Surviving Winter in the Middle Ages

 

Pavel Sapozhnikov and his goat, Glasha, surviving a harsh Russian winter living as people did in the ninth century. Photo courtesy of Alone in the Past.

Pavel Sapozhnikov and his goat, Glasha, surviving a harsh Russian winter living as people did in the ninth century. Photo courtesy of Alone in the Past.

In 2013, a medieval reenactment group set out to see what it would be like to survive a Russian winter in the Middle Ages. They selected one of their members, Pavel Sapozhnikov, to live on a farmstead, with only ninth century tools, clothing and shelter for six months as part of a project entitled, Alone in the Past. Once a day, Pavel would speak for half an hour into a camera to recount his day, and share his experiences. The rest of the time, he was completely alone, with a monthly check-in to ensure he was still alive. His experiment provided a first hand glimpse of the struggles people faced surviving the winter in the Middle Ages. Read more…..

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A fascinating look at what surviving winter was like ‘back in the day’. While not specifically related to the Northern Tradition, but something to think about in terms of what winter meant for our ancestors and what it means for us now!

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Ullr, Son of Sif

ullr

Ullr, who’s name means “Glory” picture with his bow, arrow and skis

 

Do you like skiing, or other winter sports? Even now in Europe Ullr is remembered as the Patron of Skier, and folks buy Ullr medallions for protection while skiing, and their are winter sport competitions, clubs and organizations still named for Ullr. In Europe, Ullr’s name never really went away. There’s even a liquor bearing His name.

 

So, we’ve got a Norse God of Skiing/Winter being called upon by a surprising amount of folks, with what amounts to a very active modern cultus, meanwhile, this son of Sif and step son of Thor is so rarely mentioned in American Heathenry and Paganism! Maybe we don’t ski enough?

We can see from the many places named after Ullr, and his name, meaning “Glory” that he was likely highly regarded by our Ancestors, yet so little information available. His hall was Ydalir, Yew-dale, his favourite wood for bows; he was called “God of the Shield”, and the shield was referred to as his ship. He was one of the Gods who over saw the making and keeping of Oaths. In a tale recounted by Saxo, it was Ullr who the Aesir elected to lead them when Odin was banished.

Ullr the god of snow by tobiasneal

Ullr the god of snowby tobiasneal

Yet despite being so well known, and so strongly associated with winter, it doesn’t appear that Ullr was properly the God of Winter – or that he was a “God of…” anything particular. Was He an older culture’s Sky God, now the step-son of Thor, the Thunderer? Was He a God of the Winter Hunt? Is he Aesir by birth? (and if we ask that question, we must ask – is Sif Aesir by birth? Were they Vanir?) We have no idea from any historical sources. None what so ever.

However I think its fantastic to see that without much in the way of historical sources, what is essentially a modern, non-Heathen focused worship! His name is known, old winter sports equipment is burned in honor of him, he’s got liquor and charities and clubs named after him, and winter sports enthusiast pray to him for safety and good weather.

I wonder if perhaps this is as He wanted it. We see some wights of the Northern Tradition ‘waking up’ and reaching out to modern folks, but I have yet to meet a modern Ullrperson at any Heathen or Pagan event, but I’ve met ton’s of skiers who know of Him – and probably Know Him well.

Ullr’s Shrine on Northern Tradition Paganism.org – Poetry, prayers, further information on Ullr’s modern cult.

Isa and Dagaz – January

Back in 2014, I came across this post about Yuletide by Beth Wodandís. It was shortly after Yule had ended when I read it (I am constantly about 2 weeks behind everything on the internet!) but I was very interested in the idea of a 12 night draw of runes to get a glimpse at the year a head.  This year, I made sure I did this for Wardenheart! I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see what kind of information each rune will give regarding each month.  I plan to write up all of the entries in the next few weeks and post them all each month.

I would love any insights folks might have to share and I hope we can discuss them in the comments.

Of course, things don’t always go as planned. And January with it’s two runes, did just that.  The primary rune which was draw was Isa, which forms the basis of this month’s ‘forecast’. Dagaz, the second rune, had fallen out of the bag at the same time, and I felt it was important to make note of that.

