I have been occupied over this past week with the living out and carrying forward of the traditions and rituals of my womenfolk going back many centuries and millennia. Matrilineally, I am of Norwegian and Finnish descent. I am a third- and fourth-generation American; my grandmothers on my mother’s side came to America at their husbands’ bidding. I lived for half a century without knowing the truth of my ancestry: that my foremothers, before the Christianization of Northern Europe, lived out their days in a culture and context in which the wisdom, strength and power of women were deeply and respectfully honored. They understood themselves to be the daughters of, and surrounded invisibly by, powerful giantesses, woman warriors, tribal mothers and wise women: the Norns, also known as valkyrie or disir, who presided over their destiny and tenderly directed them, who were teachers, protectors and warriors, to whom whole communities turned for wisdom, prophetic insight, and protection from harm. In the world my foremothers knew, women were the keepers of wisdom, knowledge and magic; they were the givers, interpreters and protectors of the runes, which did not foretell or announce but which shaped the future. My foremothers deeply understood themselves to have been made in the image of powerful, wise, highly educated, warrior women. It is in this knowledge that during this time of year, near the winter solstice, they carried out the traditions and rituals of “Mother Night,” known in Scandinavian countries as “Dísirblót,” festival of the disir or tribal soul mothers. They understood this season to be the time when the old year gives birth to the new, and as such, as a time to reverence all mothers, both living and dead, real and mythological, biological and spiritual, who shaped their understanding of women’s and all people’s and creatures’ place in this world.
The traditions celebrated as Christmas traditions are really traditions of the Night of the Mothers, “modrasnach”: evergreens brought into homes, gifts and offerings tied to its branches, presents beneath the trees, all in honor of the tribal mothers who had gone before, offered in the spirit of thanksgiving, reverence, and hope for the future. Reindeer were evocative of the shape-shifting abilities of mythological woman healers; elves symbolized the Norns’ invisible protection and defense of the earth, its creatures and people. Even the star at the top of the tree was meant to beckon the Mothers, to draw their attention.
It pains me so deeply the way these woman-centered, woman-loving rituals and traditions were and are relentlessly, deliberately, stolen, infantilized, trivialized, dismissed and especially co-opted by Christians, including Christians who have done their best to silence the Mothers’ voices, to wipe out all and every understanding and knowledge of women as powerful figures, goddesses in their own right, teachers, leaders, prophetesses, warriors, healers, defenders and protectors, tender lovers. The images all around us of women as slaves to their families at this time of year, frazzled servants, madly baking the cookies and wrapping gifts, haggardly decorating the fake tree in whatever this year’s fad might be, make a mockery of the noble and moving heritage which belongs to us, as women, of celebrating this very central night and season in which we honor our mothers, figurative, spiritual, fleshly, imagined, mythological, and their power to give birth or not, to give life, or not, to defend and protect life, or not, to teach, to lead, to shape the world. The traditions belong to us, to women, as a people. They are ours to shape, to define, to protect and above all, enjoy. They have been stolen from us, co-opted, but we can reclaim them.
It’s in that spirit that I am enjoying what others call “Christmas.” I made gifts for all of my children, grandkids, sisters and brothers this year: small plaster hearts, embedded with bits of items precious to their womenfolk: bits of my maternal grandmother’s clay pheasants which sat on her coffee table from my earliest memories, buttons from my paternal grandmother’s button box, dried flowers from my mother’s garden, bits of wool from my flock of sheep. I have offered these in my heart and mind to and in the memory of all of my women, this great “river of womyn,” as a friend describes it, which has preceded me, which gave me life, whose traditions and rituals I have maintained, even during my own years of darkness when I didn’t understand what it cost them to keep these rituals and traditions alive. I will be setting a place at my table this year for the Mothers, as well, with flowers and a glass of this year’s elderberry wine from the tree in my garden. It will be the best seat at my table.
It is said that once a woman realizes the truth of her spiritual heritage as a woman, her herstory, all of the great cloud of women witnesses rejoices and rushes invisibly to her side to strengthen and inspire her. I am feeling that today. It is a grief, it is a torment, it is a thrill and an inspiration, as so much of this season of my life is. I am listening to one of my favorite CD’s this morning; the image above is the CD cover. It is entitled “Wizard Women of the North,” and every song rings for me, beginning with the song, “Herding Calls,” which is, yes, a song composed of women’s sheepherding calls, (which sound amazingly like me when I call my sheep!), continuing with “Word of Incantation,” (indescribable! you have to listen!), to the haunting, “Illusion,” powerful, “Phoenix.” Well, just listen. And buy. 🙂
In the Spirit of, and for Love of, the Great Mothers, and all mothers, both those who have born children and those with spiritual children,