Modern Contemplation of the Runes: Jera


JeraSummer is called joyful when the god lets
holy heaven's king, shining fruits
be born from earth for rich and poor.

Continuing our series examining modern pagan practice via the Elder Futhark, we move on to the twefth rune, Jera. As with the others, the rune-poem above gives us a place to start.

The ancient sources focus this rune mostly on the agricultural cycle, and the harvest in particular. However, more modern sources also point out the theme of the turning of the year through the seasons. These two concepts are of course linked in all non-tropical areas, but the seasonal cycle is less tied to agriculture in modern times, when only a small minority of people have their livelihoods directly tied to the planting and reaping of crops. One potential challenge this rune presents is maintaining our connections to these cycles in modern times, when the change of seasons can feel more like an optional annoyance than a vital aspect of survival.

The annual solar cycle that this rune represents has a very clear influence on modern pagan practice, namely the 8 holidays celebrated by many pagans throughout the year on the solstices, equinoxes, and "cross-quarter" days half-way in between a solstice and equinox. The history of these holidays is more complex than many modern pagans realize, and yet they do serve a purpose of connecting the lives of modern pagans to the other living beings on earth on which our lives depend.

About Those Holidays

The idea of using "quarter-days" (solstices and equinoxes) and "cross-quarter-days" (halfway in between) to form a cycle of 8 annual holidays spaced approximately evenly apart dates to no earlier than the 20th century. Furthermore, the use of the term "sabbat" for these days is not historical prior to the 19th century. And while some of those holidays were picked with an eye towards actual ancient practice, and were informed by what were believed to be at the time survival of ancient customs via folk processes, the correspondences weren't always as clear as they might be. To make matters more complicated, the ancient customs and the astronomical timing were not always in sync with each other, so reasonable disagreement could be had about when these holidays actually fell. And, on top of all that, as far as we can tell it was not uncommon for ancient people to adjust or delay events due to weather and other practical problems. Furthermore, no single ancient culture is known to have had major seasonal rituals on all of the 8 annual holidays, so there is definitely some mixing and matching involved.

For purposes of describing clearly what each day is, this article will be describing the holidays in secular solar terms, and in terms of the Gregorian calendar in the northern hemisphere, and then listing some names of the holiday that are appropriate. There are two approaches that can be used for those in the southern hemisphere: You can either (A) follow the same cycle as in the northern hemisphere to connect with your northern brethren and the ancestors who used that calendar, or (B) do the "opposite" holiday from what your northern brethren are doing. My personal preference would be to match your own seasons and agricultural cycle, but the other way is perfectly appropriate as well. Also, while every attempt has been made for this to be accurate, this listing is in no way complete, and for detailed looks you really need to study individual cultures' calendars and practices.

