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The Festival Year
The Festival Year
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Date:October 23, 2014
This essay is an attempt to construct an annual calendrical model that would have existed among the heathen peoples of Scandinavia and Northern Europe prior to the advent of the Christian “Julian” calendar.  The evidence suggests that this annual cycle would be based around the movements of the sun and the moon, which determined when seasonal festivals and “holy times” took place.  Such a model should help to reveal widespread and deep rooted annual traditions that existed among heathen people prior to and during the Viking Age, and should allow for an accurate model to be reconstructed today.

The Lunisolar Calendar

Evidence that heathen Scandinavians utilized the sun and the moon as a means of calculating annual cycles is widespread and does not require more than a brief summary.  The Eddic poem Vafþrúðnismál, st. 23 relates that:

Himin hverfa                                   Around heaven
Þau skolo hverian dag                     They shall go daily
Öldom at ártali                                For men to count years[1]

Their primary purpose here is not simply to shine during day and night, but rather “to count the years” (ártali)” Regarding the moon specifically, Vafþrúðnismál, st. 25 says:

Ný ok nið                            Waxing and waning
Skópo nýt regin                   Created the capable gods
Öldom at ártali                    For men to count years

The waxing and waning of the moon (ný og nið) was first and foremost, a function that was fashioned by the gods to “count the years.”  In Alvísmál, st. 14 it is said that “álfar call (the moon) year-counter” (kalla álfar ártala).  Throughout the Icelandic sagas of the 12th and 13th centuries and in some of the oldest Scandinavian laws there are also numerous references to the years being reckoned though waxing and waning moons.[2]  The means of transportation for these heavenly bodies is also readily evident as a very old and widespread concept.  Eddic poetry refers to the sun and the moon as being drawn by horses.[3]  There are many Bronze Age rock carvings in Bohuslän and southern Scandinavia which portray crossed discs which could be identified as sun/moon images being pulled in wagons drawn by horses or else in boats.[4]  Razers engraved with similar images[5]  and the Trundholm Chariot, a crafted horse fashioned to a golden disc[6] have all been found in Denmark from this same early period. It can be safely concluded that a connection between the sun/moon and transportation on vehicles is very old in heathen religion and that they were responsible for the reckoning of time in years and months.

Remnants of this old method of counting annual cycles have been preserved throughout Scandinavia.  In Sweden the lunisolar method has continued as recently as the early 1900’s, where the “Yule Moon” (Jultungel) was the moon that shone during Epiphany, and the Dísting Market[7] was held on the following full moon, called Disa, Distungel or Distingstungel.[8]  The relationship between the Jultungel and Epiphany is clearly a Christian modification of what had originally been a relationship between a “Yule Moon” and the winter solstice.  This same relationship can be observed over a large geographic and temporal range.  In around 1220, the Icelandic Bókarbót relates that two related months, Ýlir and Jólmánuðr were currently observed in which Ýlir fell between mid November to mid December, and Jólmánuðr followed from mid December to mid January (Julian calendar).[9]  Naturally the winter solstice fell at the point where one month ended and the next began.[10]  The idea of the two Yule months being positioned around the winter solstice is not unusual and occures elsewhere.  In the  tenth century, the same two lunar months are recorded in  Old English as se  ǣrra Geola and se æftera Geola (the earlier Yule and the later Yule).[11]  Yule itself is mentioned as early as about 350 in the Gothic manuscript, Codex Ambrosianus which mentions “the month before the Yule month” (fruma jiuleis).[12]  In the eighth century the Anglo Saxon scholar, Venerable Bede recorded a full calendar for the heathen Angles dwelling in southern Denmark:

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Guili; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April Eosturmonath; May Thrimilchi; June Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Guili, the same name by which January is called. They began the year on the 8th kalends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call the heathen word Modranecht, that is “Mother’s Night”, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted that night.  Whenever it was a common year, they gave three lunar months to each season.  When an embolismic year occurred (that is, one of 13 lunar months) they assigned the extra month to summer, so that three months together bore the name “Litha”; hence they called [the embolismic] year “Thrilithi”. [13]

In 2006 Andreas Nordberg demonstrated convincingly that using material like this, it is possible to reconstruct the old lunisolar system.  His study can be read in Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning: kalendrar och kalendariska riter i det förkristna Norden.  There Nordberg argues that the heathen calendar was a lunisolar system in which months began on the new moon so that the full moon shone on the middle of the month, and the next month began with the next new moon.  Because 12 lunar cycles are approximately 11 days short of a full solar year, they would need to be regulated and intermittantly adjusted.  According to Nordberg, years were maintained as follows:

