On Ash Wednesday

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.

Praise Odin! :)

16 thoughts on “On Ash Wednesday

  1. Heh….

    “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.”

    And so we come ’round to Tolkien….

    “Circling circling circling round, the sea is the sky is the sun is the ground….” [copyright Stephanie Pui-Mun Law]

    I’m pleased to see you’re still producing cogent thoughtful takes on such a variety of subject. And I’m still using Shire Reckoning, on a lot of wp blogs, and some new alpha-Habari ones….

  2. It’s a wonderful description of another ash-based ritual, but you don’t say if the Norse tradition was to annoint the forehead, or give any evidence that the Christian ritual is based on the Norse ritual, rather than simply being predated by it.

    I’m going to guess that there have been dozens of ash-rituals dating to neanderthal antiquity, becuase fire was seen as both crucial to life and mystical in origin. That doesn’t mean that they are all based on each other, or that every subsequent ritual was appropriated from a prior one.

  3. As an employee at a rather large catholic university (in northern Indiana), I smiled as I read this.

    Also, I think this stuff may just be a long term viral marketing campaign for the Thor movie coming out in a couple months…think about it!

  4. Sorry, but I had to say something here: I seriously doubt there is any factual value to this little piece of historical fabulation. I would rather bet that Allyn fell for some imaginative neo-pagan’s rantings than that there are ayn historical sources whatsoever referring to a pagan Norse ritual concerning Ash Wednesday — let alone sources linking it to the Völsunga Saga.

    I’m all in favour of trashing christian traditions. But please supplant nonsense with quality.

  5. Trigaranus, more like a beloved college professor. :)

    I wrote this blog post several years ago, based on things I remembered from college several years before that. And, to be frank, at times, I’ve wondered if that history professor (I was a history major in college) was having a lark.

  6. The 6 extra days are the Sundays of Lent, because Sundays are feast days in the Church and therefore don’t count towards the forty day total.

  7. We have month names from the Romans, days of the week from the Norse (Thor’s day, Wodin’s day, Fria’s day)… what a wonderful mix of cultures the modern world really is.

  8. @ Allyn (in response to your response): Being a historian myself ( but too busy to go check as long as an easier way looks possible ) remembering full well how untraceable most of the sediments of my factual knowledge are:

    Do you remember, by any chance, that professor’s sources? I’ve got a few bits of information from the same field that I am dying to verify or disprove…! My favourite is from a book by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson:

    Apparently, when the crusaders stormed the city of Jerusalem in 1099, the Norman knights from Sicily were using a time-honoured battle cry, without being aware of the slight oddity in conquering a city for Christendom while shouting the name of pagan god Tyr.

    Now if I could find a primary source for that…!

  9. I am all for a bit of neo-paganism, especially if it irritates the odd xian looney. It’s a bit less confrontational than PZ’s punch them approach. Ah! the destiny of the Volsungs.

  10. Gibson, it seems that your history teacher pulled a fast one on you. There is no such notion in any primary source, and this misinformation that you’re parroting derives from some very poor scholarship dating back to at least the 19th century. Please brush up on your Germanic philology—you do yourself no favors by spreading this stuff around and it only plays into the hands of your critics.

    That said, when Easter or Yule come around, you’ll be on much surer footing, and I’ll happily join you in singing the praises of Eostre and the Yule-beings.

    In response to another commentator: English week day names did *not* come from the Norse; they’re natively Anglo-Saxon. The Anglo-Saxons were Germanic just like the Norse. Our native English month names, on the other hand, have been stripped away in favor of the more church-correct Latin names. How wonderful?

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