(This article was first published in the Asatru-EU Yule Herald 2016, and I have added it here to keep my stuff together for easier reference.
The whole magazine can be downloaded here: http://www.asatru-summercamp.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/01-Asatru-EU-Herald-2016.pdf )
It is a curious thing that we have such a rich and diverse folklore for the time around the winter solstice, indeed for winter time in general, but we cannot tell in detail how people celebrated winter festivals and midwinter time before conversion because of the scarcity of our sources.[i] We know that Northern Germanic people celebrated Jul[ii], although we hardly know how they did it, and we know that the Goths had a similar word so we conclude that Eastern Germanic tribes did so as well. For Western Germanic people we can be sure that there used to be festivities, because Christian rantings against Heathen seasonal traditions and practice tell us so, but we do not have a genuine term for the festivities which predates conversion.
For modern Heathens, the scarcity of sources on pre-conversion rituals and cultic performances can be a problem if the goal is to shape and recreate their own festivals and rituals as close in form and intent to those of the old Heathens. It is well known that Christian ideas were deliberately superimposed on existing traditions, but especially on the continent, the influence of not only Christian, but also Roman and Celtic traditions as well as the profound changes brought by reformation, enlightenment and industrialization make for a conglomerate of Brauchtum and Sitte which is so entangled that their origins are hardly recognizable. Traditions which seem ancient are not necessarily so, and things which are similar aren’t necessarily the same. What to do?
In this article I want to highlight three different relatively contemporary continental Germanic traditions, documented as belonging to midwinter time and which strike us as not being of Christian origin. These traditions might inspire modern Heathens in the re-creation of their own ways, in the spirit of how they probably were observed by the old Heathens. These traditions are
1. the smoking of dried plants and resins to ward off danger during midwinter nights,
2. scrying and the telling of omens around midwinter
3. the tradition of laying a table with food for the ancestors as well as for winter Goddesses like Frau Perchta and Frau Holle.
Another important decidedly non-Christian tradition, mummery and masked processions has been covered by Uwe in this here magazine.
(Edit: this article by Uwe Ehrenhöfer can be found in the Asatru-EU Yule Herald 2016 where my article also was published, see link above)
The Rauhnächte and smoking dried herbs
While a Western Germanic term for the midwinter festival is lost, other terms which are used up to this day instead of the Christian term Weihnachten[iii] are Rauhnächte[iv] and Zwölften. While the latter is a term which indicates the duration of the sacred time – twelve nights, nowadays in Germany this is usually the time between the 25th of December and 6th of January, in some places the time between 21st of December and 1st of January – and which might or might not be a term from pre-conversion times,[v] the former is more intriguing. One possible interpretation is that „Rauh-„ or „Rauch-„ means smoke, for it was custom to go through the house and the stables and burn herbs or incense, or incense-herb mixtures to ward off evil in any form during certain nights in midwinter time. Those nights were usually the 21st of December, the 25th of December, the 1st of January and the 6th of January. This custom was done in rural regions, mostly in southern parts of the German speaking area like e.g. the alpine regions where it was observed until comparatively recently.[vi] The ritual of burning incense, albeit not restricted to midwinter time, is currently seeing quite a revival, there have been a lot of recent publications on the smoking of dried plant matter and resins in a new age spirituality context throughout the year, some concentrate on midwinter. They give instructions on the know-how and also the context, however, while all of them claim that smoking during midwinter nights or around the winter solstice was an ancient pre-conversion Celtic and also Germanic tradition, they do not refer to sources.[vii]
But why did the solemn act of smoking protective herbs and incense occur during a time in which Christians celebrate the birth of their saviour, and which is supposed to be a time of rejoycing? Indeed it is a contradiction that during a time which should be one of great joy for Christians, a very strict regimen of taboos and cultic actions seemed necessary to be installed, and resulted in the creation of Advent time, which was originally a time for hard fasting and praying. This strongly hints to the existence of a Heathen festival underlying the Christian one.[viii] Before conversion, people also seem to have believed that the time around midwinter and the winter solstice was a time of reduced safety, which was, in turn, more susceptible to cultic actions and performances.[ix] A liminal time. While the exact day(s) of the festival on the continent as well as in Scandinavia in Heathen times is hard to determine exactly due to the impressive melange of possible roots and influences as well as calendaric issues,[x] the solstice as a cosmic incident marked a most important period, a celestial rite of passage when it was essential to do certain things, and do them right.[xi] What we can conclude from Norse sources is that while the date of Jul was related to the solstice, it was not celebrated on the solstice itself, but later, on the next full moon.[xii] Which emphasises on the idea that midwinter was not observed to celebrate the sun’s rebirth, but for other purposes.
