There’s an old saying in Sweden – “om Erik ger ax ger Olof kaka” –which means “if Erik gives ears [of corn] then Olof gives bread”. I suppose you could call it a mnemonic device, it means: “If your cereal has started sprouting ears in mid-May you should be able to mill your grain to bake bread at the end of July”. “Erik” in this means the mass of st Erik celebrated on May 18th, just as “Olof” is the mass of st Olaf, and his day is July 29th.
Now, Erik and Olaf were Christians, and after their death they came to be considered saints, though they were by no means saints after the fashion of st Francis or mother Theresa. Erik was most likely your average medieval Scandinavian king, which is to say a hardened warrior, and Olaf Haraldsson of Norway was a real mean bastard. The stories of how he “converted” the heathens through torture and terror are many. The saint kings, though, are probably building more on older, non-Christian traditions of kings becoming local gods, like Olaf the Geirstad-elf, and – more frequently, perhaps – of kings tracing their lineage to the gods, like the Ynglings descending from Frey and Gerðr and the Scyldings/Skjöldungs descending from Odin through his son Skjold. Knut Eriksson did put a lot of emphasis on his father’s sainthood when he himself became king.
These saint kings came to take on attributes and cultic practices associated with the old gods. Erik came to be associated with processions around fields to further fertility, much like Frey, and Olaf carry attributes similar to Thor, most notably a red beard and a silver axe with which he hunts trolls. These similarities, together with the saying above, have led some heathens to use the 29th of July as the date for a harvest blót. This works well as Thor can easily be seen to be connected to this time of year. July has the most thunderstorms of the year, and his wife, Sif with her hair cut off and replaced with a hair made of dwarven gold, is often considered to represent the ripening grain harvested and refined into bread and beer, or sold for “gold”. However, after Sweden went over to the Gregorian calendar this date ended up well before the actual cereal harvest, and in later times st Lawrence (st Lars, in Swedish) is associated with this on the 10th of August.
The traditions around harvest were strict. For years following a bad harvest, when food ran out earlier than normal, people would go to great lengths to avoid starting the harvest before the stipulated times; even if the grains were already ripe. When someone defied the convention and harvested and threshed early, the sound of the flails were said to be “the ringing of the hunger bells”.
Harvest isn’t just about grains, though. There’s potatoes, carrots, onion and different beets, just to mention some, and there are different kinds of fruit. In our garden our most prominent produce is the fruit of our wonderful plum tree. Last year we harvested so many plums that we hardly knew what to do with it all; we made cordial, jam, chutney and wine (a very strong wine…). We didn’t plant that tree, we didn’t buy it. It was here when we moved in, and we do very little to facilitate the production of the fruit. Frey, Jörðr, Sunna and Thor are the ones doing most of the job, and we just have to pick it. It’s pure luxury and our livelihood doesn’t depend on it. A failed plum harvest doesn’t mean that our family goes hungry. I could just let the plums fall to the ground and let them rot, but that somehow that feels wrong.
There is, to my mind, something sacred in the gathering of the ripe fruit or grain, and when I have the opportunity to do so, I would be remiss in ignoring it. Harvesting is holy. The tree has stood there all summer, drinking in the rays of Sunna and collecting Her megin, Her might. The act of harvesting can bring us closer to our ancestors, to whom the harvest was a matter of life and death, and it can make us think about what we do to our environment. If I lived in the middle of a big city with my plum tree, I’m not sure I would eat its fruit, since not only would it be drinking in the rains of Thor and the light of Sunna, but also the exhaust of cars.
This world wasn’t made for us, as the Christians believe, but we were made for this world. Thus if we change the conditions of the world we’re not only endangering the lives of other beings in this world – which clearly is bad enough – but we’re undermining the very thing on which we build our lives. If we introduce poisons into the world, we get poisoned; if we drain the life out of the land, we will die. The web of Urd/Wyrd is all-encompassing, and a change to one part affects the entire web. A lesson one can glean from the myth about our world is that we live in a precarious balance, between ice and fire, between rigid order and destructive chaos. The gods will work to maintain that balance, but there are forces working against that. We can be forces for upholding the balance, or we can topple the tower. If we harvest with care and awareness; if we take what can be regrown and don’t chop down the tree to get to the last fruits at the tops – metaphorically speaking – we can continue to live here in this sacred land of gods and spirits. If not, we will hasten the great winter, and our stores will not be enough.