ONW | Religious Practices Lesson D, The Annual Feasts


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Lesson D Religious Practices of the Pre-Christian &
Viking Age North

by Alfta Lothurrsdottir

Northvegr.org ©

Lesson D: The Annual


There were a number of feasts that were conducted annually. We have a good deal of information on these. Of the feasts there are two which we have more information on than any of the others. If we take this wealth of information as a sign of their importance then we can say that the two feasts that were most important were Midsummer and Jól (Yule). The fact that they both survived into modern times because the Christians could not stamp them out and instead decided to appropriate them for their own use, is a testament to how important these two tides were. Grimm agrees with this when he says, “Our two great anniversaries, the summer and winter-solstices, marked off two seasons;” There were other tides that were important as well. The Harvest Feast, Summer Finding (417), which the Christians would turn into Easter after the goddess Ostara and Winter Nights were feasts that were observed across Northern Europe. Besides these feasts it was common to give feasts at weddings, births and deaths.

Snorri gives the three major feasts in Scandinavia as the beginning of Winter for plenty in the coming year, midwinter for growth of crops and in summer for victory. (418) These three are described in the Saga of Olaf Haraldsson. There is says that a sacrifice was made in autumn for a good winter, at midwinter and in summer. (419)

The Harvest Feast

The first feast I would like to examine is the Harvest feast. This feast was also called the Feast of the Wains (wagons) by the Anglo-Saxons because it was in honor of the Vanir whose association with wagons was quite strong. This feast took place at the end of September. (420) Many times there is a mention of an autumn sacrifice (421) such as in the Saga of Olaf Haroldsson but this may be referring to the Winter Nights sacrifice as opposed to the Harvest Feast. There is very little information on this feast available but we could assume that the Vanir were honored at this time as well as the Alfs. One custom that survived the Christian conversion was the leaving of some of the harvest for the gods or in some instances, for Othinn’s horse, Sleipnir. When the corn was being cut one clump of ears was left standing and was adorned with ribbons. This clump was for the god who blessed the harvest. Which god that was, we are not told. It was also customary to leave five or six apples hanging on each tree when gathering in all the fruit. This practice was still being performed in late 18th century Holstein. (422) We can assume that the Harvest Feast was one that was conducted in the fashion of the Vanir rites and would probably have much in common with the May Day/Ostara rites.

The Christians here converted this feast to their use as they did with so many others. On the 28th of September was St. Michael’s day. (423)


The Álfablót (sacrifice of the elves) is mentioned in Old Norse sources three times. This feast was in honor of the elves and we know that it was practiced very late in Norway. One account comes from the early 11th century from Sweden. The source is Austrfaravísur, written by the Christian skald, Sigvatr Þórðarson. (424) Sigvatr was on a mission for the Christian king of Norway, in which he was to travel to Sweden and arrange a marriage between his king and the daughter of the king of Sweden. As this time we are told that Norway was Christian but that Sweden still retained the old ways. While traveling in Sweden late in autumn he was seeking shelter but could not find any despite going to numerous farms. Every farm he came to would not allow him entry because they were holding the Álfablót at the time. He was told that the halls were hallowed and he, being a Christian, could not enter. The farm wife of one farm specifically said that if she were to let him in, she feared the anger of Othinn. In Sigvatr’s own words he said, “She thrust me away as if I were a wolf.” (425)

We don’t know much about what went on in these feasts and in fact we know little more than when they were held. Since we know that the Alfar and the Vanir were closely connected and that the Harvest Feast and the Álfablót were both held in autumn, we could say that it is possible that the Álfablót was part of the Harvest Feast, just as the Dísablót was part of the Winter Nights Feast.

Winter Nights

In Iceland between what was October 11th and October 18th was the feast called Winter nights. This feast today is held in October 13th-15th. It was a feast which lasted three or more days. (426) Winter Nights was one of the three feasts that Snorri mentions as being one of the three most important feasts of the year. It was held on the beginning of the Old Norse month of Gormánaðr which is equivalent to October 14th. In Norway this night is still called Winter Nights and is considered to be the beginning of Winter. It was made in order to bring a good year or more specifically a good winter. (427) The Old Norse name for this feast was Vetrnætr (Winter Nights) which was the first three nights of winter. (428)

We know from the Saga of Olaf Haraldsson that there was a sacrificial feast on what the saga calls “winter-day’s eve, in which there was much drinking (fullar) and numerous people were in attendance. There was a prayer given at the sacrifice that was made in order to obtain good seasons or a good winter. (429) The feast mentioned as being on Winter-day’s eve we could assume was held on the first night of the feast, that is, on the 13th of October. We know also that the landvættir and the dísir were honored at this time as well, perhaps on the two succeeding nights. (430)

