by Garman Lord April 16, 1991
published in "Mountain Thunder" (Spring 1993) and in "Daymals, Hours, Days, Months and Years: A look a Heathen Time-keeping" published by THEOD, PO Box 8062, Watertown, NY, 13601
"The ancient English peoples, on the other hand (for it does not seem congruous to me to speak of the yearly observance of alien peoples and to be reticent concerning my own) reckoned their months by the course of the moon. Just as amongst Hebrews and Greeks they received foolish names; even as they called the moon (luna) mona, the month (mensis) was called monath."
Thus begins the text, written in 725 C.E., of the only treatment of the Old English heathen calendar that has survived down to our times; the version set down by the most revered mediaeval scholar in the English-speaking world... the monk known since his own day as the "Venerable Bede".
This text... written in Latin, unfortunately... was a
chapter in a larger work; a schoolbook that Bede wrote entitled "De Temporum
Ratione". It is all about "times and seasons", including discussions of the
calendars of the Romans and Greeks, and derives from the mediaeval churchly
concern about its calendar, and especially the proper date for the observation
of Easter. Few more futile questions have ever vexed the mind of man than that
of the proper date for Christian Easter, based as it must be on the insoluble
puzzle of the date upon which Jesus may be supposed to have risen from the dead.
For heathen, of course, neither a strict and regular worldly calendar nor the
proper date in it to keep Easter have ever been a problem. The heathen
calendar is the sky, and Easter is kept at Eastertide (the Vernal Equinox). For Christianity, whose calendar is the old Roman political one, it's all quite another matter, and it greatly vexed the brilliant faculties of Bede, once even forcing him to answer a charge of heresy, in an age when having the wrong opinion about what day to celebrate Easter on could get you killed. But in fact, about the only part of the question that Christianity was relatively well agreed-upon was that it should not coincide with 14 Nisan, the Jewish Passover. Such was the view of the largest faction, the "Anti-Semites"... which is where the term "Anti-Semitism" originated.
Bede's remarks on the native (heathen) English calendar
are hardly more than a sidebar to his ecclesiastical concerns. This is
unfortunate. In what he has written it is plain to see that, a century and a
quarter after the coming of Augustine to England, heathenry was still alive and
well, at least in the countryside. Considering what a man of Bede's mental
calibre could have told
us about his own culture, rather than the foreign ones, had he chosen to make that his topic, the loss seems catastrophic. But half a loaf is better than none, and we ought rather to rejoice to have anything at all. What is more, any consideration of what Bede did write about the English calendar must note straightaway that there was little enough that Bede could have told us about English country matters. Bede was raised in a monastary from the age of six, and it shows, as we shall see.
In this writer's humble opinion, Bede's observations are harked-to far too slavishly by scholars in general, who seem overawed by the Venerable one's reputation as an earnest, honest and supposedly knowledgeable reporter. Earnest and honest, yes... but how knowledgeable is Bede, really, when he speaks of heathenish matters? In fact, he too often sounds as if he got his information from some country yeoman whose speech he could not readily understand, and his observations often read like little better than hearsay evidence and conjecture. Let's take it from the top.
"The first month," says Bede, "which the Romans name January, is with them (the heathen) Giuli". Today, of course, we call it "Yule". "Then follow February, Solmonath... (which) may be rendered `month of cakes', cakes being offered in this month to their gods..."
Another name that has survived for February is
"Sprout-Kale" (Sprout- Cabbage). Bede, no doubt, took "sol" here to mean "sun",
as hordes of scholars after him have since been inclined to do, with much futile
speculation all round about what connection February could possibly have with
the sun or "sol" could possibly have with "cakes". Some have even been led by
this to build speculation upon speculation and infer some species of sun-worship as having been part of Old English heathenry. But wouldn't it be less of a stretch, rather, to imagine that perhaps Bede misheard a word that might have been an archaism in his day and therefore unfamiliar to him? What if what the farmer said was really "Suhlmonath", or "Plow Month"... ie, the
month of the "Charming of the Plow", perhaps? After all, we know from at least one surviving source just how vital such customs were amongst our ancestors. The Old English "charm" known as the "Aecerbot" (Land-Benefit) is in fact just such a charm, and even features the conspicuous use of specially-prepared cakes!
