Due to the long process of the Christianization of Scandinavia, which largely destroyed all records of the Old Norse religion, we only have left to us Viking calendars that are largely Christian-influenced.
Nonetheless, the thawing of winter and the coming of spring was an important, and festive, time for many in Viking societies.
Springtime in the frozen North
When modern society talks about "The Vikings," just who exactly are they talking about?
Are they talking about the occupation that some young men, in the early medieval period, often from what are now the Nordic countries, possessed?
These young men undertook daring seaborne raids, looting, pillaging, and plundering everywhere from modern-day Canada to Constantinople and everywhere in between.
Or are we talking about the people left behind? The ancestors of today's Norwegians, Danes, Finns, Icelanders, and Swedes?
For the sake of this argument, we at The Viking Herald prefer to use the term "people from Viking societies" to refer to all those inhabitants, of the modern Nordic countries, living during the Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE).
We use this as not every person in those societies was a Viking, but a Viking was indeed a member of those societies. If you know what we mean, right?
Not just one religion
Viking societies were a myriad of different people, cultures, ethnicities, and religions.
Though the Old Norse religion – the modern term for a variety of beliefs that stemmed from Germanic paganism but had developed into a distinct religion by the "Viking Age," dominated these societies, not everyone living in them was an adherent to them.
As such, the religious holidays and festivals many worshipped and celebrated were as varied as the people observing them. It is, however, fair to say that the Old Norse religion was the dominant religion for many people, in Viking societies, from the late 7th to mid-11th centuries CE.
- READ MORE: What are the most important Viking holidays?
Whilst we look at the springtime festivities that many adherents to the Old Norse religion celebrated, it should be remembered that there were many people in Viking societies who adhered to a vastly different religious belief system – be it Christianity, animist shamanism or any of the other offshoots of Germanic paganism that existed throughout Northern Europe.
The Old Norse religion was the dominant religion for many people in Viking societies. Photo: Andrey TN / Shutterstock
The Viking calendar
Like many civilizations throughout the ages, people in Viking societies marked time using their own very special calendar.
Unsurprisingly for those who have lived anywhere in the Nordic region, the "Viking" calendar was divided into two seasons: summer and winter.
What is most interesting for us living in the 21st century CE, is that people in Viking societies had a very modern grasp of time.
They used the phases of the moon to track time and came up with a 12-month calendar of 30 days, each with four extra days, every fourth year, to account for the leap year.
Equinoxes and solstices, extremely noticeable in northern latitudes, played an important part in their calendar.
These were great predictors for all those budding agriculturalists (let us remember that the majority of people in Viking societies were not raiders, traders, or seafaring pirates but mere small tenant farmers) who relied on the changing of the seasons for life and work.
Celebrating the coming of spring
During the warmer months (Náttleysi - "the nightless days"), the Viking calendar had two major "spring" months. These were:
Harpa (from approximately mid-April to mid-May) was the first month of the Viking year, dedicated to all women. One of the largest feasts was held during this month, the "summer" blot, which was a feast dedicated to Odin. It is still remembered today as a popular girl's name in Iceland.
One of the most important festivals of the Norse calendar was celebrated during this month: Sigurblót. This was as much a celebration of the end of the winter as the eternal victory of light over the darkness, of the sun over the moon. Massive offerings of food and drink were made to the god Freyja, and festivities and merrymaking were the order of the day.
Skerpla (from approximately mid-May to mid-June): one of the most months as it harkens (hooray hooray!) the coming of summer. According to that great Icelandic author and chronicler Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic tradition harkened back to the Viking era. During this age, it was customary in Iceland for migrant workers or anyone that wanted a change of scenery to travel from May 31 to June 6. This week was known as fardagar and was officially a festive season. Anyone who wanted to move town or village was allowed to.
The name of the month is believed to relate to the Old Norse name of a newborn lamb (Stekktíð) or a pen to house chicken (Stekkur). Either of these definitions shows the very spring-like activities associated with this month.
The night before the summer solstice was an important holiday in the Viking calendar. That night, Walpurgisnacht (May-Eve) was not only a tribute to the goddess of fertility, Freyja, but also a celebration of the coming of spring and love in general. You didn't think the Vikings could be so hippie, now, did you?
Walpurgisnacht (May-Eve) was not only a tribute to the goddess of fertility but also a celebration of the coming of spring. Photo: gadag / Shutterstock
Another great festival, Midsommar (made famous as a part of the intrinsic Nordic culture to this day still), was celebrated during Skerpla. A celebration of fertility, lightness, and joy, this was one of the most popular festive occasions of the Norse calendar.
Huge feasts, including copious amounts of alcohol, were consumed. This was celebrated on the summer solstice, which, according to Norse beliefs, was a day when certain plants had magical healing properties. Bonfires were also lit to ward off evil spirits who, despite the joviality, were said to especially roam free on this day.
With the introduction of Christianity into Scandinavia, a celebration of a Christian saint, St. John the Baptist, was decided to replace the pagan-themed summer solstice. In what became the medieval kingdoms of Norway and Denmark, the night before midsummer, was a celebration in itself – named Jonsok (The Wake of St. John).
As always, when it comes to festivities and celebrations, we at The Viking Herald remind you to party hard but responsibly in the coming spring months. Remember, no one likes a drunk Viking...
For more on the effect that Christianity had on curbing the Viking springtime festivals, read an article on it from Science Norway here.
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