This weekend, at the start of the month February, we celebrate one of the six festivals of the stav calendar; the winter thing. I will try to describe what we celebrate both out of a historical context and the specific way the festival is regarded within the stav tradition. In the stav calendar there are two things, labelled as the winter- and the summer thing. They are held during the coldest part of the winter, and the hottest part of the summer.
The historical things can be described as democratic gatherings where the freemen of the society could settle disputes over land or in dealings. Either the disputing parties came to a settlement or the thing could make a ruling. Any free man could raise their voice no matter of their social status, and the ruling was binding. The winter thing was also the place where the coming year was planned, for instance the dates of the festivals of the coming year was announced at the thing. In the pre Christian Scandinavian society they did not have a fixed calendar as we do today. I would suspect that the winter thing also were the place where they planned the coming Viking voyages of the year.
When the thing was initiated they would declare “tingsfrid”- witch simply means “peace of the thing”. Any crime or act of violence would be punished harder if committed during the peace of the thing, those who attended the thing should feel secure; the peace included the travel to and from the thing.
No one was above the
thing- kings were elected and denoted at the thing. Some scholars argue that
the ancient things make up the roots of the modern Scandinavian democracy and
peoples trust and respect for the judicial system. The thing created a sense of
justice; people could bring their case to the thing and the society would
protect their rights as freemen. Due to the current developments in Scandinavia,
this ancient respect for the law has started to erode.
Those who committed atrocities could be deemed as outlaws and lawless at the thing; they were not protected by the law and anyone that supplied them with food or shelter would face hard penalties. Anyone was free to kill them whenever they were found. These criminals would often be doomed to live outside society for a set number of years- and in the Viking age society that was a very hard penalty. People were dependent on the protection of society to be able to live in the harsh conditions of Scandinavia. For people that were not well situated or that lacked contacts in the other Scandinavian kingdoms; being doomed lawless could in effect be the same thing as a death sentence.
But the thing was not only a judicial institution; at the things there were also religious rituals and practices. The famous account by Adam of Bremen about the sacrifices of Uppsala, so called blots, took place at the Disting. The Disting is the specific name used in Uppsala; but the festival corresponds with the winter thing of stav. The Disir are female entities of the Norse mythology and Freya is often referred to as Vanadis, the “dis of the Vanir”. Uppsala was the cultural and religious centre of Viking age Sweden, and perhaps of the entire pre Christian Scandinavia. Every ninth year they held an extra spectacular festival at the Disting; this festival is spectacularly described in the book “Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg”, that Adam of Bremen wrote between 1073 and 1076.
There were also an annual market arranged in conjunction with the Disting, to this day the first Monday and Tuesday of February the Disting market is still arranged in Uppsala. There is not much of the old grandeur left; but there are an unbroken line between the market of today and the one arranged during the Viking age. This is one of many small examples of the unnoticed continuity of the pagan customs of Scandinavia.
There have been some debates on the issue of how many days the big ninth year Disting festivals were held- Snorri Sturlason says it was held over one week, while Adam of Bremen says it was held for nine days. The scholar Andreas Nordberg argues very convincingly that the actual market was held for seven days- with the blots and religious ceremonies facilitated during the evenings.
In addition the festivities were opened with a day of a thing- and the first sacrifices were held later that evening. After the seven days of market and evenings with sacrifices the festivities were closed by an ending day with a thing; but no religious ceremony during the last evening.
Nordberg has very solid arguments: the medieval Christian distings where still held for two consecutive days; they had simply removed the religious part in between.
-By opening and ending the festivities with the thing, they were able to expand the peace of the thing to include all festivities.
-The seven days of market and ceremonies and two days of things are also the only way to mathematically add up the amount of animals that according to the sources were sacrificed during the rituals.
