Garman Lord’s new book is a much-needed addition to the modern Heathen library. It’s scale is both grand and small; he starts with a sweeping theory of religion that covers thousands of years, and then zooms in to the history of Theodish Belief over the last 40+ years.
There are many insights to be had in the book when it comes to religion in general, but I found his account of the history of Theodism to be fascinating. Despite having studied it myself, and indeed seen some of it first-hand, his insider view of the development of this important branch of the Heathen revival tree provided many insights and much-needed perspective on the major events and personalities in Theodish history.
Those who are looking for a cookbook of rituals and yet another description of who the Gods are will be disappointed. This is a much deeper work, providing a theological, historical, and philosophical underpinning for Theodish Belief.
Look elsewhere for the answer to the question “how do I do this?” This book answers the question “why do I do this?”
You can find this book (a 209 page softcover for a ridiculously reasonable price) on Amazon here (affiliate link):
The Germanic ring-dance (or chain dance) was common over northern and western Europe for many centuries, and is still practiced in some places such as the Faeroe Islands. The usefulness of such a thing to me in ritual is obvious, and digging around a little we see that the practice has its origins in the pre-Christian Germanic peoples.
Bertha Phillpotts, in her invaluable The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama (pp. 186-187), provides this gloss of a Latin account from the Byzantine court written down by Constantine Porphyrogenitus circa the early 10th century, but possibly being as old as the 6th century.
…it is impossible to decide at present whether the Christmas custom described… is performed by Goths … or by Varangians — Scandinavians. … it is played on the ninth day of Yule. There appear to be two parties, the Blue and the Green, each side with a leader, and each side has two or more “Goths” wearing masks of various animals, and clad in reindeer-skins or fur pelises in such a way that the hairy or shaggy side is turned outwards. In his left hand each carries a shield, and a staff in the right hand. The two groups stand facing each other, and at the word of command run up near the Emperor’s table beating their shields with their staves, and crying “Tul! Tul!” They then form two circles, one within the other, and in this formation seem to dance thrice round the table of the Emperor: they then retire, while “those who out of the two groups represent the Goths recite the so-called Gothic chant, the instrument players’ giving the time.”
While the mentions of animal guising around the New Year are interesting, what is relevant to the present article is the mention of the ring dance; “they form two circles, one within the other, and in this formation seem to dance thrice round the table”.
We are told of a similar ring-dance that was conducted by the Lombards (a Germanic tribe who eventually settled in northern Italy) by Pope Gregory I (540-604 CE), in the third book of his Dialogues (ch 28):
At the same time, the Lombards, having almost four hundred prisoners in their hands, did, after their manner, sacrifice a goat’s head to the devil: running round about with it in a circle, and by singing a most blasphemous song did dedicate it to his service.
As we saw in our examination of Midsummer, Atto of Vercelli (885-961 CE) also specifically mentions ring dancing in association with St. John’s Day (Midsummer):
Certain little trollops abandon the churches and the divine offices; they pas the whole night any which where, in the streets and crossroad, by springs and in the countryside; they form round dances, compose songs, draw lots and pretend that people’s prospects are to be predicted from things of this sort.
The number of penetentials, sermons, and the like condemning dancing in general is too great to even list, but the specific mention of ring-dancing in Atto’s account is of interest.
Högst märk- ligt är, att det antydes, att lapparna också utfört något slags dans kring det blodbestrukna trådet, ty detta avses otvivelaktigt av SQLANDER, då han säger, att de »siungande kringlupit» detta med rötterna uppgrävda tråd!
Most striking is that it hints, that the Lapps also performed some kind of dance around the blood-covered tree, for this is what is undoubtedly meant by SQLANDER, when he mentions the “singing circle” about the uprooted tree roots!
