11 March, 2008

Hrethmonath (March): the early English calendar

Before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) reckoned time using a system of lunar months. They recognised two seasons, summer, when the days were longer than the nights, and winter, when the nights were longer than the days. The seasons were divided by the spring and autumn equinoxes, the points in each year when the night and day are of exactly equal length. (See my earlier post for a summary of the early English calendar.)

Each cycle of the moon, probably from full moon to full moon, was a month. The year began at the winter solstice, and the third month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of March, was called Hrethmonath. Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

Who was Hretha and what kind of goddess was she? As far as I know, this is the only surviving mention of her. So the short answer is that we don't know, but some inferences can be drawn from the name.

According to the online Old English dictionary, the Old English noun ‘hreth’ means ‘victory, glory’. The parallel with the Roman name of the month of March, dedicated to Mars the god of victory and war, is obvious.

Kathleen Herbert says the corresponding adjective, 'hrethe', means ‘fierce, cruel, rough’, and suggests that Hretha was a war goddess or a valkyrie (Herbert 1994).

March is the last month of winter and is quite capable of bringing destructive storms as well as warm sunshine – as the people picking up the pieces in southern and western England and Wales after yesterday's visit from Storm Johanna could testify. There is a traditional belief that the seas around Britain are especially prone to violent storms in March and September, hence the term “equinoctial gales” (The equinoxes are not really associated with storms, incidentally, but there is a grain of truth in the tradition, as the frequency of high winds rises sharply in late September and declines again around the end of March).

So March might well seem an appropriate month to dedicate to a violent goddess of battle, especially if she was also fickle. Perhaps the sacrifice, whatever it was, hoped to placate her and avert the worst of the equinoctial storms. Perhaps also to ask her favour in warfare for the forthcoming campaigning season. As usual, not proven, but an interesting possibility nonetheless.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.
Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994. ISBN 1-898281-04-1.


Gabriele Campbell said...

In old German, it's Lenzinmanod, the month of the longer days. Lenz was often used for spring in poetry.

As if we don't get storms, lol.

Anonymous said...

Do we know why the Romans chose to name this particular month after Mars, the god of victory and war? Maybe both societies had parallel reasoning, though separate in influence, in naming this month after a god/goddess of war. For example, if Rome chose to dedicate this month to Mars for support in the upcoming campaigning season, then maybe your thoughts about the early English dedicating it to Hrethmonath for the same reason is accurate. I don't know why the Romans chose Mars for this month, but maybe their reasoning could shed some light on the early English reasoning.

Carla said...

Gabriele - the 'month of the longer days' would be appropriate for March, especially as it contains the equinox when the days become longer than the nights.

Steven - there's a suggestion that March marked the start of the campaigning season in Rome. Warfare was forbidden during the period of festival between one year and the next, so the first month of the new year - which was March - was also the time when wars could start up again. I don't know the source for this. Spring also corresponds with the advent of longer days and drier and warmer weather, which has obvious practical advantages for outdoor activities, like marching and fighting. The Old English year began at the winter solstice, so there's no direct correspondence with the Roman idea of new year = war = first month of the year = god(dess) of war, but the practical aspects would be common to anywhere in temperate Europe.

Constance Brewer said...

neat! I love information like this. Thanks for sharing. (And the geese have arrived back in my part of the world, honking and flapping)

Meghan said...

Interesting information! In California we don't really have seasons (just earthquakes and fires) but it's been both gloomy and sunny here. I wish it would be more sunny than gloomy though...

Rick said...

Since this is the only mention of Hretha, I guess we haven't a clue of what the sacrifice to her entailed. But from her description, the sacrifice was probably not draping garlands of flowers on her altar.

Carla said...

Constance, Meghan - glad you found it interesting!

Rick - for all we know it might have been :-) Or it might have been some bloodthirsty rite, or anything in between. Who's to say what would be considered a fitting gift for a goddess of storm and victory? Even associating Hretha with storm and victory is inference based on her name - she could have been quite a different personality. As ever, you can take your choice.

Bernita said...

I would prefer to interpret the "victory" as over the death of winter, sol victorious sort of thing.
(But that's probably influenced by our last storm...)

Carla said...

Indeed, Bernita, that's a possible interpretation and would make perfect sense.

Annis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Annis said...

Thanks for the interesting information on the month of March, Carla.

Here's an article which postulates that the Anglo-Saxon goddess Hretha might be an incarnation of the Germanic goddess Nerthus, who may have been brought to Britain by the Angles.

In his "Teutonic Mythology", Jakob Grimm (of Grimm's Fairy Tales fame) presents evidence that in some parts of Germany the old name for March was Retmonat or Redtimonet, names which seem to be directly cognate with the Anglo-Saxon.

Re stevent's question about the March being named after the Roman god Mars; Mars was originally a god of springtime and fertility before taking on a dual role as god of war, possibly because, as suggested, spring was campaign season.

Carla said...

Hello Annis and welcome. Thanks for the link. We know so little of Hretha that many interpretations are possible, and certainly a goddess called Nerthus was of great importance to at least some of the Germanic peoples (Tacitus mentions her in Germania) and may have had other names. Retmonat does look like a direct descendant of Hrethmonath in modernised spelling. Did he say which parts of Germany used the name?

Annis said...

Thanks for the welcome, Carla. I hope you'll bear with me while I learn how to add links to other webpages!
Unfortunately Grimm is not specific about where in Germany "Retmonat" was used. If he'd mentioned the North Sea area it would have tied up neatly with the Nerthus theory.

Carla said...

"If he'd mentioned the North Sea area it would have tied up neatly with the Nerthus theory."
Maybe, though some indication of Hretha's role and attributes would have been even moe helpful :-) When all we have is a name it's impossible to say whether Hretha and Nerthus were connected; even if both were identified with the same area they could still be different deities.

Annis said...

Agreed, Carla. As Grimm points out, several Teutonic goddesses were honoured under different names by various Germanic tribes and he comments that the lack of any information about Hretha in both Germany and Anglo-Saxon England is "a clear proof, that here (Germany) as well as there (England), heathenism was crowded with divinities of various shape and varying name, but who in their characteristics and cultus corresponded to one another" and that this confusion is even more apparent in the case of female deities.

So, quite a bit of speculation, but no actual proof anywhere it seems!

Annis said...

P.S. Just thought, what I meant and should have said, is that if Grimm had connected the use of Retmonat with the North Sea area, it might have made the association of Hretha with the Angles more likely.
Should have known better than to present a scientist with a sloppy argument :-)

Carla said...

"So, quite a bit of speculation, but no actual proof anywhere it seems!"
Par for the course for this period :-)