Tuesday, October 17, 2017
 

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

Summer and the Dísting

There is significantly less information regarding the celebrations and festivals that took place during the summer half of the year, and they shall be covered in one section.  When Bede described the period of the vernal equinox in his calendar for the Angles, he explains:

Hrethmonath (around March) is named for their goddess Hretha to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eostermonath (around April) has a name which is now translated “Paschal month” and which was once named after a goddess of theirs named Eostre in whose honor feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time honored name of the old observance.”[118]

Neither Eostre nor Hretha have cognates in the Norse language, and it has been suggested that they may have been the names of matronae whom the Angles worshiped with festivals during the lunar months of Hrethmonath and Eostermonath respectively.[119]  Richard North also notes that Bede implies that Good Friday had replaced a heathen festival, and suggests that this festival would have coincided approximately with the Greco-Roman Megalensia, which was an ancient festival celebrating the mother goddess Cybele with feasting and games.[120]  I suggest in turn that the festivals in honor of Eostre took place during the full moon of Eostermonath, and that she may have either been a matron associated with fertility, or else a mother goddess related to processional ceremonies similar to those of Nerthus.

The full account of Nerthus cannot be covered here, but Tacitus describes a procession in which a wagon containing the idol of a goddess was periodically taken from an island grove where it was kept, and processioned by a priest throughout the territories of the Swabians, around southern Jylland or Schleswig-Holstein.[121]  This account is interesting for several reasons.  The priest and goddess were possibly thought of as husband and wife, as Turville-Petre points out, or else the idol may be wed to the ‘earth’.[122]  It also likely began in the early summer, as the procession would have taken some time to loop through the territory.  The idol is pulled by cattle, and is washed in a “secret lake”.  The debate over “who” Nerthus was has been an ongoing one, and I will make no attempts to contribute to it, other than to demonstrate the complexity of the question.  Lotte Motz has posed that the worship of Nerthus was a local phenomenon, most closely tied to Frau Holle/Perchte.[123]  On account of the masculine form of the name “Nerthus”, many scholars have argued that she may have in fact been Njörðr, or as Eve Picard has suggested, the once feminine Nerthus became a masculine Njörðr to make her physically consistent with the grammatical ending of her name.  Gunnell has suggested that she may have been a female counterpart to Njörðr, and at least demonstrates close similarities to other fertility gods in later Scandinavian sources.[124] Richard North argues that Tacitus, who says “Nerthus, that is Terra Mater”, had originally been told about a procession in which a god named Nerthus went on a procession over “Terra Mater”.  Not that she was Terra Mater.  He concludes that “Nerthus was male, Terra Mater was female and Tacitus misunderstood his source.“[125]

Regardless of exactly who Nerthus was, it is generally agreed that we see a procession between a God and a Goddess (either with an idol and a human representative, or by an idol and the earth itself) and that perhaps this is a sort of symbolic marriage between the heaven and earth to bring fertility to the soil.  Stone petroglyphs depicting processions and unearthed wagons demonstrate that such ceremonies may have taken place as far back as the Bronze Age.[126]  We also see parallels with the procession of Freyr in later Sweden, which took place sometime between midwinter and the beginning of spring.  Both are processions in which a deity in a wagon, and a priest possibly dressed in costume and symbolising their spouse, process over the land in order to ensure rebirth and good growth.  Both also bring peace and the laying down of weapons,  which gives us the formula of “til árs ok friðar” described earlier.

Tacitus describes another goddess that might be related, saying “some of the Suevi also sacrifice to Isis.  Of the occasion and origin of this foreign rite I have discovered nothing, but that the image, which is fashioned like a light galley, suggests an imported worship.”[127]  About the year 1133, at a forest near Inden (Germany), a ship was built on land and drawn throughout the countryside, where it was greeted with celebrations, and dancing.  A detailed report of the procession can be found in Rodulf’s Chronicon Abbatiae S. Trudonis.[128]  In the account, it is declared by the clergy that “malevolent spirits lived in the ship” and that the ship must be dedicated to Venus, Mars, Neptune or Bacchus.  Obviously we can assume the names refer to Germanic gods, and the same can also be said for Tacitus’ reference to Isis above.  That ship processions at the beginning of spring were common throughout Germany can be seen in the Minutes of the town-council of Ulm, dated 1530 which prohibit dressing in costume and processing with plows or ships.[129]  Regarding Tacitus reference to “Isis”: it may have reminded him of the annual Navigium Isidis which took place annually in early March during his time, in which the Romans held a procession involving a ship dedicated to Isis to mark the reopening of the rivers.[130]  This does not mean that the deity worshiped by the Suebians held anything further in common with Isis than an annual ship procession in early spring.  The deity could have been connected with what would become Freyja in later West Nordic sources, who has considerable similarities to Isis, or another similar goddess, such as Nehalennia, whose name has been inscribed on numerous votive altars around the 3rd century, and who is often portrayed bearing baskets of fruit and leaning against the prow or an oar of a ship.[131] Scholars have tried interchangeably connecting Freyja, Nerthus, Nehalennia, and Isis to the various customs above.  It is likely that as customs changed with place and time, so too did the deities associated with them.  The deities themselves would also change in their character and symbols.  In the sources provided we have been able to discern a very clear pattern of wagon and ship processions, often associated with goddesses and fertility, taking place in the spring, especially in mainland Europe.  I argue that these would have been associated with festivals that took place on either the full or new moon following the vernal equinox, marking the beginning of summer.