This feast continued on under a Christian guise after the conversion where it was known as the feast of St. Michael. (431)


According to most sources the Dísablót was held during Winter Nights. It was a sacrifice that honored the Dísir (female ancestral guardian spirits). (432)(2. p. 51) In Hervarar we have a description of one Dísablót. In this account the daughter of King Alf, Alfhild, was conducting a sacrifice during the dísablót. While she was reddening the hörg with blood, she was kidnapped by Starkad Aludreng. (433)(18. v.1 p.411-412) What we find from this account is that very likely, the Dísablót was to be conducted by a woman instead of a man. As most sacrifices and feasts probably were, it was held at night. (434)(7) We also know that like all sacrifices, a feast followed where there was great drinking and celebration. (435)(24. c.44) In the description of the Dísasalr (Hall or temple of the Dísir) (436)(25) from Fridthjof’s Saga, the hof was the tallest building there at Baldr’s Grove. It was said to have fires along the floor with seats on either side, matching the descriptions common to the feasts halls of Northern Europe. (437)(7)

Jól (Yule)

One of the two most important feasts of the year was the Jólablót. It takes its name from Jólnir which is one of Othinn’s name. A great majority of customs from modern day Christmas have their roots in the Heathen rite of Jól which was a multi-day event. There is some debate as to when this blót was celebrated, some identifying it with January 12th and the Thorrablót, while other sources simply say Mid-winter would imply the winter solstice. Most scholars choose the winter solstice as on or near when the feast was conducted. (438)

This great blót was held over a number of days. Different numbers are given and we probably should allow for variations depending on what area it was celebrated. Some sources give three days (439) while other’s give up to twelve (440) which would, of course, be the origin of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” In Olaf Hararldsson’s Saga, Two brother’s-in-law are described as spending Yule in drinking feasts half at one house and half at the other’s house. (441) Although we don’t know the exact number of days from this account it is obvious that Jólablót was considered to be a multi-day affair.

There were a number of reasons for the Jólablót, different nights being used to honor different deities and/or spirits. According to the Gulathingslög 7, it was overall celebrated for a fertile and peaceful season. A number of sources mirror the Gualthingslög in its stated reason for the Jólablót, including (Ketil Hæng’s Saga, c.5) (442)

The time of Jól was also a time of year when the borders between the Nine Worlds was at its thinnest, especially between Mithgarthr and the land of the dead. It was during Jól that Othinn’s Wild Hunt was conducted, which was thought to be a procession of the dead lead by Othinn. These processions of the dead were thought to occur all during the twelve days of Jól. This connection with the dead is one that most certainly was carried down from the Stone and Bronze ages. This time of year the dead (draugar) were more active than in any other time of the year. (443)

As the phrase ‘Yule-drinking’ shows, it was deeply rooted in Heathen rites. Snorri represents it as a communal feast, that is, one that the whole community gathered to partake in. (444)

Many of the modern traditions we have for Yule are very likely to have been traditions that are Heathen in origin, such as the Yule Log, Yule Boar and Yule Singing. (445) As with most of the major feasts there was a sacrificial feast in which an animal was sacrificed and eaten at a great feast in which the people of the community gathered. (446)

One tradition that was strongly connected with Freyr was the Oath-Boar. This was done on Yule-Eve (the last night Yule) and is very likely the origin of the modern practice of New Year’s Eve Resolutions. In later times it would take on a Christian veneer and was called the Atonement-Boar, but it was originally used to make solemn oaths for the coming year at a feast dedicated to Freyr. On Yule-eve a boar consecrated to Freyr was led out or the cooked boar itself. The people present would lay hands on the boar and make solemn oaths for the coming years. (447) This oath was called the heitstrengingar (solemn oath). (448) In later times in Sweden, it was customary to bake cakes and the shape of a boar on Yule-eve. This tradition of baking in the shape of a boar was very wide spread even in lands outside of Sweden, where Freyr was most venerated. (449) This tradition is very likely to have been the source for folklore concerning this time of year.

