Thursday, March 30, 2017

As has been stated previously, winter was a time when “this world and the other” seem to have been blurred, and was a time for observing omens, [94]  a continuation of the customs associated with the start of winter. This would have been a time where the Dísir were still seen as being close, having recieved sacrifices only a few months prior, and whose protection was counted on for the remainder of the winter.  This was a time which Gunnell argues was strongly associated with women, who ruled the domestic sphere, and wore the house storage keys as the symbol of this status.[95]  From the earliest references to the religion of the Germanic tribes by Latin historians in the first centuries, women are considered to be the sex connected to magic, prophecy, and death.[96]  Óðinn, sharing all of these characteristics and being the patron of kings and warriors, can very well be seen as developing a role where he presides over Yule under the name of Jólnir, and in some places leads what comes to be known as the Christmas “Wild Hunt”.[97]  This connection may have to do with his position at the center of the cult of the berserkr and ulfheðnar,[98] which are often associated with images of warriors dressed in animal skins, and wielding weapons or dancing.  The tradition of dressing in animal skins, wearing horns, and dancing with weapons can be traced back to the Bronze Age at least, where figures wearing bull horns are carved into stones, and the bronze, horned helmets found at Viksø.[99]  Images of figures in bear or wolf costumes, and accompanied by a horned, often dancing figure are also found at Suttun Hoo (6-7th century)[100] and Torslunda Ölund (6-7th century),[101] on the Gallehus horns (Dk 400 AD),[102] and on the Oseberg tapestry (Vestfold Norway, 9th century).[103]  An image reminiscent of these can be found on the ceiling of the Hagia Sophia in Kiev when it was built in 1037.[104]  It depicts a masked warrior standing near a second man with a mustache, round shield and an axe. The fresco has been identified as depicting the Varangian Guard; an elite group of Scandinavian warriors who served the Emperor in Constantinople from the 10th to the 14th centuries.[105]  An account that might give life to these images is given by Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos in 953, where he describes what he calls the “Gothikon”; an elaborate Christmas time dance performed by warriors of supposed Scandinavian origin.  The account describes “skin-clad warriors who wore various masks” who danced in circles around their leaders, while others clashed what were either staves or axes against their shields and chanted a word that Constantine can only describe as sounding like “Toúl!”  Most scholars readily agree that this word should be identified as Old Norse jól (Gothic: jiúleis).[106]  This account could put a seasonal ritual context to the long history of images portraying mask and skin clad dancers.  An association with the cult of Óðinn would also provide the appropriate context for Yuletide dances or other rituals involving animal skins, and an association with “the wild”, or “frenzy”.

A tradition which parallels this is that of visitations from “the wild”, not by humans, but by the dead, or by dangerous supernatural entities.  Eyrbyggja saga tells a story about how a farm at Fróða on Breiðafjörður is overtaken at Yule by the ghosts of various people who have died both on land and at sea.[107]  In another saga, Grettír Ásmundsson gets into a fight with the draugr of a dead shepherd, and then has a conflict with the troll-woman of Barðárðalur.  Both of these events take place at Yule.[108]  Other stories tell of visits from berserker warriors (directly connecting them to this tradition of “the outside coming in”) and even of a polar bear threatening people’s house.[109]  The Juleskreia, or Oskereia is a widespread motif throughout Norway and Sweden during the Middle Ages and later in which groups of malevolent spirits, described as either the dead, or as trolls, ride down out of the mountains and into the farmsteads around the time of the winter solstice.  Additionally, these figures often take the form of women on horses.[110]  Terry Gunnell has remarked that the theme of unwelcome Yule guests has survived in Iceland into the current time, but that the exact nature of the “guests” has changed from what were originally ghosts or trolls, to what are often elves or huldurfolk today.[111]  Yule traditions regarding the julebukk and its female counterpart, lussi have survived into the modern period in Sweden and Norway, and have many parallels throughout Scandinavia as well as continental Europe with the Austrian krampus and Swiss perchten.[112]  These traditions have many varieties but all involve people dressing in furs and wearing goat or animal horns, and processing through town, either demanding food and drink, or generally acting crude or menacing.   The julegeit was a spirit that was said to dwell in the mountains and come down into the farmstead around the winter solstice.  The Icelandic Grýla is first mentioned in Íslendinga saga in the 13th century, and has survived until modern times, where she dwells in the Icelandic mountains, and feeds on children during the Yule season.[113]  How old these traditions are in truth cannot be determined, but they are widespread, and can’t have any Christian origin.  When we look at them through the context of the Yule season as a liminal period where the veil between “the other world” and this world is thin, then they make sense.

