Tides – Thorrablót / Þorrablót

Icelanders celebrate a winter heritage festival called Þorrablót: they eat traditional foods such as svið (a lamb’s head with the wool singed off in the fire), hákarl (shark), harðfiskur (dried fish, eaten with butter and one assumes akin to the dreaded lutefisk of Norwegian celebrations), lundabaggar (lamb dumplings soaked in mysa, which is whey—what is left of milk after cheese making—and gives a sour taste), hrútspungar (rams’ testicles soaked in mysa), sviðasulta (lambs’ brains, of a pâté-like consistency, soaked in mysa), lifrarpylsa (lambs’ liver pudding), blóðmor (small blood-puddings, 4 to 7 ins in diameter, using lamb stomachs as the casing), kartöflumús (sweetened mashed potatoes), rauðkal (boiled, sweetened red cabbage), rófustappa (sweetened mashed turnips), flatkökur or flatbrauð (flat, thin rye bread), grísasulta (pork pâté—a modern addition to the menu), and for the kids who can’t stomach the traditional meat dishes, kotilettur (lamb chops). The older tradition is to eat the shark in the evening while drinking brennivín (Schnapps; spiced liquor). Read all about the food in Icelandic, with pictures and a full glossary. Or here is an Icelander’s blog entry in English, with the cute line, “In many countries shark eat men, in Iceland men eat shark.”

But the Icelandic celebration is a nineteenth-century patriotic revival, not a heathen survival.

In particular, it takes its name from the month of Þorri, which does not seem to have been named after Thor/Thunor/Donar; Cleasby-Vígfússon’s suggestion is that the month-name derives from þorrinn, the past participle of þverra, “to ebb, wane, drain out,” because it’s the month of waning winter. (However, the opening chapter of Orkneyinga Saga claims it was named after one Þorri who loved to throw huge winter feasts.)

The first edition of The Troth’s handbook, Our Troth (1993, p. 573) points out that the festival historically has nothing to do with Thor/Thunor/Donar (or heathenry) but adds that many heathens opt to honor the Thunderer at this time both because of the name and because this is a time when we feel we particularly need his strength to get us through the winter.

The Troth gives the date of Þorrablót as the Friday between 19 and 25 January (p. 572), but actually although one can presume there was a Þorra-blót at the start of the month of Þorri, there’s no particular evidence of it, only of Yule observances.

The Troth points out that the festival historically has nothing to do with Thor/Thunor/Donar (or heathenry) but adds that many heathens opt to honor the Thunderer at this time both because of the name and because this is a time when we feel we particularly need his strength to get us through the winter.

The Troth refers to “the date,” but actually although one can presume there was a Þorra-blót at the start of the month of Þorri, there’s no particular evidence of it, only of Yule observances. The modern festival lasts all month. The Icelandic Tourist Board promises visitors a chance to “eat like a viking” all through February. In the ancient Icelandic calendar, Þorri was the fourth month in the winter half of the year, the first after the winter solstice, and ran for thirty days starting on the thirteenth Friday of winter. According to Cleasby-Vígfússon, that meant it started between January 9th and January 16th, and ended between February 7th and 14th old style, but with the calendar reform of the 1870s it came to start at the end of January: in 1873, January 24th was the first day of Þorri.

So if we (re-)heathenize Thorrablót, it should either be all of February (as a heritage festival for heathens of an Icelandic bent), or be the last Friday in January (as a waning winter festival or in honor of Thor/Thunor/Donar), and I am sorry to say the latter is gone for this year (2006).