A Winterfylleþ Rite

As is often the case with De Temporum Ratione, the information provided by Bede regarding Winterfylleth is decidedly scant and provides us little to work with in terms of reconstruction.

Bede’s brief description of this month is recorded  thusly:

“Antiqui Anglorum populi […] annum totum in duo tempora, hiemis et aestatis dispertiebant, sex menses […] aestati tribuendo, sex reliquos hiemi; unde et mensem, quo hiemalia tempora incipiebant, Ƿintirfylliþ appellabant, composito nomine ab hieme et plenilunio, quia videlicet a plenilunio ejusdem mensis hiems sortiretur initium […] Ƿintirfylliþ potest dici compositio novo nomine hiemi plenium.” [1]

“The old English people split the year into two seasons, summer and winter, placing six months — during which the days are longer than the nights — in summer, and the other six in winter. They called the month when the winter season began Ƿintirfylliþ, a word composed of “winter” and “full moon”, because winter began on the first full moon of that month.”

The ancient Germanic-speaking peoples who populated England directly after Rome’s demise reckoned time via a lunisolar calendar (ie: by lunar phases) and thus, the exact dating of the beginning of Winter would have shifted annually to coincide with this phenomenon. This year, for instance, Winterfylleth fell on the 13th (approximately), whereas in years gone by, we’ve seen this holy tide fall closer to our modern Hallowe’en, or as late as early November.

While we’re able to at least somewhat accurately calculate the timing of Winterfylleth, the precise modes of celebration have been lost to time and require we look to comparative study and to folklore if we’re keen to (re)create something even remotely viable for the contemporary practitioner. Bearing this in mind, we have a plethora of potential avenues to explore and to utilize, though for simplicity and brevity’s sake, we’ll be looking to elements of my own hearth’s praxis to flesh out this ritual template [*].

 

 

The Corn Dolly, Harvest Home and The Last Sheaf

A widespread practice found throughout European folk customs involves the setting aside and sacralizing of the final sheaf of grain to be threshed during harvest. James Frazer deals heavily with this practice in his seminal work, The Golden Bough, where he claims:

“In the neighbourhood of Danzig the person who cuts the last ears of corn makes them into a doll, which is called the Corn-mother or the Old Woman and is brought home on the last waggon. In some parts of Holstein the last sheaf is dressed in women’s clothes and called the Corn-mother. It is carried home on the last waggon, and then thoroughly drenched with water. The drenching with water is doubtless a rain-charm. In the district of Bruck in Styria the last sheaf, called the Corn-mother, is made up into the shape of a woman by the oldest married woman in the village, of an age from 50 to 55 years. The finest ears are plucked out of it and made into a wreath, which, twined with flowers, is carried on her head by the prettiest girl of the village to the farmer or squire, while the Corn-mother is laid down in the barn to keep off the mice. In other villages of the same district the Corn-mother, at the close of harvest, is carried by two lads at the top of a pole. They march behind the girl who wears the wreath to the squire’s house, and while he receives the wreath and hangs it up in the hall, the Corn-mother is placed on the top of a pile of wood, where she is the centre of the harvest supper and dance.” [2]

 

William Brenchley Rye makes reference to a similar custom practiced by the peasantry of Berkshire, in his book, England as Seen by Foreigners in the Days of Elizabeth & James the First.

“As we were returning to our inn [at Harvest-Home, Windsor], we happened to meet some country people celebrating their Harvest-home (spicilegia sua celebrantes); their last load of corn they crown with flowers, having besides an image richly dressed, by which perhaps they would signify Ceres; this they keep moving about, while men and women, men and maidservants, riding through the streets in the cart, shout as loud as they can till they arrive at the barn. The farmers here do not bind up their corn in sheaves, as they do with us, but directly they have reaped or mowed it, put it into carts and convey it into their barns.” [3]

 

Rye’s description of events is similar to accounts of Harvest customs found throughout much of England and Scotland prior to the industrial age. Echoing Frazer, Christina Hole claims the “Corn Spirit” was believed to have lived within the final sheaf, with the ritualized “rough handling” or “sacrifice” of its reaper being symbolic of the death and rebirth of said spirit. 

