January is named for the Roman two headed god, Janus, who looks both backwards to the ending of the old year and forward to new beginnings. In Celtic tree lore, it is the time ruled over by birch, the first tree in the forest to start producing leaves (B or Beith in the Ogham alphabet). Birch is self propagating and therefore highly adaptive and able to thrive in areas cleared by forest fires, making it associated with new beginnings. It was traditionally used to drive out the spirit of the Old Year, but this became distorted later when it was used to flog children. It was used by druids as kindling to ignite fires, and silver birch is often associated with light bodies such as the sun, moon and the stars.
The January full moon is often called Wolf Moon. Wolves rule the midwinter nights and the image of the wolf howling during a full moon is probably the origin of the concept of the werewolf, a fearsome predator that feeds on blood. Though now more often linked to Native American tradition, the wolf is also a key animal in Celtic and Norse mythology. Solitary and shy, but able to survive in packs and hunt ferociously, the wolf was often associated with death and sometimes destruction, but with the understanding that clearing away the old is a necessary step in the process of renewal. It was a companion of the Welsh goddess Ceridwen, one of the sacred guardians of Britain, and one of the four sacred animals of the Celtic Brigid, all of which demonstrate the importance of wolf to the ancient British landscape.
It is in Norse mythology, however, where wolf has its most intriguing role. Fenrir the wolf was the feared offspring of the frost giantess and trickster Loki who grew to such a huge size that he had to be bound in chains to prevent the prophesied destruction of the world, Ragnarok. Eventually, when the time was nigh, he broke free of the magical chains made by the elves themselves, swallowing the god Odin whole in the drama known as the twilight of the gods. Fenrir was the father in turn of another wolf who chased the sun until finally ‘taking possession of it.’ Not only did the sun disappear from view, but the world was engulfed in a hideous winter of freezing and bloodshed as a result, so there is a possible association here between the wolf and celestial phenomena such as eclipses, comets or meteor impacts, a harbinger of destruction, even a deliver of it.
The 10th January, the date of this year’s full Wolf Moon, is also the birthday of the Norse goddess Freyja. As mistress of the runes, prophetic vision, and magick, she was once one of the most important figures in the Norse pantheon, and certainly one of the oldest. Originally a Mistress of the Wild Animals, she is often seen in a chariot pulled by cats or riding a wild boar. Later, like Inanna in the Middle East, she became the typical goddess of sex and war, and as (possible) leader of the Valkyries, prowled the battlefields with Odin, choosing half of all slain warriors to take to her great hall.
One of her most striking attributes was a cloak of falcon feathers which enabled her to shapeshift into a bird and take astral flight. Shamanistic and extremely ancient in origin, this type of magical ability was known as seidr and said to be gifted by Freyja herself. Indeed, even Odin had to come to her to learn the art of reading the runes showing that she once had precedence over him.
As mistress of prophet visionary and shape shifting, Freyja would have had mastery over the four primal elements Earth, air, fire and water, and therefore alchemical knowledge of how to work with the treasures of the Earth. This knowledge is encoded into the story of how Freyja obtained her famous necklace, Brisingsamen. Here my version of the story:
One winters night, Freya lay dreaming in her bed of fur. She saw the ancient ash tree that stood at the centre of the Nine Worlds and it was spangled in a web of light that shone like diamonds. Yearning to be there, she stepped out of bed and pulling on her cloak made of the softest and lightest of falcon feathers, she flew towards the tree. There she alighted on a branch and traveled down the solid trunk and down into the roots that burrowed towards the heart of the Earth. As she journeyed, she could hear strange notes given out by the rhythmic clanging of a hammer and she followed the sound until she ended up in a candle-lit chamber. Four dwarfs were busy at work, one hammering sheets of gold, one pulling it into long wires, and the other two cutting and polishing stones of every colour and hue until their light radiated out onto the walls of the cave, causing it to sparkle like the night sky.
Freya stepped towards them and saw they were making a necklace, the most beautiful and powerful necklace she had ever seen, and she longed to possess it. She pleaded with the dwarfs, offering them riches and gold in exchange, but they already had mastery of all the treasures in the seams of the Earth and needed no more. What they did, want, however, was for each of them in turn to spend a night with the beautiful goddess. Freyja agreed and stayed with them to learn the magical arts of alchemical transformation taught by the dwarves, who was a master of each element. This was how she came to be in possession of Brisingamen, the necklace that shone bright as the Milky Way.
The story as handed down to us is patchy, and for many it is purely sexual in nature, the goddess sleeping with each of the dwarves in turn to obtain the treasure. Strangely, the necklace is also not a magical object per se and has none of the attributes or named powers as for example Odin’s ring or Thor’s hammer. Yet to Freyja the necklace is of prime importance so much so that she is prepared to do anything to retain it, and there is a disturbing end to the story.
Odin saw that Freyja had obtained the necklace, and how, and was apparently angry, even outraged. He ordered the trickster Loki to steal it from the sleeping goddess and bring it to him forthwith. Freyja soon realised her necklace was gone, and who had taken it, and came to confront Odin. Apparently, with very little persuasion, she struck with him a dark bargain in order to secure its’ return: she was to incite war between two kings and their great armies, then revive them on the battlefield so that they might rise up and fight again.
The reason for this request is not explained and could be interpreted simply as a moral warning against coveting material possession, or even against sexual promiscuity, both of which could bring unwanted consequences. But there could also be something more behind this rather intriguing story. The necklace could represent some sort of primal power, and one that is linked to the stars of the Milky Way, it could symbolise secret and eternally powerful knowledge that has been lost in the mists of time. The silver birch with its association with light bodies, the wolf with its cosmic symbolism and Freya’s starry necklace all demonstrate that the stars of the Milky Way were much for central in the psyche of our ancestors than it is in today’s light polluted world, and the long dark nights of the North would have been the perfect place to view it. Furthermore, the wolf myths also hint at a cataclysmic event that led to Ragnarok, the destruction of everything including the gods, when an old order broke down in order to make way for a new. And in this it is tempting to see parallels with today’s world with the lunar eclipse and important conjunctions around this January full Wolf Moon.