Matronæ and Dísir: On Ancestresses

Originally published in SageWoman, Fall, 1999

The Matronæ

by Diana L. Paxson

Autumn wind sighs in the pine trees, chill air displacing the milder layer where earth still gives back the warmth of the day. In mid-October, when folk feast to honor their ancestors and welcome winter, dusk falls early. The girl who is coming through the woods will have plenty of darkness for tonight’s working.

Beyond the birches she can make out the shape of the gravemound. In the half-light it seems darker than the ground around it. She shivers, suddenly uncertain, but need drives her forward. She has a right to be here– it is her own great-grandmother, her Edda, who is buried in that mound. They say she was a woman who knew a thing or two, a Seidhkona who had been trained in the old magic. Some whisper that she used her powers to bend men’s minds, but the girl’s mother has told her that Edda worked only to protect her family.

But her own children were afraid to learn the old ways, and too much of the old woman’s magic died with her. In this girl, the power is wakening once more — she sees things that others don’t, she says things, and find them coming true, the land speaks to her, but she can’t quite understand what it is trying to say. She wants Edda’s wisdom– she needs it, and it is her rightful heritage.

And so she has come to the mound.

The hill is sunken a little with time, and the curb of stones around the base partly overgrown, but the grass that covers it is still thick and only a little browned by frost. She has brought a bearskin to sit upon, and a thick cloak to wrap around her. Carefully she settles herself atop the mound. She has heard about out-sitting in old stories and songs, though she doesn’t know anyone who will admit to doing it. In the tales, people who sit on a stranger’s grave end up mad, or dead, or filled with magic. But when a child, or a descendent, sits on a mother’s grave she is supposed to respond with good advice and protective

“A spell of safety here I cast,” the girl whispers,

a ward of might to hold me fast–
a shield before me and behind,
to right and left protection bind.
To me may no ill wight come nigh,
but only she whose rede I cry!”

She draws the Elk rune in the air in each direction, and then on her forehead. She hopes that will protect her. It is entirely dark now, and there is no moon. The birches are a blur of darkness against the dim sky. She calms her breathing, attuning herself to the space around her, and settles herself to wait.

Time passes; she finds herself hovering on the borders of sleep. It is not until the out-tide, the depths of night, that something changes, and even then she cannot be certain if she has awakened or this is another dream. But it seems to her that she is sitting at an old trestle table, whose top has been bleached by scrubbing. On a carved wooden platter is an apple streudel, its crust sprinkled with powdered sugar. Across from her sits an old woman with a kerchief over her hair.

“So, child of my blood,” she says, “you have come at last– what is it you want to know?”

And the girl asks, and is answered. . .

In the morning, stiff and chilled, she opens her eyes and finds herself still sitting on the mound. She thinks that she must have been dreaming, then she licks her lips and tastes sugar. And at the taste, the doors of her memory are opened, and everything that her Edda taught her she now knows.

The practice of “out-sitting” is a common motif in Scandinavian folklore. For those with the strength of will to endure it, this is the best way to communicate with the ancestors. In the stories, the relative most likely to be addressed, and most likely to give good advice when one does so, is the mother.

This should not be surprising, since in the north it was the dísir, or female ancestors, who were the traditional protectors of the family line. But it was not only in Scandinavia that our foremothers had this role. In Africa, the old women are the possessors of magic, and their spirits appear as birds. All over Roman Europe we find altars to the matronæ, carved with the Latin names and Romanized images of the female figures who were our first and most dependable protectors. As one might expect in a culture which believed in reincarnation, the Mothers were invoked in connection with both birth and death.

Perhaps the best-known story in which a descendent gets wisdom by sleeping on a mother’s grave-mound is “Svipdagsmál,” the story of a young man, Svipdag, whose step-mother gives him the fate to love the mysterious maiden Mengloth, who lives in the Otherworld. The poem begins as he arrives at her grave.

Awake, Gróa, good woman, awake!
At the door of the dead I wake thee:
dost bear in mind how thou badest thy son
to thy grave-hill to go?

From the grave, she answers him–

What aileth now my only son,
what maketh heavy thy heart,
that thy mother thou callest under mould who lieth,
and hath left the world of the living?

After he has explained his problem, he asks her to,

Speak thou such spells as will speed my way!
Shield and shelter thy son!

