This time of year we would usually be getting organised for Wintersnight feast.
The Viking’s didn’t think of seasons the way that we do, for them it was simply Summer or Winter. Summer was the easier part of the year, there was plenty of food to be had, travel was easy, there was plenty of light so it was easy to get things done during the day. Winter was harder, you needed to be well prepared if you wanted to survive. Travelling was difficult, trudging through snow is slow going, some places get cut off completely. The days were much shorter, artificial light was needed if you wanted to be able to work in the home and then there was the cold – any kind of task is harder to do when your fingers are freezing.
It therefore makes sense that the transition from summer to winter was one of the three great sacrifices. According to the the Ynglinga saga “Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót.” or “There should be a sacrifice at the beginning of winter for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop, the third in summer day, that was the sacrifice for victory.”
We don’t have a lot of detail about what a Wintersnight sacrifice actually entailed, the term wintersnight comes from vetrnætr which is mentioned in the fornaldarsaga. It’s a compound word, vetr meaning winter, and nætr – the plural form of nátt – meaning nights. Vetrnætr is mentioned mostly in a timekeeping sense and was the three days at the start of the winter season.
In general terms, sacrifices or blóts were rituals where offerings of food and drink or were given to the gods. The blót may have included animals being killed and butchered before being eaten, and there are some references to human sacrifices from viking times although these are not the most reliable of accounts as they were from people with an interest in portraying the Vikings as barbaric savages. The people attending the blót would have shared the food and drink by way of a feast and modern pagans may use blót to mean feast.
While there are no details of a Wintersnight ritual per se, there are records of blóts which took place during Vetrnætr. Dísablót was a public celebration, it is mentioned in several of the sagas Hervarar Saga, Víga-Glúms Saga, Egils Saga and the Heimskringla. Disir translates as goddesses although the celebration seems to have included valkyrie and fylgia so perhaps it was similar to the Anglo Saxon festival of Mōdraniht which celebrated female ancestors. References in the sagas mention blood being poured onto a horgr (stone altar) and the King of Sweden being thrown from his horse while riding around the Disa Hall at Uppsala.
The Álfablót was a sacrifice to the elves after the crops had been harvested and while the animals were at their fattest. This was a private celebration carried out at home. There is not a lot of detail of what the álfablót involved, but visitors were not welcome and the sagas talk of people being turned away rather than offered the usual hospitality. The person conducting the rite was known as Ölvir which may connect with Odin, although the Ölv part may translate as beer which could mean it was a drinking ritual or sumbl. Elves were connected to ancestors and fertility so this celebration may well fall into the category of ancestor worship. This time of year is associated with ancestors in other cultures with festivals such as Samhain and All Souls day, and it does seem appropriate for thoughts to turn to loved ones and those we miss when the nights get longer and there is more time to sit around a fire and reminisce.
The strangest of the rituals recorded during Vetrnætr was the Völsi blót: The Völsi is described in a story called Völsa þáttr. A horse had been butchered and the thrall was going to throw away the horse’s penis, after a few jokes the mistress of the house wrapped it in linen and packed it away with onions and herbs to conserve it. During the blót the mistress took the penis from the coffin, greeted it with a prayer, and passed it from person to person, with each saying “May Mörnir receive the holy sacrifice”. Definitely not something we’ll be including in our Wintersnight feast!
Our celebration is usually along the lines of a Álfablót, we feast, drink lots of mead and remember those we have lost, but we like to make it open to anyone able to attend. Looks like this year we’ll have to be more traditional and celebrate alone.