Disting and other Late Winter Heathen Festivals (Carnival)

Disting and other Late Winter Festivals

This entry is adapted from Our Troth Volume 3 and generously donated by the Publisher for the education and enjoyment of all Heathens. For the unedited and uncut version, buy the book!

Medieval Icelandic Poet and Historian Snorri Sturlusson described in Óláfs saga helga a great gathering at Uppsala in the month of Gói:

Í Svíþjóðu var þat forn landssiðr, meðan heiðni var þar, at höfuðblót skyldi vera at Uppsölum at gói. Skyldi þá blóta til friðar ok sigrs konungi sínum, ok skyldu menn þangat soekja um alt Svíaveldi. Skyldi þar þá ok vera þing allra Svía. Þar var ok þá markaðr ok kaupstefna ok stóð viku. En er kristni var í Svíþjóð, þá hélzt þar þó lögþing ok markaðr. En nú síðan er kristni var alsiða í Svíþjóð, en konungar afroektust at sitja at Uppsölum, þá var foerðr markaðrinn ok hafðr kyndilmessu. Hefir þat haldizk alla stund síðan, ok er nú hafðr eigi meiri en stendr þrjá daga. Er þar þing Svía, ok soekja þeir þar til um allt land.

In Sweden it was the old custom, while Heathenry was there, that the most important sacrifice haed to be held at Uppsala in the month of Gói. Sacrifices had to be offered for frith and for the victory of their king, and people had to come there from the entire Swedish realm. There also had to be an assembly of all Swedes, and there was also a market and fair there, and it lasted a week. When Christianity was in Sweden, the legal assembly and market were still held. Now, ever since Christianity became the custom in Sweden, and the kings refused to stay at Uppsala, the market was moved and held at Candlemas. It has been held ever since then, and now it lasts no more than three days. The assembly of the Swedes is there, and they come there from all over the country. (Óláfs saga helga 77).

Snorri doesn’t give this sacrifice a particular name, but the fair held at Candlemas (February 2; properly called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin) is called Disting (Old Norse Dísaþing, “assembly of the Dísir”).

It is still held every year in Uppsala to this day.

The medieval Swedish law code Upplandslög describes this Dísaþing as a legal assembly and market, adding that “the peace of Disting,” Disæþinx friþær, had to be kept during the assembly (Gunnell, “The Season of the Dísir,” p. 134). A flat-topped mound at Gamla Uppsala is still called Tingshög, “þing-howe,” and might have been the site of this assembly (Henriksson, “The Pagan Great Midwinter Sacrifice,” pp. 8-11).

In 1555, Olaus Magnus described Disting as a market held on the frozen river in Uppsala, at a time when the ice was thick enough to support the weight of many people and animals.

He reinterpreted its name, claiming that it honored a legendary Queen Disa, who had saved her people from a famine by getting a lot of them to move away. He also recorded the timing of the market, which in his time was not held on February 2: Disting fell on the first full moon after the first new moon after January 6, the Christian Feast of the Epiphany (Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus IV.6; transl. Fisher and Higgins, A Description of the Northern Peoples, vol. 1, p. 203).

When is Disting?

Disting therefore could fall on any date between January 20 and February 19 in the modern calendar. German diplomat Erich Lassota of Streblau, who was interned in Sweden between 1590 and 1593, confirmed the date of Disting in his diary in 1591 (Tagebuch, p. 165):

Es werden in dieser Stadt jerlich zwo Messen oder Märkt gehalten, der Erste heist der Distings Marckt, darumb das Er von der Khünigin Disa eingesezt worden, gefellet allzeit auf den Vollmond des ersten Neuen lichts, 526

nach der heylich drey Könige Tagk, und so das Neue licht auff denselben tag der Heilligen drey Künig fur Mittag einträt, wird er nicht auf den ersten, Sonder des nechst kommenden Neuen lichts Vollmon gehalten. Wen aber das Neue licht desselben tags nach Mittag eintritt, wird Er auff den ersten Vollmon gehalten.

Every year, two fairs or markets are held in this city. The first is called the Disting Market, because it was established by Queen Disa. It always falls on the full moon of the first new moon after the Day of the Holy Three Kings [January 6], and in case the new moon arrives before midday on the same Day of the Holy Three Kings, it is not held on the first, but rather on the next full moon of the coming new moon. But when the new light comes in on the same day after noon, it is kept on the first full month.

