On the Right Reckoning of Módraniht

Matronae at Housesteads

Módru/Matronae (Mothers) at Housesteads, England

Amongst nowtidely heathens, it happens from time to time that the right reckoning of Módraniht is made murky by a misreading of Béda’s De Temporum Ratione (725 CE). In De mensibus Anglorum, the fifteenth chapter of that reckoning of time, Béda betold the old Anglo-Saxon géarmæl and named the months as they were known to his heathen fore-elders. Of the holytide of Módraniht itself, Béda bewrote it thus:

They began the year on the 8th day before the calends of January (December 25th), the day upon which we now celebrate the nativity of our Lord.  That which is now the most sacred night, was then called Módraniht by the heathens, that is, “the night of the Mothers,” the cause of which, we suspect, being the ceremonies over which they kept vigil.[i]

Théodsmen have ever held Módraniht upon the eve of the midwinter sunstead, that is to say the night before the winter solstice. As reckoned by the Catholic calendar, the midwinter sunstead may, from year to year, fall upon either December 21st or 22nd whereas Cristesmæsse, that is to say Christ’s Mass or Christmas, is held upon December 25th, some three or four days after the midwinter sunstead.  To some, this would seem to gainsay Théodish thew.  Yet on this Théodsmen are not mistaken.

At the time that Béda wrote De Temporum Ratione, much of the western world held that the midwinter sunstead fell upon December 25th.  In De aequinoctiis et solstitiis, the thirtieth chapter of De Temporum Ratione, Béda drew from both Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (79 CE) and Pseudo-Hippocrates’s Ad Antigonum Regem to thus reckon the midwinter sunstead:

Of the equinoxes, which are the 8th day before the calends of April (March 25th) and the 8th day before the calends of October (September 25th), and of the solstices, which are the 8th day before the calends of July (June 25th) and the 8th day before the calends of January (December 25th), the days of their observance are clearly agreed upon by a wide multitude, both those worldly wise (the pagan philosophers) and Christian.[ii]

Moreover, after quoting these ancient authors, Béde went on to further tether the godlore of the Christian belief to the heathen worship of the midwinter sunstead by writing thus:

This is what the heathens say of time, which is not dissimilar the traditions of many Church masters: That on the 8th day before the calends of April, the spring equinox, the Lord was conceived and, on the same day, suffered (the Passion), and that on the winter solstice, the 8th day before the calends of January (December 25th), was born (the Nativity).[iii]

This setting of Christ upon the sunwheel and thus begodding him a sun-god, is a leave given to the old holiness which lasted long after Béda’s lifetime.  Ælfric of Eynsham, in his De Temporibus Anni (1005 CE), later wrote that “The sun betokens our Healer, Christ, who is the sun of rightwiseness.”[iv]  Since earliest days of the trothwending, the god of the Christians had simply assumed the names of sundry Saxon gods whose reach had long touched upon the worship of the sun or sky. As Bealdor (Andreas), Fréa (Cædmon, Rood), and Wuldor (Cædmon, Ælfric), Christ was a farland god made to feel familiar.   Indeed, as the earliest Anglo-Saxon Christians were given leave by their bishops to blót  (sacrifice) oxen and cattle at their old heathen holysteads to Þeoda Baldor (Baldr of tribes), Fréa Eallmihtig (Freyr almighty), or Wuldorfæder (father Ullr), one may well wonder whether or not the laymen of that time fully understood that they were no longer heathens. As found in Béda’s own Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731 CE), in an errand-writ sent in 601 CE from Pope Gregory to Bishop Mellitus:

The temple of that theod’s idols should not be destroyed, though the idols be destroyed; but rather let them be sprinkled with water, have altars raise and have holy relics placed therein…that they might adore the true god at a place already familiar to them, and because it was their way to slaughter many oxen to demons, let it be changed on this account, that some solemnity be given to them, that on the day of dedication, or on the nativities of the holy martyrs who relics are there deposited, they may make about those churches tabernacles from the boughs of trees, and therein fain the holytide with feasting; no longer offering animals to the devil rather but to the glory of god.[v]

Slowly, in the three hundred winters which followed Béde’s death, churchmen waxed in their own understanding of starlore.  And, as they looked to the heavens and meted the comings and goings of the sun, moon, and stars, it dawned upon them that the Roman calendar was flawed, being somewhat too long for the year.  Since the time of Pliny, the calendar had drifted ahead of the sunsteads.  By the eleventh hundredtide, Cristesmæsse, the eighth day before the calends of January (December 25th), could no longer be said to fall upon the midwinter sunstead as the heathen Módraniht had.  Yet by then, Christianity had long since darkened (eclipsed) the blithe brightness of the old holiness, and it was thus no longer needful to bedeck Christ in the guise of a sun-god.  Whereas Cristesmæsse abided on its daymark (December 25th), the midwinter sunstead was re-reckoned upon its true coming, the 21st..  As bewritten by Byrhtferþ in his Old English Enchiridion (1010-1012 CE):

He shaped sun and moon and planets and stars, and he sat twain sunsteads, the one on the twelfth day before the calends of January (December 21st) and the other on the twelfth day before the calends of July (June 20th), and he wrought and ordained the twelve months and the twain even-nights, those are set on the twelfth day before the calends of April (March 21st) and on the twelfth day before the calends of October (September 20th).[vi]

