This holy tide has several names and several possible spellings. First and most obviously, “plough” is normally “plow” in the US. Éowemeolc can also be Éwemeolc or Ewemeoluc. [EYY-oh-wuh-may-ollk or YEW-uh-may-uh-luck]
This is the Anglo-Saxon early spring or pre-spring festival. The Anglo-Saxon name refers to ewes (female sheep) giving milk because they have birthed their lambs. The Anglo-Saxons got much of their milk from sheep.
The second month of the Anglo-Saxon year, corresponding roughly to February (starting on the second new moon after Módraneht—this year, 2006, January 29, and ending with 10 hours of daylight and 14 of night), was called Sólmónað. Bede writes: “Solmónaþ dici potest mensis placentarum, quas in eo diis suis [Angli] offerabant”—“Solmónaþ can be called the month of cakes, which [the Angles] offered to their gods during it.” However, no such word sol or sól is recorded in Anglo-Saxon, so some scholars think the month was actually named after the sun, but the sun is sunne in Anglo-Saxon (except in a single compound, the name of the flower heliotrope). So the other theory is that the month-name actually comes from sulh, “plough.” The cakes are presumed to have been offered by leaving them in the furrows; they may have been called “plough-cakes,” hence Bede’s misapprehension—or that may in fact be all Bede meant, leaving out that the sol- actually meant “plough.”
This is one of the reasons modern Anglo-Saxon heathens celebrate Blessing of the Plough at this tide. The other is that ploughs have clearly been blessed (or charmed) in England since at least Anglo-Saxon times. The Æcerbót [ACK-er-bote} or Field Blessing charm, the one containing the invocation that begins “Erce, Erce, Erce, eorþan modor”—“Erce, Erce, Erce, earthy mother,”* includes the following procedures: First cut out four sods from the four sides of the field, marking where they were cut from; treat the soil sides of these with oil, honey, yeast, milk from the cattle on the land, and part of each kind of tree that grows on it, and virtually all herbs, and also holy water; bless them, have them blessed in church; then replace them in their original positions with a cross marked with the name of an evangelist under each sod; then pray in each of the cardinal directions, beginning with east. Then take “unknown seed” from beggars—paying them double—collect together all your ploughing implements, bore a hole in the plough-tail, and pour in incense, fennel, and hallowed materials; put the seed on the body of the plough; say the Erce invocation over it, and continue invoking earth as you cut the first furrow. Finally, take flour of every kind and use it to bake a palm-sized loaf, knead this into milk and holy water, and deposit it under that first furrow, and bless the field. This is a syncretistic charm—a melding of Christian and heathen elements—intended to cause a barren field to grow a good crop, or to reverse a spell that has been placed on the field. It is clear that the blessing of the field in relation to the four compass points, the prayer that starts off addressing the earth (Erce may be one of the names of Jörð/Eorþ, indeed I believe so), and other elements started off heathen. It also seems clear that blessing the plough and using it to cut the first furrow and then wetting a special, small loaf with milk—which would presumably be ewe’s milk—relate as much to starting off any agricultural year in the best way possible as to reversing a curse. And the loaf looks like another version of Bede’s cakes.
One of the English folk customs revived in the nineteenth century is Plough Monday. Some twentieth century reports make this a reverential blessing of the ploughs in the church, but earlier accounts depict something far more like Hallowe’en or carnival—men going door to door in outlandish disguise, singing and demanding a gift, and if they were given nothing ploughing up the front garden. It seems likely that the original rite, like many such door-to-door seasonal processions, had both aspects—the plough was processed because it brought blessings, but ribaldry attended the celebrations and lack of respect for the plough and its attendants brought retribution. I assume the plough was blessed first, before being taken around.
Plough Monday is the first Monday after Twelfth Night—in early January. Ewes notoriously give birth long before winter loosens its hold (and in fact in England, February is usually the coldest month). So whatever the traditional date for Blessing of the Plough, whether January or February, it would be in late winter or very early spring, well before an outsider might expect the first furrow to be cut. This is the same situation as with Disting and Thorrablót, and I do suspect the three were originally the same holy tide. In all cases, I think the early date serves two purposes: to do the blessing before there is any danger of cultivation starting without it, and to leave time for a procession of a cult wagon (as in Tacitus’ account of the cult of Nerthus and as in Gunnar Helmings Þáttr to cover its entire route before spring ended.
The Troth identifies Charming of the Plough with Disting, and increasingly modern heathens of various persuasions celebrate it by blessing whatever in their lives corresponds to a plough in a farmer’s life: a laptop, a gift with words, craftsmen’s tools, skilled hands . . .
These days we usually celebrate Éwemeolc/Blessing of the Plough on February 2—to coincide with the Celtic Imbolc, (a fire festival sacred to Brigid, christianized as Candlemas) and because it is a cross quarter day, midway between Yule and Eostre/Ostara. (This is the source of the American Groundhog Day celebration, because the spring equinox is 6 weeks away.) Given that Sólmónað corresponds closely to February, this would seem to be close, but Plough Monday is almost a month earlier. (It would be tempting to correlate the timing of the Shetland Up Helly Aa viking celebration, which is in late January, but it seems to be only a couple of centuries old.)
Since the Icelandic months had become fixed, while the Anglo-Saxon months were fully lunar, it may not be possible to determine whether the blessing of the plough or earliest harbinger of spring festival was held at the same time in all Germanic areas—tied to the time of Yule—or whether it depended on local agricultural conditions, such as the beginning of lambing or the first partial thaw of the new year. But it was clearly so early as to be more about seeing signs of spring than celebrating its arrival. This suits its modern emphasis on preparing ourselves and our tools for the coming year.
* A text of the charm may be found here; it is the primary example in Karen Jolly’s Popular Religion in Late Saxon England and is translated there as well as in Gustav Storms’ Anglo-Saxon Magic.