Next, the custom breaks into the post-Conversion era (and thence to the modern age) in this 13th century account, almost certainly based on a traditional folktale, from Denmark (recounted in Bertha Phillpotts, The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama, p. 123):
In his country, Brother Peder said, the lying-in of a woman is enlivened by her neighbors, who come in and divert themselves with songs and improper dances. On one such occasion when a number of women were gathered together they collected a bundle of straw and gave itt ht elikenes of a man with arms of straw, put a hood and belt on it and called it Bovi. Thereupon they began their ring-dance, two women leapt and sang with him between them, and in between the verses they turned round to him, as was the custom, with forward guestures and said to him: “Sing with us, Bovi, sing too, why art though silent? But at that moment the devil answered: “Yea, I will sing” –and uttered a yell which lilled some of them with fright.
It’s very interesting that E.K. Chambers, in his The Medieval Stage (p. 166) mentions a very similar practice in England:
Just as the ‘country’ dance is derived from the processional dance, so the other type of folk-dance, the ronde or ’round’, is derived from the comparatively stationary dance of the group of worshipers around the more especially sacred objects of the festival, such as the tree or the fire. The custom of dancing round the May-pole has been more or less preserved wherever the May-pole is known. But ‘Thread the Needle’ itself often winds up with a circular dance or ronde, either around one of the players, or, on festival occasions, around the representative of the earlier home of the fertilization divinity, the parish church. This custom is popularly known as ‘clipping the church’.
And in a footnote to the above-referenced paragraph, Chambers gives us the following details which are even more evocative:
The church at Painswick, Gloucester, is danced round on wake-day. There is a group of games, in which the players wind and unwind in spirals round a centre. Such are Eller Tree, Wind up the Bush Faggot, and Bulliheise. These Mrs. Gomme regards as survivals of the ritual dance round a sacred tree. Some obscure references in the rhymes used to ‘dumplings’ and ‘a bundle of rags’ perhaps connect themselves to the cereal cake and the rags hung on the tree for luck.
Personally, I see a connection between the English ‘bundle of rags’ and Brother Peder’s image of straw from Denmark. Both are constructs that are the center of the circular dance, and both evoke images of a humanoid form. I would posit (and this is, of course, pure speculation) that they represent a god-form that was originally at the center of the dance. Indeed, given the well-known use of god-poles by the Heathens, could it also be related to Sǫlander’s uprooted trees, which were covered with blood and also the center of a round dance?
Finally, it should be noted that there’s a variation of the ring-dance, known as the chain-dance, which is still practiced to this day in the Faeroe Islands. The dance itself is simplicity itself; people hold hands, take two steps to the left, one step to the right, and repeat. The dance is done to any number of chanted songs, sung by the dancers, on subjects ranging from historical drama to tales of elves and witches. They can be done either in Faerose or Danish, depending on their origin (and subject matter tends to vary by language and origin).
All in all, I think there’s a very strong case to be made for the existence of dance during pre-Christian Germanic ritual. There is certainly something to be said for participants in ritual to have a part in that ritual, and some sort of kinetic motion, combined with a holiday-appropriate song, seems like it would be a perfect fit.
It’s also a good example of the principle that the Eddas and Icelandic Sagas should not be regarded as the be-all and end-all of source material for Heathenry. Not only are they (mostly) post-Conversion works, there is a wealth of other sources that are actually describing Heathen practices happening at the time. As I’ve said before, if the Christians want to ban it, chances are it’s something we might want to adopt.
Lately I’ve seen a few blog posts and YouTube videos of a particularly reconstructionist bent going out of their way to try to prove that the pre-Christian Germanic peoples did not celebrate Midsummer. I think they vastly overstate the case, and I’d like to go through some of the evidence to the contrary. I did touch on this subject a few years ago, but I’d lie to go into a bit more detail now.
Now, let’s get the obvious out of the way right at the beginning. Midsummer is not one of the “big three” sacrifices that are mentioned by Snorri Sturluson in Ynglingasaga 8:
On Winter Nights there should be sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third blot should be on summer day, a Victory-sacrifice.
