Heathen’s Journey Podcast Episode 10: Alfablot, Ancestors, and Elves

Heathen’s Journey Podcast Episode 10: Alfablot, Ancestors, and Elves

The Heathen’s Journey Podcast is back from unintended hiatus! In this episode, Siri talks about pagan timekeeping practices and holidays. You *might* have noticed that this is the spookiest time of year, and many witches celebrate accordingly. Siri talks about Samhain, the Norwegian Primstav as a living relic of folklore, and Alfablot. So grab a cup of your favorite tea, coffee, or ale, and have a seat by the fire.

You can listen to this episode on anchor.fm at: https://anchor.fm/abbie-plouff

alfablot bookstore pumpkins halloween

Well hello there, heathens and weirdos! It has been a while since the last time I recorded a podcast episode. I didn’t intend to take a mini-hiatus, but here we are.

The reason for the hiatus is actually very positive. I’m married now! And with all of the extra errands and work that come with planning even a (very small, covid-safe, quarantine) wedding, I had to drop something and that something ended up being this podcast. But not to worry, I’m back!

I have also launched the registration period for the Witchcraft Immersion 2021. This is a year-long program focused on helping you to grow in your witchcraft practice. I designed this course to help others develop their own practices. Most of the witches I know work primarily in solitude, but are craving community. Many witches don’t thrive in the coven structure, and want something different. We want to be able to cast spells together, or to learn from mentors – without the long-term commitment of joining a coven.

Witchcraft is a skill, and it’s a practice. It’s something that you cultivate and grow, and something that you learn more about the more you talk with other people. There is also a definite spiritual aspect of witchcraft that you can only tap into with extended time with the practice.

More information on the website, in the show notes, and I’ll be talking about it more at the end of this podcast episode! So stick around and listen all the way to the end.

Today, I’ll be talking a bit about the specific energy that we’re all living in right now, and how to care for ourselves. But I will also be talking about holidays, specifically Alfablot, and how to honor spirits of the dead at this time.

It’s been a challenging year for all of us, and this fall feels particularly potent. Obviously, I’ve got some big changes happening on a personal level, but there is so much in the air that we have been managing. COVID, the upcoming election, the fight for civil rights – all of it is heavy in the air. On top of that, we have some challenging astrology that is forcing us to confront how we act in anger, conflict, and our aggressive side. Mars has been retrograding through Aries, and we’ve been feeling that extra fire for a while now. And as of last week, Mercury is ALSO retrograding, and will not station direct until the US election on November 3.

I am not an astrologer, so I won’t get into the wild astrology that has ruled 2020, but I will say: If you can give yourself extra grace, do it. If you can slow down, do it. Now is the time to be putting all of those self-care practices to good use. And remember that you’re not alone in the struggle, we’re all facing it together.

Here are some self care tips for this time, from my witch’s cabinet to yours:

  1. Meditation. I know, I know, this one’s a little obvious, but honestly? We could all use the extra headspace.
  2. Candles and incense! With all of this fiery energy, candles can feel extra supportive right now. Choose scents that are calming or significant to you. I personally associate Freyja with the smell of a specific honey amber incense, and so whenever I burn that particular incense I feel her support.
  3. Cleaning your home. We’ll talk about this a little bit more later in the podcast, but cleaning your space can have a demonstrable change on your mood. Especially in this, the 8th month of quarantine, giving our homes a refresh is essential.
  4. Epsom salt baths. I know that for myself, a witch who struggles with chronic pain, it’s been incredibly difficult to manage pain while not able to get any massage or bodywork done this year. Yes, baths are often at the top of all those online self care lists, but honestly? A good, long epsom soak really helps my muscles and nerves feel better/more functional.

Baths can also ease some of the tension from this very fiery sky.

In working with Kari (my teacher in Nordic ways), I’ve learned that Saturdays were washing days for my ancestors. They would wash their hair, their bodies, and clean their homes on Saturdays. It’s a good day to do these chores, and in doing so to process the week behind and get ready for the week ahead. Our spaces really have such a huge impact on how we feel and our lives.

As we turn to the darker side of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, perhaps now is a good time to clear out the things that are no longer useful to you or bring you joy. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, I suppose now is a good time for spring cleaning! The transitional seasons feel like a good time to do this work, time when we’re either preparing for the next phases or simply feel less of a direct attachment to things.

