Category Archives: Yule

Frejya’s Three Forms

So what does boar, fir and falcon say about Frejya?

Let’s look first at the falcon. Freya’s falcon is probably the Gyrfalcon (JER-falcon), the largest falcon, who likes the northern climates. If she migrates at all, she is driven by scarcity of food, and she will sometimes winter at sea over ice. The Gyrfalcon is the preferred falcon for hunting. She mostly hunts birds, including other raptors, although she will also take small mammals. Other predatory birds leave her alone, as she is fierce. She has a varied hunting strategy and is considered very intelligent. The goddess Frejya has a cloak of falcon feathers reaching to the ground. With her characteristic generosity she loans this cloak to the other gods when they need it to move quickly. Falcons in general are associated with the sun or with death. Other important falcon deities include Circe, the witch who trapped Odysseus and changed his sailors into pigs, and Horus, the Egyptian sun god who avenged the death of his father Osiris and performed an important funerary rite for him.

Boar piglets. Photo by Tiia Monto.

Boar piglets. Frejya and Freyr are brother and sister boar gods. Photo by Tiia Monto.

The boar is the wild predecessor of the domestic pig. While only the male domestic pig is called a boar, in the wild there are boar sows and boar piglets. Boars like most wild animals prefer to avoid people, but both males and sows will charge anything that threatens them. With their huge size and thick skulls they are formidable, even more so if they are adult males with curving tasks. Boars chase away other predators to eat carrion. They are mostly scavengers, digging up roots and grubs in addition to scavenging dead carcasses. Sows prefer to raise young together, and males remain with their mothers until they are full grown. Boars are prolific breeders, something that was never a problem until they became protected in certain areas. The boar has always been preferred quarry for hunters – originally because he provided a great deal of tasty meat, only later because the danger involved provided excitement for sportsmen. The boar was also prized for his dense fur. Frejya often rides on the back of a boar. Her brother Freyr can also take the shape of a boar. Sows in general are associated with motherhood, probably due to their large extended families and high fertility rate. These qualities, plus their generous size, may account for their association with abundance. The crepuscular scavenging and carrion eating habits of boars may account for their being linked with death and the underworld. In both Celtic and Germanic cultures boar was eaten at the winter solstice feasts. Goddesses associated with the boar or sow include the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility Demeter, the Welsh goddess Cerridwyn in the form of a white sow, and the Continental Celtic goddess Arduinna. The Babylonian god Tammuz, the Egyptian God Osiris, and the Greek God Adonis die after being gored by a boar.

The fir or conifer tree thrives in all but the driest and coldest environments. Conifer forests define “tree line” at extreme latitudes and altitudes, the point where plant growth becomes scrubby. Freya’s fir is the Norway Spruce, which despite its name is prevalent throughout the northern and mountainous regions of Eurasia. Like most spruce trees it is a cold loving tree and it is hardy to the Arctic Circle. It is a particularly beautiful tree that is planted as an ornamental in North America. It grows very tall, 100 feet or more, and typically lives a few hundred years. It produces a nice canopy and is used as a wind breaker. It is a fragrant tree that produces a sweet smelling resin. The cones of the Norway Spruce grow very long, up to 8 inches, and they are quite attractive. The fir’s link with Freya probably comes from the evergreen boughs that decorated halls of feasting during the Winter Solstice observances. These festivities lasted several days or weeks. In a sense, with the great fire, drinking, roast boar, festive attitude, and greenery, Pagans were re-creating Freya’s hall of Sessrymnir, while the dark, cold and frozen landscape outside created a simulation of death. The Norway Spruce used to be the quintessential Christmas tree, although the Scotch Pine works better in today’s commercial environment. Trees in the pine family are associated with winter, rebirth, immortality, strength and sometimes fertility, possibly due to the phallic shape of the cone. Pine has been a preferred wood for coffins due to its association with immortality as well as its availability and workability. Other deities associated with trees in the pine family include the Anatolian Cybele, with her dying and resurrecting lover Attis, the Roman-Persian sun god Mithras, the Greek resurrecting god Dionysus, and the Greek healing god Ascelpius. The pine tree is one of the seven important “chieftan trees” in Celtic druidry, associated with the hero Bran who brought the Irish tales of the isles of paradise in the west.

