Originally published in Guðe, Wintermanoth 1996
Feeling the Harvest:
How to Understand Agricultural Rituals In A Technological Society
The theme of this issue, “Feeling the Harvest,” deals with a problem that our forebears never wrestled with; a problem that most of them likely would not even have been able to comprehend: how to adapt festivals and symbols that grew out of an agrarian lifestyle and celebrate the turning of the agricultural year to a society in which few of us are farmers and many of us live as far from the land as it is possible to get without actually being on the Moon. Like it or not, most of us did not grow up in a rural setting: we have not experienced the ploughing, sowing, and reaping of a field, nor have we raised up a piglet and slaughtered it in the autumn for our winter’s bacon. In the old days, Winternights was a feast of celebration after a month or two of continuous, backbreaking labour; nowadays, it more often marks the beginning of the last push to accomplish major projects before the beginning of the various and sundry Midwinter festivities.
Yet most of the images of the Elder Troth (the greater part of those which do not deal with Iron Age warfare) are agrarian images: we speak of sowing and reaping, of trees bearing fruit. Some of our most powerful symbols – the apple, the nut, the sheaf of grain, the Yule-boar – come from our heritage as farmers and folk of the land. We know that most of our chief deities had aspects or were worshipped with special rituals connected with the harvest: the Last Sheaf set out to gain the blessing of Wodan and his host of the wild dead riding over the fields; the processions of Freyr and Nerthus, the role of Thonar in hallowing the rippling grain and warding it from the scathes of hail and drought. The turning of the year, in elder times, gave us rest and work in their due courses, according to the turning of Earth and the heavens: in the spring, we planted; in the summer, we fished or fought; in the autumn, we harvested; and in the winter, we sat indoors to mend our old gear and ready ourselves for the needs of a new year.
That is no longer so. For most of us, our jobs are pretty much the same year ’round, whether it is four days until Yule or the day after Loaf-Feast. Despite shorter daylight, we do not work shorter hours in winter, or longer hours in summer; nor are there usually moments as clear-cut and predictable in time as the old harvest feast, when we can easily stop and say, “This is my year’s harvest, the reward for all my hard work.”
There is a certain price paid by those of us who live in the urbanized modern world – a price which is indistinguishable from its benefits. The darkness and harsh weather of winter, for instance, do not keep me from earning my food by writing during the same hours as in the summertime; but when my editor gives me a deadline of January 1, I cannot explain to her that the winter is a season for resting from the year’s hard labour and doing indoor handcrafts such as restoring that old chest I bought in a barn sale last summer. Modern life, in short, separates us (albeit to greater and lesser degrees, depending on our professions and where we live) from the natural rhythm by which our forebears lived, and thereby makes it harder for us to experience the seasons and realities through which they saw and understood the might of our god/esses.
So what can we do about this separation? Is the solution for all true folk to abandon their jobs as computer programmers, lawyers, secretaries, and so forth, and head out to buy their own farms? Probably not. Our forebears were not folk who fled from technology – their ships and metalwork display some of the highest technological advancements of their various times, from the Bronze Age through the Viking Age. It has never been a goal of our religion to cut itself off from the world: it is our hope to be able to thrive and grow in it. This leaves us – especially those of us who are in a clergy position, and therefore expected to be able to interpret the tradition as well as recreate it – with the constant dichotomy of reviving the understanding of our forebears without losing our place in our own age. The question of agricultural religion in a largely non-agricultural society is the most obvious difficulty in this process, and the various solutions to this difficulty should help provide solutions for similar questions when they arise.
As a leader and teacher, it is, of course, needful for you to thoroughly understand what you are trying to do in your rituals so that you can transmit your understanding to all those who take part in them. In other words, you have to learn before you can start teaching.
