View Full Version : Holy Tides

Sunday, February 12th, 2006, 12:09 PM
It is unclear how many holy tides the ancient Anglo-Saxon Heathens actually celebrated. It is known from Anglo-Saxon records that the Anglo-Saxon witanagemˇt met most often on St. Martin’s Day (November 10th), Christmas, and Easter or Whitsunday (Liberman, The National Assembly in the Anglo-Saxon Period). These dates correspond to when Anglo-Saxon kings are reported to wear their crowns (Chaney, Cult of Anglo-Saxon Kingship, p. 65). They also correspond roughly to the ones mentioned by Snorri in the Heimskringla:

■Ô skyldi bl˘ta ţ m˘ti vetri til Ôrs, enn at mi­jum vetri bl˘ta til gr˘­rar, it ■ri­ja at sumri, ■at var sigrbl˘t

"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." (Ynglinga Saga Chapter 8)

These dates come out as roughly sometime in October, Yule (Dec. 21st), and Eostre. That there may have been more Anglo-Saxon holy tides are known from Bede and his description of the Anglo-Saxon pagan calendar in De Temporum Ratione. Bede starts the Heathen year with Modranect, the “Mothers Night.” It falls between Ărra Geola, our December and Ăfterra Geola, or January, and is the period today we know as Yule (which is now no more than a synonym for Christmas for most people). Of Solmona­, roughly our February, Bede says the Anglo-Saxons offered cakes to their Gods, and thus it was named the month of cakes; he also mentions Hre­mona­, roughly our March as when the Goddess Hre­e was worshipped, followed by Eastremona­ when the Goddess Eostre was worshipped. He does not name Li­a as a sacred month, however, that it falls on Midsummer, there may have been a holy day corresponding to Mid-Winter or Yule. This is pretty much confirmed by Midsummer celebrations that survived into modern times in England. Bede then mentions Hßligmona■, roughly our September, which was called “holy” as in Bede’s words “because our ancestors, when they were heathen, paid their devil tribute in that month.” The next potential holy tide mentioned by Bede is Blˇtmona­, roughly our November. The name its self means “sacrifice month” and was the time when animals were slaughtered for the coming winter. It follows Winterfylle­ which corresponds to the Norse Winter Nights. That All Hallows, St. Martin’s Day, and Guy Fawkes Day all important English holidays fall in these period would seem to indicate the actual holy tide took place at the junction of the two months. The three great holy tides of Anglo-Saxon paganism, Yule, Easter, and Winterfylleth can be thought of as High Holy Days, while the others as simply holy days.


Yule called in Old English Geol began with the rites of Modraniht or the Night of the Mothers. Bede refers to this sacred night as the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon New Year in his De Temporum Rationale

"The ancient peoples of the English computed their months according to the course of the moon ... However the year began on the eighth day before the Calends of January [December 25] where we now celebrate the birth of our Lord. And the same night now sacred to us, they then called by the pagan name Modranect, ‘Night of the Mothers’, on account, we suppose, of the ceremonies which they performed overnight."

In all likelihood, Modraniht was in some way connected to the cult of the Mothers. Altars all across the Lowlands, in England, France, and in other areas were erected to the "matrons," by Germanic mercenaries in the service of Rome. In some cases these altars were more than mere votive stones, but made up part of greater cult centers such as those at Nettersheim and Bonn. The "mothers" were shown with fruit baskets, plants, trees, babies, children, cloths for wrapping babies, and snakes. Most feel that this cult of "matrons" can be linked to the Norse idea of the disir or ancestral women who had a sacred night to them in the fall at Winter Nights (commonly referred to as Disablot.

In the Norse Sagas we are told that boar was eaten at this time of year, and that it was sworn oaths upon.

"One time Hethin was coming home alone from the forest on Yule eve. He met a troll woman riding on a wolf, with snakes as reins. She asked his leave to keep him company, but he would not. She said: "That shalt thou rue when drinking from the hallowed cup." In the evening vows were made: the sacrificial boar was led in, men laid their hands on him and sware dear oaths as they drank from the hallowed cup."

