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The Werewolf in the Viking Age (Halloween Special)

The Werewolf in the Viking Age (Halloween Special)

I thought I’d do a piece about werewolves since Halloween and Winternights is coming up. Yeah, even though I’m not particularly fond of the whole Halloween thing, I get that a lot of people are into Halloween, which means I should at least write something related to it.

Nowadays shifters and werewolves have become popular in modern culture. Ever since Lon Chaney Jr. donned makeup and a mask, werewolves have been popular on the silver screen. More recently, we see the werewolves in urban and paranormal fantasy and romance as sort of cuddly and dangerous wild creatures. Our ancestors would probably think we’re crazy for loving the wolf, which is why I’d love to talk about wolves and werewolves.

Wolves in Norse Mythology

If you look at Norse and Germanic mythology, you’ll see plenty of wolves in the stories. Odin is accompanied by two wolves, Geri and Freki. Loki’s first wife, Angrboða, bore Fenrir the wolf of Ragnarok, as well as Hel and Jörmungandr. Two wolves, Sköll and Hati Hróðvitnisson, chase the sun and moon respectively.

With the exception of Odin’s wolves, most wolves in our mythology have a negative connotation. Odin’s wolves may be a testament to Odin’s often unpredictable and wild side that can cause harm. Fenrir will swallow Odin. The wolves that chase the sun and moon are are destined to swallow our sun and moon during Ragnarok. In other words, our myths tell us that wolves are to be feared. But why is that?

What Our Ancestors Thought of Wolves

Wolves were considered dangerous creatures that inhabited the wilderness. People heard them howl outside of the safe confines of their village, which protected them against the dangers that lurked beyond their fences or walls. When criminals were sentenced, they typically were exiled from the village or town. These people were called vargr, yes, wolves, and they could be hunted and killed on sight without penalty. These people had to learn how to survive in the wilderness or go to another place that hadn’t heard of them yet. They were considered the lowest of the low and assuming they survived, they might join other bands of criminals that preyed upon travelers.

So, the wolf was a feared animal to our ancestors and those exiled criminals were considered like wolves.

What About Werewolves?

In the Saga of the Volsungs there’s a story how a father and son, Sigmund and Sinfjotli, probably vargr, come upon two men in an enchanted sleep who have magic wolf pelts. The father and son steal them and put them on, becoming wolves. The pelts transform people into wolves for ten days. The new wolves go on a killing spree, which ends when the father attacks the son, causing a mortal wound. Only through the aid of a sympathetic raven does the son become healed and the two remove their wolf pelts and burn them on the tenth day.

Ulfhednar Berserkers

Yeah, yeah, berserkers are a different type of warrior based on a bear, I know. Deal with it. Anyway, ulfhednar were a type of berserker that instead of using the strength of the bear, used the powers of the wolf in their fighting. These warriors would wear wolf skins and were believed to be Odin’s warriors. They didn’t wear mail and didn’t appear harmed by fire or metal. They would howl and bite their shields, no doubt terrifying their enemies.

Where Did Our Halloween Werewolves Come From?

There’s little doubt that the modern day werewolves we associate with Halloween came from Eastern Europe. But there’s an excellent chance that those people got their legends from both the ulfhednar and the fear of the vargr. After all, Eastern Europeans mingled with Northern Europeans quite often and the Rus had their origins with the Vikings. But then again, most cultures seem to have shape shifting and wolf legends. It may have come from earlier days when humans huddled around their campfires and heard those howls coming from just outside the safety of the light.

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Some Final Thoughts About Halloween

Some Final Thoughts About Halloween

Now that the Halloween silliness has come and gone, I had done some serious research about Halloween as a holiday.  Yes, it is a Christian holiday that got piggybacked on Samhain and Alfarblot, but there are some interesting developments I didn’t mention in previous posts.  So, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to continue talking about it for a bit.

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Aptrganga or Real Norse Zombies [Video]

Aptrganga or Real Norse Zombies [Video]

Well, it’s getting closer to Halloween, and since I’ve been meaning to include an occasional video, I’ve decided to include a great video by Jackson Crawford about Aptrganga or “Again Walkers,” i.e., zombies or draugr .

In Viking times, it was believed that you could become a zombie if you died sitting up, died with your eyes open, died disappointed in your son, or died in your home.  Apparently, even if you managed to get cremated, if another creature ingested the ashes, it could cause amazing mayhem.  Anyway, check out the video!

Samhain — Or it’s Not My Holiday

Samhain — Or it’s Not My Holiday

Samhain Comments & Graphics
Thanks to Magickal Graphics

My husband asked me if Halloween was a special time for Heathens.  I looked at him blankly, but then I realized that being pagan may make it appear that we celebrate other pagans’ holidays.  I grinned and reassured him I’m not that kind of pagan.  I then pointed out our version of Samhain — if we have a “version,” happens around the winter solstice.  So, like everything in my life, I started researching Samhain.

