Category Archives: Seder (Customs)

Vetrnætr

campfire in snow

What is Vetrnætr?

Vetrnætr (Winter Nights) is one of the primary holidays found in the Norse branch of Heathenism, and observes the end of the summer half of the year and the beginning of the winter half. This festival is attested in several of the sagas, and is one of the three seasonal festivals listed in Ynglingasaga, along with a midwinter festival (likely Jólablót/Yule) and a victory sacrifice at the onset of summer (Sigrblót).[i] It has been carried forward into modern Heathenism from the older sources by many different groups and organizations including Ásatrúarfélagið[ii] and Forn Sed Norway, while Forn Sed Sweden observes Alvablot (Elven Sacrifice), which may be a connected tradition dating from pre-Christian Sweden.[iii]

One aspect that is not very clear about historical Winter Nights observations is exactly how they were carried out. Rather, there appears to have a fair degree of variation from region to region, and perhaps even more individually. The sources that we have, while not giving a complete picture, do at least give us some things upon which we can base our reconstructions, so that the modern forms share a similar spirit with their older inspirations.

When is it celebrated?

Since the Old Icelandic/Old Norse calendar was kept on a lunar basis rather than solar, the dates of things such as seasonal changes had more variation than they do by our modern reckoning. As Winter Nights was held at the onset of winter, we can use this information to better pinpoint the timing. The beginning of winter on the Old Icelandic calendar was said to occur in the month of Gor (Innards), which began on the Saturday after the 26th week of summer. Since summer ends on a Wednesday, this leaves a gap of two days in-between, and this gap would most likely be the time of Winter Nights, making it a three-night long festival. On modern calendars, this lands between the 19th and the 26th of October.

Andreas Nordberg claims as well that all major sacrifice days were observed 28 days after a solstice or equinox event, which would place Winter Nights 28 days after the Autumnal Equinox in modern reckoning.[iv] This lines up as well with the timing based off of the old calendar. Most modern Winter Nights celebrations, though, will usually be held on a Saturday during that time frame, due to work schedules and other factors.

Who celebrates it?

Winter Nights is attested in Norse sagas, and therefore is primarily a celebration within the Norse branch of Heathenism. As stated above, pretty much all Scandinavian organizations celebrate it or a connected festival. In North American Heathenism it is also often observed, although there has been some confusion with the development of the Winter Finding holiday, which occurs on the Autumnal Equinox. This is the same as Haustblót (Autumn Sacrifice), but the name has caused a somewhat common tendency to mistake Winter Finding and Winter Nights as being the same holiday.

How is it celebrated?

This is the point at which the most variation in Winter Nights celebrations occurs. There is no one way in which historical Winter Nights traditions were observed and this goes all the way to even which deities were honored. Four beings or groups of beings who are named in different sagas as having been honored at this time are Freyr, Óðinn, the álfar and the dísir. The honoring of the dísir appears to be the most common based on textual evidence, and is present in at least Víga-Glúms saga and Egils saga Skallagrímssonar. The reference in Egil’s saga also gives a hint into one of the offerings used, as he and Ölvir are first denied ale when they travel to the home of Barð because it is being used for the Dísablót.[v]

The reference to the honoring of Freyr comes from Gísla saga Súrssonar when Þorgrímr says that they will be performing a sacrifice to Freyr during the autumnal blót. Since Freyr is also known as the lord of the álfar this could lend support to the connection between them and Winter Nights, but that is in no way certain from this reference, and would be purely conjecture. However, there is a clear reference in support of their being honored at this time, and that comes from Sweden. In the skaldic poem Austrfararvísur, Sigvatr Þórðarson journeys to Sweden in the service of King Olaf II in Norway at the onset of winter. When he comes to a place known as Hof he seeks a place to stay. However, he is turned away at several different houses, each time by a man named Ölvir. He is told that the people there are heathen and are performing a sacrifice to the álfar, and that they also fear Óðinn’s wrath should they allow the ceremony to be interrupted by outsiders. This also gives a possible reference to ale being used as an offering; because the man who turns away Sigvatr at every house is called Ölvir, it has been interpreted as possibly being a title rather than an actual name, meaning “Ale Being.”[vi]

The account given in Austrfararvísur does not explicitly state that Óðinn was honored at that time, but it certainly carries a heavy implication of it. It is also not specifically presented as a Winter Nights observation, but because it happened at the onset of winter in line with other celebrations, and because Ynglingasaga presents the Winter Nights feast as having been a widespread practice, it can be fairly well interpreted that the Álfablót was a Winter Nights observation in at least that part of Sweden.

