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The Darkest Month
As if seen through the wrong end of a telescope, blurred and dimmed around the edges, the darkness of December beckons as November draws to its end. For the general non-pagan public in America, December is the brightest month of the year, a gleeful blending of commercialism, family ties, and food comas. For many (if not most) pagans, it is a conundrum of sorts, a season when non-pagan family obligations directly or indirectly conflict with the allure of like-minded spiritual gatherings. Historically, for Europeans throughout the middle ages, especially in northern Europe, it was a time of gathering the family tightly together against the outer cold, of taking in travelers and guests with generosity but caution (for who knew what--or Who--might be wandering out there in the freezing gusts, hobnobbing with the trolls), for lavishly feasting the gods--pagan or Christian, depending on the time and the setting--and the dead, but at a careful distance, ever mindful that the next hand on one's doorknob might not be a human one, that the skeletal scraping against windows might not be the branches of dead trees, that the dead walk this time of year, and that things and People far more dire walk alongside them--or worse, fly through the stormy night skies--keeping careful count of debts accrued throughout the year passed, and demanding Their due.
For me, as for my spiritual ancestors, December is the darkest month of the year, with the traditional twelve days of Yule--the "smudging nights," so called in folklore because you had better be smudging your home with protective herbs against the wild spirits that roamed the long nights--beckoning at its black heart. It is the most precious month of the year for me--for it was in this month that I took sacred marriage vows to my Husband, Odin, that darkest of gods, at this darkest of times. But it is also the most dreadful month. It is a time when the air is filled with ghosts and the trolls spill upwards through the cracks in the earth, freed from their underground lairs to walk among humans.
For me it is, beyond all else, Odin's month--although that is certainly not limited to December. Although I feel and honor Him equally, yet somewhat differently, throughout the other seasons of the year, during the period of late September through the beginning of January we see His darkest face, the face of Yggr (the Terrible One) who sacrificed Himself on the World Tree, the face of Wilde Jaeger (the Wild Hunter) who rides His flame-eyed steed at the head of the Furious Host. Perhaps I am biased, but although I do have special festival days throughout the year for Him, and especially in late September through November, for me December is all about Odin, from beginning to end, even though several of the actual festival days within it are goddess-focused.
I was halfway through writing this when I saw Galina's post on her Heathen Heretic blog about the process of designing a personal religious festival calendar, streamlined to fit one's own unique spiritual path and individual needs. I started working on my own calendar a couple of years back, inspired by what a few other spirit workers and polytheists of my acquaintance were doing along these lines. Prior to that point, I had celebrated days of special significance for me personally (such as the anniversary of my vows), I had commemorated the days of the week that are named for specific gods (especially Wednesday for Odin), and I had wavered between celebrating the full panoply of festival days adopted by most modern Heathens or choosing to commemorate only the ones that "clicked" with me personally (including the "hero's days"--the Heathen equivalent of saint's days--that I connected with most readily). I admit, even though I have always dwelt on the "woo" (witchy/shamanic/ultra-personal-gnosis-driven) fringe of Heathenry, for several years I struggled mightily to fashion myself to the confines of its mainstream and to fit within one established Heathen tradition or another--Asatru, Theodisc belief, Fyrnsidu, and so forth--obviously to no avail. When I first began as a baby Heathen (and baby godspouse) there was no "spirit worker" community to speak of, no one who could advise me to follow the promptings of my spirits and of my own heart and intuition. In the end, I managed to fumble along by following Odin's lead and listening to my other spirits, and I cobbled together something that works reasonably well for me.
As I'm sure is the case with everyone who had been through a similar process, my personal calendar has been very much a work in progress, continually having festivals and events added to it, developed further as I do more research or am given additional inspiration, or (occasionally) taken away. With my avid interest in all things medieval, I suppose it stands to reason that I adopted the concept of the advent calendar as my working model for the Yule season.
Advent (from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming”) is a Christian concept, a series of festival dates that mark the progression of the Christmas season. Now, I am not claiming that this practice was borrowed from paganism, but since so many other trappings of the Christian festival year clearly were, and so many Christian holidays were intentionally superimposed onto traditional pagan folk festival days by the medieval Catholic Church, I feel no qualms about adopting the calendar--along with some of the actual days in it--for my own purposes. I have also been making an effort, in developing my year-long religious calendar, not just the Yule portion of it, to dig beneath those superimposed saint's day and uncover some of their original meanings.