"March", says Bede, is "Hredmonath... named from their
goddess Hreda, to whom they sacrificed in this month." Grimm, in his DEUTSCH
MYTHOLOGIE, speculates that "Hreda" may have been a "Victory" goddess. Other
surviving names for
this month, not given by Bede, include "Hlythmonath" (Cleansing- or Purifying- month) and "Lenctenmonath", or month of the "Lengthening" (of the days)... from which Christianity borrowed the term "Lent".
"April... (is) Eosturmonath, which is now interpreted as 'Paschal month' (and) had its name from their goddess Easter (Eostre), to whom they held festivals in this month..." Undoubtably Eostre is glad that we still do, after a fashion, at least. We may no longer join the procession through the village of Godiva, the Spring-Maiden, as she strips herself naked by strewing and tossing the flowers with which she is Blaedowith-clad and flogs out Annis the Hag of Winter (last year's Spring-Maiden) in mock battle, but at least we've still got the bunnies and eggs and the Easter Parade as the "real" meaning of Easter for most people. Of course, to Bede, such things would have seemed as heathenish as holding "Paschal" on "Pesach", or 14 Nisan. Bede notes that Anglo-Saxon "mona" (moon) is the root of the word "monath" (month; `fulfilment' of the moon), but one can see that he has not thought about the heathen calendar much, or else doesn't really consider it a "moon" calendar like that of the Hebrews, as his second sentence would seem to imply.
In fact, such a calendar as the heathen one could only
have been "solunar", taking sun holidays such as Yule and Easter into account as
it does, and being a practical farming tool for a northern clime. Whatever Bede
may have thought, we shall argue below that the heathen calendar may actually
have taken the sun year into account a good deal, whether by the influence of
ancient Mithraism, as some have cogently argued, or by the influence of natural necessity. As to the Hebrew year, Pesach (Passover), after all, is not really Easter, which doesn't seem to have been kept by the Hebrews, who wouldn't have needed it for anything anyway. It is merely the full moon of the month in which Easter occurs amongst races who do keep it. It would
appear from this that the Hebrew month runs from new moon to new moon, which is logical.
"May," says Bede, was "Thrimilchi (which) was so called
because in this month milking was performed three times a day, such being then
the richness of Britain, or perhaps rather of Germany, from which the English
people entered Britain." Another surviving name is "Thriyilr, which sounds as if
it ought to mean "Three Yields". Note the high antiquity that Bede seems ready
attribute to this calendar, both here and in his opening words, where he attributes it to the "ancient" English peoples. Here he seems to feel... rightly enough, we should think... that the English may have brought this calendar over from Germany with them when they first came (around 450 C.E.).
Even so, what with varying month-names, which Bede seems unaware of, we ought to suspect considerable local variations in calendar-craft. We never hear that Anglo-Saxon heathenry kept any great schools for teaching its lore (though there MUST have been some sort of schooling in some things, such as poetry-craft, for instance, which, amongst the English, as amongst the other heathen German races, is far too regular and polished a craft to have gotten that way by chance).
But again, we are reminded that we are reading a
schoolbook here. It was the Church, with its mentality so different from the
heathen, that had the crying need for "schooling". It was the Church, an "urban"
sociological phenomenon, after all, and thus much more like our society today,
who despised nature as "heathenish" and wanted to accustom its flocks to a
universally useless urban calendar fit for little more than marking paydays.
This makes a good exemplar of why Christianity has always had such tough
sledding in the countryside, or "heath". The "heathen" were country-people whose
payday was harvest time, whose real calendar-craft was writ large for them in
the sky for anyone who knew how to read it, and for whom the Church calendar was
about as useful as tits on a turtle. Moreover, beyond what anyone with eyes can
read in the sky for himself, it does not seem likely that heathenry would have
cared what seasons were locally called, or thought that local variations were
worth excommunicating or killing anyone over.
"June" and "July", Bede goes on to say, are both called "Litha," (which) "means bland or navigable because in both of these months bland is the serenity of the air and the seas are wont to be navigated."
Really? Bede sounds like he's trying to build a case here, and not a very convincing one at that. We shall have more to say about this observation later. For now, let it suffice to note other names that folklore remembers; for June "Searmonath" (Dry-month) and for July "Hegmonath" (Hay-month) and "Maedmonath" (Mead-month).