Regarding actual practices, as stated above it appears that ale was at least a somewhat common offering during Winter Nights observations. Additionally, we know that this time of the year was prevalent for slaughtering livestock before the weather turned. Because in that time meat would generally not be preserved as long as it can now, it would have to be eaten much more quickly. Because of this, it is also very likely that meat from livestock was a common offering. Overall, a portion of the fruits of one’s harvest were likely to be the primary choice for offerings. In modern times this is often a similar case; and for those who farm, brew or raise livestock a sacrifice of that kind may well still be their choice. For those who do not, these types of offerings are still good even if purchased elsewhere.

Why celebrate Vetrnætr?

For modern Heathens, specifically those who follow the Norse branch, this is one of the primary festivals present in the lore, and therefore is an important one. Though our calendar now is different from the old one, this still marks a turning point at which the sunlight and warmth of summer is gone and we head into winter. It is also a time to give a portion of what we have gained over the summer as both thanks and as a petition for a favorable winter. As can be seen from the source literature, traditions and customs for this festival had a great degree of variation by region and community, and likewise in modern times different individuals and groups observe it in modern times, but the spirit of a feast heading into winter is still the same. As for the dísir and the álfar, though it appears that they were historically worshiped as anonymous spirits connected to the family rather than specific ancestors, they are still very much a part of one’s environment and deserve respect. Indeed, these spirits could greatly aid people if kept happy, and to welcome them as a member of the family is certainly a positive action. Take this time to stave off the cold of the oncoming winter with some warmth and feasting.

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

[ii] Blót. Ásatrúarfélagið. http://asatru.is/blot.

[iii] Årets Högtider. Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige. http://www.samfundetfornsed.se/om-forn-sed/%C3%A5rets-h%C3%B6gtider-1283052.

[iv] Nordberg, Andreas. Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning: Kalendrar och kalendariska riter i det förkristna Norden. (Uppsala, 2006). Available from: http://www.kgaa.nu/upload/books/103.pdf

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

[vi] Snorri Sturlusson.

Blót

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Photo credit to Ásatrúarfélagið

The blót is the most basic ceremony within Heathen traditions, and is in simplest terms the way in which we commune with and celebrate the gods. The blót practices are preserved in both the literature and the language of the Norse peoples, and has been revived today in various forms, some more historical than others, but all pursuing similar goals. This paper takes a look at the linguistics and literature which give us what we know about the ancient practices, and further provides an analysis and overview of the modern interpretations.

The linguistics of blót

The term blót derives from the Proto-Germanic (PG) noun *ƀlōtan, meaning “worship or sacrifice”. The term has often been represented as also involving “blood”, with proponents asserting that both words trace back to the same root word either in Proto-Germanic or before. This supports the view as well that blood was the required offering for such an occasion.

However, this theory is contested within the academic community, with opponents citing that the PG word for blood is *ƀlōđan or *ƀlōÞan, and that though the two are similar, that does not necessarily mean that they are related as such. [[1]] If this were the case, such dependent connections would also exist between words such as *gēbiz (meek, pleasant), *gebō (gift), *gēbǭ (good luck) and *gabugaz (noble). However, it is not possible to make a definitive statement that all noble people are meek or pleasant, nor that they are all lucky or gift-giving. Zoëga’s A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic gives the definition of blót as being “sacrifice,” “idol worship,” “idol,” or “cursing/swearing”. One can guess that a couple of those definitions came about post-conversion, but further definitions include blót-naut (an ox worshipped with sacrifices or a bull to be sacrificed) and blót-drykkja (sacrificial feast involving mead, wine or ale), suggesting that not only were various types of offerings given, but animals could also be considered sacred and have sacrifices given to them. Blót-matr is also a very generic term meaning “food-sacrifice,” and could basically mean any sort of food item.[[2]]

Looking at the Gothic language as well, which is attested as early as the 4th century A.D., one also sees the derivative term blotan used with no blood or even Heathen connotations at all. In fact, this term was often used in a Christian context, with such words as guÞblostreis (God-fearing) and blotinassus (religious service) being commonplace. [[3]] One could theorize that the term was appropriated and ‘cleansed’ of its bloody nature, but in such a case it would be more likely that a different term would have been used which would carry no memory of such practices.

