals, empathy and how we respect one another. They also create strong role models and instil in us a sense of belonging. Traditions therefore have an extremely powerful way of replacing unhealthy and unnatural habits and mindsets that many young people possess today.

Thankfully, there are still many of us who hold our heritage dear and have a desire to preserve the practices of our ancestors and in doing so we stop them from disappearing altogether. By coaxing these ancestral memories back to life we are giving them a new sense of purpose so we can safe guard them for future generations. It is such a beautiful thing to be able to live and breathe our traditions and not have them stuffed behind glass cabinets in museums or hidden among the pages of musty books.

Appreciate your ancestral traditions and embrace them, for they are the accumulation of all of your ancestors’ knowledge and understanding of the world. Our traditions rise up out of our culture and if we don’t practise them then we lose them which in turn has us losing an integral part of ourselves forever.

Seek out your own heritage and be curious because your ancestors have so much to show you.

The painting depicts a traditional Morris dance and is called ‘The Thames at Richmond with the old Royal Palace’. It was painted in the early 17th century by an unknown artist.

Autumnal Rites Of The Germanic Peoples

In some parts of northern Europe the month of September was once called ‘Halegmonath’ which means Holy Month in Anglo-Saxon and ‘Haustmandur’ which means autumn month in old Norse. Bede, a Christian scholar wrote in his manuscript entitled  ‘The Reckoning of Time’ that, “in the ninth month in the year there are thirty days. The month is called in Latin September and in our language Holy Month, because our ancestors, when they were heathen, sacrificed to their idols in the month”. Sadly, he doesn’t say why September was a holy month, nor what kind of ritual sacrifices took place. However, we can presume that these sacred rites were sacrifices to the gods and that they were a private affair taking place in the home, rather than part of a wider community.

The months of Halegmonath and Winterfylleth (October) were a time of winter preparation for our northern ancestors. The growing season was short and by the end of August, the crops would have been harvested and stored safely away; including winter feed for their livestock. Fruit was harvested and as well as berries which were preserved in skyr, a sour milk cheese that stopped people from succumbing to what they called ‘the winter sickness’.

Bede refered to the following month of November as Blodmonath (blood month) and explained that the Angles (from modern day Denmark and Germany) ritually sacrificed their cattle and made offerings to their gods. It is most probable that the slaughtered animals (rams, goats, horses and pigs were associated with this season) were those that were unlikely to survive the winter, allowing families to have enough fodder to feed their remaining livestock.

Our ancestors of northern Europe only recognised two seasons; winter and summer. They did not celebrate the Autumn Equinox nor Samhain, so it was their location and climate that dictated when they celebrated harvest festivals, which for them could take place at any time during September and October.

Today’s Heathens, however, who follow Asatru do celebrate an Autumn Equinox festival called ‘Winter Finding’ and in the Urglaawe tradition (Deitch Pennsylvania German Heathenry) their festival is called ‘Erntfescht’. There are other modern Heathens that celebrate’ Haustablot’, which means ‘Autumn Sacrifice’ or ‘Fallfest’. These festivals are all in sync with the Wiccan celebration of Mabon.

Winter Nights (Vetrnaetr), not to be confused with ‘Winter Finding’, was a three day festival that is mentioned in several of the Sagas (the Icelandic Sagas are a collection of Medieval stories about Iceland and the families that lived there). Vetrnaetr marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter in the old Norse calendar. Because this calendar was lunar it is believed that Winter Nights would have taken place around the middle of October. Yule is also mentioned as lasting three nights and Nils Lithberg from the Northern Museum of Stockholm believed that these transitional periods took place during the time when the moon was full and at its brightest. This is a very interesting theory, especially for those of us who work with lunar energy.