In response, she tells him how to win through fear, mocking words, threatening waters, attack by foes, fetters, storms at sea, deadly cold, ghosts, and riddle contests with giants. For some of the perils, it will be enough for him to speak the spell she gives him, but if he is in danger from others, especially imprisonment or storms, she promises to do active magic to protect him.

In this, she shares the role of other female protectors such as the Valkyries, who not only selected those who were to die, but used magic to defend their chosen heroes. In one of the earliest northern magical texts, a collection of spells from Merseberg, Germany, the idisi (Old High German equivalent of the Norse word, dísir, singular dís) are described as sitting together while the warriors fight, some fastening the bonds that paralyse the enemy, some holding them back, and some pulling open the bonds that the foe’s protectors have attempted to fasten on their own men.

Tacitus, who wrote in the first century about the German tribes, described native battles in which the women would stand on the sidelines, cheering the men on. No doubt they were also chanting spells of protection. Tales such as “Svipdagsmál” make it clear that a mother’s ability to protect did not end with her death. Indeed, passing from this world to the Other often seemed to make an individual more powerful. For instance, when a king in whose reign the harvests had been particularly good passed on, his mound became a place of worship. Through successive generations of invocation, his figure became more and more mythic until he was assimilated to the god he most resembled. It should be noted, also that important people were buried with furniture and tools and weapons, and the interior of the mound was envisioned as being quite a comfortable place.

The alfar (spirits of male relatives) and dísir (female) were honored throughout the north, especially at the feast of Winter Nights held in the autumn, but it was the disir who seem to have been considered most closely concerned with the fates of their descendents. In Njáls saga, we learn of two such, Thorgerd and Irpa, clan-goddeses of the Jarls of Hladhir in Norway, who had life-size statues in their own shrine. When Jarl Hakon fought the Jomsvikings, he made offerings to them. In response, they appeared at the battle with arrows flying out of their fingertips. Some families had a temple, the dísarsalr, in which the clan-disir were regularly worshipped.

We often see their connection with particular families in those Norse sagas that describe the conversion to Christianity. In the Flateyjarbók, there is a story about a man called Thridrandi who went outside after the Winter Nights’ feast. Two groups of female spirits came galloping towards him. The ones in black tried to kill him, while the ones in white defended. In the morning he was found wounded and died soon after. His friend Thorhall then said,

I expect that your dísir which have followed the old faith have now learned of this changing of customs and that they shall be forsaken by their kin. Now they must not want to have no share from you before they part from you and they must have (taken) this as their part. But the better dísir must have wanted to help him and were not able to do so as things stood.

Rather than looking upon the dísir as “good”, or “bad”, however, it might be more accurate to consider the color of their clothing as part of their message. In the “Greenland Lay of Atli”, Gunnarr’s wife tries to stop him from going to his death at Atli’s (Attila’s) hall by reporting a dream in which,

Methought in the darkness came dead women hitherward,
clad in garments of mourning,and wished to fetch thee,
beckoned and bade theeto their benches forthwith:
I fear thy disir have forsaken thee.

(l. 25)

When the disir appear “foe-like”, as in “Grimnismál”, it is time for a man to die. In Irish tradition, the wailing of the bean-sidhe has much the same significance. It is not surprising that ancestral spirits should be concerned with those who are about to enter the world of the ancestors themselves, however we must not allow modern attitudes towards death to make us interpret this situation as entirely negative.

In both Celtic and Germanic culture, a belief in reincarnation within the family line made both birth and death very much the business of the family’s guardian spirits. One may imagine the disir, like careful gardeners, debating the best time for a spirit to be harvested, and considering when the seed should most profitably be planted once more. This ambivalence survives in tales in which both good and bad fairies come to a christening.

The disir are thus closely associated in function not only to the Valkyries, the “choosers of the slain”, but also with the Norns, who decide the fate of the newborn, and by extension, with the Latin Parcae or Fates, and of course, to fairy godmothers. Here we may look at surviving fairy-lore for suggestions on the nature and functions of such guardians.

In the Highlands, fairy protectors are well-known, from the fairy of the MacCleods, who rocked the cradle of the heir and gifted the family with its battle flag, to Meg Moulach, who in the seventeenth century would stand beside the laird of the Grants and advise him on chess moves. The woman in grey silk attached to Denton Hall in Northumberland is another such, who apparently continued to take care of the surviving members until the family died out, at which point she turned into a rather disruptive poltergeist.

