“Incipiebant autem annum ab octavo Calendarum Januariarum die, ubi nunc natale Domini celebramus. Et ipsam noctem nunc nobis sacrosanctam, tunc gentili vocabulo Modranicht, id est, matrum noctem appellabant: ob causam et suspicamur ceremoniarum, quas in ea pervigiles agebant.” – Bede, De temporum ratione
That is, the Anglo-Saxon pagans,
“… began the year on the 8th calends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, “mothers’ night”, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night”.
Mothers’ Night is one of only three formally attested holidays recorded anywhere near-contemporaneously with traditional Anglo-Saxon polytheistic religion. For practicing Anglo-Saxon Heathens, Modranecht or Mōdraniht, holds a special place within the calendar as one of the holiest nights of the year, due to the confluence of themes, dedications, and representations that it entails. It deals with the sacred dead, the/a beginning of the new year, and the end of the season of Geola and the Wild Hunt.
Historically, Mōdraniht, is positioned between the incidence of the cult of the Matrons and the Matronae, the Gallo-Roman tradition of observing tribal and geographic mother deities, and later Norse observances of Dísablót. This is a connection that Rudolf Simek makes, linking them into a similar occurrence of practice. Such a link, across centuries, provides a firm thread of comparative information which can be used to glean the meaning and practice behind the Anglo-Saxon holiday, despite little more than the mere acknowledgement of its practice survived into the historic record. Given the overlapping timeline of the Gallo-Roman and Anglo-Saxon pagan practices (despite distant geographic variances), it is likely that the observance was closer to that tradition, rather than the Norse, if we approach them as intrinsically related.
Philip Shaw identifies four concentrations of traditions relating to the cult of the Matres and Matronae:
- A cluster located in the Rhone valley, consisting of Celtic and Romano-Celtic epithets, from the 1st Century CE on.
- A cluster to the east of the Rhone, consisting of a lack of distinguished names. These focus simply on the “matronae” or “iuones” (Junos)
- A cluster located on the Rhine, in the lands which were historically inhabited by the Ubii, which consisted of Germanic and Celtic names and epithets.
- A secondary cluster located around the legionary outposts on Hadrian’s Wall. Shaw identifies this group as a secondary deposit of the Rhine-type. (Shaw, pg. 42.)
What is revealed in an inquest into these four clusters is that there is a series of sub-cults encompassed within a continuum that is described in the Cult of the Matres and Matronae.
Without going too far afield into linguistic development and dissemination of the two terms throughout the wider Latin-speaking world, a distinction nevertheless must be made in the use of the words matres and matronae. Traditionally, “matres” was viewed as an attachment to tribal or otherwise proper names, whereas “matronae” is more prominently associated as an unnamed collective group of matrons and feminine figures. Each, however, reflects a particular development in the religio-cultural landscape of their peoples.
Elements of cult naming include place-names and hydronyms, ethnic terms, and meaningful words indicating the activities of the figures in question (Shaw, pg. 45). These deities have both broad and narrow groupings, ranging from local kin/family tutelary names to larger tribal and geographic identities as the worshippers were engaging with. In at least one instance there is evidence of a supratribal grouping of matrons. Heathens should readily see the intersection between these divisions and the social and religious divisions of the concept of innanbord and utanbord (innangard, utangeard).
This incidence of geographic epithets and interconnected ethno-national tutelary figures within the cult of the Matres and Matronae show an intrinsic connection with concepts of location, locality, and the importance of space. This is understandable as polytheistic practice in Europe invariably finds its deepest well and expression within spatial foci, of place. The recognition of a geographic element potentially occurred due to tribesmen staying outside their traditional homelands, giving them a connection with the otherwise native religious figures they were distant from.
Through this exceedingly short summation, we can thus see that a loose series of cults personifying the nature of family, familial identity, home, regional identity, and landscape readily emerge, embracing the intersection of tribal, national, and local divine in a singular continuum of religious practice.
Similarly, an Anglo-Saxon and Old English incidence of a cult of the divine mothers, and Mothers’ Night, can be approached. Bosworth-Toller defines ‘mōdor’ as a “woman who has given birth to a child”, “an ancestress”, a personification of a thing, and an exerciser of control or superior of female religious communities (Entry: mōdor). But, in at least one entry, mōdor is directly translated utilizing the Latin matres.
Women in Anglo-Saxon England filled an important position in society, where they provided a key function in the implementation of family strategies, temporal and spiritual (Crick, pg. 401). The prominence in this period, post-conversion and pre-Conquest is known through legal wills and charters, as well as the acceptance of women in the later period of the Anglo-Saxon era. Their prominence extended even to the the Church, as the first Christian female Saints would readily attest, which persisted despite anti-feminine attitudes within homilies and other religious writings. This would suggest the feature is a cultural inclusion into the Christian mindset, and not vice versa, similarly to the impact that Germanic culture had on Christianity as a whole (see; The Germanization of Medieval Christianity).
