Recently I came across a great new way of looking at prayer and ritual. The purpose of ritual and prayer should not be to grovel before the spirits for what we want but should aim to enchant the gods and spirits, that is – to attract them to our hearth fire and to become interested in us, and therefore to come and listen to us and grant our requests. How? We make our prayers and rituals as beautiful and inspiring as possible, that the gods and spirits might be enchanted by and attracted to it. We can do this by decorating our altars nicely, using nice smelling incense, drumming or making sweet music and writing our prayers in beautiful formats such as poetry or song. What a great way to look at things!
Happy Yule everyone. Also known as Midwinter or the Winter Solstice, Yule has its roots in many cultures, including Roman Saturnalia, Christian Christmas and most importantly Scandinavian and Anglo Saxon Yule. It is the longest night and the day when the Sun is “reborn.” Since the summer, the days have been getting shorter and colder, but after Yule they begin to lengthen again as we approach spring. It is a time of light and hope in the depths of cold winter.
The first mention of a midwinter celebration is in the writings of a 4th century Christian who said that at this time pagans celebrated the birthday of the sun by kindling lights, giving presents, feasting and the closure of schools and shops. However this festival of Saturnalia only began in 274ad. By the 8th century there were 12 days of celebration at Christmas. There is little evidence of celebration in Ireland before the 12th century. However, Bede, writing in 730ad said that most important festival of the Anglo Saxons in England had been “Modranicht” or “Mothers Night” on 24th December. This was the night which opened the new year and “they kept watch during it with religious rites.” The word Yule came through Danish rule over England, however there is no mention of it in early Scandinavian literature. Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson says that there was a three day celebration at this time, including a sacrifice for a good crop. Historian Ronald Hutton says “the consensus between Bede and Snorri, that the winter solstice was a major feast of the ancient Scandinavian and Norse people’s, and opened their year, is still an impressive one.” There are many records from the 4th to 11th centuries of church leaders denouncing revelries, sorcery, divination, dressing in animal skins and feasting to excess at this time of the year. Across European society, it seems to have been a time for role reversal and the relaxation of norms. Hutton says that Welsh literature also shows good evidence for a midwinter “new year’s feast.” He further states that “it was the general custom in pagan Europe to decorate spaces with greenery and flowers at festivals, attested wherever records have survived.” These were often evergreens such as holly and ivy. Despite this, many of the traditional festivities we associate with Christmas now e.g. stockings, Christmas cards, paper decorations and crackers either were invented in the 19th century or came over from Germany at that time. Other traditional Christmas festivities such as the Christmas Tree (in the Rhineland), Yule Log and Wassailing the orchards can be traced back to Tudor times but no further (first mention of Christmas tree is in Strasbourg in 1605).
While the Celtic people’s didn’t celebrate at midwinter as far as we know, the pre-celtic people’s who built monuments such as stonehenge and newgrange to align with the Winter Solstice, probably did have some kind of festival at this time. Celtic Pagans do sometimes get involved with Wren Day on Dec 26th, guising, lighting candles for this the longest night, honouring the winter hag Cailleach, and the usual Christmas festivities. They also make Yule bannocks.
Norse and Anglo Saxon heathens celebrate Mothers Night (Modrinacht) as a time to honour the “Mothers”. In modern reconstructions, these “Mothers” are interpreted as goddesses and one’s female ancestors, however I think it is more likely the “Modra/ Matres” were the triple goddesses depicted on altars and votive offerings across northern and central Europe. They were linked with fate, prosperity, fertility and therefore probably similar to the Norse concept of the Norns.” Many modern heathens celebrate twelve days of Yule, a time of feasting with the burning of a yule log, meditating on the nine noble virtues, lighting candles, doing divinations and making oaths on New Years Eve.
If we look at the historical records in the Saga of Hakon the Good in Heimskringla, section 15 talks of a new Christian king who changed the date of Yule to be the same as the Christian festival of Christmas. It then says “Before him, the beginning of Yule, or the blot night, was the night of Midwinter, and Yule was kept for three nights after.” In section 16, it talks about the fact that they held a Blot (sacrifice) and a Sumble (ritual toasting) on the night. In the Hervarar Saga, it says that on Yule eve, a boar is brought in and oaths were sworn on it. The boar was sacrificed to Freyr/ Ing. In chapter 4 of the Lay of Helgi the son of Hjorvarth in the Poetic Edda, it talks of vows being taken on a boar on yule eve, and a “Kings toast” and a stay of “three nights.” When we then look at Bede, we see that the Anglo Saxons also celebrated an extra night – the 24th November, called Mother’s night, when they stayed up all night and did rituals. Their new year would therefore fall at this time. (They “… began the year on the 8th calends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, “mother’s night”, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night”.) The evidence from these texts suggest Yule should begin on the evening of 21st December with a ritual of sacrifice and toasting to the gods, as well as oaths (new years resolutions) being sworn. Then there are three days of festivities, followed by another ritual to the “Mothers” or fates (and probably Frige) to pray for a good fate and prosperity in the coming year, as well as staying up on the night of the 24th December. The saga’s also suggest that there was a minimum amount of alcohol that should be drunk, and that horse meat was eaten (horse sacrifice was important to many Indo-European cultures). Interestingly, this is also the time of the Celtic horse festival of Eponalia, and perhaps is a good time to honour the Anglo-Saxon horse deities/ heroes Hengist and Horsa.
Yule signifies the height of the Wild Hunt, when a ghostly procession led by the god Woden/ Odin, and sometimes Frau Holla, marches across the night sky. It may have been a time when the dead were permitted to leave their mounds and return to the land of the living. The host may have been thought to bring blessing, luck and good harvest in return for offering of food and drink. In southwest England where I am from, this myth has evolved into a belief that it is hell hounds (known as Yeth or Wisht hounds) chasing sinners or the unbaptised. Similarly, myths surrounding Woden/ Odin and Thunor/ Thor may have contributed to our modern Santa Claus. In Grimm’s mythology he talks of several goddesses – Herke, Berhta/ Peratha (or Perchte/ Berchte), and Holda, known to lead the Wild Hunt at this time, and specifically mentions their command that no spinning be done during the Yule period. Yule can be a time for honouring many of the gods – Woden who leads the wild hunt, Frige as the goddess of the home and hearth, Thunor for stopping the ice giants, Frey/ Ing for prosperity, Sunne and Baldur for the Suns rebirth and the winter deities Ullr and Skadhi.
