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  • Jennifer Hartman

Ancient Norse Calendars & Celebrations



In ancient times, our ancestors had nothing but the stars, moon, sun and seasonal occurrences. Each full moon would be considered the start of a new month. This article summarizes the Heathen calendar for an easy to reference chart, and below it is a simple list describing each moon/month. Tip: To understand the heathen calendar you must first throw away every notion you have of what a calendar is, including the Wheel of the Year model. Take a moment to visualize life in an isolated cabin, away from city lights, technology and watches. To tell time, all you have is the vibrant night sky and its twinkling stars and the moon. Really picture what life would be like without the modern concept of time, days, months or years. This will help you grasp the following concept a bit easier.

Months (Moons)

Months were based on the timing of the full moon. Each full moon was counted and would have been observed as the first of that month (aka moon). It is not possible to assign each moon to a specific month of the modern calendar because they change weeks every year. It also wouldn't be the same for every country or tribe. The chart below is the earliest calendar compiled and documented by Snorri Sturluson, the first historian to write down the oral traditions of the ancient Heathens (Find the bonus glossary of months at the end of this blog):


How do we know anything about celebrations, months and seasons?

Anyone can cite a historian or researcher who is doing their best to explain theories and connections made from medieval manuscripts, but if you are like me, that doesn't suffice. I thought, "We must have discovered something that references the observed dates of Heathen ancestors, right? We can't be basing everything off lore..." and I was right. Enter the archaeological finds of a Viking Age runic calendars: These calendars were engraved in the Old Norse language in writing or symbols known as Younger Fathurk runes. The runes were written on parchment or carved onto bone, horns, rocks or wood. The symbols represent solstices, equinoxes, festivals, and holidays. Birthdays did not exist. Instead a person's age was calculated by how many winters they lived. There are over 650 known 'calendars'. In Norway and Denmark they are called a primstav, and in Sweden it is called a runstav.


The oldest known stav was found in Nyköping, Sweden and has been dated back to the 13th century; however, a primstav was mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon chronicle for the year 876, which is believed to have arrived there with Danish Vikings during their settlement of England. (source)


Photo: Ingvar Bohm / Nordic Museum, Stockholm

Primstav from Setesdal, Norway, 1781.


This primstav model was used in Norway up until the 17th century until the first book was printed there. This book was called 'Christiana'. Following this the Julian Calendar was replaced with the Gregorian Calendar and the stavs became archaic; although, some remote areas of Norway still used the stav model until the 1800s (19th century) (source). Another famous runic calendar includes Worm’s Norwegian runic calendar from 1643 which was carved into bone. He described the winter months in his book 'Fasti Danici', but neglected to document the summer side. (source: to translate download an OCR-reader)

Photo: Worm's Norwegian runic calendar Source: 1643 Fasti Danici

Seasons

The primstav and runstav have a winter side and a summer side. I have not found any attestation of spring and fall. The summer side would start on the full moon on or around April 14, and the winter side would start on or around October 15. That said, one of the foremost experts of Ancient Norse Celebrations and Rites, Dr. Andreas Nordberg's shows evidence of pre-Christian observations that separate the year into quarters. If you're not Swedish, you can translate his study into English through a Google Translation tool.

Celebrations


As mentioned above, the runic symbols represent solstices, equinoxes, festivals, and holidays; but they were used up until the 1900s which meant information was updated along the way. To determine what was historically observed, people turn to attestations in the Eddas and sagas or historical manuscripts written by historians or travellers of the time. From these sources we can determine sumbel occurred during these celebrations. A sumbel is ritualistic drinking and feasting. Sometimes a sumbel happens during a blót; and a blót is a ritualistic sacrifice.


Important dates based on archaeological findings and/or historical manuscripts (source):

  1. Hökunótt: 28 days or 4 full weeks after the winter solstice;

  2. Somarmál: 28 days after the spring equinox;

  3. Midsommar: 28 days after the summer solstice; and,

  4. Vetrnætr: 28 days after the autumn equinox.

  5. Alfablot: Some time after Vetrnætr

Hökunótt (Midwinter Day) - This is considered to be 'Viking Yule' or Julblót. It takes place in the middle of Heathen winter months - The first full moon after the new moon of the solstice (Around mid-January). Somarmál (Summer) - This is also known as Sigurblót or Victory-Blót. It occurs on Summer Day during the full moon of Goa Moon (around mid-April). Midsommar (Mid-Summer) - A (possibly) newer festival celebration different than other celebrations on this list. Midsommar is generally considered to be a frivolous and fun community gathering where singing, dancing, flirting and mockery would be observed. It was not given a name or a date until the 1700s; although variations had been celebrated for longer.