What Samhain is for the Uninitiated

Thanks to Magickal Graphics

Samhain (pronounced “sah-win” for those who don’t speak Celtic) is the Celtic New Year when the Celts believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and dead was thinnest.  I found that interesting because Heathens tend to think of that time as Winter Solstice.  As an aside, I really do think our Yule is more correct with Mother’s Night, but Samhain a Wiccan holiday, so it’s theirs to argue about, not mine.  It’s also the end of harvest for them, which is probably why they equate it with the end of the year and the beginning of the new year.

Samhain has the characteristic ancestor veneration that we do.  It arrives on the sunset of October 31st and ends on the sunset of November 1st.  It’s celebrated with bonfires (purportedly to keep the sun burning through winter), disguises (so evil spirits don’t recognize the people), and sacrifices and gifts made for the dead.  There is a ritual of leaving doors open so that the spirits of kind ancestors can come into the home and visit.

Where Halloween Comes From

Courtesy of Magickal Graphics

Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church snagged  November 1st  and made it All Saints Day.  All Souls Day is November 2nd.  If I recall my Catholic upbringing, I seem to remember it was a Holy Day of Obligation (Translation: Get your ass to church and fill the coffers.) which was intended to make the revelry around Halloween less popular. When they couldn’t do that, they came up with All Souls Day on November 2nd.  Interestingly enough, people simply moved their pagan celebrations over to November 2nd since it was now Church sanctioned. People dressed up as angels, devils, and saints, and there were parades and bonfires. One tradition started in England which was most likely a precursor to trick or treating was that poor people would go door to door and beg for “soul cakes” in exchange for praying for the household’s dead.

Halloween gets it’s name from All Saints Day.  In England, All Saints Day was known as All Hallowmas from the Middle English word, Alholowmesse, which means All Saints Day.  Naturally, the day before was All Hallows Eve, which soon became our word for Halloween.

Halloween and America

Courtesy of Magickal Graphics

Halloween traditions came over with the Irish in the early to mid 19th century. Going door to door asking for food and money, a Halloween tradition, was soon replaced with trick or treating. Parties soon became more the norm.  To avoid frightening children too much, newspapers encouraged parents to tame the scary stuff.  So, Halloween became a secular holiday by20th century.

Halloween was a community celebration, but was being plagued by vandalism.  By the 1950s, politicians and community leaders directed Halloween festivities toward trick or treating and made it into a children’s holiday.

Nowadays, Halloween is for both kids and adults.   Trick or Treating is still for the kids, but both kids and adults have fun dressing up and partying.

So, What Does This Have to Do with Heathenism?

So now that I’ve talked about Halloween and Samhain, it’s time for me to talk about how Samhain isn’t really a Heathen holiday.  Unless you’re Irish or venerate the Irish pantheon (I find the word “worship” a little too strong), I’d say Samhain doesn’t have any real religious significance for those who follow the Norse gods. I find the idea sweet — venerating the ancestors — but we do this already during Álfablót and Disablót. Depending on what you read, Álfablót could be celebrated on Halloween, but honestly, what we know about Álfablót tends to make it more of a private holiday with the family, rather than being a huge community party or trick and treating.

Courtesy of Magickal Graphics

I’m Not a Fan of Halloween

I’ll be honest with you: I’ve never been a huge fan of Halloween because of the overtly commercialism.  I sigh and shake my head when I pass by homes with Halloween lights and even inflatable ghosts and ghouls because, let’s face it, its commercialism rivals Christmas.  Which isn’t a far off statement.  It’s the second biggest holiday behind Christmas with Americans spending some $6 Billion USD each year on the holiday.  That’s billion with a B.  And one fourth of all candy sales over the year is Halloween candy.

Now, you might point to Christmas and say the same thing on how commercial it is.  Yeah, but I celebrate Yule, which is vastly superior, in my book.  Also, I like Christmas caroles, even though many are modern, relatively speaking. The fact that today’s Christmas is a 19th century contrivance doesn’t necessary bother me.  But that is for another time.

Álfablót

Álfablót is usually celebrated at the last harvest. Which could be at the end of October.  When I think about harvest, I generally think about it as being something in late September or even early October.  The closest thing to Álfablót we might have in American culture might be Thanksgiving.  I really don’t think of it as Samhain or Halloween, but maybe you do?  I’d like your thoughts on it.

What to Do as a Heathen

Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t celebrate Samhain as a holiday.  It doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate Halloween as a holiday.   We’re the party-hardy kind of religion to begin with, so I think it’s quite appropriate to celebrate either if you want to.  I’m pretty certain that Northern pagans didn’t say “oh, I’m not celebrating that because it’s not traditional” when it came to holidays. Now, if you’re a recon, you may be thinking something different, but seeing as I’m not, I don’t have a problem with it.