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Celebrating Yuletide

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

follow 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 children. I can just imagine the delicious aroma.

no prescription cytotec Many Scandinavians today still believe in the tomten or fjosnisse; gnome like creatures that look after the home and surrounding land. So 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 and in Norway, while making final Christmas preparations including the decorating of the tree, bowls of rice porridge called risgrot (risengrysgrot) with an almond hidden inside are served to members of the 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 at its thinnest, 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) of winter, hunting and mountains, Ullr the God of hunting, skiing and sledding (these two did not get married after Skadi’s failed marriage to Njord the God of the sea), Nott the Goddess of night, Freyr the God of fertility and agriculture and Odinn, the all father of many names including  God of death and the Wild Hunt. 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. I won’t add Hel (the goddess of Helheim, the world of the dead) to this list because just like Loki she was never honoured by our ancestors.

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 the god of thunder. 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 at this time as well. This period 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 lovely Christmas, God Jul and a wonderful New Year,

Brightest Blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

 

 

Ancient Winter Rites

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 nights, most likely during the three nights of the full moon, much like other ancient 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 and 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 fterra 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 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 that looked over the family). Mothers, who through both their suffering and joy enabled their children to grow and thrive; life giving like the sun. There is a lot of evidence of there once being a Germanic Mother cult, but we are not sure whether this cult had anything to do with Mothers’ Night. There is no evidence of Modranecht ever being observed in Scandinavia, but that doesn’t mean that it never was.

The word Jol in Swedish means wheel; the seasonal wheel that turns and represents the cycle of life. Goddess Frigg, the wife of Odin 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 ancient 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 extremely tolerant of his Pagan subjects and did not force his own faith upon them and they were very accepting of their Christian king too.

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. In the end, 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 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. However, he is saved when Thorfinnar brings malt with him to make 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 décor was seriously undertaken.

The swearing of oaths was seen as extremely grave and important during the Viking age. Oaths were ironclad and if broken could be punished by death if they were not fulfilled. Oaths made at Yule were even more seriously undertaken 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 used to be 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. It is traditional for some people to burn the straw Yulebukk as an offering to the Gods on their Yule fire. The Yulebukk has an ancient connection to the God Thor and his magical 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 best known one is the Gavle Goat which is erected at the beginning of Advent.

It was traditional to sacrifice a goat 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 themselves up in goat skins and wear 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.

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/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.

If you know of any European folklore or customs that are associated with Yule then I would love to hear about them.

Lastly, I have had to anglicise some of the Scandinavian names as I am typing on an English keyboard.

Wishing you a beautiful Yuletide,

Brightest Blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

 

 

Old English Christmas Part 3

The 26th of December commemorates the death by stoning of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen. On this day there used to be bird shooting, as well as wren and squirrel hunting (hunting for squirrels was a very ancient sport that was practised for many centuries in England especially in the New Forest). The 26th of December is 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 usually received a Christmas Box were servants and workers such as errand boys and postmen.

The Christmas box in question 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 smashed. As the years progressed, the Christmas box became books, gloves, chocolate or similar.

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 players orange with his own won that orange.

It used to be a common practice to bleed horses and cattle on St Stephen’s Day as it was believed that periodical bleeding was good for the health of hard working animal (Naturalists’ Field Club, 1877). ” 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 joyously has been achieved for hundreds of years by celebrating ancient customs passed down from generation to generation. Happy 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 about half an hour after midnight to listen to the ringing of the bells and to exchange new year’s wishes with their 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 Scotland the last day of the old year is and was 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 the bible by chance and to glean any message about the good and bad luck of the coming year from that page. The text on which the fore-finger of the right hand rested was suppose to foretell the future. A pin was sometimes used as well. This was something mainly practiced by older women.

Young women who wanted to know the first letter of their future husband’s name turned to the 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 fantastic 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 the means of the 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 my Old English Christmas Customs Series. I must say that I have learnt a lot from my research. Some of these traditions are fantastical, while others I can actually see myself using.

