The Blót – Norse Holidays and Religious Observances

Blót
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The Blót is a sacrificial holiday held in honor of the Dísir, the Gods, and Ancestors.

Also called a Dísablót (deese-a-blawt), which is two words, ‘dísir’ (or ‘dís’) and ‘blót’. Meaning, it is a “Dísir’s Blót” or “Blót for the Dísir.”

Blót is a sacrifice offered to the Norse gods and/or the spirits of the land, homestead, or clan. The blót sacrifice is often offered in the form of a sacramental drink, meal, or feast which is usually placed or poured over a hörgr (stone altar), vé (shrine), lund (grove), haug (sacred mound), or other sacred location such as a hof (temple).

The Dísir (singular: dís, meaning “lady”, plural dísir) are female spirits or ‘beings’ that are associated with fate and act as protective spirits of individuals, households, and entire Norse clans. The dísir play various roles throughout different Norse poems, legends, and sagas that resemble those of fylgjur, valkyries, vættir, and norns. The term ‘dísir‘ is a broad and collective term for these different types of female spiritual or unseen beings. The term even includes the Norse goddesses. 

  • a fylgja is a spirit who accompanies a person in connection to their fate, often thought to be the spirit of an ancestor.
  • a valkyrie (“chooser of the slain”) is one of a host of female figures who choose those who may die in battle and those who may live. In Poetic Edda, Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, when the hero Helgi Hundingsbane first meets the valkyrie Sigrún, the poet calls her “dísir suðrænar,” meaning “dís of the south”or simply, “the southern maid.”
  • norn is a female being who appears at a person’s birth in order to determine his or her future destiny (not to be confused with the Three Norns: Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld). 
  • vættir are nature spirits (house wrights, brownies, nisse, tomte).

One of the most comprehensive descriptions of a blót sacrifice in the North can be found in Hakon the Good’s Saga, which was written by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson in the 1200s.

Sigurd Håkonsson, like his father, frequently made sacrifices. It was the common practice that all farmers from the area gathered at the temple (hof) to sacrifice. All were given food throughout the celebration.

Many different animals were sacrificed, especially horses. The blood from the sacrificed animals was collected in bowls and twigs were used to spatter the blood on altars, walls, and cult participants. The meat was cooked and then eaten by all in attendance. It was boiled in cauldrons that hung over a fire in the middle of the hall. Full cups of beer were carried around the fire and the magnate, who was the pagan priest, then blessed the meat and the cups.

Toasts were then made. The first was in honour of Odin, “to the king and victory”.  Afterwards the cups were emptied for Njörd and Frej in the hope of securing a prosperous and peaceful future. Then the participants emptied their cups with a personal pledge to undertake great exploits, in battle, for example. Finally toasts were made for kinsmen resting in burial mounds.

Snorri writes that Sigurd Håkonsson was a very generous man and supplied the whole feast, which he was long remembered for.

The sacrificial rituals of the Vikings ranged from great festivals in magnate’s halls to offerings of weapons, jewelry and tools in lakes. Humans and animals were also hung from the trees in holy groves, according to written sources. The Vikings repeatedly used certain sacrificial sites, because they believed that there was particularly strong contact with the gods at these locations. From the accounts of the Christian missionaries we know that the Vikings sacrificed to statues, which stood out in natural surroundings or in cult buildings.

Some believe that there were four fixed blót sacrifices a year

These blóts were at the following times:

  • Winter Solstice (also Midwinter, Yule, Longest Night, Jól, Jul, Hibernal Solstice, December Solstice, Winter Festival. Winterfest) – Usually December 21-23
  • Spring Equinox (also Vernal Equinox, March Equinox, Northward Equinox) – Usually March 19-21
  • Summer Solstice (Estival solstice, Midsummer, St John’s Day, Midsummer’s Eve, St. Hans Day, Longest Day, June Solstice, Feast Day) – Usually June 20-22
  • Autumn Equinox (September equinox, Southward equinox) – Usually September 21-24

These four seasons are represented by a variety of symbology in different cultures.  Most commonly as a four points.

The Zia Sun Symbol representing the Four Seasons is featured on the New Mexico flag.

