Celtic Festival Calender: Matres, Matronae, Modron – the Swedish Disirblot & Roman Parentalia

Throughout the year you’ll find blog posts that connect Celtic deities to festivals in other cultures when there is a historical reason to do so. Most of them are based on the Roman deities’ festivals that correspond to the Celtic deities associated with them, like Minvera and Sulis, or Mercury and Lug. This one is a bit different. My hope is that it will encourage people who want to be Gaulish, British and Iberian Celtic polytheists to do SOMETHING to honor those deities. A simple offering, chanting Their name, visualizing Their culture, reciting invocations by  Hester Butler-Ehle and me from Steel Bars, Sacred Waters – whatever works to make the first move. We may not have mythology for These deities, but we know quite a bit about their temperaments and importance. The rest will come if we ask for it. Deity names are in bold so you can scan for ones who interest you.

The old calendar of the Norse doesn’t line up with our current calendar. This is a problem with finding proper dates for any ancient festivals. Either they used the Julian Roman calender or had a lunar-solar calendar, and solved the problem of extra days in their own ways, like the way we add a day every 4th year or “Leap Year.” Even though the Swedish Disirblot was in the month similar to March, it appears that the Sacrifice for the Divine Mothers was held in February.

Some scholars believe that the Disir come directly from the Matres, meaning “Mothers” and pronounced “MAH-tress,” and the Matronae, pronounced “mah-TROH-nee” meaning “matrons.” They were worshiped in northwest Europe from the 1st to 5th century CE, with over 1,100 inscriptions and depictions of them. There’s quite a lot of information about the Matres in Steel Bars, Sacred Waters: Celtic Paganism for Prisoners (available here for less than Amazon), so I won’t explain who They are beyond this:

Like many deities in the Roman Era of Celtic polytheism (and probably before, but we have no written inscriptions from then), the Matres were honored by both German and Celtic people. The two cultures were not very different, especially in the Belgae region of modern Holland and Belgium, which appears to have been a Celto-Germanic transitional region. Many Germans served in the Roman military with Gauls, often stationed in Britain together, creating more religious bonds.

The first difference between most Indo-European religions and those of the Celtic, German and Finnish/Estonian linguistic groups had already formed about 4,000 years ago, before there even was a proto-Celtic language. Some basic cosmological elements and many ritual practices were firmly established in those similar cultures. And almost all Indo-European cultures have triple Goddesses of destiny, either as mothers/ helpful guides or hags cursing men heading to battle.

The Matres were worshiped as the Mothers of a place, tribe or function. About half of Their many inscriptions and shrines are German. The Mothers usually have scarves wrapped around their heads with the long ends twisted to make a wide brim, sometimes with a veil covering the neck. Iron Age Germanic and Celtic women wore these same head dresses, with slight regional differences. Sometimes one has Her hair down, showing that She is not married. The Matres are the most popular deities on record. For the Celts, They survive in the Welsh Mabinogi as Modron. For the Germanic tribes who returned north, they became the Disir.

(There are examples of Germanic Matres in this post.)

Iceland has its own Disirblot, but it is in autumn, and the Anglo-Saxons have Mothers Night December 24. Ancient Europeans tended to celebrate the solstice (“stand still”) when the sun stopped standing still and began its movement in the other direction. Christmas and St John’s Eve (Midsummer) took the place of any native Celtic solstice festivals. We only know the name of Mothers Night, not anything about what it meant or what people did. The Saxons, perhaps the last Pagan Germanic tribe in German Europe, would have known the Matres. The Angles probably did as well, with modern Denmark bordering the Belgae territory, and some of the North Sea Germanic tribes involved in Celtic politics and possibly shared rituals. After all, the Alci, long assumed to be Germanic deities on the North Sea, are linguistically Celtic and are found in Celtic Iberia as well.

