Today is Ash Wednesday. I hadn’t realized.
A few years ago on Ash Wednesday I was out somewhere–a Barnes & Noble, I think, probably the one right near my house–and I saw a woman with the ashes marking her forehead. “Praise Odin,” I said to her. She looked at me oddly, said nothing, and walked away quickly. I couldn’t blame her; she was probably unaware of the pagan origins of Ash Wednesday. Christianity has pilfered virtually every practice and belief from non-Christian sources, enough so that it’s not unreasonable to ask if there’s an original bone in the Christian body, and Ash Wednesday came from the Norse.
Ash Wednesday is a relatively late addition to the Christian liturgical calendar, first surfacing in the tenth century according to accounts written in the eleventh. (To put things in perspective, Ash Wednesday is older than the Crusades or the Norman Conquest, younger than Charlemagne and Islam.) At least, its Christian practice dates to only a little more than a millennium ago. The Norse practice of Ash Wednesday goes back several hundred years earlier, when it was done to celebrate the deeds of Sigurd, the hero of the Volsung Saga, a character perhaps better known as Siegfried from the Ring of the Nibelung.
What follows will, by necessity, be brief. In the story of the Volsungs Odin placed a sword in a tree and, like King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, it could only be removed by the true king. That king was Sigmund, father of Sigurd. Sigmund withdrew the sword, reigned for many years, and fell in battle, his sword shattered. Years later Sigurd must slay the dragon Fafnir, but the only sword that can do so is his father’s broken sword, so it is reforged. Sigurd lays in wait for Fafnir and slays the dragon from below. He bathes in the blood of the dragon Fafnir and it makes him invulnerable everywhere except his shoulder blades. Years later Sigurd is slain, and he is given a proper Viking funeral pyre.
In the pre-Christian Norse religion the laying of ashes was meant to grant the Norse God Odin’s protection using ashes meant to represent Sigurd–the ashes of Sigurd contained the blood of Fafnir and would protect a Viking warrior in battle. When the Vikings raided coastal towns in western and Mediterranean Europe they brought their beliefs and practices with them, included the laying of ashes on a Wednesday–Odin‘s Day–which the Christian Church appropriated. Wednesday continued to be used as the day of the laying of ashes. Growing up I was told that Lent was the forty days before Easter; Ash Wednesday to Easter is too long, by six days. But moving Ash Wednesday up a week makes a Lent of thirty-nine days, so Ash Wednesday was fixed to create a Lent long enough to encompass forty days.
So when you see someone with a smudge of ashes on their forehead, tell them to praise Odin. You’ll be educating them in their religion’s history.