Alvablot and Vinternätter

Around the year 1020, Sigvatr Þórðarson was on a diplomatic mission from Olaf the Fat, king of Norway, to meet jarl Ragnvald Ulfsson at Skara in Västergötaland. This trip was undertaken at the onset of winter and Sigvatr’s trip was made all the harder by a shocking lack of hospitality at homes he visited when looking for a place to stay for the night. The skaldic poem Austrfararvísur records several of these occasions. At one home, finding the door barred, Sigvatr had to stick his nose under a small opening to announce himself. The people living their declined to allow him to enter, saying that the home was hallowed. At the following farmstead, he faired no better. A woman chased him away, as if he were a wolf, and saying that he was unlucky and should not enter because they were heathen and feared Odin’s wrath for letting him in during the elf sacrifice. They tried three more times at other homes, each time being sent away by a man calling himself Ölvir (öl meaning ale or beer). They settled upon visiting the man in the district best known for his hospitality. Even this man, so greatly known for hospitality refused them entry. This an extremely uncommon and uncharacteristic thing for our ancestors who placed a great deal of value on hospitality and guest-friendliness. This can only mean that the alvablot the woman mentioned was an extremely private family affair.

The alvablot, or álfablót in Old Norse, isn’t like most of our other holy tides. Where most of our festivities are largely open and inviting, the alvablot is for the family and household. It seems reasonable to me to presume that they did not know that Sigvatr was Christian and that he was denied entry because he was a stranger at a time when the home had been hallowed, as the alvablot was for family and residents of the home only. The details of the alvablot are mostly lost to history. What we can surmise is that because the alvor (álfar) are connected with both fertility and the dead, the alvablot is very likely centered around ancestor worship. In a modern context, this makes a great deal of sense, especially in light of the exclusionary nature of historical practices. Where most of our rites tie the community together with the gods, the alvablot ties the family with their dead kin. The nature of kinship, as I’ve written about a little bit before, is such that you simply do not bring outsiders into kinship related activities. A couple of the sagas indicate that guests were invited into the home for Winter Nights festivities. It should be noted, however, that these guests were also close and trusted friends of the family, not complete strangers. This, I think, reinforces the private nature of the holiday.

I find two elements of the misadventures of Sigvatr to be of interest. First is the use of “wolf” as a way of describing the manner in which they were driven away. The wolf, while a powerful animal, is also one that is regularly used as an insult and to express the idea that someone is an outsider of the furthest variety. In relation to the alvablot, this indicates to me that strangers simply weren’t viewed as welcome. Rather, they were seen as a danger whose presence could bring about the wrath of the gods or ancestors.  Secondly, I am struck by the repeated use of the name “Ölvir.” The name is distinctly tied to ale and I can’t help but speculate that ale, and grain from the harvest, played an important role in alvablot proceedings. Given my own moniker of “Ale Glad,” it should come as no surprise that this is of interest. What it means for sure, I can’t say, but it definitely piques my interest.

So, how do we celebrate an alvablot during Vinternätter, or Winter Nights? The truth is that I’m not going to tell you what I do or say because they are extremely personal. The things I say to my parents, grandparents, and all my other ancestors is between us. What I can tell you is that historically, it seems that these celebrations appear to have been a time of joy and celebration when welcoming the dead into the home. Unlike Yule, where the dead seem to be fearsome and dangerous, the Winter Nights celebrations look to have included family feasts in honor of the dead. It is also a time where the livestock are at their fattest and are ready to be culled, making the meat for the feast the best of the year. We also see that it was a time that was celebrated with the playing of games, especially highly competitive and physical ones. For Americans it seems like it might also be appropriate to incorporate some Halloween fun. You might take this as the time to decorate the house in preparation for Trick-or-Treaters. You could buy, and maybe even carve, some pumpkins to use as both holiday fun and as a means of hollowing and warding the home against trolls. My best recommendation is that you celebrate this time in a manner that is more reflective of your family traditions and character. This is a time where we turn inward to celebrate and it makes the most sense for the celebrations to be the best representation of your family.

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