ABOUT SKALDS, LESSER KNOWN YULE RITUALS IN OLD NORSE TIMES, OLD NORSE HEATHEN NEW YEAR RESOLUTIONS, AND HOW YULE CHANGED WITH THE NEW ROYAL ORDERS IN NORWAY…“Out on the great sea did he wish to drink Yule if he alone could decide - the war-lusting king - and there (on the sea) keep the Play of Freyr (=Yule) Even as a child he got tired of hearth-warmth and indoor-sitting the warm hall of women and gloves filled with feathers.”
The two verses above are from the “Song of Haraldr (Hárfagri)”, a skaldic poem by the hird-skald Thorbjörn Hornklofi during the late 9th century, and is one of our earliest known written references to the Heathen Yule-celebration.
Today, we are well past Christmas-celebrations now, but to the Old Norse, Yule was a longer period of time involving many different sorts of rituals from the time of the Winter Solstice and towards midwinter.
The poem was composed by one of Harald Hárfagris army-skalds, men who would record current events and brave actions of the king and his men in poetry known to us as “scaldic poetry”, a sort of poetry that provides us with the oldest sources we have in writing by Old Norse pre-Christian poets and to the minds and concepts of their culture.
HARALD KING OF NORWAY
Harald Hárfagri (“the Hair-Fair”) was the son of Halfdan Svarti (“the Black”), born to Ragnhild around 850 AD. At the time being, Norway still consisted of some 30 nations consisting of even more old tribes, and ruled either by kings (so-called “petty kings”, earls and/or by parliament (the Thronds were among the few remaining republics of Norway, ruled by Parliament only. Halfdan Svarti, however, had inherited both the nation of Vestfold after his father, and the nation of Rogaland after his mother Asa, and had aspired to conquer several other kingdoms during his lifetime. Then he married Ragnhild.
When Ragnhild was pregnant with Harald, she dreamt of a tree whose branches reached all over the country of Norway. This was a prophecy about what Harald was about to become: The first sole king to rule all the realms of Norway as one kingdom.
As a young man, Harald sought the hand of one mysterious Gyda (“Priestess”/”Goddess”) who lived in a tower and whose role and name strongly indicates an ancient symbol: The young king-to-be seeks the prophecy and meets the demands of a priestess/goddess who represents the land itself. To marry her is to become king of the land.
The young maiden declared that she would refuse to marry Harald until he had united all of Norway as one kingdom under himself. The young prince then wowed to conquer all the Norwegian realms and that he would not cut or comb his hair or beard until this was accomplished.
Then he set out on a quite successful quest, conquering the Norwegian realms one by one and forcing many great people who refused to bow their knees to the king to emigrate to Iceland. Each time he conquered a realm, he married a princess of that land, so Harald ended up having many wives – and lots of sons!
He became known as Harald Luva, “luva” meaning something like “dreadlocks,” the result of many years without cutting or combing ones hair.
Four hundred years later, Snorri Sturlusson decided that “Luva” (“Dreadlocks”) did not really suit the first King who united all of Norway, and formally renamed him “Harald Hárfagri”, which seemed to him far more noble and poetical, and for this reason it was accepted and the memory of Harald Luva almost vanished. Harald Hárfagri was in fact a name that would have been unknown to all Norwegians before Snorri invented it. But by this name-fraud we still remember him today.
MANY SONS TO INHERIT THE CROWN
Harald was crowned, as the first ever, king of all Norway in 872 AD. He ruled until his death in 931-932, upon which his many sons by many different women began to scheme and fight for the right to the same sovereignty. There had been no pan-Norwegian sovereigns before Harald, and there was no system saying that the oldest son of the “rightful queen” should inherit the throne. Oh, no. Harald was married to lots of women, probably one from each realm that he had conquered, and had several mistresses on the side as well. Each woman that Harald bedded and whose children he had formally acknowledged – even some that he had not, but who, through witnesses and trials, could “prove” that they were his sons, could claim the inheritance if only they were elected by the All-Parliament.
However,to become elected you needed the support of the voters, and these did not agree with each other, supporting one or the others, and so, wars upon war followed between the many half-brothers and their sons as well. It took quite a few centuries and a great deal of Christian ideals and laws before a more stable succession of kings was settled. A lot of this history may be read in the “Sagas of the Norwegian Kings” by Snorri Sturlusson.
BARBARIC NORWEGIAN HEATHEN COURTS?
One could imagine that the Norwegian royal courts remained quite barbaric and tribal until the kings and all their men became Christians and imported all the continental and Christian ideals and customs, which began to happen some time after 1030 AD. But before all those wars for sovereignty that happened after the ancient tribal system had collapsed under Harald Luva (sorry, “Hárfagri”)s sovereignty, there were in fact some sixty years (872-932) in which one king kept a royal court from which he ruled all of Norway – one king who was still deeply Heathen.