So this is some background on the boar, fir and falcon. With some reflection you can see how the three fit together to give a deeper understanding of Frejya. I will examine the connection between the three more thoroughly in next week’s post.

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Z is for Zuill

Theotokos_Iverskaya
Zuill, pronounced “Yule,” is a Scottish name, probably meaning “born at Christmas.” It’s my Winter Solstice gift to all word game enthusiasts who need another “Z.”

December 25th was the date on the Roman calendar corresponding to the winter solstice when the date of Christ’s birth was first marked. Although this mistake was eventually corrected (the mistake of the winter solstice, not the mistake of Christ’s birthday), it was not as gross an error as you might imagine. For many days near the winter solstice the nights are of equal length. In addition to the date of the Christ mass, some things that Christmas borrowed from the older Pagan holiday include the name “Yule,” the decorated tree, the spirit of merrymaking, the Yule log, holly, mistletoe, candles, the “twelve days,” gift giving, wreathes, feasting, and Santa Claus. Things shared between the Pagan holiday and the biblical account of Christ’s birth include the divine child, the virgin birth, gold, and incense. There have been later innovations associated with Christmas that can be traced neither to the Bible nor pre-Christian traditions, and a few of these include Christmas cards, the little drummer boy, and Black Friday.

When I first heard the term “War on Christmas” several years ago my initial thought was, “Oh no, the Christians are trying to abolish Christmas again.” The original Christ mass only got started because Christian converts refused to abandon their winter solstice festivities, and the holiday has always had its detractors. During the Protestant Reformation criticism of Christmas reached a critical mass. The Puritans, especially, were determined to stamp out what they believed was a Pagan celebration, and much of the popular backlash against the Puritans stemmed from their unrelenting attack on Christmas. The Puritans established their utopian communities in New England partly with the aim of escaping Christmas.

The “War on Christmas” is generally seen as a way of galvanizing conservative furor through a thinly veiled, paranoid attack on non-Christians. Certainly this “war” does fuel Christian intolerance. But I have a different take on the motivation and strategy behind the Christian Christmas antiwar propoganda. It relates to the uneasy alliance between fundamentalist Christians and big business in the conservative political movement. On the part of big business, the uneasiness lies partly with Christian persecution of gays and rigid enforcement of stereotypic gender roles, both of which interfere with marketing efforts across demographics. Christian morality applied to popular culture has even moved the entertainment industry politically in line with liberals. But it is the anti-capitalist sentiment within very conservative Christianity that is the source of the greatest tension.

There is always been an anti-capitalist element within Christianity consistent with Christianity’s anti-materialist roots. To the most devout conservative Christians, Christmas represents materialism and popular culture wrapped up in one Pagan package. There are many groups which believe the celebration of Christmas is anti-Christian, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church Of God, and a long list of Pentecostal churches. Within other churches, such as the Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Christ, and many smaller Baptist churches, there is a sizable minority who vocally oppose the observation of Christmas. Even those conservative Christians who celebrate Christmas bemoan what they term the “commercialization” of the holiday.

As fundamentalist Christianity has gained strength and traction, there has been the possibility of a stronger grassroots movement against Christmas taking hold, particularly as Pagans, who own the holiday much more than Christians, have risen in visibility if not in absolute numbers. Enter the ingenious strategy of Fox News and The American Family Association, a Christian political organization that allies in itself with big business concerns in a number of ways, such as by being pro-fossil fuel and anti-union. By framing opposition to Christmas as an attack by “liberals” (read atheists and Jews), the celebration of Christmas becomes a defense of Christianity. Christian animosity toward business (big and small) can be channeled into opposition to the word “holiday” in advertising. The message is that commercial interests at Christmas are okay as long as they specify that they are in support of beleaguered Christians.

Many people look askance at the attempts to galvanize conservative Christians into defending a holiday that, if anything, is in danger of taking over the world, or at least the calendar. This is actually an attempt by right wing media, which is owned by big business, to manage the base and keep the Christian/capitalist alliance in place.


Sources

BabyNames.com

Kealthley, J. Hampton III. Should Christians Celebrate Christmas? Bible.org.

