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The Month of Ýlir or the First Yule Month

The Month of Ýlir or the First Yule Month

I had been meaning to write about Ýlir for some time, but life and everything has gotten in my way (blah, blah, blah, excuses, excuses). So, I’m looking at the end of Ýlir and wondering if I can pull off a post before Yule. well, here goes very little.

The Norse divided the year into two seasons: winter and summer. Ýlir is the second month of winter in the Old Norse calendar. It is also the first Yule month. It generally started late November and ran until late December, usually ending on the Winter Solstice. The Viking calendar was flexible because it was set to the lunar phases. So, the actual dates varied when compared to our own calendar.

Let’s Talk Yule and Ýlir

It seems a number of websites have different opinions on Ýlir and Yule. Some sources claim that Ýlir gets its name from Yule, which is named after Jólnir from the word Jól. Jólnir is one of Odin’s many names, so it stands to reason that Ýlir is a reference to Odin.

The problem with this is that an Icelandic site points out that this is debatable because in 8th century Old English, géol, means Christmas festival. England was in the middle of conversion to Christianity by the 7th century and was mostly converted by the 8th century. That being said, there were still holdouts and pockets of paganism, so it’s likely that géol is what was carried over from the pagan winter celebration.

The word géol is the Anglo-Saxon word for Yule. We know that Norse pagans celebrated Jul — the old name for Yule and the Saxons were Germanic tribes with the same gods as the Norse. Now whether Ýlir references Yule is arguable, but I suspect it does.

Feasting during Ýlir

Now that we’ve beaten a dead etymological horse, let’s look at Yule. In many cases Norse and Germanic pagans held feasts that lasted twelve days and included the solstice. As I mentioned in my last post, land owners and nobles frequently used winter celebrations as a way of displaying their wealth and power. After all, what gave you more cred than hosting big feasts that had foods people normally didn’t have this time of year? The commoners loved it because it meant more food and celebrations. The nobles loved it because it was a good time, all around.

Not everything was about war during the Viking era, but even in the winter months, noblest tried to outdo each other. What better way to strengthen your people’s loyalty than show how generous you were?

What Yule was All About

December in Reykjavík, Iceland. Helgi Halldórsson from Reykjavík, Iceland, photographer. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. No, the Vikings didn’t have airplanes.

Yule was a twelve day celebration of the return of the sun. Even if you lived where you wouldn’t see the sun above the horizon, the winter solstice marked the last day of the year where the darkness was at its longest. After winter solstice, you could guarantee the days would start growing longer again.

In many ways, Yule signified the return of Baldr, the god of the summer sun. Just as summer solstice was the longest day before the northern hemisphere retreated into darkness, Yule marked the cycle of return to the light. So if Yule is Baldr’s return, summer solstice was the death of Baldr by Hodr’s hand.

I cover the history of Yule in this post, so I’m not really inclined to do so again. I also cover the Yule Goat and other Yule celebrations in previous posts, so check them out.

Have a wonderful Yule!

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The Month of Gói or Women’s Month

The Month of Gói or Women’s Month

Sorry I dropped off writing about the months. I’ll pick up now with the month of Gói, which is the fifth winter month in the Norse calendar. We don’t know a lot about the traditions of this particular month, except that the Norse named it after the daughter of Þorri, or Thorri. The month of Þorri precedes Gói, and is most known for its Thorrablot. Thorri is a winter spirit, akin to our own Jack Frost. Farmers held a blot to Gói in this month to welcome her. Tradition states that this month was the month where men took care of their women more. I can totally get behind that.

Weather During the Month of Gói

Gói runs somewhere between mid-February to mid-March, so there’s no doubt that even if the Spring Equinox is just around the corner, the weather during Gói was daunting during Viking times. The temperature in Norway was probably high 20s to low 40s Fahrenheit during the month, with occasional drops below zero. Sure, there were thaws, but the weather was too cold to consider planting, given that you could have some pretty nasty freezes. I suspect that farmers welcomes Gói because of the signs of an upcoming spring (even though they had only two seasons: winter and summer). Maybe Gói was considered a herald for summer when the farmers could plant their crops? Regardless, it’s unlikely anyone farmed during this time.

What Did People do with All that Winter?

At this point, you’re probably wondering how people didn’t go stir-crazy with all that winter. There were plenty of things to do during winter, especially crafting and repairs. People had to keep their livestock alive, which meant proper care for them in the winter so they would have wool, fiber, meat, and milk for the rest of the year. There was hunting, if you wanted fresh meat. They also played games, sang, told stories, and prepared their tools and weapons for the upcoming summer. And they had skis and ice skates to get around on the snow and lakes.

