Ranting Recon: What Are The Heathen Holidays?
A common problem for newer Heathens, and even some of the more experienced members of our community, is determining exactly what the Heathen holiday calendar looks like. Even a brief dive into Google will reveal a number of different calendars and holy days. The AFA has eight holy days based on the Wiccan wheel of the year. The Troth has TWENTY TWO annual celebrations if you include the various ‘Days of Remembrance’. Combined with current scholarly disputes over dates and practices, it’s enough to leave a newcomer completely baffled!
A lot of Heathens are likely familiar with the calendar on the left, or one pretty similar to it. An eight spoked ‘Wheel of the Year’ fixed upon the solstices and equinoxes. Now, this calendar isn’t WRONG. You’re not a ‘bad Heathen’ if you use it, however it is a thoroughly modern invention. It was created as a response to the Wiccan annual calendar in 1975 by Steven McNallen. If you were to go back in time and show this calendar to a Viking Era worshiper of Odin, they would have no idea what you were talking about. The ancient Norse didn’t base their year on the solstices and equinoxes, and a number of these holidays are actually Christian celebrations with a Heathen veneer on them. For example; Walpugisnacht is the celebration of a Christian Saint, not a Heathen festival. Again, this is not to say that those who use this calendar are somehow wrong, or bad, just that the calendar itself has nothing at all to do with any ancient Heathen traditions.
So What Calendar Did the Ancient Norse Pagans Use?
More easily asked than answered, unfortunately. The Norse/Germanic cultures were both wide spread and long lived. A number of different kinds of calendars were used in different times and places, most being very localized. Tacitus wrote that the Germanic peoples utilized a lunar calendar, and had a concept of three major seasons. Unfortunately, if you’re looking that far back in history, that’s about all we know. However, we do have records of at least one major ‘Viking Era’ calendar that was created before the conversion of Iceland.
The old Icelandic Calendar was created in conjunction with the first Alþingi (Eng: Allthing) in Iceland, around the year 930 CE. Not only did they require a uniform calendar in order to schedule the Allthing itself, they had had significant contact with Christians and the Julian Calendar by this time. A new way of reckoning the year was needed in order to organize internal as well as external politics and trade.
The year was broken up into twelve identical months of thirty days a piece, divided into a Summer and a Winter season. Half way through the year is an extra period of four days, bringing the total up to 364 days a year. In order to account for leap years, an extra ‘leap WEEK’ is added every five to six of our modern Gregorian years. Interestingly, every month begins on the same day of the week every year.
Historical Heathen Holidays
Some of the older holy days are a bit shrouded in mystery due to a lack of contemporary reporting. Others are unclear exactly when they started or how far back in history their origins might be. That said, below are some of most commonly acknowledged and well recorded Heathen Holy Days. I’ve provided the dates for 2016 as well as as much historical information and context as possible.
(The name of the month is given, then the day of the week on which it begins, then the specific date for 2016.)
Mörsugr (Wed) 23 December (2015)
Þorri (Fri) 22 January (2016)
Þorrablot is traditionally celebrated on the first day of this month. This holiday originated in 1873 as part of an early Icelandic revival, but it is based in the Lore and now has about 150 years of tradition backing it. The name comes from the Orkneyinga Saga where a Norwegian king named Þorri was said to have a blót held in his honor at mid-winter. The modern holiday is often celebrated by an evening of feasting and reciting poetry among friends and family.
Góa (Sun) 21 February
Góublót (celebrated on the first day of Góa) is likely a much older holiday, as references are made in the Lore to sacrifices being made around this time of year. There are also some older references to a folk tradition of weather forcasting on this day. (Not unlike the modern American concept of Groundhog’s Day). That said, the modern holiday shares a common origin point with Þorrablot. Named for Gói, the daughter of King Þorri, it is also known as “Wife’s Day”. Husbands are expected to be extra appreciative and attentive to their wives and the various important women in their lives. Something akin to an amalgamation of Mother’s day and Valentine’s day.
Multiple Sagas claim that Góa was the month in which the Disablót (a sacrifice made in honor of the many Giantesses, Goddesses, Landweights, and female ancestors.) was held. Considering the time overlap and the similar focus on the feminine, it seems likely that these two celebrations are related in origin. That being said, there is some slighty contention regarding the date when the Disablót was held, which we’ll mention below.
Einmánuðr (Tue) 22 March
According to some sources, Dísablót MIGHT have fallen here. For more on Dísablót, scroll down past the calendar.