  1. A) There are always two Yule lunar months. The first should always cover the winter solstice so that the second Yule lunar month always started with the first new moon following solstice.
  2. B) If the new moon of the second Yule month emerged 11 days or less following the winter solstice, then a 13th lunar month would be inserted that year. If this adjustment is not made, then the second Yule lunar month on the following year would begin before the winter solstice, and the calendar would be too far off.
  3. C) This 13th lunar month was to be added at the time of the summer solstice. This “leap month” would be inserted every three years.[14]

The annual cycle was further divided by seasons, the calculating of which was based around the described lunisolar calendar, and which determined the nature of annual festivals and celebrations.  It is well established that medieval Scandinavians reckoned time according to nights and winters.  That is to say that day began at dusk, and the seasonal year began with the start of winter.[15]  This natural year did not begin at the same time as the astronomical year, which we have determined was the first new moon after the winter solstice.  Today, the first day of winter in Iceland begins on the Saturday between the 21st and 27th of October.  Prior to the adoption of the Julian calendar, winter would almost certainly have begun on the full moon that occurred after the equinox,[16] during the month Bede calls Winterfilleth.  The nights of the full moon going into winter are called veturnætur “winternights” in Scandinavian sources and marked not only the beginning of winter, but the beginning of the natural (seasonal) year for early Scandinavians.  They are still called this in Iceland, and have retained the same purpose.

The natural split between the “winter season” and the “summer season” is still seen on the Swedish and Norwegian wooden rune calendar (primstaven) where the front half represents the winter and the back half represents the summer half of the year.  The winter half of the rune calendar starts on the winternights, and end less than a month after the vernal equinox.  Similar staffs have been found in Estonia and Finland.[17]  Terry Gunnell has argued that the heathen seasonal calendar, like the latter Nordic calendar, was split into two seasons instead of four, in which the winter was cosmologically dominated by women, death and magic; while summer was ruled by men, trade, and war.[18] Andreas Nordberg on the other hand has favored a year broken into quarters and marked with festivals and religious gatherings.[19]  It seems logical to me that as Nordberg suggests, a lunisolar (astronomical) calendar existed among heathen Scandinavians beginning on the first new moon following winter solstice and regulated by inserting a 13th month every three years or as necessary at the summer solstice.  A simultaneous seasonal calendar designated the start of winter on the full moon of the winternights and the start of summer on a full moon following the spring equinox.  Since the beginning of winter, the beginning of the lunar year, the beginning of summer, and the potential 13th lunar month all occur roughly three lunar months apart from one another, the year is automatically broken into quarters.  This does not automatically mean that the year wasn’t seen as two opposing halves, as we shall see.

[1]Eddadigte, 1962.
[2] – Nordberg, 2006, pp. 68-69.
[3]Grímnismál 37;  Vafþrúðnismál 23; in Eddadigte, 1962.
[4] – Coles, 2005.
[5] – Goldhann, 2004, p. 13.
[6] – Roussell. 1957. p. 40.
[7]Óláfs saga Helga; in Heimskringla, 1944, p. 292.
[8] – Nordberg, 2006, p. 116.
[9]Rimtöl, 1914, p. 78.
[10] – Nordberg, 2006, points out that there was a 7 day discrepancy between the astronomical and Julian years when the Julian calendar was converted to the Gregorian in the 12th century. As a result, the 21st of December in the Gregorian Calendar today would be the 14th of December in the Julian from the 1100´s. p. 148.
[11] – Nilson, 1920, p. 293.
[12]Die Gotische Bibel, 1908, p. 472.
[13]Bede: The Reckoning of Time, 1999, p. 53.
[14] – Nordberg, 2006, pp. 65-66.
[15] – See for example Germania, 1970, p. 110; Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, 1901, p. 215; Hálfdanar Saga Svarta in Heimskringla, 1944, p. 44; Óláfs Saga Helga in Heimskringla, 1944, p. 462.
[16] – Gunnell, 2000, p. 127.
[17] – Nordberg, 2006, p. 41; Vilkuna & Jahres, 1962, pp. 43, 58.
[18] – Gunnell, 2000, p. 127.
[19] – Nordberg, 2006, pp. 40-43, p. 153.