One of the distinct Heathen features of winter season was the idea that the dead were able to visit or haunt the living during the dark half of the year and especially around midwinter time. This is magnificently illustrated for example by the genuinely pre-Christian phenomenon of the Wild Hunt, lead by Wodan or Frau Holle under her various names, as well as processions of dead children lead by Frau Holle as their guardian.[xiii] Winter, and most importantly midwinter time, was a time to turn to the ancestors and pay them their due respect, as well as a time to ask for fertility and a good year.[xiv] In Scandinavia, we have parallels in the dísir possbily being the center of Winter Nights festivities and rituals to start the new year[xv], and we also remember Bede’s report that the Heathen Angles celebrated Mōdraniht, Night of the Mothers, who of course make us think of the Matronae, Roman/Celtic/Western Germanic ancestral deities[xvi], at a date which would be the 25th of December[xvii].
Although a visitation from the ancestors has been regarded as enhancing luck and fertility for crop as well as humans[xviii] and was therefore welcome, it was also necessary to protect oneself and one‘s belongings from the rage or even malevolence of the dead.[xix] So to ensure safety, people took various precautions which were different through times and regions: for example, doors and gates had to be closed in the dark and were sometimes marked with chalk, which is supposed to be of apotropaic effect. Also, ringing church bells was seen as protective. Having laundry hanging outside was absolutely taboo, the house and surroundings had to be perfectly tidy lest it hindered the dead to pass through without causing damage and leaving their blessing. The imperative of keeping the house and stables tidy can also be connected to housewight lore, where it is supposed to be a means of upholding social norms.[xx] A lot of chores were forbidden, most importantly spinning, but also practically all heavy work except feeding the animals, mucking out the stable was only done very superficially during minor Rauhnächte nights because it is existential, and especially turning motions were regarded as dangerous.[xxi] The scholar Erika Timm believes that the taboo of not performing chores which involve turning motions like spinning have their roots in sympathetic magic, people wouldn’t want to hinder the course of the sun and anger the great divine spinner Frau Holle/Frau Perchta/Frija as the keeper of cosmic order.[xxii]
And while we certainly know that smoking herbs has been used for food preservation, medicinal as well as cultic purposes in many cultures[xxiii], in post-conversion southern German regions it was also used for protection in a folk magic, if not magico-religious context. Sometimes it was done with a priest officiating, sometimes it was the Hausfrau or the male head of the house who went around and filled rooms and stables with aromatic smoke. Incense mixtures used in church were used as well as certain plants known for protective properties, like for example juniper, which seems to have been a highly revered plant and was used often to different ends.[xxiv]
We know that the ancient Romans regularly sacrificed frankincense to the lares.[xxv] Maybe that ritual was a model but with time, the smoking offer to the ancestors lost its sacrifice character and was turned into an action to protect against evil? Modern books about smoking claim a long tradition in Germanic and Celtic communities and refer to various grave finds called Räucherkuchen, which were then believed by archaeologists in past times to have been used for burning, and which suggested smoking to have taken place as early as the Stone Age.[xxvi] Modern analytical methods however identified new finds of Räucherkuchen of the same shape as the older finds as tar or bitumen or e.g. birch resin which was not used for smoking, but as some sort of glue.[xxvii]
So even if smoking had its place in Heathen Germanic cult, which is probable given its age and ubiquity, I cannot, at this moment, present proof that it used to be done during midwinter in Heathen times. The only heavy (nonetheless speculative) claim for continuity lies in the fact that the need for protection against demonic beings or revenants is not rooted in Christian thought and it seems logical that people who continue that line of thinking will probably use the same means of dealing with danger. In addition, Christian authorities until rejected magical practices because they believed magic of any kind to be demonic, even if it was used against demons.[xxviii] From that it follows that burning incense and herbs was probably a tradition which people wouldn’t have wanted to let go, so it was put into a Christian frame.