Modern Neopagans like Wiccans celebrate this day with the myth of the mother goddess who gives birth to the sun god, while Druids tell of a battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, in which the Oak King overcomes the Holly King on this day and rules until Midsummer.
An interesting point made by Philip Shallcrass of the British Druid Order, is that the Sun’s “rebirth” is not actually 21st December/ the Solstice, rather, at the Solstice the Sun appears to stop in the sky for three days before actually being “reborn” or appearing to begin moving again on morning of the 25th December. Perhaps our Pagan celebrations of the rebirth of the Sun need to move to back to the 25th?
In the deepest depths of winter, it is traditional to celebrate Yule with gift giving, spending time with loved ones, decorating with evergreens and lights, having a yule tree and yule log, drinking and feasting. Wassailing is another tradition and in medieval times, villagers in southwest England would go to orchards and wassail the apple trees to scare away evil spirits and ensure a good harvest in the Autumn. To celebrate the cycles of nature and connect with the world around us, we can go out and watch the Solstice sunrise, ringing it in with the sound of bells. We can also go for a walk in nature, toasting the trees, and putting out food for the birds and animals struggling to find something to eat in the cold winter. Boxing day (26th December) was traditionally a time when the rich would give their servants the day off and provide food/ drink for them. I think dedicating this day to helping others would also be a great practice for Pagans. In Scandinavian countries they sometimes decorate with a Yule Goat, thought to be associated with the goats of Thunor, and so I sometimes put a goat ornament on the tree. Being the Anglo-Saxon new year, its also a great time for divination. The house spirit is also often honoured with porridge.
My Yule feast usually includes a nut roast, sage & onion stuffing, mapled brussel sprouts with apple and walnuts, sweet & sour red cabbage, spiced swede mash, cranberry or redcurrant sauce and garlic & herb roast potatoes. I often make a yule log using holly, decorate a Yule tree with sacred animals and fruits, spend time with family and give presents. This year I will do my main ritual on Modraniht (24th December) to honour Frige and the Mothers, and a second ritual to Sunne on the morning of 25th December. I will eat a Yule breakfast of Gingerbread pancakes. On the actual solstice I will go for a walk in nature to leave an offering for the nature spirits and I will also wassail the apple tree on my allotment. If there is any snow, I may honour the Cailleach. I’m also considering doing an all-night vigil.
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.
Winter begins. The veil between worlds thins. We remember the dead. And switch our focus to the inward. Tonight is the full moon of Winterfylleth, the time when the Norse and Anglo Saxons celebrated the end of the harvest and the start of winter. Similarly, next week is Samhain celebrated by the ancient Celts, and Halloween or All Hallows Eve in the Christian traditions.
At this time the earth appears to die, laying dormant through the dark cold times ahead. The leaves are changing colour and falling from the trees. The harvest has been collected from the fields and they lie empty. The livestock have been brought down from the pastures, the weakest animals are being culled for food and people return to their homes for feasting. Summer is over and winter is here. The days are getting much shorter and colder, the frosts have begun and animals are busy making their final preparations for winter. Traditionally it was believed to be bad luck to harvest anything after this date and therefore any remaining harvest is left as an offering to deities or nature spirits. It was a time to give offerings to the gods in thanksgiving for the good harvest the people had.
Historian Ronald Hutton says “A feast with ritual practices…was…well known in both ancient Ireland and ancient Scandinavia, and represented by folk practices in the uplands of Wales and Scotland. There was, however, no common rite as there had been at Beltane.” He further states that “there seems to be no doubt that the opening of November was the time a major pagan festival was celebrated” but that there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead or that it was the new year. Rather, the association with the dead came through Christianity and the development of All Souls Day. However, it was a time to guard against and propitiate supernatural forces.
Samhain is the most widely mentioned festival in Irish mythology and the Gaulish Colignay calendar also mentions it as the end of the pastoral year. It is mentioned as the first festival in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire as “Samhain, when summer goes to rest.” It is the time when the Morrighan and An Dagda mate in a river for victory at the second battle of Magh Tuiredh, and it is a time to honour Donn, the father of the Irish race and chief of the sons of Mil. He is the Celtic lord of the dead, the dark one who was drowned in the battle to invade Ireland. He now dwells on a small island named Tech Duinn, the waiting place of the dead before they journey to the Otherworld. In contrast, Historian Peter Berresford-Ellis says that the god Bile is also a god of the dead who transports souls to the Otherworld. Another story related to this time of harvest is the story of why offerings are given to the Tuathe De Danaan. After the Milesians (ancient Irish) conquered Ireland from the Tuatha De Danaan, the land was divided up with the Milesians on the land and the Tuathe De Danaan under the ground. But the Tuathe continued to destroy the crops and stop cows producing milk so an agreement was reached with An Dagda so that the Irish offered a portion of their harvest to the Tuathe De Danaan in exchange for their friendship and blessing on the land. The Cailleach Bheur, the old hag of winter can also be honoured at this time.
For the ancient Celts who split the year into two halves, Samhain marks the transition from the summer half of the year to the winter half, from life to death. They believed that any time or place of transition was sacred. Just like Beltane, at this time the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and therefore the spirit world and human world could interact. As a night of liminality, transition, uncertainty, chaos and danger, it was believed that many otherworldly beings would be roaming on this night.
Bede said October was named “Vuinter-fylleth” as it signified the beginning of winter, while November was named “blod-monath” because “in that month they consecrated to their gods the animals that they were about to kill.” This was when the annual slaughter of livestock occurred to reduce the number of animals kept through the lean months. Hutton says that pagan Scandinavia held its own major festival at the opening of winter, called Winter Nights, on the Saturday between 11th and 17th of October, but that there is no evidence this ever came to Britain.
