Wednesday, 19 December 2018

A Quaker Yule

A neatly-made bonfire with a wide circle of people around, hands linked, processing around the bonfire in a clockwise direction.
Even thirty years ago, the word Yule would not have been completely foreign to English-speaking ears. After all, we've used the word Yuletide to refer to the Christmas period for some time. Indeed, the cognate jul exists as a modern word in the Scandinavian languages to refer to the Christian holiday of Christmas.
These days it's not unusual for people to be aware of the pre-Christian roots of the word, referring to a midwinter festival or holiday in the Germanic world. The exact practices among Germanic pre-Christians varied; while their languages and cultures, and indeed religion, shared common roots and themes, there was considerable cultural variation. We know, or at least think we know, of the dísablót and álfablót of the Norse, the public and private sacrifices that took place (as best we can tell, in some periods and some places) around the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. The first honoured, perhaps placated, the dísir, a range of female spirits and gods, and the Valkyries; the latter the elves, mythic and folkloric figures attributed a great range of impacts of daily life. As the names suggest, each of these was a blót, an act of ritual worship generally involving a sacrifice, generally of an animal (though the similarity of “blót” and “blood” is generally understood to be coincidental). Some sources and evidence indicate that there was also human sacrifice, though evidence that is not questionable generally points to this being exceptional, and generally associated with war.
So far, so much interesting (if hideously simplified for brevity) history. What does it have to do with the world (or society) today, and especially what does it have to do with Quakers? We are not, after all, Germanic pre-Christians.
Well, one reason that people are aware of the origins of the word Yule is that it has been picked up by a range of neopagan traditions. Germanic traditions, such as Ásatrú, or the broad category of Heathenry, use it variously, but always for a winter holiday. Wiccan traditions most usually apply it to the winter solstice itself, or occasionally to December 21st of the Gregorian calendar, regardless of when the solstice actually falls. It is also the case that some neopagans are also Quakers. Even if they weren't, standing by my reasoning as given in my other posts on “Times and Seasons” suggests that we have the opportunity to learn from other traditions, to take inspiration from anywhere – not to mark the season or a day as religiously special, but to find prompts from such times and traditions to enrich our religious lives.
A snowy winter landscape with the sun barely below the hills in the distance, creating a gradient colour effect in the sky. There is a trail of prints through the snow, and scattered conifers.
Midwinter festivals are quite common. Across Europe they have been known as far back as we have any evidence, though not always falling on the solstice itself. The Romans had their well-known Saturnalia, and the lesser-known Brumalia. We have already described the pre-Christian Germanic festivals that will have had related events across northern Europe. There is an attested festival of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons in Britain known as Mōdraniht (“night of the mothers”). The Ancient Hellenes, or Greeks, had a bewildering array of festivals, with observances and calendars varying between polis (city-state), though the people of Athens dedicated the midwinter month to Poseidon – which is a little perplexing, as one wouldn't be sailing very much. Perhaps it was more to do with his association with storms.
Going further east, to the land and peoples now known as Iran/Iranian – and historically as Persian, among other names – we find the (probably) originally Zoroastrian tradition, still celebrated today, of Yaldā Night. The name is thought to come from contact with Nestorian Christians, who used the Syriac yalda, or birth, as the proper noun for the festival now known to most English-speaking Christians as Christmas, which they celebrated on the day before the winter solstice. It may also be cognate with an Arabic term by linguistic interference, or with jul (which does at least come from the same language family as Persian). It might even be both – Arabic borrowing from an Indo-European language, and Persian (also Indo-European) borrowing from Arabic. Languages are strange things. It is also known, for complex but more certain reasons, as Shab-e-Chelleh, “night of forty”. It is, in any case, originally a festival for the protection of people from the evil spirits that thrive in the darkest times of the year; today it is associated with cultural traditions and light-hearted superstitions concerning omens and good luck charms for the year ahead, comparable with new year traditions in much of the culturally European world. In researching this post, I even learned that the Sumerians celebrated the solstice with a festival that came to be known among Turkic peoples as Nardoqan, related to the Sumerian instance of the dying-and-rising-god archetype, Dumuzid (also known as Tammuz).
It's easy to see two big reasons for religious festivals around the solstice – one related to the “religious” part, and the other to the “festival” part. The dying of the light, and the return of the sun, as powerful symbols. For any people not located close to the equator, the seasons, and the length of days, must be major parts of life, especially for pre-modern societies. They determine the cycles of agriculture, when to plant and harvest. They determine when you can readily carry on any activity dependent on light, especially if artificial light is as poor quality and/or expensive as it often was. The symbolism is almost irresistible when seeking to attach ritual significance to times and seasons, the changes in the world a compelling question to be explained by religion. The lack of productive activity makes it a rich opportunity for celebration and relaxation, supported by the idea of ritual significance. In northern Europe, it would particularly be associated with the eating of meat, as any animals that you didn't wish to make special efforts to keep alive until spring would be slaughtered. Much might be preserved, but not all parts of every animal are amenable to preservation, and it would be hard to resist eating some while it is fresh; how helpful, then, to have a religious festival to further justify such consumption.