Have you ever wondered why the “swastika” was adopted by so many cultures through the ages?  It is because it symbolizes the position of the Big Dipper during each Solstice/Equinox. This is excluding certain racist groups and a defeated political entities that abused the symbol and corrupted it to mean something else.

Big Dipper position of the stars during different seasons.

Here is the symbology most often used in Nordic, Celtic, Gaelic, and Western Germanic Cultures.

When specifically blóts took place is uncertain.

Some argue it eight times a year as is practiced by many Gaelic and Celtics, as well as many Wiccans. This is both Solstices, both Equinoxes (Jul, Litha, Eostre, Mabon), and the day marking between each cycle (Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, Samhain).

Others argue just four times a year, Winter Solstice (Midwinter), Spring Equinox (Eostre), Summer Solstice (Midsummer), and Autumn Solstice (Mabon).

The problem is, calendars and astronomical knowledge were not wide spread. For example, when I want to know specifically when is Autumn Equinox 2017, I just google it.
(Autumn Equinox 2017 in the Northern Hemisphere will be at 3:02 PM on Friday, September 22 (CDT))

But 1000 years ago, that wasn’t so easy.  So Blots varied place to place, as did the customary practices and times.

The Vikings also held additional blót sacrifices, for example, if a crisis arose that required help from the gods. Before a battle most importantly.

The Arabic traveler al-Tartuchi describes how the Viking town of Hedeby celebrated the winter solstice.

“They celebrate a festival, at which all come to worship the god and to eat and drink. The one who slaughters a sacrificial animal erects stakes at the entrance to his farmyard and puts the sacrificial animal on them. This is so that people know that he is sacrificing in honour of his god.”

The sacrifices might be followed by a communal blót feast – a feast at which the participants ate and drank together. Sacrifices of animals were not the norm, but were primarily associated with magnates and kings.

The dísablót is mentioned in the Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek), in the Víga-Glúms saga (Sagas of the Icelanders), Egils saga, and the Heimskringla.

In the Hervarar saga, the dísablót was held in autumn and was performed by a woman. The saga tells of the daughter of King Álfr of Álfheim (Elf realm), who “reddens the hörgr (stone altar) with sacrifices” and is subsequently rescued by Thor after she’d been abducted.
Read about: Hörgr (stone altars used by the Norse)

In the Víga-Glúms saga, it was a large gathering for friends and family which was held at Winter Nights (Old Norse: vetrnætr) at the onset of winter.

Winter Nights or Vetrnætr was a specific time of year in medieval Scandinavia that referred to “the three days which begin the winter season.” The term is attested in the narrative of some of the Fornaldarsögur (Legendary Sagas). Vetrnætr is mostly used to express passage of time, such as,”when autumn turned into winter.”

Picture of the Lofotr Viking Center

Odin’s Law for Blót

In the Ynglinga saga by Snorri Sturluson (part 8, Odin’s Law Giving), the exact term “winter nights” is not mentioned when he mentions the three great sacrifices of the year, but it is implied when he states one as being, “at the beginning of winter”:

  • Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs,
    There should be a sacrifice at the beginning of winter for a good year,
  • en at miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar,
    and in the middle of winter for a good crop,
  • hit þriðja at sumri, þat var sigrblót.
    the third in summer day, that was the sacrifice for victory.

The Autumn Blót was performed in the middle of October (about four weeks after the autumn equinox), the Winter Nights, indicating the beginning of winter.

The great Midwinter Blót, or Yule, took place in the middle of January.

The Summer Blót was undertaken in the middle of April (about four weeks after the spring equinox).

Blōtmōnaþ (modern English: blót month)

For the early Anglo-Saxons, November was known as Blōtmōnaþ, as this later Old English passage points out:

Se mónaþ is nemned on Léden Novembris, and on úre geþeóde blótmónaþ, forðon úre yldran, ðá hý hǽðene wǽron, on ðam mónþe hý bleóton á, ðæt is, ðæt hý betǽhton and benémdon hyra deófolgyldum ða neát ða ðe hý woldon syllan.

Which translates as:

The month is named in Latin November, and in our speech Blót-month, because our forefathers, when they were heathens, always blóted in this month, that is, that they took and devoted to their idols the cattle which they wished to offer.

A cattlewoman and her child are looking after the cattle on the Viking manor farm. (Ribe Viking Museum)

Specific sacrifices held at the beginning of winter during the Old Norse period were álfablót and dísablót.