Some even go so far as to look for the word miðsumarsblót in the sources, and naturally come up empty (except for one example from Olaf Tryggvason’s Saga that is talking about a special event, not something that happened on a recurring basis). “HOO-HA!” they say. Since the word for midsummer-sacrifice doesn’t exist, there must have been no Heathen midsummer!
Well, not exactly, and for a reason which is quite obvious when one thinks about it. A sacrifice is not the only way to “celebrate”.
In fact, we’ve already seen a large array of minor holidays that are celebrated (in some cases “marked” might be a better word) with customs, rather than full-on sacrifices. I don’t think there’s anything at all inconsistent with the notion that there are the “big three” sacrifices at Winternights, Yule, and Somarmal, and then a variety of other holidays held on significant dates throughout the year, including Midsummer.
Even the most reconstructionisty of reconstructionists will admit that the concept of Midsummer as a time of year was present in the Heathen mind, even if it might be little more than “the full moon that is 6 full moons after Yule”. It’s mentioned in Grettir’s Saga, Gragas, and elsewhere. We also know that in the post-conversion era midsummer was a day of celebration and associated with fire, water (bathing in wells and streams), fertility, frightening off evil spirits, and divination.
What to make of this? We are left with two possibilities:
The celebration of midsummer and its associations with fire and water, fertility, frightening off evil spirits, and divination was a Christian invention that was imposed on the Germanic peoples by clerical and secular authorities, and enthusiastically taken up.
The celebration of midsummer and its associations with fire and water, fertility, frightening off evil spirits, and divination was a holdover from the pre-Christian era that clerical and secular authorities attempted to co-opt in order to make their own faith more appealing.
With that second option, we also need to remember that the midsummer celebration was moved from its lunar-based time around July to the 24th of June in order to honor St. John the Baptist. If the fire/fertility/evil/divination that have long been associated with midsummer celebrations were indeed of Christian origin, we would expect to see those elements somehow connected to the story of St. John outside the context of his birthday (June 24 is held to be his birthday as a counterpoint to the birthday of Jesus on December 25, symbolically half the year apart).
But there’s nothing in the nativity story of St. John (described in Luke 1:5–25; 1:57–66; I’m not going to reprint them here due to length, but the links will take you to the text) that has anything to do with any of the popular associations of the holiday. Too, the liturgical celebration of the holiday has no such associations, either. In short, there’s nothing to support the idea that the celebration of midsummer was something brought in by Christianity.
On the other hand, if the midsummer celebrations were a pre-Christian survival, one would expect the Church fathers to have spoken out against it in some way. And indeed, that is what we see in the Life of St. Eligius (588-660 CE) in one of his sermons given in western France (under control of the Frankish Germanic tribes, and before them the Vandal Germanic tribes).
Although the Merovingian king Clovis I was baptized in 508 CE, the inhabitants of Gaul retained their Heathen customs and religion for two centuries before they were completely Christianized (and even then, that just meant the ending of overtly Heathen rituals and practices). Eligius would have been preaching during the period of dual faith, and his efforts would have been part of the overall conversion process. And indeed, he speaks specifically against the habits of the Pagans on St. John’s Day:
Before all else, I denounce and contest, that you shall observe no sacrilegious pagan customs. … No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.
We see the same sort of thing in the sermons of Caesarius of Arles (468-542 CE). Arles was firmly in the hands of the Visigoths (another Germanic tribe) for many years before Caesarius was born. As Bernadette Filotas puts it in her wonderful book Pagan Survivals (p. 175) which paraphrases and partially quotes the long-serving archbishop:
The influence of the gospel image of John the Baptist is unmistakable in the description of ritual bathing in springs, marshes, and rivers during the night and early hours, although they were accompanied with ‘vile or lewd’ love songs. Bawdiness was an essential feature. Caesarius urged his hearers to keep the members of their household from obscene behavior and indecent speech so that ‘the sacred solemnities; not be polluted by bawdy songs’. His warning that the saint would listen to these prayers ‘if he knows that we celebrate his feast peacefully, chastely, and soberly’ implies that the actual celebration tended to degenerate into an orgy.
