“Hail to the day! Hail to the sons of day!
Hail to night and her kin!
With gracious eyes may you look upon us two,
And give victory to those sitting here!
Hail to the Aesir! Hail to the Goddesses!
Hail to the mighty, fecund Earth!
May you give eloquence and native wit to this glorious pair
And healing hands while we live!”
“The Lay of Sigrdrifa,” The Poetic Edda, Larrington 1996
This past Saturday was Modranacht, the first night of Yol and the longest night of the year. Modranacht, which translates to Mother’s Night, is dedicated to honoring the female ancestral dead. Yol, the root word for modern English, “wheel,” is the old Norse celebration that spanned several days and nights. This time was spent honoring the ancestors, Gods and Goddesses and land spirits or Landvaettir, swearing and upholding oaths, and building friendship and goodwill during the deepest period of winter. The words, meals and gifts exchanged during this time helped strengthen bonds and social debts to protect and maintain the community.
Yol is a complex time, a fact I am sure many can appreciate about the holiday season regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof. Relationships are tried and hopefully strengthened. Money is counted and poured into gifting and hosting. One becomes more aware of their limitations, the quickly-passing time they have with others, the great energy deep friendships take. This is complicated by political and religious differences and the same everyday grievances people have amongst friends and kin. It is my favorite time of year, and takes a toll I welcome for the benefit. This year, we held our annual dinner for the first time in a new state, and I spent Modranacht with a group of local heathens who my partner and I have gotten to know over the last several months.
“He needs water,
The one who has just arrived,
Dry clothes, and a warm welcome
From a friendly host–
And if he can get it,
A chance to listen and be listened to.”
– “Havamal,” The Wanderer’s Havamal, Crawford 2019
Our Yol start-off dinner, despite this being my third time planning and preparing for it, always gets my heart rate up. I took the day off and spent the morning bouncing around the fish market and several groceries stores before preparing mulled cider, baked salmon with lemon, pumpernickel bread, and a creamy mushroom soup. I laid out a cheese platter before the guests arrived and was pleased to hear their surprise that the bread was made here at home. This year we had the pleasure of hosting one of the members of my local group, a quiet and warm man who did a far better job explaining the significance of our rites than I do, often still riddled with nerves from preparing the meal and balancing timers. Trading off, wee explained the rite of Sumbel, which is a formalized round of toasts that serves to build relationships and mutual accountability amongst the participants. Sumbel is not to be mistaken for a drinking game, though often one’s cup is filled with alcohol–small sips are encouraged, especially if there will be many rounds. Boasting reminds one another of your worth as an individual and collective strengths, indicating who you might turn to in times of need. Though Sumbel historically included Oaths, these are a deeply solemn act that indebts each participant to one another, and are carefully prepared beforehand. We excluded oathing in this Sumbel, as the swearing of an oath implicates all present in upholding it for the good of their communal luck.
For Yol, we go around the table and do a sort of soft Sumbel, given many present are not heathen themselves. Our three rounds were dedicated to the ancestors, boasts and toasts, and Gods and Goddesses. The ancestor round in particular is always a joy, as we often hear little stories of guest’s relatives or more about their family history and dynamics. Our boast and toasts round took a long while as we went around celebrating one another and our accomplishments for the year. When it came time to honor the gods and goddesses, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a round of hailing on either side of me, rather than only from the heathens present. Sumbel often follows a ritual sacrifice or offering to the gods, and I feel it is an excellent way to introduce people to heathenry, as it exemplifies the focus on community and our strength as individuals brought together.
After our meal and a long Sumbel, the guests helped me prepare the dishes to be washed, which I very much appreciated. We played a few rounds of a game before most of the guests headed home, hugging one another and shaking hands. Another wonderful year in the books!
“A feast was prepared at the “winter nights” and the Disablot was done.” – “Disablot,” Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, Lindow 2001
Modranacht honors the disir, the female ancestral dead. If celebrated on the Winter Solstice–which depends on whether a group or hearth is following the Gregorian or a lunasolar calendar–it also marks the longest night and returning of the sun. If celebrating within one’s home, often times an altar is prepared with photographs, gifts and favorite food items of the honored dead, with these items offered and stories recalled. We have little source material to build disablot from; it is evident that disablot describes the particular offering focus rather than the day it occurs, and that the sacrifice was presided over by a woman. There is also some suggestion that sacred horses were ridden around the premises by a woman, perhaps the same who went on to guide the blot. It was a pleasure having Modranacht hosted by a Friggaswoman and the blot hailing the return of Sunna led by her. The knowledge, intention and drives of the individual leading a blot all color the path and experience of it, so I especially enjoyed seeing the hail day blot conducted by another member of the group who cares deeply about her practice.
This particular group had a number of focuses for Modranacht: the disir, the longest night and return of Sunna, and the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt is a largely Germanic folk tradition that was recorded and expanded on by Willhelm and Jacob Grimm in the 19th century. The Wild Hunt is led by a number of figures depending on the region, but most popularly described as being led by Odin or his Anglo-Saxon parallel Wotan. The Wild Hunt rides across the sky, capturing those who are caught outside during the darkest nights, hunting supernatural figures and is said to bring ill-will, war or death to those who witness it. I, personally, have never brought the Wild Hunt into my practice of heathenry. Standing vigil for Sunna through the longest night is as complete an explanation as I need for remaining inside during these deep hours.
We spent the evening sharing food, playing with and reading the stories of the Gods to the children, drinking and building a shared playlist. As many heathens happen to be metalheads–whether there is a relationship you want to read into that or not, I’ll let you decide–I heard far more variety and volume of metal than I’ve ever listened to over the course of the night.
At one point in the evening, one of the non-heathen members participating loudly proclaimed that her uterus is what made her a woman. I was inclined to argue with her and made my way over to the people talking. While I waited for a chance to join the conversation, my partner came over and quietly drew me away after the recommendation of some of the other members of the group who had known this woman longer. Two members stood on either side of me and gently comforted my anger, explaining that while they disagree with her, my getting into an argument would only raise tension and violate the grith present in that space. I understood this and let it be, but it has stayed with me, and reminds me of previous frustration. Given they have known her longer, and know she holds opinions such as this, why is she still allowed to attend events? She repeatedly threatened the grith of the gathering by sticking to and escalating arguments, reminding the party of either her advanced education or not being heathen and thus not being beholden to our ethical code when challenged. On any other evening and were she not the wife of the gothi’s best friend, I imagine her statements would have resulted in her being removed from the event. Instead, she remained awake for most of the evening even after her partner went to bed, leaving the conversation any time I referenced being trans or wielding her experience as a doctor over anyone who made passing reference to a medical concern they had experienced.
This brings up a point I have experienced previously with this group and continue to grapple with, as their allowing people like this into the space do not overwhelm the joy I get from being with the rest of the group. How are heathens to address potential issues of grith before events? Are they to ban all participants who do not follow the gods and goddesses? Are they allowed to step in and threaten grith on behalf of their kinsmen? One of the many benefits of participating with this group has been encountering and raising questions I would not have observed before, and the impact this will have on my future as a member and leader. Thankfully, the conversation quickly moved onward.
We discussed all kinds of topics–whether one member should stay pining after a guy who doesn’t deserve her, how to find new music, embroidery, beer, the story of Sleipnir’s birth, GWAR–until Sunna rose over a frost-covered hill, and the great horn was raised once more in greeting her. Though I have had my ups and downs with the group, I am immensely grateful to have conversations with others who share my vocabulary and are willing to hash out concepts of heathenry. I wish them, and you, god Yol! May the Gods and Goddesses look on you with loving eyes!