 

“From the corn of the Last Sheaf was made the figure variously known as the Corn Dolly, or the Kern Baby, or in Scotland, as the Maiden if the harvest is early, or the Cailleach, or Carlin, meaning an Old Woman, if it is late. The figure was usually, though not always, made in human form. It could be a spiral pyramid, a miniature sheaf, or an intricate design of plaits and hanging ears; but often it was a female doll, dressed in white or coloured paper and tied with ribbons, with hair (and sometimes hands also) made of wheat-ears. It was carried home in triumph to the farmhouse, where it presided over the Harvest Supperin the kitchen or the barn, and was then kept all the year until it was replaced by the Corn Dolly from the next harvest.” [4]


Hole also describes the procession of the Last Sheaf and the ritualized behaviour which accompanied the rather cacophonous ordeal: 


“When the reaping was finished, in the pre-mechanization harvest, the Last Load and the Corn Dolly were brought home in triumph, in a great harvest-wain decorated with flowers and boughs of oak and ash, and drawn by four or six garlanded horses. The men rode on top of the load, shouting, singing, and blowing horns. Sometimes the man driving the wagon, or men riding the horses, wore female dress.”  [5]


The use of a processional wagon in this account is of particular interest here and recalls Tacitus’
Germania, wherein the fertility Goddess, Nerthus, is driven about the countryside in religious procession.  Tacitus’ account culminates in the ritualized washing of the wagon and Nerthus’ idol, followed by the subsequent drowning of the slaves employed for the task.

Then follow days of rejoicing and merry-making in every place that she designs to visit and be entertained. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every object of iron is locked away; then, and only then, are peace and quiet known and loved, until the priest again restores the goddess to her temple, when she has had her fill of human company. After that the cart, the cloth and, if you care to believe it, the goddess herself are washed in clean in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and pious reluctance to ask what the sight can be that only those doomed to die may see.”[6]


The aquatic aspect of the rite is also of interest here, as the bearer of the Last Sheaf was ritualistically soaked or “drowned” symbolically during later, Harvest Home celebrations in Britain. According to Hole:


“In some districts, girls following the load threw water over the singers…”
[7] 


This act is also seen in the old West Country custom of Crying the Neck – a custom wherein the reaper engaged in ritualized shouting when he had cut the final sheaf.


“Shouts and cheers greeted the final Crying, and sometimes one of the younger men would seize the Neck and make off with it, as fast as he could run, towards the farmhouse. There one of the maids stood on guard with a bucket of water which she threw over him as he arrived, breathless, at the door; but if he managed to elude her and get into the house still dry, then he could claim the right to kiss her.” [8]


The reference to men in Harvest Home processions wearing female garb is also interesting and calls to mind some earlier accounts of Germanic priests doing much the same. 

Once again we are reminded of Germania, where the priests of the Nahanarvali were said to dress in women’s clothing during rites to their twin deities, the Alcis. 


“Nahanarvali are the proud possessors of a grove of immemorial sanctity. The presiding priest wears feminine attire, but the gods they speak of in connection with it are, to give them their Roman names, Castor and Pollux ; their attributes are similar, the name by which they are known is the Alci. Images of them there are none, nor is there any trace of their worship having had a foreign origin ; nevertheless, the people adore them as youthful heroes, and as brothers.”
[9]


We also see so-called
“effeminate priests” in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum, where the priesthood associated with Freyr is mocked for its mannerisms and actions.

“Now when Bemon was dead, Starkad was summoned because of his valour by the champions of Permland. And when he had done many noteworthy deeds among them, he went into the land of the Swedes, where he lived at leisure for seven years’ space with the sons of Frey. At last he left them and betook himself to Hakon, the tyrant of Denmark, because when stationed at Upsala, at the time of the sacrifices, he was disgusted by the effeminate gestures and the clapping of the mimes on the stage, and by the unmanly clatter of the bells. Hence it is clear how far he kept his soul from lasciviousness, not even enduring to look upon it. Thus does virtue withstand wantonness.” [10]


The fertility aspects of the Harvest Home and Corn Dolly ritual are readily apparent and seem to possess animistic elements which may have survived conversion and into the modern period.