The other thing I think about with this transition into winter is how my ancestors would have been working feverishly to prepare for winter.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about different pagan models for time. Many witches when we first start out are taught the Wheel of the Year, and according to that calendar, we’re coming up on Samhain: the witch’s new year.

I have loved Samhain for a large part of my life. Halloween has always been my favorite secular holiday (costumes and candy? Yes please! Spooky ghost stories? Always!). So when I was first learning about witchcraft, I loved the idea that Samhain is actually one of the most important holidays of the year. It made sense to me. I have always felt the spirits more closely at this time of year, I have always found this to be a great turning point in my own year.

Of course, Samhain was popularized largely through Gerald Gardner adapting the Celtic Wheel of the Year for Wicca, and so it has become popularized outside of that original pagan culture. There’s nothing wrong with this per se – Gardner was Celtic and did attempt to argue that he was just spreading the practices of his own coven, which he claimed was an unbroken tradition. However, it’s important to recognize that the Wheel of the Year is spread out in such a way because of its association with the natural rhythms of the Anglo-Celtic Isles. For example, when I was trying to celebrate the Wheel of the Year, Imbolc as the first day of spring never made sense to me because we usually have 3 more months of winter after.

I know a lot of witches who shift what the sabbats mean to them to celebrate them on the original Gregorian calendar days. In this case, Imbolc would not mean the beginning of spring for me, but the fire to endure the rest of the winter. I also know witches who move the dates of their personal sabbats to better reflect the seasons where they live. Witches who follow the Wheel of the Year in the southern hemisphere – or who venerate ancestors who lived in the southern hemisphere – often invert the Wheel of the Year. For those witches, it’s not Samhain coming up, but Beltaine.

One of the most beautiful aspects of following the Wheel of the Year is feeling aligned with a large community of witches. Holidays help us to mark time, but they also serve as reminders to celebrate in community. They are important times to gather and celebrate our accomplishments, mourn our losses, and prepare for things to come. Even as a solitary witch, especially around this time of year, there’s a sort of comfort in knowing that other people are celebrating the same things you are. The Wheel of the Year is a powerful, comforting passage of time for a lot of people.

And yet – it doesn’t work for everyone!

The more I lean into my Norse heritage and study Nordic magic, the more this holiday doesn’t feel like mine. In a way I will always celebrate Samhain, being a professional witch in the 21st century, and an avid lover of all things Halloween. But my own practice has shifted so much from Anglo-Celtic practices that it makes sense to mark 2020 as a year to change things up.

I plan on spending a lovely All Hallow’s Eve setting up our new apartment with my spouse, carving pumpkins, perhaps baking some treats, reading each other ghost stories, and watching people parade around in costumes from the safety of our balcony. It’s ok to just celebrate secular Halloween! It’s something I’ve done since I was a child, and something I’ve deeply loved my entire life.

But the next day, I will celebrate Alfablot.

alfablot
Brother Saint Martin and the Three Trolls, 1913, John Bauer

The Norwegian Primstav calendar marks October 14 as the first day of winter. This is the day when we switch to the winter side of the calendar, and marks the shift in seasons. I may have mentioned the Primstav elsewhere on this podcast. I have definitely talked about it on Instagram and in my newsletters.

This is a Norwegian folk calendar that each household had. It was a wooden stick, with all of the “summer side” saints days on one side, and the “winter side” saints days on the other. The Primstav was developed in response to the conversion to Christianity in Norway. The move from a paganism that was so closely related to the land to Christianity and the Gregorian calendar – plus all the Saints days of Catholicism! – meant it was a lot to keep track of.

Each of the symbols on the Primstav have folklore associated with them, that is supposed to remind whoever was using the Primstav about the particulars of that Saints’ day, or other folk traditions. The Primstav is then a living relic of folklore. They were often made by hand and passed down through the generations. There are Primstavs in Norwegian history and culture museums, both here in the United States and in Scandinavia.

As far as I know, my own family doesn’t have a Primstav, but I have a stick to begin making my own. I’ve been following the Primstav holidays with a guide, and a group of us here in Minnesota are starting to develop our own ideas of the Primstav.