Later traditions are very likely connected with the tradition of the Yule-boar. In the customs of Wetterau and Thuringia there is mention of a clean gold hog. A folk belief concerning a golden boar that is ridden by the hero Derk (Derrick). He goes round on Christmas-eve night and all the people must get all their implements of husbandry within doors lest the boar trample them and make them unusable. (450) It is almost certain that this was a tradition connected with Freyr and that in later times Derk was put in the place of Freyr. The connection with fertility (implements of husbandry – Freyr as god of Fertility) and the golden boar (Freyr’s boar Gullinborsti) make this almost certain in my opinion. There is a sacrificial play that was still performed in the latter part of the 19th century in some parts of Gothland. In it, young fellows blacken their faces. One of them plays the part of the sacrificial boar by wrapping himself in fur and sits in a chair while holding in his mouth a bunch of straw cut fine which reaches as far back as his ears. The straw is meant to represent the bristles of the boar. In England the boar eaten at Christmas is decked with laurel and rosemary. (451)

The Yule Log was a very widespread tradition as well. At Marseille this was a large oaken log that was set alight and on which was poured wine. The master of the house had the responsibility of lighting the log. The hewing of a Christmas block is mentioned in the Weisthümer and the English Yule-log and Scandinavian Julblok are well known in those lands. The Lettons call Christmas eve blukku wakkars (block evening), from the burning of the log. Grimm also makes mention of a Yule-tide fire which very likely could have been connected with the Yule-log. He also relates how the Servians light a newly cut log of oak at Christmas and pour wine over it. They bake a cake over this fire and hand it all around. (452)

Another tradition observed by the Anglo-Saxons was Modraniht (Mother Night). It was in honor of the mothers and was observed the night before Christmas. Food was left for them as well as the alfs on Christmas Eve. (453) This may have been connected with the veneration of the ancestors in general since this time of year was thought to be specially connected to the dead.

The Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt or the Jól-ride was a procession of the dead led by Othinn that occurred all during Jól-tide. These ghostly riders rode through the storms that were common during the twelve nights of Jól. The boundaries between the living and the dead were at their thinnest during Jól. Dogs and horses were commonly among the procession of the Wild Hunt. Dogs have long been connected with death throughout Northern Europe and the horse has taken many a rider between the nine worlds. (454)

The Oath boar

The custom of the Yule-boar was performed on Yule-Eve. A boar that was consecrated to Freyr was led out and everyone one present would lay their hand on the boar and swear a holy oath. This oath was called the “heitstrengingar” (a solemn vow). This part of Yule was, of course, to honor Freyr and for peace and fruitfulness in the coming year. (455) The boar was called sónargötlr (sacrificial boar) and the sacrifice it was sacrificed at was called specifically, the sónarblót (special sacrifice of a boar). (456) Some sources say that after placing hands on the boar and swearing the solemn oath, that the Braggi-full was drink and this would make sense, since the Braggi-full was many times an occasion for the swearing of a solemn oath. (457) That vows were taken at the Yule-tide feasts is shown in more than one source, including, Helga Kvida Hjörvardssonar, c.14; Hörd’s Saga and Hervarar Saga and Fornmanna Sögur. (458)

The practice of the offering of the Yule-boar was continued into modern times where it became the baking of loaves and cakes on Yule-eve in the shape of a boar. A popular belief in Thuringia said that, “..whoever on Christmas eve abstains from all food till suppertime, will get sight of a young golden pig, i.e. in olden times it was brought up last at the evening banquet. A Lauterbach ordinance (weisthum) of 1589 decreed (3, 369), that unto a court holden the day of the Three-kings, therefore in Yule time, the holders of farm-steads (hübner) should furnish a clean goldferch (gold-hog) gelded while yet under milk; it was led round the benches, and no doubt slaughtered afterwards.” (459) In England the custom of the boar-vow lasted very late. Even in modern times during festive occasions a wild boar’s head is seen among the other dishes as a show-dish. In the Middle Ages it was served up with laurel and rosemary and was carried about with all manner of pranks. In one ballad about Arthur’s Table it was said that only a virtuous man could carve the first slice from it. And lastly, at Oxford they exhibit the boar’s head on Christmas day and carry it around solemnly singing, “Captu apri defero, Reddens laudes Domino.” (460)

As with many of the traditions of the people, the Christians decided it wiser to incorporate the Jól traditions into their Christmas instead of trying to stamp them out altogether. (461) There is little doubt that such Christmas traditions as the Yule-log, the Christmas Tree, the song “the Twelve Days of Christmas” and even ole Santa Claus have their roots in Heathen traditions.