  • Late fall / early winter cross-quarter (northern hemisphere around November 1): Commonly called "Samhain" (pronounced "sow-win"), as its name in Ireland and Scotland. Can also be Hop-tu-naa (Isle of Man), Calan Gaeaf (Wales), and Kalan Gwav (Cornwall) among Gaelic peoples. Slavic devotees might call this Dziady, and Baltic devotees might refer to Ilgès, although it's unclear whether these days originally occurred on the same day as the Gaelic versions. These holidays are generally focused on deceased people, either relatives or honored local leaders from days of yore. For Hellenic reconstructionists, Thesmophoria, with themes relating to Demeter's mourning for Persephone's descent to the underworld, occurs a couple of weeks before this date. Roman civilization had the Ludi Victoriae Sullanae, games which commemmorate a victory of Sulla in a civil war at the Colline Gate, but this is a substantially different theme than most other versions of the holiday. Nothing in Norse lore mentions anything specific about this day. Modern secular cultural survival of this holiday is of course Halloween.
  • Winter solstice (northern hemisphere around December 21): Commonly called "Yule", which is the English version of the Old Norse Jól. This event was in all likelihood the main religious event of the year for Norse peoples, who would depending on how far north they were observe the sun completely disappear for an extended period. The Roman Saturnalia also falls around this date. Hellenic culture might have celebrated the Rural Dionysia around this time, but again the themes are somewhat different. Celtic cultures don't appear to make a big deal about this date. All versions of the holiday put an emphasis on celebration and revelry. Many of the traditions of modern Christmas are thought although not proven to have originated with Yule and Saturnalia.
  • Late winter / early spring cross-quarter (northern hemisphere around February 1): Commonly called "Imbolg" or "Imbolc" (same word, different transliteration), again following its Irish, Scottish, and Manx name, and is closely associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid. For Romans, this is the Cerealia, an honoring of the agricultural goddess Ceres. Hellenic culture celebrated the Lenaia in honor of Dionysos around the same time. Norse sources do not make anything of this particular day. Modern survival of this holiday is the Catholic Candlemas, and also oddly enough weather divination using animals in events such as Groundhog Day.
  • Spring equinox (northern hemisphere around March 23): Sometimes called "Eostre" or "Ostara" due to 2 sentences in De temporum ratione by the Venerable Bede, but that and a few words from Jacob Grimm are all that we have indicating anything in particular from Norse peoples during that time, and both Bede and Grimm make it cleart that they're speculating and trying to fill in gaps. This is also not a major Celtic seasonal day. However, for the Romans this was Quinquatria, a major festival in honor of Mars, and the Tubilustrium, an annual purifying of sacred trumpets. The Hellenic situation is more complex: Around this time but not on this date are the major festivals of the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries and the City Dionysia, and on the date itself is the Elaphebolia in honor of Artemis. Some of the Norse ideas around this season may now be associated with the Christian Easter, but it is difficult to say for sure because nobody really knows what the Norse ideas were.
  • Late spring / early summer cross-quarter (northern hemisphere around May 1): Commonly called "Beltaine" (pronounced "bell-tin-na"), after its name in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. The Welsh might call it Calan Mai. Roman devotees are in luck, because there were on this day a major festival in honor of Flora, and lesser but still important religious activity in honor of Maia, Bona Dea (literally, "the good goddess"), and the Lares Praestites. Hellenic devotees may celebrate Mounykhia in honor of Artemis at this time. The Norse show no signs of doing anything in particular on this day. Themes of this season are usually focused around flowering and birth, but there can also be an emphasis on the spiritual powers of nature, bonfires, and livestock. There is some survival of customs for this holiday in the form of May Day, although much of well-known British May Day customs appear to be post-pagan inventions.
  • Summer solstice (northern hemisphere around June 21): Sometimes called "Midsummer", which means exactly what you think it means, also sometimes called "Litha", which is another ambiguous word from De temporum ratione by the Venerable Bede. This day is often well-known among neo-pagan druids as the day when the sun rises over the Heel Stone at Stonehenge, although it's important to note that the stone was placed before the arrival of Celtic culture in Britain and thus was not put in place by druids, nor is there strong evidence of any particular ancient druid practice related to it. Celtic culture in general makes little note of the summer solstice, and it's worth noting that the alleged neo-druid name for the day of "Alban Hefin" was first written down in the 1800's. The Romans had fairly typical celebrations in honor of Jupiter Summanus and Fors Fortuna near this time, and the Athenians did some of the annual maintenance of the Athena image in the Parthenon around this time as well, but these are fairly typical entries on the annual festival calendars of both cultures. However, this day was to Norse and Baltic peoples very similar to what Beltaine was to Celtic peoples, and so themes of new growth, the power of the sun (which is in the far north not setting at all), fire and warmth are all very much a part of this holiday. Major summer solstice celebrations are still common in modern Scandanavia and Baltic regions such as Estonia, and the Catholic Church adopted the day as honoring John the Baptist.
  • Late summer / early fall cross-quarter (northern hemisphere around August 1): Usually called Lughnassadh, again based on its name in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. Also called Calan Awst in Wales, and (via Christian influence) Lammas in England. As with the other cross-quarter days, this is not a significant date on the Norse calendar. However, the Romans held an annual dog sacrifice known as the Supplicia Canum around this time, and in Athens the Panathanaeia was the largest religious festival of the year complete with athletic and artistic competitions. The main themes of this holiday were honoring warriors in particular through peaceful competition, meeting potential lovers, and the earliest harvest of the season. Some modern survival of the celebration is thought to possibly exist in annual fairs, although some of that is intentional revival rather than continuous customs.
  • Fall equinox (northern hemisphere around September 21): Sometimes called "Mabon", which was picked by Aiden Kelly in 1970 based on a Welsh mythological figure. Why such a modern naming? Because this event is not notable on a Celtic nor Norse calendar, nor mentioned by Bede, one of the Grimms, or anyone else north of the Danube River. However, in southern European cultures, quite a lot was happening in this period: Rome was celebrating its annual Ludi Romani, or games, in honor of Jupiter, complete with dramatic works (a tradition imported from Greece), chariot races, athletic contests of all types, and numerous religious rituals. Meanwhile, thousands of Hellenes would be taking part in the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries which (as best we can tell, since it was all successfully kept secret) honored Demeter and Persephone. Themes that frequently come up during this holiday are the agricultural harvest for the year, and a sense that the world is beginning to die for the year, but again there isn't a lot of specific evidence of any of that. Since there isn't a clear historical festival for many ancient pagan cultures at this time, there is nothing that would qualify as a modern survival of it.