Harpa (Thu) 21 April
Sigrblót is one of the three major yearly sacrifices mentioned in the Ynglinga Saga. The first day of Harpa marks the beginning of the Summer Season. All we know about the ancient traditions regarding this day is that it was a day of sacrifice, associated with ‘victory’. In modern times, this sacrifice has become less about ‘victory in battle’ and more about ‘victory in life’, celebrating the end of the long winter with offerings given to Freyr and Freyja.
Skerpla (Sat) 21 May
Sólmánuðr (Mon) 20 June
Mid-Summer is less a distinct holiday and more wide collection of localized folk traditions. Celebrations of fertility, nature, and music are common throughout many Scandinavian cultures at this time of year, but the specifics vary depending on exactly where you are. In Sweden it’s not uncommon to see people dressing up in more traditional clothing and playing folk music. In Iceland the day is far less flamboyant, though there are some interesting folk traditions regarding the alfar on this night. Unlike most of the other days listed here, this holiday is often more about a celebration of life than any kind of specific ritual practice.
Sumarauki (Wed) 20 July
The four day “filler” month
Heyannir (Sun) 24 July
Tvímánuðr (Tue) 23 August
Haustmánuðr (Thu) 22 September
Gormánuðr (Sat) 22 October
Alfarblót is on the first day of winter, and is another one of the three great sacrifices mentioned in the Ynglinga Saga. Again associated with Freyr and Freyja, Alfarblót was essentially a harvest festival. Celebrating the last crop of the year with a feast, the Heathens of the Viking Era would prepare themselves for the leaner winter months. Alfarblót was unique among the ancient holy days in that it was not a communal celebration. Apparently lead by the women of the house, it was said to be a private, familiar affair. In Austrfararvísur, one Norwegian skald describes being turned away from every homestead he encountered one night near the onset of winter. Each home refused him entry (most unusual given the cultures usual focus on Hospitality) and claimed that the night was sacred and no guests were to be allowed.
According to Víga-Glúms saga this was the time for Disablót. That being said, Víga-Glúms saga is the only source claiming this date, so it should be taken with a grain of salt.
Ýlir (Mon) 21 November
Jól (Often anglicized “Yule”) is thought to be the third major annual sacrifice mentioned in the Ynglinga Saga. Closely associated with Odin and the Wild Hunt, it’s the origin of many of our modern Christmas traditions. Decorating the Yule log, the Yule goat, caroling, and decorating the hall with holly, all were traditions carried over through the conversion from the older traditions. As to when Jól was actually celebrated, that’s a matter of debate. What we know is that King Haakon of Norway is said to have been the one responsible for changing the traditional date of Jól to coincide with Christmas. While there are no definitive records, contextual evidence from the rest of the calendar would seem to imply that the celebration likely occurred on the first day of Ýlir. (As all of the other holidays coincide with the first day of an Icelandic month)
Mörsugr (Wed) 21 December
The Rogue Holiday!
You may have noticed that one Holiday was listed twice and left rather vague. Dísablót is attested to in a number of places in the Lore, but while the descriptions of the celebrations are relatively consistent, the timing is not. Depending on the source, it either occurred at the beginning of winter or at the very end. The most technically correct answer to this issue is that it was BOTH. In different times and places, Dísablót was celebrated at various parts of the year. Some older runic calendars mark it as the first day of winter, but by the time of the Icelandic Allthing it had likely moved. The modern festival of ‘Disting’ in Sweden is a current incarnation of this much older holy day; it’s currently celebrated in February and has been for hundreds of years. When taken in hand with the fact that Alfablót is specifically said to occur at the onset of winter, it would seem that Dísablót likely occurred sometime in Góa or Einmánuðr.
What we DO know about this holiday is that it was a celebration of the female spirits and ancestors, called the disir. The Hervarar Saga suggests that this particular blót was a public affair and apparently lead by women. (The potential connections to Góublót should be becoming slightly more obvious by this point.) Regardless of the time of year however, we know that this communal holiday was centered around sacrifice and ancestor veneration. So while some Heathens may take different views on when it should be celebrated, the context of the celebration remains much the same from group to group.
If you’re a big fan of the ‘Wheel of the Year’ model, and that’s what you and your local group use, so be it. This is not my attempt to bag on other Heathens and degrade their own personal practices. What this is is a guide to the most well preserved Heathen calendar, and the holidays it records. It’s meant to be a resource for newer Heathens who may be confused by the vast array of different organization’s calendars, or the history behind some of the holidays they may have read about. For those who want a nice, memorable guide to the calendar described here, check out our graphic presentation!