 


Deipnon and Placating the Dead

At Sundorwic, Winterfylleth is seen as somewhat bipartite in nature, encompassing Harvest, as well as the thinning of the veil between the realm of the living and that of the dead. The second portion of this Winterfylleth rite will deal with what might be termed the “unquiet dead,” and the placation of said wights. 

As Clement A. Miles notes, leaving food out for the returned dead was a widespread practice which was observed by a diverse array of European cultures. Many of these practices, though associated with Christian feasts such as All Souls’ Day, bear similar thematic elements likely borrowed from earlier, Pagan festivities. 


In
Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Miles writes:

“The first clear testimony to All Souls’ Day is found at the end of the tenth century, and in France. All Saints’ Day, however, was certainly observed in England, France, and Germany in the eighth century, and probably represents an attempt on the part of the Church to turn the minds of the faithful away from the pagan belief in and tendance of “ghosts” to the contemplation of the saints in the glory of Paradise. It would seem that this attempt failed, that the people needed a way of actually doing something for their own dead, and that All Souls’ Day with its solemn Mass and prayers for the departed was intended to supply this need and replace the traditional practices. Here again the attempt was only partly successful, for side by side with the Church’s rites there survived a number of usages related not to any Christian doctrine of the after-life, but to the pagan idea, widespread among many peoples, that on one day or night of the year the souls of the dead return to their old homes and must be entertained.

All Souls’ Day then appeals to instincts older than Christianity. How strong is the hold of ancient custom even upon the sceptical and irreligious is shown very strikingly in Roman Catholic countries: even those who never go to church visit the graves of their relations on All Souls’ Eve to deck them with flowers.” [11]


Miles goes on to provide us with an informative survey of practices associated with All Souls’ Day, wherein the dead are given a ritual meal, cakes (soul-cakes), or a lighted candle. The most detailed and arguably most interesting account comes by way of Lithuania, where the author writes:

“In Lithuania, the last country in Europe to be converted to Christianity, heathen traditions lingered long, and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century travellers give accounts of a pagan New Year’s feast which has great interest. In October, according to one account, on November 2, according to another, the whole family met together, strewed the tables with straw and put sacks on the straw. Bread and two jugs of beer were then placed on the table, and one of every kind of domestic animal was roasted before the fire after a prayer to the god Zimiennik (possibly an ancestral spirit), asking for protection through the year and offering the animals. Portions were thrown to the corners of the room with the words “Accept our burnt sacrifice, O Zimiennik, and kindly partake thereof.” Then followed a great feast. Further, the spirits of the dead were invited to leave their graves and visit the bath-house, where platters of food were spread out and left for three days. At the end of this time the remains of the repast were set out over the graves and libations poured.” [12]


We also see a tendency toward bonfires during this period – especially in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and on the Isle of Man – suggesting some continuum of observance between so-called Celtic-speaking peoples. This is further corroborated when we look at the Gaelic festival of
Samhain, wherein bonfires are commonplace and are thought to cleanse and chase away beings of malefic intent.

Samhain, too, was a time to placate the aos sí, and food and drink would customarily be left outside for them to ensure a prosperous Winter to come. In The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evans-Wentz says of this practice:

“Food, after it has been put out at night for the fairies, is not allowed to be eaten afterwards by man or beast, not even by pigs. Such food is said to have no real substance left in it, and to let anything eat it wouldn’t be thought of. The underlying idea seems to be that the fairies extract the spiritual essence from food offered to them, leaving behind the grosser elements.”
[13]


Heading further back into time, we can distinguish similar rituals practised in the Hellenic world, with Hekate’s Deipnon being of primary interest here. 

Hekate’s Deipnon was observed on the final day of the lunar month and consisted of an evening meal being presented to the Goddess and her revengeful, ghostly entourage at a crossroads, or at the threshold shrine of the home. The customary offerings left for the Deipnon generally consisted of cakes, raw eggs and alliums (onions, garlic, leeks). 

The end of a month represented a chance for renewal and Greek households would offer up live victims, often in the form of dogs, in expiation to Hekate. The dog acted as a form of scapegoat that drew within itself the collected negativity and improprieties of the family, allowing for a cleansing of the spiritual palate. 

