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 who was 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 animals. Apples were harvested as well as other fruit and berries were preserved in skyr so that people did not succumb 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 animals that were slaughtered were those that were unlikely to survive the Winter, allowing families to have enough fodder to feed their remaining animals.
The ancient Heathens 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 mainstream pagan celebrations 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 the Summer and the beginning of the Winter in the old Norse calendar. Because this calendar was a lunar one it has been calculated 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. These ritual gifts were offered up to the gods, ancestors and 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 in the Autumn; 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 (land wights 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 land wights. 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 seen as more powerful 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 stronger and more able to help with life the fertility of the earth as well as 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 peace. He also rules the welfare among 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 Freyr. 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 such a real labour of love. There was a mountain worth of information to go through, but I am ever so grateful to have spent all this time on the subject, because it has really opened my eyes to what it means to call oneself a Heathen.
I would like to apologise for the Anglicisation of some of the old Norse names; I unfortunately type with a British keyboard. I will follow this extremely educational article with one of my more personal ones, inspired by my research on Autumnal rites. I have already began writing so it shouldn’t be too long before it is up on the blog.
If you know of any folklore or traditions linked to Autumn from Denmark, Germany, Sweden or Norway then please let me know on the Wytch Hazel Cottage Facebook or Instagram page.