Peasant Winter

First, take a look at this discussion of the background of Yule:

Part of the winter solstice celebration involved the “Allfather” Odin flying through the sky on his eight-legged steed Sleipnir collecting the souls of the dead.

Why is the chief deity having a hunt in the dead of winter? Here it is that the handy ole English major comes in to finally be practical. Of course, at my alma mater of BYU-Provo we read the nineteen dead white men and Emily Dickinson, not just the feminist Marxist whatever-ist literary criticism that is not always very good. While I do think we should read the oeuvre of women and persons of color, myself included, it is a tough go if you do not know what happened in the CORRIDORS OF POWER with the greatest minds, and before the era of reliable contraception, that was usually the people not stuck home with babies who would die otherwise. 

Let us imagine Northern Europe in the era before modern technology made farming almost a sure bet, the storage and transportation of food cheap and reliable, and invented housing and heating devices that enabled people to stay warm and dry in the dead of winter.

What is life like?

First of all, archaeology records that multi-generational and multi-family housing was the norm, and that while female infanticide appears to have been mercifully rare, female children were more routinely undernourished than male and more often died in childhood. (Old English.)

Those of you who have read Little House on the Prairie may recall Laura Ingalls Wilders’s description of farmers of South Dakota very carefully tabulating how much of the grain had to be left for seed for the next season’s planting. No doubt pre-modern people also knew down to the bucket how much grain it would take to replant next year and how much to keep the family alive for the winter. Perhaps a lot of what they did was to sit indoors, huddling together, drinking melted snow and eating as little as possible. 

Country people are healthy and frank about the animals. Controlled ribaldry is how it was in my growing-up years in Texas, 

In the era when fuel was scarce, it was common for farm people to not have much illumination after dark. Much of what was done after the sun went down was to simply go to bed. They might converse, play games, tells stories, the usual, but they didn’t move about the cold house all the time. In the pilgrim times in New England, when a gentleman came to call on a young lady, everyone bundled up fully clothed in bed and conversed, parents and all. (American literature.)

In the Middle Ages, it was common for people to go to bed when it got dark and sources speak of a “first sleep” and a “second sleep,” because the body cannot sleep for fourteen hours overnight but wakes up for an hour or two in a semi-dreaming state of revery. One winter I forsook artificial lighting as an experiment in health. It was a magical time of long nights in bed, and, yes, I did wake up in the middle of the night for a couple of hours and have intense daydreams. It was more peaceful than our frenetic busy-ness of being in light all the time. (Middle English.)

Earlier architecture was actually designed with the expectation that the house was dark much of the time. The placement of windows and doors relative to fireplaces, the proportions of the spaces, all speak of dark. (American literature.) The Cape Cod style of architecture was famous for this very elegance. 

Once the most basic chores on the farm were done, people were expected to conserve firewood, candle wax, seed corn, by sleeping, often hungry. It was cold in the house, and probably very cold in medieval dwellings. The warmest place to be was all bundled up in bed, and no doubt people did spend a great deal of the winter like that. 

It is quite a skill to stay civil for long periods of time in a state of near-starvation. Hunger and more hunger, work when hungry, keep up your spirits and those of your family.

Such long winter days no doubt gave rise to many stories and many games as they passed the time. Some would hallucinate from hunger itself and not any substance, giving rise to intricacy and richness of the mythology of days past as a means of escaping pain. We are lucky to have a few of these stories written down, though I would not want to starve all the time to have them. 

We can imagine that as the winter wore on, the old, the weak, the sick, and the female began to fail, and some died.

What is the reasonable course of action? 

As a pnemonic device for how to live, the myth of resting through the twelve days of Yule also urges people to stay home and do little work. That is, conserve energy in safety. That way, we will not have to eat the seed corn, starve your sister, or impel your father to something dangerous. 

However, the most warlike of the men would probably gear up and go out looking for game. 

It is winter. The land is covered with snow. Even the trees are covered with snow. Sometimes great banks of snow would be blown in, causing the appearance of hills where there were none. They would have to know the landscape very well to be able to return, and even then, it was a question of how well they could insulate their bodies, how long they could go out, what hours, how near the game was, how near the predators. 

No doubt hunting arrangements were made before the winter came, with designated locations, hunting blinds and shacks, firewood arranged.

Still, such an undertaking would have a very high risk of father not coming home.

In some cases, I would imagine some hungry men, tired of hearing their hungry children cry, would step out into the wilderness with the intention of coming home with food or not at all.

And, in extreme cases, I imagine that some of the food that came home was a funny-looking deer haunch. THIS IS MY BODY — TAKE AND EAT. A clever fellow would have arranged frozen deer carcass pieces just in case someone had to come home with their shield or on it.

Mythology gives a lovely face to a harsh reality. 

The Near Death Experience of any given culture is likely a thought form that enables one to hold oneself together in death. Our culture has a near-universal habit of dying in the hospital -- and sometimes being brought back! -- so the thought structure of modern science in a hospital has taken over as a kind of principal death vision mechanism. We enter a tunnel of light, there is peace at the other end, sometimes we witness of a flashback of our entire lives, see grand overarching patterns of our existence, decide to come back or not, and enter whatever. Enough people have had this vision that everyone believes it, and in a Hundredth Monkey situation, it is permeating our entire culture.

This is good. In the absence of a single religious rubric that would enable us to correlate and communicate across vast stretches of time, space, consciousness, and ideas in order to be fine and civil in death, we have noticed the one that actually functions, and that is modern medicine. It is the priest/ess in the white coat who will be with you at the end, not the men in the long black dresses.

Let us consider that in previous cultural situations, there could have been multiple death visions, one for each situation. We can call this a G-D or whatever. It is something that is a nearly universal idea and one that we all grab onto in our extremity.

Up until the 20th, sailors in the West still "initiated" in a joking way with Neptune and Amphitrite and lots of little tricks, for the familiar thought patterns of Christianity were not supreme in the face of those tall waves and in the company of so many sailors from other lands. Thus the Europeans turned to the old defunct god images for a sense of what should be in Davy Jones's locker.

Perhaps those deities associated with childbirth also contained within them the image of a death vision in childbirth. Artemis, for instance, or the Mayan Ix Chel, who is imprecated today by Mayan shamans. 

This vision of The Wild Hunt no doubt also contains a death vision for those who perished out in the snow in winter before the era of Christianity, and it was evidently so needful to have a scary winter forest ogre to take one to the HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING that it remained in the folklore until quite recently, though, like a lot of the old religion, it was transferred to childhood. Hence the popularity of Goethe's poem Erlkönig.önig

Thus it is a god of martyrdom who leads the hunt, and any who fall are promised to enter Allfather’s heaven where they will feast on what they were hunting. This is perhaps part of what is commemorated every winter Solstice as the newborn Jesus is not really strong so it is Odin going out on the wild hunt collecting the souls of the fallen.

See you in the spring.

© Joann Farias 2024