Vetrnætr (Winter Nights) - On the first day of winter on the full moon of Haustmanuthr (Around mid-October)

Alfablót - This is not attested on any archaeological finds, but it is attested in a poem and a couple scriptures. Alfablót is thought to be a private Swedish tradition held after Winter Nights to honour ancestors.

Laws

Another great source of information lays in the law books of the Kings of Norway, Sweden, Denmark. These kings came into power using Christianity for power. To have power over the people, they needed people to accept them as their king, and convert people to their religion. One of the last areas to convert was the people under the King of Norway-and-Sweden. The majority of these people were Heathens. Many of their customs were so firmly rooted in society that laws banning specific celebrations would fail. Instead kings got wise (sometimes) and began merging Heathen customs with Christian celebrations, making compromises in some areas and outright banning non-civilized practices in return - such is the case for Yule and Midsommarfest.

My research into ancient Norse calendars is far from over. Throughout several sources I read to get this far, I have also learned that each tribe, city and country would have their own version of celebrations and traditions at different times. As far as I have been able to piece together, the above findings are as broad as I can manage at the present time. If you have a calendar you follow, please add the link to the comment section below with the country and era of origin. Sincerely, Jennifer Hartman Pagan Kids pagankids.org

Bonus: Glossary of Months (aka Moons):

The Heathen calendar is split into two sections/seasons: Winter months and summer months. Instead of being January, February, March, etc. these were there names and what they represented:

Haustmanudur: Harvest Moon On the full moon in or around October, the crops would need to be harvested to prepare for the cold and harsh winter months. *A major Heathen celebration (aka blot) called 'Winternights' or 'Vetraenatr' would be held at this time to thank the gods for the bounty and hope for their favour during the coming darkness. Gormanudur: Slaughter Moon The next full moon after the harvest moon symbolized the 'Slaughter Moon'. Animals that were not expected to survive the winters would be slaughtered and turned into preserves to feed the family during the winter months. (November-ish) Jolmanudur: Yule Month The full moon following 'Slaughter-Moon, was the new Yule Moon. The new moon around this time symbolizes the longest and coldest time of the year, and also the start of the countdown to the next full moon in which Yule blot will be held (December-ish). Jolmanudur: Yule Moon The full moon after the new moon (of the winter solstice) is Yule. This marks the coming of light, and it happens in or around January. *A major Heathen celebration (aka blot) called Yule would be held at this time for three days and nights or until the festivities food and drinks ran out.

Sanmanudur: Sun Moon The next full moon following the Yule moon is called Sun moon; presumably because the days start to last longer in or around February. DistingTungel: Fat Sucking Moon The full moon after Sun month means it is DistingTungel month. This would occur around March. We don't know why it's called 'Fat Sucking' moon, but we can assume food was getting scarce and people began losing a lot of their fat due to hunger.

Góa: Góa Moon: The full moon after DstingTungel is Goa moon, which occurs in or around April.

Einmánuður: One Moon Following Góa Month, the next full moon is One Moon which happens in or around May. Harpa: Harpa's Moon The full moon after the full moon of Goa month is called Harpa's moon. This falls in or around the month of June. Skerpla: Skerpla's Moon (July-ish) The next full moon is called Skerpla's Moon. This full moon occurs in or around July. Heyannir: Hay Moon (August-ish) Hay Moon is the full moon occurring in or around August. We can assume it marked the beginning of harvest season when it was time for the farmers to prepare the hay. Tvimanuur: Second Moon (September-ish) The full moon after Hay month is Tvimanuur. This occurs in or around September. After Tvimanuur, we cycle back to the first moon of this list: Haustmanudur.

SOURCES:


Sumbel: Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar Celebrations:

Archaeological/Historical Celebrations:

Runic Calendars

Auknætr

  • Kirsten Hastrup, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 27.

Midsommer:

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