There is one final element which we might add to the Yule season, and it connects to the idea of winter being associated in part with the sphere of women.  While in some instances, the Wild Hunt is a sort of furious host led by Óðinn; it is also often portrayed as female, as we have seen with the Oskereia.  Likewise these female figures are often portrayed as riding horses and wielding weapons, and may have become blended with the valkyrja concept at some point.  The Dísir have also been portrayed on horses and wielding weapons above, and at times their function overlaps with that of the valkyrja.[114]  As stated above, they are also associated Freyja, or else with Skaði, who is also known to done male armor and weapons, and is associated with the masculine sport of hunting.  In Gylfaginning, Snorri describes her as dwelling in the mountains, and hating the dwelling of her husband, Njörðr, who we may say was an important figure in trade and war (aspects firmly rooted in men’s sphere).[115]  It would not be so farfetched to see Skaði as a winter goddess, who represents the mountains and winter, and who must rotate her dominion with her husband, who rules the affairs of civilization.  Lotte Motz argues for an additional element to the custom of dressing in skins during the Yule season by posing that the roots stem from the custom of hunting for prey in the wilds during the winter season.[116]  She argues that in a hunting society, a midwinter feast held in honor of a goddess of the wilderness such as Skaði would make sense.  I would postulate that if she is a goddess of winter and wilderness, then the period where the wilderness has come down out of the mountains and over the fields and farms is a period when she has “come down out of the wilderness”, essentially to the world of men.  Skaði is never portrayed leading a furious host; but in Germany Frau Holle, who is also seen as a winter goddess who rules the wilderness, is often put at the head of such a host.[117]  Whether or not there ever was belief in a “host” in heathen times is up to debate, but the notion of the barriers between the “outside” and the “inside” blurring is widespread.  Additionally, it is possible that a goddess like Skaði or Holle who represented the wilderness was seen as coming down into the settlements during Midwinter and the Yule season.

[94] – Gunnell, 2005, p. 295.
[95] – Gunnell, 2005, pp. 295-298.
[96]The Geography of Strabo III, Bk. 7, ch 2; see also The Histories, p. 247.
[97] – Simek, 2007, p. 380.
[98] – For example, Heimskringla, p. 8; Price 2002 also makes a strong case for their connection to shamanism and gives them a solid position within the realm of Óðin´s cult.
[99] –
[100] – Arent, 1969, plates 19-21.
[101] – Magnusson, 1976, p. 109.
[102] – Olrik, Axel, 1918, pp. 1-35.
[103] – Price, 2002, p. 385.
[104] – Berthold, 1972, pp. 225-226; and Gunnell, 1995, p. 71.
[105] – Davidson, 1976, pp. 180, 186, and 191; Gunnell, 1995, p. 72.
[106] – Gunnell, 1995, pp. 73-74.
[107]Eyrbyggja saga, 1985, pp. 146-147.
[108]The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders, 1997, II, pp. 100-107 and 151-155.
[109]The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders, 1977, pp. 77-81 and 83-85.
[110] – Gunnell, 1995, p. 100.
[111] – Gunnell, 2004.
[112] – Motz, 1984.
[113] – Gunnell, 2001.
[114] – See the First Merseburg Charm (Simek, 2007, p. 84.) from about 900, where the “idisi” are described binding war hosts in fetters while setting others free.  The valkyrja are also described in this same role.
[115]Snorra Edda, 2003, pp. 37-38.
[116] – Motz, 1984, p. 159.
[117] – Motz, 1984.