After the autumn equinox, we turn almost immediately to thinking about and honoring the dead. Now, honoring the ancestors for most polytheists, is a year-round practice, but the autumn is a time of particular attention and ritual (1). I’m not sure why autumn is such a potent ancestor time but it is, in multiple traditions. I think maybe it’s that the vibrancy and abundance of summer is fading away as the earth itself prepares for winter, something that can lead to a certain melancholy and contemplation of death, but that’s just speculation on my part. It does seem appropriate as the seasons shift to honor the dead in special ways and this leads nicely into the more intense holy days surrounding Yule.
At the end of this month, from October 27 through Nov 2, my House does a whole week of ancestor rituals for various groups of our dead and for our ancestors and allied spirits as a whole. That is still a month away though preparations have already begun in my home. Before we get to those rites though, we have our first feast-day for the dead coming up on October 4: a commemoration of the Martyrs of Verden.
It is no surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of European history that the spread of Christianity across Europe brought with it religious and cultural genocide. Charlemagne in 8thcentury France was no exception. The grandson of Charles Martel, Charlemagne destroyed sacred sites and holy places of the Saxon Heathens and, when these brave men and women refused to convert (i.e. to abandon their ancestral Gods and practices), slaughtered them en masse. Four thousand, five hundred of them, at the very least, laid down their lives in defense of their Gods and traditions in 782 C.E. at a bloodbath that is known to historians as the massacre of Verden.
After the Saxon wars, i.e. after Charlemagne’s crusade against indigenous polytheism, the children of Saxon nobles were sent to monasteries as oblates, and sometimes they were forced to take binding vows as monastics (there is a famous case a few decades later of a man who jumped the wall, fleeing the monastery after having been forced to become a monk and during the resulting trial, one of the senior monks said, in the trial transcripts, that any and all abuses toward the Saxons were justified because they weren’t Christian at the time (2)).
I could go on. I have strong feelings about the man (3). I don’t, however, want to focus on him in this post beyond what I have done in order to provide historical context. I’d rather focus on the martyrs, those who were killed because they refused to convert (4). That’s exactly what my household will be doing too on October 4.
We’re still working out the proper rites by which to honor our sancti, sanctae, and martyrs. We don’t have a set format yet. Usually we purify the space, invoke whatever Gods seem appropriate, and then pour out libations to the dead in question, sharing stories of them as we go. More offerings may, if anyone involved feels it appropriate, be made. It’s both low-key and straightforward. We will often have a communal meal afterwards.
Since we’re all home now due to Covid restrictions, we may set up memorial candles and keep them going all month. I’ve been playing with the idea since it was something I used to do on my ancestor shrine throughout October and November. We give water to refresh them, candles to light their way, food and drink to nourish them, and the gift of memory, of telling their stories. If it is not enough, it is at least a good starting point.
What are all of you doing for your ancestors this month?
- At least it is in my tradition. Some polytheisms have their ancestor time in late winter, usually February.
- See Matthew Bryan Gillis’ Heresy and Dissent in the Carolingian Empire: The Case of Gottschalk of Orbais. These monastic schools are, I believe, best seen as precursors of the 19thand 20thcentury “Indian” Schools in America, complete with the abuse, destruction of cultural practices, and forced induction into Christianity such later “education” entailed. Those later atrocities didn’t come out of the aether; they’d been perfected hundreds of years earlier by a mass murderer who could barely write his own name.
- There are certain subjects I avoid as a medievalist and Charlemagne is one of them. I turn into Cato ending every speech, no matter the topic, with his famous “Carthago delenda est” though in my case it turns into a shrieking “Charlemagne delendus est.” He just turns my stomach. But then, on my mother’s side, I’m descended from the Saxons he didn’t manage to kill. I should point out, that it was no easy job to pacify them. A generation after Verden and then some, there were still “Heathen” uprisings. Of course, as an historian, I acknowledge that Charlemagne did great things for France, and for the spread of education in Europe but I will not forget that this happened on the bones of my ancestors and the tattered shreds of their religious traditions.
- I highly recommend a small book by James Chisolm called Grove and Gallows: Greek and Latin Sources for Germanic Heathenism.
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