The two chief aspects of understanding are knowledge and experience. Knowledge, in this particular field, is not all that hard to come by. Reading a few basic books on farming, animal husbandry, and butchering, so that you know the basic facts with which our forebears lived, is a good way to start (can you tell the difference between barley, rye, and wheat when they are growing in a field? Or how much and what kind of food is eaten by cattle or pigs? These distinctions were very important to our forebears; what they mean to true folk in the modern day – is something that needs to be thought about in the light of what they meant in the old days). So is talking to people who live, or have lived, on a working farm. Good, well-researched fiction, or, even better, memoirs written by people who grew up as farmers, can be very helpful here as well. Particularly in the States, accounts of pioneer life often include a tremendous amount of farming detail, in some cases enough to make anyone who had romantic ideas about returning to nature based on no experience with real animals and real weather whatsoever praise the gods at great length that some of our forebears discovered means other than agriculture for making their living.
All that serves as an intellectual framework, and is a good starting point. But the real key to integrating the understanding of our forebears with our modern needs is experience: the true internalization of knowledge. The best thing, of course, would be to spend a year on a farm, to personally feed the animals, milk the cows, plough and sow and reap. For most of us, however, the opportunity to take a year off from a job and stay at a farm as untrained help is really unlikely to arise. This means, as usual, that compromise and creativity are necessary.
Even getting out into agricultural areas on a regular basis is a good beginning. If you are able to go on a drive where you can see the ploughed earth, then the sprouting shoots, then the wavy field of silver-green grain slowly ripening to gold, scythed down to rough stubble, and at last hidden by a blanket of snow (or trampled down into a sea of mud, depending on where you live), this will at least give you a sense of the rhythm of the harvest. If you can get out of the car or bus and spend an hour or two in the field itself on each visit, thinking deeply on how the might of the gods is shown forth through the springing grain, bringing offerings of bread and ale at fitting times to bless the field and celebrate its harvest and rebirth, so much the better (note: always be careful to avoid putting yourself into a situation where you could get in trouble for trespassing, and, if walking in someone else’s field, be very careful not to trample any of the grain). This, of course, is not possible in every part of the world: many areas of North America are not suited to farming grain, for instance. In some of these places, raising livestock may subsitute for farming, in which case, your chief interest will be in the life-cycle of the animals from birth to slaughter (visiting a large slaughterhouse may be enlightening, though you are likely to – and probably should, unless matters have improved vastly in the last few years, be appalled by what you see. More useful for your spiritual work, if you can find such a place, would be to visit one of the “organic” butchers who advertises that its animals are treated and slaughtered humanely – and best of all, of course, would be to take part in a private slaughtering in which the animal is duly respected, thanked, and blessed for giving up its life for your food). If you live in a place where the environment is too harsh for either farming or raising livestock, then, turn your attention to the seasons of nature, what grows and what withers – even the desert has its seasons, after its fashion.
Beyond that, there are other things that can be done in order to bring the turning of the year into your life. Planting and tending a garden, if you have space, is as close to farming as many of us can get in a practical way. Arrange the garden, if you can, so that your last plants to be harvested will finish around Winternights. You can even grow a little bit of grain for ritual use, while flax, that mighty plant of Frija, is often sold as a decorative and sprouts exceedingly well from seed. Although making it into linen is a long, complicated, and often foul-smelling process, not to mention requiring a lot of flax, it can easily be dried and braided or made into dollies and other straw figures in the same way that dried grain-stalks can be. If there is space in the yard and you live in an area where apples will grow well, tending an apple tree or two is a magnificent way to experience the turning of the seasons: flowers in spring, fruit swelling all summer, ready to be picked in the fall (note: different kinds of apple ripen at different times, and also have various longevities after plucking. Some of the varieties grown in Scandinavia can be picked as early as mid-August, while others, the beloved “Yule-apples”, are picked at the end of October and, if carefully stored, are still good for eating at Yule). Those with less space can grow a window-box of herbs: all of them can be harvested and used for offerings on the harrow; some will die in the autumn, while others will last as long as they are regularly watered and cared for.