To what degree Celtic traditions of smoking incense and herbs are involved (the Alps and true German South are Hallstatt and La Tène territory) I will yet have to find out.
A second interpretation for the term ‚Rauhnächte‘ is that ‚rauh‘ or ‚rauch‘ can also mean furry, or hairy[xxix] and it could refer to the demonic figures which roam winter nights, and maybe hint to the Perchtenläufe which were and are done around that time. This interpretation seems to be supported by the fact that midwinter time has been called Zwölften in the northern half of the German speaking areas and Rauhnächte in the southern parts, where Perchtenläufte and other masked processions take place.[xxx] You can read about those in Uwe’s essay in this here publication.
Looking into the future
Winter and midwinter was also just the right time for taking a glimpse into the future because in Germanic thinking, the new year started with the winter season. The Germanic tribes have been made famous for their enthusiasm for interpreting omens and using oracles by Tacitus[xxxi], and the continuity of this passion is well documented by tradition as well as the subsequent scorn of churchmen against it.[xxxii] Glimpsing into the future with the help of an oracle, or interpreting omens was also a part of Roman calendae traditions, and those traditions were sometimes incorporated into the repertoire, as well as old, genuinely Germanic or even Indoeuropean ways of oracling were kept, for example the liodorsâza, which consists of sitting on a bull’s hide at a crossroad to learn about the future (from the dead, because who else is out and about during that night?), and which strongly reminds us of the custom of útiseta.[xxxiii] In some places the Rauhnächte are also called Losnächte: Los meaning fate or lot, and although omens were being watched and interpreted during the whole year, the high time to do it was wintertime, important dates were, for example, 30th of November and 21st of December as well as January 6th.[xxxiv]
The means of telling what would happen in the coming year were very diverse[xxxv], and while one of the most existential things people in agrarian communities needed to know were weather predictions, there were also a lot of ways to find out who would die, who would fall in love with or marry whom and things like that.[xxxvi] Still popular is the idea of putting the 12 days of the Rauhnächte in relation to the 12 months of the coming year, so that the weather on each day, or the dream in each night will show what the corresponding month will be like.
Laying the table
And while Wodan as the leader of the Wild Hunt is a figure who has lingered in folklore for a long time after conversion, the most prominent figure in continental Germanic tales and documented Heathen practice related to midwinter traditions is the Goddess who bears different names according to region: Frau Perchta, Frau Holle, Frau Harke, Frau Gode, Frau Frick, Frija and many others. She also leads the Wild Hunt beside or instead of Wodan, or she leads groups of women, or processions of dead children (those who died before they could get baptized). Winter, and most specifically midwinter is the time when she is most prominent, so much that she is has been called the ‚Winter Goddess‘.[xxxvii] The majority of the sources on her theophany concentrate on midwinter nights, and of them the evening before January 6th seems to have been the most important, as the date which was seen as the closing night of the Rauhnächte in most regions.
The Goddess is an ambivalent deity because as much as she can give in terms of luck, success and fertility, as dangerous she is when she finds things not to her liking, where her anger would result in punishments ranging from befouling yarn to slitting up bellies and stuffing them with straw before sewing them shut again. This is another reason why house and homestead have to be absolutely tidy, the spinning must be done when the Rauhnächte start and must not recommence until January 6th, the Perchtentag. Frau Holle controls the weather, which makes her a powerful deity, although not a mother herself, she is able to give children, and she certainly takes them into her care when they die. She is benign to those who observe her taboos and offer to her and terrorizes those who do not with torture and even death. She instructs in and controls the spinning, which, beside having been existential for the production of cloth for millenia, also has an extensive meaning as creating fate, the spindle and the distaff being craft tools as well as magical tools. She does not dwell in human habitations but in the wilderness, usually in liminal places which are related to water.[xxxviii]
A close inspection of all the sources on Frau Holle, Frau Percht[xxxix] and her various regional emanations as well as the realization of the enormous spectrum of her power reveals that Jacob Grimm was right in his assumption that behind these noa names we see the shape of an old and great Goddess emerging who was called Frija, „Beloved“.
