Calendar and Festivals

The ancient Teutons had no religious calendar, any more than they had an organized priesthood or a fixed ritual. They did, however, have certain stated time for coming together and for sacrificing. In the later calendars, both the runic calendars still found here and there among the peasants, and in the popular and ecclesiastical calendars, we find observations and rules of the most diverse origin. Of these, Teutonic paganism has furnished by far the smaller share, later popular customs and rules derived from the Roman and Christian calendar predominating. For all that, it is worth the while to consider what may be gathered from the division of time concerning pagan ideas and customs.

First of all, it is to be noted that in the names of the days of the week the heathen gods lived on with such persistency that no opposition on the part of the church was able to dislodge them. In vain did Jonas Ogmundi ( Jon Ogmundsson ), bishop of Holum in Iceland, attempt to replace them by numerals. These names themselves are, however, of comparatively recent origin, having been translated from Latin in the fourth or fifth century. This is clearly shown by the correspondence between the Roman and Teutonic gods for each day of the week, a correspondence which cannot be accidental. Hence, also, the Teutonic Sunday and Monday can in no way be adduced in support of Caesar's account of the worship of So and Lunar by the Teutons. For the dies Saturn no corresponding Teutonic divinity suggested itself. In Norse the day is called bath-day or wash-day (Löverdag).

Old and genuinely Teutonic is the counting, not by days and summers, but by nights and winters. We cannot, to be sure, infer from this with any degree of certainty that they regarded darkness and cold as "the germinating period of warmth and light." The year seems to have been originally divided into two parts, as is indicated by various legal observances and phrases: "im rise und im lôve," "im rûwen und im blôten," "bî strô und bî grase"" (weistumer). by taking into account the solstices and equinoxes this division is then extended to four seasons. of old the winter marked the beginning of the year; october is called winterfylleth (winter full moon) in bede. of the ceremonies observed at the beginning of the year there are still some survivals in the customs connected with michaelmas. we also class under this head that feast lasting three days in which the saxons celebrated their victories. in any case far more evidence can be adduced in support of an original division into two than into three seasons, notwithstanding the fact that tacitus mentions hiems, ver, and aestas.

A large number of names were in use to indicate the months; the glossary in Weinhold's book enumerates more than two hundred. Ever since the time of Charles the Great the church attempted to replace these indigenous names by Latin ones, at first without success. In the case of some of these names the meaning is doubtful, others are perspicuous, referring to time and weather, pastoral and agricultural pursuits. Only a few have religious significance; among these are certainly not to be classed the names of those spring months from which Bede deduced the goddesses Hreda and Eostre (Ostara). Folklore at time attributes a mythological significance to these names where we do not recognize any such survival of Teutonic paganism. Thus February is called Sporke (Spurkele) and Wîwermond, the month in which the women rule, make the weather, and strew out the snow. Cult is indicated by such names as Hâlegmônad (September), the month of the great harvest festival that brought the year to a close. Charles the Great transferred the name to December, the month that was hallowed by the birth of the Saviour. Blôtmonad points to heathen sacrifices, Bryllepsmûn to the bridal processions in November.

The connection of individual gods with set periods of the year is extremely uncertain; assigning definite months to them in entirely arbitrary. What has direct reference to cult is, of course, better established, although the data are meagre. The Tamfana festival of the Marsi, during which Germanicus in a star-lit night surprised the drunken multitude, seems to have fallen in the beginning of winter, that of Nerthus in spring.

Set times are indicated also by the "ungebotene gerichte," continuing down to the Middle Ages, which point now to a division into three, and again into two, seasons. We read sometimes of three yearly gatherings, —held on different dates in different localities,—at other times of four, and then again of two ( the May thing, on Walpurgis, the first of May, and the autumn thing, at Martinmas), or even of one, as in the case of the Merovingians, who held a campus Martius, and the Carlovingians, who had a campus Majus. The Icelandic all-thing came in June. distinct from these stated times are the expressly convoked "gebotene gerichte."

The Ynglinga Saga, Chapter 8, as also the later Olafshelga Saga, Chapters 104 and 112, mentions three annual sacrifices: towards winter offerings were made for a prosperous year (til árs), in the middle of the winter for fertility (til gródhrar), and towards summer for victory (til sigrs). We do not, however, regard these three divisions as representing three seasons, as many scholars have done, for these three sacrifices all take place during the winter, at the beginning, the middle, and the end. The first probably came in the early part of October, and the last in April. That the second one coincided with the Yule festival is hardly likely. No mention is made of special gods to whom these sacrifices were made.

The great festival in Scandinavia was the Yule festival. We do not regard is as ancient, or as common to all Teutonic tribes. Such traces as are found of it in the folklore of the other Teutonic peoples are of Roman and Christian origin. It is probable that the festival is of a relatively recent date, of about the ninth century perhaps, and that the characteristics of the festival of the dead have been transferred to it. In the last century of heathenism, whose history we know with some detail, it was held in high esteem by the Scandinavians. At first it was perhaps celebrated in October of February, while later on it was merged with the Christian festival of the nativity.

From the very beginning the time (seasons) of the year in which the Teutonic festivals were held was intimately associated with the character of the festival itself. At first they were concerned with the administration of justice and pursuit of war; under the Frankish kings the campi still bear in large measure the character of military reviews. Gradually and, so far as folklore is concerned, entirely, justice and war yield to the tillage of the soil and the breeding of cattle. Their original nature, that of a popular gathering and of peaceful converse, such as we find it in the festival of the Nerthus nations, was still retained in the last period of paganism in Iceland, where the autumnal assemblies were characterized by all manner of festivities and games, such as ball-play, for which "play-halls" were erected, as we are told in the Eyrbyggja Saga, Chapter 43.

In the North we also read of great festivals, recurring at intervals of nine years. Thietmar of Merseburg (eleventh century) gives the following account of such a festival among the Danes: "there is in those regions a place by the name of lederun, the capital of that kingdom, in the district which is called selon, where every ninth year, in the month of january, after the time when we celebrate epiphany, all the people assembled and sacrificed to their gods ninety-nine men and the same number of horses, together with dogs and cocks,—the latter in default of hawks,—feeling assured that these would render them services with the gods of the lower world, and appease the god for the crimes which they had committed." The reasons which Thietmar assigns for this great sacrifice at Leire (Lethra) in Seeland cannot be considered satisfactory: prisoners of war—if we may consider these victims such—and animals of the chase (hawks) are unheard of as a expiatory sacrifice. Concerning the festival at Upsala Adam of Bremen tells us that no one was exempted from the ceremonies, king and people alike sent their gifts. Even those who had already become Christians had to provide a ransom. As to the sacrifice itself: "from every living thing that is male, nine heads are offered, with the blood of which it is customary to appease the gods. the bodies are hung up in the grove which adjoins the temple." Each tree of this grove is considered sacred "on account of the death and the putrefaction of the victims." Dogs and horses hung there in the midst of human bodies; a Christian had counted seventy-two bodies altogether. At this sacrifice are sung "divers unseemly songs." From this account, which is not altogether free from embellishment, it would appear that the victims were hung up on the trees, as in the days of Tacitus. The victims were male persons and animals, including, as at Leire, dogs and horses. These later accounts of sacrificial ceremonies are not lacking, therefore, in genuine old Teutonic features.

"The religion of the teutons," by P. D. Chantepie De La Saussaye, trans. by Bert J. Vos, page 379-384.