As the boar is sacred to the God Ing (Freyr), it is known that at least one day of the 12 nights was sacred to him. In addition, Woden played a role in Yule as the Wild Hunt is said in many of the Norse sagas as well as in English and Germanic folkore at that time, not to mention his byname in Old Norse of Jˇlnir. Sample rites for Yule can be found at Geol.


Solmonath also called ╔owomeoluc (an Anglo-Saoxn word either based on the Celtic Imbolec or vice versa) was one of the tides most persecuted by the Christian church. Of its rites, only the blessing of the plow was allowed to continue along with the observation of the ground hog's habitual looking for his shadow. According to the Heimskringla, "In Svithjod it was the old custom, as long as heathenism prevailed, that the chief sacrifice took place in Goe month at Upsala." The Old Scandanavian month of Goe falls in our month of February. These sacrifices were offered frith ok sigr, for frith and victory. Bede mentions Solmonath as the time when the pagan Anglo-Saxons gave cakes to their Gods.

Solmonath was the time when the ewes first began giving birth to their lambs, and ewe milk was thus available. It was also when the thaw began and ground could first be broken for the spring planting. Tied to the first tilling of the year, were the various plow rites. It was possibly this time of year when the goddess Nerthus was taken around to villages, as this is when plows were decorated and taken from village to village in medieval England. Drawing on the Aecer-Bˇt and the activities of the medieval celebrations, these plow processions may have taken the following form:

Two nights before the blessing, a torch processional would have collected the necessary sod from the corners of the farmstead, probably by proceeding sunwise around the bounds of the land. Those familiar with the Icelandic "landnama" rite should see the original purpose of the torch processionals. By going around the bounds of the land sunwise with torches, and taking the soil of the four corners, the land is being reclaimed for its owners. Then before sunset the next day, this soil mixed with the products of the livestock (milk, honey, tallow) would be set back in the earth. That night a housel may have been held, and at sunrise the plow would have been blessed and used to dig its first furrow (into which was buried the first seed and a cake), pr obably after a processional through the streets of the village. Such rites may have been accompanied by plays depicting the marriage of Heaven and Earth (FrÚa and Ger­r or Wˇden and Eor­e), as the lines of the Aecer-Bˇt imply. Ewemeolc was the first fertility rite of the year, and so these rites must have played an important role in the lives of the Elder Heathens. It is also possible that this is when the masked dances took place (dancers dressed as animals), though they ma y well have taken place at Easter. A throughly English holiday, this holiday as it comes down to us has strong Celtic influences. Many features however such as the hallowing of the plow and groundhog festivities appear on the continent, and seem wholely Germanic. Some believe the DÝsablˇt of the Norse also took place at this time, and celebrate it January 31st instead of during Yule.


Easter is the celebration named for the goddess Eostre, whom we know little about. She is only mentioned by name once, and that is by Bede. However, her name survived as a native month name in both German and English, and in connection with a holy festival at that time. Her name is believed to be cognate with our word east so that she may be she was goddess of the dawn as well as spring.

Folklore surrounding Easter holds that water gathered at dawn is particularly holy, and it is said maidens in sheer white can be seen frolicking in the country side. In England, Easter was the time when the boundaries of farmsteads were beaten with besoms and birch sticks. The young folk along with the procession were also switched lightly. This "beating of the bounds" was probably done to drive away ill wishing wights. Besom and birch were the traditional material for which illness causing wights were driven out of those with illnesses, and that they are used to beat the bounds implies similar purposes. It is to be noted much of Easter seems linked to purification. Water from brooks collected on Easter morning as well as the dew was considered "holy water, " and Easter saw bonfires which at other times were used for purification. Young women in early times would go to brooks or streams to wash at dawn, as the water then was thought particularly holy. Below are a few Easter traditions, the modern Heathen can use to enhance the holy tide.

Easter like WŠlburges and Midsummer saw bonfires being lit atop hillsides. And like WŠlburges and Midsummer many rites such as fire leaping were associated with the fires.