The sermons of Atto of Vercelli (885-961 CE) tell a similar tale. The city in northern Italy was in the hands of the Visigoths for centuries, and later the Germanic Lombards. Of St. John’s Day he complains with typical Christian prudery:
Certain little trollops abandon the churches and the divine offices; they pas the whole night any which where, in the streets and crossroad, by springs and in the countryside; they form round dances, compose songs, draw lots and pretend that people’s prospects are to be predicted from things of this sort. Their superstition has given rise to madness to the point that they presume to baptize grass and leafy boughs, and hence they dare to call [them] godfathers or godmothers [compatres vel commatres in the original]. And for a long while afterwards, they strive to keep them hung up in their houses, as though for the sake of piety.
The information about the creation of what seem to be poppets is new and unique to Atto, but there’s no reason to suspect that such a very specific detail is his invention. What we see consistently in all these sources is a tendency towards song, licentiousness, and divination.
But what of the central feature of contemporary Midsummer celebrations; the fire? We have abundant late sources, but are there any earlier sources that are either contemporary with, or immediately after, the Heathen period?
Unfortunately, no. I’ve not been able to find any references to fire associated with midsummer or St. John’s day that are contemporaneous with the Heathen period or what might be considered a reasonable period of dual faith while the conversion process takes place.
That said, we’re still left with the origin of the association of fire with the Midsummer celebrations. We’ve seen that there’s no such association with the story of the nativity of St. John the Baptist; if anything, he’s associated with water (which was okay with our sources, as long as the bathing didn’t include ribald songs and overt sexuality).
Given the alien nature of the fire association with the Christian holiday, I’m inclined to include it as having a pre-Christian origin, although with the footnote that it’s entirely possible that there is some secular mechanism by which the fire association was later added, although the form such a mechanism might take remains opaque, and doesn’t explain the ease with which the Midsummer fires fit into the otherwise-religious customs of the day.
On this past Friday and Saturday, I engaged in a most successful experimental magical Working.
I had never done anything in the realm of automatic writing before, but had been having some very strong pulls in that direction. Most specifically, over the last few weeks, I’ve felt compelled to contact the spirit of the Germanic sibyl Veleda, a living goddess of the Bructeri in the 1st century CE.
I did the groundwork, first faring forth and asking her if she would be interested in the idea. The response was incredible and immediate; I felt pulled to the site of her grave-mound instantly, and the result was an enthusiastic yes.
Then I felt I needed the permission of Hel, in whose domain Veleda does dwell, after all. That, too, was positive, and permission was granted, although I have to perform a small service for the goddess myself.
The Working proceeded over two nights. I had originally intended to do it over the three nights of the New Moon, but by the third both she and I were exhausted from the effort. We agreed to pick up the third session at the next New Moon.
What happened during the sessions was astounding. I took many pages of dictation, just flowing onto the page as fast as I could write it down (indeed, some of it is a little hard to make out now that I try to read it after the fact). It was a mixture of wisdom for today and prophecy about tomorrow, and I am very much looking forward to the third session, after which I will endeavor to put the whole thing down in a readable format.
Given the success of this Working, I might well do others along a similar vein. I don’t expect anyone outside of myself to believe this is the work of a two-millenia-dead sibyl, but speaking as the person directly involved, I certainly believe that to be the case.
Over at the NY Times, Tara Isabella Burton penned a very interesting piece about Weird Christianity. It’s well worth reading the whole thing, despite the fact that she’s talking about Christianity, because I think a lot of what she says has relevance within Heathenry, too. (It’s also worth noting that Rod Dreher (of whom I’ve written in the past) has been on a tear about “Weird Christianity” lately; here, here, and here.
Now, of course, some wag will doubtless say “all Heathenry is weird”, and in the context of the wider culture, this might be true in some sense. But this is talking about weird religion in the context of that religion, and that’s where the interesting bit comes in.