Once Samhain has passed (which is certainly not a Heathen holiday per se, but dovetails nicely with Winternights, the Scandinavian festival for the elves and the dead), my Yule advent calendar proper begins with St. Martin’s Day on November 11th and ends with Twelfth Night, which we tend to celebrate in our household on New Year's Eve. I'll talk more about November in a future post discussing my calendar as a whole, but for this post I thought I'd focus specifically on the December dates. Before I do, though, I'd like to add that in honor of the 10th anniversary of my marriage to Odin, this December I am devoting the entire month to Him. I am not promising to post something about Him on my blog for every day of the month, for while I think that is a worthy devotional exercise it would, for me, put too much emphasis on interacting with others rather than going deeper with Him. However, I will be sharing poems, anecdotes, and posts from my old spiritual diaries, as well as crafting a number of things as gifts for Him, photos of which I will share on my blog. I am also, throughout the month of December, inviting readers of my blog to Ask Me About Odin--whether such questions be related to lore or personal practice. If you have a question, please email it to me: email@example.com. I will select questions to answer in blog posts (on my personal blog, not this one) during the month.
And now on to the festivals that currently make up my Yule advent calendar...
Gunnlod’s Day (St. Barbara’s Day) – December 4th
St. Barbara was a rather obscure Christian martyr who was locked up and persecuted by her father for her faith. Her day is traditionally associated with prophecy, prosperity, and luck in love. The idea that she was imprisoned by her father for disagreeing with his ideas about things struck a chord with me and invited comparison with Gunnlod, the giantess who was appointed by Her own father to guard the Mead of Poetry in a subterranean cavern beneath his mountain fortress. Bent on recovering the Mead for the gods and Asgard, Odin penetrated the cave and won Gunnlod's heart in the process, whereupon She surrendered the Mead to Him willingly. Gunnlod is not much honored by contemporary Heathens, which is odd given the fact that the sharing of sanctified (and usually homebrewed) mead is the central communal sacrament of the religion. However, She has played an important part in my own spiritual development, and is also--so I have been told--an ancestress of mine. And so I set this day aside as a time to honor Her. This also happens to be the anniversary of my Marriage to Odin (interestingly, I only found out about the St. Barbara--and Gunnlod--connections with the date afterwards) so much of what I do to observe it is private for obvious reasons.
Oski's Day (St. Nicholas’ Day) – December 6th
Sometimes associated with Odin, sometimes with various other pagan gods (most notably Poseidon, in Greece), St. Nicholas (a fore-runner of Santa Claus) has many attributes in common with Odin: both have beards, carry a staff (in Odin’s case, a spear), and ride on a white horse. St. Nicholas has a black servant named Zwarte Piete (Black Peter), while Odin has two black ravens. On the eve of St. Nicolas’ Day in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw or sugar, near the fireplace for St. Nicholas’ (Odin’s) horse, and He would replace the horse food with gifts of candy. This evolved over time into the modern Christmas custom of hanging stockings to be filled. I have seen, in recent years, a growing number of Heathens adopting this day as "Oski's Day" in honor of one of Odin's ostensibly gentler and friendlier faces, Oski or "the granter of wishes." While Odin has certainly fulfilled this function in my own life in more ways than one, the old saying "be careful what you wish for" should certainly be taken into advisement here! I celebrate this day by giving special thanks for all of the blessings He has given me, and by giving gifts to Him in turn. (And by the way, I do not follow the modern Heathen precaution against "giving too much." From archaeological findings and the stories in the Icelandic sagas, relating how the weaponry of entire armies and even the sons of kings were sacrificed to Him freely, I see no evidence that this was a rule followed in the past, and no reason to limit my own gifts to my Beloved, as He certainly does not stint on His gifts to me.)
Lussinata (St. Lucy’s Day) – December 13th
Lussinata, or Lussi Night, was in the unreformed Julian calendar the longest and darkest night of the year. The Lussi, a female demon, was believed to ride through the air on this night with her followers, the Lussiferda. I see in this an obvious parallel with Frau Holle or Holda, a continental Germanic goddess who is sometimes perceived as an old hag and sometimes as a beautiful young woman. Frau Holle, an exemplary housewife, is believed to cause snow to fall from the sky when She shakes out Her down comforter. A patroness of spinners and witches, She has many points in common with Frigga and probably deserves Her own separate post, in fact! More to the point of this post, on Lussi's Night She leads Her own version of the Wild Hunt, which is believed to be made up of the souls of unbaptized children (although I doubt Christian baptism had anything to do with the selection criteria, originally; probably any children who died in childhood were eligible).