There is some debate about whether Midwinter sacrifice was performed at midwinter or if it was celebrated in what would have been mid-January by the name Thorrablót. Some modern Northmen/women have taken to celebrating this blót in honor of Thorr but that is not what it was celebrated for despite the similarity to the name of the red-bearded one. The name actually comes from the name of the month that the blót was conducted in. It was conducted at the beginning (or first day) of the month of Thorri (462) which began in the middle of January and ran until the middle of February. So the blót got its name not from the god Thorr but from the month in which it was celebrated. Again, despite the similarity of the name it was not named for the god Thorr. How the month of Thorri came to have its name is explained in Orkneyinga Saga. There we are told that King Snær, the descendant of a giant named Fornjótr had three sons and a daughter. They were Thorri, Norr and Gorr and the daughters name was Goi. Thorri was said to be a great performer of sacrifices and it was because of his sacrifices that the month of Thorri and the Thorrablót got their names. So we see from this that the month and the sacrifice came by their name from a descendent of a giant and not the slayer of giants. (463)

Yule is the same festival that Procopius says the Thulites (Northmen) celebrated on the return of the sun after it had been forty days below the horizon. (464) If we take this in a more general term it is the return of the sun from its lowest point which would be the winter solstice. So when the celebration of Yule/Mid-winter was carried out could very well have depended on how far in the Northern latitudes one happened to be.

Class, Location and the Tides

At this point it would be good to talk a little on the relation of the celebrating of the tides and class and location. Even though one of my main reasons for writing this article was to develop a Holy Night Calendar based on the actual rites there were performed by Pre-Christian Northern Europeans, it should not be thought that all these rites were performed uniformly throughout Northern Europe. Although the belief and practice of the Northern Way was, for the most part, uniform in most areas, there were variations in belief and in the celebration of the tides. Many of the rites were celebrated not on a certain day but according to the turning of the tides. Northmen and Northwomen were connected with the land. They cooperated with the spirits of the land and honored them. Some of the accounts of the spring rites relate that they were conducted when the first flower bloomed. Midwinter and Winter Nights might be conducted at different times depending on when winter started and this could vary depending on how far North latitude one was. This also would mean that spring would come at different times of the year depending on location.

Another variation we must take into account is the fact that some deities might be more honored in certain areas, such as Freyr was in Sweden. Another area might hold a special connection with Thorr or Othinn. Also there were also local deities that were honored. Thorgerd Hördabrud could have been an examples of this.

Also we must take into account class. Vanir rites were more often concerned with fertility whereas Aesir rites might be more concerned with issues important to the ruling’ chiefs and later on, kings. The farmer would naturally be more interested in ensuring the fertility of his land and therefore might put more importance on Vanir rites. The chief of an area or tribe, on the other hand, might be more interested in insuring success in the defending of his tribe.

The Spring Rites

Of all the rites I studied, the Spring rite was the most difficult when it came to trying to make sense of the various references I had to it. Some accounts had it being conducted in March, while others had it as late as May. Some had it being celebrated for success in upcoming ventures while others had an obvious connection to fertility. It wasn’t until I had written my first draft of this section of the article that I realized what I believe explained the divergent sources I had. I must point out that this is a theory on my part but one I think I can show to be quite possible.

I hope to show that there were two different types of rite that were performed for spring. One was what I would call an Aesir rite, that is, it was performed for success in the ventures that many men would soon be embarking on after the long winter. The second was a Vanir rite that was for fertility of the land and of animals. It is possible that both rites were celebrated in communities or one or the other. As mentioned before we must not forget that spring came at different times depending on the latitude of the location.

Sigrblót/Summer Finding

The Sigrblót (Victory blót) also called, Summer Finding, I believe, was an Aesir rite. It was held between the dates of April 9th and 15th. It was held for good luck in raids in expeditions that were about to be embarked upon. (465) Sigrblót was mentioned by Snorri as one of the three major feasts that were held by the Northmen. It is quite possible that this blót was done in honor of Othinn who was often sacrificed to in order to gain victory. (466) Some authors have presented this blót as solely for victory in Viking raids which is far from the case. Expeditions for trade and exploration were common as well, perhaps more so. It was also the opening of the fishing season and expeditions that were undertaken in order to make a name and wealth for oneself. This rite was also called Summer Finding because it was the ‘opening of Summer’ (467) or the ‘bringing or fetching in of Summer.’ (468) As mentioned before many Northern Europeans had two seasons instead of four. Summer began with what we would consider spring. In Svithjod it is said that in the month of Góe, a great feast was held for peace and for victory of their king. The month of Góe (Gói) was from February 14th to March 13th and this would have been a Summer Finding blót or Sigrblót. In the account it was called the (höfudblöt) or chief blót so it is easy to see how important it was considered. (469)

