The Norse Wheel of the Year
Originally published in Druid's Progress 11.
Given 9 realms in Norse mythology, 8 High Holy Days, and 8 compass directions plus a center, what can we induce? We know from the Eddas that the Norse believed that the realms could be reached by travelling in certain directions. This gives us a map of the universe with Niflheim (Ice) in the north, Jotunheim (Giants) in the east, Muspellheim (Fire) in the south, and Vanaheim (Vanir, fertility gods) in the west. On the vertical axis Hel is on the bottom, Svartalfheim (Dwarves) is next, in between Hel and Midgard, Alfheim (Elves) is above Midgard, and Asgard (Aesir, high gods) is at the top. But the question is, is there some order which connects this map to the wheel of the year, to make the cycle a coherent progression from realm to realm?
In answering this question, our obvious starting points were Ice in the north and Fire in the south. But the Vanir, as fertility gods, could be appropriate at either the planting or the harvest, and we weren't sure where the Giants fit at all. So we chose the traditional correlations with Spring in the east and Autumn in the west. Both because the compass directions are cardinal, and because Ice and Fire are such paradigms of their respective seasons, we matched the solstices and equinoxes with the cardinal points of the compass. This way the heights, or mid-points of the seasons are characterized by the influence of their respective horizontal realms.
But what about the cross-quarters? Was there special influence from the vertical realms in making the transition from one season to the next? We chose the simple solution and started at the beginning of the year and the bottom of the ladder, correlating Dises (Samhain) with Hel. From there we just went in order up the ladder and through the holidays, correlating Svartalfheim with Disting (Imbolc), Alfheim with Maitag (Beltaine), and, finally Asgard with Loaf-fest (Lughnassadh). Our reasoning was that just as the day starts the sunset before and the year starts in its dark half, so too should the holidays progress from the darkest realm to the lightest. This would have been nothing but arbitrary games, but it works too well to ignore.
Putting it all together and starting from the beginning, Dises is of course the time when the veils between the worlds are thinnest, especially the veils between Midgard and Hel. It is the time to honor the ancestors and appease the dead, etc. Furthermore, traditional directions to Hel in the Eddas are "to the North and down," which corroborate our correspondence to the northwest even further. With the onset of winter not only are the crops dead and gathered, but this is also the time of divination, where our connection to Hel allows us to speak to the dead.
Yule comes at the darkest and coldest time of the year. Of course Ice is the overwhelming tone, but further, Niflheim is also associated with darkness and beginnings. For before there was sun or moon or earth, people or gods, there were Niflheim and Muspelheim. A cow wandered up and licked the ice, creating the first frost giant, Ymir, and continued to lick that ice to create the grandfather of Odin, Hoenir and Lodur, the first Aesir gods. It was they who eventually slew Ymir and used his body to make Midgard, the world in which we live. So Niflheim holds the potential for life within it, and is a dark, impenetrable fog preceding the sun itself. What realm better to associate with the longest night of the year?
Next comes Disting, also known as the "Charming of the Plough." The dwarves, famous for both their metallurgy and for dwelling under the earth, (and hence digging skills), are the most natural association with this holiday celebrating the first breaking of the ground by metal. Disting is also associated with smithcraft, and it was the dwarves, renowned smiths, who fashioned the magical tools for all of the gods, from Thor's hammer to Frey's boat.
At the spring equinox people eat eggs for strength to last the year. And of course, they are also a fertility symbol. The giants are known both for their strength and their fecundity, and furthermore, in the mythology, the next step after the ice at the beginning was the creation of the frost giant. So the progression from winter to spring is naturally a progression from Ice to Giants. Interestingly enough, the eggs were hidden in thorny places. Who is more closely associated with danger and pain than the Giants, those who stand against the gods?
The central motif for Maitag is not the Maypole, as it is for the Celts, but the fairy fires. This time of celebration after the planting is the magical time when elves are afoot and can be seen on hilltops. The pranks usually associated with trick-or-treating at Halloween were actually practiced at Maitag by the Norse. Frey, the God of fertility, is also the Prince of the Elves, so it comes as no surprise that Frey's Folk set the tone for this time when life is a-quickening.
Summer Solstice is not only the festival of Sunna, or an obvious association with fire, but it is also the death of Balder. His death signals the beginning of the end, since it is the first step on the road to Ragnarok. It is then when the fire giants tear out of Muspelheim to fight the gods. This is a necessary step, for it is through the fire of Muspelheim that Balder is reborn to establish the new world order. Solstice is thus both the funeral of Balder and the foreshadowing of his shamanic rebirth like the Phoenix from fire.
Loaf-fest is the celebration of the marriage of Thor and Sif. It is also the time of the meetings of the tribes when the chiefs sit in council for the coming year. These activities of oaths and laws fall under the patronage of the Aesir gods and none other. While all of the holidays will have some of the Aesir present and honored, only the sacred marriage at Loaf-fest assembles them all together. This holiday celebrates the gift of social ordering which enables humans to prosper. We can compete in games rather than war on the battlefield, break bread together, and perform the other cultural rites necessary to keep society stable and continuous, (like marriage, oaths, etc.) And, perhaps the most binding of all activities, we can offer sacrifices of our first fruits of grain to the high gods.
Finally we come to the harvest at Fall Equinox. At a celebration of abundance it seems most appropriate to honor and thank the Vanir, the gods of the producer function. It is now when the fertility of the earth is most apparent, and now when we make our offerings to the Vanir to ensure another good harvest in the coming year.
Our correlations not only make more sense of the Wheel of the Year, but they also suggest a lay-out for our ritual site. The fire of course goes in the south. A fire could also go in the southeast for the lightelves and for doing burnt offerings. There are three wells, one each in the north, east, (well of memory), and southwest, (well of wisdom of Norns). The northwest has a shrine to the dead. The west is the harvest, a good place for food to be stored or kept for ritual use. The northeast is where the hallows could be kept, also the fire of the forge could be here. All this surrounds the center, Midgard, where Yggdrasil, the world tree, grows connecting everything into a whole.
In conclusion, while this wheel is our own attempt to make sense of the Norse cycle, it has the advantages of both working with what little evidence we do have and of fitting ADF's premise that the different I-E cultures have enough in common to allow us to work together. At the least the themes of the Norse festivals correspond to the Celtic holidays, (with minor exceptions). Hopefully those specializing in other I-E cultures will also do analyses of their calendars to enable us to do further comparison and help deepen our understanding of the nature and structure of our ongoing cycles as seen through ancient eyes.