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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.

Óðinn

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Introduction

Óðinn (Anglicized as Odin; modern Scandinavian tongues also include the form Oden) is a major god within the Norse pantheon. His name is cognate to the Old English Wōden and Continental Germanic Wôtan, and all of these names are descended from the Proto-Germanic *Wōđanaz[i] His name carries multiple different meanings, the most popular being “the Furious.” However, alternative translations have been proposed for his name, including “the Mind,” and “the Poetry;” this is due to the fact that the Old Norse word óðr, being the first part of the combination “óðr”+”inn,” carries the three possible interpretations of mind/wits (noun), poetry (noun) and frenzied (adjective). [ii] He bears many other names throughout the lore, and often the names used help to describe his role in the particular story. Some names include: Ygg (The Terrible One), Valföðr (Lord of the Chosen), Sigtýr (Victory God), Fimbultýr (Mighty God), Bölverkr (Bale/Evil worker) and more.

In the literature, he is often said to be the chief among the ­Æsir, though his worship was not as widespread as that of Þórr or Freyr. Rather, this may be in reference to the fact that, as a war god, he was important to both warriors and kings, the latter of whose authorities often rested upon their abilities to remain victorious in conflicts. In addition, as he was a god of poets and poetry, the fact that most of our knowledge of Norse mythology comes from poetic translations could skew our perception of him. To the common folk who made up most of the population, his associations with war and nobility were not as important as the storm god Þórr or the fertility and harvest god Freyr, both of whom had immense impacts on their livelihoods. As with many of the gods, Óðinn’s character and roles are complex and cannot be easily understood at first glance. Here I will attempt to shed some light on the various aspects of him, from a god of poetry to a god of death and many places in between. I will also describe ways in which he was historically honored as well as some modern practices concerning him.
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Várblót & Sigrblót

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What is Várblót? Sigrblót?

Várblót and Sigrblót are, at the very basics, two similar holidays which fall at the same time, though only one seems to be actual reconstruction. In Ynglingasaga, it is said that at the onset of summer the Swedes held blót in honor of Óðinn for victory. [[i]] From this, the name Sigrblót, meaning “Victory Sacrifice” has been reconstructed for the holiday. In modern times, another blót has developed throughout Norse heathen groups, especially among those in Scandinavia. The holiday called Várblót, meaning “Spring Sacrifice”, is a modern construction which celebrates the spring equinox, as well as the beginning of summer following the division of the Old Norse calendar into summer and winter halves, and is likely based off of a general holiday of Sumarmál. They both celebrate the turning from the dark half of the year to the light half, but for different purposes. Whereas Sigrblót carries an undertone of voyages and conquest, Várblót has a more general or agricultural focus.

When is it celebrated?

In modern times, Várblót and Sigrblót are often celebrated around the spring equinox (March 21st) on the Gregorian calendar. However, following the Old Norse calendar, it seems that the blót would have been held rather in the month of Einmánuðr, which encompasses late March to early-mid April. Going just off of this, it could still be argued that the equinox can fall within that timeframe, but in order to narrow the window of timing we can consider the length between Midwinter and Midsummer. Because the two festivals did not originally occur at the modern solstice dates, but rather two to three weeks later, the respective date of the equinox as a midway point also shifts. [[ii]] Following a passage from Haakon the Good’s Saga in Heimskringla, it appears that Yule (midwinter) would have been held around the 12th of January, before it was moved to Christmas by the king. [[iii]] Since the Norse divided their year into winter and summer halves, we can get the date of Midsummer by moving six months (Gregorian calendar) ahead, which places the date around the twelfth of July. Remembering that the blót was technically held at the beginning of summer, the date would then lie exactly between these two dates, which places it around April 12th-14th. Of course, times have changed and modern practices often fall in line with newer calendars, but for those seeking to give their celebrations more authentic timing, mid-April would be the way to go.

Who celebrates it?

Sigrblót is recorded exclusively in Norse literature, and the linguistics also support this, as there are no records of directly related names or blót purposes in Continental or Anglo-Saxon sources, nor in areas to the east such as Baltic or Russian lands. Contrary to what has come to be popular in many modern practices, this blót would more likely be what the Norse celebrated rather than Grimm’s proposed Continental and Anglo-Saxon festival of Ostara, which is only linguistically present in those areas.

