Monday, December 24, 2012

Night of the Mothers

Were the Norse Norns/Fates the "Mothers"?
Among the notable works of the Venerable Bede (c.673-735) is De temporum ratione (The Reckoning of Time). It explains why the length of days and nights changes (Bede knew the Earth was a globe); it explains how the Sun and Moon cause the phases of the Moon, and it addresses the relationship between the Moon and the tides (but doesn't understand how the relationship works). It also includes an explanation of various calendars used by different cultures. The whole point of his scholarship was to explain how to calculate the date of Easter, that "floating Holy Day" that can be held anywhere from 22 March to 25 April.

One of the events he discusses as part of other calendars is Mōdraniht (Night of Mothers), intended to be the start of the New Year:
...began the year on the 8th kalends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, "mothers night", because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night. [Wallis, Faith (1999). Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Liverpool University Press.]
The 25th of December was notable in the past because it came four days after the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. By the 25th, it was possible to determine even without precise measurements and instruments that the days were growing longer. The 25th therefore became a day of celebrating the returning Sun.

Who were the "Mothers" meant by Bede? We think he was referring to female spirits that had to do with mankind's welfare, and who would be sacrificed to and invoked for bounty for the coming year. Some scholars have linked them to the dísir (singular dís), female spirits that watch over the fate of Norse clans. These would be similar to the Norns of Norse mythology who function like the Fates of Greek mythology.

Bede seems to be reliable on many of the observations he makes of other cultures. Unfortunately, he did not elaborate on the "ceremonies" that he "suspected" were performed on Mōdraniht, and we have no other contemporary source for information on what the celebration entailed.

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