The role of women in Anglo-Saxon England as a nuanced and integral importance to society should not necessarily be considered a feature solely derived from the post-Conversion period, as other Germanic peoples made similar allowances in their respective traditions, engaging in various protections and rights for the women in their societies and religions. The best known of these are, of course, women in Viking Age Scandinavia and Iceland.
Studies into the cults of the Matres and Matronae are benefited by a series of votive deposits and epigraphic inscriptions which are typical of Gallo-Roman, Romano-Celtic, and Romano-Germanic domestic iconography. These include depictions of up to three female figures, often with fruits and bread and other symbols of plenty, various religious representations of fauna and animals (plants, dogs, snakes ,etc.), coins and wealth, and spinning materials. The connection to the symbolism behind these images is relatively clear especially as, like many non-literate peoples, art persisted as a language in its own right and such material records are a prime way of transferring knowledge among generations (Webster, pg. 16).
Female figures in Anglo-Saxon lore and culture are commonly associated with similar themes: of hospitality (women offering drink, regardless of their social station), magic, prophecy and fate, spinning, representations of wealth, and the maintenance of societal or family order, all of which reflect a cross-cultural continuity across the Celto-Germanic spectrum (Enright, pg. 174).
Anglo-Saxon social tradition and views of the dead held much commonality with other peoples; they extended the view that their communities encompassed their deceased, and that death was simply an event in a prolonged life cycle and an extension of the physical living community as a whole. The association of the community with the ancestors, especially those long past, was deemed crucial in transforming potentially harmful ghosts or revenants into beneficent ancestral figures who sought to assist and protect their descendants (Dunn, pg. 91). A celebration of such figures, of foundational pillars to society, with all their roles and powers, as well as the tutelary representations of the home, family, and geography, would go far in ensuring such beneficence, and helps to forge practical ritualized relationships for those abroad from their traditional regions.
In light of the importance placed on the role of women in its contemporary society, it is clear to see the why of the celebration of these divine mothers and matrons. We could finish here, were Contemporary Heathens not also concerned with the how of such matters as they can apply it in the present day.
The Mōdru, Matres and Matronae, and the Ealdmōdru (Old mothers) are to be honored the night before Geola, in what is effectively an extended ancestor ritual. It was traditional within larger communities to provide a sacramental meal or larger communal sacrifice that would later be shared among participants (See: Lee, Feasting the Dead: Food and Drink in Anglo-Saxon Burial Rituals). But the nature of contemporary Heathenry is such that this may not be possible as one would otherwise want. A home-based observance would have deeply personal reflections and vary from home to home.
With such a continuum of practice surrounding local, regional, and supraregional tutelary deities, family figures, and gods, no one layout is going to be able to cover the whole spectrum. One might establish a dinner, similar to a dumb supper, in which the place is made for these figures. Others may sit in contemplation with them, or talk to them as if nothing out of the ordinary were occurring – treating them as a natural extension of one’s community, despite their liminal existence from the mundane.
As an example, Eofores Holt Heorþ traditionally honors the more recently departed maternal dead by providing traditional fare associated with them: coffee, jellies, treats and favored bits of meals and food, scents and favored perfumes, and an assortment of other connections. Prayers are made to the familial dead which may have no name, but the overwhelming purpose of the event is to spend time with those maternal ancestors that have a direct connection with the living. Grandmothers, aunts, and great aunts as named entities, wider familial mothers of the varying family names which give the residents their lineage, these are the figures which are supplicated for beneficence, clarity, and succor.
Mothers’ Night is an observance which gives greater cult to Frīg Heorþmōdor, as fate spinner and seeress, in hopes of a fortuitous coming year and a healthy passage through the winter season, in addition to unnamed mothers associated with the passage and layering of Wyrd in the Well.
In doing so, Eofores Holt Heorþ forges and maintains a lasting connection to the familial dead, regardless of their final burial place, ritualistically bringing the divine mothers into the hearth space and engaging within a reciprocal context.
Julia Crick, “Women, Posthumous Benefaction, and Family Strategy in Pre-Conquest England”, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Oct., 1999), pp. 399-422, Cambridge University Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies.
Marilyn Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c.597-c.700: Discourses of Life, Death and Afterlife, Continuum UK: London, 2009.
Michael Enright, Lady With a Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophecy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tene to the Viking Age, Four Courts Press: Dublin, 1996.
Philip A. Shaw, Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda, and the Cult of the Matrons, Bristol Classics Press: London, 2011.
Leslie Webster, “Encrypted Visions: Style and Sense in the Anglo-Saxon Minor Arts, A.D. 400-900” in Anglo-Saxon Styles, eds. Catherine E. Karkov and George Hardin Brown, State University of New York Press: Albany, 2003.