First, definitions. By “weird”, Ms. Burton has a very specific meaning:
What we have in common is that we see a return to old-school forms of worship as a way of escaping from the crisis of modernity and the liberal-capitalist faith in individualism.
Setting aside the Christian-specific examples in her article, one can see where this can apply within a Heathen context. All too many Heathens are what the Christians call “accommodationist”. That is, changing their religion to accommodate the pressures of the broader (secular-modernist) culture.
A perfect example of accommodationism is the 1890 “revelation from God” to the Church of Latter-Day Saints that polygamy was suddenly not a good thing. This was a necessary change because it was clear that Utah would never become a state without it. And so religious dogma was set aside in order to accommodate the wishes of the larger culture.
We see this all the time in the imposition of modern political ideologies within Heathenry, particularly from the Left (although explicit National Socialism on the right, while significantly rarer, does exist). One has to look no further than the movement of American Asatru from its original folkish roots in the 1970’s, to the stark division between folkish and universalist today. At least a large segment of Asatru accommodated the pressure to avoid even the appearance of anything based on ethnicity (at least European ethnicity).
We see this in all sorts of other ways within Heathenry, too. The use of modern language in ritual rather than the elder tongues. The use of Wiccanate ritual structure (which itself ultimately derives from ceremonial magic), with its casting of protective circles and invocations and the like. The lack of proper blót (as in, animal sacrifice), in favor of votive offerings. The use of street clothing, or (worse) “Sunday best”, or (worst) “plain clothes” like Amish wear. Yes, that’s really a thing among a few dozen Heathens (although because one of them is head of the Troth, you’d think they were half of all heathens around the world). Magic is nonsense, and at best a fantasy to be avoided. Men and women are interchangeable, and there’s no societal role that is related to gender. There are many other examples, but the general gist is that the religion changes to accommodate the society.
I don’t include the “Eightfold Wheel of the Year” in this, as it’s not so much evidence of accommodation as an influence from the very beginning. It was at the time the only model out there, to be fair. Since the 1970’s, research has yielded a much different calendar (calendars is perhaps more accurate) and it’s more respect for tradition (even if it is only 50 or so years old) than accommodation to modern expectations that keeps it in use.
One might ask, why is this a bad thing? Surely, as society changes, and grows, and new ideas come to prominence as we know better and discard old ideas. That’s good, right?
Well, it may be good in a secular sense, but from a religious point of view, it’s terrible.
The point of religion is to provide a framework for understanding and interacting with the world. Religion’s claim is that it retains the right to define what is, and is not, moral and proper. If those definitions can and do change based on the ever-changing whims of society, then their own claim to being able to define those things is undermined. In essence, religion abdicates its own role to society, and in so doing, finds itself without a reason to exist.
Fortunately, there is within Heathenry a group which seems immune to this phenomenon, for a variety of reasons. That’s Theodish Belief. Because it is centered on the religion of the sacral leader, it can better withstand the buffets of popular opinion.
Too, the principle of Freedom of Conscience, which states that nobody can say “you can’t be Theodish because you believe X” (whether X is folkishness, or Communism, or whatever), has left Theodish Belief largely immune to the ideologically based witch-hunts which have plagued Asatru and other forms of Heathenry since the 1990’s. Which isn’t to say there can’t be the occasional rotten apple; every barrel has a few. But they are dealt with at the individual or organizational level, and don’t rise to the level of Theodism as a whole.
Thus, Theodism endures, with its “weirdness” intact. The use of ancient languages in ritual, the wearing of ritual clothing, the acceptance of Politically Incorrect attitudes by its members, and the occasional animal sacrifice into the bargain.
Long-time readers of this blog will recall that I love to see how other groups perform ritual. Well, that’s not changed, and today we’ve got a two-fer.
Obviously, because of the current restrictions thanks to COVID-19, most large rituals can’t happen, but we have today some video from last year and the year before, showing two different Beltane rituals; one in Britain and one in Ireland. Neither is specifically Heathen, but I think both are instructive in their own way.
