On Solmónaþ, Pancakes, and Ploughs

Daniel Stolz von Stolzenberg Viridarium Chymicum

Woodcut from Daniel Stolz von Stolzenberg’s Viridarium Chymicum (1624 CE)

Amid the Lenten traditions of the English[i], there may be found threads of yore-old heathen thew Christened long ago by the early Anglo-Saxon church. Indeed, such heathenish customs abide to this very day, though few who hold to them know from whence the roots of such rites spring.  Foremost amongst these folkways may be reckoned of those of the sun and plough which once belonged to the Anglo-Saxon month of Solmónaþ (more or less February). Of Solmónaþ and the heathen worship which followed, Béda wrote that:  “Sun-month may be said to be the “month of flat cakes,” which they, in that month, gave to their gods.”[ii] Such “flat cakes” betokened the sun itself whose again-faring drew out the day and so betokened the beginning of Lencten, “Lengthening, Lent.”

As a holy housel shared between gods and men, such flat sun-shaped cakes, or as we might now call them, pancakes, were partaken of in great fulsomeness at this time.  As sundry Shrovetide traditions show, well into the early Modern Era did Englishmen fattened themselves with such pancakes so as to make ready for the leanness of Lencten. As betold by John Brand amid the leafs of his great gathering of English oldenways, Observations on The popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1777 CE):

“At Hoddesdon, in Hertfordshire, the old curfew bell […] has from time immemorial been regularly rung on the morning of Shrove Tuesday, at four o’clock, after which hour the inhabitants are at liberty to make and eat pancakes, until the bell rings at eight o’clock at night. This custom is observed so closely, that after that hour not a pancake remains in the town.”

Here, alongside the heathenish partaking of pancakes, we find another oldenway held until nowtidely time by the English which has seemingly sprung from the Anglo-Saxon Solmónaþ.  As betold by Brand, Plough Monday, now held on the Monday following Epiphany, once fell nearer to Lent.

In the North of England there is a custom used at or about this time, which, as will be seen, was anciently observed also in the beginning of Lent. The Fool Plough goes about, a pageant that consists of a number of sword-dancers dragging a plough with music, and one, sometimes two, in very strange attire; the Bessy, in the grotesque habit of an old woman, and the Fool, almost covered with skins, a hairy cap on, and the tail of some animal hanging from his back.

In so unseemly a rite as this, we may find some small remembrance of the heathenish Æcer Bót, the “Acre Remedy” of the 10th hundredtide. Within the Æcer Bót itself, the holy-bedding[iii] of a heavenly drighten and an earth goddess is recalled so that she might, by his plough and her plowing, be filled with his seed and bring forth the harvest from her bosom. As forespelled by that fore-old spell:

Then have a man drive the plough forth and the first furrow open, quoth then:
“Hale be thou fold (earth),     mother of men!
Be thou growing     in god’s fathom (embrace),
filled [with] fodder     for the use of men.”[iv]

Indeed, it is in this very spell that the Lenten traditions of the pancake housel and the plough’s begoing are seen together, having first arisen from the same rite. As forthwith follows in the Æcer Bót:

Take then each kind of meal and have a man bake a loaf as broad as the inside of the hand and kneed it mid (with) milk and mid holy-water and lay it under the first furrow. Quoth then:
“Fodder’s full acre     for mankind
bright-blooming,     thou blessed and worthy;
[May] the god, that wrought the grounds     grant us growing gift,
that for us every corn-grain may     come to use.”[v]

As may be reckoned by the lore-wise, the sun-cake sown by the heavenly drighten into the womb of the rime-cold earth goddess may well fit the Nordic godlore of Fréa’s (ON: Freyr) wedding of the white-armed goddess Geard (ON: Gerdr).  In such a way the plough betokens Fréa’s mickle manliness even as the furrowed mound betokens Geard’s waiting womanliness.   And so, when Englishmen play about the plough after Epiphany or partake of pancakes at the beginning of Lencten, they do so, knowingly or not, in keeping with a yore-old heathen thew sown long ago. Yet, among those who follow the Anglo-Saxon Théodish Belief of the Ealdríce, such oldenways they remember with advantages[vi], knowing full well as they do that, in such merriment, they fain the wedding of a sun god and an earth goddess,[vii] in the hope that such a holy bedding will bring forth a fulsome harvest – even as their fore-elders once did.

Anglish Wordhoard
Again-faring – Return
Begoing – Procession
Betell – Describe
Drighten – Lord
Fain – celebrate
Folkway –Custom
Fore-elders – Ancestors
Fore-spell – Prescribe
Fulsome – abundant
Godlore – Mythology
Housel – To feast, from the OE “Húsel,” and a word which until lately was used for the Eucharist amongst High Church Anglicans
Hundredtide – Century
Leaf – Page
Oldenway – Tradition
Thew – Tradition, custom
Yore-old – Ancient

[i] The English here betokens the nowtidely offspring of the Anglo-Saxons as they may found throughout the “Anglosphere” so as to include Anglo-Americans, Australians, Anglo-Canadians, Rhodesians, and such.
[ii] Sol-monath dici potest mensis placentarum, quas in eo diis suis offerebant. Taken from De Temporum Ratione (725 CE), De mensibus Anglorum. Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.
[iii] Known in Greco-Roman religion as a hieros gamos, “sacred marriage.”
[iv] þonne man þá sulh forð drífe and þá forman furh onscéote, cweð þonne:
Hál wes þú, folde,     fíra módor!
Béo þú growende     on godes fæþme,
fódre gefylled     fírum tó nytte.
Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.
[v] Nim þonne ælces cynnes melo and ábacæ man innewerdre handa brádnæ hláf and gecned hine mid meolce and mid háligwætere and lecge under þá forman furh. Cweþe þonne:
Ful æcer fódres     fíra cinne,
beorhtblówende,     þú geblétsod weorþ
sé god, sé þas grundas geworhte,     geunne ús grówende gife,
þæt ús corna gehwylc     cume tó nytte.
Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.
[vi] A play upon Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, made for the sake of being playful.
[vii] This is not to say that Ing-Fréa is “the” sun god nor is it to say that Geard is “the” earth goddess” of Germanic godlore. Indeed, there are sundry gods who might be called “sky gods” and sundry goddesses who might be called “earth goddesses” in our lore. Yet, in the rite betold in the Æcer Bót, Fréa and his wife seem most fitting.

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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