Tuesday, August 22, 2017
 

The Festival Year: A Reconstruction of the Heathen Lunisolar Calendar and a Survey of Its Relation to the Annual Festival Cycle

Yule and Midwinter

Despite the apparent antiquity of midwinter sacrifices, which Simek says go back to the Stone Age;[76] the exact nature of the Nordic Yule season and festivities in a heathen context are difficult to pin point.  Nordberg has observed that the varying interpretations of the Yule rituals range from “a sun festival, a feast for the dead or a fertility feast”.[77]  Simek notes proportionally few descriptions of heathen rituals in contrast with the richness of Yuletide folk customs that have survived in Northern Europe.  These indicate that the celebrations in pre-Christian times must have been quite significant, despite their ambiguity. It is probable that Yule and midwinter never existed in a singular, unified context.  It is nonetheless possible to demonstrate some similar patterns within the different, often intertwined customs which should shed some light on the Yule season in heathen Scandinavia.  Snorri gives our most detailed description of the heathen Yule public festivals in Hákonar saga góða, where cattle are sacrificed and blood is said to be spattered on the pillars of the temple (hof) and on the gathered attendants.  The flesh is then boiled and made into a feast, and toasts are drunk:

Óðin’s goblet was emptied for victory and power to the king; thereafter, Njörð’s and Frey’s goblets for peace and a good season (árs ok friðar). Then it was the custom of many to empty the bragarfull; and then the guests emptied a goblet to the memory of departed friends, called the memory goblet[78]

Elsewhere it is stated that Hákon made it law that beer would be made for Yule and the time kept holy for as long as it lasted.  As noted above, in Gulaþingslög, it was a Norwegian law to drink “til árs ok friðar”.[79]  Simek postulates that this Yule drinking may stem back to an older drink-sacrifice.[80]  In a preserved piece of Haraldskvæði, composed around 900 by Þorbjörn Hornklofi, it says:

Uti vill jól drekka,                    He wants to drink to Yule outside
Ef skal einn ráða                      if he can decide alone,
Fylkir enn framlyndi,               the fame-seeking ruler-
Ok Freys leik heyja;                 and perform Frey’s leikr;
Ungr leiddisk eldvelli               the young man was tired
Ok inni sitja,                            of the fireside and sitting indoors
Varma dyngu                           in the warm women’s room
Eðda vöttu dúns fulla              or down-filled cushions[81]

In this account, aside from the reference to ritual drinking associated with Yule, we see a reference to something called “Frey’s leikr”.  Essentially leikr can mean “game”, or “dramatic play.”  The poem could thus be referring to war, sex, or something else.  Terry Gunnell provides a theory in The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia which shall be summarized here.  Firstly, he demonstrates that “leikir” were often connected to heathen ritual context, as demonstrated in the term leikgoði, meaning perhaps “organizer of cult games.”[82] Víga-Glums saga and Flateyjarbók contain a scene in which an outlaw named Gunnarr Helming flees to a temple in Sweden where an idol of Freyr is kept by a priestess, who is said to be the earthly “wife” for the god.  Around midwinter she takes a full entourage and the idol on a wagon on a procession to different villages where they are greeted with feasts and offerings, with the promise to provide good crops and prosperity in return.  Part way through the trip, Gunnar “wrestles” with the idol, throws it out of the wagon, and puts whatever costume it was wearing onto himself.  The story concludes with Gunnar going from town to town disguised as Freyr, and accepting offerings from the people alongside the priestess, his (now pregnant) wife.[83]  Gunnell postulates that this story may have stemmed from an older ritual in which either an idol or a procession of masked figures played a part in dramas connected to seasonal fertility.  Rituals in which a god or goddess travel on a sacred wagon accompanied by an earthly retainer symbolizing their ‘spouse’ were not uncommon, as we will see in the next section.  Processions of masked figures, fertility rituals, and mock marriage are frequently portrayed on the stone carvings in southern and central Sweden from the Bronze Age.  Sacred wagons depicted as carrying the sun have already been mentioned.   Ceremonial wagons have been unearthed in Dejbjerg and Gundestrup Denmark, in Oseberg Norway.[84]  Multiple mask-like images such as on stone DR 66 in Aarhus Denmark have been found in southern and central Scandinavia, and preserved masks have been found in Hedeby.