Another specific festival which we may study is called the Dísting, and occured during the Swedish month of Göja, and has continued in Christian form into recent centuries, although it has preserved it’s heathen name.  Snorri mentions it in In Óláfs saga Helga:

It was an ancient tradition in Sweden, during heathen times, to hold a main sacrifice in Uppsala in the month of Gói (18th feb-24 march).  At that time, a sacrifice was made for peace and victory for the king, and people from all over Sweden were supposed to come there.  There was also a market, which lasted for a week.  But when Sweden became Christian…the market was moved and held at Candlemass.[132]

Two centuries prior, in the 1000’s, Adam of Bremen describes the temple at Uppsala as housing the statues of Thor, Wotan, and Frikko (Freyr), he also describes an event that occurred every 9 years at this location,[133] which appears to have been a specialized version of the Dísting, which took place every year.  Many of the details he describes would thus also match the annual event.  Saxo Grammaticus claims that the event centered on the worship of Freyr,[134] and both Adam of Bremen and Saxo refer to “unseemly” dances and songs.[135]  Saga of King Heidrek the Wise describes King Ingi refusing to sacrifice at a Þing assembly in Sweden at this time.  The king’s kinsman takes up the role, and a horse is slaughtered and hanged from a tree.[136]  Gautreks saga and Saxo both also describe King Vikar being hanged at a Swedish þing.  The Swedish Upplandslög mentions the ‘Disaþinx friþær’ (truce of the Dísaþing) in force during time of Dísaþing, a legal meeting that began on Dísaþings dagur (The Day of the Dísaþing). The law clause also mentions the market of the Dísting.[137]  The worship of the Dísir at this event is never specifically mentioned.  There are however, references to a Dísarsalur, in two separate sources.[138]  Both references use the singular Dísar, instead of the plural Dísir.  The hall was thus dedicated to a single Dís.  With this being the extent of our insite into the connection between the Dísir and the Dísaþing, we are left with conjecture.  Gunnell and Ström[139] both suggest that this event was originally centered around the cult of the Dísir, and that the name was retained when it became supplanted by the masculine gods Freyr, Þór, and Óðinn.  That this is possible is evident in the fact that it retained it’s name even after it was Christianized, even into modern times.  Gunnell questions whether this original festival may be explained as follows:

One wonders whether the concept…might be explained by every person having an individual Dís, a family thus having many, and the festival thus being dedicated to all of these protecting spirits, the single head of which might have been Freyja, who bore responsibility for the welfare of the whole nation.[140]

The suggestion is entirely theoretical, but it explains why, unlike the Western Nordic winternights and Dísablót, the Dísþing was a public, national event.  I postulate that originally the event had been a local festival and market dedicated to the Dísir of the gathered people, and that at some point the aristocracy took control and placed the more national, male gods at the center.


[118]Bede: The Reckoning of Time, 1999, p. 53.
[119] – North, 1997, p. 227; Meaney, 1966, pp. 2-8.
[120] – North, 1997, p. 228.
[121] – Ström, 1985, p. 40.
[122] – Turville-Petre, 1964, p. 172; See further, Ström, 1985, p. 41; Gunnell, 1995 p. 54.
[123] – Motz, 1992.
[124] – Picard, 1991, p. 164.
[125] – North, 1997, p. 20.
[126] – Djebjerg wagon, National Museet.
[127]Germania, 1970, pp. 108-109.
[128] – Grimm, 2012, p. 259.
[129] – Cited by Grimm , 2012, pp. 263-265.
[130] – Grimm, 2012, p. 258;  Stalleybrass, citing Apuleius and Lactantuis, two writers later than Tacitus, reporting on a custom that reached back to a much older date.
[131] – Simek, 2007, p. 228.
[132]Óláfs Saga Helga, in Heimskringla, 1944, p. 292.
[133] – Adam of Bremen, The history of the Archbishops of Hamburg, 1959.
[134]Gesta Danorum (History of the Kings of Denmark), 1931, Bk 5.
[135] – Saxo, “He had become disgusted with the womanish body movements, the clatter of actors…and the soft tinkling of bells”, p. 172; Adam of Bremen-“The incantations customarily chanted in the ritual…are manifuold and unseemly”. Ch 27.
[136]The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, 1960.
[137]Upplandslagan, 1916, p. 169.
[138]Ynglinga saga, in Heimskringla, 1944, p. 29; The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, 1960, p. 63.
[139] – Ström, 1954, p. 54; Gunnell, 2000 p. 134.
[140] – Gunnell, 2000, p. 135.