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Olden Practices for Ancestor Season

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Feeding the ancestors and elves as the dark half of the year begins.

Skogskyrkogården at All Saints Day, Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0

Beginning of the Dark Half of the Year


In the Germanic and Celtic calendars the year is divided into two parts—the Dark Half and the Bright Half, Skammdegi or dark days and Nottleysa nightless, Vetr—winter—and Sumr—summer.


The quarter days of Samhain/Vetrnaetr and Beltaine/Walpurgisnacht mark this sacred turning and are seen as particularly potent times for divination, saining/reocan (cleansing and protecting with smoke or silvered water), ancestor veneration and feasting.


I try not to get too caught up in specificity around the holy days. Every day is sacred, and there is a lot of synergy between the traditions of my ancestral lineages.


Celtic Wheel of the Year by Lara Vesta

Ancestors


Ancestor veneration is a cultural universal, and the quarter days were all times of occult influence and spiritual work. The Samhain season was particularly important for feasting the ancestors, and in the Norse/Germanic tradition there were two ancestral feasts during Winter Nights.


“Not only among the Celts but throughout Europe, Hallow’een, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter, seems to have been of old the time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and comfort themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or parlor by their affectionate kinsfolk (585).” (4)

Slavic Wheel of the Year by Lara Vesta

Winter Nights—Vetrnatr/vetrnætr


The calendars of my Germanic ancestors were lunisolar, with each month following the lunar.


In Old Saxon Uuintar-manoð (Winter Moon) was the October moon. “There is a celebration and blod on the Full Moon of Uuintar-manoð, seen as the beginning of winter, one of the two Heathen seasons of the year. Three full moons later would be Yule, or Mid-Winter. Winter Full Moon began the Saxon Year. Winter Full Moon blod would last three nights and three days.


Blod-manoð (Blood Moon). November-ish, pending the lunar calendar. Blood rituals during this moon: Slaughtering of the animals for winter meat and skins for winter clothing. (Swedish: Alfablot—see below)”(1)


In the Old Norse, lunar September-October was Haustmánaðr (from Haust, harvest or autumn and Mana∂r, month) and Winter Nights fell on the full moon of Haustmánaðr. (1)


Winter Nights mark the beginning of the Winter season in the Norse/Germanic tradition. Generally running for three days and nights over the quarter day of Samhain, it is a time of sacrificial offerings, feasting and honoring the ancestors. At this time all of the harvest should be brought in from the fields (with the exception of the Last Sheaf) as the land belongs to the spirits during the dark months.


Dísablót


The Feast of the Dísir, the female ancestral guardian spirits, was possibly celebrated in the spring, or most likely at Winter Nights, or—as my gnosis says—likely both. The written sources attest to a woman presiding over this ceremony, and to it being held at night. It was also public, a community celebration.


Álfablót


The Álfar or Elves are the male ancestors of a lineage, an interesting etymological connection in the Norse/Germanic cosmology that parallels the assertions of Emma Wilby and Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz that the faeries were actually ancestors in the ancient cosmologies. The feast honoring the Alfar took place at Winter Nights, but unlike the Dísablót, the written records show a need for privacy at the feast. It was for the family only, where no strangers were allowed.


Álfablót at boulder. The picture is taken at an álfablót held...at Getsjön (i.e. Goat Lake)...Sweden. Álfablót is a Norse ceremony honoring the dead, ancestors, and elves, and it's corresponding to the Celtic Samhain. The boulder has a tradition of being thrown by a giant. It has the number The altar consists of three cult images of the three Norns (Urð, Verðandi, and Skuld, the Norse goddesses of Fate) and three lighted cressets on the ground. These are placed in front of the boulder. The boulder is used as a "blóting stone" during the ceremony, and is thus receiving libations. In the background to the right is a lighted torch. In the foreground we can see a strange pattern in the bedrock of the place. Photo and text by Gunnar Creutz on Wikimedia Commons

Dziady


Feast of the ancestors, forefathers and spirits in Slavic culture. Welcoming the dead home for a meal, lighting their way with candles and fires. In modern times this looks like bringing food and candles to the graves of loved ones.


The folklore around Dziady--including traditional foods, prohibitions and rituals for sweeping the remnant spirits out of the home after the feast--is spectacular. I recommend this post by Lamus Dworski for further reading.

Dziady depiction of ancestor visitation, 1904, Wikimedia Commons

Sacrifice Month/ Blōtmōnaþ


Offering and sacrifice are attested to in numerous sources. The Anglo Saxon word for lunar October-November is blōtmōnaþ, a time of honoring and appeasing the gods, land wights, house spirits, Dísir and Alfar in preparation for winter. The Old Norse word for the month was Gormánuðr from gor, “the cud in animals (3)” revealed during slaughter. It was considered the first month of winter.


In the Ynglinga saga Snorri Sturlson writes about the proscribed sacrifices in the annual round:


“Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs, en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót.”


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. (2)


The word Blót means “sacrifice, sacrificial feast,” blóta means “to worship” and “to worship with sacrifice” (3)


This concept of spiritual propitiation--providing a sacrifice and feasting the spirits--is found across all of my lineages.

Veļu mielasts: Feast to the souls of the ancestors at a threshing barn in the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ve%C4%BCu_mielasts.jpg

Reocan--Anglo Saxon Tradition for Blessing and Cleansing With Smoke


I like to use smoke in my clearing and protecting work at the turning times. This fumagatory cleansing is called recaning, from the Old Anglo Saxon reocan, root of the word reek, to smell. It was also called other things by my European ancestors, is featured as a healing device in an Old English charm, number 17, against Ælfadle, Elf Sickness:


"Take bishop's wort, fennel, lupine, the lower part of enchanter's nightshade and lichen...then put live coals in a chafing dish and lay the herbs on them. Smoke the man with these herbs before the third hour of the day and at night.”


Saining--Celtic Tradition for Blessing and Cleansing With Smoke or Water


To protect against malevolence and guard the house and family in the quarter ahead, the house, land, byre and cattle were all sained with smoke, either from two bonfires, a coal walked sunrise about three times, or the application of silvered water (water drawn from a well or stream before dawn and added to it a silver coin). Smoke blessing and protecting was often done with juniper. Juniper must be pulled from the roots, its branches made into four bundles and taken between five fingers.

All Saints Day, 1984, Oswiecim, Poland byJohn Thaxter

Feeling into the living animate world of spirit has always fed my joy and curiosity in the turning of the year. But exploring my ancestral traditions and finding unity between them has helped me craft olden practices that root me into meaning and purpose.


The writer Grace Paley (about whom I have a marvelous ghost story--for another day) said, "The real question is, how are we to live our lives?"


Applied to this time of year, I love deepening into memories, feasting of my beloved dead, ancestral food and drink traditions (like soul cakes and mead), determining what sacrifices I can make to honor the memory of those who came before, and being of service to my community.


In spite of modern technology, we live in many ways so close to our ancestors. We drink their water, breathe their air, eat of their earth and engage in many of their activities (caregiving, cooking, cleaning). There is much of our lives they would not recognize, it is true, but I am enjoying living closer to them. Celebrating their festivals, investigating their traditions and lore, learning their languages and songs, and cooking a meal for them on these sacred days, all bring me closer to them, to the continuity of life and the ever presence of death.


How will you celebrate this season?

How will you live your life?

What traditions do you love?

Where would you like to honor your ancestors?

Where would you like to make change?


Sending love to your creations.

By this and every effort may the balance be regained.


ᚨᛚᚢ


 

Seasonal Opportunities




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