One of the big challenges of a reconstructed faith is taking a religion that varied through several centuries and creating a single system out of the mix. The faith of the Teutonic peoples was practiced for hundreds of years from Germany to Iceland and almost everywhere in between. It’s no surprise the tribes of first century B.C. tribal Denmark celebrated and worshipped differently than the city dwellers of eleventh century A.D. Reykjavik, despite practicing the same religion. We who now revive the faith have a lot of history to sort through and synthesize into something coherent and personally (or communally, for groups) meaningful.
Deciding when and how to celebrate holidays is one of those things–a subject I’ve explored before in reference to Ostara. The major branches of Ásatrú have compiled their own holiday calendars, but even a brief query to The Oracle (i.e. Google) will show that none of them match up. While some Heathens strive to emulate a particular time and place as exactly as possible, most individuals and kindreds (heathen groups) create our own list of celebrations using the poems and sagas of the Teutonic peoples (collectively referred to as the “Lore”) as a guide.
Heathens worship is less tied to astrological events than a lot of other Pagan faiths. We have no moon ceremonies and we don’t religiously celebrate solstices, equinoxes or cross-quarter days as part of Heathen faith (although a lot of people celebrate them in community with our fellow Pagans). Liturgically we only recognize two seasons–summer and winter and from what I’ve read (and please somebody correct me if you’ve got better information, but from what I’ve read this seems to be the case) our ancestors didn’t have rigid start and end dates based on solstices and equinoxes. Seasons were decided by the rhythm of weather and harvest and could vary based on latitude and annual fluctuations. For example, the fjords are freezing and the harvest is done so it’s winter. The ground is no longer frozen and we can start planting things and go a-viking, so it’s summer.1, 2 (Not that freezing fjords are an issue in Texas…)
There is evidence that people often threw a party during the change from summer to winter to mark the end of the harvest and give thanks to higher powers. Modern Heathens call it Winter Nights, and we use it as a day to celebrate our Dísir, the female ancestors who watch over and protect us. As an extension of the Dísir, some practitioners also give thanks to Frejya, the Lady of the Dís, and some to her twin brother Freyr, the Lord of the Harvest. 3
This link to the Disir, the spirits of our ancestors, gives us some similarity to Samhain (Halloween), the more well known Pagan holiday. But while Samhain has more to do with a general thinning of the veil between this world and the next, Winter Nights is a day to celebrate the good things our Disir have done for us and to honor their contributions to our living family. There are many ways to honor the Disir, but the basic one is to name your ancestry as far back as you can then pour a libation and share a bit of food in a special dish. For Heathens, that recitation of names is a way of showing respect and assuring our kin that though they have died, they won’t be forgotten.
Another event celebrated around this time is the Álfablót (Elf Blot). Not much is known about this holiday, except that it was done in private with only the household in attendance.* The elves are land spirits in Norse myth, and though the Elf Blot is a particular day dedicated to them and to Odin, it was common on all holidays to leave treats for the elves outside as a gift. Appeasing or keeping them happy was a common thing to do when things went wrong on the farm or during outdoor work such as construction (and still isn’t unheard of in Iceland). It makes perfect sense to me that the alfar and the dísir were worshipped at holidays right next to each other. To me, they represent the two directions of wyrd–dísir the time component and alfar the place component. I am responsible to uphold the family name given by my ancestors to pass it on unscathed to my descendents, and I am responsible to take care of my present environment in a manner that will ensure its continued growth.
While I personally haven’t worked on developing a relationship with the local land wights (other than my tomte, the house elf), I have been trying to include ancestor veneration in my life, and it has brought me a lot of calm. Winter Nights is a time to reflect on this relationship and give it special attention. I think I’ll wait a few weeks until the last grasp of Texas’ summer has released its hold, but this year I will take an evening to spend quality time thanking my Dísir for their engagement this year and maybe make an effort to be better neighbors with my local land wights. If my garden succeeds for the first time, well, ever, I guess I’ll know they’ve finally been appeased!
What are you October traditions?
* The Elf Blot is mentioned slightingly by the Christian poet Sigvatr Þórðarson (Thor-thar-son) in his work Austrfaravísur (oss-ter-far-ah-vees-er; East Journey Verses), which, unfortunately, I couldn’t find translated into English. Basically Sigvatr tells of trying to find a place to stay for the night in a Swedish village. Despite the normal rules of hospitality, nobody would give him lodging because it was the night of the Elf Blot, and they didn’t want to offend Odin and the local wights (a wight is any supernatural being; usually used in the Lore to mean an elf or Dís) by having a Christian stranger in their home. Although the poet seemed to think his exclusion was over fearful Heathen superstition, I have to wonder if their decision to keep him out during a private religious ceremony was affected by Sigvatr being a court poet for the King responsible for Christianizing Norway. The poet towed the new party line, refusing to use traditional myth and stories in his work during a time when Christian/Heathen relations were particularly hostile. If his personal attitude matched his politics, I’m not sure I would’ve wanted him in my home during a sacred ceremony, either.
+ Featured Image: Dancing Elves by August Malmström