From the Norse sources (Olafs Saga Helga), it states “that fall, the tidings were told to King Olaf at Thrandheim that the freeholders had held a feast attended by many at WinterNights. There was much drink there. The king was told that there was minni-ale blessed to the Aesir according to old custom. The story continued that cattle and horses were killed and the altars reddened with blood and blot made, and the prayer performed that should be made for good seasons.” And in Gisla Saga, it mentions that Thorgrimr held his Haustblot (harvest blot) at Winternights, to greet winter and “make a blessing to Freyr.” This was because the Scandinavian seasons are slightly different to the British seasons. This was also the time when some areas held Disablot to honour the Disir and there are references to Starkhadr’s grandmother Alfhildr making blessing to the idises and farm woman telling Sigvatr to go away because her household were making a blessing to the Alfar. So we can see that this was a very important time (one of the three important festivals of the year according to Olaf’s Saga). It was the time to celebrate the end of the harvest and the coming of winter with a feast and a sacrifice, particularly to the Alfar or Disir and Freyr. It is possible that the Alfar and Disir are related to the Ancestors in some way, particularly because of the association of the Alfar with the barrow mounds, and this is a belief shared by many modern Heathens. It seems this was a very family orientated and solemn feast at which uninvited guests were not allowed to attend.
Alaric Albertsson writes that this time was considered to be “Winterfinding” by the Saxons and coincided roughly with Halloween. At the beginning of Blotmonath there was much feasting as the weaker animals were culled from the herd and sacrificed to the gods. It was the beginning of the Wild Hunt when Woden road through the countryside gathering dead souls. There is no evidence that the Anglo-Saxons honoured their ancestors at this time, but it seems to fit well with the seasons and the practices of other Pagan people’s in Britain such as the Celts so it is a good time to remember them, perhaps with a Dumb Supper.
While there were fires lit in some areas on Samhain eve e.g. Scotland and Wales, this was not the case in Ireland, where Parshell Crosses were placed in the entrance to the house instead. Other practices at this time have included communal meals, candles being lit and prayers said for the dead, drinking and games, putting pieces of bread on windowsills for one’s ancestors, taking precautions against witches, divination by casting nuts into the bonfire to learn about death and marriage, carrying lights around in turnips and dressing up as monsters while causing mischief. It is also a time to sain and ward one’s property by walking the boundaries with fire and making rowan charms.
Gaelic reconstructionists avoid going out on this evening as the spirits as most active, or if they do, its in disguise. They light bonfires and carry flames around their property to protect and sain it. They carve turnip lanterns, hold big feasts, do divinations, give offerings to the gods and ancestors, leave food out for the dead and light candles for them. Its also a time to play games, sing songs and make a parshell cross.
Neo-pagans often celebrate this time with a dumb supper to honour the dead. Martinmas (11th November) was the traditional time to end the slaughter of animals and to taste the first new wine of the season.
For Anglo Saxons and Norse heathens, its a good time to honour Woden as psychopomp and the leader of the wild hunt across the winter skies, or to honour Hel as the goddess of death as well as the ancestors and elves. Frey/ Lord Ing can be honoured at this time as god of the harvest and of the alfar (elves) associated with the barrow mounds. In ancient times there is evidence of the practice of burning grains on the graves of ancestors as offerings, and it may also be a good time to do “sitting out” – sleeping on old burial mounds or graves in the hope of receiving a message from our ancestors. Anglo Saxon pagans may hold a Sumbel at this time, with toasts to the ancestors.
With the revival of Paganism, the practice of ancestor veneration, a practice of the ancient pagans once dead in the western world, has begun to grow in popularity again. This practice should also be a part of our lives. Winter Nights is a time of remembrance. It is a time to honour those who have died, whether friends, family or ancestors. It is a time to remember them and to be thankful for the role they have played in influencing our lives. They are not gone, they live on within us through our memories and genes, and within the earth as their atoms are reincarnated into a thousand different creations. Winter Nights reminds us that one day, we too must die. It is a time take stock of our lives and to meditate on the cycle of life and death, confronting a topic we too often do our best to avoid.
It is traditional to celebrate this festival by eating a large feast of late harvest foods e.g. pumpkins, apples, nuts, root vegetables and barmbrack bread. It’s also the traditional time for remembering our ancestors and those we have loved and lost e.g. by visiting their graves and putting fresh flowers there. Personally, I build an altar and put photos and mementos of those I have lost recently on it. I also put up my family tree. On Winter Nights I perform a ritual of remembrance, lighting a candle for each person I am remembering and holding a minutes silence in respect. I often have a party with friends, decorate the house and eat traditional foods like Pumpkin soup, Colcannon (mashed potato with kale or cabbage), baked apples and gingerbread. I also carve a pumpkin, make sloe gin, have a bonfire, leave out a meal for the ancestors and drink lots of mulled cider. Apples are a particularly good offering for ancestors to leave at grave sites or on your altar as they are seasonal and represent immortality in folklore. In Cornwall this time is celebrated there as Allantide, where it is customary to give an Allan apple to each family member as a symbol of good luck and children would often put it under their pillows.
The next stage in the Heathenry50 series is to write about the Gods. I have decided that this will be a series of posts. I’m going to explain my way of viewing the gods. This means it will mostly focus on an Anglo Saxon heathenry rather than Norse heathenry viewpoint. I will try to cite my sources where I can, but I may not be able to always remember where I found the information.
So to kick off this series, let’s begin with the chief of the gods himself – Woden. Woden is a very interesting character with many facets. His name comes from “wod” which means something along the lines of “intoxication, inspiration, madness or frenzy.” He is definitely not a safe, loving god. The third day of the week, Wednesday is named after him, as are quite a few sites throughout Britain. He can also be found in German and Scandinavian areas.
His wife is Frige and his son is Thunor, and possibly Bealdor too. He is called the Allfather as he is the chief of the gods and ruler of Osgeard since the probable abdication of Tiw. In the prose Edda, he is said to have created the world and humanity along with his two brothers (or parts of himself) out of the slain giant Ymir. Many royal kings traced their lineages back to him so he is the Royal Ancestor.