Ostara (Eastre/Easter)/Walpurgis Day/May Day

The Christian rite of Easter is based on the old Northern rites of spring. The Anglo-Saxons celebrated their spring rite in honor of the goddess Eastre for which the rite got its name and from which the Christian Easter would later take its name. (470)

In my opinion, Ostara and the later Easter rites that the Christians developed from it as well as Walpurgis Day are examples of the Vanir spring rite. Depending on what area you resided in, you might have celebrated the Ostara rite while others celebrated Walpurgis Day. Grimm states this as a possibility as well when he says, “Were the German May-fires, after the conversion, shifted to Easter and Midsummer, to adapt them to Christian worship? Or, as the summer solstice was itself deeply rooted in heathenism, is it Eastertide alone that represents the ancient May-fires?” (471) The descriptions for all these rites are virtually identical and it is very easy to see in some cases a direct continuation of Vanir “wagon-rites” from the times of Pre-Christian Northern Way. Grimm says that the arrival of Summer, of May, what we now call spring was kept as a holiday of old. It was welcomed by sacrifices, feasting and dancing and was a time of great celebration and fellowship. Brides were chosen at this time and proclaimed, servants changed, and houses were taken possession of by new tenants. Bonfires were started at this time as with May Day and these were similar to those started at Midsummer. Grimm notes the similarities between the Northern Easter and the May-Feast. Both where a reception of spring, had bonfires and were celebrated with great merry-making. The so called Easter-games which accompany the Christian Easter such as the Easter Egg hunt were Northern in origin and allowed to continue only because “the church itself had to tolerate (them).” (472) The tradition of colored eggs is one that goes back very far in folk tradition. In modern Russia, eggs are still given as presents on the graves of ancestors at the beginning of spring. Other Easter traditions were Northern in origin as well. The Easter Bunny originates from Ostara as well. The rabbit was sacred to her and a major symbol of fertility for obvious reasons. (473) The Christian tradition of Hot Cross Buns is based on a Northern custom as well. It comes from the tradition of the Eastre rite where an ox was sacrificed. Ritual bread was baked and on that bread, the images of the horns of the ox were carved. Later, after the conversion crosses were carved into the buns instead of horns. The word “bun” is derived from the Saxon word ‘boun’ which means ‘sacred ox.’ (474) The shape of Easter scones (moon shaped) was Northern in origin as well. (475)

The difference between the bonfires of Easter/May-Feast and Midsummer was that the Midsummer fires were normally held in the streets and market places while the Easter/May-Feast fires were held on mountains and hills, that is, places in nature. This is perhaps harkening back to the lunds (sacred fields) and ve’s (sacred enclosure/grove) of the Vanir. Grimm relates some of the customs of these Easter fires. In one account all the cities, towns and villages of the area participate. On the evening of the first or third day of Easter there was lighted great bonfires on every hill and mountain. This is accompanied with great jubilation by young and old alike. On the Weser, they tie up a tar-barrel to a fir tree and set it alight. Men and women dance around the fire with great joy, hats are waved and handkerchiefs are thrown in the fire. It was said that if a person were to climb to higher points and to look out over the land they would see a vast number of hills and mountains lit up with fires. In some places the bonfire was proceeded by a “stately” procession up the hill, carrying white rods. They would sing songs and clash the rods together. (476) It is easy to see the similarities between these descriptions and those of the wagon processions of Nerthus and, later, of Freyr.

When we examine accounts of May Day rites we’ll see the strong connection they have with accounts of earlier Vanir rites and how they are virtually identical to the descriptions of Easter/Ostara rites we have examined so far. The beginning of May was kept as a great festival from of old and it now regarded as the trysting-time of witches who were once known as wise-women and who were very much revered. (477)

One account relates that when Whitsuntide (roughly, Summer Finding) approached the ‘maigreve’ (probably equivalent to May-king) was elected and the May-wagon was built from timber hewed from seven villages. All the ‘loppings’ were then loaded on the wagon which was drawn by only four horses. A procession from the town came to take the wagon and the burgonmaster and council received May-wreaths from the commoners. They in turn handed it over to the maigreve. The wagon would hold from 60 to 70 bundles of may (birch), which was delivered to the maigreve, who then distributed it. The floors of the church were strewn with clippings of boxwood and field-flowers. At this feast dishes of crabs were served up to all present. (478) If we compare this rite to the rites of Nerthus described in Tacitus and of later descriptions of the wagon processions of Freyr we cannot help but see the similarities. That these later May Day rites were almost certainly continuations of Vanir wagon-rites is almost certain. Both have processions of wagons that are led from place to place and are accompanied with great celebration and joy.

