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Mothers’ Night

Mothers’ Night is tonight – so, the dísir.

 

The dísir are a problem for academics. They seem superfluous. Norse belief has so many spirits: vættir, huldrufolk, fylgjur, valkyries . . . and there’s obvious blurring around the edges, or confusion. For instance, what is one to make of Þiðranda Þáttr, in which nine black-clad dísir on black horses or kin-fylgjur fight with nine light-clad dísir or fylgjur on white horses over an eighteen-year-old who out of hospitality has disobeyed orders not to open the door on Winternights, and slay him, in an elaborate play-acting of the struggle between heathenry and Xianity in late-10th-century Iceland? The story ends with a vision of all the vættir emerging from their underground homes as Xianity triumphs. The lad who is the victim is described as humble – a natural Xian. (The writer probably didn’t care that hospitality is more of a heathen virtue than a Xian.) But those dísir or fylgjur – the story uses both labels – are a weird valkyric blend. Why not just call them fylgjur – or valkyries – and have done with the dís label? Again, nobody calls gods vættir (except in Anglo-Saxon, where wiht, “wight,” simply means “being” or in some compounds, “thing”) or calls goddesses fylgjur or valkyries (although many academics regard Þorgerðr Hǫlgabrúðr and Irpa as valkyries rather than goddesses). But Freyja is Vanadís (dís of the Vanir) and Skaði is Ǫndurdís (snowshoe dís). Further confusion is added by the role of the idisi in the Old High German First Merseburg Charm: they tie and untie battle-fetters. This is the classic role posited for the valkyries by KveldulfR Gundarson, and reflected in a couple of valkyrie names (Hlǫkk and Herfjǫtr). And in Anglo-Saxon idis simply means “lady.” So a very confused, messy picture out of which no discrete role emerges for the dísir.

 

However, take it from the other side, and this is a rare case indeed in which we have attestations from the entire span of historical heathenry, and all the sections of the Germanic world. The names Ǫndurdís and Vanadís tell us that in Old Norse dís can, or does, refer to someone divine. In fact Freyja is also called Vanaguð (deity of the Vanir), just like Freyr and their father Njǫrð, and Skaði can also be called Ǫndurguð. Also we have mentions of the dísablót – blót to the dísir – and the name of the Swedish January fair, Disting, which must originally have been associated with that as Dísaþing. And most decisively the story of King Aðils of Sweden dying when he profanes the dísarsálr – the hall of the dís (often misinterpreted by academics who should know better as plural dísir, but the “r” makes it singular in form, sacred to one dís). One academic posited with some reason that dís was an older word for “goddess,” pointing out that the goddesses, including Freyja, are usually referred to in the texts as ásynjur, but that actually only means female Æsir. This has been roundly ignored, but at least one other scholar thought similarly: Gwyn Jones titled his translation of “Þiðranda Þáttr” “Thidrandi Whom the Goddesses Slew.” In Anglo-Saxon, although we don’t have anything but prosaic uses of the word idis, we do have Bede’s laconic words on Módranect (various spellings), “Mothers’ Night,” being the beginning of the heathen year and celebrated all night (the night of the Winter Solstice, which at the time was the official date of Xian Yule, too, although the calendar had in fact slipped by a few days since it was established in Rome). And the “Matrones” for whom Germanic people paid for scads of votive tablets and altars in Roman-occupied Europe are also mothers. Plus of course the First Merseburg Charm idisi – and one cannot overemphasize how precious information on heathenry among the continental Germanic tribes is; we have hardly anything left.

 

So from that point of view, we have two different words, the (i)dís word and the term “mothers”, but thanks to the German evidence, it looks as if it all belongs together; and we have roles, or natures of the beings, that flummox the academics. Part of this may be change over vast time (and fragmentation of the culture). Anglo-Saxons had clearly lost any association of the word idis with heathenry. Whether before or after the conversion is hard to say, but they appear to have buried Freyja (Fréo) where the Xians couldn’t find her name, so there may have been some speaking in code and euphemisms involved. (Indeed there was in Old Norse: Freyr and Freyja are known to us by what must originally have been titles, “lord” and “lady”). They kept the associated holy tide as the less specifically heathen “Mothers’ Night.” The Germans kept memories of the idisi as slayers, as fighters who go up against the other side – which is also the role of the dark dísir in “Þiðranda Þáttr,” but with horses and swords rather than spells. Only the Norse texts give us examples of a single dís – in Skaði’s and Freyja’s alternate names, and in the dísarsálr, which may have been a temple to Freyja.

 

Modern heathenry has taken an approach based on what Bede says and supported by the Dísablót, and identified the dísir as our female ancestors. But usually they are seen as being particular female ancestors, who are strong enough to take on a role protecting the family descended from them, or who choose to do so. As such, they’re regarded as individuals. All those plurals – Matrones, idisi, Módranect, Dísablót – suggest they were usually thought of en masse. As indeed were the gods – heathens in Scandinavia clung to the custom of referring to the gods as an indissoluble totality, with the neuter plural words like guð, bǫnd, hǫpt, and regin/rǫgn. Possibly what has happened is that with the attenuation of the heathen tradition in the roughly 1,000 years of the gap, the number of dísir has dwindled. But it’s certain that the customary honoring of them is for all of them.

 

I think it is an alternate word for “goddess” – that’s what it is in Vanadís and Ǫndurdís! But it also, clearly, refers to our ancestral mothers. I have no explanation of the sex imbalance here; there is clearly something wrong with seeing the Álfablót as the corresponding honor done to our male ancestors if it implies that they change species after they die, as it seems to; unless it has to do with the incontrovertibility of descent in the female line. The child visibly issues from a particular woman’s womb. (And here I will make the obligatory shoutout to Heimdallr, with his nine mothers. Some mysteries remain mysteries.)  But what the academics seem most freaked out about is that the dísir/idisi sometimes kill people. Like valkyries. And after all, is that so strange? Ours is not a culture in which women wielding swords are something totally weird – although the lore is strangely silent on the goddesses killing (except for Þorgerðr Hǫlgabrúðr), I am sure they are all perfectly ready and able to do so. The literary development of the valkyrie, who becomes a princess running around in armor who falls for a hero and aids him in battle (just like Þorgerðr Hǫlgabrúðr), can be seen as evidence of Xian titillation with warrior-women. It’s strange in their culture, not in ours. And that may be the whole story about why the dísir don’t seem to fit well – they are a part of ancestor veneration and they have always been ready to take up the cudgels for us, and these became strange things as time went by and ways of thinking shifted. So did remembering that our families – which the vast majority of us nowadays think of as nuclear families, plus a few aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces – are in fact parts of a whole fabric. We are all related to uncounted numbers of others, living and dead. And so our dísir are tribal whether we are or not.

 

And so as the world turns over into a new year and the time out of our normal lives, to be with our families, to consider our goals, and to honor the gods for 12 nights and days that is Yule begins, we should honor the dísir, our mothers, for they connect us to our origins and they help and defend us today. I do not think the academic had it exactly right – a dís is not a goddess, but a goddess may be called a dís. It is an old word of honor, a layer laid down in the Well, and not effaced. We should honor all our mothers as well as our gods and goddesses, and tonight is the night for the Mothers.

Posted in Forn Seðr.


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  1. The Dísir « WiccanWeb linked to this post on January 6, 2012

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