His attributes are often seen in the myths. First is the Havamal, or sayings of the High One (Woden), which includes the story of how he hung himself on the world tree, Eormensyl, undergoing shamanic like sensory deprivation, sacrificing himself to himself, in order to win the knowledge of the runes. Another story tells of how he managed to steal the Mead of Inspiration and some drops fell to earth. Taken together these stories show how we the elements we need to understand Woden. First he is the god of communication, eloquence, writing and poetry – he inspires us, especially with poetic utterances and he teaches us to read the mystical language of the runes. And he seems to be the god most concerned with all kinds of communication, especially the kind that comes during a fit of intoxicated madness.
He is the god of knowledge and wisdom, always willing to sacrifice whatever it takes in order to gain that wisdom – he sacrificed an eye to the Well of Mimir for wisdom and he sacrificed himself to gain the wisdom of the runes. In a desperate attempt to stave off Ragnarok, he is the traveler who wanders the worlds learning all he can.
He is a shaman and a god of magic. The myth of his sacrifice on the world tree in a mode of sensory deprivation reflects shamanic practices. The runes he discovers and teaches to humanity are not just a writing system but are mysteries useful for magic. In the Havamal he talks of many charms and spells he knows for performing magic. In the Norse world, he was interested in Seidhr, a shamanic visionary practice, and he is mentioned in the Saga’s laying down in a trance so that his soul could travel to far off places.
Healer and Psychopomp
He is most definitely a god of healing as can be seen in the Second Merseburg Charm and the Nine Herbs Charm, both of which emphasise his healing abilities. In contrast, he is also heavily associated with death, he is considered the leader of the Wild Hunt, a psychopomp figure who leads a procession of dead souls who march across the sky in winter on their way to the afterlife. In ancient Germany it was said that human sacrifices were made to him by hanging them on a tree, while in Norse sources he is considered someone who chooses half the battle dead to join him in Valhalla. I do not however think that there is much evidence of him being seen as a god of war, especially in Germanic or Anglo Saxon versions of heathenry.
There are other sides of his character to consider too – he is the god of mead and brewing. In the Exeter book it is said that “Woden made idols.” In the Norse viewpoint, he is the one who invented cremation to sever soul from body at death. He is often accompanied by ravens or wolves. There is evidence from Germany that he is associated with the last sheaf of the harvest in September (see my previous post). The big dipper has been called “Woden’s Wain” – the wagon of Woden.
In conclusion, Woden is the god I feel closest too. I see Woden as the All-father, chief of the gods, a god of wisdom and knowledge, inspiration and communication. I see him as a magical shamanic figure who, while cunning and deceitful at times, is doing what it takes to fulfill his ultimate aim of staving off Ragnarok. He is a god of healing and of brewing. He is also the liminal, traveling, psychopomp god who walks between worlds and leads the dead to their place of rest.
The Elder Gods – Stephen Pollington
Rites and Religions of the Anglo Saxons – Gale Owen
The Poetic Edda – Snorri Sturluson
The Autumnal Equinox, also called Harvest Home, Mabon or Alban Elfed is a time of transition and change, a time of honouring the changing seasons and a time of reflection and thanksgiving (in fact it is often called “The Pagan Thanksgiving”). It is also a time of balance. The Autumn Equinox is the midpoint between the summer and winter solstices, when the day and night is of equal length and light and dark are balanced. It marks the beginning of the dark half of the year for the northern hemisphere, when nights are longer than days.
By the time of the Autumnal Equinox, the earth around us is showing the signs of the journey into winter – with later dawns and earlier sunsets, the weather is cooler and the leaves on the trees are just beginning to turn wonderful colours. The animals are busy preparing for winter – squirrels collecting nuts and acorns while birds prepare to migrate to warmer climates. Most of the grain and fruit harvests have been gathered in and its now time to harvest the apples, grapes, squashes and nuts, to preserve them for winter.
Historian Ronald Hutton writes that the end of the harvest was often celebrated in the medieval times with a harvest feast or supper to reward those who helped gather in the harvest, and ceremonies involving the last sheaf of corn. It often involved a lot of drinking. In the book “Our Troth”, they mention a lot of examples of the last sheaf of corn being associated with Woden in Germany. These include a charm to Wodan from 1593 that talks of it as fodder for his horse, the last sheaf being given to a demon called “Wode,”, the mention in the Southern German Statsregister (1350) of leaving the “Wutfuter” (Wod’s fodder), the last sheaf being left ” for the wolf, as fodder for his horse”, the last sheaf being made into a corn dolly in Niederporing and given the name “Aswald – Ase Ruler”, the last sheaf being a “Waul-Staff” decorated with ribbons and flowers, being called “Wode,” and a few apples being left hanging from the fruit harvest for “der Wod.” All these examples point to the importance of Woden in the celebrations of the end of the harvest. In Scandinavia, the last sheaf was supposed to be left for Woden’s horse. Interestingly in England, the last sheaf is often called the “Harvest Queen” and in Denmark, it is the “Old Woman.” Perhaps it therefore represents the goddess Earth, a bride of Odin in the Norse mythology. The Harvest Supper, called the “Mell Supper” in Northern England was a communal supper in which the landowner thanked the workers who helped him gather in the harvest. There was often lots of dancing, singing, entertainment, drinking and food.
According to Bede, September was called haleg-monath (holy month) for the ancient Anglo Saxons and Hutton says “it can be surmised that this was derived from religious ceremonies following the harvest.” Bede further says that this was the month when the heathens “paid their devil tribute in that month.” Interestingly Jason Mankey has suggested the Autumn Equinox could be renamed “Halig” after Bede’s original name for September – I really like that idea.
I am not aware of any evidence or mythology to suggest that this day was celebrated by the Druids in ancient Gaelic cultures. However, there are a few ancient Irish temples which line up with the sun at the spring and autumn equinox which suggests that pre-Celtic people’s might have considered the day sacred. It is also very close to the time of Michaelmas which may have absorbed previous festivities in ancient Irish culture at this time, for example – picking carrots on the eve before, an emphasis on giving to charity and the beginning of the apple harvest and hunting season.