Whatever you might think about the timing of Christmas, whether or not it is an accurate representation of the birthday of an historical Jesus of Nazareth one thing seems clear. If it had been at another time of year it seems overwhelmingly likely that the Christian Church would have found some sort of significant celebration to be held around this time. That the celebration that is held relates to birth (to the extent of being named as such in some language) fits in with the broader and longer pattern across many cultures.
A decorative diagram showing the key holy days of some forms of heathenry, or Germanic neopaganism. At the top of the circle is Yuleblot, from the 19th to the 26th of September, and proceeding clockwise we also see Disablot, Ostarablot, Walpurgisnacht, Middsummerblot, Freyfaxi, Haustblot, and Winternacht. The more minor festivals of Vali's Blot, Yggdrasil Day, Winterfinding, Ancestor's Blot and Mutternacht are also included.
The cycle of festivals in some forms of heathenry.
So, with that context, let us return to Yule, in its modern neopagan sense. I admit to being hesitant to write too much about anything neopagan, despite knowing some traditions better than I know many world religions. I am not, for the most part, any sort of practitioner of any neopagan faith, but more than that it is my knowledge that holds me back. This is because of the range, not simply of beliefs and practices, but of attitudes to the idea of tradition among neopagans. Many, especially of those I know personally, see one of the beauties of neopaganism as its flexibility, the syncretic nature of many traditions. They can take what they want from different sources, and use it more or less as they wish. However, there are also those who follow neopagan traditions – especially those that claim to be direct continuations of pre-Christian traditions or faith reconstructions of pre-Christian traditions, or those that have created their own institutions – that have a more prescriptive attitude. They see their faith as a coherent whole that can and should be followed “correctly”, as is seen as common among mainstream established religions. Unsurprisingly, those pagan Quakers that I have had contact with tend to be in the former category. Those in the latter category may object to the neo part of “neopagan”, and also object to any attempt to lump together such traditions, either in the very broad brush of neopaganism, or in the narrower brush of “Germanic neopagan” or “European neopagan”. My own experience is of those who draw most of their inspiration from Wiccan and Germanic sources, with a fair bit of Celtic thrown in (especially among those identifying as Wiccan). There are also neo-Hellenic neopagans, and I've conversed with the odd one or two who draw from inspirations such as Kemetism, a neopagan tradition based on ancient Egyptian spirituality. Ancient pagans weren't averse to a bit of syncretism themselves, of course; the Roman hegemony is well-known for it, integrating the religions of those they conquered or otherwise imposed dominion over, or even just had some cultural contact with, into their own – as long as they were somewhat polytheistic, anyway. A lot of peoples at the time were somewhat open to syncretism, the integration of different groups of deities and manners of worship, recognition of a degree of validity, or even compatibility, between different systems. They had some trouble applying this principle to the Hebrews of the time, not least due to the resistance of those Jewish people to any interference in their religious life, and the idea that to worship the God of Abraham one had to renounce all other gods. Similarly, they had problems (if we can believe their own accounts) with the beliefs and practices of the Celtic druids, due to their practice of human sacrifice – something that was rather beyond the pale to the Romans.
So, I shall not overly attribute anything I am talking about to a particular tradition, except in linking it to what we know of the practices of various pre-Christian peoples. I shall use alternative names freely and liberally, and ask my pagan readers – whether you accept the neo prefix or not – to indulge me. My objective is not giving an accurate rendition of any particular tradition, certainly not of all widespread traditions. It is rather to present a range of ideas that Friends, and others, may find spiritually valuable.
Two modern celebratory/spiritual observance traditions, or at least terms, that are based on Norse/Germanic pre-Christian practice are those of the blót, the previously mentioned sacrificial rite, and the symbel (or sumbl, which may be a better pronunciation guide for modern English speakers), originally meaning simply “feast”. We know somewhat of both from surviving sagas and epic poetry, both Norse and Anglo-Saxon. The blót was a relatively solemn rite, conducted in man locations, and involving sacrifice – typically of some ritually significant animal. The symbel was a more raucously festive occasion, a feast or banquet, though the perspective on it that has made its way into modern neopagan practice tends to have key ritual components. Certainly the sagas indicate there were ritual elements, though they may not have been the focus of the occasions – and one may question the value of sagas in attempting to discern actual historical practice.