Swedish scholar Olof Rudbeck learned the same rule from the peasants he spoke to: the moon that is shining on Epiphany is the Yule moon, and the moon after that is the Disting moon. Four other 17th-century writers on Swedish customs confirm this basic rule: Johannes Bureus, Olaus Wormius, Johannes Schefferus, and Magnus Celsius (Henrikson, “The Pagan Great Midwinter Sacrifice,” pp. 3-4).

It may seem odd that the timing of Disting was determined by the Christian feast of the Epiphany; presumably some other fixed date was used in pre-Christian times.

The Disting holiday itself would be held under the full moon, about fourteen days after the start of the Disting month. The solstice and other critical days for regulating the lunar months might have been determined by the rising and setting of the sun and moon aligned with the burial mounds at Uppsala (Henrikson, “The Pagan Great Midwinter Sacrifice,” pp. 6-11).

Wait, isn't there already a dísablót? How is Disting different?

Several sagas mention a dísablót which was celebrated in the autumn, at Winternights (see Chapter 24). The difference seem to be regional; the autumn dísablót is described from Iceland or Norway, while the winter Disting was a Swedish custom.

There was also a difference in setting: the Winternights dísablót seems to have been carried out within households, while the Disting was held in conjunction with a public assembly and fair. The word dísir encompasses both goddesses and other supernatural female beings, but it most commonly seems to refer to female ancestors.

Gói

According to the Orkneyinga saga and Hversu Nóregr byggðist, Þorri’s daughter was named Gói.

The second month in the calendar is named after her. When she was kidnapped, Þorri held another great blót to find out where she was. After various adventures, his sons eventually found her. The mention of a second blót in the legend might point to actual blóts that people once held at the beginning of her month, which would have fallen more or less in February.

In 19th century Iceland, Thorri and Gói (or Góa, as the name is spelled today) were thought of as husband and wife.

As mentioned, it was traditional for the man to greet Thorri on the first day of his month, welcoming him to the farm. On the first day of Gói, it was the woman’s turn; she had to get up before everyone else, go outside before getting dressed, circle the farm three times, and say

Velkomin sértu, Góa mín, og gakktu inn í bæinn;

Vertu ekku úti í vindinum vorlángan daginn.

Be welcome, my dear Gói, and come into the home;

Don’t stay outside in the wind on a long spring day.

The woman then had to invite the neighbors to a party (Jón Árnason, Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur og Æfintýri, pp. 572-573).

Gói was also the time for weather prognostications: conditions during this month, or on its first day, were omens of how the year was likely to turn out (Jón Árnason, vol. 2, p. 560). Icelanders might say lognsnjór mikill á Góu veit á góðan grasvöxt á sumrum, “a heavy but calm snowfall in Gói means good growth of grass in the summer.”

The name Gjø or Göa survived in Norway for the fifth month of winter, corresponding more or less to February; the name Göja was recorded from Sweden. This was the time when many farm animals would give birth, and a traditional rhyme from east Norway expresses hope for prosperity to come (Olrik and Ellekild, Nordens Gudeverden, vol. 2, p. 1116):

Gud velsigne Gjø!

da griser min so,

da kælver min ko,

da lever vi altid så vel!

God bless Gjø!

Then my sow farrows,

then my cow calves,

then we always live so well!

The light from the Gjø moon was good for milk. In some areas of Norway, people let the light of the new moon of Gjø shine on the milking buckets, so that Gjø would fill them. In Solør on the border between Norway and Sweden, on the first three evenings of Gjø, milk from the best cow would be taken out so that the moonlight could shine on it, and the milker would say (Olrik and Ellekilde, p. 1117):

Her ser du mælken min, Gjø!

giv mig styrke og føde!

Here you see my milk, Gjø!

Give me strength and nourishment!

In Solør, a housewife might also take a slice of bread with some butter into the light of the new Gjø moon and say “Kære Gjø giv mig både smør og brød!”— “Dear Gjø, give me both butter and bread!” In the same region, it was believed that the snowdrifts in Gjø would be as high as the heaps of grain at harvest time (Olrik and Ellekilde, p. 1118).

Gjø was also a time for love.

