On the Calendar of Festivals in Old Norse Culture
In many modern Heathen/Asatru circles, there has come to be a mixed grouping of festivals from different Germanic cultures, as well as other religious traditions, on the calendar. One of the heavy influences upon the setup of the modern Asatru calendar comes from the Wiccan traditions. Many groups go off of a Wheel of the Year which has eight major festivals at similar placements throughout the year. However, this festival setup is not true to what would have been more commonly celebrated over the course of the year.
The Norse cultures divided the year into two main seasons: Summer and Winter (the respective light and dark halves). In the northern parts of Scandinavia, above the arctic circle, the sun never truly set throughout most of what was known as Summer and never truly rose throughout what was known as Winter. The light half of the year began around what is the Spring Equinox on modern calendars, and the dark half began around what is the Autumn Equinox; the respective festivals to celebrate these events were known as Summer Finding and Winter Finding or Winternights.
Two other important festivals were also celebrated in line with our modern seasonal observances: Midsummer and Midwinter. The festivals occur at the Summer and Winter solstices, respectively, and they were the midpoints in the seasons of Summer and Winter. Midwinter was also known as the festival of Yule (Jul in Old Norse), and lasted for twelve nights toward the end of what is now December This was the most important festival of the year, and celebrated the return of the sun after the longest night of the year. During this time, evergreen trees were decorated to entice the wights to return and bring life back to the deciduous trees whose leaves had fallen off due to lack of sunlight. Gifts were exchanged, sacrifices were made, and great feasts were held. This was also when the Yule log was burned for prosperity and luck in the coming year, and was lit using a piece of the previous year’s log. Feasts held during this time were seen as important events, so much so that when Earl Klak-Harold fails to come to King Gorm’s Yule feast three years in a row after he accepts the invitation, King Gorm is prepared to have him killed if his reasons are not acceptable (Saga of the Jomsvikings).
Midsummer, second only to Yule, was an important festival during which the fields were blessed to grow plentiful crops. Bonfires were lit, and jumping over the midsummer fire for good luck and health was a common practice.
Several smaller, yet still important festivals were held during the year, including Thorrablót in what is now January. This festival was named after the ancient etin-king Thorri, but in modern times is also celebrated as a festival to honor Thor. Dísablót was held at different times during the year depending on the region; in Sweden, it would have been held in late January-mid February in line with the charming of the plow, whereas in Norway it would have coincided with Winternights. Around late April, when the raiding season was beginning during the Viking Age, a Sigrblót would be held asking Odin for his blessing on their voyages and for victory in battle. The Althing in Iceland was held during the summer in July, and is commonly celebrated in modern practice with a festival called Thing-Tide in early August. Freyfaxi was also held in what is now August, and was a harvest festival in honor of Freyr, asking him for his blessing upon the year’s harvest.
Two Continental Germanic festivals, Ostara and Walpurgisnacht, are commonly added to the Heathen calendar, but these would not be accurate in the Norse lands. The word Ostara was not known in Scandinavia, where the term for Easter came not from this term, but from the Hebrew term for Passover, Pascha. The term Ostara is seen rather in the Continental Germanic and Anglo-Saxon regions, suggesting that the festival would more likely have occurred there, though the very existence of the commonly honored goddess is highly debated. The other, Walpurgisnacht, was also known as May Eve, and would more likely be celebrated in line with Summer Finding in the North lands, where May Day in modern Sweden is considered to be the true beginning of Spring.
Lastly, the day in Scandinavia began at dusk rather than dawn, and likewise these festivals began at the setting of the sun on what we would call the eve of those days in modern times. Because of the differences in how the seasons occurred in different parts of Europe, and how the days themselves were recognized, there was a heavy variation in the festivals that were celebrated and when they occurred. The commonly used Wheel of the Year is based more so off of the more southern order of festivals seen in cultures such as the Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Continental Germanic peoples, rather than the actual Norse calendar. Even in the Norse lands, regional differences influenced the respective practices and there was no pan-Norse or pan-Germanic system, but the festivals listed are at least more true to the Norse year.
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