Santa Odin and the Night of the Mothers
By Sarah Dahl
Since the early 10th century, the Viking Jólablót is held on December 25, and the Norwegian King Hákon the Good made it a law that “everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay fines, and had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted” – now ain’t that a good law?
It is likely that during a transition phase from pagan to Christian rituals the figure of Odin morphed into a long-bearded man called Santa Claus. He seems to be a later twin of the Allfather Odin, disguised by a silly red hat. Odin means “Jólnir”, “the Yule One” – and Yule was the Viking Christmas celebration.
The Viking pagan religion goes back at least 1,000 years; and it shares roots with the Christian religion. The Germanic and the Anglo-Saxon as well as the Norse traditions all turned into several different customs over time only.
This merging of religions was done gently and on purpose by the Norwegian King Hákon the Good. He introduced Christian traditions by blending them with the old pagan rituals, instead of forcing Christianity onto the Vikings. The ancient Scandinavian festivities were called Jól in Iceland; Jul in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark; and Yule in some English-speaking societies.
|Håkon den Gode og bøndene ved blotet på Mære by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1860).|
This holiday began at winter solstice and lasted until the Yule sacrifices, around the 12th of January, so three whole weeks! Personally, I’m exhausted after three days of Christmas, but that’s just me, ahem.
In the last three days that led up to the sacrifices there was drinking, feasting, games and song, topped off by sacrifices to the gods and other powers of winter. Sacrifices were vital. Winter solstice was the shortest day and marked the darkest and most dangerous point of the year: would the sun return, and with it, life? Or would the darkness win and bring death and despair?
During these three weeks, the Vikings must have anxiously waited for proof that the days indeed would again become longer and brighter – their lives depended on it. A new cycle of life could only start if the sun was victorious and rebirthed itself from the dark belly of the wolf (death) that had swallowed her.
So the Yule weeks were not at all mindless drinking and frolicking; they were a fragile, strict time with many rituals, including sacrifices.
From a Viking perspective, winter was a fierce time of death and cold, in which darkness ruled and the boundaries between the world of the living and the dead blurred. It’s not by accident that Vikings counted their age in “winters” survived. It was the time when the souls of the dead and other creatures like elves and trolls roamed the world of the living, with unclear intentions. It was of vital importance to give offerings by gifting food and drink, to placate the powers that were potentially threatening and dangerous.
Hopefully, the new year started another cycle of rejuvenation, nourishment, and renewed strength. So in this sense, Yule was the time when the Vikings celebrated the powers who gave just that: life. And who gave life and ensured new cycles?
Right, the mothers (beside other female deities).
The Night of the Mothers
Yule was the time of worshipping the ancestral mothers and other female powers of different realms. Because, just like the sun, females were life-givers, through birth and midwifery, similar to the power of the sun. For the Vikings, the first night of celebrations was “Mothers’ Night”: the goddess Frigga and the dísir (female ancestral spirits) were honoured. Only females could ensure the rebirth of the world from the dark grip of winter.
But of course women helped nourishment in a very basic, practical sense, too. The feasting was only possible through countless women providing food and drink they had made days or weeks in advance. In many ways, without women – or rather: mothers! – starvation and death was just around the corner.
So even the Anglo-Saxon heathens celebrated “The Night of the Mothers”: New Year in the 7th century corresponds with Yule. And they were not the only ones to worship women: the continental Germanic Mother Cult did the same.
Christianity then very much diminished the female role (of the Sun goddess, Sól, the Mothers, and goddesses), and turned the once central importance of women, living and dead, into a mere side note.
So with offerings and gatherings the days of Yule slowly moved towards the hopefully successful rebirth of the sun around the 12th of January. Farmers from near and far came with food in abundance. All took part in the drinking of ale and the killing and serving of animals. Surely a sacrificial beaker was carried around the fires. The host, a chieftain, would bless the meat and toasts would be made. In King Hákon’s time those were: 1. to Odin for victory and power, 2. to the gods Njördr and Freyr for good harvests and peace, 3. to the King, and lastly to the dead kinsfolk. These were all especially serious and meaningful oaths, sworn to the cup or horn while drinking and feasting at the Yule banquet with friends, family, and the wider community from near and far. In the hope there would be a new sun, and new life.
Do you suddenly see where our New Year’s Resolutions stem from?
They’re just a bloody Viking Yule Oath ;-)
So raise your horns: Skål to Odin, the sun, and all mothers!
Happy Yule and merry Christmas!
|Author, Sarah Dahl.|
Tales of Freya
Sensual Short Stories
By Sarah Dahl
In this collection of adult bedtime stories, Sarah Dahl pulls back the curtain of history to depict the erotic lives of Viking men and women. Amid the stark landscapes of fjords, forests and snowcapped mountain peaks, her characters search for love and passion. Dahl authentically illuminates the sensual side of a world of battle and plunder in an alluring collection perfect for every lover of gritty Viking romance.
A warrior recovering by a river is drawn into an unforeseen skirmish with a beautiful shield maiden. An enslaved Christian monk is entranced by his captors' pagan allure. A dissatisfied housewife finds that her home holds an unexpected and liberating secret. An injured farmer is captivated by the magic of his irresistible healer ...
In a world of crackling fires and rough landscapes, long winters and bloody raids, the immediacy of life and death ignites undeniable passions. Warriors and monks, healers and housewives - all follow the call of their hearts and bodies to indulge in pleasures that may forever change their lives.
Pick up your copy of
Tales of Freya
Sarah Dahl lives on the edge of the rural German Eifel and writes historical fiction (novels and short stories) primarily set in the Viking age. She was an editor in several German publishing houses and managed a translation agency. The magic of writing re-entered her life at UCD Dublin, where she sat in J.R.R. Tolkien’s office every day, while working on the ‘Dictionary of Hiberno-English’. Tolkien’s spirit must have done something to her creative muscles – it sure wasn’t the bland view from his office. She became a full-time writer soon after and still works as an editor, translates, and coaches new authors. She is interested in everyday life in bygone centuries and the human stories that may have occurred behind the hard, historical facts.