During previous Octobers, I have written about Viking creatures and things that go bump in the night. This October, I decided to investigate a simple question: did the early Scandinavians (who I will call Vikings for simplicity) celebrate Halloween? This blog post unveils what I found.
The Vikings celebrated the beginning of winter, though they did so in a way that reminds us of the Halloween we celebrate today. In Scandinavia, the feast at the beginning of winter was called Vetrnætr or “Winter Nights”. The onset of winter marks a turning point at which the sunlight and warmth of summer flee and winter’s cold sets in. It occurred in October, though just how it was celebrated and which god or gods were celebrated is not so clear cut.
According to Snorri Sturluson in Heimskringla:
““A sacrifice was to be made for a good season at the beginning of winter, and one in midwinter for good crops, and a third one in summer, for victory.”
We do know that there were feasts and celebrations associated with Vetrnætr. The celebrations would have probably included an animal sacrifice (blót), with communal feasting after the sacrificed animal had been cooked. Those animals may have been the weaker livestock who might not have survived the winter. That said, Hakon the Good’s Saga mentions specifically that a horse was sacrificed and cooked in a kettle.
““In fall, at the beginning of winter, there was a sacrificial feast at Lade and the king attended it… Jarl Sigurd proposed a toast, dedicating the horn to Odin, and drank to the king.”
Other references to a celebration suggest that it was in honor of Freyr and may have had some connection to elves. In the Icelandic Saga of Gisli the Outlaw, there is mention of a sacrifice to Freyr during the autumnal blót. Since Freyr is also known as the lord of the elves, some believe there might be some connection between the two. We see this again in the skaldic poem Austrfararvísur, or the East Journey Verses. Sigvat Thordarson journeys to Sweden at the beginning of winter. When he seeks a place to stay in a place called Hof, he is turned away because the people were all sacrificing to the elves:
“‘Do not come any farther in, wretched fellow’, said the woman; ‘I fear the wrath of Óðinn; we are heathen.’ The disagreeable female, who drove me away like a wolf without hesitation, said they were holding a sacrifice to the elves inside her farmhouse.’
This may have been what some sources call the Álfablót, a celebration held during or after the Winter Nights. The aim of this celebration and sacrifice was to connect to the spirits of ancestors and the land spirits, elves, dwarves, etc that surrounded farmsteads in order to establish or reinforce relationships of mutual trust, respect, and support with them. If this is the case, it is clear then why an outsider like Sigvat would not have been permitted to enter, though why he seemed surprised at being turned away suggests that perhaps his own people did not celebrate this blót.
In addition to the Álfablót, there was another sacrifice that was held called the Dísablót. This celebration was held in honor of the female spirits or deities called disir as well as the Valkyries. The original Dísablót appears to have been held during Winter Nights and may have included a sacrifice and an altar, though it is unclear whether people celebrated it in exchange of the Álfablót.
There is no indication that Vikings wore masks or costumes during these celebrations, though some masks have been found in Scandinavia. It is believed, however, that people left offerings to their ancestors and the land spirits outside their homes in order to gain their favor. It is also believed that these blóts took on a sinister visage. Snorri Sturluson describes Jarl Sigurd’s sacrificial celebrations this way:
“At this feast all were to take part in the drinking of ale. Also all kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it, horses also; and all the blood from them was called hlaut, and hlautbolli, the vessel holding that blood; and hlautteinar, the sacrificial twigs. These were fashioned like sprinklers, and with them were to be smeared all over with blood the stallar and also the walls of the hof, within and without, and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood.
With the advent of Christianity, the old pagan celebrations were reinvented. Winter Nights appears to have shifted to November 1, which is All Saints’ Day or Hallowmas. We know this because the Gula-Thing Law records that all farmers in the area were required to brew ale and hold a celebration for peace and prosperity and to celebrate all saints. Just what happened to the Álfablót, we do not know. As for the Dísablót, it was moved to early February and is still known and celebrated as Disting.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the read.
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