If we remove the history of the incredibly popular Matres, it would seem as though the Disir come out of nowhere. In general, modern Heathens and Northern Tradition Pagans believe them to be the female ancestors. Many “soul parts” or qualities are passed down by ancestors in Germanic cosmology, including luck, so the Disir have many roles. In some ways they are similar to the personal Norns we are said to have. Some Pagans include Goddesses in the Disir, and if you are spiritually part of a culture that believes it descends from their deities like the Norse or Japanese (and possibly some Celtic tribes), especially the ruling class, honoring Goddesses as your mothers makes sense. Freya is called Vanadis, “ancestor/mother of the Vanir” or perhaps “matriarch of the Vanir” better describes Her role. The Yngling dynasty, some of my ancestors, descend from Ingvi-Frey. Iron Age Germans understood that they all descended from the three sons of (very proto-Indo-European named) Mannus, Ing (Ingvi-Frey), Herman (Odin) and one whose name and myths are lost to us. (Mannus we can learn all about in the pieced together PIE myth of the first ancestor and first Priest.) Rig (Heimdall setting the people into the class system and bringing the runes to the ruling class) is considered another father of the people.

The Matres are Mothers and They are Goddesses, so again, there’s really no difference between female ancestors (or at least some of the most powerful who chose to stick around, looking after their kin) and deities. Who you choose to honor as your female ancestors is a personal choice. If you have given yourself to a Goddess to serve, She may be a Mother, depending on your relationship. Some Goddesses I will naturally call “Mother” or “Mom” usually before Their names, as is common in some types of Africa Diaspora Religion.

You might wonder why a patriarchal society doesn’t have any records of a holy tide for the male ancestors. The most common theory seems to be that like troll, alf (elf) is a very versatile word. Snorri has them organized in 3 Heavens like the Christianity of His time did with angels. Mythology just tells us that, like Vanaheim, the world of elves was not created by Odin and His 2 brothers/ aspects of Himself. The elves are ruled by the Vanir God Frey who received their world as a gift to celebrate when he got teeth, which would have been before He met the Aesir.

Frey in His mortal form ruled over a time of peace and prosperity and was buried in a mound. People kept paying their tribute/ taxes to the mound. The Alfar as Anglo-Saxon elves are associated with the land; important men were buried in mounds on family land so their descendants could claim it; Frey rules the Alfar; Frey as the best king was buried and offerings were still paid in tribute to his grave mound – and so the Alfar can mean the male ancestors as well as the species of Otherworldly beings brought to the Tree of the Worlds by the Vanir. While the male ancestors stay and defend the family land which is their gift to their descendants, the Disir are able to travel with their descendants.

Of course, 1/4 to 1/3 of Norwegians during the Vikings Age were slaves and did not inherit anything from their fathers, so perhaps that added to the importance of the Mothers. Also, many Swedish people were traveling east along the Baltic, even down the Volga river into Russia, named for their red hair, and to the Byzantine Empire where they became Christian mercenaries. These people would rarely or never see their family land again and so the Disir would be especially important.

Originally it seems that the Swedish festival was a couple weeks long. People would have traveled to it, including merchants, and along with animal sacrifices to the Disir, there would have been much socializing. These festivals were a rare opportunity to meet potential spouses outside of your tiny village. Today there is still a Disir market held for a few days.

It’s a good time to honor the Matres if you don’t follow this Norse custom. The Vikings who settled Dublin became Gaels very quickly, while the ones who settled the Scottish Islands changed the Gaels into the Norse. Scotland is an exciting mixture of both cultures. Many Norse words, especially about sailing, joined the Scots Gaelic language. Fairy mythology changed – instead of the Fairy Kingdoms of Ireland, Scotland had Elf Queens. A group of Scottish Fairies battled the Helka Faeries over the ocean, to help sailors.

Helka is the main active volcano in Iceland. In the early medieval era, Helka blew so much lava over the land and smoke into the sky, people across Europe considered it the gateway to Hell, which is how it got its name. There are Heathen Era images of Thor with the water serpent, an ancient proto-Indo-European myth, but the fires consuming the world, years of dark winter, and brother turning against brother – that’s Helka the volcano, who had (and still has) a history of destruction by fire and skies dark, causing the starving and homeless to fight for resources. The sudden change in Loki‘s role as ultimately helpful trickster and doer of Odin‘s dirty work (stealing Freya‘s necklace, for example) to bringer of death and destruction in Ragnarok may be explained by the addition of the devastating volcanic eruptions to Icelandic life. Ragnarok may be a modern myth. Certainly there were no volcanoes in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germania or the other lands Germanic language speakers settled (often marrying into families of the place and losing their Norse culture, so they weren’t ever ethnicity obsessed xenophobes).