In 1675, it was said in south Norway that the Gjø moon was the time when “the boys run madly after the girls and love them.” As mentioned in the chapter on marriage, it was lucky to contract a betrothal under the waxing Gjø moon, but unlucky when the moon was waning. Young people and couples might also try divinations to find out if they would marry or be betrothed; a young man in Hardanger, Norway might go out at night under the light of the full Gjø moon, speak the words

Gjø, Gjø, giv mig kjærest! Gjø, Gjø, giv mig kjærest!”—“Gjø, Gjø, give me a girlfriend!”—and then begin digging in the earth.

He would either see his true love before he was finished digging. . . or if not, he was doomed never to find a lover before he himself was laid in his grave (Olrik and Ellekilde, Nordens Gudeverden, p. 1117). 523

Carnival and "Spurcalia"

The English priest Aldhelm of Malmesbury wrote a tract called Prosa de Virginitate, which happens to include an episode in which the Roman people held a pagan sacrifice and fanaticae lustrationis spurcalia turificabat, “burnt as incense the spurcalia of ecstatic purification.”

The eighth-century Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum mentioned spurcalia as something that was evidently going on in the Rhineland, listing a prohibition de spurcalibus in februario, “against the spurcalia in February,” with no further explanation. A third author, the anonymous eighth-century Frankish writer of a book of sermons, denounces a festival called the spurcalia but doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what it was (Ristuccia, “The Rise of the Spurcalia,” pp. 62-75).

Because February was called Sporkelmonat in parts of Germany and Sprokkelmaand in the Netherlands, and because Sporkel is an old German word for “piglet,” the 18th century German historian Johann Georg von Eckhart conjectured that Heathens sacrificed a boar to Freyr at a festival in February, which was known as the Spurcalia.

Some have tried to connect this festival with the Roman festival of the Lupercalia. Others have seen it as an ancestor of Carnival / Mardi Gras. The problem with this interpretation is that the medieval texts never use the word unambiguously to mean a festival.

Aldhelm seems to have coined the word spurcalia himself, and used it to mean simply “filthy things” (from Latin spurcus, “filthy”).

Later English scholars gloss the word as Latin fetida and sordes and Old English fylþa, all just meaning “filth.”

Spurcalia were something that Aldhelm disapproved of very much, but he probably didn’t mean a Heathen festival of slaughtering pigs. The other authors, who seem to have copied from him, perpetuated a misconception (Ristuccia, “The Rise of the Spurcalia,” pp. 55-62).

How do we celebrate Disting today?

As Modern Heathens, we can take all these traditions and combine them into a single Holiday. But what do we get when we put all that together? Today, many of us celebrate Disting as a festival to Freya, the Vanadis. You'll notice that as we get towards Springtime, the Holidays turn towards Freya where in Autumn they turn toward Freyr Yngve. 

Defeat of the "Winter King" Thorri

Some may like to celebrate a kind of dramatization of the defeat of "Old Man Winter" or the "Winter King" Thorri. There are many modern festivals who riff on this kind of celebration--though none of them specifically have to do with Norse Paganism. In St. Paul, Minnesota (United States) there is a Winter Carnival which culminates in a parade and the defeat of King Boreas by the rowdy and wild Vulcans (not the Star Trek kind, but men who dress in flaming red suits and go around town drinking copiously).

For your celebration, you may want to have a winter play dramatization of the defeat of Old King Thorri by Thor or Freya (or both), along with dramatizations of the the courtship of Freyr Yngve and Gerdr.

Freya Vanadis: Goddess of the Returning Spring

We celebrate Freya, love, compassion and kindness throughout Disting. We light candles and lanterns to remind us of Freya's glorious necklace, the Brisingamen. 

February can be a hard month for a lot of people. The coming month is Lenzen, the "Lean" Month, which is more of a time of deep reflection and sometimes fasting. Think about the brightness you can inspire in the lives of others by hosting or helping out with a Disting feast. Think of it like a "last hurrah" like Mardi Gras before Lent, or Jumu'atul-Wida before Ramadan (though that's a bit more sober than Mardi Gras). 

It's also an extremely porky time at the feast. Pork. Pork. More Pork. You might wonder if Heathens eat anything else. But this is also a good time for sweets and chocolate.

It's also a great time to give those you love tokens of your affection. Poems. Candy. Chocolate. Celebrate your spouse or your partner. Finding love isn't easy and it isn't always easy to keep a relationship together either. Be grateful for the good relationships in your life. If you don't have a romantic partner, just celebrating the people you love can be enough--romantic or not.

We aren't all here forever, after all. So make your Disting about celebrating the time we share together while we share it.

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