Cross Buns
As far back as Easter customs have been recorded have appeared cross buns. Traditionally eaten at Easter, we know not truly what their significance are. In England, it is believed they had healing powers, while other places believed that is they were hung in the kitchen, they would keep away evil. The cross in the buns may be the rune Giefu. As Giefu is the rune of gift giving and one of exchange, this could be the true meaning behind them.

The ancient Heathens decorated for every holy tide. They garlanded trees, houses, ritual items, and themselves. Easter was no different and saw wreathes of wheat and ribbon.

In many areas it was custom to keep a vigil the night before Easter to watch the rising sun. This could be worked in with bonfires ceremonies by modern Heathens, or even with the collection of holy water.

Winter Effigy
Other places an effigy of Winter would be beaten and burned. This custom can be seen in both England and Germany. This effigy could be a corn dolly or a stuffed dummy.


SumerdŠg was another spring festival for the anceint Heathens. WŠlburges Night was thought the night when witches ride by many anceint Heathens and this may reveal a link to the German goddess Holde (who may indeed be Frigga). Holde was considered the goddess of witches by medieval Germans. Many areas saw this as the time when witches and other wights rode thru the air, and thus a time when the gods needed to be invoked. On this night prayers were said for the cattle, sheep, and goats, with special reference to keeping ettins away. And in many areas it was the time for a great feast as well as bonfires. Many of the celebrations took place atop mountians and hills (which in Germany were conected to Holde and witches).

Love and courting seems to be a central theme amongst many of the folktales surrounding WŠlburges. Many customs relate to courtship rituals. The gathering and giving of flowers from young beaus to maidens, the Maypole Dance the next day, as well as the frocking in the woods of WŠlburges Niht.

Early morning saw children gathering flowers, and in many areas the Maypole dance. In Germany, new trees and saplings were transplanted and nearly everywhere houses were decorated with fresh flowers. In some parts of England, this is when the Hobby Horse plays took place. Other areas crowned a May Queen who would declare winter to finally be defeated (going back to the ritual battles of Easter between Summer and Winter).

Hobby Horse
The Hobby Horse is a traition practiced in some parts of England to this day. It resembles in many ways the Hoddening done at Yule tide in Kent, and may be one and the same thing performed at different tides. For more ifnormation read the article on Hoddening under Yule Tratitions.

May Carols
Song played an important role in the festivals of the medieval Germanic peoples, and therefore we can only assume it did with the anceint Heathens as well. Like Yule, BŠltan seems to have been a time of songs and singing.

In areas where there were not permanent Maypoles, one would be erected on the morning of BŠltan. The poles were always made from straight sturdy tress, usually close to 9 feet tall, tho later permamnent ones go up to over 100 feet. The Maypole is in many ways similar to the Irminsul of the Saxons and one has to wonder if the Old Saoxns danced about it come May Day monring.

Maypole Dance
There were a wide variety of Maypole dances some involving ribbons, others not. The earliest sources seem to indicate the dances were done without ribbons. A very good article by Alissa Sorenson provides information on Maypole dances as well as other traditional dances.

May Queen
In nearly all areas where Heathendom once thrived, a May Queen was selected from amongst the maidens of the village.

Morris Dancing
In some parts of England, WŠlburges was the time when Morris Dancing took place.


The showcase of Midsummer was its bonfires. Presumably these were lit in the method known as "Need Fire" using only a fire drill or fire bow (never flint and steel). Need Fires were used in times of need to drive petilance away from cattle, and this was done at Midsummer as well. On the Eve of Midsummer, folks would gather and build bonfires, drive cattle through the smoke and then conduct a "watch," that is they tried to stay up all night. Lovers would leap through the fires, presumably to encourage the crops to grow. Others woud leap through them for good luck or health. Flowers were thrown into the fires and folks danced and made merry about them. Midsummer Eve was also a time of courtshp. Young couples that had met at Walburga woud continue their courtship, or get married.

