By Noah Tetzner
Throughout medieval literature, we hear of Christians celebrating the birth of Christ at a twelve-day feast, during the time of year when days become longer and winter was at its peak. It’s true that holidays such as Christmas were celebrated, but what most people fail to realize is that the pagan peoples of Northern Europe (particularly Scandinavia) had a winter celebration of their own.
Yule or Jól (in Old Norse) was a winter holiday that occurred over the course of three nights. The celebration began with Midwinter night, which is December 21st or 22nd, marking the day with the shortest amount of daylight, and the longest night of the year. Medieval sources for pagan rituals and celebrations are limited, and the celebration of Yule is no exception. The specific events of the festival are not entirely clear, however, some hints can be found in the Old Norse sagas in which Yule is celebrated. When looking at these sagas, it is apparent that the festival contained much drinking and feasting, as in The Saga of Haakon the Good.
Haakon the Good (920–961) was a Christian king like no other. His rule over Norway was unconventional, as it was not defined by the oppression of ‘’heathens’’, or non-Christian subjects. Rather, it was defined by his tolerance towards the pagan people, who made up the majority of his kingdom. He was not insistent about his religion and allowed many of his people to remain pagan. Haakon only insisted that everyone celebrate a holiday in late December, making it law that Yule should be observed during the same time as Christmas. In order to show that one celebrated a holiday, Haakon required every free man to consume a minimum amount of ale (approximately four gallons) and to keep celebrating as long as the ale lasted.
A Christian Compromise
On one particular occasion, King Haakon attended a Yule feast, thrown by one of his pagan subjects. Upon his arrival, toasts were made to several of the Norse gods. First Odin’s toast – that was dedicated to victory and the power of the king – then Njord’s toast and Freyr’s toast for prosperity and peace. People also made toasts to their kinsmen, who had been buried in large mounds, which was a common occurrence throughout Medieval Scandinavia. The feast was held inside a temple, where bonfires were lined up in the middle of the floor. Cauldrons were placed atop these fires, and the meat of domestic animals brought by local farmers was cooked. It was an ancient custom that when a ritual feast took place, all the farmers who attended would bring their own livestock to eat over the course of the entire celebration.
The most significant livestock were horses, whose meat was eaten with special reverence. On another occasion when King Haakon attended a Yule feast, his subjects tried persuading him to eat horse meat, which he refused to do. They were relentless with their persuasion and told him that he must drink the horse gravy, or eat some of the fat. He refused to do either and was on the verge of being attacked. A jarl sought to keep the peace and begged Haakon to compromise by inhaling the steam from the cooking horse meat. Haakon reluctantly did so, but neither he nor his pagan subjects were pleased. The following winter, Haakon attended yet another Yule feast and was attacked by his subjects upon his arrival. They knew of his Christian beliefs and promised not to harm him if he made a pagan sacrifice. Once again, a jarl sought to keep the peace and begged Haakon to compromise. King Haakon wished to keep the peace so he ate a few pieces of horse liver, and drank the pagan toasts without making the sign of the cross.
The Swearing of Oaths
It has become a modern tradition to make ‘’New Year’s Resolutions’’ during the final weeks of December. In Medieval Scandinavia, the “Swearing of Oaths’’ was an important tradition as well, with oaths to be sworn at a Yule festival. To the pagan Norse, the oath was an ironbound statement that had to be fulfilled at all costs. In fact, the central conflicts of many Old Norse sagas originate from someone’s disinclined oath being fulfilled despite its consequences. The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek and Sturlaugs saga starfsama, are two particular Old Norse Sagas that feature oaths sworn at a Yule feast, in both cases, pertaining to the marriage of a woman. It is interesting to note that Yule oaths sworn in The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek and in The Poem of Helgi Hjörvarðsson, involve touching a boar whilst declaring the oaths. After the swearing, the boar was then sacrificed in the sonar-blót (blót is Old Norse for sacrifice).
‘’And they would sacrifice a boar in the sonarblót. On Yule Eve the sonar- boar was led into the hall before the king; then people laid their hands on its bristles and made vows.’’ – The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek: Chapter 10
In The Poem of Helgi Hjörvarðsson, Helgi’s brother Hethin swears that he will take his brother’s lover Svava.
‘’That evening [of Yule Eve] the great vows were taken; the sacred boar was brought in, the men laid their hands thereon, and took their vows at the king’s toast.’’ – The Poem of Helgi Hjörvarðsson: Prose before stanza 31
Unable to fulfill his oath, Hethin goes into self-imposed exile. Helgi eventually tracks him down and asks him why he fled. Hethin tells him of his sworn oath, but rather than becoming angry, Helgi notices a convenient opportunity. Helgi knew that he would die in an upcoming duel and willingly left his lover Svava to the care of his brother.
“Grieve not, Hethin, for true shall hold The words we both by the beer have sworn ; To the isle a warrior wills that I go, (There shall I come the third night hence;) And doubtful must be my coming back, (So may all be well, if fate so wills.)”
Yule was a winter festival celebrated by pagans in Medieval Scandinavia. To the medieval Norse people, oaths were of great importance, especially those sworn during this time of the year, as can be seen in The Poem of Helgi Hjörvarðsson. When the gradual transition from pagan rituals to Christian traditions took place, Yule feasts were also spaces where participation in pagan rituals occurred for the sake of unity, with one of the most notable examples of this seen in The Saga of Haakon the Good, where King Haakon attends multiple Yule feasts and reluctantly participates in the pagan ritual of eating of horse meat. The ancient origins, stories, and traditions of Yule (Jól), in particular, those surrounding the transition between pagan and Christian customs, continue to intrigue and capture the imagination today.
Noah Tetzner hosts The History of Vikings podcast. His podcast is dedicated to exploring every aspect of the Viking Age, and deals with topics such as Norse mythology, monastery raids, Norse warrior women, and the humble farmstead. Click here to listen to the podcast or follow Noah on Twitter @HistoryofViking
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: King Haakon at a feast, depicted by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831–1892)