Folklore, Series, The Viking Age Calendar Series
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Gormánuðr (Oct – Nov)

Slaughter Month

Gor, the slime from the intestines of animals.

Eiríkr Magnússon, 1877

Summer is over. The days shorten, and the chill is back in the air. This is autumn in 2020. We swap our tea bags from white and green tea to the more hearty and spicy chai and ginger. Back in the days of the Viking Age, it is the start of winter, and perhaps first snow falls on the Icelandic mountains or in the Norwegian fjords. With the harvest gathered, people now choose their fattest animals for slaughter and cure the meat for the long winter ahead. The seasons determine the daily chores, but how do the Viking Age people keep a general overview of the year without calendars? Well, it seems they did have calendars, and here is how they worked…

Viking Age Calendars

When Julius Caesar developed the old Roman solar calendar, little did he know it would stay in use until 1587. During the Viking Age, several adaptations emerged. Charlemagne changed the Julian calendar by introducing the Germanic monthly descriptions.1 By the tenth century, the Icelanders made their Misseri calendar that kept the fixed weeks, but divided the months into summer or winter. The Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian. And the Icelandic is also no longer in use, except that its weekly system continues to determine the timing of a few celebrations.2

According to the Misseri calendar, gormánuðr is the first month of winter. Between 1508 and 1837, the Icelandic laws ruled that gormánuðr would start 26 weeks after the start of summer, on a Friday. This changed to Saturday after 1837. This year, by its calculations, gormánuðr starts on 24 October 2020.3

Autumn Celebrations

The autumn season celebrations go by the name of blót. Literally, this means ‘blood sacrifice’ and since this is the slaughter month, it often involves an animal offering, (though not necessarily).4 Making sense of these celebrations is difficult as the sagas do not always state the name of the feast, and just mention that ‘there was a feast in autumn’. Yet, here are a few feasts we do know by name.

Haustblót

The autumn sacrifice, haustblót, is a feast of many guests and much drinking (much like many other Viking Age feasts, by the way!).5

The autumn after, at winter-nights, Snorri the Priest had a great autumn-feast, and bade his friends thereto. Ale drinking they had thereat, and folk drank fast and were very merry with ale. 6

Eyrbyggja Saga

Vetrnáttablót

Vetrnætr, which translates as Winter Nights, marks the beginning of winter. This feast apparently lasted three days.7

Thorgrim decided to hold a feast at the end of autumn to celebrate the coming of the Winter Nights. There was to be a sacrifice to Frey, and he invited his brother, Bork, Eyjolf Thordarson and many other men of distinction. Gisli also prepared a feast and invited his relatives from Arnarfjord, as well ast he two Thorkels, Thorkel the Wealthy and Thorkel Eiriksson. No fewer than sixty people were expected to arrive. There was to be drinking at both places, and the floor at Saebol was strewn with rushes from the Seftjorn pond.8

Gísla saga Súrssonar

Álfablót

Around November 7, the mistress of the house performs a private ceremony. The elven sacrifice is an offering to appease the elves.9

“A hill there is,” answered she, “not far away from here, where elves have their haunt. Now get you the bull that Cormac killed, and redden the outer side of the hill with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then thou wilt be healed.”10

Kormáks saga

Dísablót

The offering for the female spirits, or dísír, is conducted by the mistress of the homestead as well. Contrary to the álfablót, this is another big gathering with a banquet. In Sweden, by the way, the dísablót was held in the spring, rather than autumn.11

At the commencement of winter there was a feast prepared, and a sacrifice to the gods, in which observance all were expected to take part, but Glum sat in his place and did not attend it. As evening passed on, and the guests had arrived, there was not so much merriment, on account of the meeting of friends and the welcoming one another, as might have been expected when so many had come together.12

Víga-Glúms saga

Autumn in the Saga Narrative

How is the autumn season used in the sagas? I ask myself if it is just a mood, or descriptive element, or perhaps a literary technique? So, I look at 18 sagas in the Icelandic Saga Database that allow me to compare the Icelandic/Old Norse with the English edition.