August is "Weodmonath... the month of weeds, since then
they most abound." Makes sense! Other names for the month remembered by folklore
include "Thunormonath" (Thundermonth), "Wyrtmonath" (Wort- or "plant-" month),
"Weormonath" (Dung-month). Perhaps more notably, though not noted by Bede, this is the month that begins with Hlafmaesttyd, or "Lammastide", the "maest" (feast) of "hlafs" (loaves). This would seem a greater occasion for our ancestors than for our pampered selves today. Considering that whatever grain was left after winter would probably have been sown at planting time, this would be bread baked from the year's first grain harvest, and might have been the first bread that some communities had had in quite a while... not to mention the first chance to start brewing some more beer! In fact, there
would seem to be a good exercise in the study of all this some day for some agriculturalist who was also an expert on folklore calendars, both pagan and heathen. Traditionally, "Lammas-Eve" is "August-Eve", the last night of July, going back to an age when we know that our ancestors marked time not by "days" but by "nights"... in other words, like the Jews still do today, with
the day running not from midnight to midnight but rather from sunset to sunset. Would the grain milled then have been planted and harvested by the sun date or by the phases of the moon? Would Lammastide have been, originally a "sun" holiday (August-Eve) or a "moon" holiday (the moon marking the beginning of "Weodmonath")? No doubt a really convincing answer to that question could shed its light in quite a few other dark places.
September is "Halegmonath... the month of sacred rites."
Another name, apparantly unknown to Bede, is "Gerstmonath", or "Grist-month". It
is a pity that Bede must so diffidently decline to hint to us as to what "sacred
rites" Halegmonath might be the month of. Of course the idea that springs most
immediately to mind would be that of Easter's opposite number; Harvest
Em-night, or the Autumn Equinox.
October was "Winterfylleth,... as much to say `winter full moon'", says Bede. And this might give rise to an interesting bit of speculation. We noted before the seeming observance amongst the Jews of a month that would run from new moon to new moon. Is Bede implying here that the month of our ancestors ran from full moon to full moon? It is an attractive notion. In our climes, after all, the full moon itself is often enough unobservable; never mind the new moon, by definition a physically unobservable event. Moreover, we ought to consider other folkloric names for this month; "Haerfaestmonath" (Harvest-month) and "Wynmonath" (Joy- month); presumably the "joy" of harvesttime. This is another field of speculation ripe for "harvest" for our hypothetical expert referred to in the context above of the Lammastide observance. Just how far can a moon- based calendar slide with respect to sun observances and such? Bede alone does not seem to give us enough to go on. At the very least, here, we seem to have "Harvest Em-night" (Equinox) falling under the month preceding the "Harvest Moon", and thus propounding some semantical puzzles, at least, that the present writer shall make no attempt to resolve here.
November was Blotmonath, (Blood-month), also remembered as Windmonath, for obvious reasons. According to Bede: "Blotmonath is the month of sacrifices, because in that month they consecrated to their gods the animals that they were about to kill. Thanks be unto Thee, O good Jesus, who hast turned us away from these vanities, and hast granted us to offer to Thee the sacrifices of praise."
Don't mention it, my son. Now get back to your scriptorium and your Easter calculations, Venerable one! What our ancestors were doing at that point was slaying whatever stock they had not fodder enough to winter over and making it into sausage and such. They were in fact bathing the land in blood... which is what Hallowe'en is all about. Blood-baths can stir up the spirits abroad in the land, and ought not to be done ignorantly, like we do it today, but in a properly hallowed and consecrated way, and with due gifts back to the gods who gave it all in the first place, and whose protection ought to be sought at such times. As to poor Bede, one wonders if perhaps he was a vegetarian, or maybe just an "Anti-Semite" who preferred to "forget" how things were done back in the Temple that his own religion originally sprang from, built by people who to this day will not eat the meat of an animal not killed by a priest.
We are brought nearly full circle at this point, to December, which Bede terms: "Giuli, the same as for January. They began the year with December 25, the day we now celebrate as the birthday of dominus. And the very night that is sacrosanct to us these people call modranect, that is, the mothers' night, a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies which they performed while watching this night through."
