Mead and Mistletoe

Thoughts on Pagan Spirituality from an ADF Heathen Druid

Tag: wheel of the year

Celebrating Yule 2018

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.

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Celebrating Beltane/ Eostre/ Blostmfreols 2018

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
  • Make a meal of new potatoes with asparagus.
  • Make lemonade.
  • Focus on the romantic side of life.

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