The very short version: The modern pagan Wheel of the Year corresponds to exactly nobody's ancient festival calendar. It was created by taking what are now called the "cross-quarter" days known to Gerald Gardner and other pioneers of neo-paganism from their studies of Celtic society, adding in the known solstice celebrations of Scandanavia and pre-Norman Britain, and putting the equinoxes in because it seemed like a good idea to round the whole thing out in those modern discussions. With all that said, the seasonal cycle sticks around in modern paganism because it works well. As a simple practical matter, getting your group together 8 times a year creates substantially more interaction than getting together 4 times a year, while not making it so frequent that it's no longer special.

Making The Agricultural Connection

With the non-seasonal nature of the modern diet, and the indoor nature of so many jobs, what's a pagan to do to connect their lives to this overall yearly cycle? Make the agricultural cycle that drives these seasonal holidays part of your life! And the easiest way to do that is to eat things that are in season, and grow some plants.

Seasonal Eating Made Easy

Seasonal eating comes down to a couple of simple rules (with exceptions, of course):

  1. Eat fruit whenever it's ripe locally. That will depend on where you live, of course. For example, strawberries typically fruit fairly early in the summer, while apples are available in the fall.
  2. Vegetables will become available from the top of the plant downwards starting in the summer. The first vegetables to come in will typically be those where the leaves are the key part, like lettuce, spinach, and most herbs. Next up will be those with relatively simple seed pods like green beans. Then come the more complex seed pods like squashes and zucchini. Last in are the root vegetables like potatoes, turnips, and carrots.

If you're still not sure, go to a local farmer's market or farm stand, and notice what they have lots of. Buy some of that, and find a way to eat it. Or, alternately, sign up for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and find a way to eat whatever they give you.

The point of this is not to completely abandon staple foods, but to at least recognize that this is the time of year to eat certain things. This is hardly a foreign concept to modern society: If you ask people to name a food they associate with, say, November, you'll get different answers than a food they associate with July.

Small-Scale Agriculture

The smallest-scale agriculture possible is a single plant. To be on the safe side, plant more than 1 plant to ensure that at least 1 plant survives. If you don't have any ground to plant on, plant in a pot or window box. Some good plants to start with are simple annual herbs like basil or rosemary, and green beans.

The cycle basically looks like this:

  • Early spring: If planting outside, when the ground thaws, that's your chance to turn the soil over and mix in bagged soil as needed to make the ground fertile. Put your box/pots where they're going to grow and add bagged soil as needed. If you are planting outside but want to start them indoors, start your plants now.
  • Mid-late spring: Anything that's going outside this year should go outside. Transplant anything you started indoors, move your boxes / pots outside if possible and near an easily opened window if not possible, and plant any seeds that are going in directly.
  • Summer: Care for your plants by pulling weeds (any plants that aren't what you wanted are weeds), and watering if necessary. Make sure they're getting plenty of sunlight.
  • Late summer - early fall: Different plants can be harvested at different times. Some plants, like herbs, can be partially harvested for months.
  • Late fall: Harvest whatever you have left, unless it's a plant that is known to survive into winter like kale. If you need to process things (e.g. making jams or pickles), that also happens now.
  • Winter: Plan for next year, and do your best not to destroy your garden beds when clearing snow.

Even if you are not growing very much, or eating very strictly seasonal produce, you will begin to notice the pattern of the holidays of the Wheel of the Year more clearly, because they now show up in your stomach. You will notice that some of what you grow is edible at different times, and if you offer a portion of your crop at these holidays you'll begin to see a connection between what ancient peoples offered and what you happen to have handy when it's time to make those offerings.

Embracing Jera is about understanding that some things have to happen at certain times, and connecting with that sense of timing rather than fighting against it.

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