The Rise of Spurcalia: Medieval Festival and Modern Myth

The Rise of Spurcalia: Medieval Festival and Modern Myth

By Nathan J. Ristuccia

Comitatus, Vol. 44 (2013)

Abstract: Multiple scholars over the last two centuries have argued that Germanic pagans celebrated a solar festival in February, called the Spurcalia. While there is no consensus about the purpose of this festival (with everything from divination, to the changing of the seasons, to ritual purification suggested), scholars agree that the Spurcalia was a major holiday, which died out only over the course of the early Middle Ages.

A closer examination of the medieval sources, however, reveals that this festival never actually existed. Instead, the legend of this holiday arose through a series of misunderstandings on the part of medieval writers, which modern scholarship only compounded. The corrected history of spurcalia makes Germanic polytheism even more mysterious, but it also illustrates how medieval descriptions of paganism reflected clerical ideas about Christianization and the nature of religious worship.

Introduction: Across the West Germanic world, February marked the celebration of one of the most important feasts in the pagan year. During this month, Germanic polytheists commemorated seasonal change and the lengthening of daylight by sacrificing a piglet to the sun god in order to drive out winter. As late as the ninth century, some pagans and Christians continued to observe this holiday; contemporary clerical critics called it spurcalia in Latin, reflecting the role piglets (Latin porcellus, German ferkel) held in the festival. Religious reformers eventually extinguished the Spurcalia, but not before the pagan feast shaped Carnival in the Holy Roman Empire. The festival even preserved its name as a Low German word for February (Sporkelmonat). Recently, some neo-pagans have sought to revive the Spurcalia, advising modern heathens to sacrifice pork to the gods every February on their household altars. This, then, is the narrative of the Spurcalia which has appeared in most scholarship on the holiday from the late eighteenth century until today. As a narrative, it is succinct, tangible, engaging, and learned. It has the misfortune, however, of being completely false.

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Top Image: Calendar page for February with a man cutting branches – British Library MS Additional 21114 f. 1v

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