Winter Nights would have consisted of a ritual sacrifice (blot) of an animal along with other offerings such as mead, ale, food and personal belongings (only wealthy landowners would have been able to hold blot on this scale). These ritual gifts were offered up to the gods, ancestors and land spirits in gratitude for the harvest and for protection throughout the coming winter months. Snorrri Sturluson, the Icelandic poet, historian and politician, describes a blot in his ‘Saga of Hakon the Good’. In it he explains that livestock were killed in a ritual manner and their blood sprinkled over idols of the gods as well as the people who were present. The meat was first cooked over a fire that ran along the centre of the feasting hall before being blessed by the chieftain hosting the feast. The meat was then shared among the guests who toasted to the ancestors and to the Gods Odin, Njordur and Freyr with ale that was in a horn and had also been blessed. Blood was then sprinkled over the walls to infuse power into the building as well as avert bad luck. It is possible that the blood stains were used for divination and prophesy telling.

Farmers in the Trondheim district in Norway were known to hold great feasts at the beginning of winter. Toasts were made to both tribes of the Norse Gods; the Aesir for victory and the Vanir for fertility, prosperity and peace. Cattle and horses were slaughtered and their blood was used to redden idols of the gods. More horses were sacrificed than any other animal, as they were seen as representing great power and virility.

Recent archaeological evidence found in Iceland suggests that cattle were slaughtered by simultaneously striking the animal between the eyes while beheading it with a two handed axe (this would have created a fountain of blood). The animal heads were then displayed outside. It was believed that performing such sacrifices would appease the gods who would then look upon the people more favourably.

Like many old Norse festivals, there was not only one way to celebrate. Each household would have celebrated their own way, including what gods and beings were honoured. The Sagas do, however, mention that the Disir, the Elves, Odinn and Freyr were honoured during the autumn months; perhaps singularly or all together.

In ‘Egil’s Saga’, Egil and Ovir are refused ale when they visit a man named Bard because it was being saved for the Disablot. A Disablot was a ritual sacrifice and feast that was enjoyed at this time of year to honour and thank the female spirits of the Disir for the harvest. Some of the Disir were female ancestors that protected their family lines and others were guardian spirits of the land. The guardian spirits of the land (Landwights or Landvaettir) were believed to bring good fortune and protect children and animals. Snorri Sturlusson, interestingly enough, calls the Goddesses Freya ‘Vanadis’ (Dis of the Vanir) and Skadi as ‘Ondurdis’ (Snowshoe Dis). In old Norse literature ‘dis’ is the general term for ‘goddess’ or could even simply mean ‘woman’, especially in old Norse poetry. Disablot, which was held in a Disarsair (Hall of the Dis), is mentioned in several sagas. In ‘Flateyjarbok’, guests at a Disablot are told not to go outside, ‘because great harm will come about’. Here the disir are portrayed as being dangerous. Also included within the Disir are the Norns who were the goddesses of fate.

Offerings that were left on hills, at waterfalls, woods, groves and standing stones would have been made to the landvaettir for protection and fertility as well as good harvests. These spirits were peaceful and extremely offended by violence on their land. Confusingly, there isn’t a distinct difference between the Disir and other spirits such as the Fylgjur, the Hamingjur and the Landwights. Even the Valkyries are referred to as ‘Odin’s Disir’.

There are many stories within the Sagas that tell of Volvas communicating with spirits such as the Fylgur and the Disir. ‘Volr’ in old Norse means staff or wand, so a Volva was a staff or wand carrying woman. These seeresses would travel throughout the winter to different feasts foretelling people’s fates over the coming months. Nothing is known of the magic that was practiced by these women, but in the saga of ‘Erik the Red’, there is a very detailed description of the clothes worn by the volva in the story. It is also said that she sat on a raised seat; perhaps so she could see more clearly into the other realms while communicating with the spirits.

In the ‘Book of Settlements’, an Icelandic manuscript from the early Middle Ages, it is said, ‘that winter Ingolfr held a great sacrifice to discover what the future had in store for him.’ So it seems that it was a time not only for honouring and sacrificing, but for asking for spiritual guidance in return. A gift for a gift.

