Photo: Dísablót by August Malmström

What is Dísablót?

The annual celebration of Dísablót is attested in multiple Old Norse sagas and other works, and is one of the blóts which seems to have had a fairly widespread practice. The blót itself has a strong familial focus, and it celebrates the dísir who are believed to be the female spirits of the home. Because of their interactions with and help given to the people who inhabited the land, the spirits were considered to be extensions of the family. The dísir were thought to perform various functions, though these took place either in the home or possibly as guardians of warriors in battle.

A lot of people, especially in American Heathenism where the connection to one’s ancestral culture may be much more distant than in Scandinavia and other Germanic countries, tend to regard the dísir as specifically ancestral spirits of theirs. It should be noted, however, that the Norse saw it as unfavorable and of bad fortune for a person’s spirit to linger on after death, and in fact such spirits were usually called draugr, and were greatly feared. So rather than being a specific mother’s or grandmother’s spirit lingering around the family, the identity of the spirits was more ambiguous, as is supported by pretty much all sources that currently exist on the subject. This is also influenced by how contemporary society understands the concept of ‘ancestor worship’, but to the Norse the concept seems to have carried a different meaning than in traditions such as Confucianism or (Japanese) Buddhism. Some have linked the concept of dísir being specifically female ancestors with the Matronæ who were worshiped in the southern regions of Germanic lands. However, this is basically trying to meld two unique groups separated by centuries into one practice, and the Matronæ themselves are largely thought to be of Celtic origin and introduced into Rome based upon the figures used, the names and the locations in which they were primarily worshiped.

In addition to female spirits, the beings labeled with the term ‘dís’ seem to also include certain goddesses. Some goddesses in the Norse pantheon are given heiti containing the –dís suffix; two examples of this are Skaði’s heiti “Öndurdís” (Ski/Snowshoe Goddess) and Freyja’s heiti “Vanadís” (Van Goddess). [[1]] Some Old Norse names will also include the –dís suffix, though this is likely in an honorific fashion such as with god-name prefixes (e.g., þórfinnr), and there are even examples of combinations of such honorific names as in the name Freydís (Maiden of Freyr). Though some sources do use the term ‘goddesses’ in passages about Dísablót, which could also be related to the translations themselves, it definitely does not occur everywhere, so to say that actual Æsir or Vanir were sacrificed to here is to not make a well supported claim.

When is it celebrated?

There is no one time during which all Dísablót observations would take place. Several sagas taking place in Western Norse lands (primarily Norway), involve the blót taking place as part of the Vetrnætr (Winternights) observances. [[2]] Víga-Glúms Saga supports this, and says that when Víga-Glúm traveled to Voss in Western Norway at the onset of winter a feast was prepared for the Winternights celebration and a Dísablót was done there. The accounts of Vetrnætr observances which take place in Iceland, though, do not mention Dísablót, and more often mention Freyr or Óðinn being the central focus throughout. Several sources also mention an anonymous “autumn blót” which took place and could be Vetrnætr, but even these were done in honor of Freyr, making him the most common focus for the blót in such a case. Snorri states, however, that the Swedes held their celebration in late February to early March in conjunction with the allra Svía þing (Thing of all Swedes) and the fair of Disting [[3]] which still takes place in Uppsala to this day as an annual market fair. Depending on the tradition, one may choose any date or dates within these time ranges to observe Dísablót.

According to Folk Ström, the timing of the Dísablót observance also may have been dictated by purpose. In the Western Norse lands such as Norway, the references that we have to it tend to place it at the onset of winter as previously described. In the Eastern Norse lands, though, the festival would coincide more so with the charming of the plough which took place during Góa-month (Good-Month) in the Old Norse calendar, and as far as we can tell the publicly held celebrations during Vetrnætr only occurred in Southeastern Norway as opposed to more private observances. [[4]] However, this theory is not universally accepted, and the stories on which we base our knowledge of Dísablót may only represent a small portion of the Western and Eastern Norse regions. It would seem that whatever was predominately practiced in Norway would likely have continued in Iceland, considering the fact that the country was mostly settled by Norwegians fleeing the rule of King Harald Fairhair, but so far the sources at our disposal do not mention it occurring that way. For a long time as well, Norway and Denmark were the same country, and Norway had not long ago become and independent country by the time these events took place, so things could have changed over that time. The only sure way to judge the Western Norse practices as a whole would be if a king had instituted a specific Dísablót celebration throughout one of the countries, as was the case in Sweden, but currently we do not have such records.

Who celebrates it?

While the celebrations focusing on ‘ancestor worship’ have taken various forms throughout different cultures over the centuries, Dísablót is primarily the Scandinavian expression. It is recorded as having taken place pretty much throughout the Scandinavian countries; therefore, it is usually a core celebration on the calendars of any Norse focusing group, though some may choose not to observe it for whatever reasons. You will see it on the calendars of Scandinavian groups such as Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige in Sweden, though as pointed out above the timing was not consistent throughout the different countries, so it will usually move around by region.

