This cyclical view of time, the "Wheel of the Year," was as important in noting time as it was held in significance for broader Viking culture.

Keeping time, Viking style

Imagine living in an era where knowledge was limited and not easily accessible with the swipe of your thumb.

For people in Viking societies, the modern concept of time was limited. Daylight, or the absence thereof, defined each day, while the phases of the moon and sun, rather than months, shaped the passing of a year.

Yet this did not mean that time was unknown during the early medieval period.

Whilst many societies in this era benefited from the Julian calendar (which was lunisolar) developed by the Romans, this had not yet spread north to the Viking homeland (the Nordic region) during the early medieval period.

In Viking societies, people embraced a cyclical view of time known as the Wheel of the Year, which divided the year into eight distinct periods and celebrated festivals every eight weeks (approximately two months). 

These festivals were intentionally aligned with significant solar and agricultural milestones throughout the year.

These eight festivals were:

In the coldest months of winter, Viking traditions emphasized communal feasting as a means to strengthen bonds and forge solidarity. Photo: Elena Dijour / Shutterstock

Vetrnætr (Winter Nights)

Vetrnætr marked the beginning of the cold and dark winter season, celebrated in what is now Mid-October. 

This was a final festive celebration before the anguish of winter (and for any that had lived through a Nordic winter, it is anguish!) and involved in the ceremonial offering of food and drink to ancestors. In return, the advice, guidance, and protection of these ancestors were asked for.

Jól (Yule)

If that name sounds familiar, then it should because many Northern European countries trace their Christmas festivities back to this Viking celebration

This celebration coincided with the winter solstice, the day of the year with the least amount of daylight generally towards the end of what is now the month of December. This celebration marked the turning point of the sun, and from that point on, the days would only get longer and warmer.

Porri

The fourth month of winter served as the personification of winter itself, much like that of the character of "Old Man Winter" in later European cultures.

This festival was held towards the end of January or early February, often the coldest months of winter. 

People in Viking societies used this celebration to foster a sense of camaraderie and solidarity by hosting communal feasts and gatherings. Salted and dried food – often fish – was commonly consumed.

Dísablót

This celebration occurred in what is now late February or March (during the vernal equinox) and honored the ancient Norse deities associated with fertility and spring, the dísir. 

Like all good Viking sacrificial holidays, offerings were made to ensure that the upcoming spring season was bountiful. It was particularly important throughout what is now Sweden and involved great meetings and fairs during the latter stages of the medieval period. 

The Disting Fair, an annual event held in Uppsala, traces its heritage back to the dísablót of the Viking period, although with significantly fewer bloody sacrifices!

Sumarmál

Now began the celebration of the warmer (well, that is somewhat relative in the Nordic region) months. Sumarmál meant something akin to a "summer speech" and was celebrated to coincide with the spring equinox in late March or April. 

This celebration marks the reawakening of nature, the end of snow and darkness, and the beginning of the busy agricultural and planting season. Some of the most common rites associated with this was the blessing of the fields to seek abundance and prosperity. 

Easter 

The Viking Age not only saw the invasion of the Norse throughout the North Atlantic world but also saw the invasion of ideas into the Nordic region. 

Christianity, which gradually gained ground starting in the late 7th century CE, began to generate spiritual tensions from the late 10th century onwards across the future medieval kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

A celebration of springtime occurring the first full moon after the spring equinox was common throughout many pagan societies. Paganism in Anglo-Saxon England also saw the veneration of a spring goddess named Eostre. 

For Norse pagans, the adoption of Christianity saw new ideas merge with existing traditions. Easter, as it evolved, retained some of its pagan elements, symbolizing fertility, new life, and the arrival of spring.

Midsummer was a celebration of fertility involving many a boozy feast and the lighting of a bonfire to ward off evil spirits and malign forces. Photo: gadag / Shutterstock

Sólmál (Midsummer)

Long before it would transform into Sankthansaften, people in Viking societies, who adhered to the Old Norse religion, celebrated the summer solstice annually in late June. 

One of the rituals still seen throughout midsummer in Scandinavia today, which traces its origins back to this Viking celebration, is the lighting of bonfires. 

For people in Viking societies, the bonfire was not only a way to ward off evil spirits, but the fire was also seen as having purified and cleansing properties, literally and figuratively. 

It was also a great time to have a "roll in the hay," as the twin themes of this festival were love and fertility.

Hustablost (Fall Festival)

The end of summer meant the start of the harvesting season, which was vital for the survival of any Viking community. This often occurred towards the end of summer, when the fall equinox occurred.

During this festival, the celebration of a (hopefully) prosperous agricultural year took place with great feasting. Thanks and offerings were made mainly to the Norse gods Freya and Freyr, a sister and brother that oversaw fertility, harvests, and agriculture.

The cyclical nature of the Norse Wheel of the Year was one way how people from Viking societies ordered their daily lives and marked time. The festivals associated with each division were times of communal harmony, comraderies, fostering solidarity, and a time of great fun, hilarity, and merrymaking. 

Religious, societal, and cultural bonds were also strengthened due to the often-communal celebrations of each festival.

For a look at modern celebrants of pagan festivals, visit Scotland's The Herald website here.

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