Also on Midsummer Eve folks would gather flowers to decorate the homes the next morning. Many medicinal herbs were also gathered. Among the favourites were St. John's Wort, Vervain, Mugwort, Feverfew, Rue, and "Fern Seed." Worts harvested on Midsummer were thought very powerful, and not a few had special properties. Roses picked on Midsummer Eve were thought to last until Yule, and Mugwort placed in a grain bin on midsummer was thought to keep mice away. Yarrow hung up at Midsummer was thought to keep all healthy for the year. Other herbs were used in love divination. Supposedly if a young maid scattered fern seed on th ground before her, and then looked back over her shoulder on Midsummer Eve, she would see her future husband. There were many other formsinvolving Orpine and Thistle as well.

The next day, all the wells were cleaned and decorated witht he flowers gathered the night before. In addition to the flowers, Rowan and Birch were favoured for decorating for their beautiful branches. Wreathes made of Nine worts or woods were said to be esp. powerful. Some of the worts used were Wolvesbane*, the English Daisy, Mistletoe, Mugwort, Oak leves, Rowan, Birch, Orpine, Thistle, and Yarrow. There were many others no doubt, now forgotten, or remembered only in local customs. All of the homes and wells were decorated and birch branhes laid around the flax fields. Wells were thought particularly holy at this time and water drawn from them said to heal all sorts of ailments.

As stated above the bonfires were probably lit using a fire bow or fire drill, and more than likely consisted of nine woods. Processions would form to go to the place of the fire with everyone carrying a torch, ever house would be lit as well. Once at the fire and it was started, folks would dance and sing about it, leap thru it, and throw flowers into it. Many would stay up all night and in England this was called the "watch." To stay awake all night was thought to give one good luck and health.

Burning Wheels
Another Midsummer Night activity was to send burning wheels and barrels down hillsides.

Processions and Warding
Many would wonder from bonfire to bonfire bedecked in garlands and accompanied by morris dancers or a hobby horse procession carrying torches. Other folks would circle their homes and buildings to ward them for the coming year.


Hlafmaest is a modern holiday based on the Christian holiday of Lamass or "loaf mass." Hlafmaest is an Anglo-Saxon reconstruction by Garman Cyning of Theodish Belief. It means "loaf feast." Modern Asatru sometimes calls it Freyfaxi, but there is no evidence it was sacred to Frey or of an ancient holiday with that name either. Nonetheless, in Scandanavia, Germany, and England a festival took place near or on the first of August. In the Anglo-Saxon calendar one of the names for this month was Thunormonath "Thunder or Thor month." It could well be that this festival to celebrate the start of the harvest was sacred to Thunor. In Iceland, it took place near the time of Thingstide. Thunor (Thor) is one of the gods of Thing.

HlŠfmŠst or Lamass was the first harvest of the year, when the wheat and first apples were gathered. As such it has much in common with Harvest Home, and many of the rites are analogous. The last load would have be en brought in with a harvest doll proceeding it, and then would have come the threshing. Many rites must have accompanied the threshing because it would have to be a community project. Possibly there were threshing songs that were sung as the work got d one. The first loaves of bread would have then been baked and blessed. No doubt some of these were offered to the gods. The common lands of the village were opened for winter pasturage at this time and remained open until Feb. 2. Bondsman generally paid their rent at this time as well. Even though our society is no longer an agricultural one, no one could deny we must still eat. Therefore, it is fitting that perhaps we go to the store, and buy some flour, and make bread the "old fashioned" way to give to the gods.


Often called Harvest Home in England, this holy tide falls on the fall equinox. Harvest falls in the middle of harvest in some areas, for others it is the end. For this reason, it and Winter Nights share some customs like the Last Sheaf. Harvest home also shared many customs with Lammass. Again a procession with the last sheaf as the harvest doll took place. Other Harvest customs are unique to it alone such as its version of the Mummer's Play called "RiseUp, Jock." It has much in common with the Yule mummer's plays in that a young king dies and is brought back by a healer with a bag of tricks much like Saint George. In England songs like Harvest Home were sung when the last load came in, as songs similar to John Barleycorn would have been sung while harvesting. It was at this time beer was started brewing, while the barley was still fresh, and a symbel probably would have been in order. In parts of Germany, a goat was slaughtered and roasted at this time, and meant to symbolize the "oats goat."

