December 21, 2020 — The winter solstice is upon us, and in this year of 2020, it occurred today — on the 21st of December at 11:02 CET.
In ancient times, the day of the Winter Solstice kicked off the 12-day long Yuletide festivities of Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Gothic, Slavic, and the rest of tribal Europe.
The English term Yuletide is more commonly known as jól or jul in the Old Norse literature and Scandinavia. Jól signifies the end of the old and the beginning of the new, which is why it was the most important of all rituals and festivities in Fennoscandia in ages past. In lieu of the current situation, tradition, family, and heritage have never been more important. Hence, we chose to celebrate today’s cosmic event by releasing an audio animatic of the 5th song from our new album Verjaseiðr. The track is called “Hreinnhǫfði” — which is a little known kenning for Óðinn. Watch and listen to it on Youtube.
The earliest known written reference to jól mentions the phrase “to drink jól” which indicates that feasting was an integral part of the celebration. The Old Norse literature also tells of the jólablót, indirectly suggesting that a “Yule Sacrifice” took place where animals might have been sacrificed — although to be eaten — alongside other food and beverages.
The English word Yule is derived from Old Norse jól which is cognate of “hjul”, which translates to wheel in modern Swedish and Norwegian. The term jól is likely also related to the Norse goddess Hel, by many considered the most ancient of the Norse deities (in the Icelandic sagas, jól marks the return of the Norse god Baldr from the realm of Hel.)
Also in Old Norse, the words “jól”, “hvél”, and “hjól” are etymologically related to the English word “wheel” and the Swedish “hjul” — which means wheel, but is pronounced “jól” or “jul”. At some point in the distant past, jól and Hel likely represented the sun — seen as a burning wheel rolling across the sky. Interestingly, the word for sun in ancient Greek is Hellas, again showing a possible connection the Norse goddess. Interestingly, neither Hel, jól, or wheel seems to be words of Indo-European nor Greek origin, since the word for wheel in those languages are *kʷékʷlos and kúklos respectively. This indicate jól and Hel may have been words indigenous to an extinct Fennoscandian language.
On the night of the Winter Solstice, the Vanir god Freyr bursts across the dark earth of Scandinavia and Finland as he rides his wild companion Gullinbursti, the bristling boar of Norse tradition which also bears the name Slíðrugtanni. According the Norse tradition, the rushing boar ride is a habit Freyr repeats every year, just as the Yuletide celebration begins. Freyr is a more ancient Vanir god, and his ride is said to bring about hope and refreshed courage to help mortals cope with the long dark winter nights. His timing is always good, since the death and rebirth of the sun is what was symbolically celebrated at the Winter Solstice.
Óðinn is a man of many names, and two of those are related to the Yuletide: Jólnir and Jólfaðr, the latter meaning “Father Yule”. On the eve of the Winter Solstice, Óðinn rides the sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir with incredible enthusiasm, not unlike Freyr. Óðinn is accompanied by his valkyrjur, other Æsir, and a group of slain warriors from Valhǫll who are both dreadful and restless. The Wild Hunt is frequently referred to as “Oskoreia” — especially in Norway, although the correct etymology in Old Norse is “Ásgarðr-reid” which translates to “Ride of the Ásgardians”. The Oskoreia is a European folk myth found in many cultures on the European continent. An event described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in 793, suggests the Wild Hunt was important to Danish Vikings.
Even though Óðinn and his Wild Hunt entourage is dangerous, the children of ancient Scandinavia would leave their boots out by the hearth on the eve of the Winter Solstice, filled with straw and sugar for Óðinn’s horse Sleipnir. In return, Óðinn would leave them a gift for feeding his horse so he could continue the hunt with renewed enthusiasm.
In the past five hundred years or so, the Wild Hunt has gone through a noteworthy cultural change. Óðinn’s horse Sleipnir has become a reindeer, while Óðinn himself has evolved into various Santa Claus incarnations integrated with Christmas. There is some irony to Óðinn’s cultural evolution in the sense that during the early Bronze Age, reindeer and elk were considered the most sacred spirit animals of Cimmerian and Scythian shamans who lived on the Eurasian steppes. Deer were seen as primary vehicles for shamans traveling the spirit world, which is why authentic shamanistic garb often include head-gear with antlers. Modern historians have made several convincing cases that indicate some of the ancient societies of the Eurasian steppe not only influenced the Norse tradition of Óðinn, but also his shamanic abilities — including his bearded look and cloaked outfit.
Of course, modern know-it-all historians frown at the clear-cut, heathen roots of Santa Claus. To them, Santa Claus was instead derived from the figure of Nikolaos of Myra, who was not only a Christian saint of Greek origin, but also the Bishop of Myra i the Eastern Roman Empire in present-day Turkey. St. Nicholas was known for numerous deeds, many considered miraculous, but we can ensure you that Nikolaos had nothing in common with the beliefs and folklore of ancient Fennoscandia, let alone the shamanic warrior cultures of the Eurasian steppe.
As with many heathen traditions, Christian missionaries began appropriating the Winter Solstice celebrations at the end of the Viking Age. Hence, the 12 nights of Jól became to the “12 days of Christmas” in an effort to undermine and replace heathen beliefs. From a Christian perspective, this was an absolutely necessary strategy, since the people of ancient Scandinavia showed no signs of accepting Christian doctrine nor customs. Hence, the Church and its priests — themselves often converts from the upper echelons of Viking Age society — devoted themselves to slowly lure the populace into the new religion. Eventually, every Norse tradition was reinvented and assimilated into Christianity, except for the Midsummer celebration which still lives on in Sweden where it remains the year’s largest festivity alongside New Year’s eve.
Although Freyr’s wild boar ride and Óðinn’s Oskoreia signify the Winter Solstice, it should be noted the first night of Yule was called Mōdraniht in Anglo-Saxon, meaning “Mothernight” and points to the Jól-traditions being somewhat gender-divided. As indicated above, the Winter Solstice (and thus also the Mōdraniht) represent the world’s rebirth from the darkness of winter. It is during the Mōdraniht night the Norse goddess Freyja performs rituals to communicate with female ancestral spirits known as dísir. The dísir are otherworldy beings associated with fate and destiny and seem to also include the three Norns — who can be either good or bad to humans, according to the sagas. The day of Mōdraniht is the shortest of the year, and consequently, the eve of Mōdraniht is the longest night of the year.