The first one comes from Glastonbury in 2019:
You can tell right from the beginning that it’s a Wiccan ritual. The calling to the corners, the “hail and welcome”, the “God and Goddess”, and so forth.
That said, I do like the imagery of the Green Man, the May King/Queen, and the engagement of the audience in the dancing. Live music is great, even if the whole seems a bit disjointed and feels more like a street fair than anything. And the yii-yii-yii noise people keep making sounds more at home at a soccer match than a religious ceremony.
But then we get into a proper procession, with a drum-supported chant, as they bring the Maypole through the streets of the city. I note the Maypole is carved with runes, quite incongruously. Some people think slapping runes on everything makes it more holy or cool, or something. I’m much more of a runic minimalist these days.
That said I love the fact that there’s a procession through the streets, with live music. The finding of the May King is well done, too. But then they get into a straight-out-of-Llwellyn Wiccanate ceremony, and although I found the costumes and the music conducive to ritual, and the planting of the May Pole well done, the ritual as a whole felt… off. It lacked a certain authenticity. Like it could have been at a renaissance fair.
But they finish with the dancing of the Maypole, and again the live music is a welcome highlight. But I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s something both silly and contrived.
The second one comes from Uisneach, Ireland, in 2018:
This one has a lot in common with the first. There’s the live music, and the own seems to have turned out for the event. There are costumes, but somehow this seems a bit less contrived and a bit more organic.
In a way, I think the Christian elements of this event make it better for me. The women in white are led by two with what are obviously halos, and others can be seen with what look like horns. But everyone is wearing white, which speaks of a certain ritual unity, and something less chaotic than the Glastonbury video.
It’s also the case that it is much more obviously a fire festival, and the fact that it’s done at night highlights that. I have no idea how old the dance at 2:45 is, but it feels like something that just sort of grew up over the centuries. I love the spiral fire forms, which again feel like something that stem from antiquity, even if they aren’t older than the Victorian era. The great bonfire at the end also just seems more authentic to me, precisely because it is evocative without being overt in what it’s trying to portray. It leaves the exact interpretation up to the viewer, as opposed to the sacral marriage of the May Queen and May King, which was a bit too on-the-nose.
In this case, it seems to me like the additions of modern technology (the lights in the headdresses and drums) add to the effect, rather than detract from it. Because the whole is so obviously a ceremony focused on fire and light, it seems right.
On the whole, although I personally preferred the second video, I found much to commend the first. The procession and live music was excellent, and the carnival atmosphere felt right. But the intrusion of Wiccanate ritual felt forced, and detracted from the celebration of the holiday. By contrast, the second video, which was an unapologetic and unexplained fire ritual, felt more organic and “real” to me; it felt like something that would have been done for hundreds of years on that hill.
Carrying on from part one of this series, we have seen a fair amount of evidence suggestive of the fact that the celebration of St. Walpurga was mapped onto a pre-Christian goddess associated with “the miracle of the grain”. Let’s see what else we can glean on this major-yet-still-enigmatic holiday. Specifically, it’s most famous association; witches.
Grimm tells us that it is possible to join the witches who are out and about on Walpurgisnacht by the act of ritual inversion. That is, one put’s one’s clothing on inside-out, and moves backwards towards a crossroads. Then one is, presumably, picked up by the witches to join them in their sport at the Brocken. (Grimm IV, superstition #1082)
In Sweden, the day is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks, with the belief that these might frighten off the witches who were known to fly to their gatherings on this evening. This is echoed in Grimm IV, supersitition #138, where he says that witches cannot hurt the corn in a field, if the farmer fires a shot over it.
In Germany and Sweden, they were said to meet at Mt. Brocken, which is the highest peak in the Hartz Mountains (the name Brocken seems to go back as far as the 12th century, when “Broken” is mentioned as the name in the Saxon World Chronicle, but the etymology of the name is not known with 100% certainty).