The top three events associated with autumn are the stealing or killing of cattle, a betrothal or wedding, and travel to other parts of the island or to other countries. Other frequently returning events are sports, sacrifices and offerings, feasts and hauntings. Some are indeed just descriptive, but some are plot twists, or used to build tension. For example, whether or not rents are paid will be the source of tension or animosity between characters. The slaying of men in autumn will have repercussions in spring. The sailing to or returning from other countries will also trigger new sequences of events, building up in autumn, taking their course through the winter and concluding in spring or summer. 13

The Saga of Thidrandi and Thorhall

A wonderful example of the Winter Nights celebration, a hauting and autumn as a setting for religious tension is found in Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls. The story is probably part of an oral tradition and written down centuries later.14 The story starts just before Winter Nights in Iceland around the year 1000. The time of the island’s Christianisation. A seer arrives at the hall of a friend and is invited to stay there until the feast. Whilst he is there, he prophecies the death of the landlord’s aimiable son. And indeed, one night Thidrandi goes out and is slain by a group of nine women in black. A group of nine women in white arrive too late to save him from his fate. In short, the tale marks the arrival of Christianity and the tension between the old and new religions.15

References


  1. Calendars and Time,’ Digital Web Centre for the History of Science in the Low Countries Last Accessed 24 October 2020.  ↩
  2. Svante Janson, ‘The Icelandic Calendar,’ in: Scripta Islandica Volume 62 (2011), pp. 2 [pp. 51–140].
    Kristín Bjarnadóttir, ‘Misseri–calendar: A calendar Embedded in Icelandic Nature, Society, and Culture.Mathematical Association of America.  ↩
  3. How Did the Old Icelandic Calendar Work?What’s On.
    Svante Janson (2011), pp. 51–140.  ↩
  4. Ola Magnell, ‘Animals of Sacrifice: Animals and the Blót in the Old Norse Sources and Ritual Depositions of Bones from Archaeological Sites,’ in: Myth, Materiality, and Lived Religion: In Merovingian and Viking Scandinavia. Edited by K. Wikström af Edholm, P.R. Jackson Rova, A. Nordberg, et al (Stockholm: Stockholm University Press, 2019), pp. 303 [pp. 303–337]. DOI: https://doi.org/10.16993/bay.  ↩
  5. Viking Masks,’ The Viking Answer Lady. Last Updated 24 October 2020. Last Accessed 24 October 2020. ↩
  6. Eyrbyggja saga | Chapter 37,’ Icelandic Saga Database Last Accessed 24 October 2020.  ↩
  7. Viking Masks,’ The Viking Answer Lady. Last Updated 24 October 2020. Last Accessed 24 October 2020.  ↩
  8. ‘Gísla saga Súrssonar,’ in: The Sagas of Icelanders. Preface by Jane Smiley. Introductory Essay by Robert Kellogg (Allen Lane, 2000), pp. 519.  ↩
  9. John Lindown, Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 93–95.  ↩
  10. Kormáks saga | Chapter 22,’ Icelandic Saga Database Last Accessed 24 October 2020.  ↩
  11. William Short, Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas. (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010), 196.  ↩
  12. Víga–Glúms saga | Chapter 6,’ Icelandic Saga Database Last Accessed 24 October 2020.  ↩
  13. P.S. Langeslag, Seasons in the Literatures of the Medieval North. (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015), pp. 58.  ↩
  14. Merrill Kaplan, ‘Prefiguration and the Writing of History in “Þáttr Þiðranda ok Þórhalls”,’ in: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology Volume 99.3 (2000), pp. 382 [pp. 379–394].  ↩
  15. ‘The Tale of Thidrandi and Thorhall,’ Saga Thing Podcast. Episode 6, 19 April 2020.  ↩

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