Food was what they preserved over the summer and fall. The cold, dry air allowed them to dry fish and other meats using a brine to help preserve them. The only fresh food was the meat they could hunt and catch, and perhaps milk, if their cows or goats started to calve or kid.  As a side note, you know all about the Christmas fruitcake, made from dried fruit and nuts. Well, I suspect these cakes come from earlier times as a way to provide a treat with fruit, even when the fresh fruit was out of season.

New Life

About this time, the livestock would start giving birth to their offspring. I know, because that’s how my goats are, if I breed them. The Viking farmers would’ve kept their calves, kids, and lambs inside with the other livestock, possibly in a birthing pen so the little ones could stick around their mom and not get trampled by the rest of the herd. They would’ve taken the extra milk to make cheese or use in cooking after the young ones had eaten their fill.

So, the month of Gói was largely spent in preparation for summer. In a few weeks, I’ll talk about the next month, Einmánuður.

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The Month of Gormánuður or the Slaughter Month

The Month of Gormánuður or the Slaughter Month

By now, we’re in the midst of Gormánuður according to the old Norse calendar. It is the first month of winter according to the ancient calendar, and it is the month of slaughter or butchering. I figured that since I’ve talked about Haustmánuður, the Harvest Month, I should continue with the months…well,…monthly, so you can get a feeling of the ancient Norse year.

A Bit of History About Refrigeration (Stick with me on this)

Nowadays we have refrigeration, which is possibly why Gormánuður may be puzzling to some of you. After all, we can get meat year round and keep it in the freezer or refrigerator. And you’re probably quite aware that our ancestors didn’t have refrigeration until 1913–not that long ago–available for home use. Even then, owning a home refrigerator was expensive and it didn’t become popular until the 1930s. So, your recent ancestors probably had iceboxes–that is actual boxes that held ice to keep their food fresh. The icebox was invented and patented by a farmer in 1802. The original icebox was made from wood, rabbit skins, and lots of ice (duh!).  The icebox took off, and there even was a market for harvested lake ice up until the 1930s. These required ice houses that kept the ice together even during the summer months until the lakes started freezing over again.

As an aside, as a child I did hear adults use the term “icebox” for refrigerator, even though the days of the icebox were long since gone. I assumed that they meant “freezer” because that’s where you kept the ice. Yeah, that makes me older than dirt. Deal with it.

How Did Gormánuður Get Its Name?

So, how did Gormánuður get its name? Well, if you didn’t have refrigeration or even an icebox, slaughtering an animal was a bit problematic. You had to either slaughter and prepare the

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

animal right there or risk spoilage, or you had to wait until the weather was cool enough to keep the meat fresh. Since it was very expensive to feed animals during the winter months (using up valuable resources of hay and grain), most farmers slaughtered all but their breeding stock for the next year. That required a way to preserve the meat so it would last during the winter and into the early part of the summer.

In many climes, Gormánuður was cold, but not brutally cold yet. Although the days were significantly shorter, there was still daylight left. And you could pretty much count on the weather keeping your food cold before you could salt it and preserve it further.

Common Practice Even into the 20th Century

Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

Surprisingly, the idea of butchering meat in the fall was common practice until fairly recently. It wasn’t that uncommon for farms to slaughter pigs in the fall and store to have “pork sales” in the months leading up to Christmas and Yule. If you ever wondered why it’s still popular for people to have a Christmas ham, there you go. That, and our ancestors had a ham to celebrate Freyr during Yule and the increasing daylight. In fact, after hunting season, I’m going to be slaughtering goats and geese to reduce the herd. I suspect other farmers and ranchers out here do that out of necessity, too.

Nowadays, we see some of the remnants of this, but in the age of factory farming and a global economy, we can get foods we like anytime and don’t have to wait to get our favorite foods. All we have to do is shell out a bit more money to get what we want. When I buy foods, I tend to choose local, so the seasons are more apparent to me.

Ways to Celebrate Gormánuður

With Thanksgiving or Harvest coming up, celebrating Gormánuður is easy. Farmers and ranchers have raised turkeys to be slaughtered during the fall just in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas. While they’re not pigs, goats, or cattle, you can certainly go with the intent of the season. Here are some other ways to celebrate Gormánuður:

  • Look for deep deals on local pork.
  • Choose foods which would have been harvested in October and November as part of your Harvest meal.
  • Choose local foods over those imported from the gods know where.
  • Learn all you can about local farming and slaughter practices. Find those farmers who use sustainable methods and patronize them.
  • Hunt for your meat. You’ll have a learning curve if you don’t hunt, so if you can find a knowledgeable and ethical hunter who will let you tag along this year just to help them (and maybe get some yummy venison), do that.
  • Get your pantry stocked up for Yule.

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