The agricultural year also determined the timing for the practice of various crafts in traditional times. Leatherwork was dependent on the slaughter of cattle, for instance. Textile production was shaped by shearing-time and available light: the sheep were sheared towards the end of summer; the fleeces were washed and carded, and the vast bulk of spinning took place in the winter, because an experienced spinner requires very little light. As the days grew longer, weaving could begin; and by spring, everyone who could afford it had new clothes (the custom of new clothes for Easter is probably derived from the requirements of traditional methods of clothing production). The brewing of ale depended on the availability of grain, but getting honey for mead was something done around Midsummer (in a long growing season; or when orchard trees are in bloom in a short season) – too early and the honey would be scarce, too late and the bees might starve over the winter (Charles Spratling, “They Make Life Sweet”. Lína, Yule 1993, vol. 1, #3, 7-9, p.8). Finding out what crafts were practiced when is a good way to keep a Kindred linked with their forebears in active, physical ways: once a month, get everyone involved in a traditional crafts project such as might have been practiced during the season – even if it is something very simple, like cutting, tooling, and staining a Tandy Leather keychain. For those interested in traditional crafts as seen and practiced by Ásatrúar, I heartily recommend the excellent publication Lína, the journal of Frigga’s Web.
Food and Ásatrú, by Ságadís
Ásatrú – like all religions, when you get right down to it – is, in large part, about food. Food and drink are the two most basic needs: the gods feed us, and we feed them. People today don’t realize how much of any traditional way of living is taken up solely by food: growing or killing it, cleaning and preparing it, storing it, cooking it. It takes a lot of time and work to get from a sack of seed and a field ready for ploughing to a loaf of bread and a horn of ale. And what people work with, worry about, and live by, is going to shape the religion.
So cooking and eating are also part of understanding our ancestors: they are the last processes in the line of work that starts with clearing the field. And they are dependent on the seasons – absolutely so, in olden days, but even now to some degree. When we moved to Sweden, we went into a little bit of culture shock in the supermarkets. We were used to having a full range of meat and vegetables on display all the time. Here, though there is always some meat, the kind available and the quality vary drastically with the season, because the Swedes tend to stick to the old slaughtering seasons. There are times when lamb just cannot be bought at all; we had indifferent pork all summer, but around Winternights, suddenly the stores were all full of the most beautiful pork roasts and giant packets of pork chops. Several butchers also offered good deals on buying half a pig or a whole sheep, for instance. Because of this seasonal character of the meat, a lot of Swedes have huge freezers now; in the old days, everyone would have gorged on the fresh meat, then what was left would have been smoked, pickled, cured, or made into sausages to preserve it. Remember this: I’ll get back to it.
In your own seasonal cooking, start with your garden: you always know what veggies are in season there. If you don’t have a garden, don’t give up: think of the informational age, and plant a virtual garden. You can do this even if you are disabled or travel a lot and physically cannot take care of a houseplant, let alone a truck garden.
Get a copy of the Farmer’s Almanac; find out what grows in your area and where it grows best (this is also, needless to say, a good idea if you’re planting a real garden). Look out over your asphalt parking lot or concrete courtyard and imagine what it would look like if the earth were uncovered. Now get a piece of paper and a pencil, and plan the garden that you would put there – when the Farmer’s Almanac says to plant, when to weed, when to cut. Keep this plan around, and check the weather regularly. Would that ice storm threatened on the news tonight kill your peas? How much of your own water ration would you allow for the corn during the three weeks of mid-July drought? (If you want to make the exercise even more interesting and realistic, make up a list of things, good and bad, that could happen to your plants; assign percentage numbers to them, and roll two 20-sided dice – available at any gaming store – once a week or two to see if the potato bugs have infested your garden or anything). Whether your garden is real or virtual, get to know the sky: how the stars change with the seasons, what signs say a storm is coming, what the waxing and waning moon mean to plants.
Also, if you live in an agricultural area, keep track of how the farmers are doing. If a bad year is threatening for them – too much rain or not enough, too hot, too cold – remember that it’s your harvest, too, and make blessings accordingly. When the pumpkin crop, a local plant of great nutritional and spiritual importance, came close to total failure in the Northeast last year, Ásatrúar in that area should have noticed. And been worried. Because if a good crop is a sign of blessing from the gods, crop failure, if it’s not the result of doing something stupid like exhausting the fields, is a sign that they aren’t too happy.