Popper, Nathaniel. Boycotts Bloom as Religious Conservatives Wage Battle Over Christmas. Jewish Daily Forward, 2005.

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The Y-Junction

The goddess Hecate is often referred to as “Goddess of the Three-Formed Crossroads,” a title which strengthens my belief that she was originally a goddess of the waterways. By “three-formed” the title refers to a junction of three roads meeting in a “Y.” In Greece a statue of the goddess was sometimes placed at such a crossroad, her three faces pointing in three directions. Offerings of food would be placed there, particularly by those embarking on a journey.

Hecate of the Trivium. Roman copy of Greek statue.


Why is Hecate worshiped where three roads meet? While roads and paths do occasionally fork, we think of a crossroad as being a cross, with two joining roads creating an intersection of four directions. I was unable to discover if roads in the ancient worlds were more commonly crossing or forking, and I wonder if anyone has thought to ask the question. One travel route where the meeting is almost always forked, however, is the joining of rivers. We do know that long distance travel in prehistoric times was heavily dependent on water, rather than roads.

An interesting difference between roads, or even trails, and rivers is that the course of rivers is predestined. The river may be dredged or banked, but by and large the goddess decides where the river flows. Hecate’s divine priestess, the witch Medea, can control the course of rivers, but ordinary mortals merely decide which fork to take.

Hecate is often portrayed carrying a torch to light the road by night.



In life it is an inexorable fact that there are three passages, and three passages only. These are: the passage you take, the passage you don’t take, and the passage you leave behind. Being at the place where the three meet, however you are traveling, is a place of change and of risk. It is a threshold, a place of beginnings, and a place where departure from the past becomes inevitable. It is a place between worlds, the point of your greatest power.

During this time, as the sun crosses its nadir, we often experience a point of departure. If you find yourself at such a turning point, pray to Hecate to lead you in the best direction. Pray to follow your path with conviction and to avoid obsessing over the route you never took or the one you put behind you. And if your situation is intolerable and you cannot see your way out, pray to Hecate to open a fork in the passage.

Hecate is sometimes pictured with a horse, emphasizing her command of travel. As a horse goddess she is called “The Distant One” or “The Far Fleeting One.”




Sources

Goddess Gift. Hecate, Goddess of the Crossroads.

Hellenica World. Hecate.

Hesiod. Theogeny, part V.

Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

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Talk by Z Budapest about Winter Solstice holidays


Zsuzsanna Budapest talking about the many pagan holidays of December.

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A Yule Gift I Knew You Wouldn’t Have




This Winter Solstice I thought I’d get you something more original than a partridge in a pear tree. This is a bird-of-paradise (Manucodia comrii) from New Guinea, singing a song you’ve probably only heard on a space music soundtrack. The clip is from Cornell University’s ornithology website.

Curl Crested Manucode. Drawing by Richard Bowdler Sharpe.

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The Yule Fire


In early December, the equivalent in Pagan households to “Where did we store the Christmas lights?” is “What did we do with the Yule log?” A piece of wood from last year’s Winter Solstice ritual fire is always saved to burn on the next year’s fire. This is a throwback to times when a perpetual fire was burned at the community shrine or temple, and it symbolizes the continuity of tradition.

It is the fire and not the log that is the central theme of the Yule ceremony. The hearth fire is the manifestation of the ancestral spirits and the generating force of new human life. According to Clement A. Miles in Christmas Customs and Traditions: “Ancestral spirits, it seems, were once believed to be immanent in the fire that burned on the hearth, and had to be propitiated with libations, while elsewhere the souls of the dead were thought to return to their old homes at the New Year, and meat and drink had to be set out for them.” This sounds a lot like the holy day of Samhain that just passed on October 31st. Euro-Pagan religions which preceded Christianity are essentially systems of ancestor worship, so we would expect the ancestors to play a role in holy days throughout the year. Also keep in mind that Celtic and Germanic cultures absorbed much of the religion already practiced in the regions they settled, and thus there is duplication.