Isa – The Ice rune

Rune Poem:[1] English Translation:
Anglo-Saxon
Is byþ oferceald, ungemetum slidor,
glisnaþ glæshluttur gimmum gelicust,
flor forste geworuht, fæger ansyne.
Ice is very cold and immeasurably slippery;
it glistens as clear as glass and most like to gems;
it is a floor wrought by the frost, fair to look upon.
Old Icelandic
Íss er árbörkr
ok unnar þak
ok feigra manna fár.
glacies jöfurr.
Ice is bark of rivers
and roof of the wave
and destruction of the doomed.
Old Norwegian
Ís kǫllum brú bræiða;
blindan þarf at læiða.
Ice is called the broad bridge;
the blind man must be led.
(the chart is via Wikipedia)

As you can see from the different rune poems above, ice inspired a broad range of reactions from our ancestors, and was represented in two runes, Isa and Hagalaz. It was the meeting of the elements of Ice and Fire which sparked the creation of the rest of the worlds, and the first primordial being was the ice giant Ymir, and its his body which makes up the world. (And you can see an echo of that Ice in our world, which is primarily made of of water, as is the human body.)

Along with being one of the formative elements of creation, ice was a powerful element which was a very present part of the lives of our ancestors, particularly those who lived up North, where the winters were colder and the ice ever present in the winter months. Later this month we’ll be talking more about ice as it manifests in the Northern Tradition.

Isa is also seen as a rune of standstill, of being frozen in place – and this can be both literally and figuratively true in January. I always find it an odd time of year, because while the calendar changes, for many folks, January does not actually mark the start of a new year. We all view our years from different points. (For example, I see years in terms of my birthdays, and I consider that to be my true ‘New Year’ in many way, and I recognize Samhain as the end-and-start of the yearly cycle. Students might thing in terms of semesters. Others, a significant anniversary such as a wedding or a sobriety-versary). Its my thought that this is why so many ‘New Years’ resolutions fail and why for so many of us its New Years is just another day (or day off, for some of us!).

Because of that, and the fact that January is often one of the physically coldest months of the year, it always feels like a month of standstill to me, where little happens. I imagine it was often like this in the past in a literal way. Survival was hard in winter – there was little to forage,  little game, fish were under ice. You were surviving off stores, it was too cold to travel unless it was a matter of survival. (And this was part of why hospitality was so important – being denied entry into a home could literally kill you, so it behooved you to be a good guest and not ruin it for everyone in the future, and to be a good host, because if you or your loved ones were out in such a situation you’d wand them to be helped as well!).

It was darker for longer, and some work can’t be done in the firelight so the day times must have been busy and the nights long and cold, huddled together in the dark spinning fiber and stories to pass the time.

Even now, with our modern assistance, winter sucks. Its too cold outside for many of us, traveling is difficult and the urge is to stay home, to snuggle up, to play games and tell stories. Its no wonder our winter holidays involve singing songs and lighting candles and spending lots of time together! But that is December Winter.

January Winter is different. The Holydays are over now, and the light is ever so slowly returning, but its still dark and now all those people are gone and its quite and your alone again and its dark.  This to me has always been a great time to do a lot of personal, introspective work. Every other New Years eve, for example, I’ve done a silence fast. I do more journaling and take the time to work on some of the really tough scary things with my therapist. Its terrible, because its dark and its cold, but with the sun returning, it makes it that much easier to shed light on the shadows to come out of that dark work – and THAT’s why it was significant to me that Dagaz fell out during this reading, because it literally means “dawn” or more esoterically can be seen as an awakening. 

We think about the waxing and waning of the moon, because it happens every month. Some folks who have periods experience their menstrual cycles matching up with the phases of the moon, and many magical systems take the phases of the moon into consideration in the context of their work. We talk about the waxing and waning of the moon all of the time. Yet while we talk about the changing of the tides of the season I think we sometimes we don’t actively notice the gradual waxing an waning of the day as a magical force to be studied, considered or worked with. But the return of light to the darkness is a powerful energy to harness to our work right now, and to explore that darkness which need to have light shed upon it.