The blót of historical practice involved, as far as we can tell, the slaughter of the sacrifice, the blood being caught in vessels and sprinkled as blessing on icons, temples, homes and worshippers. The dressed carcass or meat would be boiled up as a soup or broth, and consumed as part of the ritual. There may also be a connection to the practice of libations, or more generally of the offering of food and drink to gods and spirits, a subject which I consider in more detail below. The aim of a blót might be propitiation, or an appeal for intervention, or simply an acknowledgement of the importance of the gods, spirits and powers of the world. The modern interpretation might be highly ritualistic, as in the example blot procedure given by The Asatru Community (Inc.) in the USA. It might also be much more vague and intentional rather than ritualistic, consisting largely of whatever the practitioners involved feel works. It is often held outdoors, and involves invocations and other activities that fit the common conception of an act of worship. It is widely agreed that there should be some form of sacrifice, but there are a wide range of views among practitioners on the use of blood sacrifice. Legal restrictions will often mean that any such sacrifice will have been pre-slaughtered in line with the usual practices in a jurisdiction for food animals, and some feel that if it can't (for legal reasons, or the sensibilities of those involved) be the blood sacrifice of a live animal, one may as well not bother with giving any attempt to replicate blood sacrifice at all. Instead, one may make a purely symbolic sacrifice, or offer food in some sacrificial way (such as by burning). Some maintain the broader idea of the ritual without any form of sacrifice at all.
A small drinking horn on a mental stand, with other drinking horns visible nearby.
Symbel, as now practiced, tends to be less obviously ritualistic. Ideally, it tends to involve some shared drinking vessel (many are fond of drinking-horns) containing some alcoholic beverage that those present feel is appropriate, but preferably not with the everyday connotations of ale or beer. Mead is, in my experience, particularly popular, but it may just be that I know people who are particularly fond of mead. Some who promote these activities consider the alcohol to be vital except for those who are medically prevented from drinking it; others see it as simply a matter of tradition, easily discarded in favour of practicality. If you are thinking of adapting any of this for use in a Quaker Meeting House, do be aware of any local policies related to alcohol (here in the UK most Meeting Houses forbid the consumption of alcohol on the premises, and some forbid its presence). The ritually significant element of the symbel – the part that has special significance beyond simply gathering together to celebrate for whatever reason – is connected to drinking from this shared vessel. The vessel is passed around, each drinking from it in turn and making a toast of some sort. This is typically done in three or more rounds. Some give these three rounds as toasts to gods, toasts to ancestors, and boasts or oaths – statements of what you have done or will do. Others give the rounds as toasts (to gods, ancestors, or whatever), boasts, and oaths, with each person expected to make one of each. Many practitioners encourage a certain degree of creativity, verbosity and colour to these. Rather than simply toasting to Thor, one might give heartfelt praise, express thanks, or make a prayer to the future. Rather than just remembering an ancestor who is important to you, you could say what you would say to them in person, if you could. Rather than simply saying something you did that you were proud of, there is the clear option to detail exactly what you feel was so great about it. On the other hand, if all you feel you want to say is a simple statement, or naming the individual or entity, that's fine as well. It is widely encouraged, however, that whatever is said be said faithfully and from the heart. Particular caution is advised with oaths, as the solemn nature of the occasion is seen as making them particularly binding, perhaps even having a profound influence on the wyrd (fate or destiny) of the speaker – or even on all those participating.
Bonfires are popular among various traditions in northern Europe for Yule. They might form the centrepiece of a ritual for Wiccans (as they do at other festivals held in the darker times of the year), or of a blót. In the latter case, the fire might be the means of offering the sacrifice. Whatever the ritual or spiritual symbolism, who doesn't like a nice fire when it's cold and dark?
The use of particular plants in decoration is popular among neopagans at this time of year. Holly and ivy have long been used as such, before any Christian association (this is one of the pre-Christian things we have reason to be pretty sure about), most likely due to their evergreen nature. For those holding public or mass rituals of some sort, these may be used as ritual symbols or simply as decoration. For Wiccans, or those of other traditions that make use of such, they may be part of the changing seasonal decoration of a personal or household altar. They may make up part of the materials for “magic” (a term embraced by some practitioners, and avoided by others) with relevance to the season, as may mistletoe – especially for those drawing on what is understood of the practices of ancient Celtic druids.
In many cases, whatever is done – rituals, oaths, magic – is seen as having particular relevance to the year to come, the new cycle of the sun's rebirth.
Two glass mugs of mulled cider, artfully presented with slices of clove-stuffed orange on the rim of the mugs, a cinnamon quill balanced across each, and star anise floating in the liquid.
