What is a Sun Wheel?
In pre-Christian Germany, the people used wreaths with lit candles during the cold, dark days of December as a sign of hope for the return of the sun and for longer days and warmth. In Scandinavia, during Winter, lighted candles were placed around a wheel and prayers were offered to the God of Light to turn “the wheel of the Earth” back toward the sun in order to lengthen the days and to restore warmth. (1) Others hung up cartwheels and decorated them with candles and evergreens and spun them around in order to invoke the return of the sun. Some Pagans did so in preparation for the ‘birth of the Sun-God’; others, for the Sun-Goddess, Sunna. (2) During the Middle Ages, Christians adopted this tradition in anticipation of the birth of the Son-God.
When is Mothers Night?
Modraniht is Old English for `Mothers-night`, an ancient Anglo-Saxon feast referred to by the Venerable Bede in De temporum ratione 13. He wrote that the still heathen Anglo-Saxons hold a sacrifice in the New Year in the modraniht id est matrum nocturum [“the Modraniht, that is, in the night of the mothers (=matrons?)” ]
This feast corresponds to other Germanic Yule-tide festivals. It was once speculated that this may have been a Celtic festival but this is largely refuted these days.
Modraniht may be associated with the cult of the mothers or the matrons largely found amongst the West Germanic tribes and the disablot celebrated by the North Germanic tribes in Scandinavia.
The Matrons or matronae are Mother-goddesses to whom votive stones and altars were set up between the 1st and 5th centuries CE. There are approximately 1100 inscriptions and half give Germanic matron names. The matron cult was also to found amongst the Celtic tribes.
Almost exclusively these matrons were presented in groups of three. These females were worshipped as matrons or Mother-goddesses.
Their functions involved fertility, childbirth, the protection of the family and occasionally to act as war-goddesses. These correspond to the disir in the North Germanic areas.
The disir were female fertility deities. The word stems from the Old Swedish dis.
This is possibly related to the Old Saxon Idisi mentioned in the First Merseburg Charm.
The disablot is recorded twice in two Icelandic sagas from the middle of the 13th century CE.
In Viga-Glums saga 6 the disablot is celebrated at a Norwegian farm at the beginning of winter in mid-October. Egilssaga 44 also mentions a disablot at an autumnal festival in Norway.
Snorri Sturluson writing in the Ynglinga saga 33 identifies a similar feast at Uppsala in Sweden.
Literary sources indicate that the cult of the disir was more common in Sweden than in West Nordic regions.
First Merseburg Charm
Once the Idisi set forth, to this place and that;
Some fastened fetters; some hindered the horde,
Some loosed the bonds from the brave
Leap forth from the fetters! Escape from the foes! (3)
“In the work called De Temporum Ratione, written by the Venerable Bede, we read that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated a festival which he called modranect or modraniht, which when translated into modern English means mothers night or night of the mothers. The celebration of mothers night was held during the season of Yule and approximately around the same time that the Heathen Anglo-Saxons celebrated their new year. And already we can see how sacred and important this particular time of the year was to the Heathens of ancient England. For within this short space of time we have three festivals or celebrations that fall very close to one another, those being Yule, the new year and of course mothers night. But who were the mothers that shared this sacred time of the year?. It is very likely that the Anglo-Saxon mothers are one and the same, or at least very similar, to the Germanic matronae (matrons, mothers), goddesses that we find venerated within the borders of the Roman Empire.
…the night of the mother’s celebration took place sometime close to the Heathen Anglo-Saxon new year, approximately the 25th December… ” (4)
Helya’s Night – The night of the mother
This was the night that saw the children of each household committed into the protection of “Midder Mary”, or Mother Mary.
On first glance, although this looks like a purely Christian ritual, the veneration of the Virgin Mary was a later addition to a pagan tradition.
Helya’s night is undoubtedly the same as “Mother’s Night” – a night that, wrote the 8th century monk Bede, coincided with Christmas Eve.
In his account of the pagan calendar in 725 AD, the Venerable Bede wrote:
“And the very night that is sacrosanct to us, these people call modranect, that is, the mothers’ night, a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies which they performed while watching this night through.”
The “mother” connection and the “watching” ceremonies of Mother’s Night seem to indicate that Helya’s Night was the same event, although overlaid with a Christian veneer.
On Helya’s Night, just as the children had once been committed to the protection of a goddess, ancestor, or the female deities known as the Disir, the ceremony became Christianised and the “mother” was naturally equated with the Virgin Mary, Christ’s mother.
But what was the ceremony?
An account written in the 19th century recounts the experience of one woman who remembered her grandmother carrying out the ritual. She explained that, once the children were in bed, the old woman rose from her place by the peat fire and made her way over to the cradle where the youngest lay.
Raising her hands over the slumbering infant, she spoke aloud:
“Mary Midder had de haund
Ower aboot for sleepin-baund
Had da lass an’ had da wife,
Had da bairn a’ its life.
Mary Midder had de haund.
Roond da infants o’ wur land.”
[Mary Mother had a hand,
Over, about for sleeping bound
Had the lass (young woman) and had the wife (mature woman)
Had the baby and its life.
Mary Mother had a hand,
Round the infants of our land.]
This procedure was repeated over all the children, while the grandfather sat raking the peats in the hearth. The old man was also thought to have been reciting something but, unfortunately, his softly spoken words were inaudible.
As to the name, Helya strikes me as a corruption of the Old Norse heilagr, meaning holy – Holy Night being an obvious later name for Christmas Eve. (5)
Virgin Mary bore Jesus Christ one day before the Christmas, but actually went into labor four days prior to his birth. This day is celebrated on the 20th of December and is known as St. Ignat’s Day or ‘Ignazhden’. Households light candles on this day and commemorate the strength of Virgin Mary and anticipate the ‘arrival’ of Jesus Christ. (6)
Bulgarians are primarily Eastern Orthodox, however, in Bulgarian folk belief, we see a similar honoring of Mary. Christmas Eve or Mother’s Night is one of their most sacred folk festivals.
After the days of the labor pains of the Mother of God comes the last evening, Christmas Eve. This last night of the labor pains of the Holy Mother of God is the day filled with the most excitement and rites, culminating in a ritual supper. They bake different types of bread, most significantly a large, round loaf upon which a cross, circle, x and other symbols are placed. These symbols represent the solar cross, an equal-armed cross, and the x represents the World Soul whom the ancients identified as the Goddess.
They must dress in clean, festive clothes and prepare a special sourdough bread, a bloodless offering, with sacred herbs and decorations. Only the women may take part in this ritual. The bread is connected with the Sacred Hearth and the Goddess as Keeper of the Hearth.
Ring shaped buns are given to carolers. The women cook food without any animal products. The men must prepare a special fire from certain woods and an end hole is made into which is placed frankincense, wine and oil. The rituals continue with other rites and a censing of the home. The first piece of bread is intended for the Mother of God and is placed upon Her home altar. Others pieces are for the house spirits. (7)
(7) I do apologise, I have lost the link.