In Scotland and the Orkney Islands, this night was known as Tulya's E'en, and according to tradition the trow--a species of Little People similar to trolls--were released from their underground lairs to reek whatever havoc they desired on the world of men. At any rate, during the time between Lussi Night and Yule proper, trolls, evil spirits and the dead were thought to be especially active. It was particularly dangerous to be out on Lussi Night itself, which was also in some parts of Scandinavia known as the Perchtennacht (blackest night)--Perchta being an alternate name for Frau Holle.
In present-day Scandinavia, St. Lucy’s day is still celebrated. One girl in each town is elected to represent Lucia, and is dressed in white with a red sash and a crown of lit candles (another probable echo of Frau Holle). She leads a procession of other women dressed in white and carrying candles, a symbolic lighting the way against the darkness of this night. I remember how, way back when I was in grade school, our holiday pageant (our school administrators were much too forward-thinking to call it a "Christmas pageant") focused on this theme. As the oldest girl in my class at the time, I was chosen to be Lucia, and although proud of my status I was very thankful that I didn't have to wear a crown of actual lighted candles. (They used the electric Christmas-decoration kind instead.)
Oracular seidhr for Yule - December 16th
Oracular seidhr ( a word that means either "to speak" or "to seethe"--the debates still rage) is an ancient pagan Scandinavian method of trance divination, which you can read more about here. There are as many different ways of translating this art into modern practice as there are modern practitioners, but my own seidhr practice invites requests for an oracle from members of the extended pagan community and the general public several times per year. There is no charge for this (although donations are welcomed), but I ask that you send me only serious questions, as this practice is an integral part of my spiritual path and not a parlor trick, and if you choose to send a question I ask that you respect this. (Questions can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org; please include the header "Yule seidhr.")
Modranect/the eve of the Winter Solstice – December 20th through the 21st
This year, the 21st is the date of the astronomical Winter Solstice, and start of the traditional “smudging nights,” during which the home is purified with smoke and herbs to drive away unfriendly spirits. In Anglo-Saxon tradition (as recorded by Bede in the 8th century) the eve of the Solstice is also Modranect, or Mother Night, the time to honor the mothers among the gods, which in our household includes Bestla (mother of Odin), Frigga, Gunnlod, Jord, and several others, as well as our own ancestral mothers and disir (protective/guiding female spirits). This year, for the first time, I will also be honoring a special group of personal disir I refer to in my own spirit work practice as "the Queens," who actually are the spirits of English medieval and Tudor queens who have been kind enough to offer me their collective wisdom and companionship.
Yule/the Winter Solstice - December 21st
In pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England and in the Northlands, Yule officially began with Mother Night on the eve of the Winter Solstice and then continued for the next twelve nights afterwards, ending on or around New Year’s Day. For me this period is both the peak of the festival year and the height of my spiritual year, a time for intense spirit work with Odin, the dead (which in my case is not limited to just the human dead, as I work with the spirits of dead animals and plants as well) and the Wild Hunt, which is composed of both human and non-human spirits (gods, elves, trolls, etc.). This is the season when (in Scandinavian tradition) the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, and the gods, the dead, and other denizens of the other worlds walk among us with the greatest ease.
During the Twelve Nights of Yule, my activities include uti seta (the Scandinavian practice of “sitting out” with the spirits), trance journeying, pathwalking (walking in two worlds—in my case, usually Asgard and Midgard–at once, most often in wooded areas but sometimes on the streets of our little city), divination for the year ahead, and artwork created in trance as portals and vessels for the Hunt to use. Much of what I do during this time period ends up being private simply because I have no words with which to frame the experience, and sometimes it seems wrong to try. There are certain experiences that are so sacred, so numinous, that attempting to communicate them to others is pointless, at the same time as it actually cheapens the experience itself. This is part of the ancient definition of a Mystery, a spiritual truth that must be experienced directly to be known. (In fact, I will admit that I use this criterion as a private yardstick of sorts: if someone is boasting about an experience that I would be terrified to speak of, or honor-bound by either love or duty to remain silent about, that calls the person's credibility into question, for me.)
12th Night (New Year’s Eve) – December 31st
For 12th Night, the last night of Yule, our household observes the Norse tradition of toasting and boasting, which greatly resembles the modern custom of making New Year’s resolutions. As always, however, when you’re holding a horn of mead in your hand in a ritual setting, it is wise to be mindful that the horn represents the Well of Wyrd, with anything you say going directly into the Well and becoming part of your orlog (a concept similar to fate, except that you participate in actively creating it yourself). In other words, don’t oath lightly, and keep in mind that even so-called “resolutions” should be carefully considered and not rashly made.
I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but I think that hits most of the ritual highlights of the month ahead for me! It’s going to be busy and grueling, but it's the month I look forward to all year long. Here's to December!
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