Gunnell postulates that in the case of the Gunnar story above:

Gunnar must be visualized as wearing a large, stylized ‘human’ mask of some kind, like those that seem to be worn by the dancing figures depicted on the … Gummersmark brooch from Sjælland in Denmark, and Alleberg collar from Sweden (600-300 BC).[85]

In later centuries, throughout Sweden and parts of Finland and Norway, traditional Yule customs consisted of a ride between farmsteads on horses that were led by a figure called the Halm-Staffan or julgubbe.  The julgubbe would be dressed in a costume made of plated straw, and wear masks and headware made of straw.[86]  Nils Lid has pointed out parallels between these traditions and Finnish horse races where an image of the fertility god Peko was drawn on sledges in late January and early February.[87]  Magnus Olsen has also suggested close similarities between Freyr and Peko and their associations with fertility and horses.[88]  Gunnell also draws a parallel between bark costumes in Scandinavian folk customs with the story of Gunnar and Freyr.[89]  In this light, the reference to “drinking to Yule” and “playing Frey’s leikr” could refer to participation in a drama involving costumes and or processions in honor of Freyr.  Such dramas could have been related to Skírnismál, which also seems to take place in the dark time of the year, demonstrates Freyr merging sexually or potentially wedding the earth, and when acted out, involves a procession.[90]  Richard North adds “The vocabulary of Skírnismál is so loaded with hints of natural processes that its primary meaning must inevitably be agrarian: this poem reflects a drama enacted by the persons of Freyr, Skírnir and Gerðr through which difficult land is prepared for planting and harvest.”[91]  Further associations between straw figures and Yule can perhaps also be seen in the “straw figures given a seat of prominence in farmhouses during the Christmas festival, and given offerings of beer and schnaps in parts of Sweden, Norway and Finland.”[92]  Elsewhere, Freyr is described as the recipient of Yuletide sacrifices:

King Heiðrek worshipped Freyr, and he used to give Freyr the biggest boar he could find. They regarded it as so sacred that in all important cases they used to take the oath on its bristles. It was the custom to sacrifice the boar at the “sacrifice of the herd”. On Yule Eve, the “boar of the herd” was led into the hall before the king. Then men laid their hands on his bristles and made solemn vows.[93]

While the worship of Freyr during the Yule season almost certainly had to do with the fertility cult and the return of the sun,  we will see other customs that share similarities (processions, costumes) during this time that have more to do with the more liminal aspects that are associated with the Yule season, such as the character of Óðinn.  While the blót in Hákonar saga góða links Óðinn with the king, and this likely was exactly where the center of his cult resided, the Yule season holds other elements that one can easily see Óðinn presiding over.


[76] – Simek, 2007, p. 379.
[77] – Nordberg, 2006, pp. 157-158.
[78]Heimskringla, 1944, pp. 97-98.
[79]Gulaþingslög 6-7, 2013.
[80] – Simek, 93, p. 379.
[81] – Fulk, 2014.
[82] – Gunnell, 1995, pp. 88-89.
[83]Flateyjarbók, 1944, pp. 372-377.
[84] – Gunnell, 1995, pp. 53-60. Both wagons are highly ornate, and the Dejbjerg wagon has been determined to be too delicate for anything other than ritual use.  The Osberg wagon’s wheels cannot turn, and so it must have been used for a ritual where it could only be pulled back and forth.
[85] – Gunnell, 1995, pp. 54-60
[86] – Gunnell, 1995, pp. 100-107.
[87] – Lid, 1928, p. 156.
[88] – Olsen, 1915, pp. 111-115.
[89] – Gunnell, 1995, p. 101.
[90] – Gunnell argues that the play was originally a drama, and in reenacting it, has demonstrated it must have involved movement between Freyr, to Gerð, and back to Freyr.
[91] – North, 1997, p. 253.
[92] – Gunnell, 1995, p. 104.
[93] – Heiðreks konungs en vitra, in Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, 1829, p. 531. Originally found in the Hauksbók.