How is it celebrated?

This is one of the festivals for which we actually do have some details on the historical record. It is mentioned in several sagas including Ynglinga Saga, Egils Saga and Hervarar saga ok Heiðeks. In the Saga of Olaf Haraldsson, the Dísablót is described as such:

“In Sweden there was an age-old custom whilst they were still heathen that there should be a blood offering in Uppsala during Góa-month. Then they would sacrifice for peace and victory for their king. And thither would they come from all over Sweden. There also were all the Swedish things. There was besides a market and a fair, and it lasted a week. But when Christianity came to Sweden they still kept the law thing and the market there. And when Christianity prevailed throughout Sweden and the kings no longer sat in Uppsala, the market was shifted and held at Candlemas. It has always been held then ever since, but now it does not last more than three days.” [[5]]

Ynglinga Saga contains the following passage describing the king’s role in performing the religious rites at the Dísablót in Sweden:

“King Adils was at a sacrifice to the goddesses (Dísir) and rode on his horse around the temple; the horse stumbled under him and fell; so the king also rolled over, and his head fell against a stone, so that his skull burst and his brains lay on the stone. That was his death; he died in Uppsala and there is now his howe. The Swedes called him a mighty king.” [[6]]

While the passage from Ynglinga Saga places the king in the role of the officiating priest, having the ceremonies led by male priests does not seem to have been the general rule. Herverar Saga contains a passage in which Alfhildr, daughter of King Alfr, is kidnapped while she is reddening a hörgr (religious building or altar) with blood during a Dísablót celebration. Indeed it would seem appropriate for a blót in honor of the female spirits of the family and community to be led by the living women of the families. Unfortunately, there isn’t much saga literature available to say whether or not it was specifically the custom for women to lead the blóts or not.

Egils Saga contains a clear reference to a Dísablót when he travels to the large farm owned by King Eirik Blood-Axe and his wife Gunnhild. [[7]] However, while the previous reference shows a woman painting blood on the walls of the religious building, this saga’s description seems to not to have explicitly involved a blood sacrifice. Rather, it appears that ale was used, both in the narration and in Egil’s accusations against Bard in the verse that he speaks:

“King Eirik and Gunnhild arrived in Atloy the same night. Bard had prepared a feast for him, because a sacrifice was being made to the dísir. It was a splendid feast, with plenty to drink in the main room.”

Egil’s verse is later spoken as such:

“You told the trollwomen’s foe
you were short of feast-drink
when appeasing the goddesses:
you deceived us, despoiler of graves.
You hid your plotting thoughts
from men you did not know
for sheer spite, Bard:
you have played a bad trick on us.”

Because of the familial focus of this blót, many modern Heathens will hold at least a portion of their observance in private. There will often be a more public observance in kindred or other group settings which honor certain goddesses such as Frigg or Freyja as well as the dísir in general. The offering given as sacrifice is largely up to the discretion of those holding the blót, but most often it will consist of mead or possibly beer; although in farming areas a livestock animal may be sacrificed. However, the sacrifice of a livestock animal would likely take place during the Vetrnætr celebrations when animals were being slaughtered so that their meat could be stored over the winter. Cider or juice may also be used, and the time of year during which it is held may influence the decision.

In more agricultural areas, people may hold this blót in conjunction with the Charming of the Plough at the beginning of the planting season when the weather starts getting warmer and the soil thaws. However, this occurs at different times in different regions, so there is not a single set time at which it is appropriate for the blót to be observed.

Why celebrate Dísablót?

Dísablót, like Álfablót, is an expression of Heathenism’s deep connection to ancestor worship and veneration. The honoring of these spirits also helps to bring people closer to their families and their communities in less dense areas. In agricultural areas, this festival is important to many in helping to insure a good crop later in the year. In other areas, it can be celebrated for the purpose of communing with the spirits of the home before the winter sets in, and for most heathens it can help to connect them to their ancestral culture, or at least the more distant part of it.

[1] Sturlusson, Snorri. Edda. (London:Everyman Publishing, 1996).

[2] Gundarsson, Kveldulf. Our Troth Volume II: Living the Troth.

[3] Sturlusson, Snorri. Heimskringla. (New York: Dover Publications, 1990).

[4] Ström, Folk. Nordisk Hedendom: Tro och Sed I Förkristentid, 3rd Ed. (Sweden: Esselte Studium, 1985).

[5] Sturlusson, Snorri. Heimskringla.

[6] Sturlusson, Snorri. Heimskringla.

[7] Thorsson, Örnólfur et al. The Sagas of Icelanders. (New York: Viking Penguin, 2000).


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