Sunday, March 18, 2012

Easter Customs in 16th Century's Scandinavia.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Netherlandish proverbs.
A Time of Change. 
Easter was not only a Christian celebration in the 16th century. Many customs were influenced by the early Middle Ages and before that, both by ancient Norse mythology and ancient pagant belief. It was not easy for the Catholic church fathers to handle or "rule" the Scandinavian people during Easter, considering all those various opinions and old customs. In some desolate districts of Norway the customs were still of an ancient origin and still very much alive, and in all of Scandinavia people still believed in witches and witchcraft. But when the reformation arrived in the middle of the century everything changed. This was the end of the Middle Ages. A time of change.

The Quiet Week. 
Ghirlandio: St. Jerome
Although the fasting-time was abandoned since the reformation, there were still old-fashioned people, who maintained the ancient customs around Lent - even people in the next generations who knew nothing or little about the Catholic period. But although people in general did not take it so seriously, it was very characteristic that nobody held a party, wedding or alike between Shrovetide and Easter. The last week before Easter was called "the quiet week",  and on Palm Sunday were some religious customs with inauguration of palm leaves or of flowering willow twigs. It was not easy to get hold of palm leaves in Scandinavia. But these customs disappeared quickly as soon as the Catholic church fathers  said good-bye after the reformation. The quietness and the gravity from before were more obviously seen in tne names of the Easter days: Palm Sunday, Blue Monday, White Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday.

Cabbage and Loke's Sleigh.
Contradictions met at Maunday Thursday. Folklore fought between light and darkness on this day. The bright sides of the day were first of all the power transferred to the only green plant which had survived winter, the cabbage. Nine cabbages cooked together protected against disease and other evils in the year to come, nine various cabbages or herbs, plucked and gathered in the morning and cooked together. The air had a healing power on that day. If the clothes were hang out in the air they would be freed from the moths, and the bedlinen would be freed from the fleas.  In Telemarken in Norway they had to do a little more work to free the bedlinen from the fleas, they had to plait three strings to help the god Loke's broken sleigh. Every Maundy Thursday Loke came with a load of fleas and since the load was heavy his sleigh broke, and if they did not assist him, they would not get rid of the intruders in their bedlinen the whole next year.

Malicious Witchcraft on Maundy Thursday. 
Medieval drawing.
Maundy Thursday was influenced by some sinister witchcraft. This day was similar to other wellknown witch-days - Valborg's Day and Midsummer's Day - and everyone who did not safeguard himself against the evil was higly exposed to danger. In a socalled "clerical law" from Christian II's time the magistrate ordered to closely watch all, who were suspected of witchcraft. But it was not easy to watch the elusive witches, when they in the dead of night on Maundy Thursday rode on a broomstick to their meeting-place. The safest precaution and protection against the witches was to fasten steel above the doors, put steel into the bed and with the cattle, and to spread axes and iron wedges upon the newly sown fields. Furthermore they had to remove the fourth wheel from the plough, so the witches, who planned to ride the plough, would fail. But it was impossible to keep oneself completely safe from the powerful and malicious witchcraft. A witch, Ingeborg Bogesdatter in Högalöff in Sweden, confessed in 1618  ( most probably under torture) that she had stolen a calf, put a bridle on it and rode above the forests, fields, mountains and waters to Blåkulla, where she took part in the witch-feast. Before her airborne journey she had been so sneaky to blow wind into her nightgown and made a skin in her own looks, whom she laid down beside her husband. Young witches did not need any mount or traffic tool. They had power enough by themselves to rise in the air and fly away.