The disir, and with them, the goddesses Frigga and Freyja, are called to help with the conception and birth of children. In the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturlisson speaks of the “norns” who appear when a child is born to foretell its fate,

…some of the kin of the Aesir, some of the kin of alfs, some are daughters of Dvalinn (dwarves)…Good norns of fine kin shape good lives; but those folk who have ill-shaping, that is ruled by ill norns.

In this context the clan mothers are appearing in their role as givers of fate. Gundarsson connects this with the concept of the luck of the clan, which the disir pass to the child at its birth or name-giving.

Until the advent of DNA testing, paternity was always a matter of faith. The only relative one could be certain of was the mother. It therefore makes sense that the male ancestors were more likely to be seen as protectors of a tribe or region, while female ancestors were specifically concerned with the survival of the family line. It is also likely that their worship is exceedingly ancient, going back at least to the time when Celtic and Germanic tribes lived side by side. The designation of the Sidhe as the “Tuatha Dé Danaan”, the tribe of Danu, suggests an ancient identification of the tribe with the primal mother. Freyja’s title of “Vanadís”, clan-protector or goddess of the Vanir, may have a similar implication.

Throughout the northern provinces of the Roman empire clay or stone
figures and votive sculptures to the matronae have been found.
Some have labels such as “Suebian Mothers”, “Germanic Mothers,” or “paternal
Frisian Mothers”, while others, such as those set up by soldiers on the Wall
in Britain, have names such as “Garmangabi”, the richly giving. They are
extremely common along the Rhine.

Sometimes the images are singular, but more often they appear in groups of three seated goddesses, the flanking figures with their hair dressed high in a kind of diadem while the central figure has flowing hair. Often they hold emblems of their function– a cornucopia, a basket of apples, bread, or a child, or more occasionally a tree or an animal such as a dog. It is important to note that although the figures are often presented as a triad, they are equal aspects rather than presenting a sequence of Maiden/Mother/Crone. In one example found in London, there are not three figures but four.

Inscriptions on some of the images indicate they were commissioned by members of the tribe or line the Mothers protected, however others seem to have been set up by soldiers stationed in foreign territory in hopes of getting the favor the goddesses of the new land. This offers a model for those of us who would rather avoid dealing with our immediate ancestors (God-fearing Christians, whom we fear will disapprove), and connect with more distant ethnic or spiritual ancestors.

A wide gulf of experience and tradition separates us from our ancient mothers. Cemetery regulations do not allow overnight visitors– sitting out upon your mother’s or grandmother’s grave is not an option, even if you still live in the area, or she even has a grave in these days when cremation is so popular. How, then can we make contact with the Mothers?

The Magical Mound

Although we may not have access to the actual grave-mound of an ancestress, we can create a focus for communication by building a symbolic mound. In form, this can be anything from a small hummock in your garden to a pile of stones on a tray in your apartment. Within the mound, you may bury something belonging to your ancestress, a photo, or even a name or names on a piece of paper. If you want to get more elaborate, you may make a bread-dough image or ginger-bread woman, name it, and put it there.

Treat the “mound” as you would an actual grave-site. Keep it trimmed and weeded, set out flowers and on special occasions, pour out some favorite drink as an offering. Times which would be especially appropriate for such work are Sawain or the Norse Winter Nights feast in mid-October, Mothernight — the eve of the Winter Solstice, or mid-February, which was in some districts of Scandinavia the time for the Dísirblót. In the United States, you might also consider holidays associated with the family and nation, such as Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.

More important than the formal observances, however, is the personal work you do there. Sit out beside the mound, not necessarily at night, but at a time when you will not be disturbed. Contemplate all that you know about your ancestress, call on her, tell her your problems, and then empty your mind and wait for a reply. Of course you can do much the same thing with an indoor ancestor altar where you put family photos and keepsakes. What matters is not so much the form of the shrine, as the time you spend there.

Oral History

In old Norse, the term “Edda” is the word both for a great-grandmother and a collection of ancient stories. This is not a chance association. In many families, it is the old women who are the custodians of family history. It is foolish to focus only on the dead when our living ancestors are such a rich source of tales.