If you have a real garden, you can cook your own vegetables. If you have a virtual garden, you can go out and buy them. Either way, you can find out what is really in season and try to cook the appropriate food at least once a week. There are all sorts of ways to go about this – from fresh maize corn on the cob in summer to venison cooked with berries in the fall to bread made with sprouted wheat or dried fruit and nuts in the depths of winter. A very good example of creative seasonal cooking can be found in the Garden Way Bread Book: A Baker’s Almanac (Ellen Foscue Johnson. Charlotte: Garden Way, 1979), which gives several seasonal bread recipes for every month. Unfortunately, this book has recently gone out of print, but is still around in some bookstores (grab it while you can!), and you can check your local library as well.
In North America, I recommend using native foods as well as Northern European ones, because part of the idea is to get in touch with the seasons and the land where you are. A really good idea book is Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking (Beverly Cox and Martin Jackson. New York: Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, Inc., 1992. Still in print). This book talks about the foods in various parts of the country, when the ingredients come into season, and how they’re gathered. For Ásatrúar living outside Northern Europe, a good way to keep in touch with the Northern European spirit is to find out what foods are in season here and, at least once a month, fix the meal that would be traditionally eaten at that time in Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, or England (you don’t have to worry about Iceland, because dried cod and rotten shark are always in season there).
Something else you can do to get an idea of how our ancestors were affected by the changes of the seasons is to get a whole lot of whatever food is in season at the moment and do something to preserve it: canning, drying, smoking, salting. Remember, there were long periods of the year when there was little fresh food of any kind (unless the hunters got lucky) and virtually no fresh greens, except maybe seaweed. So preservation made a big difference. You can see that in traditional festival foods: in Sweden, folk say that “It’s not Yule without a ham”, and you can bet that this has something to do with the ham being the biggest and best piece of meat preserved from the autumn slaughtering. Traditional foods are usually – in fact, I’ll stick my neck out and say just about always – practical as well. For instance, the American Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas “for luck” on New Years just about has to be based on the fact that if you have an old-fashioned ham at Yule, you have a lot of good leftover ham water, probably with spices and veggies in it as well, and the best use in the world for that water is cooking up a good batch of black-eyed peas. If something is holy or traditional, there’s likely to be a practical reason for it: our gods and our ancestors are both as thrifty as you can imagine, and what is true and powerful in one world is very likely to be true and powerful in another.
Seasonal cooking is a project the whole Kindred can take part in. Cooking (and eating, and, of no little importance, cleaning up) together is a great way to build fellowship. It is also a way to get everyone thinking about how much the gods and goddesses give us. When you see all that beautiful fresh pork around Winternights in Sweden, you really understand why Winternights was sometimes called Freysblót. Even in this day and age, we had some of the best eating we’d had all year at that festival; we could just imagine what it was like in the Viking Age, when the animals were mostly kept alive and fattening through the summer, and the Winternights slaughter was the first fresh meat for a long time.
A base concern, you say? Not spiritually refined, not highly magical? Well, that food is the gift of the gods and the Earth to their children: it links us with the land and the mighty ones that gave it to us, and by thinking about it – not to mention finding, preparing, and eating it – we come that much closer to our ancestors. That’s spiritually refined and magical enough for me.
Seasons and Blessings
After the question of a personal relationship with the seasons, the next problem that comes up immediately is that the blessings of the Elder Troth (and, indeed, most forms of neo-Paganism) are based on the seasonal changes of Northern Europe. This is fine for those who live in Northern Europe or areas with similar weather, when the trees turn in the autumn and the snow falls in the winter and all that good stuff; for those who live in Texas or California, for instance, it is a whole different matter. I, personally, will never forget the Winternights in Dallas where my Kindred was discussing traditional things to do at the festival. Playing ball-games on the frozen lake was mentioned. It was eighty degrees Fahrenheit outside and muggy – we could have water-skied on the lake. And, to be honest, I felt like an idiot performing my beautiful ritual, talking about frost on the golden leaves and the coming snow with sweat dripping off my face. There was frost on the golden leaves, but it wasn’t in Dallas: it was in Sweden. Or Germany. Or somewhere else that we weren’t.