Centuries earlier, the Romans were holding rituals for their own ancestors in February. It’s not connected to the timing of the Swedish Disirblot, but Celts and Germans living in the Roman Empire may have also honored their ancestors, perhaps the Matres. February 13 to 21st was the Parentalia, a private rite to appease the dead. Temples were closed, marriage was not allowed, and no altar fires burned. A Vestal Virgin started the Parentalia by pouring a libation to the dead. Families gathered at the family tomb to perform private rituals and make offerings.

“The tomb is honored. Placate the souls of your ancestors and bear small gifts to the tombs. The Dark Shades seek little, they prefer devotion over a costly gift, the spirits who live below are not greedy.” (Ovid Fasti 2.537)

While the Parentalia was private, the Feralia on February 21 was public. Temples were still closed so people could focus on the dead. Ovid instructed, “And the grave must be honoured. Appease your fathers’ Spirits, and bring little gifts to the tombs you built. Let the altars be free of incense, the hearths without fire. Now ghostly spirits and the entombed dead wander, Now the shadow feeds on the nourishment that’s offered.”

Then on the 22nd the Cara Cognatio, or the Festival to Caring Kin, honored the living family and household deities. It was like a potluck dinner, where the family restored the peace between its members.

“Our ancestors established a ceremonial feast and called it the Caristia, to which nobody but relatives and in-laws is invited, so that, if any quarrel had arisen among the kinsfolk, it might be resolved at the sacred rites of the meal, and harmony was established among those in the company fostering harmony.” (Valerius Maximus 2.1.8).

The household deities received offerings of grain, honey, cakes, wine, grapes, incense and flowers. Together the family prayed for peace among them, while praising the deities.

As the Matres were part of Roman Celtic and Roman Germanic culture, perhaps the Matres were honored during February.

Whatever your tradition, the collective energy of Disirblot and the Parentalia built up over centuries makes this a great time to honor your female ancestors and Goddesses or other spirits who are your mother(s) as well. As the Matres (and Modron) have no known date for their worship, perhaps now could be that time.

Selected Bibliography

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Bane, Teresa, Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology. McFarland & Company, Inc (2013)

Beck, Noémie, Goddesses in Celtic Religion: Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain and Gaul, University Lyons, http://theses.univlyon2.fr/documents/lyon2/2009/beck_n#p=0&q=RDG&a=title

Bernstein, Francis, Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Ancient Rome. Harper Collins e-books (2000)

Cunliffe, Barry, The Ancient Celts. Oxford University Press (1997)

Danka, Ignacy Ryszard & Witczak, Krzysztof Tomasz, DEIS EQLTL\LBO The Divinę Twins in Asturia, Dimensions and Categories of Celticity: Studies in Language, Piotr Stalmaszczyk & Maxim Fomin (eds) (2009)

Davidson, H R Ellis, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Pelican Books (1964)

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Ford, Patrick K., editor and translator, The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. University of California Press (1983)

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Henderson, George, The Norse Influence on Celtic Scotland. AlbaCraft Publishers (1910, 2013)

Hyllested, Adam, The Precursors of Celtic and Germanic, Proceedings of the 21st Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference (2010)

Lafayllve, Patricia, A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru. Llewellyn Publications (2013)

Lecouteux, Claude, Encyclopedia of Norse and German folklore, mythology, and magic, Jon Graham trans. Michael Moynihan editor. Inner Traditions (2016)

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Pennick, Nigel, Pagan Magic of the Northern Tradition: Customs, Rites, and Ceremonies. Destiny Books (2015)

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Simek, Rudolf, Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Woodbridge, D.S. Brewe (2007)

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Wodening, Swain, A Handbook on Germanic Heathenry and Theodish Belief, self published (2007)

Woolf, Alex, Amlaib Curaran and the Gael, Medieval Dublun III, Sean Duffy, ed. (2001)

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