In Swabia, at sunrise on May Day, the children go into the woods, the boys carrying silk handkerchiefs on staves and the girls carrying boughs with ribbons tied in them. The leader, who is called the May-king, has the right to choose his queen. In Gelders on Mayday-eve they decorate the trees with hanging tapers much like those the Christmas tree is decorated with and sing while dancing around the tree with great joy. Grimm says that up to his time, May-bushes were still brought in houses at Whitsuntide. (479) The choosing of a queen by the May-king sounds very much like it could be the vestige of an old Vanir rite. The boy who is May-king playing the part that would have been played by a Freysgothi (priest of Freyr) or Freyr himself and the queen playing the part of his consort. These rites would have, of course, been to bless the fertility of land and animal for the coming season.

Like descriptions we have of Easter customs, there are descriptions of May-games or “Mayings” that were performed as late as the 16-17th century. On May Day morning the boys and girls set out soon after midnight, playing horns and other music to a neighboring wood and break boughs of trees to make wreaths. Wearing these wreaths and posies they then head back home at Sunrise and set these May-bushes at the doors and windows of their houses. They also bring with them a tall birch tree which they had cut down and named the May-pole. It was drawn by 20-40 oxen, each with a nosegay between his horns. The tree was set up in the village and the people danced around it. The whole festival was presided over by the Lord of the May who was elected by the people and he had his Lady of the May. (480) The strong focus on fertility focus of these rites in unavoidable as is the obvious connection between the May-lord and Freyr and the May-queen/lady and Freyr’s consort. Another very similar rite is described as happening in Denmark. The ‘jaunint’ began on Walburgis Day (May 1st), and was called (roughly) ‘the Summer ride.’ The young men would ride out front. The May-grave wore two garlands, one on each shoulder. The rest of the young men wore only one garland around their neck. They go a-singing into the town and the young women form a circle around the May-grave and he picks one of them to be his ‘maiînde,’ by dropping one of his two wreaths on her head. In some places in Denmark the May-fire was called the ‘gate-fire’, the May-king was called the ‘gate-bear’ and the May-queen was called the ‘gate-lamb.’ (481)

We can also see that certain herbs and woods were used in this celebration. The account just related specified that birch was distributed and boxwood and field-flowers for the floors of the church. Could this have been based on a Northern custom where the floors of a hof were spread with the same? Grimm also mentions that in later times the May-feast devolved into a rite for cattle in which each cow was bedecked with a garland of beech-leaves. There is the custom of the May-drink which continued into modern times in the Lower Rhine and Westphalia. The drink used for this was a wine and certain herbs. It was said that on no account was woodroof (asperula) to be omitted from its preparation. (482)

In later Christian times it is quite possible that the May Day rites were depicted, by the Christians, as the ‘Jaunt of the Witches.’ This annual event is said to be on the eve of May Day. As we saw when examining Mountains as Sacred Places the many ‘witch mountains’ are thought to originally have been sacred places of sacrifice to the Northmen and Northwomen. We shouldn’t be surprised of this common tactic of the Christians, who at every turn attempted to demonize any Northern practice they could.

Rites of Spring Summary

I think that, from the accounts we have, it can easily be seen how the May Day rites and the Ostara rites were most likely the same rites. People in one location might celebrate May Day. Another location might celebrate Ostara earlier in April or late March. Despite this they were both essentially the same rite, that is, a Vanir fertility rite. In the same way we could see that Summer Finding and Sigrblót were most likely the same rite in the same way that May Day and Ostara were. The Sigrblót/Summer Finding rite was conducted to bring success in battle and ventures. It was definitely Aesir in nature. Communities would have celebrated one or the other depending on class or the devotion of the community leader to one god or the other. They could have also celebrated both rites. Grimm quotes four different ways of welcoming Summer. In Sweden and Gothland, he describes a mock battle between Winter and Summer, with the latter winning and making a triumphal entry. The Second, in Schonen, Denmark, L. Saxony and England is the May Day rites which include processions and the May-wagon or riding. The third, on the Rhine, a mock battle between Winter and Summer but without the triumphal entry and the fourth, in Franconia, Thuringia, Meissen, Silesia and Bohemia, only the carrying-out of wintry Death with no battle and no introduction of Summer. The first two fall in May and the last two in March. In the first two the whole population takes part and the second two only the lower classes take part. However the second and fourth have no anti-thesis battling as the first and third do. (9. c.24) In any case though I will leave it to the reader to decide from the evidence presented as to whether or not my theory holds any water.