Before continuing, I just wanted to explain what Fylgyur are. A Fylgja is a spirit that accompanies a person from their birth to their death. The name can also mean afterbirth. Fylgjur normally appear as animals and reflect the personality of the person. For instance, a strong leader may have a boar as a Fylgjur and a cunning man a fox. These guardian spirits are mostly seen at the moment of a person’s death, by someone else who is there at the time. Sometimes they can appear as an omen of impending death. The Hamingjur were a similar type of guardian spirit.

In pre-Christian Sweden there was once a harvest rite called Alfablot; which was a sacrificial rite for the Elves. Elves were as having more power during the dark half of the year and offerings of ale and meat were made to them to keep the peace. Offerings were believed to make them even stronger and more able to help with  the fertility of the land and with healing. In ‘Kormaks Saga’, a Volva helps the loser of a dual to spill the blood of a bull on a hill where Elves lived, so that they could feast upon the meat and encourage the man’s healing. The ancestral fathers were thought to live among the Elves in mounds or within mountains and the Elves were possibly perceived as male ancestors. Pagans would sit on these burial mounds or on the sacred hills and mountains where the dead were thought to live, meditating until a message was received.

In 1018, Sigvatr Pordarson, a Christian poet of king Olaf of Norway was sent on a diplomatic mission to Sweden. Most of Sweden at this time was still pagan. It was autumn time and Sigvatr and his companions were searching for a place to rest, but at each farmstead they arrived at they were all sharply turned away. At one of the farms, they came across a woman who told them to go away and said to Sigvatr, “Don’t go further inside unlucky man! We are afraid of Odin´s wrath; we are pagans!” Then she chased them away. This refusal to be hospitable to travellers was unthinkable in Norse culture, so this behaviour underlines the great importance of Alfablot. This was a sacred time with only family members attending who were really only wanting to honour their dead in private. This holy rite took place between the end of October and the beginning of November.

The Elves connection to the harvest naturally links them to the god Freyr who is the ruler of Alfheim, the land of the elves. Snorri describes Freyr as the most glorious among the Aesir. ‘He rules rain and sunshine and by this he rules the harvests of the Earth’. He is good to invoke for the purpose of a good harvest and for peace. He also rules the welfare of people.

Freyr was the god most associated with fertility and sexuality and represents the essence of masculine power. Horse races and fighting took place during harvest celebrations and the horse was a sacred animal to him. In the ‘Volsa Pattr’ from the ‘Flateybok’, a medieval Icelandic manuscript consisting of mainly Sagas about the old Norse kings, an autumn ritual is described. At a Norwegian farm the phallus of a horse was preserved in onions and herbs and every evening the mother of the household would unwrap it from its cloth and prayed to it, before handing the phallus over to the other family members who did the same. This took place throughout the autumn. On hearing of this worship, King Olaf II of Norway, wanted to convert them to Christianity. The king went to the farm and sat with them watching  as the woman came out with the phallus and placed it on her husband’s lap saying, “May the giantess Mornir accept this holy object”. Everyone in the room repeated this apart from the king who began preaching about Christianity. After this they all became Christian.

This post has been the most difficult for me to research so far and has been a real labour of love. There was a mountain’s worth of information to go through, but I am ever so grateful to have spent all of this time on the subject because it has truly opened my eyes to how powerful a living spirituality really is. Pre-Christian spirituality was one with a people’s culture, language and landscape; ever evolving with the passing of time and tribal migrations. These oral traditions were passed down from generation to generation and while subtle changes were made, their core values of love, honour, strength and wisdom stayed the same as they continued to honour the gods and ancestors of their people.

The Origins Of Freyfaxi

Freyfaxi is the modern name given to a Heathen festival that took place during harvest time in northern Europe. The timing of this harvest varied greatly depending on where our ancestors lived, but it would have been sometime during the month of August.

Sadly, the old Norse name for this festival has long been lost, but we do understand enough to know that it was very much like Lughnasadh, Lammas and Hlaefmaesse. It was a time of gratitude, sacrifice and prayer, celebrating the successful harvest of the current year as well as making offerings for the following year’s crops.

During this period, the autumn winds brought the Vikings back to their homelands after their summer raids abroad. Swapping swords for scythes they helped their families harvest the crops and store them safely away for the cold months ahead.

