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Association of Polytheist Traditions

Winternights

Copyright © by Stormerne and Arlea Hunt-Anschütz 2005

A sacrifice was to be made for a good season at the beginning of winter... [1]

In pre-Christian Scandinavia, Veturnætur, Winternights, was a period of two days around the middle of October which marked the beginning of the winter half of the year. At this time the cattle would be brought in from the pastures and, as there was only fodder enough to see the breeding stock through the cold season, the remainder would be slaughtered and the meat preserved to provide food for the farmers throughout the harsh winters. This necessary yearly cull provided an excellent excuse for a big sacrificial feast at which gods, elves and/or ancestors were welcomed. Friends, relatives and honoured guests would gather at farmstead feast halls decorated with festive tapestries. Descriptions in the Icelandic Sagas suggest that they would play ball games on the frozen lakes during the day and eat and drink to excess during the night.

A passage in the Saga of Hakon the Good [2] by the medieval Icelandic historian Snorri Sturlusson describes a typical heathen blót or sacrifice. The livestock were killed in a ritual manner and their holy blood was sprinkled over both idols of the gods and the people present. The meat was then cooked in kettles hung over a fire running down the centre of the hall. The chieftain hosting the feast blessed the sacrificial meat which was then shared out amongst the guests. A sacred horn or beaker of ale or mead was born around the fire and blessed by the chieftain. The guests then drank toasts to gods and ancestors.

One account of a Winternights celebration specifically mentions a blót to the god Frey.

Thorgrim decided to give an autumn feast on the eve of the winter season, and to welcome winter and make a sacrifice to Frey, and he invites his brother Bork, and Eyjolf Thordsson and many other important men. Gisli also makes ready a feast and invites his wife's kinsmen from Arnarfjord, and the two Thorkells, and no fewer than sixty men were expected at Gisli's. There was to be drinking at both houses, and the floors at Saebol were strewn with rushes from the rush-pond. [3]

According to Snorri:

Freyr is the most glorious of the Æsir. He is ruler of rain and sunshine and thus of the produce of the earth, and it is good to pray to him for prosperity and peace.[4]

Perhaps some heathens made offerings to Frey at the beginning of Winter to thank him for good harvests over the past year and to ensure good harvests in the coming year.

Other accounts of Winternights make reference to the Dísir. The word Dísir simply means 'ladies' or 'maidens'. The Dísir were a family's female ancestral spirits who, according to various accounts, could behave like guardian angels, protective warrior goddesses, or fetches appearing to those about to die.

Viga-Glum's Saga tells us that:

A feast was held at the beginning of Winter, and sacrifice made to the spirits [Disir], and everyone had to take part in this observance. [5]

Another passage which mentions the Dísir most likely refers to Winternights, although we're only told that these events take place in the autumn.

King Eirik and Gunnhild arrived in Atloy the same night. Bard had prepared a feast for him, because sacrifice was being made to the Disir. It was a splendid feast with plenty to drink in the main room. [6]

Sigvatr Þórðarson wrote a poem about his visit to Sweden in the Autumn of 1017 or 1018. In one verse he records that an old woman denied him entry to a farm because a sacrifice to the elves (Álfablót) was being held there.[7] It isn't clear whether this was a Winternights celebration, but it's not unlikely. According to the poem Grímnismál, Frey rules Alfheimr, the home of the elves.[8] Perhaps the Álfablót was a Winternights sacrifice to Frey and his companions.

A celebration similar to Winternights most likely took place in England. The Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735) recorded the names that the Anglo-Saxon heathens gave to their months. The name for November was Blodmonað or 'sacrifice month'. Bede comments:

Blodmonath is 'month of immolations', for then the cattle which were to be slaughtered were consecrated to their gods. Good Jesu, thanks be to thee, who hast turned us away from these vanities and given us [grace] to offer to thee the sacrifice of praise.[9]

England being south of Scandinavia, it wouldn't be surprising if their Winternights ritual usually took place a couple weeks later in early November.

