Friday, December 09, 2011

The Juleblót and old Rituals in Nordic Religion

The sun 10th December 2011
December month is a very busy month. We are preparing for Christmas, we have candlelight and decorations in each room of the house, we gather family and friends for good food and drink. This is the greatest common celebration of the year. Next week is solstice and the return of the light - we are happy with the coming of the light, we are moving forward to spring and summer, but to the ancient ones this time of the year was crucial. The Nordic people celebrated juleblót and sacrificed to the gods to secure peace and fertility.

sacrifice from the Illerup findings, Moesgård Museum.
Corn shouts
The Nordic people celebrated feasts like the juleblót. The blót in itself was a very important type of ritual, both in the public and the private cult. The basic meaning of the word blót is to strengthen. In the Viking period the main meaning of the word was to sacrifice - the gods were given strength via the sacrifices. Many place names and archaeological findings can be interpreted as rests from sacrifices.The slaughter sacrifice is most commonly known in the Sagas, but corn must also have been a common sacrifice.  Also valuables of gold and silver were sacrificed. In times of crisis like war, epidemics and famine, were weapons and other valuable objects  sacrificed - and archaeological findings prove that human sacrifice was performed in times of crisis.  The rituals in the feasts of the private cult were mainly parallel to the rituals in the public cult. But it is difficult to decide what is private and public cult in the yearly blót feasts and in the rituals of crisis.

The Sun Horse, Mindeparken
The Nordic religion was a religion of the people, which main function was to secure the survival and regeneration of society. The cult was primarily connected to the local society and the family, although there is witness about great national religious feasts. The chiefs took care of the cult in the local area. In each farm it was the father of the family who was the leader of the celebrations - and in the whole country it was the king.
In pre-christian time there was no term like the religious term of today. What came closest was the term sidr, which means customary or custom. The change of religion at the arrival of Christianity was called nýr sidr (= new custom), and the traditional religion was called forn sidr (= the custom of the forefathers). The gravity in the pre-christian religion was the religious praxis, the sacred actions, the rituals and the worship of the gods.

Amulet with Thor's Hammer
Some Saga stories have remnants of pre-christian rituals.  Snorre Sturlasson tells about the Christian Norwegian king Hakon the Good, who was one of the first Christians in Norway. He tried to avoid taking part in the heathen feasts. According to tradition it was the king's job to lead a special blót in the autumn. Horse meat was served at this feast, and Hakon could not take part, for it was not allowed Christians to eat horse meat. The king tried to get away from the feast together with his Christian friends, but was forced to go back into the hall, where he was placed in the seat of honour. When the beer was served an uproar was in the making, since the king, instead of invoking Thor, made the sign of the cross over the beer. The uproar was prevented, when one of the king's followers said that the king had signed the beer to Thor by making a sign of the hammer. After this happening the king lost many supporters. The following year the king was forced to take part in a heathen feast in Trøndelag, where he had to eat the sacrifical meat, and where he must not sign the beer with the cross. This story was often used as a remnant from the role of the ruler as the leader of the cult.

country road 10th December 2011
cult house, Tulstrup
Although the sources are not unambigious there were probably three yearly calendar feasts with a blót. These feasts were celebrated in special seasons. The first was called at sumri (towards summer) and was consegrated to Odin, this was a sacrifice for good wind of the ships and their expeditions, for victory or for the luck of the king, since the summer was a season of trade journeys and expeditions. The second yearly blót was the harvest feast, a fertility feast, consegrated to Frej, while the third was the midwinter feast jul in the month ylir, which was between winter solstice and the middle of January. The purpose of the midwinter feast was to overcome the cold and darkness, and the important feature was the common meal, where especially the pig was the center. The name of this feast has survived to our days as jul together with a few of the rituals. The ceremonial common meals in connection to the blót feasts are mentioned in several sources , they are some of the best described ritual forms. Aside meals with food and drink there were scenes with masked dancers, playing instruments while singing and dancing.