The early autumn was a time of fairs and horse fighting. Some believe that horse fighting very likely stems from an ancient pagan ritual that was also seen as a sport. Horse fighting and what it entails can be found in several of the Sagas. Many carvings have been found in northern Europe depicting horse fighting scenes, with some of them showing sun like wheels as well. So quite possibly these fights symbolised the battle between life and death. A common theme that has Indo European roots.

The Icelandic Sagas as well as other sources depict horses as sacred creatures with a divine connection to the gods. Even as far back as the Bronze Age, a horse’s behaviour was observed in a divinatory manner.

The name Freyfaxi can be found in Hrafnkel’s Saga. In this saga, Freyfaxi (‘faxi’ means “eye catching mane”) is a beautiful horse owned by Hrafnkel who dedicates himself to the god Freyr. Hrafnkel offers up Freyfaxi to Frey and makes an oath to kill anyone who rides the horse.  It is a tragic tale of how oaths should never be taken lightly. There is also mention of another horse called Freyfaxi in Vatnsdaela’s Saga.

There is clear evidence of a horse cult that honoured Freyr having existed in Norway (Thrandheim) in the tenth century. Frey’s cult consisted of day to day folk such as farmers who would have offered up sacrifices to Freyr for prosperity and peace.

The Haggeby Stone discovered in Sweden is a rock carving that shows horses fighting and dates from 5th century C.E (image via odinsvolk.ca)

A goddess who is honoured by modern Heathens at harvest time is Sif. She is an earth goddess with long golden hair who has it cut off by the god Loki. This is a tale that symbolises the harvest. Her husband Thor is also honoured for he brings the rain and sun to the crops as well as protection from hail. And lastly Nerthus (Mother Earth) who is depicted in the Roman writer Tacitus’ ‘Germania’. Nerthus has a chariot that is drawn by cows and in a procession goes from village to village where everyone celebrates, weapons are locked away and peace comes over them all until she goes back to her sacred grove. In a lake, slaves cleanse her and the chariot before they themselves are drowned in the same waters. We don’t know if a young woman embodied the goddess or whether it was a statue that represented her.

The Landvaettir, who are the guardian spirits of the land are also honoured at harvest time. They are offered gifts of food and milk to thank them for their help in nurturing and protecting the land and all who live there.

I hope you enjoyed this and that your interest will take you on to do your own research especially by reading the Icelandic Sagas.

The Origins Of Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh is an Irish festival that celebrates the first harvest of the year and honours the Celtic sun god Lugh, as well as his foster mother Tailtiu, an earth goddess. The word ‘Lughnasadh’ is a combination of the name Lugh and the word ‘nasadh’ meaning ‘assembly’. Its older Gaelic name of ‘Bron Trogain’ means ‘sacrifice of the earth’. Today this festival is celebrated on 1st August and also goes by the name of Lammas which derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hlaef mass’, meaning ‘loaf mass’.

Very much like the Roman god Mercury, Lugh was known as a god of skill and craftsmanship. He was known as the many skilled god because he had countless abilities including healing, warfare, prophecy, music and poetry. One story tells of a time when Lugh realised that he was being refused entry to Tara and in response began citing a great list of things that he was capable of doing, but to no avail. The guard at the gates continued to refuse him entry after each skill was mentioned by saying, “We’ve got someone here who can already do that”. Finally, an unwavering Lugh asks,” But do you have someone here that can do all of these things?”

According to Irish myth, Lugh was the grandson of a Fomorian called Balor of the Evil Eye. The Fomorians were a terrible race of people; enemies of the Tuatha de Danann. One day, Balor learnt of a prophecy that foretold of his own death by the hands of his future grandson. On hearing this he imprisoned his daughter Eithne inside a cave on Tory Island so that she could never have children.

However, Cian, a young man from the Tuatha de Danann who wanted Balor dead, managed to track down Eithne and seduced her. When Cian was found out he was murdered and later when Eithne gave birth to three boys they were all thrown into the sea. Lugh was the only child to survive having been saved by a blacksmith who brought him up as his own son.

