The Norse Calendar ⊕ 22

This week we are entering Haustmánuðr, which is the sixth and last summer month according to the old Norse calendar. The old Icelandic calendar states that Haustmánuðr starts on Thursday in the 23rd week of summer (1), which would translate to right before or around mid-September to mid-October in the Julian calendar, and toward the end of September in the Gregorian calendar. Haustmánuðr means "the month of harvest/fall", but I have seen it called by several other descriptive names, such as Garðlagsmánuðr (2) - signifying that it is the time to fix up the fences and walls around the farm.

I occasionally hear of the old names of the months, as some of the celebrations and traditions are still being kept alive in Iceland today, across and regardless of religious beliefs. This may be due to the country using the old calendar alongside the Julian calendar after the Christianization up to year 1200, possibly due to several of the laws being directly linked to its content (3), as well as the peculiar and gradual process of the Christianization of Iceland (4-6). Furthermore, the old names of the months were used much longer in the language, and the Latin names were not adopted into the common tongue until the late 18th century (7).

I would like to write a bit about the Norse calendar, and below I have drawn it up as compared to the modern Gregorian calendar (3), in order to make it easier to visualize.

The old Norse calendar was divided into two seasons, summer and winter. Each season had 6 months, with 30 days each (lunar phases). Summer months were Harpa, Skerpla, Sólmánuðr, Heyannir, Tvímánuðr and Haustmánuðr, and the winter months Gormánuðr, Ýlir, Mǫrsugr, Þorri, Góa and Einmánuðr.

The 12 months of 30 days each account for 360 days. In the middle of summer (between Sólmánuðr og Heyannir) 4 additional days, not belonging to any specific month, were added. At the end of summer however, two of what would have been the first winter nights were counted into the last summer month. Summer months would thus start on a Thursday, and winter months would start on a Saturday. Like today, a year consisted of 52 weeks, and to make up for the divergence with the solar year, an additional week was added at the end of summer every 7th year (4), called sumarauki, literally meaning "summer addition". In Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) we can read that "Hallsteinn átti Ósku, dóttur Þorsteins rauðs. Þeira sonr var Þorsteinn surtr, er fann sumarauka", roughly translated to "Hallsteinn had Ósk, daughter of Þorstein the red. Their son was Þorsteinn surtr, who invented the summer addition" (8).

Although seemingly complicated at first glance, I do not find the old Norse system to be particularly more so than the Julian or Gregorian systems, where names of months were changed according to the deeds and victories of emperors, and with length varying between 28-31 days, leap-years and so forth...

It is however deemed unlikely that the days in the old Norse calendar were counted very accurately, especially in the northernmost areas where the sun barely sets during the mid-summer months. Time was counted in weeks of (or weeks left of) summer or winter rather than with numbered days, and years were not counted by an absolute chronology (3). Each of the two seasons was called a "misseri", and the calendar was thus a misseristal (counting of misseris) (9). There are to my knowledge no known accounts of specific "New Years celebrations" in the Viking Age, but the new year is believed to have commenced with the first summer month (10). This is mainly based on the fact that ones lifetime was measured in the number of winters lived, an expression still used in some contexts today (for example, the age of livestock is stated in the number of winters the animal has lived through). The first day of summer was a festive day, and remains a public holiday in Iceland, falling on the first day of Harpa (first Thursday after April 18th).

Different sources provide additional and even older names for some of the months. In Skáldskaparmál (11), Snorri Sturlusson explains the course of the year:
Frá jafndægri er haust, til þess er sól sezt í eykðarstað. Þá er vetr til jafndægris. Þá er vár til fardaga. Þá er sumar til jafndægris. Haustmánuðr heitir inn næsti fyrir vetr, fyrstr í vetri heitir gormánuðr, þá er frermánuðr, þá er hrútmánuðr, þá er þorri, þá gói, þá einmánuðr, þá gaukmánuðr ok sáðtíð, þá eggtíð ok stekktíð, þá er sólmánuðr ok selmánuðr, þá eru heyannir, þá er kornskurðarmánuðr.
...which roughly translates to:
It is autumn from the equinox till the time when the sun sets three hours and a half after noon. Then the winter endures till the equinox. Then it is spring till the moving-days. Then summer till equinox. Haustmánuðr is the next before winter, the first of winter is called gormánuðr, then frermánuðr, then hrútmánuðr, then þorri, then gói, then einmánuðr, then gaukmánuðr and sáðtíð, then eggtíð and stekktíð, then sólmánuðr and selmánuðr, then heyannir, then kornskurðarmánuðr.
Some of the names signify male or female deities or important characters (I may supplement with more detailed accounts about certain months in future posts). But more often the names are purely descriptive, illustrating the farming society of the Viking Age, the close proximity with nature and the need to perform certain tasks at the right time (12).

  1. The Icelandic Web of Science/Vísindavefurinn: Hvaða mánaðanöfn voru notuð samkvæmt gamla íslenska tímatalinu og yfir hvaða tímabil náðu þau?
  2. The Icelandic Environment Association/Landvernd: Haustmánuður genginn í garð
  3. Hauge, A. (2002), "Mål, vekt og tid", in the Electronic Book "Arild Hauges Runer"
  4. The Book of Icelanders/Íslendingabók
  5. The Laxdale Saga/Laxdælasaga
  6. The Saga of Burnt Njáll/Brennu-Njáls saga
  7. The Icelandic Web of Science/Vísindavefurinn: Hvers vegna notum við ekki lengur gömlu íslensku nöfninn á mánuðunum og hvenær var því hætt?
  8. The Book of Settlements/Landnámabók, 2nd part, chapter 23
  9. Óskarsson, V. (2011), Scripta Islandica: Isländska sällskapets årsbok 62/2011.
  10. The Icelandic Web of Science/Vísindavefurinn: Af hverju er sumardagurinn fyrsti haldinn hátíðlegur?
  11. Skáldskaparmál, 78, Younger Edda
  12. Tryggvadóttir, G. A. (2013), "Gömlu íslensku mánaðaheitin og gregoríanska tímatalið" at Náttú

Music: Wardruna - Solringen

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