History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

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Anglo-Saxon Yuletide

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

This is a bit of a chestnut, but like the holly evergreen: the longest night of the year has already begun here in Scotland. If you need some ideas for tomorrow's celebrations to welcome the return of the light, here you go:

The Anglo-Saxons settled Britain in the early fifth century, giving their name to the land now known as England. Very little remains of the native culture of the Anglo-Saxons.  We learn from the Venerable Bede, a seventh century Christian historian, that the months we now call December and January were considered “Giuli” or Yule by the Anglo-Saxons.  According to the historian, his Anglo-Saxon ancestors celebrated the beginning of the year on December 25th, referred to as “Modranect”— that is, Mothers’ Night.  This celebration most likely acknowledged the rebirth of Mother Earth in order to ensure fertility in the coming spring season.  An Anglo-Saxon charm for crop fertility, recorded in the eleventh-century and known as “Aecerbot,” refers to the Earth as “Erce, [the] Earthen Mother” and contains the following praise poem for her:

Hale be you, earth,

            mortals’ mother!

May you ever be growing

            in god’s grasp,

filled with food,

useful for folk.

 

It could be that the poem refers to Nerthus, the earth goddess the Roman historian Tacitus identified as venerated by the continental Germanic tribes, but we will probably never be sure.

Many scholars have suggested that the mother goddess Friga (Frigg in Old Norse) played a central role in the Yuletide observances, although no records remain of specific celebrations for Mothers’ Night.  Chief of the goddesses and the consort of Woden, Friga ruled over childbirth and marriage and inspired the naming of several English towns like Frobury and Fretherne, as well as the English word for the day of the week, Friday. 

It is very likely too that the Yule celebrations also included honors for Freyja, who governed love and fertility.  Both she and her twin brother Freyr were associated with the boar, the primary animal represented in Yuletide customs and indeed in Anglo-Saxon culture in general.  Scholars first discovered the importance of the fierce wild boar through warrior poetry like the epic Beowulf.  Beowulf’s men wore boars on their helmets both to protect their own heads—and to intimidate their opponents. But it is not only in literature that we find the boar motif.  Twentieth-century archeological discoveries like that of Sutton Hoo (a dig containing a royal burial and many different artifacts) have revealed the truly widespread significance of this totemic animal, even into the Christian era.  The boar continued to ornament brooches, bowls and jewelry as well as more military objects for centuries. 

The boar’ significance as the center of the Yuletide celebration outlived not only the conversion to Christianity, but even the disappearance of the creature itself from England.  By the late Middle Ages, the offering of the boar’s head had lost its religious significance, but it continued to be the centerpiece of the Christmas feast, and indeed the Yule procession.  Along with songs honoring the traditional holly and ivy—often said to fight with each other for prominence in the hall—the songs to accompany the boar’s head still convey the joy its arrival would bring and the twelve days of merriment this first course promised, as this fifteenth-century song attests:

The boar’s head I bring,

Singing praises to the lord. [chorus]

 

The boar’s head in hand I bring,

With garlands gay and birds singing!

I ask you all to help me sing,

Who are at this banquet.

 

The boar’s head, I understand,

Is the chief service in all this land,

Wherever it may be found,

It is served with mustard.

 

The boar’s head, I dare well say,

Soon after the twelfth day [of Christmas]

He takes his leave and goes away—

He has left the country.

 

The second course, according to another contemporary song, was cranes, herons, bitterns, plovers, woodcocks and snipe.  Then came the larks in a hot broth, almond soup—to say nothing of the sweet wine, good ale and brown bread—and then venison, capons, dove entrails, currant jelly…and the list continues.  At Yuletide in Medieval England, no one in the hall was going to go hungry.

Get a print copy of this over at Scribd or in Rook Chant.

 

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.

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