Ringing the Bells, Finding the Witches.
woodcut 1700th century
The best way to avoid all this witchcraft was to ring the church bells. Still in the 19th century people rang the bells in Smaaland in Sweden each "Dimmelonsdag" ( "Ringing Wednesday") in the evening after sundown and the next morning, on Maundy Thursday, before sunrise. People knew that the witches wanted to whip the church, a very  dangerous witchcraft to the church and to everyone. So they wanted to ring down the Easter witches. There are many stories about this.  A Dean's servants rang the church bells, while three witches flew above the spire. They fell down, but changed skin and transformed into goats. The three goats run up into an old birch, but a man next to them cut one goat in the foot, and since then an old woman in the neighbourhood was limping, and no one doubted that she had been on her flight to the feast of the witches. In another case the downfallen witch transformed into a white sow. Three Easter witches, who had been rung down just before they had to whip the church, were found downside the church, quite naked. People were able to examine the witchcraft in their neighbourhood, if they used an egg, which had been laid by a hen on Maundy Thursday. It was best if this was the very first egg the hen had ever laid.  If they brought the egg with them to church in their pocket, this might be good enough, but the best way to discover the witchcraft was to look through the egg in the sunshine when they came to church. Then they would be able to see among the churchgoers exactly who was a witch and who had been out flying the night before.

Queen Elizabeth I and the Foot-Washing.
Hilliard: Elizabeth I
In England was celebrated a special act in the 1600s, which is still used in some Catholic countries. A number of poor people were gathered at the palace, and queen Elizabeth had to wash their feet. The cleaning was rather thorough, since everyone, before meeting the queen, was being washed by a washer woman, then by the subordinate of the charity-man and at last by the charity-man himself. When the gospel of the foot-washing had been read, the queen washed everyone's feet the fourth time, assisted by a noble lady. The humbleness of the queen increased with the years, this was indicated by the numbers of the poor which corresponded to the queens' age. 39 poor  people had their feet washed in 1572.  After having finished the washing, the queen kissed them, gave each one both money, clothes, food and drink and a towel and let them go at sunset.

Whipping, Weighing and Salt-cookies.  
After the sinister Maundy Thursday the Dark Good Friday came. (Danish: Langfredag). No one was allowed to be happy on that day, and the fasting and the self-torture reached a peak. In some places in Norway everyone had to be whipped with rods in the morning, no one had anything to eat until the evening, and they had to use all their strenght and torture themselves with overwhelming work. The conditions were just as strict in Denmark, the priest at court let his children summon into his study each Langfredag , where he flogged those poor little kids, so they could feel how awful the Saviour had suffered on Good Friday.  A reason for a punishment was, if someone did not pass the fasting-test. In many districts people had to be weighed, and if they had not lost weight after the Lent this indicated clearly that they had not respected the fasting - and they had to be punished. In some districts people knew how to prepare themselves for this test. On the first weighing before the Lent-period  they put sand in their stockings and pebbles in their pockets to get a better result and to avoid punishment on the second weighing. The fasting was also extended to the livestock. On Good Friday the cattle did not get their usual fodder, but only what was found in the forest and in the field, and humans had the humblest meal in the evening time, usually flour-porridge or eggs in a mustard sauce. In some districts they remembered how thirsty Christ were on that Friday, and before bed-time they had to eat three salt-cookies, which of course evoked an unbearable urge to drink water during the night.

Food-Blessing and Mass
Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Wheat Harvest.
Next day, Easter Saturday, the preparations for the happy time finally started. In days of the Catholicism the priest blessed the food and sowing seeds of the farmers, and this continued for a period after the reformation. The blessing still took place in 1566. People came with all kinds of food, rye, barly, oats; the priest blessed it and read a special prayer, a mass was held in the evening and the farmers were now sure that their food and corn were secure for the whole following year. But both the food-blessing and the mass were later prohibited by the bishop of Sjælland. (Zealand). People were now forced to be content by celebrating the Easter Saturday inside the walls of their own home with the old feast-dishes, sweet porridge and soft-boiled eggs.

Dancing Sun and Evil Smoke. 
di Paolo: Angels dancing in the Sun.
The Easter Sunday was entirely a happy festive. People were up and about from early morning to watch the sunrise, to see the sun play and dance with joy upon the sky.  Only in a few places some sad superstitions were connected to this Easter morning. In a Norwegian district the farm-people were afraid of lighting the fireplace, they believed that the smoke from the house meant they would be plagued by predators. They were later persuaded to forget their fear, but they were still cautious; instead they used nine kinds of wood and a wooden spoon, the ear of a pot, a broom and gunpowder and sulphur to light the fire. In this powerful way they intended to cleanse the chimney from the infection, which had been there since the night of Maundy Thursday, where the witches flew through the chimney. Even the smoke was infected. Everyone went out to see where the smoke went. If the smoke went towards the church, it was an omen that someone in the house was a coward and was soon to die.