Stone for animal sacrifice?
cult house, Moesgård
In the big yearly feasts it was obviously obligatory for each inhabitant to take part. Food and drink had an important place in the rituals, and the feast was considered a means to maintain the harmony between gods and humans, so the gods continually could sure the fertility of  humans. The sacrifice of animals was the central element and the consumption of the meat in a common meal was the central element in the blót feast. The gods were given lard and blood and the humans got the meat. To rjóda = to dye red is seen in many sources. This was a  sprinkling of objects and people with the blood using special twigs. A blótfeast was like a communion sacrifice (advent), since the gods as a symbol took part in the common meal and was given a part of the same sacrificed animals as the humans. The feast was usually arranged as a "bottle party",where each participant was obliged to bring the necessary food and drink. Chiefs and princes could instead use generosity and hospitality in connection to the blót as a means to increase their prestige and influence.

figure in Gravlev
Several written sources recounts about statues depicting gods. Usually they are described as humanlike, or sometimes more like wooden sticks with  a face carved in the top. After the change of religion the possession of such statues was forbidden and severely punished. Although the detailled rituals are not fully known, it is possible to form a picture of some rituals and religious actions via an interpretation of surviving relics. The combination of common solemn feasts and markets was widely spread in many cultures all through history. In a society with difficult communication they used the possibility of doing several things at the same time - there was often both the judicial Thing, a market, a court and large cult feasts at the same place and at the same time. Adam of Bremen describes the blót feast and the sacred place in Uppsala from the 11th century, and this is the most wellknown source of pre-christian religion rituals in Sweden.

Midvinterblót, Gamla Uppsala, painting by Carl Larsson, Sweden

Gamla Upsala was one of the last bastions of the old religion in Middle Sweden, and it was still of great importance when Adam wrote his report. He describes a magnificent temple, golden all over, with depictions of the three most important gods. The most prominent was Thor in the middle, on one side he had Odin and on the other Frej, Adam tells that Thor reigned the sky, where he ruled over the rain, the wind and the thunder, and he secured good weather for the harvest. He had a scepter in his hand. Odin was the god of war and courage, his name meant the furious one, and he was depicted as a warrior. Frej was the god of peace and physical satisfaction, and he was depicted with a large fallos. Each god had his own priests, and people sacrificed to the god whose help they wanted right now. Thor was invoked in famine and sickness, Odin in order to gain victory and Frej for fertile marriage.

A few of the ancient rituals are similar to ours. The ancient people of the North were celebrating midwinter and solstice and the return of light with sacrifice of the animals and a common meal. We still slaughter the pig and gather family and friends for a common meal - and our sacrifice might be the presents we give on Christmas eve.

Viborg Cathedral
It's winter solstice and the coming of the light this week in the northern Hemisphere. Each day will bring a little more light, and we are looking forward to spring and summer. But first we are celebrating Christmas in every way, meeting with family and friends in a common meal. Thousands of years ago families were celebrating a similar feast. We are far away from the ancient people and yet so close.   

See post from December 2009 about: Winter Solstice.

 photos 2002-2011: grethe bachmann


Chris Ford said...

Corn as we know it today would not have been a part of Viking culture at all. It would have been some other type of grain that was being cultivated.

Thyra said...

Chris Ford,
There was corn in DK in prehistoric time and in the Viking period.
Barley was known from Stone Age. The Vikings even cultivated barley on Greenland.
Rye is known from late Bronze Age, and it became the dominating corn-sort in the Viking period. Oat was cultivated in DK from Bronze Age.
Wheat ( dværghvede = dwarf-wheat)was known in the Viking period.
Millet was known from late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, the climate was colder in the Viking period, therefore the millet-crop was never an important crop at that time.

The word corn is used about the prehistoric and Viking agriculture in books and documentations about Danmarks Historie.

It is not for me to specify the corn-sorts in a little article about the juleblot. The story about the corn-sorts is a long story in itself.
If you're interested, there is also an article on the Thyra-blog about the Vikings as farmers, where corn is mentioned in general.

Kind regards
Grethe Bachmann