Monday, July 28, 2014

[Holiday Post] Viking Feasts, Masquerades, and Spring Festivals

This weekend is, of course, a “holiday weekend,” a reason to celebrate, relax, have fun, and, if possible amidst all the food and fireworks, reflect on freedom. The term “holiday,” of course, derives from “Holy Day,” as in days ancient, even before the rise of Christianity, most such days were ascribed to be “holy” to this, that, or the other god, or for some generally religious reason.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, of course, almost every day was a “Holy Day” for someone, usually a saint’s Feast Day, to celebrate their ascension as a saint via martyrdom… or in many cases, the merging of an old Pagan god into Christianity via syncretism, blending the old ways into the new. And it wasn’t just in Europe, either; worldwide, virtually every society that attains a minimal level of specialization in labor eventually develops holidays, usually religious-based in origin, syncretizing various traditions, that later often become secularized, their origins completely or mostly forgotten.

But that is neither here nor there; the main point is that holidays, whatever their origins and apparent reasons, are an ancient, time-honored tradition. And that thought brought me back to some of the first holidays I ever read about in games...

Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen included an even dozen holidays in the Commoner’s Calendar of the CityState of the Invincible Overlord; there are apt to be many more, as the list merely includes the “major festival” of each listed month. Most of these were taken from Celtic paganism – Imbolg, Beltene, Samhain, etc. – often wrongly attributed to various gods (the syncretism of the faiths of the Wilderlands at work, I’d say) – but a few were rather unique.

I originally discussed the Viking Feast of Odin and the Orgy of Consummation (aka the Feast of the Fenris Wolf) in Faiths of the City State:Forn Sidthr. Here’s a bit more expanded information on those and 10 new holidays for the Wilderlands. Note that you can readily use these with the Olden Lands, or Greyhawk, or any other campaign setting, merely by changing some of the names and situations…

Month of the Snow Leopard (January), dedicated to Odin (Supreme Norse God)

The Viking Feast is a three-day Yule-style New Year celebration, an excuse for drinking, feasting, and carousing in the depths of glacial cold. In Valonar lands, it is also a time for a warlord to give special gifts to members of his warband and other loyal followers.

In the City State it expanded among the population and evolved into a more general gift-giving celebration; along, of course, with plenty of drinking, feasting, and carousing. Since time out of memory parents (those who can afford it, of course) also give their children special gifts on the third day of the festival. The gifts are hidden around the home, and the children must look for them. It is claimed that these gifts were given to the children by the elves, or the gnomes, or the fairies, and that only obedient children get these gifts; if children have been disobedient during the year, they find only old chicken bones, rags, and sticks. If children were especially bad, the Bog Demon might come and drag them away with his dimwitted Bugbear friend, Bug the Goblin-Bear, to his smelly, wet lair, there to force them to labor or even to eat them!

The legend of gift-giving elves is ancient; some believe it originated when men first arrived in the region and had dealings with the elves of the Dearthwood. The Bog Demon legend is more recent, and has more to do with the Emperor of Viridistan than any other influence, for the description of the Bog Demon is little more than a hideous caricature of Armadad Bog, the All-Father and patron god of the Viridians, and the tendency of the Viridians to use goblins in their mass armies.

Month of the Howling Winds (February), dedicated to Modron (Goddess of Rivers)

As the City State stands on the Great River Roglaroon, the Mother of Rivers in the Roglaras and the home river of the River Goddess, Modron, this goddess has always held a special place in local’s hearts and minds. Since the days long before the City State was even founded, when the site was home to the twinned villages of By-Water and Water-Rat (the former home to halflings, the latter home to barbarian Tharbriana), there has been a Masquerade of the Maidens. Back in the olden days, when the world was colder, it was a celebration of the rotting of the ice on the Roglaroon. Maidens, dressed in diaphanous finery and wearing fancy masks, would go out onto the ice and dance, merrily and most vigorously. The first maiden to break through the ice into the cold water of the Roglaroon would be claimed by Modron herself for a year, and be her handmaiden, taught in all things of the river, river-magic, and beauty. The previous-year’s maiden would then return to her village and be an object of veneration until she married (always quite well).