Sun’s Wending (Midsummer)

The second of the two great tides was Midsummer or Sun’s Wending. Like Jól it marked off one of the two seasons of the year. (483) It was the counterpart of Jól and like it, we have quite a few customs that have survived concerning it. As the name suggests this feast was held in the middle of summer, most likely around the summer solstice. This was later called St. John’s Day by the Christians and was celebrated on June 24th. It was of old associated with Baldr and in was called Phol-days (Baldr-days). The jumping over of bonfires and rolling burning sun-cross wheels down hills were features from this rite from days of old. (484)
One of the most well attested customs connected with Midsummer was the bonfire over which the youth would jump. Unlike the Ostara/May Day fires which were on hills and mountains, the Midsummer fires were more often in fields and in or near the towns and cities. They wore garlands of flowers and threw herbs into the fire. In one account the garland was to be made of nine sorts of flowers. The same account gives that all manner of herbs were thrown into the fire and the problems and troubles of the person who threw the herbs would go off in the fire and smoke. Some of the herbs thrown in were mugwort, monks-hood, larkspur, mullein and walnut leaves. In another account it is said that wreaths of mugwort and ‘monks-hood.’ Everyone was said to carry a blue plant called larkspur and while looking into the fire they said, “So depart all mine ill-fortune and be brunt up with this herb!” and then they threw the plant into the fire. Some accounts tell of pranks being played on passers by with hidden fireworks as well. Some sources describe the wreaths worn by the those celebrating as being made of motherwort and vervain with violets being carried in the hand. (485) Other customs included the baking and distributing of large loaves or cakes and circular dances like those performed on May Day. The dances, in some places evolved into plays and dramatic presentations. (486)

At Nürnberg the young men went about begging for wood and carted it to the Bleacher’s pond by the Spital-gate and made a fire which they jumped over. This was thought to give them good health for the whole year. They also charged passers by for the privilege of jumping over the fire. This tradition was continued when Mid-Summer was Christianized into St. John’s Day. On St. John’s Day eve the bonfire was started and it was jumped over just as in the Mid-Summer rite. Mead was also drank over it. Nicolaus Gryse (1593) mentions a regular practice on St John’s Day. In his account the fire was the need-fire and they jumped over the fires and drove the cattle by it as well. They were described as passing the night ‘in great sins, shame and harms.’ These fires were kept burning up till midnight and sometimes up until dawn. (487)

Another very good account comes from a German village on the Moselle, near Sierk and Thionville. Every house delivers straw to the top of the Stromberg and the men and boys assembled there when it gets close to evening. Women and girls were stationed by the Burbach spring. They took a huge wheel and wrapped it all over with straw, so much so, that none of the wood from the wheel could be seen any longer. They then would put a strong pole through the center that stuck out about a yard on each side and it is there that it was grasped on each side by those that guide the wheel. Any straw that was left over from the covering of the wheel is used to make torches. At a signal given by the ‘Maire of Sierk (who, according to ancient custom, earned a basket of cherries for the service), the wheel was lighted and it would begin its roll down the hill. A shout of joy was raised at this and everyone waved their torches. Part of the men stayed on the hill while the other part followed the wheel down the hill. If the wheel was still on fire when it reached the river it was considered an omen of an abundant vintage from the nearby vineyards. While the wheel was rushing past the women and girls they would erupt in cheers and they would be answered by the men on the hill and the inhabitants of the neighboring villages who were in attendance. In similar fashion the butchers of Treves are said to send down a wheel on fire every year, and in France fires and burning wheels are attested to as early as the 12th century. (488)

Other similar rites were performed in Slavic countries and in Russia.

In Carinthia the rolling of ‘St. John’s’ fiery wheel is described. They also leaped over bonfires as well did they lead their cattle by the fires to protect them against witchcraft. It is interesting to note that protecting the cattle from disease (the original purpose of this rite) is turned into protecting them from witchcraft, an obvious Christianizing of the rite. In Russia young men and women, garlanded with flowers and girt with ‘holy herbs’ all got together on the 24th of June and lighted a fire which they leapt over and led their flocks over while singing songs. This was thought to protect the cattle from wood-sprites. Sometimes a white cock was burned in the fire as well. (489)
The charcoal and partially burned limbs from the fire were considered as having magical protective properties. Some of the charred branches were taken home and it was believed to have been good luck and protective. Some would jump three times round the fire with a branch of walnut in the their hands. Father’s of families would whisk a branch through the fire which they would than put up over their cow-house door. The old men would put some of the coal from the fire in their wooden shoes which was thought to safeguard them from various woes. Other customs had large burs of mugwort being hung over the gate or gap through which cattle would always pass. (490)
That these customs described are Heathen in nature is shown by the issuing of the following order by the Nürnberg town-council. “Whereas experience heretofore hath shown, that after the old heathenish use, on John’s day in every year, in the country, as well in towns as villages, money and wood hath been gathered by young folk, and thereupon the so-called sonnenwendt or zimmet fire kindled, and thereat winebibbing, dancing about the said fire, leaping over the same, with burning of sundry herbs and flowers, and setting of brands from the said fire in the fields, and in many other ways all manner of superstitious work carried on—Therefore the Hon. Council of Nürnberg town neither can nor ought to forbear to do away with all such unbecoming superstition, paganism, and peril of fire on this coming day of St. John (Neuer lit. anz. 1807, p. 318).” Sun’s Wending fires were forbidden in Austria in 1850. (491)