If you know of any European Traditions pertaining to this time of year, for example La Befana, the Christmas witch from Italy, then I would love to hear about them.

Brightest Blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

Old English Christmas Part 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 sacred places such as groves and holy wells and the early Christians later adopted this tradition for both their churches and their homes. The holly, one of the most common evergreens was used in the Roman festival of Saturnalia which took place about the third week in December and it seems that the Roman Catholics brought this custom with them to England. Rosemary, laurel, bay, holly and box were used frequently where as fir, yew and mistletoe, were not used that much in churches. Perhaps their connection to pagan spirituality 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 that touched the flowers turned them from white to blue. And that is where the herb’s name comes from; the Rose of Mary. Rosemary garlands used to be hung around church pillars and sprigs were placed on the floor and altar. Roman priests used it as an incense and it was also burned in homes where someone had died. It was thought to protect against witches too.

Like many of the evergreens, bay laurel was thought to protect against thunder and lightning. Sacred to the sun it was used to expel 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 church yard 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. (Folk-lore, vol. 2 ). In Staffordshire, people were known to keep some of their Christmas evergreens all year so as to prevent their house being struck by lightning (Folk-lore, vol. 7, 1896). 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 so as 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 too 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 these 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 then 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 man was 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 (British Calendar Customs vol. III)

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 again 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 my Old English Christmas Customs series. This was another fun blog post to research and I hope that you enjoy reading it. If you want to find out more about holly, ivy and mistletoe or about the origins of Yule you can find other posts about those on my blog. Part 3 of this series will be coming soon.

Brightest Blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old English Christmas Part 1

Christmas Eve, since the time of the conversion of Christianity, used to be and still is the last day of preparations for the most important Christian festival of the year besides Easter. The Yule log was brought 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 was 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 , where 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 (Devon) 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 were 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 that carefully squeezed the wick. Sometimes the Yule candle was coloured red, blue or green 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 of 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. Hopefully not all in the same pie! 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 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 an extra supply of food 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 to insure 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 on 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 Vernal Equinox.

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 in fact. The bull’s head was used to knock on people’s doors and if entry was allowed 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 merit, loitering about the gates of the city (Yorkshire in Olden Times, William Andrews 1890). It was also recorded that some churches actually decorated with holly and mistletoe (Bilston Church 1672).

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 walk around it three times then it was believed that she would see an image of her future husband (Household Tales, Sidney Oldall Addy, 1895).

To end my blog post about Christmas Eve in times gone by, here are some popular 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 this blog post as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. To think that the traditions that we follow today go much farther back than we could imagine.

Part 2 coming soon.

Brightest Blessings

Hazel

xxx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance Of Following Tradition

Our lands were once rich in customs and rites that were bound up with the changing seasons of the year and the rhythm of life itself. Isolated tribes sprung forth from the camp fires and eventually formed close knit communities that shared the same values, traditions and outlook on life. Their art, literature, music and heritage was something they held dear and protecting these was paramount to their 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 memories of our heritage and traditions with it. It was the church as well, in its attempt to stamp out pagan customs, that was also responsible for the decline in ancient 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 ancient knowledge to the next generation.

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 line between us and our ancestors. Once we lose our rich traditions and customs we become lost. We lose sight of our north star and can no longer see the path that our ancestors were walking. 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 are 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, to only have historians and other academics enjoy them.

There are many customs and traditions that we can effortlessly incorporate into our daily lives and we don’t even have to look too far into the past to find them. If you have young children, for example, you can sing them nursery rhymes or read them classic children’s literature such as Aesop’s Fables, Grimms Fairy Tales or Asbjornssen and Moe’s Norwegian Folktales. Your local library is the best place to find books on local myths, legends, customs and folklore. At the moment I am reading British Calendar Customs by A.R Wright from my library and I am saddened to see how many traditions have actually been lost to us.

