Last year I wrote a little bit about Disting, a celebration of the disir. This year I’d like to take a look at just exactly who the disir are as this is not nearly as simple a topic as it could be. In truth, we have a lot of different, even somewhat conflicting, sources that make it hard to say for sure who and what they are. Today, it is generally held that the disir are the ancestral woman of your family who help protect and guide it. There is more to it than this, however, and I’d like to briefly examine some of these elements.
Understanding the Disir
Dís (pl. dísr) basically means “woman.” In it’s singular form, it is broadly applied to human women, female ghosts, goddesses, and even monsters. In skaldic kennings, a dís is someone’s kinswoman, living or dead. It even serves as a name element common to Old Norse female names. The plural form is often used to refer to the dead women of a clan who protect and aid it.
Sigdrifa informs Sigurd that among the mid-wife’s skills is the ability to call to the disir for aid in childbirth. It is quite possible that these are the beings Snorri meant when he said that norns come to all children when they are born. This “motherly” relationship could well be a continuation of continental cultic practices and be part of earlier fertility worship. The oldest known cult dealing with “The Mothers” comes from the west bank of the Rhine where a large number of clay statues have been found, all bearing an inscription identifying them as Matronen. Some of these are linked with individual family names while others with entire tribes. Some are linked to rivers and streams while still others are identified as healers, gift-givers, and midwives. In this way, they could be similar to the álf.
Battle Aid and Magic
The Mersberg Charm directly cites the disir with providing magical aid to their kin in battle, both through the breaking of fetters and ill-magic and through binding the enemies of their kin. We also see in the Helgi lays that disir cause all sorts of trouble for Helgi’s enemies and wards his fleet against a terrible storm. We also see them cause a storm to damage the fleet of the Jomsvikings. As we will see below, they also demonstrate the ability to see the future.
Caring for Kin and Claiming the Dead
There are numerous examples in the sagas of the disir appearing to warriors before their impending death. For example, they come to Gunnar before he makes a trip to the hall of Attila the Hun, which results in Gunnar’s death. Gísli Súrsson dreams of two disir, one helpful and one harmful, before his own death. This may seem terrifying but we also see how they aid their own kin, preventing their death. There is one tale where a man is made sick by his disir so that he is prevented from traveling into an ambush that would have killed him. They are also said to be able to give advice and council about things to come to those who can hear them.
Honoring the Disir
As we can see, the disir are complex beings and I have only just scratched the surface of the material on them. There is much more to read and learn about them and I encourage you to do so. This does lead us to the question of how best to honor them today, however.
Our understanding of the disir has come back towards what we see in Germany during the Roman occupation. We see the disir as our ancestral mothers who care for us, guide us, and protect us against harm and our enemies. We love them because they are not just mysterious female ghosts we have some relationship with but because they are our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and nieces who have gone into the grave but not left us behind. We honor them because they love us as we love them.
Truthfully, I can’t tell you how best to honor your disir because I don’t know them. I don’t know who they were in life. I can tell you that to honor them, it would be best to find a place in your own home that an appropriate shrine can be set up. Give to them gifts that is befitting to who they were in life, what they do now, and above all, shows the esteem you hold them in. This coming Disting, I plan to put flowers on their shrine because I know they are meaningful to my disir.