In modern times, Druids honour the Green Man of the forest by offering cider libations to trees. It is also good to celebrate this time by visiting an orchard to pick apples, making jams and cider or eating a meal of autumnal fruits and vegetables, especially carrots, apples, nuts, grapes and squashes. It is a time to make gratefulness lists and also to remember those who have a lot less than us and to perhaps volunteer or give some food away to others. In Gaelic cultures the Last Sheaf was often identified as “Cailleach”, the old woman of Winter, so she is a suitable deity for Druids and Celtic Reconstructionists to honour at this time. Additionally is the Mabon or Maponus, mentioned in the Welsh Mabinogi. It’s also potentially possible that 29th September was a day focused on Gwyn ap Nudd, the Welsh lord of Annwn (the Otherworld) as September was referred to as Gwynngala in Cornwall.
For Heathens, this can be a time to honour a variety of gods. First there is Ing/ Freyr (though he might be more traditionally honoured at Winternights), a lord of fertility, king of the Aelfe and has the title “Harvest God.” The Vanir as a whole may be honoured at this time, as may the Earth Mother. Idunna may be honoured as goddess of the apple because today begins the apple season, Njord because its the end of the fishing season or Aegir as god of brewing. It would also be very appropriate to honour Woden at this time given his historical association with the last sheaf in Germany and Scandinavia. Meanwhile Neo-pagans celebrate it as a day of balance, when the night and day are equal and nature is declining. In Christian cultures it has become known as Michaelmas (celebrated Sept 29th).
For me, this is a time to give thanks for the abundance of nature. It is a time to party and celebrate with all the wonderful food that is around. It’s one of my favourite times of the year because its so beautiful at this time as the leaves are turning. I love to decorate my altar with fruits, vegetables, nuts and leaves, as well as making leaf garlands to hang around the house. I will have a big feast of waldorf salad (filled with autumn nuts and fruits like grapes and apples), carrot, butternut squash, and lentil salad ( I use carrots from my allotment), and fruit bread.
Happy Hlafmaest Everyone. Hlafmaest/ Lughnasadh/ Lammas is the “feast of first fruits” or “feast of loaves” held on 1st August each year to celebrate the beginning of the grain and potato harvest and the start of Autumn. It ushers in the end of hunger and a bountiful abundance of crops.
For the ancient Irish, Lughnasadh was one of the four Fire festivals mentioned in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire. It is named after the god Lugh, the Fair One, and is the only festival to be named after a deity. However, he is not a god of the harvest, but rather “a patron of all human skills with a special interest in kings and heroes.” It was said to have been started by him as a funeral feast and sporting competition in commemoration of his foster mother, the goddess Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Historian Peter Berresford-Ellis says it was “an agrarian feast in honour of the harvesting of crops.” The festival evolved into a great tribal assembly where legal agreements were made, political problems were discussed and huge Olympic-style sporting contests were held. It was a time of peace and was also one of two festivals where hand-fastings have been traditionally held.
Anglo Saxon Christians also held their feast of Lammas at this time. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle refers to it as “first fruits” and historian Ronald Hutton says that it was customary at this time to reap the first of the ripe cereals and bake it into bread. This is why the festival was known as Lammas or Loaf-mass. Hutton states that “the importance of the first day of August was already so well established by 673 that Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus decreed that the annual synod of the newly established Church in England should be held then. It would seem very likely, therefore, that a pre-Christian festival had existed among the Anglo-Saxons on that date” and “the same feast was…celebrated in different ways and under different names all over Celtic, Saxon, or Norse Britain.” He goes on to say that in the middle ages this was an important time for holding fairs, paying rents, electing local officials and opening up common lands. Modern heathens follow the example of Garman Lord in naming the festival Hlafmaest, the feast of bread.
An Anglo Saxon charm recommends breaking up the bread that has been blessed on or hallowed on this day, and sprinkling it in the four corners of the barn to protect the harvested crops. Meanwhile folk practices suggest this was a time when the first sheaf of the harvest was honoured, either by being turned into a corn dolly or given as an offering (by leaving it lying in the field, burning it or throwing it into water). Alternatively it might be hung up in the house to keep away bad luck.
English folk songs of this time tell of John Barleycorn (personification of Barley), who is cut down at the harvest. Meanwhile in Norse tales, Freyr has a servant called Byggvir (Barley) who may be associated with the Harvest. Byggvir is sometimes also related to the Anglo Saxon figure “Beowa” (Old English for “Barley”), mentioned in the royal lineages as the son of Scyld and the grandson of Sceafa (Old English for “Sheaf”). Perhaps he is also related to Beowulf, as a Beowulf is mentioned as the son of Scyld Scefing.
In England, the end of July is often associated with hot weather and storms, which makes Thunor a great god to celebrate at this time. He was often seen as a god of the common man, especially of farmers and fertility. In Norse myth he has a wife called Sif, whose golden hair may be associated with the harvest, and which Loki cuts off in one tale.
For Anglo-Saxon and Norse pagans, there are many gods who may be honoured at this time – Thunor and Sif for the summer rains and the protection of the harvest, Tiw as god of the Thing, or Byggvir/ Beowa/ John Barleycorn/ Scyld or Sceafa as representation of the harvest itself. This is also a festival that lends itself particularly well to myth tellings or re-enactments, such as the story of Beowulf or of Loki cutting the hair of Sif.
Another important historical practice in England at this time is the picking of bilberries (the English version of blueberries), which often occurred on the first Sunday of August. Similarly, the first of the year’s potatoes are often ready to be pulled up at this date, and as I have an allotment this year, I shall celebrate by harvesting some.
As this was traditionally a time when the Thing was held for the Norse in Iceland, and when elections of local officials were once held in Britain, it makes sense that this would be a good time for our Pagan groups to elect new officials or hold annual general meetings to decide important issues.
In Celtic wales, this was a time when people would hike up the Brecon Beacons, perhaps harking back to the old practice of making pilgrimages to hill tops to honour the gods and leave offerings. Perhaps we could use this as an opportunity to go hiking, and leave an offering when we reach the top of some nearby hill or mountain?
Throughout Celtic cultures this has been a time to visit fairs or to hold annual competitions, games and equestrian activities (this is a feast of the warrior). One can carry out saining rites to protect the home or visit holy wells. It is a time to be thankful for the harvest, make bannocks, cheese or Lample Pie, and to enjoy the bounties of nature.
