Midvinterblót by Carl Larsson, 1915. Nationalmuseum och Göteborgs Konstmuseum, Stockholm.

Annual Sacrificial Ritual and the Perpetuation of Ritual Feasting

Odin’s self-sacrifice was only one example of gods exemplifying sacrifice for the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. We’ve discussed another key example, the time Thor sacrificed and blessed his goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr when supping with humans on a journey he undertook to Jotunheim with Loki, which we might understand as Thor metaphorically teaching humanity how to sacrifice animals in the name of the gods.

We don’t understand all the ins and outs of sacrifice, the rituals themselves or their meaning in every case.

But we do have some idea of when major community-wide sacrifices happened within the year. It turns out these rituals map pretty well onto some traditions that survive to this day. 

We understand the Germanic calendar to have been 364 days (at least as it made its way to us through Icelandic records and culture), separated into two equal halves. One misseri (alternation) was summer, the other was winter. Germanic peoples marked time not by days and years, but rather by nights and winters.

Three main sacrifices are mentioned in the Ynglinga Saga, one of the tales written by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson. According to this tale, Odin established laws in all his domains, including the three feasts. “On winter day there should be blood-sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop; and the third sacrifice should be on summer day, for victory in battle.” Other lesser festivals are mentioned in the Eddas and Sagas, but these are the most important sacrifices understood to be the responsibility of each community to hold each year in order to find the favor of the gods.

According to John Lindow, “the fall ceremony would occur after the last harvest was in, and the animals slaughtered would be those that were not to survive the winter.” The ceremony would involve the very beginnings of the slaughtering of the animal, and that meat would be cooked (typically boiled) and a portion served to the community in feast, a portion saved for the earliest parts of winter.

The midwinter blót, called Yule, would involve the sacrifice of more of these beasts. It came near the midpoint of winter and was intended to celebrate the end of the longest nights of winter and the beginning of longer days; it celebrated the rebirth of life and, as Snorri says, asks the gods for a good crop in the new year to come.

And the third blót comes at the beginning of summer, when the land is fertile and the waterways are passable: agriculture, commerce, and war are all possible again. This festival, Sigrblót, the sacrifice for victory, may be the happiest because the earth has been renewed, but of course so little remains of the previous harvest that the celebration may have been somewhat more difficult.

We know, of course, that these traditions carry on to the present day in some form or another. In some communities, they remain somewhat intact – aspects of ancient Yule celebrations have continued in northern Europe and are part of the Christmastide season. It’s well understood that Christ’s mass was celebrated at Solstice not because of any association with the actual birth of Jesus during the midwinter period, but rather because pagan celebrations across Europe already celebrated at that time. The Christian holiday of Easter is similarly placed on top of the Sigrblót and other celebrations that come after the northern world thaws out, some as early as vernal equinox, some as late as what we call early May. In fact, the name “Easter” may well be a form of the name of the Germanic goddess Ostara.

The “winter day” or “winter night” blót is a bit harder to pin down. I’ve seen estimates ranging from September to November, and I think it most likely took place in late October, but it was probably community-specific. I’m not going to tell you that Americans and Canadians have celebrated their Thanksgiving holidays to cover the range of possible Haustablóts, but they are in the right time frame. There also appears to have been a ritual period of celebration that may have covered most of what we call November.

But the Thanksgiving feast, coming as it does when winter is just kicking off in Canada in October, and in the US in November, is serving the same purpose, to express thanks to the gods for the bounty of the harvest (literal or metaphorical) that’s come in the previous year, and to express hope for the same in the coming year. A mid-summer festival on, say, the fourth of July, celebrates something literal, but also partakes of the millenia-old tradition of killing beasts and sharing in fellowship to celebrate something metaphorical: the prosperity, however great or small, the community shares, and to offer thanks for that bounty.

In fact, regardless of the extent to which any particular modern-day holiday or festival exactly resembles the ancient sacrifices, with the public slaughtering of animals and the various rituals that have been lost to us, we can rest assured that throughout the year, we are engaging in similar practices. That doesn’t remove the meaning from our celebrations or make them generic – just because people have been celebrating at the beginning of “summer” as long as there have been humans doesn’t mean that we can’t find happiness and meaning in the traditions we’ve built up in the past few centuries.

Instead, we should recognize that whether we’re descended from northern (or other) Europeans, Middle Easterners, Africans, Native Americans, Australians, Pacific Islanders, or Asians, going back for thousands of years, our ancestors saw reasons to celebrate life, too, and we’re just as excited to be alive as they were, for better or worse. We have a shared history of celebration ranging back to the dawn of humanity, and we share an understanding of what it means to be human, at least in some small way, with (almost) every human who has ever lived in (almost) every society. Each of us is part of a massive undertaking that transcends all of us.

* * *

In addition to John Lindow’s Norse Mythology, this post is based heavily on Hilda Ellis Davidson’s Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe.

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