Alvablot and Winternights
It has been an odd autumn; we had a warm and dry September and start of November, this year, but eventually we finally got some proper autumn weather, and then suddenly, just in time for Alvablot a ton of snow. I love autumn and winter; the colors, the crisp air and how evenings get darker and let us cozy up with candles and blankets and hot drinks – it’s a wonderful feeling to walk through a snowy landscape or a forest path paved with yellow leaves. I also really love Alvablot. Being a Frey’s-man, Alvablót is particularly meaningful to me, and the ceremony that evolved over time in the local blotlag I was active in over the last 10 or so years has come to be very dear to me.
There’ve been a few blog posts I’ve seen lately about blóts of later autumn. Cara Freyasdaughter wrote about Winternights and how it differs from Samhain over at Patheos.com a few of weeks ago, and also provided some interesting links to posts on the subject. Indeed, most of my non-Swedish friends seem to celebrate Winternights (or “Winter Nights”, I’ve encountered both spellings) at this time of the year, but in Sweden I only ever hear of people celebrating Alvablot. In Hervarar saga and Viga-Glums saga there are mentions of an autumnal Dísablót and I’ve heard of people doing that now too (though in Heimskringla it’s said that among the Swedes it was celebrated in spring, and that’s our custom in modern Heathenry too). The Ásatrúarfélagið in Iceland celebrate Haustblót at this time, which is rather confusing to us Swedish Heathens since we call our celebrations at the autumn equinox “Höstblot”.
There’s not that much known about the pre-Christian Álfablót. It’s mentioned by the Norwegian skald Sigvatr Þórðarson in his Austrfararvísur – when he was travelling through the western part of what is now Sweden (close to where I live, actually) during autumn, he came upon several farms that would not let him in, which was a grave breach of protocol. They told him they were Heathen, celebrating Álfablót, and that they couldn’t let him in for fear of the wrath of Odin, but nothing else about the blót itself is revealed.
Álfablót, Haustblót and Winternights are often regarded as being connected, or at least occuring at or around the same time (though of course, not everyone agrees). Sometimes connections are drawn to the blót in Vǫlsa þáttr, since it’s described as occurring during autumn. The elves, disir, Odin and Frey are all mentioned in connection with the autumn blót, and there are arguments for this being a festival of the dead. Not the least because of a perceived association between elves and ancestors – elves live in mounds, such as people would be buried in, and how Olaf Gudrødsson upon his death came to be revered as a local deity called Olaf Geirstad-elf. British historian Ronald Hutton, however, has argued that festivals of the dead were celebrated between March and May in european pre-Christian religions and that neither the celtic Samhain nor the norse festivals celebrated at this time of the year would be that.
When I walk through the woods in the morning, plowing through the dead, yellow leaves covering the path I argue with myself about this. While I’m not really a reconstructionist, I naturally want to understand what people practicing Heathenry through the ages have thought about their practices, to the extent that it is at all possible, but the two most important things are, of course, that my practice works and that it’s relevant to me here and now. When I walk through the darkness and the dead leaves, then the connection to death and to dead family members makes sense, and I feel the world around me turning to stillness, turning inward. The cyclical nature of the day, of the year, of life itself, fit into each other like russian nesting dolls. We’re in the dusk of the year, connected through theological kenning to old age and death (don’t tell me that “the winter of life”, doesn’t make an awesome kenning for death), and through the natural world all around. And just like the death of the year, we see how life persists, though in a more subtle way. The birds might not sing in winter, and some may leave for far away places, but there are those that stay and when we feed them, they come to us.
This is Alvablot to me. And on Saturday we gathered in our home and honoured the Lord of Life, the Prince of the land of ancestors. We invited our beloved dead and spoke of them over a raised horn. It was a night of strong winds and heavy snowfall, and Odin’s wild hunt seemed closer and more tangiable than ever. It was beautiful.