When I was a little girl, I loved to visit my grandmother and ask her for stories, whether about my mother’s childhood or her own. When my grandmother was a child, “the War” meant the Civil War. She made a hoop skirt out of barrel hoops for dress-up. A teacher once told her that men would never fly, never reach the heart of darkest Africa, and never get to the moon. She lived to the age of ninety-four, curious and vital to the end, my link to the nineteenth century as for my grand-children I shall be a link from the twentieth to the twenty-first.

In recent years, “oral history” has become a respectable subject in academe. Earnest graduate students go out with tape recorders to capture the reminiscences of people who had no idea their lives were so interesting at the time. University libraries are full of the results, and from time to time some of them are published in a nice coffee-table book with sepia-toned pictures. Reading them, one is struck again and again not only by the differences between the experiences of those elders and our own, but by the things which have remained the same.

History, whether oral or written, biography or autobiography, links us to our ancestors. The most exciting narratives are the first person experiences, the ones that give you a sense of what it was like to live in another time and place, and illuminate both what is different and those things that stay the same.

Adopted Ancestors

As I have continued to work with ancestors, I have concluded that even those who were good Christians don’t seem to mind being honored, toasted, invoked and prayed to. However in earlier days, when I was eager to get in touch with a genuine heathen foremother, I discovered that it is possible to adopt an ancestor.

Our genetic forebears give us a great deal– shape and coloring, health and even some aspects of personality– but they don’t account for everything. We also have ancestors of the spirit, people who have touched our lives and sometimes even turned them around because of what they were or what they did. Sometimes they are teachers, sometimes the authors of inspiring books; often they are women or men who by their lives have shown us how to live. If you are building an ancestor shrine, it is perfectly acceptable to include photos or symbols of people who shaped your soul.

But if you want to make a connection with the past, especially if you are looking for an ancestress to act as a spirit guide, and have no idea who to look for, you need to find an ancestor on the inner planes. In such a situation, the pathworking included in the ritual that follows can put you in touch with a spirit who will lead you to what you need.

I first did this working when I was leading a seminar on ancestor work at Ancient Ways bookstore. During the trance, I encountered a sturdy blonde woman who called herself Helga, said she was Frisian, and agreed to be one of my disir and help me learn about Germanic women’s mysteries– but only if I did something about my kitchen! In true Germanic tradition, she refused to cross my threshold so long as the heart of the house was a grubby room with pocked walls and woodwork and linoleum so ancient that when I tried to clean the floor, it would dissolve. Interestingly enough, another woman in the group apparently encountered the same figure, who promised to teach her how to make streudel. Our response to this challenge led to the next working:

Kitchen Witchery

I come of a long line of meticulous German housewives, followed by a somewhat shorter line of women who were poor housekeepers except when guests were expected, when they would make themselves and everyone around them miserable trying to make up a month’s worth of housekeeping in one day. For most of my life I have been their true heir. My office/bedroom still consists of piles upon piles, but my kitchen– these days that’s another story. Ever since I started working with my disir, things have been changing. I doubt it will ever be material for Better Homes and Gardens, but now, not only can I clean it, but on a fairly regular basis I actually do so.

Since I tend to clean only for guests and for gods, my solution to my problem, and the means by which I persuaded Helga the Frisian to work with me, was to turn the kitchen into a temple of the disir.

Once I started remodeling, I discovered that below the multiple layers of paint that hid the woodwork was lovely red cedar, which was gradually stripped and restored. Underneath the rotting linoleum was perfectly good planking, which was sanded and then stained the color of spilled coffee. I painted the walls whitewash white, and gradually began to collect ethnic decorations around a color scheme of dark wood, blue and white. Last summer, when I traveled in northern Germany, I saw interiors in a folk museum with exactly the look that I seem to have instinctively been aiming for.

Not too surprisingly, quite a few goddesses have worked their way into the decor. Now, when I walk into the kitchen, by simply turning in a circle I can invoke a spectrum of Mothers to bless my home. In the direction of the Pacific is a statuette of Kuan Yin from Oakland’s Chinatown. In the northern corner is a doll made of flax from Germany that I identify with Frigga. In the eastern corner is a cloth doll made by Priestess Miriam of the New Orleans Voodoo Temple which is my image of Nana, the African grandmother orisha, and in the south is a kachina of Crow Mother from Oraibi. Together, these grandmothers of the four directions include the foremothers of all humankind, and can deal with almost any emergency.