While there’s a wealth of information on the day in German sources, this English source (Aubrey, Remains of Gentilisme) encapsulates it well:
‘Tis commonly say’d in Germany that the witches do meet int he night before the first say of May, upon an high mountain, called the Blocksberg, situated in Ascanien, where they, together with the devils, do dance and feast; and the common people doe, the night before the said day, fetch a certain thorn, and stick it at their house-door, believing the witches can then doe them no harm.
The detail of the thorn to protect the house of course recalls the Biblical account of the Hebrews, who painted their door jams with the blood of a lamb in order to be passed over by the Angel of Death who was visiting the firstborn of Pharaoh’s subjects (Exodus 12).
In Ditmarschen (just to the northwest of Hamburg, Germany), we are told:
…they kindle great fires on the hills and crossways, which they call ‘baken’ (beacons). The boys and young people bring straw and dry boughs from all parts, and the night is passed amid rejoicing and dancing about the flames. Some of the larger youths take bundles of burning straw on a fork, and run about swinging them until they are burnt out. On the island of Femern (which was peopled from Ditmarschen they in like manner celebrate the 30th April with the lighting of beacons (bakenbrennen). (Northern Mythology, Benjamin Thorpe, vol III, p. 6)
From the same source we see that “If a man desires to know what sort of a wife he shall have, he must ride on Walpurg’s night on a broomstick to the stable, and knock thrice, then go to the pigstye and hear what pig grunts, whether an old or a young one. His wife will be old or young accordingly. (Hassleben [central Germany])”
Also, “…no persons should go to bed, lest the witches should come and bewitch them. (Rauen [just east of Berlin])”. Nor may cat be allowed into the house, lest it be a witch.
It is also the case that witches are not limited to the Brocken. Grimm tells us “At the end of the Hliss, as thou nearest the Duier (Duinger) wood, is a mountain very high and bare, named uf den bloszen sollen, whereon it is given out that witches hold their dances on Walpurgis night, even as on Mt Brocken in the Harz.”
Llwellyn Lloyd, in his wonderful Peasant Life In Sweden (1870) gives us a wonderful description of the fire-related element of the evening’s celebrations:
Huge bonfires, which should be lighted by striking two flint stones together, blaze on all the hills and knolls. Every large hamlet has its own fire, so that one may at times see from twenty to thirty within the same parish. The youth of both sexes assemble from all parts of the country at these fires, when, forming a ring (two or three rings, the one within the other, if the company is numerous), they dance around them until the night be well advanced. Whilst the young are thus enjoying themselves, the old folk take note of the several fires, and carefully mark if their number be odd or even; as also if the flames incline to the north or to the south. ‘In the former case, they believe the spring will be cold and backward; but in the latter, genial and mild.’ (Lloyd, p. 234)
Here we note the connection of bonfires with the Walpurgisnacht celebration, and the connection (in Sweden, at least) with weather-prediction and the sort of Maypole Dance mingling of the sexes that we see in Germany and elsewhere on the Continent (although usually the practice in Scandinavia is transferred to Midsummer).
In his 1913 work “Balder the Beautiful: The Fire-Festivals of Europe and the Doctrine of the External Soul”, J.G. Frazer (this was Volume 10 of the third edition of The Golden Bough) makes note of several fire-related customs attached to the night:
Similarly, in Bohemia, on the eve of Fires on May Day, young people kindle fires on hills and eminences, at crossways, and in pastures, and dance round them. They Day in leap over the glowing embers or even through the flames. The ceremony is called ” burning the witches.” In some places an effigy representing a witch used to be burnt in burning the bonfire. We have to remember that the eve of May the witches. Day is the notorious Walpurgis Night, when the witches are everywhere speeding unseen through the air on their hellish errands. On this witching night children in Voigtland [on the modern border of Germany and the Czech Republic] also light bonfires on the heights and leap over them. Moreover, they wave burning brooms or toss them minto the air. So far as the light of the bonfire reaches, so far will a blessing rest on the fields. The kindling of the fires on Walpurgis Night is called “driving away the witches.” The custom of kindling fires on the eve of May Day (Walpurgis Night) for the purpose of burning the witches is, or used to be, widespread in the Tyrol, Moravia, Saxony, and Silesia.