In Neolithic European cultures, the hearth was the center of worship, so much so that many objects found in the vicinity of the hearth during excavations are assumed to have religious importance. Greek and Roman writings also identify the hearth as the focus of the family’s spiritual life, and indeed the Latin word for “hearth” is “focus.” Olivia Robertson, co-founder of The Fellowship of Isis, has written “The religion of the Goddess centres around the Hearth. Whether this be the inner sun flaming within the matrix of our earth, or the sun itself, this is the source of manifested life.”

Although I frequently reference my symbol encylopedia, interestingly enough I had never until today looked up the entry for “hearth.” The description is short, so I will quote it in full:

An omphalos; the interior spiritual centre; the transference of the spirit by fire. The centre of the home; feminine domination; fire in its feminine-earth aspect, but the fire can also take on the masculine aspect with the earth as the feminine; warmth; provision of food. The Vedic round hearth is the earth, the realm of man, while the fire to the East is the realm of the gods. Among South American Indians the hearth-stone is named the ‘bear’, signifying subterranean powers and the point of communication with them. In Celtic countries the cult of the dead centred on the hearth.

I especially like the part about feminine domination.

German fireplace of Roman era and style. Photo by Mediatus.

Oak is usually, but not always, the traditional wood for the Yule log. (In Provence the log would be from a fruit tree.) Oak is the tree of the Roman god Jupiter and the Lithuanian god Perkunas. Oak is the most sacred tree of the Druids, whose very name was derived from a word for oak. I believe the leafy-faced “Green Man” is actually an anthropomorphized oak tree. Miles (writing in 1912) says that “Among the Serbs and Croats on Christmas eve two or three young oaks are felled for every house, and, as twilight comes on, are brought in and laid on the fire.”

The procession of bringing the Yule log from outdoors into the house used to be an important part of the ceremony. Sometimes the log was decorated with ribbons or vines before being taken inside. Once in the house, it was lit right away. Bread or grain along with wine or mead was thrown on the burning log. An orange might also be offered to the fire. In Croatia the metal part of the plow would be placed at the fire’s edge. In Tuscany the children were blindfolded and beat the log with tongs.

Especially in places where wood was scarce, two tallow candles representing the goddess and god would be lit instead of a log. Bayberry candles at some point became popular, bayberry being a pleasant smelling and expensive wax.

The remains of the candle or log were believed to have magical properties and were often saved. In Sweden the plow would be smeared with leftover tallow. The ashes could enhance fertility of the spring fields or protect from lightening. In Germany a piece of the charred wood was called a Christklotz “Christ Log,” and burned during stressful times to fend off bad weather or misfortune.

In books describing Yule ceremonies, I do not find a mention of cleaning, smudging and purifying the hearth or campfire area beforehand, which I consider essential. Sometimes it is difficult, especially for urban dwellers, to get a suitable log of oak. Really any wood will do, and if you don’t have a fireplace a nice candle is a fine replacement. I usually do not decorate the new designated Yule log, although I think this year I will wrap it like a present. I like to burn juniper berries or use juniper oil. Balsam, citrus or wintergreen fragrance is also nice. These fragrances have a sweet yet purifying quality to them. A prayer to the ancestors and to the Goddess and her Divine Child should be made when the flame is lit. The offering can be bread, fruitcake, cookies, or any holiday delicacy. You don’t have to throw the offering into the flame (although there are some fruitcakes that could probably start a good fire). Sweet foods and relaxed, rather than ecstatic, merriment are an important part of this ritual. Don’t clean out the hearth for at least three days, and remember to save some ashes. If the fire burns so hot and so completely that you can’t salvage a piece of wood for next year, or you forget to save it, or the wood accidentally gets used on a different ritual fire, or you can’t find the old piece of log again when you need it (not that any of these things have ever happened to me), this is not something to get upset about. It is merely a sign that you are in some way breaking with your past tradition. There’s nothing really wrong with this, although at the darkest point of the year we usually take the greatest comfort from tradition. That is no doubt why this very pagan holiday became such an important part of Christianity.


Roman coin of the hearth goddess Vesta.

Sources

Campanelli, Pauline. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.

Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

Fellowship of Isis Central Site and News, Facebook Group, November 29, 2012.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. 1917 Reprint. New York: Dover, 1976.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.

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