The Goddess was the recipient of food offerings, with the exception of one documented offering of flax, the importance of which does not lie so much in the preciousness of the sacrifice but in the return the giver of the sacrifice would expect.[xl] From what we know, the food consisted of nourishing grain dishes like dumplings or mash with fish, usually no meat dishes.[xli] The fact that this practice was scorned by the church for centuries after conversion and yet still continued for a very long time also shows that it has no roots in Christian beliefs whatsoever but it is certainly Heathen and was deemed absolutely existential by the people.[xlii] Leftovers of the sacrifice were given to the livestock or brought out and left in wells or at trees to bless them.[xliii] While food offerings for Frau Perchta are better and longer documented, there are also a few documents on offerings for Frau Holle and Frau Herke up north and northwest, and while the food may have been given to the Goddess as well as to those she leads, the offering was linked to wishes for success, a good year and abundance.[xliv] With passing time, and well documented into the Late Medieval age, food offerings to the Hausgeister (preferably milk and grain products) and other beings of ‚lesser mythology‘ have also been observed, maybe as a surrogate, and it is not far fetched at all to detect the remnants of an ancestor cult in this as Hausgeister lore seems to be tightly connected to it.[xlv] Lecoteux notes that in Germanic worldview, dead ancestors turned into elves, ON álfar, which reminds us of the álfablót held by our Swedish friends at the beginning of winter. Laying the table for the Winter Goddess and her regiment, i.e. the ancestors, on certain nights during midwinter time was a feature of a Germanic, probably Indoeuropean, ancestor cult.[xlvi]
In conclusion: while it is not clear whether the smoking of special herbs and incense during midwinter nights has its roots in Heathen times, the idea of midwinter nights being a dangerous time during which protection was needed, surely is no Christian idea. They were regarded as as a time where the presence of the dead was more sharply felt than at other times, and that made it both an appropriate time for offerings and rituals for fertility and a good year to come as well as a dangerous time during which protective measures had to be taken. It was also an excellent time for interpreting omens to learn what would happen in the year to come, not only due to the influence of Roman calendae rites.
So we can conclude that before conversion, Germanic continental tribes most probably celebrated midwinter not only with feasting and getting together like their Northern Germanic cousins, they also centered their cultic actions around the ancestors and gave offerings in order to have a good year, and a good harvest, to deities connected with the dead as well as with fertility.
And while the masked processions of the alpine regions are hugely impressive, it is not easy to duplicate them when you live somewhere else. What can easily and beautifully be done is to prepare your house for the sacred time by getting everything tidy and clean, to make sure that nothing hinders the passing of the dead who roam the nights and to ward off anything dangerous from your home, and to lay the table for the ancestors and Frau Holle with hopes for a fruitful and blessed year to come, and to gather with family and friends to eat and drink to good health and to the memory of those who passed away.
[i] Weber-Kellermann 1987, p. 17
[ii] Simek 1995, entry Jul
[iii] Kluge 2011, entry Weihnachten
[iv] Kluge 2011, entry Rauchnächte
[v] Zautner 2013, p. 114
[vi] Erich 1974 // 1996, entry Rauchnächte, map
[vii] Bader 2007, Fischer-Rizzi 2001, Rätsch 1999 throughout.
[viii] Weiser-Aall 1923, p. 41
[ix] Timm 2010, S. 253
[x] If you want to go down that computational rabbit hole of calendaric issues and comparisons, I recommend Rood 2013 for starters and if you’re able to read German and want to go into detail, by all means read Zautner 2013.
[xi] van Gennep 1986, p. 172
[xii] Zautner 2013 p. 108 and 112
[xiii] Simek 1995, p. 478f., Timm 2010, p. 262ff. and, very interesting p. 271
[xiv] Vries 1970, p.449f., also Weber-Kellermann 1987, p. 13
[xv] Gunnell 2000, p. 129ff.
[xvi] Simek 1995, p. 260ff.
[xvii] Simek 1995, p. 279f.
