This evening the celebrations for Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) begin, ending tomorrow 1st November at sunset.
Anglo-Saxons called November Blōtmōnaþ (blót month – blót means ‘blood sacrifice’) for that was the month they slaughtered their livestock in dedication to their gods.
An entry in the Menologium seu Calendarium Poeticum explains that “this month is called Novembris in Latin, and in our language the month of sacrifice, because our forefathers, when they were heathens, always sacrificed in this month, that is, that they took and devoted to their idols the cattle which they wished to offer.”
Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of harvesting seasons and the beginning of winter, the ‘darker half’ of the year. Rooted in Irish and Scottish paganism, modern Wiccans and pagans consider Samhain a sabbath to honour their ancestors. Similar holidays include Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Latin holiday honouring dead loved ones, and, possibly the most mainstream, Halloween.
Norse people did not celebrate Samhain, but they did have many autumn time celebrations, including Álfablót, Dísablot and Vetrnætr.
Álfablót (Elf Sacrifice) took place at the end of autumn when the leaves started to fall and harvest had ended. It was celebrated privately in the homestead and was administered by the lady of the household. Much like Día de los Muertos, ancestor worship was a big part of Álfablót.
Unfortunately, due to the secrecy of the holiday, not much else is known about the celebration. The Norse people were usually hospitable to strangers because there was a possibility the stranger might be the Allfather, Odin, seeking a night’s respite on his journey across Midgard in search of knowledge. On Álfablót they wouldn’t open their doors to a soul.
Álfablót couldn’t be observed by strangers or people who didn’t belong to the family because it was a celebration for the ancestors of the family. In the poem Austrfararvísur by Sigvatr Þórðarson, Sigvatr mentions Álfablót. While on a diplomatic mission, Sigvatr and his companions struggle to find a place to rest for the night, turned away by every house they approach.
Álfablót was not just about honouring family but was also dedicated to honouring elves and landvaettir (land spirits). Elves were seen as spirits closely connected to the fertility of the land but also in contact with the dead. Landvaettir were spirits who cared and protected the land.
Dísablót (Dísir Sacrifice) was a public sacrifice held during Vetrnætr honouring the female spirits or deities called dísir.
Vetrnætr (Winter Nights) was a three-day-long holiday celebrating the end of the summer half of the year and the beginning of the winter half. Celebration of Vetrnætr varied from region to region but was unanimously a three-day event. Some modern-day heathens celebrate Vetrnætr on 31st October.
According to https://fornkunskap.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/vetrnaetr/ it lands between the 19th and 26th October on the modern calander:
“Since the Old Icelandic/Old Norse calendar was kept on a lunar basis rather than solar, the dates of things such as seasonal changes had more variation than they do by our modern reckoning. As Winter Nights was held at the onset of winter, we can use this information to better pinpoint the timing. The beginning of winter on the Old Icelandic calendar was said to occur in the month of Gor (Innards), which began on the Saturday after the 26th week of summer. Since summer ends on a Wednesday, this leaves a gap of two days in-between, and this gap would most likely be the time of Winter Nights, making it a three-night long festival. On modern calendars, this lands between the 19th and the 26th of October.
Andreas Nordberg claims as well that all major sacrifice days were observed 28 days after a solstice or equinox event, which would place Winter Nights 28 days after the Autumnal Equinox in modern reckoning.[iv] This lines up as well with the timing based off of the old calendar. Most modern Winter Nights celebrations, though, will usually be held on a Saturday during that time frame, due to work schedules and other factors.
[iv] Nordberg, Andreas. Jul, disting och förkyrklig tideräkning: Kalendrar och kalendariska riter i det förkristna Norden. (Uppsala, 2006). Available from: http://www.kgaa.nu/upload/books/103.pdf”
However you intend to spend this evening, I hope you have fun and stay safe!