On Summer’s Icumen In

Olaus Magnus Historia om de nordiska folken

Woodcut from Olaus Magnus’  History of the Nordic Peoples (1555 CE)

It may well astound some to learn that the yoretidely Anglo-Saxons did not reckon summer’s starting by the summer sunstead (solstice) as nowtidely men do today. Rather, the summer sunstead was known to them as Midsummer as it marked summer’s middle.  Though not written outright, if one reads between the lines, one may find that the heathen Anglo-Saxons welcomed summer’s icumen in[i] upon the full moon of Éastremónaþ. In De mensibus Anglorum of De Temporum Ratione (725 CE), Béda wrote of the Anglo-Saxon yeartides, betelling them thus:

Likewise they sundered the year into two tides, namely winter and summer. The six months wherein the days are longer than the nights are called summer and the other six, winter.  Thus the month wherein the tide of winter begins is called Winterfylleþ, a name born by binding of the words “winter” and “full moon,” as it is from the full moon of that month that winter is allotted to begin.[ii]

If the year was sundered into two same halves, it would follow that, if winter began upon the full moon of Winterfylleþ (more or less October) then so too would summer be marked by the full moon of Éastremónaþ (more or less April).  Whilst its daymark moves to and fro from year to year, with the Anglo-Saxon month being meted by the moon, the Anglo-Saxon heathen Éastre  falls between the 1st and 29th days of April (see the table below).

Like the Anglo-Saxon géarmæl, the Old Icelandic calendar halved the year into the yeartides of winter and summer, with winter beginning on the first day of Gormánuður[iii] (mid October to mid November) and summer beginning on the first day of Harpa[iv] (mid April to mid May).  It should be noted that the months of the Old Icelandic calendar were not reckoned by the moon but, rather, began on a given day of the week.[v]  As such, the month of Harpa and, with it, the first day of summer, would fall on the second Thursday after the 11th day of April. This put summer‘s beginning somewhere between the 19th and 25th days of April. As such, both the Anglo-Saxon and the Norseman alike reckoned summer to begin sometime in what is now known to us as April.

To the nowtidely Englishman, it may seem odd that summer should begin in April as it has long been held in the land that summer begins on May Day. Yet May, being first a fixed Roman month, was mostly unknown to our Anglo-Saxon heathen forebears who reckoned their own months and yeartides by the moon. That summer began on the holiday of Éastre, and that Éastre’s faining was marked by the full moon of Éastremónaþ, was a truth untethered to any mess that the Romans might have made when they unmoored their months from the moon.[vi]

With Christendom’s coming, however, the reckoning of summer was less straightforward.  As the Heathen Éastre and the Christian Pascha fell so near to one another, the name of the former was borrowed for the latter. In such way Pascha came to be called Easter amongst the English.

And yet, whilst in most years the Christian reckoning of Easter, the Sunday following the full moon after the lenten even-night, falls within a week of the Heathen Éastre, the full moon of Éastremónaþ, it is not always so.  Indeed, in seven of the Getælcircul’s nineteen years, the Heathen Éastre falls near the end of April, within a week or so of May, whilst the Christian Easter is held about a month early (see the table below).  In such years, being more than a third yet not half, summer has not yet “come to town.”[vii] As one might well guess, the Heathen bond between Easter and summer was soon broken.

The Church, however, had its own way of reckoning both winter and summer – one not meted by the moon but, rather, by the seven starry sisters who shape the Pleiades.  As betold in The Old English Martyrology:

7 November – On the seventh day of the month beeth winter’s beginning.  The winter haveth two and ninety days, and then goeth up (rise) the Seven Stars [Pleiades] in the evening and settle (set) at dawn.

9 May – On the ninth day of the month beeth summer’s beginning. The summer haveth ninety days; then goeth up (rise) the Seven Stars [Pleiades] before daybreak and settle (set) in the evening. [viii]

Whilst this summer reckoning fell some days after the old Éastre, it held truer as a mark for summer’s “coming to town” than the Church’s oft-too-early Easter.  Thus May Day came to be.

As with so many things, the root of such yeartide-reckoning did not begin with the Church. It was, instead, inherited from the pagan Greeks and Romans who came before Christ.[ix] Yet, for as wise as they were, the calendar of the Roman pagans was ten hours too long.  Over time the days began to drift backwards until the sunsteads and even-nights no longer truly fell upon the daymarks given to them.