The Roglaroon hasn’t frozen over that soundly in many a century, but the festival continues. Today the maidens – still dressed in diaphanous see-through finery and wearing gaudy, expensive masks – parade down By-Water and Water-Rat roads, the halfling (and other demihuman) maidens from the Grand Gate, the human maidens from the Gate of the Gods, all meeting before the doors to the Temple of the Sea God, where the city’s shrine to Modron is found. There they participate in several contests over the first day of the three-day festival. These contests include the Long Dance, the Mermaid Dive, the Fish Bake, the Crab Walk, and the Beauty Contest, one or more of the maidens being dropped after each contest. Many wagers are made at every stage, and violence can break out between clans, as the clans often have staked their reputation on the ability of their representative maiden.

The second day of the festival the remaining seven maidens must swim seven times widdershins around Old Temple Rock in the Roglaroon; if any of the swimmers are no longer truly maidens, they drown, or are spectacularly taken by Maelstrom, the Serpent of the Roglaroon. The first maiden to swim around seven times and return to shore is the winner. Unlike in the olden days, she is not taken by Modron, who has become somewhat of a recluse; instead she serves as the Temple Maiden, Modron’s avatar in the Temple of the Sea God, for the following year. She is given her crown, scepter, and orb by the out-going Temple Maiden, who is given a small stipend by the temple, and who, due to contacts made as the Temple Maiden, often becomes quite marriageable.

After the crowning, festivities continue as usual, with much drinking, feasting, and carousing. The third day of the festival is rather somber, as the first duty of the Temple Maiden is to lead the Ritual of the Drowned, praying for all those who died in the Roglaroon the previous year. Then the Great Fish Contest is held, with prizes going to the fishermen who catch the largest fish; second and third prize are in coin, but the first place winner gets to serve as the Deacon of the Shrine of Modron for a year (gaining thereby a percentage of all offerings).

Month of the Crocodile (March), dedicated to Brighid (Brigit, Goddess of Fire and Poetry)

This three-day festival was adopted from the Tharbriana, who still maintain their own ancient traditions in villages and hamlets throughout the Roglaras. In the City State, these traditions have evolved almost beyond recognition. While it is a heartfelt and mystical experience for the rural believers and the faithful followers of Brighid, for the citizens of the City State, it is mostly another reason to drink, feast, and carouse. It is considered a propitious time for declarations of love, marriage engagements and betrothals, and for the performance of marriage vows; secondarily it is also considered a good time to finalize and sign other contracts and to begin new careers, businesses, and ventures.

It is also a good time to be a candle-maker, as the various petty rituals of the three-day festival require the burning of many candles; the larger, more decorative, and fanciful the candles, the better the luck. Though the festival originally celebrated the Tharbriana goddess Brighid, it has been extended in the City State as a celebration of any vaguely maidenly female goddess of whatever cult; thus, worshipers at the Temple of Thoth and Temple Tempter invoke Isis the Maiden; those at the Temple of Odin pray to Idun; those at the temple of Harmakhis to Derketo; and so forth. On the first day the worshippers parade through the streets invoking the goddesses and carrying their great, burning candles; they then end in their shrines where they pray for good fortune for their new marriages (or for renewed good fortune for their existing ones).
On the second day any marriages to take place during the festival must happen before noon; some are quiet, private affairs, others are massive group weddings with many brides and grooms, often filling the Square of the Gods as the priests perform all the marriages all at once. Thereafter the streets are filled with revelers drinking, feasting, and carousing; spit-roasted milk-fed lamb is the primary meal. Beer is consumed in a fine, thin horn-shaped pottery goblet. After the groom consumes his last beer for the night, he must throw the goblet over his shoulder. If the horn does not shatter, the newly-wed couple will inevitably bear fruit within the next year. This tradition extends to all who participated in a ritual, with those not being married and successfully not shattering their cup believed to have good luck for the whole next year.

After all the drinking and eating is over, those still on their feet harry the newlyweds to their marriage chambers, where they seek to keep them awake for the entire night with much playing of music and other noise-making. The morning of the third day is generally quiet until noon, which is a time considered propitious to end marriages, contracts, and other endeavors. Many businesses close for the final time at noon on the third day; no few suicides occur at that time, as well. Many secret cults perform sacrifices at that time, as the power of ending a life at that time is considered to be tenfold that of any other. Many wagers are also settled, as bets are often placed on which candle will remain burning the longest in each different shrine; any winner of such a bet, however, who does not tithe 10% to the temple in question is considered cursed for the year.

To be continued...

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