One of the considerations that we, as Norwegian Americans, have to make when attempting to reconstruct the ancestral practices of our people, is that the land here has its own rhythm that is different from where our ancestors came from. And our relationship with the land is impacted by the generations of colonization that our ancestors have perpetrated. It’s important for us to get to know this land in its own context, but not to appropriate any of the traditions of the people indigenous to this land.

One of the most important ways to do this is to get to know the land spirits where we live. Learning about the plants that grow here, the animals that live among us, and to leave offerings for this land. There are many ways to care for the land, but the most important thing is to show respect. Pick up the litter around your home. Perhaps choose a tree to check in on and water regularly. Grow a garden that supports the local pollinator population.

I love to mark the seasons by following the same walking path through my neighborhood. While I walk, I notice the plants that are blooming at different times of the year, the subtle changes and shifts in energy. I check in with specific trees that I love on the path. If you’re interested in phenology, or the study of the seasons and plants, it’s always recommended to choose a specific “sitting spot” and notice the changes around you over the course of the year.

When I create my own Primstav, I will create it in honor of my own relationship to the land that I live on.

Looking at the Primstav, while living here in Minnesota, means that I need to think about whether or not it makes sense to mark the beginning of winter on October 14. Actually, this DOES make sense to me. As I’m writing this podcast script, we’re getting our first real snow of the year (much to the chagrin of most of the people I know). Yes, it is still technically “fall,” but mid-October feels like the winter side of fall to me.

This is the date that shows the real shift to winter preparation. At this time, my ancestors would have been preparing the home for winter. This is known as Slaughter Month in Old Norse calendars, meaning this is the time when a lot of the slaughtering and meat preservation for the winter would have been happening. My ancestors would have used as much of the animal as possible – hooves, horns, bones, meat, and organs.

This was also traditionally the time of the hunt. Here is another synchronicity in Minnesota: Our hunting season starts in November, a bit later than it started in Norway.

Slaughter Month is also the time of the Wild Hunt in European folklore. I hope to do another full episode just on the Wild Hunt, but it feels important to introduce it at this time. The Wild Hunt is a time when Odin, in his most ecstatic state, leads spirits around the countryside hunting lost souls. The spirit realm feels closer because we can feel them moving rapidly. The general unrest in the spirit realm might lead to a sense of anxiety or unrest in your own mind.

Are we lost? Will the Wild Hunt come for us? What can we hold on to as the days get shorter?

And this brings us to Alfablot.

Alfablot is the sacrifice to the elves. Blot means sacrifice, Alf means elf. This is one of the most difficult holidays to research, because it was the most insular holiday. This was a holiday celebrated within families who live together. This could mean just you and your roommates, just you and your parents/children, or just on your own. Travelers on Alfablot would have a hard time finding a place to stay, because everyone was celebrating the holiday just with their nuclear family.

We know from the name that there was some kind of sacrifice was offered to the elves, and that the elves were considered closest to the farm at this time. The word “sacrifice” might have some dramatic connotations to a modern ear. However, I would like to posit that a “sacrifice” in this context really means giving up something that you have in honor of the elves and Freyr, or whomever you give your sacrifice.

It goes back to that idea of reciprocity that runs through most of my own heathenry. In my episode on Fehu, on wealth, I talked about how this is a more generative wealth. It is intended to generate wealth for a community, not just an individual. When giving a sacrifice for Alfablot, you are distributing some of the cream, or water, or ale from your own home to the land of the elves. Common offerings for elves include water, cream, porridge, ale, and blood from roast meat. This could be left at an outdoor altar, or perhaps in the four cardinal directions of your home. It would make sense to leave the offering outside, as the elves are nature spirits and therefore most likely to receive the offering when it is left outside.

Now, whenever we talk about these specific heathen holidays, it’s important to get into the mindset of the Norse. Who are these elves?

Elves show up in Nordic folklore and myth in a lot of different forms. They are beautiful beings, full of magic, who dwell in Ljosalfheim. The lines between the elves and other mythic beings, like the Vanir, dwarves, giants, and land spirits are blurry. When my friend Minta was on the podcast earlier this year, they referred to things being elf-like, or people having a bit of the elvish in them, as being magical. It’s likely that there wasn’t a clear distinction between the different magical beings. In general, elves are nature spirits. Tolkien based his own races of elves in large part on elves in Norse myth.

