Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Ale of of Culture: Viking Festivals and Food-ways.

This is the second of three posts concerning the Viking-era foods research begun for my upcoming fantasy novel, “In the Company of Stones.” I believe that the material culture of a People says as much about them as written records. And I've come to understand the culture of my own Nordic Family of Origin much more clearly in the process.

I've discovered that food is so much more than mere fuel. It's a very primal thing, connected to our deepest natures. Refined by the processes used to cook it, and the ways and reasons it is eaten, food and drink express cultural values.

Celebrations where food is eaten in community strengthen the bonds between individuals. Viking noblewoman presenting an ale-horn with drink to oath-bound warriors, a bonding rite.

 The Norse diet was tied both to the seasons and to the yearly calendar of their religious festivals. When specific foods are eaten in a seasonally defined cycle, those foods express culture. They become foodways.

In Minnesota, we have our own ritual food-ways, our own seasonal festivals celebrated with seasonal foods. In August, it's the State Fair ritual of eating anything-you-can-get-on-a-stick. (I've even eaten alligator that way.) In November, Thanksgiving brings us pumpkin pie, cranberries and roast turkey. Christmas holidays bring Christmas cookies, egg-nog, and either turkey or ham. Our February Valentine's ritual involves chocolates. May is the time for fresh greens straight out of the garden, and fish after Fishing Opener. And the 4th of July is a barbecue festival.

If you compare our own ritual food-ways with those of the Vikings, it's much easier to understand the rhythm of the 8th century culinary calendar.

The Viking food-cycle began with the festival of Winter Nights, a seasonal turning point that occurs in mid to late October. It is the last harvest festival, and the first of the ancestor festivals. Winter Nights marked a time of turning inward to the community and re-connecting with the deceased.

By the onset of winter, the sheep milking season has run its course. Since it takes feed and grain to overwinter animals, Norse-folk had to decide how many cattle and sheep they could afford to feed when pasture wasn't available. The rest were slaughtered, smoked or pickled for winter storage. At this time, animals were also sacrificed as a way of asking the Elder Kin (Norse Gods) and protective ancestors for a good winter season.

The blood of the sacrificed animals was collected and used to ritually sprinkle the altars and people in a ceremony called a blót (pronounced 'bloat'). The meat was then ritually shared in communal feasting.

(Picture of the Lofotr Viking Center. This is site is where I draw most of my inspiration for Halfdan's Hall. Some day I hope to visit here.)

Once harvest season ended, the time of eating stored foods began. It included pickled or smoked meats reconstituted in stews with peas or beans or root vegetables and herbs (split pea soup with smoked ham, anyone?); both sweet and savory porridge; skyr and cheese; and barley flatbreads.

The Nordic winter diet was also heavy on dried fish.

Cod drying at Lofoten.

The next major festival season was Jul (pronounced as Yule), at the time when the sun is least visible. It marked the time when the sun begins to return – the Midwinter Solstice. During Jul, food offerings were made to the Elder Kin and ancestors, asking for good crops in the following year.

Since pigs were slaughtered from November to December, Jul feasts included pork. The traditional English 'Boar's Head' feast is a continuation of the Norse sacrifice of a pig to Freyr, the god of the harvest, planting, growing and fertility. This gift of food was meant to implore Freyr to grant an easy winter and a favorable new year.

 Freyr, with his many attributes.
Many Jul practices have continued on into our time, such as eating ham at Christmas, or gifting each other with special foods. In my family, gifts of chocolates, walnuts and oranges still arrive in my Christmas stocking. Some families still leave out a plate of cookies for Santa the Jolly old Elf on Christmas Eve – a holdover of the Viking food-offerings to the land-spirits for good luck in the new year.

The further out from harvest season, the leaner the Vikings ate. As winter wore on, less fats were available to season food, and the more heavily dishes relied on fillers. Without enough nourishing, high-energy foods, winter could become a lean time of hunger and famine. Then foods like the inner bark of birch trees might be pounded into flour, and used to extend meals. A fortunate, and well run homestead would have laid in enough foods to sustain everyone through winter.

 Lean and Hungry Vikings Looking for Fresh Meat

As winter waned and summer approached, many different minor festivals were held in parts of the Viking world. This time marked a transition point, the end of the ancestor festivals, and the first of the agricultural festivals. One such was the 'Charming of the Plow' – blessing the plow used to furrow the fields. Some would plow a loaf of bread into the fields for luck and as a gift to the land spirits, asking their blessing on the crops.

With spring, the Norse diet began to shift from the consumption of stored foods to fresh grown or fresh caught food. The laying season for domestic fowl and wild birds was spring and summer, so eggs became available. With the end of winter storms and bad ice conditions, fish could be fresh caught. The first of the cold weather greens like cabbage would come in. Winter stores of smoked or dried meats would dwindle at the same time that hunting waterfowl, and fishing became easier.

By Midsummer grain stores and flat-bread made from the previous harvest would be running low. Mineral rich greens like nettles and lambs-quarters, and treats like berries would be added to the spring diet, as well as early bean crops such as broad beans.

In May, sheep's milk becomes available after lambing season. Available...but not necessarily easy to get.

Four horned sheep, introduced to the Hebrides by Viking settlers.

The third major turning point of the year was Midsummer Festival, when the Norse-folk made wishes for a good harvest of barley, rye and oats. This was a victory feast, a celebration in hopes that the Viking entrepreneurial activities of trading and raiding should bear fruit as well.

As the year turns, we come back around to the first of the harvest festivals, and Loaf Feast -- the time when the grain comes in. This is the time of abundance, the time when the diet is the most varied. Apples, hazelnuts and walnuts are harvested, the winter's store of flat-breads baked anew, and porridge grains are fresh and plentiful.
You can imagine how the character of the Vikings as a People was shaped by their food-ways. Awareness of the seasons and their affect on the diet led the Vikings to plan ahead for lean times. The need to exercise foresight and creativity to insure full bellies shaped Viking culture just as surely as easy, fast and universal access to foods shapes our own.

In harsh northern climes, the Viking virtue of Hospitality was paramount. You shared what you had with guests as a form of mutual aid. Mutuality and reciprocation ensured your own survival in times of trouble.

Nordic mutuality is a trait that found later expression in many places, including formation of upper midwestern farmers cooperatives in the early 20th century. The ancient necessity to cooperate and insure each others survival continues to find expression in today's Scandinavian welfare model economies. (Norway has been rated as having the highest level of Human Development by the U.N.)

Even today, no woman of Scandinavian descent will allow a guest to cross their threshold without asking 'can I get you something?' The Viking virtue of Hospitality still holds sway.

In each case, cultural patterns are an outgrowth of ancient, land-based foodways.

The next, and final post in this series will be on the connection between foods and spirituality in Viking culture. I'll see you then.


  1. There is much in this to help us prepare for the Post-Petroleum, Climate Change era.

    1. Very interesting Karen, thank you. I was just reading about how basically humans were co-operative rather than selfish, otherwise the human race would not have survived. This proves it.