Hlafmaest or Lughnasadh is a time to be grateful for the food on our table and to remember that the hot days of summer are coming to an end as we approach the cold part of the year. It is the time to briefly rest before the hard work of reaping what has been sown begins. It’s traditional to celebrate this time by making corn dollies which represent the spirits of the fields (ask a farmer if you can cut some corn), baking bread, holding sports competitions, selling your crafts at summer fairs and hiking to hilltops with offerings. It is also a good time to pray for or work for peace. Offerings are given to Lugh, Thunor, Tiw or Beow in the hopes of a good harvest. I will be celebrating this festival by doing an ADF ritual, making some bread (one for me and one for a neighbour as an act of kindness), opening the Mead that I brewed at Midsummer, going hiking, having a feast of seasonal foods such as sausages, potatoes, sweetcorn and blueberry gravy, and spending time in nature. Sometimes I also pick bilberries/ whortleberries. Have a great Hlafmaest everyone.
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.
So this is just going to be a general update on some things that have happened in my life over the past few months which I wanted to share.
Firstly, I took a DNA test recently. I had a story in my family that one of my ancestors was a Japanese witch who married a British army captain and I wanted to confirm or disprove the story. When the DNA test came back, there was no trace of Japanese so I unless it can be proven by DNA tests from other family members, I’m going to assume that was just a legend or mistake for now.
However, some very interesting things did come out of the DNA test. Originally from South West England, I was unsure if I would have primarily Celtic or Anglo Saxon ancestry. This is important to me because, while I side with the Universalists in the Folkish vs Universalist debate, for me personally, I want to honour the gods of my ancestors. I started off my Pagan journey focused on the Celtic gods but felt more of a call to the Anglo Saxon ones over time and I was unsure if this was the way I should be going, or whether I should focus more on the Celtic ones still. Well, the DNA tests came back and showed a few interesting things. Firstly….one test showed that within the last 10 generations, my ancestry is 95% British (plus a little Eastern Europe and Scandinavian thrown in), and as I expected after doing some family history studies, about 27% is from central south England, but there was also something very unexpected – 26% was from South East England – which is most definitely not Celtic. There was some from South Wales and Cornwall (so I have about 15% Celtic ancestry), but most of it was clearly from Anglo Saxon areas. This confirmed to me that Anglo Saxon was probably the right path for me, but then there was a second test – this one looked at the direct male line all the way back through history, and it showed that my Haplogroup was from the Germanic branch of the R1b Fatherline. Apparently this is associated with Western Germany and to find it outside Germany suggests its from the “Germanic migrations that have shaped much of Europe over the past two millennia” – in other words, probably the Anglo Saxons. Together these tests have really confirmed for me that honouring the Anglo Saxon gods is the way to go. Of course, DNA tests have issues and we are only at the beginning of the science right now, but it’s the best I’m going to get for the forseeable future so I’m happy to go with it.
Secondly, a few years ago I made some runes on clay. I ended up taking them all around the world with me and some of them ended up getting lost. I have been meaning for a while to create a new set so that I can do divinations properly. I finally got the motivation to do this today and created a new set of runes – this time on small disks of wood. Now that I have an allotment, which came with some tools such as a Saw, it has made it much more feasible to do things like make the wood disks. I therefore went to a local woodland and found some suitable wood. I made the rune disks and then carved the runes with a penknife. I also painted them red. They came out pretty well. Here is a picture…
Another big thing that’s been playing on my mind for a year or two now is “purpose” i.e. what is the purpose of life, and in particular what is the purpose of my life. The truth is that I don’t think we can ever know. I’m not sure if there is an overall purpose for life that everyone should follow, or whether we each have our own unique purposes. I also don’t know if a purpose is something we have to create for ourselves as the existentialists suggest, or whether it’s something that the gods/ earth mother decide for us. Nevertheless, I have come up with a “mission statement” to guide me as a purpose of my life for now. I would like to share it here…
My mission in life is to “Live an honourable and contemplative life of service and devotion to the Earth, the Kindreds and all life.”
Of course this could change over time but for now I’m happy with it. It helps give my life direction and helps me make important decisions. One of my long term goals is to set up a Pagan monastery and that fits in well with this. In that mission statement I have also emphasised the importance of living “honourably” because I have come to the conclusion recently that “honour” is probably the most important pagan moral virtue and aim of life for a Pagan….it certainly was in the Paleo-Pagan cultures of the past. I intend to do a blog on this pretty soon.
I have also been working through the OBOD and BDO Ovate courses, and the ADF Clergy Preliminary courses which I am hopeful will be completed by the end of June and I will then begin my main studies to become an ADF priest. On my previous blog Nature Is Sacred, I mentioned that one of the things that came out of the OBOD Bardic course I did last year was the inspiration to join the Navy Reserves (something the gods confirmed to me by giving me the rune Ing in a divination – which talks about going over the sea in a boat)…. I’m glad to say that I was able to join this month.
Well that’s pretty much it for now. I do intend to get back to the Heathenry50 challenge posts soon, but my grand plans for doing a post every week have been thwarted by life lol. Finally, please don’t forget to subscribe by email, like the Facebook page and follow me on Twitter and Tumblr. The links for this can be found in the sidebar.
I’ll leave you with this great track from the Vikings series…
Happy Beltane/ Eostre everyone. So this year I am trying something new – I’m trying to follow the old Anglo Saxon calendar rather than the traditional wheel of the year. An interesting coincidence this year is that the celebration of Eostre (which falls on the full moon of EostreMonth) is actually on April 30th this year – the same date as Beltane eve.
The Anglo Saxons split the year into two seasons – Summer and Winter, rather than four, and their summer started with the celebration of Eostre (just as their winter started with the celebration of the the Winter Full Moon.
Throughout April I have been going for a daily walk, and noticing how things have been changing in nature. It is as though this month nature officially woke up. At the start of the month there were very few flowers around or leaves on trees, but now everything is bursting into life – blossoms are around, the bees are busy searching for nectar, almost every tree has leaves on it, the woods are full of flowers like bluebells, lesser celadine, wood anemones and ramsons (as well as many edible foods). It has become warm enough at some points to go out without a coat. I’ve been able to start planting things out on my allotment.