As always, it is important to create a reasonable degree of interaction between tradition and one’s own situation, in a manner that hopefully damages neither. In adapting seasonal rituals, it is needful to keep in mind just what the purpose of the rite was. Yule and Midsummer are universal throughout the Northern Hemisphere – the longest and shortest nights of the year, whether one lives in Trondheim, Norway, or Phoenix, Arizona (it would, in my opinion, make the best sense for those true folk in the Southern Hemisphere to ignore the month-names and celebrate the turning of the seasons as they happen, keeping the Yule vigil at the longest night and burning their Midsummer bonfires through the shortest, with Winternights held at the end of harvest – no matter that the calendar says April. In this case, the calendar dates are arbitrary constructs imposed on the real world, as becomes stunningly clear when any of the Germanic sets of month-names, which usually describe the activity for which the month is known, are used).
The best general format, in my opinion, is to spend time seriously researching and meditating on the specific purpose of the festivals. For instance: Loaf-Feast marks the beginning of harvest, Winternights marks the end of slaughtering season (which follows immediately on harvest) as well as the beginning of winter. When does harvest start in your region? Is there a real slaughtering season, or do the cattle and swine get marched to the slaughterhouse at the same rate all year ’round? If circumstances and weather dictate, you may want to do a harvest feast in September and put Winternights off until November, or the weekend after the first frost – or, if you live in California, perhaps the weekend after the hot autumnal Santa Ana winds finally break. The same is true for the other side of the year as well: when I lived in Texas, I considered March a good season for Ostara, but here in Sweden, there is no point in celebrating a spring festival until Waluburg’s Night. And sometimes even that is pushing it: last Waluburg’s Night, Uppsala was five inches deep in snow and we only had greenery to drive around town with because we had brought in some birch branches earlier in the week and forced them by putting them in water in a warm place (magic to bring the summer…). This may be one reason why the goddess Ostara was not known in Scandinavia, and why most of the customs associated with Ostara on the Continent are associated with Waluburg’s Night in the North.
Beyond the earthly harvest, on which we are all, no matter where we live or what we do for a living, dependent, there is also a second layer of meaning to the festivals we celebrate. As well as marking the changes of the year and helping to turn the worlds as they ought to go, each feast has a deep meaning to our minds and souls – regardless of whether we are farmers, heads of business, or practitioners of any other profession. One of the Elders of the Troth, Dianne Ross, observed to me some time ago that she, personally, called on Freyja for the fruitfulness of her studies and soul-work – fruitfulness in the spiritual realm, as important as earthly fruitfulness to the whole human being. As we were made from the trees that mirror Yggdrasil in the Middle-Garth, so we, ourselves, mirror the cycles of the greater worlds.
In some cases, the land about us makes it easier to feel the turnings of the year. In Uppsala, for instance, by the time Yule rolls around, the Sun edges a little way into the sky sometime between nine or ten in the morning, makes a tiny arc across the horizon, and is gone by three in the afternoon, causing one to wonder why she bothered to rise in the first place. The sense of gloom hangs everywhere as the days shorten; the lighting of the Yule candles has a desperate edge beneath their comforting brightness; and the relief as the days begin to lengthen again is like drawing the first breath for a while. Similarly, Midsummer is light and relatively warm nearly all night, making it an ideal festival. The first green budding of the birch trees after the long winter, and their golden flares under the cold winds of autumn as the hunting season starts – these cannot help but strike the soul deeply. In such a place, it requires little thought to let your mood and actions flow with the seasons – in fact, as long as the snow makes driving into town an obnoxious endeavor, there is often little choice in the matter. Meditating on the turning of the seasons in the Otherworlds and in your own life and soul will still help you to fully integrate the changes around you – make your rituals more effective and personally relevant; assist your magic, if you are a vitki or völva as well as a godwo/man – but the physical constraints of weather and daylight recreate conditions fairly close to those our forebears knew (barring a certain amount of climactic change – whereby, by the way, if global warming continues, we will soon be back to the climate of the Viking Age, and everyone who is so inclined can have his or her fifty acres and a mule in Greenland).