Agnus Dei silver jewelry.

Easter Lamb and Agnus Dei.

Lam with cross, church North Jutland/gb
A Christian custom was the distribution of the socalled Easter lamb. In the beginning of the 16th century when the Catholic church was still the ruler, this distribution took place in the old-fashioned manner, the priest gave or sold after the mass on Saturday Evening the churchgoers some inaugurated Easter lambs made of  wax; they were considered to be some secret means against all evil. But their miraculous power made people wish to own them in a better material than wax and to carry them always. A custom evolved, where rich people wore an Easter lamb in silver or gold in a chain around the neck.  The jewelry in the chain was like a medal or a coin with the image of an Easter lamb. Jewelry like this was given the name Agnus Dei, and it was very popular both in Scandinavia and in Europe in general. But after the reformation the custom with the lambs were  just as unpopular as the other custom-rests from the Catholic period. The wax lambs disappeared together with the mass on Easter Saturday, or they were inaugurated secretly, until the custom went into oblivion. In Denmark most of the Agnus Dei-jewelry was probably lost during the next century. The silver and gold lambs were still worn openly, but the meaning was soon forgotten. The thirty-year war and the wars between Denmark and Sweden swept away all the old gold and silverware, and towards year 1700 there were only few Agnus Dei left. In the 19th century the old Easter lambs entered the market again, not in wax or as a jewelry, but as some kind of playtoy in sugar or cotton with an attached crossbanner.

Easter, Oster and Ostara
When people came home after the church service in the Easter-period,
Two devils with eggs, National Museum by Kornerup.
they spent their time with all kinds of fun. A special Easter pleasure was the  Easter eggs. They were like today, coloured eggs, usually red, blue, yellow, sometimes with inscriptions. They were used as gifts or in various plays.  The most common play was to let them roll down a hill. The players had to touch or crush the shell of the other down-rolling eggs. In Germany and England was also another play, where the eggs were hidden in "hare-nests". The use of Easter eggs is one of  the oldest known and most spread feast-customs. The blessing of food on Easter Saturday, which in Scandinavia was about both eggs, food in general and seeds, was in the southern countries only about eggs. In the Roman and Greek-Catholic church the Easter began with the enjoyment of eating the inaugurated Easter eggs. And Easter eggs were known from Scandinavia to Egypt,  from England to Persia and Siberia. The eggs were since time immemorial a symbol of the introvert and yet vigilant, fertile, emerging life, and it could as well be used as a sign of spring or resurrection. The English "Easter" and the German "Oster" both origin from the old Saxon word oster = to resurrect. But if it is referred to the resurrection only, then this is weakened by that the ancient Germans worshipped a goddess of spring named Ostara. Her name is connected to the East, to the dawn.


Source: Dagligt liv i Norden det 16. århundrede, Årlige fester, Projekt Runeberg, 1914-1915. 


Unknown said...

I love your exo=planations of traditions Grethe. I love rituals and folklore. We rather live in a limbo in NZ where our rituals and festivals come from the northern hemisphere and do not fit our seasons. Autumn now...everything speaks to me of All Hallows and spookiness, but we prepare for Easter. Oh dear!

Thyra said...

Hej Joan! You could celebrate an Easter Halloween! It's funny that we can talk together today like this, autumn and spring! My mother had some friends at New Zealand, and it took a month to receive a letter then.
I have sometimes wondered where the name Zealand came from? We call the island Sjælland: Zealand in English, but it's also to avoid the vocal æ I guess.

Have a nice and fresh day of autumn!

Grethe ´)

Unknown said...

We certainly live in an incredible time of instant communication Grethe.
In 1645, Dutch explorers named our land Zeeland. James Cook later anglicised it to New Zealand. St Patrick's day is popular in NZ, especially for drinking at the Irish pubs. And a happy spring day to you!

Thyra said...

Hej, thank you so much Joan. My illusions have gone. I had a hope that it was "a man from Sjælland" who came to your island and gave it the name Zealand!!!

I'm sure the Irish in the green island west of my land know how to find the pubs on St. Patrick's day too!

Have a nice Autumn!
Grethe ´)