So let’s look at some of the Lore surrounding Eostre and Beltane. Beltane, meaning “bright fire” is one of the four great fire festivals of the ancient Celtic cultures. In ancient Irish culture it was the time when both the Tuatha De Danaan and the Milesians came to Ireland and was originally celebrated when the Hawthorns began to blossom. Half way between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, it marks the start of the light half of the year and heralds the beginning of summer. According to historian Ronald Hutton, “the ritual of Beltane was found in all Celtic areas of the British Isles, but also in pastoral regions of Germanic and Scandinavian Europe.” The historical evidence for the celebration of this festival is much better than for others. The earliest references to it are from 900AD which state “lucky fire i.e two fires Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle against the diseases of the year to those fires” and “they used to drive cattle between them.” Another reference says “a fire was kindled in his [Bel] name at the beginning of summer always, and cattle were driven between two fires.” Like the other three Celtic festivals, Beltane is mentioned in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire and the ritual of lighting bonfires at this time survived right up until the 19th century. Like Samhain, it was seen as a liminal time “when fairies and witches were especially active, and magical devices [were] required to guard against them.” To the welsh, it was one of the “spirit nights.” Hutton says that “rituals were conducted to protect…against the powers of evil, natural and supernatural, not merely in the season to come but because those malign powers were supposed to be active at this turning point of the year.” Other celebrations in English areas at this time include “bringing in the May” and dancing around a Maypole. Bringing in the May dates back to at least the 13th century and refers to gathering flowers and foliage to bring home and celebrate the beginning of summer. Hutton says that there is no evidence for when the Maypole came to Britain but it was first recorded in a welsh poem in the mid 14th century and is also recorded in Scandinavia so probably originated from the continent. The May Pole was not a phallic or world tree symbol but was most likely simply a “focal point for celebrations” or something to hang garlands on.
Beltane marks the beginning of the pastoral season, the time when farmers traditionally moved their herds to summer pastures (driving them between two fires for blessing and protection first) and people could go outside because of the milder weather. The crops were being put into the ground now and it was traditionally the beginning of calving season. There was lots of milking to do and making dairy products like butter (in fact the Anglo Saxons called the month of May “Trimilchi” – three milkings.) It was the busiest time to visit water sources to collect water for healing and good luck. It was also a time for the renewal of rents.
Learning from historical practices, Gaelic reconstructionists celebrate this time by extinguishing a flame (ideally a bonfire) and relighting it. If there is no bonfire or hearth fire, it is a good time to buy a new hearth candle for your altar and ritually extinguish the old one while lighting the new one. They eat a feast, usually including bannocks and oatmeal porridge or soup with soft cheese and shoots of new herbs and salad greens such as wood sorrel. They also decorate their houses with greenery and yellow flowers like buttercups and collect dew or water in the morning (considered potent for healing and maintaining a youthful appearance). They also make offerings to the gods, carry out protection rites to sain their house and land while warding the boundaries, and make charms of rowan. Some groups also see this as a time to renew their bond with the land goddess (the nearest river) by giving her offerings at her river bank. In Welsh myth this is the time when Taliesin was found in a river after being reborn from the goddess Ceridwen, and some pagans may choose to read his story on May eve.
Eostre is a time for fertility, fun and flowers. The birds have returned from their migrations, animals are giving birth to their young and all around us the world is turning green once again. It is a time when nature has officially woken up – the buds on trees are bursting, seeds are beginning to sprout up out of the ground, flowers are blossoming and there is a palpable sense of renewed life all around us. It is a feast of awakening and Summer has arrived. Bede said that the name Easter came from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre and the month was named after her. Hutton says that one could argue that “Eostre was a Germanic dawn-deity who was venerated, appropriately at this season of opening and new beginnings. It is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon ‘Estor-Monath’ simply meant ‘the month of opening’ or ‘the month of beginnings.’” He goes on to say that the practice of decorating eggs at this time does go back to at least the 1200’s but the chocolate version of the egg is a twentieth century invention. Eggs are a very apt symbol for this season as they represent new life. For agricultural societies, this is also the time when the extra light led to a big increase in egg production and was a welcome source of food.
For Anglo Saxon and Norse Heathens like Asatru and Fyrn Sidu, this festival is called Blostmfreols or Walpurgisnacht. It is a night when witches gather and magic happens. For some, it is a time to honour Freya, the goddess of magic and love. For others it is time to honour Eastre or Baldaeg (Grimm associates this festival in May with Balder in Germanic countries). It is also a time to honour the Landwights. Like the Gaelic Reconstructionists, it is seen as a time of supernatural danger, and is celebrated with feasting, bonfires and protective rites. Some modern northern polytheists see the 9 days between Earth Day and May day as the nine nights when Woden hung on the world tree to sacrifice himself in order to learn the mysteries of the runes. It is therefore a good time to focus on runic divinations and making runic charms. Along with this, some celebrate April 23rd as Sigurds Day (the norse equivalent of St George who slew a dragon) and some may choose to celebrate the ancient Norse celebration Sigrblot (victory sacrifice) which marked the beginning of summer and asked Odin for victory in war and good luck on journeys.
There are many ways we can celebrate Eostre/ Beltane
Dye eggs as an offering to Eostre.
Eat chocolate eggs.
Go for a picnic or walk in nature
Decorate our home, altar or hair with flowers
Do a ritual to honour Eostre or the Landwights
Plant the main crop potatoes.
Have a bonfire – or run between two bonfires/ candles for purification.
Create a maypole and dance around it
Eat seasonable foods – or even make a salad of wild edible foods such as dandelions, ramsons, jack by the hedge, nettles, goosegrass, hawthorn leaves e.t.c
Hi everyone, sorry I haven’t been updating the blog recently, life gets in the way sometimes and I’ve been struggling to find the right way to talk about this topic. Therefore I have slightly changed the title from “Worldview, Animism and Divinity” to “Worldview: The Principles of Paganism”.
What I want to look at here, are what are the defining characteristics of the Pagan, and specifically Heathen religion? How can we define it? What are the key principles that make up the worldview of a Heathen?People say that if you ask 10 pagans to define Paganism you’ll get 11 answers. And anyone who tries to define it will invariably miss someone out. Well probably but I think we should try anyway. In my opinion, the best explanation of Paganism comes from the Pagan Federation. It defines Paganism as:
“A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.”