Also cited is the age of the words themselves. While ƀlōtan is thought to have been inherited from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *bhlād, according to both Don Ringe and Ásgeir Magnússon ƀlōđan seems to be a younger word, meaning that it was most likely a Germanic innovation. [[4]] This also means that the term for sacrifice could not have been derived from the younger term for blood. An easier connection to make, however, is the association of “blood” with “blessing”. The term *blōþisōnan, meaning “bless”, is simply the PG term for “blood” with a verb-forming suffix attached. With this connection made, it is much easier to state that blood was crucial for a blessing, but not for an actual sacrifice. As blood was believed to carry tremendous spiritual power, this would also make sense.

The literature of blót

Most textual evidence of blóts in the historical record is also vague about the nature of the sacrifice, at least in Old Norse sources. While there are descriptions of livestock animals or other living candidates being used, the connection is never explicitly stated. There are, however, references of blóts being performed using several different types of offerings, such as the following excerpt from Gutasaga:

“Before this time, and a long time thereafter, they believed in groves and barrows, sanctuaries, and sacred enclosures and in the pagan gods. They sacrificed their sons, daughters and cattle, and practiced blót with food and drink. This they did due to their superstition. The whole country (the althing) had the largest blót with sacrifice of people, otherwise every trithing had its blót and smaller things had smaller blót with cattle, food and drinks. They were called food-, or cooking-brethren, because they prepared the meals together.”

This passage describes the use of food and drink in addition to living sacrifices, and though blood may not have been the only option, in largely agricultural societies it was common for a person to possess livestock which they could offer up. It must be also kept in mind that much of saga literature and other accounts of Heathen religious practices only address major blóts in which there was a feast made for a large number of guests. In this case, it would be necessary to slaughter a least a decent amount of livestock animals in order to feed everyone. One such major blót is described by Adam of Bremen in Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, taking place at the Temple at Uppsala in Sweden every nine years and lasting for a period of nine days. During this spectacular blót, nine males of every living creature were sacrificed, with their blood being seen as placating the gods. Here, “every living creature” implies livestock animals as well as humans, and one of each was sacrificed per day. Over the course of the nine days, huge feasts were held in order to feed the people gathered there, having come from every province in Sweden. The extent to which Adam of Bremen’s account is based on historical fact vs. imaginative exaggeration has been debated, though the presence of the temple itself is agreed upon as well as there having been an important festival which occurred there.

Similarly, the festival of Jólablót (Yule) was generally the most important festival of the year, and celebrated the return of the sun as well as certain gods. In addition to smaller gatherings, Yule feasts were often held at the homes of kings and wealthy men and many would be invited. However, it was also seen as extremely rude to accept such an invitation and not manage to show. In the Saga of the Jomsvikings, Earl Klak-Harold fails to make it to King Gorm’s Yule celebration three years in a row, so the king travels to confront him after the winter has passed, ready to have his men kill the earl if his reasons for failing to show are not sufficient.

Other blóts could be smaller, such as the extremely private Álfablót practices described in the skaldic poem Austrfararvísur. In this poem, Sigvatr journeys to Sweden as a delegate from Norway under King Olaf at the onset of winter. While journeying through Sweden, he comes to a place called Hof seeking shelter for the night. He is turned away, however, at multiple houses, each time being told that the Álfablót, or Elven Sacrifice, is taking place and that the occupants fear Óðinn’s wrath should they allow intruders. Such a blót was certainly limited to attendance by just the immediate family there, but it likely involved a small feast in addition to an offering of ale. [[5]] However, many blóts were more open to the public than this example.

