The History of Yule and the Wild Hunt

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Not the Christmas Grandma remembers

This year for the holidays, I wanted to especially focus on Yule.  Now, a number of events are connected to the Yuletide season and the Yule Feast:  the Winter Solstice, the Roman Saturnalia, and of course, Christmas.  Here I’ll go over the basics, and we’ll follow up with some crafts detailing specific parts.

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Yuletide specifically comes from the Germanic people of Northern Europe. It was a celebration during the Wild Hunt, a period lasting from mid-November to early January (a time of storms and unpredictable weather), when the fae, supernatural beings, even the dead, would come out in great numbers to parade in hunting parties through the woods or across the sky.  There are variations of the Wild Hunt all throughout Europe, with different deities and passed-on local historical figures of note as the leaders of the party.  Some of the more recognizable of those would be Odin, Wodun, Fionn mac Cumhaill, King Author, and the Devil.

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Modern Wicca tend to attribute leadership of the hunt to the serious Greek goddess Hecate, patron of crossroads, ghosts, sorcery, and entrances (and a whole lot else).  She is a protective goddess, one that could bestow blessings on the family house that worshiped her.

We have our good friend Jacob Grimm, German folklorist, to thank for much of what we understand about the old winter traditions.  He supposed that before Christianity, the Wild Hunt was when these otherworldly beings would come and bring good tidings and fortune to the people of Earth, but after Christianity was introduced, the tales about it turned it into a darker, more devilish phenomenon.  Even glimpsing this darker gathering was a portend of doom, war, and death.

So let’s stick with the original idea, which is still full of notable trickery.  In Germany, for example, if one came across the Wilde Jagd, if you weren’t immediately snatched up or killed, you had a few options.  Opposing the hunters would mean death, but if you helped the hunt along, you would be rewarded – yet can we ever trust a gift of the fae?  If they gave you a portion of the hunt, it would invariably be cursed and you’d be stuck with it forever till you managed to find someone capable of removing the bane.  So you should ask for salt, which the revenue cannot supply, and somehow this makes them take it back (I’m unclear on the particulars of this etiquette).  The wisest choice seems to be standing in the very middle of the road and just waiting for them to pass.

Midwinter was very much a serious time, when the world was getting dangerous and the gods and the undead (Draugr) were about.  In Old Norse, one name for the gods was “Yule-Beings.”  The most important business deals and marriages were brokered, and it was an auspicious time for oaths.

There are many new ideas for ways to celebrate the Wild Hunt, including races through the woods at night.  Most of us are more likely to focus on the Yule Feast itself, which is a three day celebration starting on the Winter Solstice.  From this, we eventually, though Christianization, get our modern Christmas.

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However, modern Christmas doesn’t look very much like Odin’s Yule, which was a time of increased supernatural activity and when the dead were closest to the living.  All sorts of domesticated animals would be slaughtered, the sacrificial blood spread over the altars and worshipers, and the meats cooked and devoured, along with great quantities of ale.  Toasts would be made to the gods Odin, Freyr, and Njörðr , the dearly departed, and in general for prosperity and good harvests.  There was usually gift-giving, but it was usually of practical items, like lamps and wax apples to keep out the dark.

In modern times, we recognize Yule as the period of twelve days after the Winter Solstice.  Neopaganism usually celebrates with a meal and gift-giving.  While old-school traditional meats such as boar and goat are rarely used, you can see resemblances in the Christmas ham or beef roast.

We take further traditions from the Roman Saturnalia, a seven day festival to the sun god Saturn.  This time of merrymaking and gift-giving even included special privileges for slaves, and the opportunity to enjoy otherwise forbidden activities such as gambling.

What are some ways you celebrate the winter holidays?

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Written by Lori Evans Dec 2017

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