Scattered around the room are other images– a statuette of Brigid made from peat that I got in Ireland, a reproduction of a Vermeer painting of a milkmaid, a Russian matroshka doll, a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and my Disir shrine, which holds three Romano-German matronae figures from Wurms. Photos of grandmothers from the family complete the collection. By the time I have talked to them all, I can feel a shift in the atmosphere– the Mothers are awake and on duty, and I can trust them to watch over my family and help me cope during the rest of the day.

A Ritual for the Mothers

This working should take place in the kitchen, or next to it, with a few relatives or good friends. Clean the area thoroughly– scrub the walls and woodwork, wax the floor. Decorate with candles and flowers. Set up an altar to the Mothers with a clean, ironed cloth and family pictures. Place a bowl with a stone in it before the altar to receive the drink offering. Participants can also bring home-made food, especially if it is from an old family recipe, or the group can work together to prepare something as part of the ritual.

Prepare the space by sweeping widdershins with a broom. Say–

With broom of birch I sweep this circle round
Within this space no evil shall be found–

(lay broom across door)

Fill a chalice or drinking horn with juice, wine, or mead, and invoke the Mothers:

Our Mighty Mothers here we honor:
Earth, release the blessed spirits,
Brown and black and pale and golden,
whose bodies birthed and souls inspired us
from womb to womb, since world’s beginning:

Insert the names of women from history whom you want to honor, or add the following–

Sigrid, who held to foremothers’ faith,
Veleda, whose vision made Rome tremble,
Gudrun, Gróa, Thorgerd, Unnr,
Witches and priestesses, valkyries, queens,

Then pour a little liquid from the chalice into the offering bowl.

Of women’s blood we all were born–
with blood (of grape) we redden now this stone. . .

Pass the chalice around the circle, and let each woman toast her foremothers. When you have finished, do the pathworking that follows. If you are going to cook something together (such as streudel), this is the point at which you will put the ingredients together. Do the pathworking while the dish is cooking. With practice, you can learn to time the meditation so that it will take exactly as long as the baking!


The pathworking can be whatever the group needs, from a visit to a particular goddess to silent meditation. However if you are just beginning to work with the Mothers, I suggest the following–

You are walking across a plain. Behind you rises the Worldtree, axis of creation, the center post of all the worlds. Around you stretches a land of field and forest, mountain and desert, that looks very like our own, for this also is Middle Earth, the aspect of the world made for humankind that lies within. As you move, you pause from time to time, shading your eyes as you look around you. You have been travelling for a long time.

But, now, as you look, your gaze sharpens. Surely that low hill is not natural, for the ground lies flat all around it. You hurry forward, certain now that you have found the mound of the ancestors. Slowly you walk around it. The hill is covered with green grass, but on the northern side is an indentation that might almost be a door.

You stand before it and lift your hands. Ask, in your own words, for an ancient mother to come to you, whether she be of your blood or not. Ask for one who will be a guardian, a guide to women’s mysteries. Ask for one who will help you understand what it means to be a woman of power, and help you fulfill your potential.

Watch the doorway. See it darken, grow larger, until it is an opening into the hill. Wait for the figure that will come out to you. . .

Now ask her name. Who is she, and how can she help you? What does she ask of you in return?

Talk and make friends. When it is time for you to return, thank your new dís and make your way back to the Worldtree, and from there back to the world we know.

Take a few deep breaths. Return awareness to your body, and open your eyes.

Take a few moments to reorient yourselves and share your experiences. Then, take the food out of the oven or off the stove, unpack the goodies, and feast with the Mothers and your friends. Don’t forget to fill a plate with samples and set it on the altar.

When you are done, thank all your foremothers, including the ones you have just met. Blow out the candles and clean up the kitchen. Only when the pots are washed and put away will the ritual be done.

Once you have made contact with the Mothers, don’t forget them. Meditate with them at regular intervals. Write down their advice, and follow it. At least once a year, feast with them again.


K.M. Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, Routledge, 1967

H.R.Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of the Viking Age, Barnes & Noble, 1996

_______________, The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, London: Routledge, 1993

Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology: I, Dover 1966

Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain Routledge, 1967

Our Troth, ed. Kveldulfr Gundarsson, Ring of Troth, 1993

“Svipdagsmál”, “The Greenland Lay of Atli”, The Poetic Edda, translated by Lee Hollander, University of Texas Press, 1986

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