In modern Germany, Erntefest is their Thanksgiving taking place on the first Sunday in October. Several customs survived. One very strange one in Cottbus, Germany involved building an oak leaves gate, on the gate was hung a dead cock. Mean would then race for the gate and try to tear a wing off the cock. The one that got a wing and made in thru the gate was the Kral.

Falling near Erntefest is Michaelmas which takes place on Sept. 29th. Ironically this date was also cited by Grimm as Zisa's Day, a day sacred to Tiw's (Tyr's) wife. It is therefore reasonable to think may of Michaelmas's customs were originally Heathen in origin. Such customs are giving water to wolves, letting cattle into the wood was no longer allowed until the end of winter (as the wood belongs to the wolf after Michaelmas), and that the winter fodder for the cattle must be collected by then.


Winter Nights was the Icelandic name for this festival, Winter Fylleth was the name of the Anglo-Saxon month it fell in. Many modern Heathen combine it with the modern Halloween, and refer to it as All Hallows. The date of Winter Nights is uncertain. It would seem that it fell around October 15th. From the name of the Anglo-Saxon month, it could have fell on the first full moon after the autumn equinox. Two very important blots are thought to have taken place at this time. The disablot and the alfarblot are both mentioned in Icelandic sagas and thought by many to be a part of Winter Nights. This would make the festival one dedicated to the ancestors, and explain how Anglo-Saxon areas quickly adopted the Celtic festival of the dead, Samhain, in the guise of "All Hallows Eve." It is also sacred to Frea (Frey). In Gisla Saga, it is stated Thorgrim conducted a Frey's blot at Winter Nights in thanks for the harvest. Winter Nights would seem to be the most important of Icelandic festivals, maybe even more so than Yule.

In other Germanic areas neither Winter Nights or Winter Fylleth are mentioned. However, this may be because the holiday was moved by the Church. St. Martin's Day (November 11) is widely celebrated in Germany, and may have been the continental German version of Winter Nights. Also falling at this time is Bonfire Night in England. Altho this holiday is said not to date before the Guy Fawks plot to blow up the English government in the 17th century, it seems to be much older. Like Bonfire Night in England, St. Martin's Day involved the building and burning of bonfires. Much like Halloween, children in Germany would go from house to house on St. Martin's, reciting verses, and being rewarded with sweets. The Netherlands also burns bonfires on St. Martin's Day, with processions of lights going to the bonfires. Both in Germany and Scandanavia, geese are killed and eaten, their feathers saved for pillows and other uses. Winter Nights was also when the fall slaughter began. The month immediately following Winterfylleth in the Anglo-Saxon calendar was called Blotmonath for perhaps that reason.

The Last Sheaf

As the festival closing harvest, Winter Nights has many customs connected to the last sheaf. In areas as varied as Sweden and Germany, the last sheaf was left for Woden's horse. There are many ties to the last sheaf being given to Woden and the Wild Hunt as well. The general thought being that the Wild Hunt began to ride at this time and stopped riding at the end of Yule. In some areas, it was made into a corn dolly, and paraded through the village.

Apple Bobbing
Bobbing for apples also seemed to have been practiced on the various holidays that was made up Winter Nights. In England a sixpence was often also put in the tub with the apples. Of course, the person that got the sixpence got to keep it. Apples were used in other ways, often being set out with the last sheaf for the Hunt. And of course cider is the drink of preference.

Feasts of the Dead
Both the Celtic holiday Samhain and Winter Nights were festivals to the dead. Therefore the fact they merged to become the modern holiday Halloween should not be alarming. As Heathens, such Celtic practices as Jack o Lanterns fit well with Germanic customs such as bonfires and trick or treating. Primary tho, should be an effort to honour the Idesa (Disir) and Ylfe (Alfar) with blots and feasts. This can be conducted as any blot to the gods would, perhaps fallowed by a feast, and then a minne drinking (a special symbel in memory of the Dead).