Friday, January 10, 2014

High Day Essay: Winter Solstice

The winter solstice celebration among neo-pagans is most often referred to as Yule.  Based upon descriptions of pre-Christian Germanic and Norse winter festivities, there are a variety of ways that Yule is observed today.  Most practices include the lighting of a special candle or log, symbolic meals and gift-giving.  For some, Yule begins on the winter solstice itself; for others the celebration begins a day or two prior.  The length of the Yule celebration can vary, typically lasting anywhere from one to twelve days.

Descriptions of ancient Yule celebrations are available in sagas and other historical accounts dating to as early as the 4th century.  These accounts sometimes contain conflicting information but generally agree on the elements of celebratory feasts, multiple toasts and sacrifices.  A summary of historical texts suggests that Yule celebrations lasted at least three days and may have been focused on the god Odin (specifically, his psychopompic aspects).

Slavic cultures lack the depth of pre-Christian historical accounts of pagan observances that are available to Germanic and Norse scholars.  There are, however, several texts which describe aspects of winter festivals in ancient Slavic lands.  In Poland, these winter festivities are known as Dziady (literally, "Grandfathers").  In it's most archaic form, Dziady was a festival in honor of the ancestors and Veles, the Slavic god of the underworld and the shepherd of souls.  The time preceding the solstice was seen as one of increasing chaos which allowed the gates between the living and dead to open.  Dadźbóg, the god responsible for shuttling the sun across the daytime sky and through the underworld at night, was perceived as crippled or hindered at this time.  Bonfires were lit and ritual meals were consumed.  Children and teens roamed from house to house, singing songs that the performers hoped prophesied good luck in the coming year.  It was not unusual for some of the young men to don animal skins and headgear supporting horns, appearing in the image of Veles himself.  This time of liminality ended with the return of the sun and Dadźbóg's strength.  Several scholars suggest that the winter solstice may have originally been the start of the new year in some pre-Christian Slavic cultures.

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