Of these, dísablót came to be a public sacrifice, according to the Ynglinga saga performed by the king of Sweden. In western Scandinavia, dísablót appears to have been a private observance; even the large gathering in Víga-Glúms saga was for family and friends.

By contrast, álfablót was a sacrifice held at each homestead separately for the local spirits, under the explicit exclusion of any strangers.

In the poem Austrfararvísur (c.1020), the Christian skald Sigvatr complains of not being able to get into to any of the farms around the area of Sweden where he visits because of the diligent celebration of a sacrifice in honor of the elves (tomte/nisse).

that was administered by the lady of the household. Álfablót or the Elven sacrifice was a pagan Scandinavian sacrifice to the elves towards the end of autumn, when the crops had been harvested and the animals were most fat.

The Álfablót was a sacrifice made after a successful harvest to the vaettir of the homestead to show appreciation for their contributions.  

In Kormáks saga (Icelanders’ sagas), there’s an account on how sacrifices were done to the elves in order to heal a battle wound:

Hún segir: “Hóll einn er héðan skammt í brott er álfar búa í. Graðung þann er Kormákur drap skaltu fá og rjóða blóð graðungsins á hólinn utan en gera álfum veislu af slátrinu og mun þér batna.”

“A hill there is,” answered she, “not far away from here, where elves have their haunt. Now get you the bull that Cormac killed, and redden the outer side of the hill with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then thou wilt be healed.” 

Unlike the sacrifices described by Sigvatr, this one appears to have been a sacrifice that could have been performed at any time of the year.

So how do modern practitioners of the Old Ways have blót?

Well, the answer is:  it depends.

Most practice blóts four times a year on the Solstices/Equinoxes.  The blót ritual varies person to person and family to family, along with varying religious practices and observances.

Most families only observe a single blót a year on Jul/Christmas time when they leave out a bowl of porridge with butter, honey, and cinnamon out for their Julnisse / tomte. <see: Nisse>

Some people only celebrate a blót on Memorial Day when they remember loved ones who have passed when they place flowers and other tributes on their grave sites (or mound sites from the Late Stone-Early Bronze Age through after the Viking Age when burial practices changed). Some people only practice blóts in remembrance of a family member, fallen comrade, or brother-in-arms.

Many just make a seasonal blóts in remembrance of their ancestors and make an offering in gratitude. Followers of Ásatrú and Norse heathenry will make these blót offerings to their favored Æsir–Vanir gods and ancestors.

The method of a blot varies person to person as well.  

Many leave out offerings from the fruits of their labor, such as a farmer leaving some of the best of apples from their orchards or the best steaks from their cattle.  In a Christian example, this would be similar to the offerings made by the brothers Cain and Abel (which led to murder – same with the Egyptian Set and Horus).

Some people simple leave out portions of their personal favorite food or drink. This would be something they consider special and don’t prepare often except on special occasions, such as: Christmas, Thanksgiving, or when Grandma comes over to visit for example.

The blót practice is a practice of kindred by sharing food and drink as they would with visiting kin, or even with the gods themselves if they came to visit. A blót is a ‘toast of remembrance’.

In Christian practices, the Eucharist (Communion) is a form of Blót

The blót is an observance of remembrance and it is not religiously tied, except when the blót is used in a religious ceremony or context.  It is a practice which began before the Ása belief system and before Judeo-Christianity. It is a practice which has prevailed in all religions and belief systems throughout the world in many forms and practices.

Paganism and heathenism is a matter of definition by the beholder and is often misunderstood or misinterpreted because of ignorance and cultural bias. <see: Pagan vs Heathen>

We already know many ‘heathen’ practices were carried over to modern mainstream religions (Christmas, Easter, etc.).  This is no different with the practice of blót. One doesn’t have to be a heathen to celebrate a blót. You are not making an offering to the devil (unless that’s your thing). You’re making an offering to your God or Gods. You’re making a tribute to loved ones who’ve passed on. It’s an offering to your ancestors and to those who were here before you.

Some people make blót offerings such as food and/or drink, while some (especially Christians) offer prayer to loved ones – as do many pagans and heathens.

Sources:

 by Njord Kane © 2017 Spangenhelm Publishing


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