Overall, feasting and partying, often with cries of “wassail”, are particularly popular. The idea of wassail, and of wassailing, deserve a mention here, although their connection to pagan tradition is questionable. The word itself is of Germanic – in fact Norse – origin, entering English from our various contacts with Scandinavian peoples (like when they conquered a large portion of what is now England), meaning “be hale”. Essentially, it is like a toast of “santé” or “sláinte”, or even of “Prost”. It is connected, however, to two older traditions, now rather neglected, both known as wassailing. Both involve spiced mulled cider (I understand that this should be what Americans might call “hard cider”, but I'm sure it fits equally well either way) which is, by this association, itself known as wassail. One might be seen as a predecessor of the modern practice of carolling door to door, as groups of land-workers would visit their feudal lords or better-off neighbours singing, and being offered mulled cider and sweet treats. As feudalism became less important, or in areas that were not precisely part of the feudal structure such as the cities, it was more generally poorer people appealing to those who were better off, and it gradually developed into something that anyone might engage in with their friends and neighbours. It also had a more sinister side sometimes, with gangs of young men singing rudely and making demands, with the implicit (or even explicit) threat of property damage if they were not satisfied. This is reflected in the Christmas song We Wish You A Merry Christmas, for instance, though the singers are not being as menacing as some were historically, threatening merely to stay where they are and keep singing until they are given what they want.
The second form of wassailing has far more of a pagan feel, where the wassailers and their wassail-bowl would visit the orchards, drinking and singing to the trees to ensure a good harvest the next year. It is notable that this practice persisted well after Christianisation.
Libations were a common component of worship and festivals in the Roman world. They might be offered to gods, to the various nameless spirits, or to ancestors (or indeed to the deceased at funerals). Coming from a Latin root meaning to sip, taste, or pour, a libations was simply the offering of something pourable (generally a liquid, sometimes a grain) to some entity by pouring it upon the ground or a burning altar fire. The practice was also common amongst the ancient and classical Hellenes, and modern neopagans drawing inspiration from either source might offer libations as part of any ritual worship, or even daily spiritual practice. This might be to a god they are seeking to invoke, or asking for aid, to an ancestor, to the Lares Familiares (household gods, the guardian spirits of a family), or the Genius (or Genii) Loci (the spirit or spirits of a place). So far as I have been able to ascertain, this is reasonably close to classical Roman practice. Some feel it important to wear a toga when doing so, which always struck me as taking things a little further than necessary, but each to their own.
I could carry on like this for some time – and indeed I've carried on for a while already. Let us draw this back, then, to the matter of a Quaker Yule. What can Friends, who are so inclined, draw from these practices and traditions to inform their own practices, their reflections and spirituality?
The obvious answer is to actually adopt some elements of the ritual practices. I once ran a basic symbel at a small Quaker gathering that happened to go over the solstice, with toasts, boasts and oaths, and mulled apple juice (for the Americans, you'd probably call that mulled cider; I still need to make the proper mulled cider for our household this year, from proper west country style boozy stuff). Of course, the oaths were more “statements of intention”, and the boasts might have been called “stories about things we were glad we did”. The toasts varied, as best I recall, between named pagan Gods, saints, and abstract principles or archetypes. We even, in something of a mix of traditions, poured a libation of the juice, to whatever each of us felt it might be to, upon the ground outside (and got back inside before it, and we, froze). It can be a wonderful bonding experience, and deeply spiritual if people enter into it sincerely.
We might reflect on the broader idea of dying back and rebirth, of the cycle of seasons, that are popular with many branches of the neopagan tree (or should that be forest?). The symbolism of the “undying” evergreen plants that are already popular in Western European-derived Christian cultures. What does the waning and waxing of the sun mean to you?
We must also remember that this time of year can be very difficult for some people. Whether it's a (relatively) simple reaction to the lack of light leading to lower mood, or the difficulty of dealing with social expectations, it can be hard. The world tells us that this is a time for family, but what if you can't be with your family, or indeed have lost important members of it? Collective activities can be a valuable way to show support and love, and where they are participatory it is much easier for some people to feel that support. The key point linking all of these festivals around the solstice is that of coming together, of pushing back the dark and cold and making the best of what this time of year has to offer.
As always, this isn't about doing things purely because it is a certain time of year. It is about allowing the time of year, and the traditions associated with it, to inspire us – both spiritually, and simply as people living in the world. Let the world around us, the people around us, the people and peoples who came before us, feed into what we do, into our relationship with the Spirit.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Did you enjoy this post, or find it interesting, informative or stimulating? Do you want to keep seeing more of these posts? Please consider contributing to my Patreon. More information is available in the post announcing my use of Patreon.
If you enjoy this blog, or otherwise find it worthwhile, please consider contributing to my Patreon. More information about this, and the chance to comment, can be found in the post announcing the launch of my Patreon.