Yes, Harald Halfdansson Luva, King of Norway, was still a Heathen, but had already begun to copy the ways of great European kings, among them keeping around himself artists, poets, craftsmen and chroniclers to record the history that was taking place.
SKALDS AS CHRONICLERS
However, the Norwegian chroniclers differed from the continental ones by the fact that Norwegians still used writing only in severe cases, only as runes and only as short sentences, messages, spells, that sort of thing. So there was no chronicler to sit by the oil lamps writing down the records of each year such as you find in Anglo-Saxon England and in Frankia from the same time.
Instead of scribes and chroniclers, Harald, by the custom of his ancestors, kept skalds, people who made a living out of recording battles and conflicts and other historical events of their time, people learned in poetry and mythology, who would emphasize the ideals and the glory of their patronages.
SKALDIC POETRY AS PROPAGANDA – AND AS SOURCES TO CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING
And even if the poetry worked a bit like propaganda, it was still poetry, based on mythology, and this sort of poetry provide valuable insight into the very magical and mythological minds of these people.
In the poem byThorbjörn Hornklofi (Cleaver of Horns) quoted from above, we learn that Harald Luva (“the war-lusting king”) had no taste for the ancient ways of “drinking Yule” or “keeping the Play of Freyr” – two poetical ways of saying “celebrating Yule” – sitting indoors in the comfort (warmth) of the home (“hall of women”, the place for homebound softies).
Oh, no, the king wanted to celebrate out at the sea, in the harsh and hard realms of warlike men. Even as a child, he was thus determined on the manly ways, and had no taste for a soft life!
This is meant as propaganda, of course, as showing the warrior-ideals of the great king, meant to rally his warriors and turn their focus away from comfort and homely nieceties, towards the glory…and so on, and so on, but what it tells US is still a little more of what the Yule celebrations were about!
Earlier,I have written articles about some of the celebrations, involving the return of the Sun goddess, honoring the norns and the ancestral mothers, and the Yule-buck-games insinuating that Thor was also celebrated at this time.
FOR AS LONG AS THE BEER LASTS!!!! - HAKON THE GOOD PROPOSES A NEW LIMIT FOR THE DURATION OF YULE
A few years after Haralds death, one of his sons, Hákon góði Aðalsteinsfóstri, chased off his older half-brother, the very Heathen Eirik Blood-Axe, and became king of Norway and ruled for 30 years, not without resistance frm Eirik and his sons and other hostile relatives. But Hákon góði, who had been raised in England and fostered by the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelstan, was in fact a Christian, although he did not forcefully impose his faith on the still largely Heathen population.
The idea Norse-Germanic people automatically mass-converted if their king became a Christian is not true – the sources often descibe situations where the people simply tolerated that their king was a Christian for as long as he tolerated that they were not – and it so happened that Christian kings like Hakon were forced to participate in some important Heathen celebrations if they were to accept him. This is well-described by Snorri.
However, Hakon was the first to introduce a new law about when Yule was to be held, although the new law shows an interesting blend of new, Christian concerns, (the timing) and ancient Heathen concerns (the drinking):
”That the Yule should by law begin at the same time as it does among Christians, each man should keep beer from one measure of malt, or else pay atonement, and holiday should last for as long as the beer lasted.”
So the new law proposed that the ancient, Heathen Yule celebration should begin when Christians began their Christmas, around December 25th, and that the holiday should last for as long as the beer did (!!!), and each man should have no less than the amount of beer that could be brewed from one measure of malt, a way of ensuring that a certain amount of time would pass before the holiday was over – and to limit the brewing of beer so that working days could begin in due time. It also echoes a more ancient understanding of Yule and its connection with ritual drinking.
This way of timing Yule became the general Norwegian custom from some time after 933 AD.
But the Yule-tide during Heathen times was a longer period of time, involving many different rites and, as the poem indicates, a lot of indoor-sitting, the presence of many women (as opposed to life at sea, when there was hardly a woman in sight and no warm stove or feathered gloves), and a lot of drinking too! The very idea of “drinking Yule” as a way of spending time during this time-period proposes as much.
“THE BRAGI-TOAST” – THE OLD NORSE HEATHEN VERSION OF A NEW YEARS RESOLUTION
Thorbjörn Hornklofi also calls the Yule-celebration “keeping the play of Freyr”. What is meant by this?
Terje Nordby (in “Klassekampen” wednesday december 23, 2015) suggests that this is a reference to the Yule ritual known to the Norse as the “Bragafull”.
The Bragafull was a ritual toast about deeds one wished to accomplish soon – a sort of New Years resolution. A male pig, that is,a boar, would be brought indoors, and people would place their hands on the back of the boar to speak their “Bragi-promise” in the presence of witnesses. The boar was a symbol of Freyr, and it would be sacrificed, the oaths of the toast (Therefore a Bragi-toast) would be brought to the gods by the sacrifice! This was a sacred vow, and New Years resolutions today are but a bleak copy.
MIDWINTER AND THORRABLÓT