In Iceland, Ásatrúarfélagið celebrates Sigurblót on their calendar with an additional mention of the Várblót name [[iv]], while Vårblot appears on the calendar of Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige [[v]] and some other organizations likewise celebrate it in some way. Some kindreds and individuals in the United States and other places outside of Scandinavia will also celebrate this blót in one form or another, though with different traditions as well as the inclusion of Ostara in many calendars outside of Scandinavia, it is much more hit-and-miss as far as who does and does not.

How is it celebrated?

Depending on which version of this festival the individual or groups focuses upon, it may be held more in honor of agricultural or warrior gods. For Sigrblót, it is apparent from the literature that Óðinn was the god of focus. For Várblót, deities honored usually include Freyr, Freyja, Sif, Thor, Gerð and Jord; all of whom are involved with the fertility of the land and the success of the year’s crops.

Why celebrate Várblót/Sigrblót?

In modern times, it is not nearly as common for a person to be a warrior as a way of life, and Várblót is admittedly a modern construction to give a Spring celebration. However, this is the time of year when the weather turns and the light half of the year begins. For those who are involved in agriculture, it begins the time of the year when the crops spring to life to bring the year’s harvest, and for those who happen to be in the military it can symbolize the sacrifice given to insure victory. For those whose lives do not include these aspects, summer is still often a time for new undertakings, and this is a good time to hold a blót for success


[i] Sturlason, S. (1990). Heimskringla or the lives of the norse kings. (1 ed., Vol. 1, p. 6). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[ii] A time for Blot. (2012, March 17). Retrieved from http://www.fornsidr.no/?p=321.

[iii] Sturlason, S. (1990). Heimskringla or the lives of the norse kings. (1 ed., Vol. 1, p. 86). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[iv] Ásatrúarfélagið list and descriptions of blots. Available from: http://asatru.is/blot.

[v] Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige list and descriptions of blots. Available from: http://www.samfundetfornsed.se/om-forn-sed/årets-högtider-1283052.

Dísablót

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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).

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.

Höstblot

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What is Höstblot?

As September begins, the Summer half of the year nears its end. Höstblot a modern Heathen festival which is celebrated near the end of this month (modern Autumnal equinox), and is a celebration to bid farewell to the long days and warmth of the Summer half of the year, and to bid welcome to the long nights of the Winter half. The name translates to “Autumn sacrifice”, as this is the beginning of Autumn in modern times.  At this time of the year, the daylight and the darkness are at their most equal before the dark takes over, so this is the transition point in which we give honor to what has been accomplished and what is yet to come.

The historical Winter half of the year began around mid-October and was celebrated with the festival of Winternights, which has also been revived in modern Heathen traditions. Many will choose to observe one or the other for this purpose, and some will also combine the two as one celebration serving the overall purpose, especially with Autumn now appearing on the calendars.

Who celebrates it?

Höstblot is fairly ubiquitous within the modern Scandinavian Heathen traditions, though the spelling will vary by region (eg: while Höstblot is modern Swedish, the name is spelled as Haust Blót in Icelandic). Since the southern regions such as Continental Germany do not experience such a contrast in temperatures and daylight as do the northern areas, the transition from the light half to the dark half of the year was not as quick or extreme, and this holiday is not really documented from there.

How is it celebrated?

At this time, it is good to honor Sunna as both thanks for the sunlight which has warmed the lands, and for her eventual return to us in full glory. Odin is also honored at this time, as we seek inspiration for the long, cold nights ahead. As the Winter half of the year begins, Skadi and Ullr are honored as well. Both deities are associated with Winter and the hunt, so their influence is ever greater during this time.

For the blot as I have lead it, a fire is lit and the landvaettir are hailed with the rattling of keys or drumming and a song of companionship and sharing of the wealth of the year’s harvest. As the leaves begin to fall from the trees, the land spirits will soon be leaving or going into dormancy, and this is the time when we commune with them before they are gone until Summer comes again.

After the invitation to the landvaettir, the gods are hailed and petitioned for their blessings in the coming dark of Winter. Sunna is thanked for her warmth and light; Odin, Skadi and Ullr are asked for their blessings of success and inspiration for the hunt and the long nights.