If you’re familiar with the Fae folk in Celtic lore, you’ll be familiar with the moral ambiguity of elves. In general, any spirit has a different sense of morality than humans do. Rules just work differently. This does not mean that the spirits or elves are evil, but rather that it’s incredibly important to communicate clearly with them and set firm boundaries. There are some elves – like the Tomte or Nisse – who are household spirits and help to protect the home.

Freyr’s home is in the land of the elves, his great golden hall in Ljosalfheim. He is one of the most prominent members of the Vanir, and this connection means that people often associate the elves with the vanir. There is at least one old poem that refers to the Vanir as elves.

Freyr is the god of fertility, and so Alfablot can be seen as a sacrifice to him as well, coming at the end of the harvest season. We give our sacrifice to the elves just as we’re pulling in the last part of the harvest. It’s like giving thanks for the blessings of Freyr this season.

It is said that our masculine ancestors turn into elves after death, whereas feminine ancestors turn into disir. So in this way, Alfablot is also a time to venerate our masculine ancestors. If you find yourself thinking of your grandfather, or great grandfather, at this time, it means that he is drawing nearer to you. Your ancestral elves may be protectors, whereas other elves may be more dangerous to interact with. It’s a common theme in Norse literature that if you meet a traveler, they are very likely some kind of spirit in disguise. In the last episode, the interview with Johannes, he talked about the seer’s walk, and how any people that you meet on that walk might be a spirit.

This could be a part of why this holiday was so secretive. It’s just for direct family, and those who are not direct family might be viewed as elves or spirits trying to get in. Part of the reason the elves are so close at this time is that every spirit is looking for a warm place to stay for the winter. Of course, winter was a huge deal to Nordic peoples. In Norway it was even customary to bring the cattle, sheep, and other farmyard animals into the home to ensure they were safe and warm for the winter. So any elves who are not associated with a household may be looking to sneak in on this day. Again, it’s important to have healthy boundaries with the elves!

Coming back to the present, this great degree of secrecy around familial Alfablot celebrations means that we have a bit of freedom to determine what we would want to do for Alfablot. My teacher associates the day to celebrate this with the full moon of late October/early November (again, slaughter month, which doesn’t follow the Gregorian calendar). This year that happens to be on Halloween, so I am personally planning my own celebrations. I won’t tell you what I’m going to be doing, because of the secrecy, but rather give you ideas.

Paramount to celebrating this holiday is a sacrifice to the elves. Like I said earlier, that could be offerings of cream, porridge, blood from a meat roast, ale, whatever feels right. Because these elves are associated with our masculine ancestors, so think of things that particular masculine ancestors of yours might have loved. Get out any photos or mementos you have from them, and place them on your altar or any other centrally-located place.

If your great-grandfather loved coffee, pour him a cup. It is often customary to leave alcohol as an offering, but think about this before you do it. If the person you want to honor was sober, or had a drinking problem, it’s not the best offering. Whenever you leave offerings to the ancestors, think about who you’re leaving offerings to and why. You wouldn’t want to offend them, or to set off bad patterns.

I think it’s also a very good time to set spiritual boundaries. Update the wards on your home for winter (and the season of the Wild Hunt), perhaps spend some time with the spirits of your specific home. I’m talking about the land wights. Thank them for all that they have done over the year, and request their continued protection.

If you live in the southern hemisphere, think about how you could be giving a sacrifice to the elves for the coming summer. Think about the magic that they have to offer for you as you move forward in your year, and think of these sacrifices and offerings as a sort of prayer for a good harvest and active season.

Now is a great time to clean your whole house – this can be lovely as a ritual of readiness. If you are new to heathenry, this could also be a very good time to simply read old folk tales and learn the ways of the elves. Take the day to relax at home with a good book, a cup of tea, and dream of elves.

However you celebrate this fall, know that your ancestors are close and support you. Blessed be. xx

Sponsors and links:

Witchcraft Immersion 2021 is now open for registration: https://www.northernlightswitch.com/witchcraft-immersion/

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