What is a Winternights feast like amongst today's heathens? Our group normally celebrate on a weekend between mid October and mid November. The date depends both on when it is convenient for heathen friends around the UK (and sometimes from abroad) to meet together and also on whether winter has arrived in the form of ground frosts at night. We don't slaughter any cattle. None of us are farmers. We don't happen to own any livestock, nor are we practiced in killing animals humanely. Neither do we fancy cleaning blood off the wallpaper! We do have a big feast where the food and drink is blessed and shared with gods and ancestors.

According to the description of an autumn feast in Egil's Saga:

Then the ale was served. Many toasts were drunk, each involving a whole ale horn. As the night wore on, many of Olvir's companions became incapacitated; some of them vomited inside the main room, while others made it through the door.[10]

We do pass around horns full of ale or mead and we do drink many toasts throughout the night, honouring gods, ancestors (both genetic and cultural) and absent friends. Somehow, heathens these days seem to be either more self-controlled or better at holding their drink. Although a few (including myself) may have admittedly become somewhat incapacitated, I am pleased to report that no one has ever vomited inside our main room or outside our door at our Winternights feast!

And now, we welcome you into our home for a glimpse of an ancient traditional ceremony as it takes place today...

A bad friend is far away though his cottage is close. To a true friend lies a trodden path though his farm lies far away.[11]

Our guests have travelled many miles to be here. They bring with them food and drink despite knowing that they will be treated to a feast of hospitality such as heathens are famous for. And each year they are asked to bring something else, something special that the gods have explicitly requested, and this year that special thing is a small measure of earth from each of their own gardens.

The table is spread, the walls are hung with tapestries and strings of chestnuts, and many lights sparkle around the altar. As each guest arrives, they are given warmth and a welcome drink. Outside a chill falls, but inside, when all are gathered, the rite begins.

First the house-elf is welcomed and presented with her favourite treats. She has worked, sometimes unseen but never unnoticed, for many months since she was last publicly feted. Our thanks to her is whole and heartfelt.

In another year we might have welcomed the goddess Frigg to our feast, but this year we welcome Ing, he who is known as Yngvi-Frey. We thank him for the harvest that will ensure that we will not hunger through the coming winter, and we pour him a libation of mead into a bowl.

Finally we call to the spirits of our ancestors and invite them to be with us and to feast with us, for it is their time to be remembered. One by one, we each hold the drinking horn and recite the names of a line of our ancestors - as far back as we can easily remember. Each of us chooses one ancestor in particular and tells a short anecdote about them, pouring them a libation into the ancestor bowl. When all are welcomed, the room seems crowded with familiar presences.

On a table before the altar are the measures of earth brought from many gardens, and we call upon Frey to make the earth fertile and for his elves to care for those gardens. We sing a rune-song of Ing, Eþel and Ger over more mead and the air seems to ring like a bell. Then the host dips a sheaf of wheat into the enlivened mead and sprinkles the earth with it, flames reflecting on the mead drops as Frey's blessings fall.

The horn is filled with mead again and blessed with a Thor's hammer. Now begins the symbel and, as the horn goes round many times, each of us toasts gods, ancestors and friends. At last, when the mead is drunk, the host takes the hammer, blesses the feast and cries, "Let the feasting begin." Merry faces from many worlds need no further encouragement!

Notes
[1] Sturluson, Snorri, Heimskringla, trans. Lee M. Hollander, University of Texas Press 1967 (p.12)

[2] ibid (p.107)

[3]The Saga of Gisli, trans. George Johnston, University of Toronto Press 1963 (p.21)

[4]Sturluson, Snorri, Edda, trans. Anthony Faulkes, Everyman 1987 (p.24)

[5]Viga-Glums Saga, trans. John McKinnell, Canongate/UNESCO 1987 (p.60)

[6]Egil's Saga, trans. Bernard Scudder, in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, The Penguin Press 1997 (p.67)

[7]John Lindow, Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, Oxford University Press 2001 (p.54)

[8]The Poetic Edda, Trans. Carolyne Larrington, Oxford university Press 1996 (p.52)

[9]Bede, The Reckoning of Time, trans. Faith Wallis, University of Liverpool Press 1999 (p.54)

[10]Egil's Saga, trans. Bernard Scudder, in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, The Penguin Press 1997 (p.67)

[11]Hávamál: the Sayings of the High One, trans. Björn Jónasson, in The Sayings of the Vikings, Gúðún Publishing House 1992 (p.49)