However, if you live by the coast in California, where the seasons are limited to “wet” and “dry”, three harvests take place every year (meaning, that in the eyes of our forebears, it could easily be confused with the worlds of the gods, except of course for the tacky apartment blocks rising up everywhere), the foliage largely consists of pine, eucalyptus, sagebrush, and manzanita, and even the deepest dephts of winter are pretty shallow, adjusting your ritual and personal soul-cycles to the seasons of the year in any way resembling the ways of our forebears is another matter. In that case, it is necessary to think of the turning of the year in terms of the changes taking place in the Otherworlds (which show themselves in the weather of the Middle-Garth) and within your own soul.
The god/esses are also, in my experience, more likely to show themselves in different ways according to the seasons of the year. The wise old Wanderer-god of Yule, leading the Wild Hunt or coming into the hall with his beard full of snow and rope-scarred throat full of runes, is very different from the gold-helmed Wodan of Midsummer, urging his hosts on to bloody battle; the skin-clad Skaði pointing the hunter’s gaze to elk tracks and leading him towards the game shows another face than does the harsh etin-maid faring from the North with snowflakes scattering from her skis, her black bow of cold nocked to slay man or beast; and the Thonar who wrestles and drinks and fishes in the summer thunderstorms appears very differently in the depths of winter, when he fights the rime-thurses for all our lives. Although these shifts of emphasis in godly character are only general tendencies, not absolutes – Wodan can be called on as god of battle in winter or teach his runes in the summertime; at need, Skaði can be as harsh a goddess of vengeance in the spring as in the cruelest ice storm, and Thonar’s laughter still sparks our bravery in the darkest and coldest days – it is worthwhile to think on them and try to feel them. After all, our forebears knew the might of the god/esses through the natural world, and its yearly changing was very much a part of their understanding.
Here is, to my mind, a brief summary of the feasts and the appropriate movements of the god/esses and personal life according to them. Both personally and as a teacher/leader, you should be able to expand considerably upon this model, or change it altogether, as seems appropriate for your situation and understanding.
- Feast of Thonar (about mid-January). This is a feast of rather obscured Icelandic origins, connected with Thonar in modern times by Heathens and people at the Icelandic Tourist Board who aren’t very good at etymology. It takes place in the coldest part of winter, when Thonar is bashing rime-thurses in a desperate attempt to keep the Middle-Garth safe for another year. In Iceland, it is a celebration of the ancestral strength and power to survive, all of which are needed in Iceland in January. On a personal level, it is a time to recall tough times that you and your ancestors have survived, and get up your mood to keep going until spring.
- Disting or Charming of the Plough (early-mid February). In the Middle-Garth, the signs of winter breaking are beginning to show. I have always read this feast as celebrating Skírnir’s convincing Gerðr to let herself be betrothed to Freyr – the first breaking of the winter ice that had held the earth bound, and a promise of better days to come. On a personal level, it is a time of hope; also, a time to get your plans together and make sure that you are fully equipped for the things you intend to do that year – the equivalent of checking over your plough, fishing nets, horse tackle, and so forth to make sure all your working tools are in good shape and ready to go the moment the weather permits.
- Ostara (variable – any time from mid-March to May 1, depending on where you live, though most folk have it sometime between the equinox and the following full moon). End of winter, beginning of summer. The rime-thurses pack their bags and go home; Iðunn comes out among the god/esses with her apples of rebirth (this is a great time to do a ritual drama based on Loki’s recovery of Iðunn). Personally, a time of renewal, rebirth, hope, and brightness; also, a time in which changes can be made. A good time to declare the death of old troubles with the Winter and start new projects.
- Waluburg’s Night (May 1). The end of the season of awakening that began with Disting; in much of Northern Europe, the end of the planting season. Especially associated with magic. In the Otherworld, a strong tide when Wyrd is set and can be seen; traditionally, the night of witches’ festivals. There are some who envision this as a night when the Frowe and Wodan are making love and magic together. Personally, a time of naming goals and ambitions; like Yule, a good time to make oaths. A good time to celebrate life and love, while being especially aware of the presence of the Otherworld around you. It is the Teutonic equivalent of “Valentine’s Day”: people leave green branches and flowers under the windows of their beloveds, do romantic things, and so forth.
