Did The Vikings Celebrate Something Similar To Halloween?

Did the Vikings actually celebrate Halloween? Well, certainly not. At least, not as we know the holiday today. Halloween, or the ‘Day of the Dead’, is a holiday observed on October 31 in such countries as Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, or Canada.

Halloween as we know it today was initially rooted in the Celtic culture, and subsequently influenced by Christianity. If you’re interested about the Celtic origins of Halloween please see this article.

Halloween carved pumpkins. Image source: www.pixabay.com

The answer to the question at the beginning of this article depends on how one defines Halloween. If we are to define Halloween as the trick-or-treat commercial last day of October, then certainly a correspondent to this wasn’t observed in the Norse lands during the Iron Age and early Middle Ages.

Nonetheless, if we are to consider the pre-Christian basis in some cultures around the world for the contemporary Halloween, then the Norsemen did indeed celebrate something quite close enough to the Irish Samhain (the festival that marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter or the ‘darker’ half of the year in Celtic culture).

In late Iron Age and early medieval Scandinavia, the Norsemen celebrated some holidays which can be regarded as counterparts of the Samhain. For example, the Blót was a worshipping ritual dedicated to the Norse gods (and to some extent to other mythical beings in the Norse mythology) in which animals were sacrificed. In the Ancient world, such ceremonies involving animal sacrifice were also present in other cultures, among others for instance in the Mesoamerican ones.

In the Norse culture, there were two main such festivals known as Álfablót (or the sacrifice to the elves) and Dísablót (or the sacrifice to the dísir and valkyries). Prior to describing these festivals, we need to clarify the fact that the elves in the Norse folklore are not the counterparts of the fairies. The elves are spirits of the deceased who lived in the mounds or even beneath the surface of the earth.

The Disablot, as imagined by Swedish 19th century painter August Malmström in one of his works. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

There are two main categories of elves which can be named in this respect, namely the svartálfar/dökkálfar (i.e. ‘dark elves’) and the ljósálfar (i.e. ‘light elves’). There’s also a third category which is part of Icelandic and Faroese folklore called ‘huldufólk‘.

Additionally, the Disir (for which the Dísablót was held at the great temple in Uppsala) are ambivalent female beings, given the fact that they can either be malevolent or benevolent towards mortals. Just like the valkyries, they were equally admired and feared mythical figures once upon a time.

The Álfablót was locally observed in each household, in stark contrast to the rituals once performed at Uppsala (located in contemporary Sweden) and Mære (located in contemporary Norway). It was held towards the end of the autumn, close to the end of the harvest season.

The Dísablót was held during the so-called Scandinavian ‘Winter Nights’ (or ‘vetrnætr’ in the Old Norse language) with the purpose of enriching the subsequent harvest. This festival was once performed at the temple in Uppsala, in modern day Sweden. Nowadays, it actually lives on there, but only under the form of an annual market fair.

Both festivals are mentioned in the Old Norse literature in several sagas and skaldic poems.

Below you can admire a fine Viking head pumpkin carving from New Zealand (everything is historically accurate about it except for the horns). Enjoy and happy Halloween!

Documentation sources and external links:

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2 Responses to Did The Vikings Celebrate Something Similar To Halloween?

  1. James says:

    I’m writing on this topic right now and researching to write a post about all Nordic holidays. I find your article very informative, and your whole website. I bookmarked your page, and I will make sure to put your website in the reference list.

    • Vivian says:

      I lived in Denmark 1946-1948 and remember Fastelavn:

      The traditions of Fastelavn vary somewhat between the countries, and local regions, and some traditions have changed over time. A common theme of Fastelavn in all the countries currently involves children dressing up in costumes, walking door to door while they sing and gathering treats for the Fastelavn feast, a form of trick-or-treat. Today, the festivities of Fastelavn are generally considered to be a time for children’s fun and family games.
      Fastelavn er mit navn,
      boller vil jeg have.
      Hvis jeg ingen boller får,
      så laver jeg ballade.

      Fastelavn er mit navn
      boller i min mave.
      Hvis jeg ingen boller får,
      så laver jeg ballade.

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