Purification rites to cleanse the house and adjoining property were also performed at this auspicious time. Incense was carried throughout the homestead in a clay censer and when the rite had been completed, the censer and ashes were deposited permanently at the family shrine or crossroads, never to be handled again for mundane purpose. 

In Anglo-Saxon England, we are not provided with evidence of expiatory offerings being given in the home, but we do have evidence for feasts occurring in or around burial sites. Evidence of food residue, burnt animal bones and cooking and drinking vessels all point to a lasting relationship with the deceased which involved ritualized eating and/or drinking. Christina Lee tells us:


“Ample evidence for food deposits, cooking gear and even possible hearths is found in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. Vessels and bones may represent symbolic aspects of the deceased person’s status, which was part of the mortuary display, but in some cases these are not found on the body, but in the backfill of the grave. These may be the remains of feasting, which took place either prior to the funeral, or even in the graveyard itself. Feasting may have been part of a transition ritual, in which the dead provided for the living (by bequeathing them succession and status) and the living took leave of the dead by assuming their new role in the group or family. How often such feasting took place is unclear, since only sporadic indications are found from cemeteries. It is possible that this was a regular part of Anglo-Saxon funeral rites, and it is even conceivable that some form of posthumous commemorative rite was practised as well.”
[14]


Lee also suggests that post-holes, such as those found at Spong Hill Anglo-Saxon cemetery, may indicate the presence of feasting structures, or
cellae memoriae, which may have derived from earlier, Roman structures used for the same purpose.  


“Anglo-Saxon cemeteries contain a number of structures. So far structures and post holes have not been examined as to whether they could be some form of cellae memoriae, but there are indications that such buildings may have been present in England as well. Buildings from the early medieval period were made of wood and are often indicated through the presence of post holes, as in the example of a lozenge-style structure at Melbourn (Cambridgeshire). The 
cemetery of Spong Hill apparently seemed to contain a structure in the middle of the grave field.” [15]

 

The Ritual

Now that we’ve explored the bipartite nature of Winterfylleth and some of the traditions associated with that time of year, we can better construct a rite suited toward the modern practitioner. 

The first element, the corn dolly, can be fashioned from any number of dried cereal stocks or rushes, though wheat, oats, rye and barley were most often used historically. During the making of the dolly, or at the completion of the dolly, a prayer might be recited to encourage the local wights, or agricultural God(s) of your choosing, to store their growing potential within said dolly for the coming Winter. For this template I’ve chosen Folde, though deities such as Bēow, Scēafa, or Ingui would also be appropriate here. 

 

O Folde! O Earthen-Mother!  

O Crop-Bringer! O She-of-Abundance! 

From whose fertile bosom are we provided sustenance,

Imbue this figure, this final sheaf, with your fruitfulness and with your mægen

Let your potency rest here during the dark months ahead

Let us be warmed and our bellies full

So that you might rise again with the coming of Spring 

And the death of Winter

Hāl wes þu, Folde, fira Mōdor

 

Once this portion of the rite is completed, the dolly can be placed on your wīgbed, or in a place of prominence outside the reach of pets, small children, or pollutants [**]. Placing it up on a high shelf, or affixing it to a wall may also serve to keep the effigy safe.

During the evening meal, a portion might be set aside, or cakes might be baked for the restless deceased. The meal/foodstuffs/cakes can then be put on a dish, or in a vessel (as was customary in Anglo-Saxon burials) and placed on the home altar, the threshold of the home, or at the first crossroad one comes to upon leaving one’s property (usually where the drive(way)/laneway meets the adjoining road). A prayer can then be recited while placing the offering to ward against the dead and their incursion onto your property/into your home. 

During this prayer one might also call upon a psychopomp (escort to the dead) deity to provide apotropaic assistance. Wōden, or Ingui in his guise as Elf-Lord, might be well-suited to this task, though for this template we will address the dead without the accompaniment of a psychopompic deity. 