Divination was a common practice as well at blóts, especially when animal sacrifice was performed. In such cases, the entrails of the offered animal could be read in order to predict the fortunes of those gathered there; if the sacrifice was performed well, it could be expected that the omens read there would be in good favor. In cases where animal sacrifice was not specifically performed, casting of lots or other such methods could be performed. Casting of lots in Germanic cultures is fairly well documented, and goes back even as far as Tacitus’ Germania, though this instance was not described as taking place during a particular event which would fall into the category of blót.

From these records we can infer that the practice of blót was a public event meant to celebrate and to placate the gods, as well as to insure the good fortune of those gathered there. It also many times involved the practice of divination in order to judge the effectiveness of the blót, as well as a ritualized feast for the participants.

The modern practice

In modern times, due to changes in worldview as well as social acceptability, the most common offering is in the form of food and drink, with mead or ale being the standard. Occasionally in areas where agriculture is more prevalent, a farmer may offer a sacrifice of a livestock animal, but this is no longer common practice. Game meat is another offering which is common among hunters, especially to deities such as Skaði and Ullr who have strong associations with hunting. However, it should be noted that this type of offering is given after the kill has already been made, rather than capturing an animal from the wild and killing it specifically for the purpose of blót. In a time where many people’s family and community members are largely Christian, or at least non-Heathen, it is also much more common for blóts to be observed either alone or with a small group of friends, or possibly with an established kindred. Because traditions are drawn from multiple sources and areas, the calendars are also largely skewed in terms of both timing and which festivals are observed.

Depending on the occasion and the gods being celebrated, blóts can take on many different forms, but there are certain elements which are always at the core of the practice. At the very basic level, a blót involves an offering given to the god(s) in celebration, thanks, petition or another purpose. Surrounding this offering is the welcoming and celebration of the gods to whom they are given, and they are welcomed to the blót as an honored guest would be at a feast or party. Similarly, the wights of the land should be invited, as they are closely connected with those who live in the area and often have great influence over their lives, if not as easily recognizable. The welcoming of the wights is commonly one of the first parts of the blót, being followed by the welcoming of the gods. For some blóts throughout the year such as Álfablót or Dísablót, certain ancestors will also be called to in celebration; though they are counted among the larger body of wights, such festivals focus upon celebrating them, and therefore the point is made to give them a distinct welcome.

After the invitations are given to the wights and the gods, there will customarily be time taken to declare the purpose of the blót being held. For an ancestral festival such as Álfablót or Dísablót, this will be a celebration of the ancestors who look over and interact with our families. A festival such as Skördeblót [[6]] (Harvest blot, Sweden), however, celebrates the harvest and Yule, as stated previously, celebrates the return of the sun and the point at which the days begin to grow longer. The offerings are also presented at this time, and the customary drink is poured into the horn, with some amount being poured out into the blót bowl for the gods.

The horn is then passed around the circle, starting with the goði or gyðja and working its way around for three rounds of toasting. The first round is to the god(s) of the blót; the second to ancestors or heroic figures and the third round is open to boasts, oaths, poetry, song or other inspirations. This is sometimes separated from the rest of the blót, being known as sumbl following attestations in Old Norse/Germanic and classical literature. However, this is not always the case, and many groups in places such as Sweden will simply incorporate it as a standard part of the blót. In cases where it is held as separate, there will usually be a round of toasting to the gods of the blót which ends that ceremony, followed by a feast and then sumbl; the first round of sumbl will then be open to toasts to the participants’ gods of choice (though most often still within the Germanic pantheon of focus).

The features described above are only the very basic elements of blót, and the occasion or purpose can heavily affect how the event is designed. A blót may involve the procession of a statue representing a deity, such as Freyr. Midsummer, as well as Majblot [[7]], will often involve dancing around a Maypole, and Yule practices often feature the exchange of gifts from one participant to another. [[8]] The annual Thing or Althing, which is practiced by many groups especially in Scandinavia, is a time during which many official decisions will be made as to electing leaders, amending or voting on bylaws and other details, and this can be very lengthy compared to average blóts. Still there are other life events such as weddings or handfastings which may be accompanied by blót, or the naming of a child. All of these purposes warrant their own unique features, but as long as the core elements are preserved then the blót is a good one.