- Midsummer (summer solstice). The height of the year. Tiw and Forseti sit at the Thing. Some also think especially of Balder at this feast, as the god in brightness whose doom must fall upon him soon. For the farmer, Midsummer marks a period of relatively light work between planting and harvesting, which was one of the reasons why warfare in Northern Europe usually took place in the summer. Personally, it is a time for physical activity and an energetic approach to life; problems can be sorted out better in the clear light of day, which was why the Icelanders held their Althing in the summer. It is a good time for making expeditions, not to mention doing something constructive with one’s summer vacation (although, I should caution would-be Vikings, the only thing left on Lindisfarne to sack is the gift shop by the museum).
- Loaf-Feast (Aug. 1). The beginning of harvest. In the Otherworld, I see this feast as the time when the gods get back from their journeying into the various worlds (Thonar bearing such things as Hymir’s cauldron so Ægir can brew ale with the new harvest grain, Wodan bringing the wisdom he has learned in Etin-Home and the dead – “Ygg’s barley” – he has gathered in the Middle-Garth); I also associate it with the tale of Sif’s hair. It is time to seriously get down to work; in the old days, there was barely time to sleep in the frantic period between now and Winternights, when the bulk of the year’s food was being harvested, slaughtered, and stored.
- Winternights (usually around mid-October, but can be any time from the equinox to mid-November, depending on the climate). End of summer, beginning of winter. Wulþur (Ullr) and Skaði ski down from the northern mountains; the Wild Hunt begins, as do Thonar’s battles against the rime-thurses. Winternights is a time to look over, evaluate, and celebrate the year’s accomplishments. It also marks a time of turning inward; of concentrating more on understanding and less on doing; a time of reading and writing, or listening to stories and telling them. As Ostara is a festival of awareness of life, Winternights is a festival of awareness of death – of forebears, of ghosts, of the turnings of being which cannot exist without death – and of memory, the link between the living and the dead.
- Yule (traditionally twelve nights; often started on the winter solstice and ended on New Year, though it can be extended to Twelfth Night or even Knut’s Day, Jan. 17). The holiest of all feasts. If possible, mundane work should stop on Mothernights and not be taken up again until after New Year’s. Yule is a time for soul-work and fellowship. Like Winternights, it is a time to be aware of the dead and to interact with them; it is a time to meditate on the intertwined and inextricable nature of death and life, as the Sun sinks to her lowest ebb and rises again from the darkness. Traditionally, ghost stories are told at Yule. These days, the border-reach between one year and another, are the most powerful for setting Wyrd and working magic in general, which is why Yule-oaths are especially powerful; they are also the best time for initiations.
All of these festivals have a number of folk customs associated with them, which can either be used in their original form or adapted to fit modern needs: blessing a computer instead of a plough, for instance. As has been noted until everyone in the Troth is probably tired of hearing it, even most of the usual customs associated with “christian” holidays such as the “Christmas tree”, “Easter eggs”, and so forth, are probably Heathen in origin. It is worthwhile to stop and think about these customs in light of Ságadís’ observations on the practicality of folk traditions, while also being aware of the deep spiritual meanings that accompany them as well. Why eggs at Easter? Obviously for new life and rebirth – but also, this is the time of year when waterfowl come back, nest, and breed, the beginning of the egging season. Pine at Yule, flowering and green branches for Waluburg’s Night – every folk custom has a reason solidly grounded in the Earth, as well as being the key to a gateway in the soul.
English-language sources for folk customs include Our Troth, Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology, and Vilhelm Grønbech’s World of the Teutons. Check your local library; also look for titles like Folklore of the Orkneys and Shetlands (or small rural area of your choice where Teutonic customs are likely to have been preserved. Even simple tourist-books on the Germanic countries are likely to mention some folk-customs, like the Lucia-maiden and Midsummer-poles of Sweden. Their attempts to associate these directly with Heathen deities, especially in Iceland, should be taken with a little care (see remarks about “Feast of Thonar”, above); but folk customs tend to be quite enduring things.
