Heathen Holidays: Æcerbot

Heathen Holidays: Æcerbot

by Trey Wentworth

This is the second blog post in a series on the topic of Heathen Holidays.

Chase Hill Æcerbot ritual

In February, we really begin to notice the lengthening daylight hours. Posting the seconds and minutes on Facebook no longer matters, because we can actually see it each day – and we, along with the plants and animals around us, begin to think about the coming of spring.

In Old English, the word for this time of year was lencten, which was then applied to the Christian observance now called Lent. But its etymological origin is in the “lengthening” of the day, and simply meant spring. Different traditions within Heathenry celebrate this time differently – but whether it is marked as Disting, Charming of the Plough, or Æcerbot, observing the shifting light is a sign of hope for those who live in cold, northerly climes.

On Chase Hill, we perform our Æcerbot ritual at this time of year. Named for an Old English charm to encourage field fertility, it is a time for us to honor all the beings that feed us – plant and animal – and wish them growth in the coming season. Despite the heavy snow and coldest temperatures of the year, this observance heralds the beginning of the growing season. In only a matter of weeks, the tree sap will begin to flow and the first harvest of New England will begin – maple syrup.

Reflecting on Food

Honoring the spirits of the land is core to the practice of Heathenry. In our modern culture, we are divorced from our food sources and it is easy to forget that we owe our lives not just abstractly to the land we live on, but literally to those beings that die so that we may eat.

In preparation for the Æcerbot, many of us spend a week thanking (out loud!) the animals and plants that make up our food each time we sit down to eat. That might be as simple as turkey, tomato, lettuce, and wheat before taking a bite of a sandwich – or you may find yourself researching the actual source of the preservatives or flavorings in your favorite bag of chips. No matter what, taking time to recognize all the things that make up our diet – a breadth of variation heretofore unimaginable in all of human history – brings awareness to how connected we are to the earth and so many other species.

During our community’s Æcerbot ritual, one of the offerings we give is to all the beings we eat. We pass a pitcher around the circle, naming beings that give us food and pouring water for each.

Offering of Cakes

This is also the time that Heathens shared cakes with their gods. The Venerable Bede tells us that February was called Solmonath (Cake month) in Old English because of the offerings given at this time of year. Recorded in Swedish and Norwegian folklore is the practice of gathering around the hearth, each member of the family taking a bite of cake in turn, and the remainder going into the fire. The Æcerbot charm, too, involves baking a special cake and laying it in the first furrow ploughed.

You can give your own offerings of cakes to the earth as she awakens from her sleep. There are many recipes already associated with this time of year – for many years I made fastnachts (Pennsylvania Dutch doughnuts) for Æcerbot from a family recipe. In Heathen practice, we always share our offerings with the gods and spirits – be sure to give a portion to the land, and a portion to each person in your house or at your ritual.

Blessing the Tools of Work

Blessing the plough for the coming year’s work is another important undertaking at this time of year, as shown in the Æcerbot charm and the surviving English folk customs on Plough Monday. But since most of us will not be taking a plough to the north forty when the ground thaws, how do we honor the tools that will sustain us through the summer?

If your work is at the computer, perhaps it is time to bless it. Or if you crochet or knit, those needles or hooks are tools you will be working with throughout the year. Pens, pencils, planners, or bullet journals can also be blessed. Nothing is too mundane – in fact, the idea of blessing these common objects is to ensure that the things you use every day are honored as sacred.

In Heathen ritual, we often pour our offerings into a bowl, allowing us to sprinkle the offerings on the space and the attendees as a blessing before returning it all to the earth. Be sure to sprinkle the tools of your trade before you pour out your offerings (ensuring any electronics are covered by something water-proof first!).

Or if you choose to focus your observance on the hearth instead, you can bless your tools with flame, another traditional Heathen blessing practice. Light your hearth – a simple candle on top of the stove will do – and pass your tools over the flame (carefully, so as not to burn or melt anything, including yourself!) before extinguishing it.

However you choose to welcome the returning light at this time of year, make sure to find time to give gratitude to all the plants and animals that have kept you alive over the last year and send your blessings out to the land that the coming year be one of plenty.

Single-handled ox-drawn ard; Bronze Age rock carving, Bohuslän, Sweden
By Lidingo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3726026