Different individuals, kindreds or otherwise will often differ on how traditional they attempt to be when designing their blóts, and these considerations are, for the most part, up to the preferences of those involved. Some modern practices have become commonplace in many groups in places such as the U.S. For instance, the Hammer Rite is a petition to Thor to bless the ground on which the blót is held, and is repeated standing to the north, east, south and west sides of the area. This practice is not attested in historical sources and is likely based upon practices in traditions such as ceremonial magic and Wicca, but it has nevertheless become a common feature in some places. Some groups will chant the names of runes during the opening of the blót, [[9]] or will shout the names of certain gods such as Óðinn, Vili and Ve. [[10]] Likewise, these are not known to be traditional practices, but they have still become common enough to be worthy of note.

For an example of a general outline, here is the basic form that I will use for blóts which I lead:

  • The blót begins with the sounding of a horn to bring the participants’ attention to the event which is occurring.
  • If newcomers are present, an explanation of the general setup is given to help things to go smoothly.
  • The wights are invited with song and sounds such as drumming or the rattling of keys in order to alert and entice them.
  • An invitation is extended to the gods of the blót by name, as well as to the gods in general. This is most often done through the singing of galdr or otherwise in Norse verse form.
  • After a moment of reflection and preparation, the purpose of the blót is declared. This is also a time for participants to offer personal devotions or reflections to the gods of the blót.
  • Non-beverage offerings are put out and designated as such through words or other means. The mead or other beverage is then poured into the horn, the first bit being poured out for Odin if mead is used. Some is poured out into the blót bowl, and the rest is passed around for the three rounds as described above.
  • The leftover mead is poured out, and the gods and wights are thanked for their presence among those gathered; after this, the blót is closed. A feast may be held either after this or during the rounds of toasting if the setting is appropriate for it.

This is, again, a general outline, and may be changed somewhat to accommodate the purpose and theme of certain festivals. I also attempt to stay with a more traditional format, and do not incorporate things such as the Hammer Rite. However, this is not the only way to perform a blót, and if it works for you all the better, but make sure to find something that feels right rather than just going through the motions.

Closing notes

While blót as an integral part of the Heathen revival is being practiced in various forms by various people and groups, there are certain elements and aims which are at the very core of what blót is. Blót is a sacrifice which brings people into communion which the gods, wights and each other. Whether it’s mead, ale, food, livestock or whatever else; this gift is both a thanks for the fortunes which have been given as well as a petition for continued prosperity. People do what works for them, and none of these are any less Heathen than others. When it comes to blót, the best way is the effective way.


[1] Bammesberger, Alfred (1990). Die Morphologie der urgermanischen Nomens. Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitätsverlag.

[2] Zoëga, Geir T. (1910). A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. Courier Dover Publications.

[3] Rajki, András. (2004). Gothic Dictionary with Etymologies. [Internet]

[4] Ringe, Don. (2006). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press.

[5] The name Ölvir is used for the man who turns Sigvatr away at the last three houses, suggesting that it was likely an honorific  title rather than a specific man’s name. The word Öl-vir translates to “Ale”, plus a suffix of uncertain translation.

[6] Årets Högtider. Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige. [Internet]. Available from: http://www.samfundetfornsed.se/om-forn-sed/%C3%A5rets-h%C3%B6gtider-1283052.

[7] Majblot (May blot) is a modern practice among Heathen groups in Sweden. May 1st is largely considered to be the true beginning of summer in Sweden, giving rise to the holiday of May Day, from which this festival is derived. However, many of the traditional festivities now take place on Valborsmässoafton (Walpurgis Night), which is held on the night before.

[8] The historical record is not clear as to whether or not gift exchanges were common practice in Heathen times, but it has nonetheless become a core element of Yule traditions in modern times.

[9] This will usually not be proper galdr, but a simple chanting or singing of names. Elder Futhark is most common as it is the most popular set of runes, though attempting proper galdr with it is linguistically problematic in the absence of an understanding of proto-Norse language.

[10] As these three are the creators of mankind in Norse mythology, the invocation of these deities attempts to create a connection between the participants and the primal forces of creation and fate, as well as to get participants into a proper mindset for blót.