You can research traditional recipes and crafts that you might want to try.  How many people do you know who knit or make their own clothes, who can work with wood or play an instrument? These are small yet significant things that can all become a part of your own traditions and by sharing them with family and friends you will bring generations closer together as well. The older members of our community have much to teach us too.

If you have trouble finding information about your ancestors’ traditions, then please don’t worry. You can actually start creating new ones that can become a part of your own family traditions. Think about what kinds of rights of passage, holidays and milestones you can celebrate together as well as perhaps smaller daily, weekly and monthly traditions and rituals as well. But the easiest way of all is to get yourself outside, in nature and in the fresh air, no matter what the weather. Just get away from electronics and go out and explore your local landscape and its history. This will then lead you to meeting other people in your community and in time perhaps revive local customs together.

The key to tradition is repetition; day in and day out; year in and year out. By practising traditions and customs you are doing something that is expected and familiar. If you keep doing something different then it won’t. Seek out your own heritage and be curious; your ancestors are waiting.

Now I have only just given a few suggestions on how you can breathe new life into our ancient traditions. If you have any ideas too then please share as I would love to hear them.

Brightest blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

Autumnal Rites

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.

Many blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

The Origins of Freyfaxi

Over the past twelve months I have vigorously researched and studied the eight celebrations that make up the pagan Wheel of the Year and now that I have come full circle, my path is taking me in a completely different direction. So to mark this new change I have decided to walk through the next twelve months looking at the changing seasons from a Heathen perspective, starting with Freyfaxi.

Frefaxi is the modern name given to the festival that falls at the beginning of the first harvest in northern Europe. The timing of this harvest varied for our ancestors depending on the different climates of each region, but it would have been sometime during the month of August.

Sadly, the ancient 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 and prayer for the harvest of the current year and the harvest of the year to follow.

At this time the Autumn winds brought the Vikings back to their homelands from their Summer raids abroad. Swapping their swords for scythes they would help their families harvest the crops and store them safely away for the colder months ahead.

Just like in Britain, the month of August was a time of fairs, however, the sport of horse fighting was not. It is believed by some that horse fighting was most likely some kind of ancient ritual that was seen as a sport as well. 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. The life giving harvest at its own expense.

The Icelandic Sagas as well as other old sources depict horses as extremely sacred creatures who were connected to the Norse gods. Even as far back as the Bronze Age, a prized horse’s behaviour was observed in a divinatory manner.

The origin of the name Freyfaxi comes from Hrafnkel’s Saga. In this saga Freyfaxi is a beautiful horse owned by a Freysgodi (a man dedicated to the fertility god Freyr). Freyfaxi can be broken down into two parts. Frey is the horse’s connection to the god Freyr and faxi means “eye catching mane”. The saga is a tragic story of oaths and how they 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 to Freyr having  existed in Norway (Thrandheim) in the tenth century and settlers in Iceland would have taken their faith with them too.

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)

Other gods and goddesses that are honoured at harvest time are Sif, an earth goddess with long golden hair who has it cut off by the god Loki; a tale symbolising the harvest of the crops. Thor who brings rain and sun to the crops as well as protecting them from hail and lastly Nerthus, another earth goddess.

The Landvaettir, who are the guardian spirits of the land are also honoured at this time of year.

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

Brightest blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh is the celebration of Summer’s End and the harvesting of our efforts both on a physical level as well as a mental and emotional one. As the sun’s brightness continues to fade,  we are invited to celebrate our accomplishments so far, before going within to reflect and assess what this means and to ask ourselves where we go from here. We all have an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and to grow from them, preparing ourselves for the darker half of the year. So like the god of the harvest, ask yourself what sacrifices can you make now that will benefit you later on? And in what ways can you celebrate this turning point in your life?

This is a time to remember all of those people who are less fortunate than ourselves and to share our time or money with them. Baking a cake and gifting it to an elderly neighbour or offering to do some shopping for them are just two easy things we can do. Donating food to a food bank is also a great way to encourage the flow of abundance which is one of the core messages of Lughnasadh.