 

O Dead- restless and unquiet

You who have clawed your way into this middle realm to exact your vengeance 

The veil between worlds is thin this night and grows ever thinner with the waning sun

Please accept this offering and spare this household of your wrath 

May you one day find the comfort and contentment you seek


Once this has been done, the final step, the cleansing, can be fulfilled. For this part of the rite, a stick or cone of incense might be carried about the house (in an appropriate heat proof vessel) in order to cleanse each and every room. A short prayer may or may not be recited during this time. A sample prayer might look something like:


Frīg, Hearth-Mother, Goddess of Domesticity, purify this space, remove lingering pollutants and those wights and things that would do us harm


As is the case with the rest of this template, another deity besides Frīg might be employed in this capacity at the discretion of the practitioner.

Once the ritual is finished in its entirety, the offering can be left outside for several days and then disposed of. The corn dolly will remain in your home until Ēastre, when it will be “released” via burning, drowning, or sowing into a furrow, thus allowing fertility and plenty back into the world .

 

xxl (1)
Artwork by Zdzisław Beksiński

 

 

Sources


[1] Bosworth, Joseph, et al. “An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online.” Edited by Thomas Northcote Toller and Others, Winter-Fylleþ, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010, bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/035945. Accessed 21 Oct. 2019.
[2]Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. Chapter 45
[3]Rye, W.B. England as Seen by Foreigners in the Days of Elizabeth & James the First. 1865
[4]Hole, Christina. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. (pp. 137)
[5]Hole, Christina. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. (pp. 138)
[6]Rives, J. B. (Trans.). Agricola and Germania. 2010
[7]Hole, Christina. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. (pp. 138)
[8]Hole, Christina. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. (pp. 136)
[9]Townshend, K.B. (Trans.). Agricola and Germania. 1894
[10]Saxo Grammaticus. The Danish History, Books I-IX
[11]Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. (Chapter VII)
[12]Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. (Chapter VII)
[13]Evans-Wentz, W.Y. The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. (Chapter II)
[14]Lee, Christina. Feasting the Dead: Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon Burial Rituals
[15]Lee, Christina. Feasting the Dead: Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon Burial Rituals

Notes



[*]
This is merely a reflection of what we do here and the template can and should be tailored to fit the diverse needs of specific Fyrnsidu practitioners and their respective hearths
[**]By pollutants I mean that you shouldn’t put your corn dolly on your coffee table, or in the bathroom next to where you keep your toothbrushes. 

3 thoughts on “A Winterfylleþ Rite

  1. Hi Wodgar-

    I’ve been lurking in the background on your blog for months now and found it discourteous not to speak up and say hello. I really appreciate the effort you’ve taken in teasing out the strands that contribute to your Winterfylleth rite. I have a question: it’s going to be the full Blotmonath moon relatively soon. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the possibilities for feasts to celebrate in the Heathen/Fyrnsidere autumn. I tend to celebrate a first fruits/loaf mass feast in August, a Harvest feast in September, a feast for the start of Winter and remembering the dead in October. That last one is my Winterfylleth celebration- and to be honest, I tend to do it Oct 31 regardless of the moon (Bad reconstructionist! No candy for you!).

    And yet, here’s Bede telling me that THIS full moon is “the month when the heathen conduct their sacrifices.” And I’m all out of ideas as to what this feast is about.

    Do you have a…theme…for lack of a better word, for Blotmonath?

    Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Emily, sorry for the late reply.

      I think the lunisolar calendar is a nice template, but doesn’t necessarily work for everyone when we consider location and lifestyle. I mean, a lot of these holy tides happen to fall on weeknights when I’m at work, so I have to adjust them accordingly, myself. I missed the 13th this year and had to do my rite closer to Hallowe’en. It’s the 21st century and we have to adjust things as needed, imho.

      As for Blōtmōnaþ, Bede’s description is lacking in detail and we’re left with very little to work with. I know the prevailing theory is that the Ur-Saxons likely slaughtered livestock during this time to see them through the Winter months, but that doesn’t really flesh out the religious component. If said theory about Blōtmōnaþ is correct and it was about stocking provisions for Winter, perhaps canning and preserving would be good things to incorporate into potential rites, offering some of these preserved goods to the deity/deities of your choosing.

      Like

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