[xviii] Vries 1970, S.450
[xix] Bächtold-Stäubli, p. 874f.
[xx] Lindig 1987, p. 149 ff.
[xxi] Baechtold-Stäubli 2005, entry Zwölften
[xxii] Timm 2010, p. 253ff.
[xxiii] Rätsch 1999, p. 10
[xxiv] Rätsch 1999, p. 194ff.
[xxv] Nilsson 1916-1919, p. 56
[xxvi] for example Lisch 1873, Fuchs 2013, p. 240f. Lovely burning mixture recipes though.
Edit August 2017: The ethnobiologist Christian Rätsch in his book Der heilige Hain. Germanische Zauberpflanzen, heilige Bäume und schamanische Bräuche, Aarau, AT 2005, p.100 cites from the work of Dieter Martinetz, Karl Lohs and Jörg Janzen: Weihrauch und Myrrhe, Stuttgart, WVG 1989 p.29-30 that finds of so called ‚Räucherkuchen‘ from Denmark, dated 7200 BCE, smelled like Amber, frankincense and myrrh when burned, which he supposes to have been as used as glue but also for consumption like chewing gum. This is also suggested by Fuchs 2013, see footnote 27. But Martinetz states clearly that specific use for very early times cannot be documented, he says nothing about them being actually being burned. The term ‚Räucherkuchen‘ therefore is a misleading (and old) one, having been coined by researches from the 19th century, and it cannot be used as a proof that prehistoric people had a smoking tradition.
[xxvii] Fuchs 2013, p. 240f.
[xxviii] Kieckhefer 1992, p.50
[xxix] Erich 1974, entry Rauchnächte
[xxx] Erich 1974 , entry Zwölften
[xxxi] Germania 2000, chapter 10,1
[xxxii] Kieckhefer 1992, p. 59, see also Baechtold-Stäubli 2005, entry Orakel
[xxxiii] Nilsson 1916-1919, p. 116ff.
[xxxiv] Erich 1974, p. 952
[xxxv] Baechtold-Stäubli 2005, Orakel
[xxxvi] Weber-Kellermann 1987, p. 18f.
[xxxvii] Motz 1984
[xxxviii] Timm 2010,p. 232 – 272.
[xxxix] Frau Perchta though has a lot of celtic and south-eastern european features and traits which give her a special place. Timm 2010, p. 324
[xl] Timm 2010, p.244ff. as well as Lecouteux 1988, p. 87 ff.
[xli] Timm 2010, p.245f.
[xlii] Lecouteux 1988, p.87ff.
[xliii] Bächtold-Stäubli, entry Speiseopfer
[xliv] Timm 2010, p.244ff.
[xlv] Lindig 1987, p.135. Compare also the Nisse and the Tomte in Scandinavian lore.
[xlvi] Lecouteux 1988, p. 95
Kluge – Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (2011). Berlin [u.a.].
Bader, Marlis (2007): Räuchern mit heimischen Kräutern. Anwendung, Wirkung und Rituale im Jahreskreis. 7. Aufl. München: Kösel.
Baechtold-Stäubli, Hanns (2005): Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens. Mauer – Pflugbrot. Unveränd. photomechanischer Nachdr. der Ausg. Berlin [u.a.] 1937. Augsburg: Weltbild (Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Volkskunde, 6).
Baechtold-Stäubli, Hanns (2005): Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens. Waage – Zypresse. Unveränd. photomechanischer Nachdr. der Ausg. Berlin [u.a.] 1937. Augsburg: Weltbild (Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Volkskunde, 9).
Erich, Oswald A.; Beitl, Richard; Erich, Oswald Adolf; Beitl, Klaus (1974 // 1996): Wörterbuch der deutschen Volkskunde. 3. Aufl. 1974, unveränd. Nachdr. Stuttgart: Kröner (Kröners Taschenausgabe, 127).
Fischer-Rizzi, Susanne; Ebenhoch, Peter (2001): Botschaft an den Himmel. Anwendung, Wirkung und Geschichten von duftendem Räucherwerk. Aarau: AT-Verlag.
