Myth & Mind: Harvests, hops, & human sacrifice

Nov 3, 17 • 5enses, Myth & MindNo Comments

“Snap-Apple Night,” by Daniel Maclise, 1883. Public domain via WikiMedia.Org.

By Reva Sherrard

Autumn has arrived. The wind changed almost overnight: one day towing monsoon clouds from the southwest in summer’s established pattern, then suddenly restive, keeping the trees awake after dark and setting a fresher edge on the mornings. The light, compressed a minute at a time by approaching winter, became a little clearer, more insistently golden. The wind’s mood in autumn, a combination of restlessness and certainty, has always made this season my favorite. The year is setting out on a journey whose destination is death.

To the ancient Celts, the germinant sleep of death preceded life; nightfall was the day’s beginning, and the beginning of winter was the new year. The festival of Samhain (SOW-inn), falling in early November, marks not merely the first day of winter but a resetting of the cosmic mechanism at a fundamental level. To pastoral-agrarian ancestors, winter’s onset meant it was time to move the herds down from the highlands to more sheltered pastures, time to reap and store the rich life of summer before harshening weather took it away, but furthermore the crux of nature’s cyclical drama of death and rebirth. As such it was a dangerous season: The doors between worlds stood open, and one might easily wander inside the hills where the race of fairy-folk lived — especially considering the marathon drinking bouts the Irish engaged in as a matter of course during the Samhain feasts.

Both the Celts and the Germanic peoples offered sacrifices at this time to maintain a good working relationship with that other world and its denizens, who included the dead and yet to be born in an overlapping pool of souls, and which directly influenced the earth’s fertility. The native English name for November is blōtmōnaþ, “Sacrifice Month,” after the immemorial practice of conducting the year’s most significant sacrifices at this time. In pagan Scandinavia, the late-autumnal celebration of Álfablót (Elf-sacrifice) honored ancestors as well as the local land spirits who imbued and patronized the farm. In contrast to community and state-based offerings such as the famous nine-years’ sacrifices at Uppsala, this was strictly a family affair, carried out in the privacy of the homestead by the woman of the house; her male counterpart was in charge of distributing large quantities of ale to the other household members (spot the theme), and making a sacrifice of the sacred beverage. Álfablót was so intensely holy, in fact, that it overrode otherwise inviolable customs of hospitality, as the 11th-century Christian skald Sigvatr Þórðarson discovered when he sought shelter in a series of Swedish farms during the observance and was repeatedly driven away by householders anxious to protect their all-important spiritual transactions from profanation.

In Celtic regions, the autumn sacrifice was more communal, and sometimes, human. The Irish bog body called Moydrum Man died with a stomach full of late-October-ripening sloes, a fruit which, having been sacred to the Celtic triple goddess of birth, fertility, and death, marks him as a sacrificial victim. Kings, too, might be killed in the fall. According to Irish legend the sixth-century rulers Muirchertach mac Ercae and Diarmait mac Cerbaill each underwent a “threefold death” — in their cases, by drowning (in wine and ale, respectively), burning, and being crushed by a roof-beam — at Samhain, after having received prophetic warnings of their ends. Their treble deaths bring to mind those inflicted upon ritually slain Irish and Danish bog bodies, whose executioners generally rendered them senseless with a striking injury before dispatching them with two further wounds by different kinds of weapons. Garrotting, hanging, stabbing, and decapitation were all fair game.

Certain Norse kings in the antique Yngling line met similar demises, often at the hands of their captive brides: One was hanged by his golden torc, many were burned in their halls like Muirchertach and Diarmuit, and one drowned in a vat of mead (naturally). One, Domaldi, was sacrificed outright at harvest-time to bring an end to three years of terrible famine. Accounts of his death have him variously hanged and slaughtered; likely both are true. He too fell victim to a vengeful wife, though not a mortal one. More than political figures, Bronze- and Iron-Age kings in northern Europe were married to the land and the multifarious goddess who ruled it — literally, via a white mare, in Irish coronation rituals (we may safely assume heavy alcohol consumption was involved here, too). As mediator between a tribe and the powers of nature, a king held ultimate responsibility for his people’s welfare and could be offered up to those powers as the ultimate recourse in times of dire need. Tales of wronged Yngling queens murdering their husbands may echo the prehistoric role of Scandinavian royal women as sacrificial priestesses, and the duty of royal men to die, if necessary, for the sake of their kingdoms. In Old Norse a sacrifice was said to be “sent” (senda), a communication to the other world as close as breath, or its lack, closest now of all times of the year.

Autumn has arrived; winter, as they say, is coming. So drink up, keep your eyes open, and stay away from open vats.

*****

While I aim for themes of general interest, my focus in this article is on the myths of Northwestern Europe because they are what I study. The world is full of other rich, complex, and sometimes contradictory traditions I omit because of my lack of sufficient knowledge, not through a lack of appreciation and respect.

Reva Sherrard works at Peregrine Book Company, studies Old Norse religion, and is writing a novel.

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