That Cristesmæsse was no longer held upon the midwinter sunstead is seen in Byrhtferþ’s Computus, wherein the twelfth day before the calends of January (December 21st) is called in Latin, solstitium brumale, the winter sunstead.  As it now stood, the winter sunstead was matched with Saint Thomas’ feast day as bissenis celum cepit conscendere Thomas, “on the twelfth day before January, heaven received Thomas.”  Moreover, a few lines later Byrhtferþ remarked that “on the eighth day before the calends of January, the Lord was born to a chaste virgin.”[vii]

This is not to say that the tethering of Cristesmæsse to the midwinter sunstead was altogether forgotten by the eleventh century.  As seen in the opening line of the Old English Menologium (1044-1066 CE), “Christ was born, the king of glory (cyninga wuldor), on midwinter (midne winter)”[viii] with the Prose Menologium calling Cristesmæsse the middes wintres mæssedæg, “Midwinter’s Mass-day.”  Though Cristesmæsse, Midwinter’s Mass, no longer truly fell on the midwinter sunstead, the leave once given by to the old heathen holiness lingered on in wordlore.

Beginning the day, not by the Christian reckoning of midnight but rather upon the setting of the sun as betold of the Teutons by Tacitus in Germania (98 CE)[ix] and by the Anglo-Saxon thew of naming the new day by its eve or night before, Théodsmen begin their Midwinter’s day faining upon its eve, that is to say Módraniht, the eve of the Mothers. When else would we? After all, our fore-elders would have known nothing of the Christian calendar, much less whether their Módraniht fell on this or that day before the calends of some month with a Roman name.  They, after all, had their own géarmæl and did not reckon the months as the Romans or Christians did. As they did then, so do we the same.

Anglish Wordhoard
Betell – To tell about, to describe
Bewrite – To write about, to describe
Blót – Old English for “sacrifice”
Daymark – Date
Errandwrit – a letter, epistle
Even-night – Equinox
Farland – Foreign
Fore-elders – Ancestors
Géarmæl – Old English for “calendar”
Holiness – Religion
Hundredtide – Century
Midwinter – The winter solstice
Nowtidely – Contemporary
Righwiseness – Righteousness
Sunstead – Solstice
Starlore – Astronomy
Théod – Tribe
Trothwending – Conversion
Wordlore – Etymology

[i] Incipiebant autem annum ab octavo Calendarum Januariarum die, ubi nunc natale Domini celebramus. Et ipsam noctem nunc nobis sacrosanctum, tunc gentili vocabulo Modranicht, id est, matrum noctem, appellabant, ob causam, ut suspicamur. ceremoniarum quas in ea pervigiles agebant. Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.
[ii] De aequinoctiis, quod octavo Calendarum Aprilium, et octavo Calendarum Octobrium, et de solstitiis, quod octavo Calendarum Juliarum, et octavo Calendarum Januariarum die sint notanda, multorum late et sapientium saeculi, et Christianorum sententia claret. Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.
[iii] Haec quidem gentiles, quibus non dissimilia de tempore etiam perplures Ecclesiae tradidere magistri, dicentes: VIII Calendas Aprilis in aequinoctio verno Dominum conceptum et passum, eundem in solstitio brumali VIII Calendas Januarias natum. Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.
[iv] Seo sunne getacnað urne Hǽlend Crist se ðe is rihtwisnysse sunne. I.33, 34 Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.
[v] Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum 1.30
fana idolorum destrui in eadem gente minime debeant; sed ipsa, quae in eis sunt, idola destruantur; aqua benedicta fiat, in eisdem fanis aspergatur, altaria construantur, reliquiae ponantur….et Deum uerum cognoscens ac adorans, ad loca, quae consueuit, familiarius concurrat. Et quia boues solent in sacrificio daemonum multos occidere, debet eis etiam hac de re aliqua sollemnitas immutari; ut die dedicationis, uel natalicii sanctorum martyrum, quorum illic reliquiae ponuntur; tabernacula sibi circa easdem ecclesias, quae ex fanis commutatae sunt, de ramis arborum faciant, et religiosis conuiuiis sollemnitatem celebrent; nec diabolo iam animalia immolent, et ad laudem Dei… Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.
[vi] He gesceop sunnan and monan and tungla and steorran, and he gesette twegen sunnstedas, þæne ænne on .xii. kalendas Ianuarii and þone oðerne on .xii. kalendas Iulii, and he gewurðode oððe geendebyrde þa twelf monðas on twam emnihtum, þa synd gesette on .xii. kalendas Aprilis and on .xii. kalendas Octobris. Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.
[vii] Octauis Dominus natus de uirgine casta. Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.
[viii] Crist wæs acennyd, cyninga wuldor, on midne winter. Lines 1, 2a. Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.
[ix] Germania XI, nox ducere diem videtu. Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.

About Þórbeorht Línléah

Ealdorblótere (chief priest) at Whitthenge Heall of the Ealdríce, an Anglo-Saxon Théodish fellowship. Author of Of Ghosts and Godpoles: Theodish Essays Pertaining to the Reconstruction of Saxon Heathen Belief, Both Old and Anglo (2014). Author of Þæt Ealdríce’s Hálgungbóc: The Théodish Liturgy of Þæt Ealdríce (2015, 2016). Þórbeorht resides in Richmond, Virginia with his wife Eþelwynn and two daughters.
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