Frazier gives us another fascinating tidbit in a later footnote (on p. 171):
The Blocksberg, where German as well as Norwegian witches gather for their great Sabbaths on the Eve of May Day (Walpurgis Night) and Midsummer Eve, is commonly identified with the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz mountains. But in Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and probably elsewhere, villages have their own local Blocksberg, which is generally a hill or open place in the neighborhood; a number of places in Pomerania go by the name of the Blocksberg.
It’s interesting to note that the connection between the name “Blocksberg” and witches is still current in the German collective consciousness, as the audio and later TV cartoon series Bibi Blocksberg demonstrates. Frazier provides yet more detail with the following quote from R. Kuhnau, Scheslichen Sagen, p. 69:
In the county of Glatz [in Lower Silesia, now in Poland, but then in Germany] the people believe that on Walpurgis Night (the Eve of May Day) the witches under cover of the darkness seek to harm men in all sorts of ways. To guard themselves against them the people set small birch trees in front of the house-door on the previous day, and are of opinion that the witches must count all the leaves on these little trees before they can get into the house. While they are still at this laborious task, the day dawns and the dreaded guests must retire to their own realm.
Something similar is known in Marsala, Sicily, where witches are said to be compelled to count the grains of salt that might be placed before them.
I think it’s safe to assume we have a connection between May Eve (aka Walpurgisnacht) and witches, as well as an association with fire (specifically bonfires, which seems to echo the same traditions as we see at Midsummer). There are recurrent patterns mentioning the need to protect against these witches; whether it be the house itself or the fields of grain. The (presumably unprotected) grain fields are also held to be a place where the witches can be contacted and the individual can even join their company. So we do now see a connection of the grain goddess with the witches who go about on this night.
Next we’ll see if we can tie this back more specifically to figures or myth-complexes we see in Norse and other Germanic pre-Christian culture.
Edred Thorsson’s latest book is not only a departure from his usual magically-focused works, but it is possibly one of his most important books to date. As the title implies, Re-Tribalize Now! (sub-titled “A step-by-step guide to cultural renewal”) focuses on the project of realigning culture along the ancient tribal model, with a focus on the pre-Christian Germanic experience, although other cultures and religions (including the Celtic, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Islamic) are discussed as well.
The book is slim (117 pages), but dense, and nearly half of its length is taken up with appendices. The table of contents is as follows:
The History if Tribes: Historical Tribalism in Europe
General Tribal Theory
Appendix A: Questions and Answers About Re-Tribalization
Appendix B: Germanic Concepts of Sovereignty
Appendix C: Names of Some Major Germanic and Celtic Tribes and Their Meanings
Appendix D: On the Development of a Tribal Constitution
Appendix E: Development of Gender-Specific Organizations
Appendix F: Sources for Further Reading and Research
As can be inferred from the TOC, the emphasis is on Germanic culture and history, but others are included as well. Even the Oyotunji African Village in South Carolina (which I wrote about several years ago) gets a mention. One very valuable, but often overlooked, item is the discussion of failed attempts at retribalization over the years. An examination of such failures can be very instructive, and the book points this out to good effect.
While there is a good deal of practical advice in the book (such as how to set up a tribal constitution, etc.), its real value is in the more inspirational area, demonstrating how tribal organization was once the norm, and giving a clear path to how it could be once more. The theoretical aspects of tribes are discussed in depth (ethnic, ideological, linguistic, and material), as well as the importance of some sort of unifying founding myth.
On the whole, this is a wonderful little book, very densely packed with information (as should be expected in something written by Edred Thorsson, whose depth of knowledge is apparent on every page). Highly recommended.