Sounds quite "Saturnalian" to me, or Mithraic, perhaps. Obviously December 25 marks a sun-observance; the Winter Solstice. Thanks to the precession of the equinoxes this now occurs a few days earlier in the heavens, but that is what it was and is. Moreover, Bede signalizes it as the ancient English New Year's Day, or "Night", as it would have been thought of in those times. How seriously are we to take, then, Bede's opening remarks that we earlier interpreted as suggesting that the English calendar was lunar?
What this writer suspects is that the original prehistoric
English calendar may have been solunar, with other calendars later overlaid upon
it, thanks to contacts with other cultures such as the Roman, and even somehow
interwoven more precisely with it, as perhaps we shall see below. Certainly a
word like "Giuli" (Yule), which can only refer to a sun holiday, is both native
old; old enough to be somewhat distorted and no longer, even in those days, intelligible to the speakers that used it. To this writer, the most likely etymology that suggests itself would be as a corruption of "ge-wheel"; the word "wheel", in other words, prefixed by the pan-Germanic perfective intensifier "ge". The word has long puzzled scholars, with some of the more romantically inclined of them in the past having seen the word "wheel" lurking in there and interpreting it as an excuse to attribute sun-worship to our ancestors, in terms of the "sun-wheel". But this seems quite unnecessary. If it really is a perfective of "wheel", what else could it refer to but the "wheeling" or coming-about of the course of the sun along the southern horizon, as it makes its southern station, or "solstice"?
Thanks to Bede, we know that our ancient ancestors watched
this night through, just as is still the custom in many German countries today.
According to him, this was the `mothers' night', another bit of slang that has
exercised the imaginations of scholars greater and lesser ever since. But what
did Bede really understand by that term? Did he get it right himself? By
this writer's reckoning, it seems more likely that the name for the observance ought to have been "Mother of Nights", or, as we would be more inclined today to express it, "First Day of the Year." It should be noted, though, that no manuscript version (of which several have survived) supports "Mother of Nights" as a plausible reading. Whatever Bede may have heard, what
he wrote was "matrum noctem". I know that there are some heathen, of course, who keep it as a kind of "mothers' night", by having the girl be "born" that night (ie, passed ritually between the legs of a female "Mother" figure) who is destined to become the "gift of the gods", the Eostre/Godiva Spring-Maiden, later Queen of the May, etc., as the year unfolds, and I consider it, in a religion as indulgently undoctrinaire as heathenry, a laudable custom in its way, whatever the truth of the matter may be. We may not know for sure whether we worship the sun or not, but we do consider it female!
The important thing, however, is something that folklore
remembers that Bede does not mention; that December is properly "Aergiuli"
(Before-yule) and January is "Aeftergiuli" (After-yule). If the months be truly
lunar, and therefore movable, and Yuletide is solar, and therefore fixed, it
would seem to mean that "Aergiuli" is whatever month Yuletide begins in, thereby
establishing all the rest and fixing the year. Yuletide, of course, begins with `mothers' night', which Bede calls "the very night that is sacrocanct to us". This would surely be "Christmas Eve". Note the implications here. What is for us the "evening" of the 24th, which won't end until midnight by our reckoning, would be for our ancestors the "night" of the 25th, beginning at sunset. It would be the first night of the twelve of Yuletide for watching your dreams for omens of the twelve months to come. Yuletide has already begun; we're just waiting for the sun to show herself on the southern horizon. Perhaps a certain amount of "dozing off" is tolerated on "mothers' night" for dreaming purposes!
But we need now to go out to the opposite spoke of the year wheel, where we left some unfinished business. June and July, we remember, Bede termed "Litha", a fine time for sailing. Elsewhere he has more to say about this, to him at least, most salubrious of seasons:
"The peoples who welcomed the year in the same way also assigned three lunar months to each season of the year; when, however, an embolism occurred, that is, a year of thirteen lunar months, they added the superfluous month to the summer, so that in that case three months in succession were called Litha. Such a year was known as thrilithi, having four months of summer, and three of each of the other seasons."
