January Wolf Moon: Fenrir, Freyja and her Necklace

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,[1] 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.


[1] See www.exemplore.com for more details

Yuletide: the tale of the Holly and the Ivy

Yuletide is the twelve festive days celebrated from the Winter Solstice that were used by our ancestors to align the solar calendar with the lunar. The Solstice was seen as the still point of the wheel of the year, the pivot on which the agricultural year turned, the time when the sun appears to start heading northwards in the sky just as it has reached its furthest point south. These twelve adjustment days were therefore taken at this special time and were used as an opportunity to relax and make merry, to walk in the fields and the forests, commune with the ancestors, to rewild.

The image of streams of cavorting revellers was probably the origin of the Wild Hunt of Norse/Anglo Saxon mythology. This was when the one-eyed all-seeing shamanic god Odin rode across the skies with his ghostly hunters. Accompanied by ravens, trolls and otherworldly psychopomps, or soul guides, these creatures were later demonised and reduced to satanic hordes and discarnate spirits, harbingers of death, bringing misfortune on anyone who saw them. A piece of propaganda later introduced by the Christian world to ensure the midwinter revelries did not take place.

Despite these attempts at censor, there is much in this old mythology that has survived and preserved in our Christmas customs. Odin rode a large muscular horse called Sleipnir, said to have eight legs, who carried his master through the nine worlds held in the branches and roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, a clear reference to shamanic journeying. Reindeer are also important shamanic animals with their antlers rising to the heavens and their hooves firmly on the ground, and it is significant that eight of them are said to pull Santa’s sleigh. Odin also dropped presents at the foot of his sacred pine tree for the faithful, a custom preserved in the laying of Christmas presents under the Christmas tree.

And trailing behind the Wild Hunt were the Oak and the Holly Lords perennially engaged in a battle of mythic proportions. Robert Graves analysis of an ancient Welsh poem called ‘The Battle of the Trees’ unravelled a remarkable and ancient story telling the unfolding of the natural year through a tree alphabet encrypted with sacred knowledge and ritual.[1] The year was divided into two halves to reflect the power of the waxing and waning sun. The Oak king was the Lord of the Waxing Sun who reached his peak at Midsummer, but was then supplanted, or even sacrificed, by the Holly king who ruled the part of the year when the Sun’s power was waning. At the Winter Solstice, it was Oak that supplanted Holly, who then ruled over the waxing year. Graves uncovered evidence for this Earth centred belief from Turkey to the West of Ireland with different cultures flavouring the narrative with their own character.

In Britain, the Robin Redbreast embodied the spirit of the New Year, signalling the return of the Sun. This half of the year is associated with holly, which now produces red berries amidst its spiky evergreen leaves, hence the association of robins with holly at Yule. Just after the Solstice, around Christmas Eve, Robin Red Breast sets out to kill his predecessor, the Gold Crest Wren. Men would hunt wrens with birch rods at this time, driving them out of ivy bushes, indicating that Ivy as the Lord of the Waxing Sun. The Robin is said to murder the Wren, his father/predecessor, acquiring his red breast as a result. For the rest of the year, the Wren was considered sacred and it was forbidden to collect her eggs.

Graves also introduced another dimension to his Battle of the Trees analysis, for the gods of the waxing and waning years were revealed as pawns who competed for, and each in turn lose, the love of the triple goddess, Creatrix of Nature, who he called the White Goddess. There are considerable depths to this story, but one of the most pertinent is the subscript of the day out of time, the 23rd December just after the Solstice, the magical thirteenth month which was not ruled over by the tree alphabet. This was the Epilogue, the story that told of the birth, life and resurrection of the god of the waxing year. The time when the Goddess gave birth anew to herself and the sacred child, bringing about redemption and the resurrection of the life- giving power of the Sun.

Christianity has of course taken over all the major aspects of this ancient narrative in the contemporary version of the Christian story. Now it is Christ, born of the Virgin, who shall redeem us, and his birth takes place at the Winter Solstice. His cousin, John the Baptist takes on the role of the Midsummer tannist and throughout the Middle Ages, 24th June was referred to as the Eve of St John.

Nowhere is this ancient knowledge so explicitly preserved and intertwined with Christianity as in the carol the Holly and the Ivy, cheerfully sung in chapels and churches up and down the country at Christmas. The chorus ‘the holly and the ivy, when they were both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown’ implies Holly is Lord of Midwinter, with the Ivy as Midsummer Lord. The birth of the sacred child by the goddess and the sacrificial aspects of the story are clearly indicated, albeit in a very mild form, by the  next verses, ‘the holly bears a blossom was white as lily flower, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our dear Saviour’ and ‘the holly bears a berry as red as any blood and that Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.’

The ‘prickle’ of the Holly is a premonition of the crown of thorns worn by the sacrificial Christ and the bark of the holly, as bitter as any gall, mentioned later in the carol, is a reference to the redemptive Christ, who was offered gall to drink in place of water whilst dying on the cross.

Though we now celebrate the birth of the sacred child (Christ) at Christmas, in Anglo Saxon Britain, it was the Mother who was honoured on the 24th December. This was when the sacred tree was taken into the home and decorated, a living representative of the World Tree, with the star at the top representing the Pole Star around which everything turned. The Yule log was lit as a symbol of the returning Sun, and food and gifts were shared to honour the abundance of the Earth. Even Santa Claus, with his obligatory red suit, is actually the old Holly king or Robin Redbreast in disguise, with his elf helpers a reference to the fairy folk of the Old Religion, and his magical flying reindeer and Christmas Eve night journey a memory of the Wild Hunt of Odin.


[1] Robert Graves, ‘The White Goddess’ Faber and Faber, 1997