Many years later Lugh turned up at the court of Nuadhu, the king of the Tuatha de Danann. The king was so impressed with Lugh’s many skills that he abdicated, offering up his throne to Lugh, who then went into the battle of Moytura with his men and indeed killed Balor. This victory secured the country of Ireland ensuring its peace and prosperity.

The Book of Invasions, which chronicles the early history of Ireland, tells us that Lugh became associated with the harvest after he had held a funeral feast and athletic games in honour of his foster mother Tailtiu.

Tailtiu, whose name probably comes from Talantiu meaning “the great one of the earth”, once lived on the magical hill of Tara and was the daughter of a man called Firbolg, who was the king of the Great Plain. Tailtiu was said to have died of exhaustion after clearing the forest of Breg so that her people could grow food and avoid starvation. It took a whole month for her to create the plain of Oenach Taillten.

The funeral games in her honour were called the Oenach Tailten and took place at Tailtin in what is now County Meath, Ireland.  It is said that Tailtiu asked Lugh to hold these games every harvest so that each home would forever have corn and milk. These Olympic style games lasted several days and would have consisted of trading, marriage arrangements and contract signing. Trial marriages were also conducted here whereby young couples would join hands through a hole in a wooden door. These Teltown marriages that enacted the marriage of Lugh to the goddess Eire, after whom Ireland is named, would have lasted a year and a day. After this time they could go on to marry or else go their separate ways with no consequences. These customs stopped in the 12th century after the Norman conquest.

The Celts being more than just one people had many gods and goddesses and most of them were attached to local landmarks. However, Lugh is one of the exceptions as he was honoured over a much wider area of Europe. There have been innumerable inscriptions and statues dedicated to Lugh found even as far away as Spain and Julius Caesar remarked how important this god was to the Celts. There was also a Lugus god cult in Lyon France (Lugundum) and the Welsh god Llew Llaw Gyffes is thought to be connected to Lugh, as well as there being a link to the Arthurian knight Sir Lancelot. There are other towns linked to Lugh also; Carlisle (Lugabalium) on the Scottish border and Leiden in the Netherlands.

In British folklore there exists a man called John Barleycorn, a figure that symbolises the harvest of the barley as well as the whiskey and beer that is made from it. In Robert Burns traditional folk song, John Barleycorn is described as having to suffer many kinds of indignities which correspond with the agricultural cycle of planting, growing and harvesting.

There were many customs throughout Europe around the harvesting of crops. The first sheaf of wheat would be ceremoniously cut at dawn, winnowed, ground into flour and baked into the harvest bread which was then gratefully shared throughout the community. The last sheaf was also ceremoniously cut and often made into a corn dolly dressed in ribbons and cloth and was carried into the village as the focal point of the harvest supper. If the harvest had been a success then the corn dolly was made into the image of a maiden, but if the harvest had been bad then the corn dolly resembled a cailleach.

In some parts of Europe it was tradition to weave the last sheaf into a large corn mother with a corn baby inside her that represented the next harvest.

Sometimes the last sheaf would be placed above the hearth of the home, placed in a tree trunk or mixed with the grain for the following year’s planting. In some way it found itself returned to the earth so that the fertile spirit of the harvest god could live on.

Once the harvest had been stored away safely then the festivities could begin. A bull was sacrificed, circle dancing was performed and a feast was enjoyed. Much of this took place on top of hills. Tributes were also brought to the king such as venison, fish and fruit.

Lastly, a tradition of Lughnasadh that still survives today across Britain and Ireland is the wake fair, although it has sadly lost its original meaning of mourning the death of the sun. The most well known is the Puck Fair which is held every year in early august in Killorglin, County Kerry. The fair has been traced back to the 16th century, but it is believed to have origins that go further back still. At the beginning of this three day festival a goat is brought into the town and is crowned the “king”, while a local girl is crowned the “queen”. The festival includes traditional music and dancing, a parade, arts and crafts workshops, a horse and cattle fair and a market. Young men and women from Irish traveller families also get a chance to come together.