The blot continues as normal past these particular hails and petitions, and the guests usually feast around the last of summer’s fires.

Why celebrate Höstblot?

This holiday is sort of a last hurrah before the weather turns and the days are short, so it is a time to be outside and to gather with friends. Maybe take a day around this and go for a hike or just hang out outside and enjoy the weather while it’s there to be enjoyed. Either way, it is both a time for celebration and preparation.

Alvablot

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What is Alvablot?

Alvablot, or Álfablót in Old Norse, is literally translated to “elf sacrifice”. The primary source documenting the observance of this holiday in Old Norse culture is the skaldic poem, Austrfararvísur. In the poem, Olaf the Fat, then King of Norway, sends a man by the name of Sigvatr Þórðarson to Västergötaland (Modern Swedish West Gotland) on a diplomatic mission. While trying to find a place to spend the night, he is turned away as a wolf from multiple houses; each time the people say that they are heathen and that they fear the wrath of Óðinn should they allow him in and interrupt their elf sacrifice. Even when he goes to visit the man in the area best known for his hospitality, he is turned away.

The alver, or álfar, in Old Norse culture were seen as being ancestral spirits, and because of this it is to be expected that a sacrifice being given to one’s ancestors would be a very personal occasion, at most including the immediate family. The fact that hospitality was of great importance in the culture contributes to this assumption as well, as Sigvatr was not allowed to enter any one house at which he asked to come in.

When is it celebrated?

According to Austrfararvísur, Sigvatr was journeying through Sweden around the onset of winter, making his ordeal all the more difficult when he could not find a place to stay. Alvablot is commonly celebrated at the end of October to beginning of November, about six weeks after Höstblot, at the beginning of Autumn. It is one of the holidays on Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige’s calendar, with the dates being Oct. 31st-Nov. 1st. However, many groups will also work this holiday into their Winter Nights celebrations, usually taking place in late October.

Who celebrates it?

Alvablot is primarily celebrated by Norse polytheists, especially of the Swedish variety considering that the events in the poem take place in Sweden. As stated above, Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige observes the holiday on their official calendar­[1], and there are groups beyond there who observe it, though many times it is up to the individual or possibly a kindred.

How is Alvablot celebrated?

Because of the apparent nature of this holiday, it is very different from most in that rather than welcoming a larger community in, the observers limit participants to just themselves and possibly close relatives. Regarding the actual customs of the holiday, there is not much described in the poem about it, though Óðinn seems to have been a prominent figure for it, as the residents of the houses were fearful of him should they interrupt the ceremony by allowing insiders into their homes. Obviously, as the name implies there is a focus on honoring one’s ancestors during this holiday, and it would appear that, though it is private in nature, it is also a positive celebration and a time to commune with those who have passed on.

How one chooses to celebrate Alvablot is up to their own preferences, but giving offerings to one’s ancestors is a good basic start. It would appear, though, that ale is a traditional offering for this one, so it is good to include that if possible.[2] It is also an option to hold a portion of the celebration as public, or open to other kindred or community members, and have the other portion as private for individuals or families. In this way there can be a community participation in the observance, but still allow for private honoring of one’s ancestors.

Why celebrate Alvablot?

Within the Germanic cultures, even today, there tends to be a large focus on the importance of family and community. In Old Norse culture, the spirits of deceased ancestors were to some degree thought to watch over and protect the family, and the two primary groups were called the álfar and the dísir. The dísir, however, were female ancestral spirits, implying that the álfar were male. Dísablot, which occurred at different times during the year based on the region, honored them.[3] The honoring of one’s ancestors also helps their memory to live on, and the fame of one’s deeds was seen as the key to immortality. Therefore, celebrations such as Alvablot help not only to commune with one’s ancestors who watch over them, but it also helps to allow their memories to continue on living.

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

[2] The man who turns Sigvatr away at every house is named Ölvir. The first part of the name, Öl, means “beer” or “ale” in Swedish, suggesting that the name may have been in reference to a role that the person played in the sacrifice involving ale given as an offering.

[3] While many traditions hold dísablot, or dísting, as being in late October, the Swedes observed it in conjuction with the weeklong allra Svía þing, or Thing of all Swedes, which was held in late february. (From the article Dísablot in the encyclopedia Nordisk familjebok)

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/%C3%84lvalek.jpg