Fuchs, Carola; Wahl, Joachim (2013): Kaugummi oder Werkstoff? : Birkenpechstücke aus der Pfahlbausiedlung Hornstaad-Hörnle am Bodensee. In: Denkmalpflege in Baden-Württemberg 42 (4), 240-245. Online verfügbar unter https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/nbdpfbw/article/viewFile/12747/6580.
Gunnell, Terry (2000): The Season of the Disir: The Winter Nights, and the Disablot in Early Medieval Scandinavian Belief. Originally Published: (2000) Cosmos. 16:2. Online verfügbar unter http://odroerirjournal.com/season-of-the-disir-winternights-and-the-disablot-in-early-medieval-scandinavian-belief/.
Kieckhefer, Richard; Knecht, Peter (1992): Magie im Mittelalter. München: Beck.
Lecouteux, Claude (1988): Romanisch-germanische Kulturberührungen am Beispiel des Mahls der Feen. In: Mediaevistik (1), S. 87–100. Online verfügbar unter http://www.jstor.org/stable/42583662.
Lindig, Erika (1987): Hausgeister. D. Vorstellungen übernatürl. Schützer u. Helfer in d. dt. Sagenüberlieferung. Zugl.: Freiburg i. Br., Univ., Diss., 1986 14.
Lisch, Georg Christian Friedrich (1873): Räucherwerk oder Harzkitt. In: Jahrbücher des Vereins für Mecklenburgische Geschichte und Altertumskunde (38), S. 97–100.
Motz, Lotte: The Great Goddess of the North.
Motz, Lotte (1984): The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda, and Related Figures. In: Folklore: the journal of the Folklore Society 95 (II), Online-Ressource, S. 151-166.
Nilsson, Martin P. (1916-1919): Studien zur Vorgeschichte des Weihnachtsfestes. In: Archiv für Religionswissenschaft (19), S. 50–150.
Rätsch, Christian (1999): Räucherstoffe, der Atem des Drachen. 72 Pflanzenporträts ; Ethnobotanik, Rituale und praktische Anwendungen. 2., erw. Aufl. Aarau, Schweiz: AT-Verl.
Rood, Joshua (2013): The Festival Year. A Survey of the Annual Festival Cycle and Its Relation to the Heathen Lunisolar Calendar. University of Iceland. Reykjavík. Online verfügbar unter https://www.academia.edu/8691572/The_Festival_Year_A_Survey_of_the_Annual_Festival_Cycle_and_Its_Relation_to_the_Heathen_Lunisolar_Calendar, zuletzt geprüft am 28.08.2016.
Simek, Rudolf (1995): Lexikon der germanischen Mythologie. 2., erg. Aufl. Stuttgart: Kröner (Kröners Taschenausgabe, 368).
Tacitus, P. Cornelius (2000): Germania. Lateinisch und deutsch. Bibliogr. erg. Ausg. Stuttgart: Reclam (Universal-Bibliothek, Nr. 9391).
Timm, Erika; Beckmann, Gustav Adolf (2010): Frau Holle, Frau Percht und verwandte Gestalten. 160 Jahre nach Jacob Grimm aus germanistischer Sicht betrachtet. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart: Hirzel (Germanistik).
van Gennep, Arnold (1986): Übergangsriten. Frankfurt am Main [u.a.]: Campus-Verlag [u.a.].
Vries, Jan de (1970): Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte. 3., unveränd. Aufl., photomechan. Nachdr. d. 2., völlig neu bearb. Aufl., 1956. Berlin: de Gruyter (Grundriß der germanischen Philologie, 12,1).
Weber-Kellermann, Ingeborg (1987): Das Weihnachtsfest. Eine Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte der Weihnachtszeit. [2. Aufl.]. München: Bucher.
Weiser-Aall, Lily (1923): Jul, Weihnachtsgeschenke und Weihnachtsbaum. Eine volkskundliche Untersuchung ihrer Geschichte. Stuttgart, Gotha: Perthes.
Zautner, Andreas Erich; Becker, Alfred (2013): Der gebundene Mondkalender der Germanen. Rekonstruktion eines Lunisolarkalenders nach antiken mittelalterlichen und frühneuzeitlichen Quellen. Erstaufl. Leipzig: Bookra.