In fact, as on analogy with Yuletide, June was "Aerlitha" and July was "Aefterlitha". A thrilithi year would then have an additional month in between, not named by us but obviously by them called Litha. No doubt by now all the school-kids reading this are lobbying for us to go back to the old calendar! One solar year is approximately twelve-and-a-third "moons" long, which would suggest that by about every three years the calendar would be a month out-of-whack and the next year would be a thrilithi. June, then, or "Aerlitha", would be able to keep on functioning as the month in which Midsummer occurs, just as December or "Aergiuli" is the month in which "Mothers' Night" occurs. Midsummer is of course the Summer Solstice, or first day of Summer, which confuses some people. It sounds as if it should be in the "middle" of something! What must be understood in that usage is that in Anglo-Saxon, the word "mid" means what we mean by the word "with"... which, in Anglo-Saxon usually means "against". Confused? Good. The word "midwife" is another similar survival of ancient usage in the modern language. But another term for "Midsummer" must have been "Litha", which ended up lending its name to a cluster of months just like Yule did, as an alternate term for what should probably be "Mother of Nights". What does "Litha" really mean? Does it really mean "pleasant" here, or have to do with sailing?
What this writer suspects that Bede didn't tell us, undoubtably because he did not know it himself, is that "litha" really means "relenting". It really means the other extreme of the sun's course along the horizon. In other words, the sun proceeds southward over the year until it "yules", or "gewheels", whence it tacks northwards again until Midsummer, when it "leeths" or "relents" of its northern course to tack south again. This may sound a little tendentious, but, to me, so does Bede's explanation. What I like to think it all means is that the ancient calendar went way way back for our ancestors, back to forgotten times and usages in the language, and so did reckoning of the sun's position in the year, whatever later calendar conventions may have been overlaid in Classical times. It may at one time, in an age which Bede's age has already forgotten about, have been a very sophisticated solunar calendar indeed, for all we can tell now, looking at it through the wrong end of history's telescope.
Why "solunar", one might ask, aside from the obvious trait of naming moons? Because of the suggested intercalation convention, and because of one more observation that Bede makes: "The general division of the year was into two seasons, winter and summer, summer comprising the six months in which the days are longer than the nights, and winter the others. Hence the month with which they began the winter season was called Winterfylleth, a name compounded of the terms for winter and full moon, because from the full moon of that month winter was esteemed to begin."
In some respects, it is not possible to tell what Bede was talking about here. He probably thought he was being clear enough, of course. But in fact, being a monk, he is not only thinking about the ecclesiastical calendar, rather than the real one, but is writing in Latin, which forces him to talk about his own folk as if they were a lot of barbarous strangers, use words like "annus" where we would say "year" and he in his own mother-tongue would probably have said "half-year" or "winter", and say "hiems" where we would say "winter" and gods-only-know what Bede might have said, etc. etc. etc. In short, there is a language barrier here which would need someone much cleverer than either Bede or myself to surmount, and, just like in court or in bureaucracy today, one surely wishes-to-hell that folks would speak English! We do know, however, that Bede's English-speaking countrymen would probably say "winter" in most places where we would say "year", since, for them, "year" just meant "growing-season"... and by analogy with them saying "nights" where we would say "days", we might assume that, for them, a "year" began with "winter" just as a "day" began with "nightfall". Note that even Bede instinctively lists "winter" first in the year. What about a calendar, then, that begins with the first day of winter? Today, of course, Yuletide, or Midwinter, is the first day of winter and easily enough understood by us as our ancestors' "New Year's Day". But what if winter begins not then, really, but, as Bede implies, on the "first" day of October (Winterfylleth)?
Bede sheds no light for us, and we wonder if he just didn't know or just didn't think about it. But it certainly seems here as if we are looking at two different calendars, one older and one newer, perhaps, somehow overlaid and then grown together over time. Perhaps the one in which the year begins in October is the older, half forgotten one. In any case, note what day it starts upon. It starts upon the "full moon"... Bede is at least quite specific about that point... of the "month" that we now call October. What kind of calendar, then, would this hypothetical "prehistoric" calendar have been? What kind of calendar begins with a full moon for its New Year's Day? All together, then; let's hear it, now: A LUNAR calendar!
It may, of course, also have been "solunar". We have noted in the foregoing both sun- and moon- usages that seem to be "old". We only wish that all these riddles within Bede's tale could be cleared up somehow. Is there any way to do this? In fact, there is, here as in so many other aspects of heathenry. We can, over time, reconstruct what it would have had to have been; the sun and the moon, after all, are still there in the steads where the Mighty Ones put them and they still remember, even if we do not. What little Bede has troubled to give us may in fact be enough; may ultimately be all the leg-up we need for the work.
No doubt the Venerable Bede would be less than delighted.