The theory of Andreas Nordberg is that the religious sacrifices started the first evening after the first thing- and then continued to the last evening of the market and blots. There were no sacrifices conducted after the ending day of the thing; the ninth night was the night were all the magical rituals of the previous eight evenings would come into effect. If the festival was celebrated in this 1+7+1 order it becomes very interesting out of a stav perspective. Within the stav lore both 7 and 9 are very significant numbers, which differentiate from mainstream Norse paganism were most people just regard number 9 as a significant magical number.
The incorporation of both the key numbers of seven and nine into the festivals of the Disting- reminds of the way that the runes of the futhark are viewed within the stav lore. The sixteen runes can be separated into 9+7 to add up the mythological associations of the runes. This also corresponds with how the traditional opening and closing ritual of the rune stances were conducted; 1+7+1 equals 9. The modern variation of the ritual is performed 1+9+1. I am deliberately a bit vague about this; but I hope the senior practitioners of stav will get something to think about.
Since the stav
tradition was kept and maintained within a family of a small community; the
judicial aspects of the festival became less important- and the winter thing
evolved into more of a family oriented feast. Ivar Hafskjold has told that
there was still a market arranged in his home village at the time of the winter
thing. A respected Swedish scholar has stated that throughout Scandinavia
traditional markets were amongst the longest living reminiscence of the old
The deities associated with the winter thing of stav are Frigg and Thor; and the winter thing is regarded as a feminine festival. Frigg symbolises the feminine and the matron of the household. In the stav tradition the women were responsible for arranging the winter thing. The wives baked a traditional Norwegian honey cake and there were apparently some rivalry about who were able to bake the most delicious cake. Honey cakes are not stav specific for this festival- they are commonly eaten in Norway at this time of the year. Honey cake is a very old Scandinavian pastry; they were supposedly eaten as far back as during the Viking age.
Thors relation with the winter thing is partly because he is regarded as a herse deity within stav; the herse is the class of law and justice. Thor is also the god associated with strength and power- at the market in the home village of Ivar Hafskjold the men competed in trials to see who the strongest one was. These types of competitions are very old in Scandinavia, and they are still held at festivals; most notably around the midsummer parties in Sweden. These competions are usually undertaken in a friendly manor, but still with a degree of seriousness associated with them.
In old Swedish tongue the
month around January was labelled as thorsmanadher, the month of Thor. In
Iceland they celebrate Þorrablót around this time- a festival around the month
of Þorri. During the modern celebration they eat and recite poems dedicated to
Thor. As a side note: The Icelandic letter Þ is pronounced Th- as in the
English pronunciation of thing- or Thor. This Icelandic letter is actually the
only rune that made it into a modern alphabet; and the letter Þ is in essence
the same as the rune labelled Thor within the stav futhark.
The stav calendar is woven in a very intriguing way, during the counterpart of this festival- the summer thing; we will find deities relating to the deities associated with the winter thing. This pretty much goes for all the festivals during the year- there is nothing random about the stav calendar. The stav calendar is very helpful for those who are interested to understand how the Norse deities relate to the year cycle- and as everything in stav it is created around the Hagl rune. The stav calendar also corresponds very well with the preserved knowledge about the pre Christian year cycle. The calendar is a topic of its own- and I hope to address it in due time.
The Christians tried to wipe out all the pagan festivals celebrated in Scandinavia, but they were not that successful; in most of the cases they had to settle with disguising the pagan fests in Christian clothing, or trying to merge the Christian and pagan celebrations. Today most people on the Scandinavian Peninsula do not take too much notice of the winter thing; most people recognize this feast as the starting point of the obsolete Christian lent. In Norway people eat their honey cake, and here in Sweden we eat our Semla; a traditional sweet roll that have was introduced sometime during early medieval times. Most of us have no idea that this is an ancient festival that were significant to our ancestors- but that is of less importance! The thread may be thin but it is a long thread that goes back through our oldest ancestors all the way back to the gods.
Do you want to
commemorate the winter thing? Bake a honey cake! Don’t forget to light up a bee
wax candle on your altar.