By the late Middle Ages, however, it was widely acknowledged that, due to the aforesaid drift, the Pleiades’ dawn-rising was more rightly reckoned to begin on the first of May.   Thus summer’s icumen in was moved from the ninth of May to its first, where it has been held by Englishmen ever since. Yet amongst the Anglo-Saxon Théodsmen of the Ealdríce, the Christian calendar means little. It is not the Roman March, April, or May that we mind but, rather, the Anglo-Saxon Éastremónaþ. And so, within our holy groves and at our frithyards, summer’s beginning is fained not on the summer sunstead, the Christian Easter, or even the first of May but upon old Heathen Éastre, when our fore-elders first held it. As they did then, so do we the same.

Anglish Wordhoard
Betell – Describe, explain
Bewrite – Describe, explain
Daymark – Date
Éastre – Easter
Faining – A celebration
Fore-elders – Ancient ancestors
Frithyard – A roped-off outdoor enclosure used for worship, a “sanctuary yard.”
Géarmæl – An Old English work for “calendar,” literally a “year measure.”
Getælcircul – Old English for “the tally circle,” the Metonic Cycle of 19 years when the lunar and solar years re-align.
Lenten Even-Night – Spring Equinox
Mete – Measure
Nowtidely – Contemporary, modern
Same – Equal
Suchwise – In such manner
Summer Sunstead – The summer solstice
Yeartide – Season
Yoretidely – Ancient

The Reckoning of Éastre and Easter

Dates for the Heathen Éastre as reckoned by the full moon of Éastremónaþ. Dates for the Christian Easter as marked by the first Sunday to follow the first full moon which falls on or after the Lenten Even-Night (Spring Equinox).
28th April 2010
17th April 2011
6th April 2012
25th April 2013
15th April 2014
4th April 2015
22nd April 2016
11th April 2017
29th April 2018
19th April 2019
7th April 2020
26th April 2021
16th April 2022
6th April 2023
23rd April 2024
12th April 2025
1st April 2026
20th April 2027
9th April 2028
   4th April 2010
24th April 2011
8th April 2012
31st March 2013
20th April 2014
5th April 2015
27th March 2016
16th April 2017
1st April 2018
21st April 2019
12th April 2020
4th April 2021
17th April 2022
9th April 2023
31st March 2024
20th April 2025
5th April 2026
28th March 2027
16th April 2028

[i] From the Middle English song, Sumer Is Icumen In (Sumer Is A-coming In).
[ii] Item principaliter annum totum in duo tempora, hiemis videlicet et æstatis, dispertiebant—sex illos menses quibus longiores sunt noctibus dies æstati tribuendo, sex reliquos hiemi. Unde et mensem quo hyemalia tempora incipiebant Vuinterfylleth appellabant, composito nomine ab hyeme et plenilunio, quia videlicet a plenilunio eiusdem mensis hyems sortiretur initium. Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.
[iii] According to Cleasby/Vigfusson, “Gore-month, the first winter month, about the middle of October to the middle of November, so called from the slaughtering of beasts for winter.”
[iv] Akin to the OE hearp, “harp,” though it is also thought that Harpa may be the name of a forgotten goddess.  We may well be forgiven is we fathom the Anglo-Saxon goddess Éastre playing her harp at dawn.
[v] This is a needful streamlining.  To do right by the Old Icelandic calendar and to fully betell its workings would call for the writing of another article.
[vi] Which they did early on in their history.
[vii] “Come to town” is a wordstring often used to mark the beginning of the yeartides in The Old English Menologium and in later Middle English works such as the song Lenten Ys Come.
[viii] IX Þrimilce
On ðone nygeþan dæg ðæs monðes bið sumeres fruma. Se sumor hafað hundnygontig daga; þonne gangað þa seofen steorran on úhtan up, ond on æfen on setl.
VII Blódmónað
On ðone seofoþan dæg ðæs monðes bið wintres fruma. Se winter hafað tu ond hundnygontig daga, ond ðonne gongað þa seofen steorran on úhtan up on æfen ond on dægered on setl.
The Old English Martyrology. Wended from Old English by Þóbeorht
[ix] Bede, De temporum ratione, Chapter 25: Graeci autem et Romani, quorum in huiusmodi disciplina potius quam Hispanorum auctoritas sequi consuevit
[x] I have streamlined things here a bit as the English did not adopt the Gregorian Calendar until 1752 due to King Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Church.

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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