So a Pagan is someone who follows a pantheistic or polytheistic religion. Someone who honours multiple gods and/or nature.
Paganism (and therefore Heathenry) is based around four key principles that make up it’s worldview. These are – Polytheism, Ancestor Veneration, Local Animism and Pantheism. Over the following weeks we will explore then in more detail but today we will look at a general overview of them.
Polytheism comes from two Greek words “poly” meaning many, and “theos” meaning god. In other words, Polytheists believe in many gods. Polytheism itself can be split into three groups – hard polytheism, soft polytheism and archetypal polytheism. Hard polytheists are those who believe that there are many gods, that the gods are real, existing individuals with their own personalities, thoughts and plans. They are distinct from each other. Most heathens, including myself, would categorise ourselves as Hard Polytheists.
Soft Polytheists are those who see the gods as aspects of one or a few gods. They might agree with the statement “all gods are one god”. Hinduism is a good example of this. Many Wiccans are also soft polytheists (duo-theists) who see the various goddesses across cultures as aspects of the one goddess, and the various gods across cultures as aspects of the one horned god.
Finally Archetypal Polytheists don’t believe that the gods are supernatural existing individuals, but rather that they exist in the collective unconscious, that while they are bigger and more powerful than us, they are not separate from us. It is important to note that archetypal polytheists don’t see the gods as just symbols.
When we polytheists talk of our gods, they are not the same as the monotheistic god. The gods of polytheism are more powerful than humans but they are not all-powerful, all-knowing or benevolent. They are limited, have their own agenda’s (sometimes in conflict with each other) and may have moral flaws just like us. However they are much older and more powerful. One of the best advantages about being a Polytheist is that we tend to be more tolerant of other religions than monotheists due to our ability to acknowledge the existence of other people’s gods without worshipping them. We also don’t have to contend with philosophical problems like the problem of evil as we don’t have a god who is simultaneously all powerful, all good and all knowing (a contradiction in terms).
Ancestor devotion is arguably one of the world’s oldest religious practices and it was important to ancient pagans too. Honouring ones parents, grandparents and ancestors back through time is a vital part of Paganism and Heathenry. It teaches us important values, like filial piety, gratefulness and respect for others. Modern Pagans particularly honour their ancestors during the winter period. There are ancestors of blood (our family), ancestors of place (those who lived in the same area as us in the past) and ancestors of spirit (those who have inspired us or our culture – including honouring heroes such as from the Saga’s). Our ancestors can also include all life forms back through time to the first living thing. Pagans today research our ancestry, have ancestral altars, and pray to them when we need help, giving them offerings of food or drink. For many Pagans, ancestors are the first point of call when we have a need because while gods are mostly interested in the universe and their own plans, the ancestors are much more concerned with their family lines i.e. us and can therefore be powerful sources of help and wisdom. They can help us resolve difficulties, ensure good luck and prosperity in our lives and intercede on our behalf with the gods. If mistreated, it’s important to also acknowledge that they can bring misfortune too.
Traditional animists believe that there is spirit or soul in everything, whether tree or sun, rock or clouds. A modern version, new Animism, interprets things a little differently and talks about “more than human persons”. New animists argue that each thing has person-hood rather than spirit – in other words, there are human persons, rock persons, sun persons, cloud persons, hedgehog persons, oak persons, bee persons and so on. They have an inherent worth and we are naturally in relationship with them. We can build those relationships up. Interestingly some philosophers support a version called “pan-psychism” or “pan-experientialism” which argues that the ability to experience, or even some form of consciousness, exists in everything from the smallest electron to the largest universe. In ancient versions of Paganism we can see animism in their worship of the spirits of trees, plants and animals, in the spirits of home and place, in the belief in land-wights, elves, dwarves, fairies and the Sidhe. Modern Pagans also honour these spirits.
But animism is not usually focused on honouring spirits as a whole, but on local spirits – the spirits who live close to you and often can help you out. One thing I discovered during 18 months of traveling is how difficult it is to practice Paganism when you are on the move. Paganism, Animism, Heathenry – these are all rooted in the local. Graham Harvey, in What Do Pagans Believe, argues that “pagans know their local landscapes and build relationships with it and the spirits who inhabit it. “the original meaning of ‘pagan’ – ‘ an inhabitant of a particular place’ – has encouraged a new focus on locality in modern paganism. A classical pagan was someone who belonged, someone who celebrated where they lived, someone who knew their local shrines, springs, hills, trees and neighbours, and could trace their decent from local ancestors. These pagans lived in both urban and rural places; the important thing was belonging to an area.” Practicing Paganism is about knowing your local area, and connecting with the land and spirits there. It is about celebrating the seasons as they change there. It is about maintaining an altar there.
Finally, we have Pantheism. Pantheism comes from two Greek words “pan” meaning all, and “theos” meaning god. In other words, Pantheists believe that all is god. Pantheists see the earth as sacred and the universe as divine. It is the foundation on which nature worship and veneration is built, and it is an important inspiration for environmentalism. Many scientists are pantheists, as can be seen from James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory. Pantheism can be both “naturalistic” or “supernatural”. It can see deity as personal, but more often views it as impersonal, more akin to a force like the Dao. In modern Paganism we honour the Earth Mother. While this is due to the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960’s, there are lots of traces of worship of an earth mother in ancient times, whether it was the Celts worshipping (and the king marrying) the local goddess of sovereignty represented by the main river in the area, or the Anglo-Saxon Acerbot charm calling on Erce (earth), Tacitus’ writings about the early Germanic people’s worshipping Nerthus who he called Mother Nature, or the existence of Gaia and Terra Mater (earth mother) in ancient Greek and Roman religion, it is clear that honouring the Earth Mother was an important of Ancient Paganism too.
So these four philosophical outlooks help to define the Heathen or Pagan worldview. It is a very different, and much more ancient, way of looking at the world, and over the coming weeks we are going to explore exactly how that manifests itself within the Heathen tradition and how I interpret and practice it from my perspective.