Article written for the IPC Diary
The Anglo-Saxon Year
by Arlea Hunt-Anschütz
Bede (673-735), the scholar and monk best known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People also wrote a Latin treatise called The Reckoning of Time with the purpose of explaining how the dates of Christian festivals should be calculated. In this book he includes a chapter on 'The English Months', by which he means the months the heathen English observed before they adopted the Roman calendar along with Christianity. In doing so he preserved some pagan Anglo-Saxon lore which would otherwise have been lost.
The early Anglo-Saxons divided the year into twelve lunar months (literally 'moons'), but as a lunar cycle is about 29.5 days, this would result in a 354 day year. After two or three 12 month years, the lunar cycle and the solar cycle (of 365 days) would be off by what amounted to a little more or less than a month. Every so often, the early Anglo-Saxons would have a 13 month year to get the lunar and solar cycles back into alignment. They inserted the extra month into the summer sailing season, called liða, which normally covered two months roughly corresponding to June and July. Thus, the 13 month year was called Ðriliði (three liðas).
According to Bede, the year began on Modranecht, Mothers' Night, the 25th of December "when we celebrate the birth of our lord". There has been a lot of speculation by both scholars and pagan authors as to who or what the 'mothers' in this word refers to. Many believe the Anglo- Saxons would have honoured Germanic female ancestral spirits known as the Idisi on this day.
The months corresponding to December and January were both known as Giuli, 'Yules'. Bede implies that Geola, Yule, was the name for the winter solstice when he states that these months "derive their name from the day when the Sun turns back to increase, because one precedes and the other follows". But judging by the names of the months it's equally possible that Geola was the name for the whole midwinter season. December was Ærra Geola, which can be interpreted as either 'first Yule' or 'preceding Yule', and January was Æfterra Geola, 'following Yule'.
February was known as Solmonað. According to Bede, the name comes from the cakes which they offered to their gods in that month. However, the word sol is not used in any Anglo-Saxon source to mean 'cake'. It's most common meaning is, in fact, 'mud'. Two possibilities arise. Either the kind of cake offered was called 'mud' due to its colour or texture, or, more plausibly (to those familiar with the English climate), February was simply known as 'Mudmonth'.
March was Hreðmonað. Bede writes that this month is named for the goddess Hreğa "to whom they sacrificed at this time". Hreða proves to be quite a shadowy figure. Though today's heathens have re-established links with this goddess, there is no existing lore about her. In his Teutonic Mythology, Jakob Grimm (of Grimm's Fairy Tales fame) presents evidence that in some parts of Germany the old name for March was Retmonat or Redtimonet, names which seem to be directly cognate with the Anglo-Saxon. This is the only evidence we have that the goddess Hreða may have been known outside of England.
For the heathen Anglo-Saxons, April corresponded with the lunar month of Eostermonað. Bede writes that this month was named after a goddess Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated at this time. He goes on to say that "Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance". 'Paschal' is an archaic English form of the Hebrew word, pesah, meaning 'Passover'. Most European languages still use a form of this word to mean Easter (e.g. French Pâques, Danish Paaske, Scottish Gaelic Cáisg). In contrast, the modern German word for Easter is Ostern, from the Old High German Ostara. In Teutonic Mythology, Jacob Grimm writes that "This Ostara, like the Anglo-Saxon Eastre, must in the heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the Christian teachers tolerated the name and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries." Eostra/Ostara may have started out as a local goddess who travelled to Britain from what is now Germany with a particular tribe, or a group of tribes such as the Saxons.
Many modern heathens celebrate a blót (ritual sacrifice) to the goddess Eostre or Ostara in April. Many Wiccans celebrate a spring festival called Ostara on the Vernal Equinox (March 21st or 22nd)-- which is somewhat anomalous considering that a) the only references we have to Eoste/Ostara associate her name with the month of April, and b) according to the only historical evidence we have to go on, the same peoples who held feasts for this goddess in April were holding them for a different goddess, Hreðe/Red, in March.
May corresponded with Anglo-Saxon Ðrimilcemonað, 'month of three milkings'. "So called because in this month the cattle were milked three times a day," comments Bede, "such was the fertility of Britain or Germany, from whence the English nation came to Britain."
The lunar month corresponding to June was known as Ærra Liða, 'first' or 'preceding' Liða and July was Æfterra Liða, 'following Liða'. Bede writes that "Litha means 'gentle' or 'navigable', because in both these months [June and July] the calm breezes are gentle and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea." Since the adjective liðe does appear in other Anglo-Saxon contexts meaning 'calm' or 'gentle', along with the verb liðan meaning 'to sail', and a host of other 'lið-' words with nautical connotations, Bede's explanation seems wholly plausible.
Some modern pagan authors have interpreted Liða as the Anglo-Saxon name for the summer solstice due to its symmetry with Yule within the old calendar. Ærra Liða, June, and Æfterra Liða, July, fall before and after the summer solstice just as Ærra Geola, December, and Æfterra Geola, January, fall before and after the winter solstice. But since there is no record of any Anglo-Saxon words related to liða that have a meaning encompassing the concept of 'the sun', this idea remains within the realm of speculation. Of course, one could also speculate that liða refers to the summer solstice because the sun can metaphorically be seen to sail, liðan, across the sky. But since the solstice is the point where the sun appears to stop moving (solstice literally means 'sun-stop' in Latin), sailing would seem an odd choice of metaphor for this particular celestial event.
August was called Weodmonað, 'weed month' (though the word weod could refer to herbs or grass as well as things we think of as weeds). Bede explains that "Weodmonad means 'month of tares' [vetches], for they are plentiful then."
Intriguingly, the heathen Anglo-Saxons named the month corresponding to September, Haligmonað, 'holy month'. Bede comments that the name refers to a "month of sacred rites". Unfortunately, he provides us with no further details. Perhaps this was a time of thanks for the safe return of ships from sea and for the fruits of the summer harvest.
The Anglo-Saxon lunar month corresponding to October was Winterfilleð. Bede comments:
Originally they [the heathen English] divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, assigning the six months in which the days are longer than the nights to summer, and the other six to winter. Hence, they called the month in which the winter season began "Winterfilleth", a name made up of "winter" and "full Moon", because winter began on the first full moon of that month.
We have some confirmation for Bede's statement above in that medieval Scandinavia followed a similar two season system with winter beginning in mid-October and summer beginning in mid-April. In heathen Iceland, the period of two days when winter began was called Veturnætur (Winter Nights) and was a holy time for sacrifice and feasting. Winternights is one of the most popular festivals amongst today's heathens.
November was called Blotmonað, month of blood sacrifices. Bede's commentary is particularly amusing:
Blodmonath is "month of immolations", for then the cattle which were to be slaughtered were consecrated to the gods. Good Jesu, thanks be to thee, who hast turned us away from these vanities and given us to offer to thee the sacrifice of praise.
The Icelandic word for November is similar: Gormánuáðr 'gor-month' or 'slaughtering-month'. In Northern Europe this would be the time of year when any cattle that were unlikely to survive the winter would be killed for meat. The slaughtering would, of course, be done in a ritual manner with offerings made to the gods.