Gratitude is the other key message of Lughnasadh. We can show our gratitude by honouring our ancestors with offerings and remembrance. It is important to reflect on their hardships and sacrifices, especially at this time of year, which for their community was a matter of life or death; a concept that is impossible for us to grasp in this day and age of convenience.

Being mindful of where our food comes from and how it is grown and harvested helps us to seek out more ethical and natural choices when it comes to our grocery shopping and to appreciate the earth’s cycles that produce it for us.

To show our appreciation for our living kin, a family gathering could be organised or if this isn’t possible then a simple phone call to let someone you love know that you are thinking of them.

Baking your own bread, cakes or biscuits is wonderful to do no matter what time of year it is, but especially at Lughnasadh when you can offer up your hard work to deity, the land and to the creatures who live there. To make your baked goods even more special decorate them with sigils and herbs.

Go outside and enjoy the shift in the seasons. The mornings and evenings are cooler now, but there are still plenty more days of sunshine and listening to crickets.

Now is the time to gather seeds for next year’s planting. You could even make your own rattle with the larger seeds that you can then use for cleansing your home, your aura or use in ritual.

Start harvesting and drying herbs as well so that you will have what you need to make your own smudge sticks, skincare treatments, spells and remedies.

Crafting corn dollies is an ancient tradition that our ancestors did to honour the harvest. These are straightforward to make even without corn husks. You can use stalks of grass, twine, ribbon and flowers instead. There are many tutorials online that will inspire you.

And lastly how about finding a recipe for making your own cordial or lemonade? Perfect for that weekend family gathering.

Please share any ideas that you have for celebrating Lughnasadh. Do you have any plans yet? For me, gratitude will definitely be the centre point of my ritual this year. Even when things are tough, just remembering the smallest of blessings and being grateful for them can only allow us to receive the abundance that we deserve.

Brightest blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Origins of Lughnasadh

Lughnasadh is the Irish festival that celebrates the beginning of the first harvest and honours the Celtic sun god Lugh, as well as his foster mother Tailtiu, who is an earth goddess. The word Lughnasadh is a combination of the name Lugh and the word nasadh meaning assembly. Its older Gaelic name is Bron Trogain which means sacrifice of the earth.  In Wales the day is known as Calan  Awst which originally was a Latin name. This festival is usually celebrated on 1st August and also goes by the name of Lammas which derives from the Anglo-Saxon hlaef mass, meaning loaf mass.

Some Pagans believe that the goddess is heavily pregnant at this time and that the bountiful mother mourns the death of the god as he sacrifices himself to the earth, with the cutting of the corn and in its place poppies grow symbolising his blood. The goddess knows that she will not be mourning him for long, for at Yule he will be reborn from her womb and the cycle will begin again.

Very similar to 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 that when Lugh realises that he is being refused entry to Tara he begins reeling off all of the great things that he can do, but to no avail.  The guard at the gates continues refusing him entry 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 that were enemies of the Tuatha de Danann. Balor was told a prophecy that he would one day be killed by his 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 he 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, who’s 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 the king of the Great Plain. She was said to have died of exhaustion after having cleared the forest of Breg so that her people could grow food and avoid starvation. It took her a whole month to create the plain of Oenach Taillten. It is believed that Tailltiu may have been an earth goddess who represented the harvest and the earth’s bounties.

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 last a year and a day. After this time they could go on to marry or else go their separate ways with no further consequences. These customs stopped in the 12th century at the time of 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 because 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 the 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 within 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 people feasted. Much of this took place on top of hills. Tributes were also brought to the king such as venison, fish and fruit.

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 “king”, while a local girl is crowned “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.

I cannot believe that I have now come full circle with the origins of the wheel of the year, having begun writing these posts last September. I will continue writing these types of posts, but for the foreseeable future I will be specifically concentrating on Norse traditions.

If you know of any traditions or folklore surrounding Lughnasadh then I would love to hear about them,

Brightest Blessings,

Hazel

xxx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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