Yet another method True folk in the modern day have found for reconciling the Elder Troth with current society is, not to abandon any of the traditional feasts, but to add new ones as appropriate, both to honour earlier heroes and to give a Germanic interpretation to modern holidays. The heroes’ days usually fall on the ninth of each month, with a couple of exceptions such as Leifr Eiríksson’s day, which, as it ought, replaces Columbus Day, Ragnar Loðbrók’s Day, which commemorates his sack of Paris on March 28, 845 C.E., and Wayland Smith’s day, which replaces Thanksgiving for reasons that I have been trying to find out for six years now and no one has ever been able to explain to me.
Other days of celebration include Valentine’s Day – celebrated as Feast of Váli due to bad etymology. Honestly, folk, there is no connection. The Pagan elements of the celebration come from the Roman Saturnalia. We don’t do any of that stuff until Waluburg’s Night, for the simple, yet logical, reason that mid-February is not the time to be practicing outdoor fertility rites in Northern Europe. However, those who wish to celebrate Váli on this day should go right ahead, since no one has ever thought of a better time for it and it’s more fun than moping if you haven’t got anyone to practice modified Roman Saturnalia rites with.
Memorial Day is celebrated as Einherjar Day, and so it should be – a strong reminder that worthy heroes, and folk worth remembering, did not stop falling in battle in 1066.
There is, also, no reason not to make special blessings to the gods at times of the year which are particularly meaningful to you and/or your society as a whole. The beginning and end of the school year are tremendously important to some of us, and don’t fit in particularly well with the agricultural planting/harvest schedule – quite the opposite, in fact (of course, someday we might have hordes of little kids running around screaming, “Hail Odin, Thor, and Frey – School’s over, let’s go play!” But there could be worse things). April 15th is a day on which it is certainly fitting for Americans to call for godly help, and a lot do, in one way or another.
Overall, we can safely say that however far our lives may be from those of a Viking Age farmer, or however different our lands from Northern Europe, the understanding of the old agricultural feasts and ability to use the old ways of showing and bringing about well-being that our forebears knew are still within our grasp. For those of us who no longer live on the land, it takes a little more time and trouble – more deliberate attention paid to both our inner selves and the worlds around us – but it can be achieved. The process of this achievement can be defined by two words that, though often overused or misused, still have a certain strength in them: living true. When your spiritual life has worked its way into the very food you eat, and you are aware of the connection between the fresh corn on your plate and what Thonar and Sif are doing through the warm summer days, then that, I suggest, is living true. As a godwo/man, it is your responsibility not only to keep the strands of god/esses, earth, and humans closely braided in your own life, but to be able to show others how they can do it in theirs, without ever either slipping into anachronism for anachronism’s sake (“We do it because our forebears did it – we don’t know why, and it doesn’t really matter, because they did it and so do we!”) or losing the ancient customs of our folk because we don’t understand them. This is a difficult rope to walk, and a difficult balance to keep, but it is the task the god/esses have given us: to bring the Elder Troth into the modern world, while still keeping it True.
Guðe [was] the official Ring of Troth clergy newsletter. The name is the Proto-Germanic form of the religious title appearing in various Germanic languages as goði/gyðja, guðija, or Godwo/man. The purpose of Guðe [was] to discuss issues of interest and use to the practice, teaching, and leadership of our religion. Articles in this issue by KveldúlfR Gundarsson unless otherwise noted.
[Source:] “The inscriptions [Helnæs and Snøldelev] mention a gode and a thul (goði and þulr in Old Norse), both of whom must have been pagan ‘officials.’ The former (from the root in goð, god) means one concerned with religion, a man corresponding in some way to a Christian priest…Both terms, gode and thul, disappeared when Christianity triumphed” (Erik Moltke, Runes and their Origins: Denmark and Elsewhere, pp. 165-66.) Back to top.
Webmaster’s Note: There never were many issues of Guðe.