Feasts Held Regularly at Longer Intervals

There were instances of feasts that were held regularly but at longer intervals than a year. We have accounts of great feasts held every nine years, one in Uppsala and one in Denmark. Adam of Bremen tells of the great sacrifice that was held at Uppsala every nine years. Snorri called this the ‘chief blót,’ and was held to obtain peace and victory for the Swedish king. Kings and commoners alike sent gifts to Uppsala. Those who subscribed to the Christian religion had to pay for not coming to the blót. They would sacrifice nine of every living creature each day, including men and they would hang the bodies in the tree that was considered to be divine. 72 men were said to be hanging on the tree according to one account. The festival lasted nine days and sacrifices were made on each day. It was held at the beginning of Summer at the same time the Sigrblót was held. The second account comes from Thietmar of Merseburg. He wrote of a great feast that was held every ninth year in which 90 men along with horses, dogs and cocks were offered to ‘the powers of the Underwold.’ Many scholars consider the account to be unreliable and likely a copy of Adam of Bremen’s account. (492)

 (by Lady Arianna aka Donna


Send your answers to the following questions
in an email with the subject line:  “Teutonic Religious Practices Lesson D from _______ ”

1.  Name the two most important annual feasts.

2.  Which feast was also called the “Feast of Wains” by the Ango-Saxons? And when did it take place? And to whom did it pay honor too?

3.  What is The Álfablót?

4.  When was the “Winter Nights” feast held? What was its purpose?

5.  According to most sources the Dísablót was held during Winter Nights, what was disablot?

6.  T/F: One of the two most important feasts of the year was the Jólablót, this great blot was held on one important day.

7.  Fill in the blanks: The time of _____ was also a time of year when the borders between the _____ Worlds was at its thinnest, especially between Mithgarthr and the world of the ______ .

8.  What was Othinn’s Wild hunt thought to be?

9.  What one tradition that was strongly connected with Freyr was the Oath-Boar can also be connected to a modern day practice?

10.  What was Mother Night to the Anglo-Saxons and what modern day tradition could it be associated with?

11.  Explain the custom of the Yule boar performed on Yule-Eve and how it relates to us today.

12.  Explain Thorrablót and its purpose or meaning.

13.  T/F: Many of the rites were celebrated not on a certain day but according to the turning of the tides.

14.  T/F: Vanir rites were more often concerned with fertility whereas Aesir rites might be more concerned with issues important to the ruling’ chiefs and later on, kings.

15.  What does the author say were the two different rites performed in the Spring?

16.  The Sigrblót (Victory blót) was also called what? And why was it held?

17.  Explain Ostara and what it meant to the Northmen as well as Christians.

18.  Name an Ostara tradition that continues today.

19.  What was the difference between the bonfires of Easter/May-Feast and Midsummer?

20.  T/F: May Day rites and the Ostara rites were most likely the same rites.

21.  List Grimm’s quotes of four different ways of welcoming Summer.

22.  The second of the two great tides was __________  or Sun’s Wending. Like Jól it marked off one of the ____ seasons of the year.

23.  When was the Midsummer feast held and what was it later called by Christians?

24.  Name at least three customs that were practiced during this feast.

25.   Everyone was said to carry a blue plant to toss into the fire, what was the plant and explain the reason for this custom.

26.  What is the significance of the “St. Johns fiery wheel”?

27.  These customs described are ____________ in nature as shown by the issuing of the following order by the Nürnberg town-council.

28.  What was the “chief blot”, when was it held and why?

29.  T/F:  According the Snorri those who subscribed to the Christian religion had to pay for not coming to the blót.

30.  T/F:  They would sacrifice two of every living creature each day, including men and they would hang the bodies in the tree that was considered to be divine.