Tides – Hærfest / Harvest

From mid-August through the end of October is harvest-tide in different places, for different crops. In some, particularly Scandinavian-based heathen traditions, harvest is celebrated only once, either in association with Freyfaxi or at the end of local harvesting. A host of harvest customs survive in the Germanic and Baltic countries. Clearly the ancient heathens held harvest festivals, but when they did so, and how many times during the season, seems to have varied.

In Germany and England in particular, there are traditionally two harvest festivals, at the beginning and the end of the harvest period, or in an English context at the time of the wheat harvest and then at the end of the apple harvest. In Germany the traditional date for Erntedank (harvest thanksgiving) is variously given as Michaelmas (September 29) or the first Sunday in October, although in the traditional month names it is August that is Ernting. In England, “Harvest Home,” Anglo-Saxon Hærfest, generally happens around the fall equinox, toward the end of September, and the corresponding Anglo-Saxon month is Háligmónaþ (“holy month”), but where the apple harvest takes longer, harvest may be celebrated later, even after first frost (which brings it into association with Hallowe’en, which also has associations with the apple harvest). And although the usual Anglo-Saxon name for August is Wéodmónaþ (“weed month”), an alternative is Rugern, which probably refers to the rye harvest. Old High German Herbist, modern German Herbst, and Old Norse/Icelandic Haust refer to the fall season rather than to harvest, but Egils Saga does refer to a Haustblót. The traditional time for this, August 19, would be late August after adjustment for the calendar reform.

Clearly, harvest is a season, and it may be best to celebrate it not on a particular date but as local crops in a given year indicate. If celebrating it late, it may make sense to associate it with Winterfinding/Winterfylleþ. Heimskringla dictates a blót for the next year’s harvest at that time. Also, in much of North Germany the last sheaf is called Vergodendeel or Vergodenstruss, which is probably “Frô Gode’s” [i.e.: Wodan’s] “share” and “bundle”; and in various parts of Germany, Sweden, and Denmark it is customary to leave the last sheaf for the horse belonging to a figure who is pretty clearly Óðinn/Wóden/Wodan. In 1593, peasants danced around the last sheaf singing:

Wode, hale dynem Rosse nu Voder,
Nu Distel unde Dorn,
Thom andren Jahr beter Korn

(Wode, get your horse some fodder now,
Now thistles and thorns,
Give us next year better grain”)

and elsewhere and more recently, a patch of oats was left unharvested and a pole set up in the middle of it with a horseshoe-bedecked straw man tied to it; this was dubbed the Waut or Waul and when the farmer finished cutting the crop, he poured beer over it and then people danced around it singing a song asking “Waute’s” blessing for the reapers, their animals, and their crops. In Lower Saxony the last sheaf is left for the Helljäger’s horse. This is some of the most clearly heathen-derived folk tradition we have, but it makes most sense to feed Sleipnir just before the Wild Hunt rides in winter; so these customs also suggest the end-of-harvest celebration can be combined with Winterfinding.

Among modern heathen customs, Europeans, in particular, have adopted the custom of making a straw figure, “John Barleycorn.” They also like to have a maypole at harvest celebrations. Corn dollies and other straw creations are of course an obvious idea for celebration. Some like to remember Baldr’s death and his and Nanna’s descent to Hel’s realm, or Iðunn and her apples, or Sif’s hair and her husband, Thor/Thunor/Donar; lightning fixes nitrogen, so in much of Scandinavia farmers anxiously await thunder so that the grain crop will ripen. It would be appropriate to bake a pie with the new apples, or to load the altar with harvest produce; or to give thanks for more abstract and general harvest of success and happiness.