Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Winter Solstice in the Ancient North

Latin: Solstice = Standing-still-sun.
Danish: Vintersolhverv, Solhverv from Old Norse: hverfa = vende (turn).

The winter solstice marks a crucial part of the natural cycle. In a real sense, the sun begins to renew its journey toward longer days, times of new growth and renewal of the world once again. In a spiritual sense, it is a reminder that in order for a new path to begin the old one must end and that spring will come again. No one is really sure how long ago humans recognized the winter solstice and began heralding it as a turning point - a day that marks the return of the sun. The ancient fear was that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with celebrations.

According to ancient belief people thought that everything fastened would loosen in the moment the sun turned at winter solstice. It was strictly forbidden to do some work which required to turn round something.

Poskær Dyssen, Djursland
In old times the evening of dec. 21. was called Mother's Night and the feast Jólablot (Christmas Ceremony) began. This big blót or feast was held for several days. The number of days varies from source to source and the days have presumably adjusted to regional circumstances, since the feast lasted, until all the brewed mead had been consumed. In Olaf Haraldsson's Saga is described, how two brothers-in-law spent half Christmas in one brother's house and the other half in the other's. People went Christmas visiting like people do today (jólavist), and they had Christmas lunch (jólabod). The purpose of the days of Christmas was to celebrate a fertile and peaceful (jólafridh) year.
When king Olaf's skjald Sigvard in the beginning of the 11th century was on a travel in Norway and Värmland, he experienced that people sacrificed to the elves; they were also worshipped in connection to winter solstice, which from ancient days was a feast for the deceased. The elf cult might have been a death cult, but there are some disagreements among experts about this theory. In several sources is mentioned that the elves lived in hills, and most legends about the underground elves are connected to burial mounds or to places of executions, and maybe also where murders had been committed.

Yggdrasil (Old Norse) The World's Tree, Yggdrasil ("Odin's Support") was the link between the humans upon Mother Earth and the ancestors/the gods in Heaven. It is the ash tree - because of the production of "honey dew" for mead - which is considered to be the World's Tree. During the celebration of winter solstice (jólahald) , a pine was until 1810 used as an outdoor Christmas tree/ World's Tree.

The winter solstice, also known as Midwinter, occurs around December 21 or 22 each year in the Northern hemisphere, and June 20 or 21 in the Southern Hemisphere. It occurs on the shortest day or longest night of the year, sometimes said to astronomically mark the beginning or middle of a hemisphere's winter. The word solstice derives from Latin, Winter Solstice meaning Sun set still in winter. Worldwide, interpretation of the event varies from culture to culture, but most hold a recognition of rebirth, involving festivals, gatherings, rituals or other celebrations. Many cultures celebrate or celebrated a holiday near the winter solstice; examples of these include Christmas, Hanukkah,Kwanzaa, New Years, Pongal, Yalda and many other festivals of light.

The solstice itself may have remained a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since neolithic times. This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archeological sites like Stonehenge and New Grange in the British Isles. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line framing the winter solstice sunrise (New Grange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). The winter solstice may have been immensely important because communities were not assured to live through the winter, and had to be prepared during the previous nine months. Starvation was common in winter between January to April, also known as the famine months.

In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter - it was nearly the only time of year when a supply of fresh meat was available. The majority of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time. The concentration of the observances were not always on the day commencing at midnight or at dawn, but the beginning of the pre-Romanized day, which falls on the previous eve.

photo Mindeparken/Poskær stenhus: grethe bachmann

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