I have been mulling over ideas for my next post (instead of writing it) since Halloween/Samhain. As I considered how to celebrate Halloween, I realized that I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship to holidays. The Christian holidays appropriated from pagan traditions are laden with a religious and cultural overlay that I find highly problematic, given my commitment to the gods and beings of the Northern path. In the past, I’ve celebrated the Wiccan Wheel of the Year, but the holidays have never resonated with me; I’ve always felt a little awkward and the rituals I found seemed contrived (probably because they belong to a sacred religious path that is not my own). The secular version of Christian holidays did resonate with me, but lacked spiritual depth and the commercialism was a big turn-off.
By the time Halloween rolled around this year, I’d given up the idea of doing the solemn remembrance of the dead common to many modern celebrations of Samhain. Bowing to childhood tradition, I decided to trick-or-treat with my five-year-old nephew and hand out candy at my mom’s house. Then the virus from Hel struck. I spent much of Halloween curled over a plastic bucket cursing my existence. Over the next few days, as I recuperated, I began researching holidays from Asatru and other Heathen groups. The most common feature seemed to be a complete lack of canonical holidays other than Yule, Midsummer/Litha, and Beltane/Walpurgisnacht/May Day.
While none of the descriptions of northern rituals really grabbed my attention, I did come across an article on the Wild Hunt. Intrigued, I decided to do some further research, starting with Wikipedia (I know, I know. Not a primary source, not peer-reviewed, et cetera, et cetera). The description of a furious ride through night skies, the connection to northern gods, and the danger presented to mortals who observe this anarchic display of divine power sparked a realization for me. What I missed in solemn observances of Samhain, secular celebrations of Halloween, and Christian references to All Hallow’s Eve was the danger that I had associated with this holiday as a child–when I dressed up as a witch and half-feared, half-hoped for the appearance of demons, ghosts, and especially witches–and the experience of the sacred I now long for as an adult. Because the Wild Hunt is associated with the winter days leading to Yule (and Christmas) and because it is connected to northern lore, it reconciles my need to honor the traditions of my youth, my desire for an experience of the sublime (as I contemplate the anarchic spirit of the gods’ frenzied ride through night skies from the security of my home), and a sacred means of honoring my gods.
For me, the days of the Wild Hunt represent refuge from the harsh forces of winter, death, and the supernatural as people are driven indoors by the dark and cold. While the Wild Hunt rages outside, we gather with our kin to reflect on departed loved ones and more distant ancestors around hearth fires built to dispel the darkness and cold outside in exchange for light and warmth. It also contains an element of danger that is connected to the sacred cycle of life and death and the shift from fall harvest to winter hibernation. More than anything, we recognize the danger of taking our gods for granted or reducing them to human scale. The Wild Hunt is when we realize with awe that the gods are to be respected as beings that transcend human understanding. Through this recognition, followers of the northern traditions recognize our place within a larger cosmology, gaining a humbling but profound awareness of our limitations and our unique place within tapestry of wyrd.
As I celebrate this year’s winter solstice, I am reconsidering my need for a recognized canon of northern tradition holidays. Perhaps the same impulse that informs my decision to practice as a solitary (for the time being) lends legitimacy to holidays I can create for myself. At the same time, I want my holidays to be rooted in traditions—both those of my childhood and those of my spiritual and ancestral forebears. For this reason, I’m embarking on a long overdue reading of the Poetic and Prose Eddas. The next time I reference northern traditions, I won’t be citing Wikipedia!