We celebrated Thanksgiving with a Reform Jewish friend of ours. The conversation turned to ridiculous holiday customs. I mentioned Lupercalia, which had a ritual associated with it so old that even the Romans didn’t know what it meant and thought it was kind of crazy. Sven asked about “that Jewish holiday where everyone dances around an onion”. I clarified that that was Sukkhot, that you dance around a near-inedible citrus fruit called an etrog in your booth erected on your Crown Heights fire escape.
Our friend said that no, in his opinion the weirdest Jewish holiday was Tu Bishvat, which I hadn’t even heard of. It’s the Israeli take on Arbor Day and the recent haggadot for it center around eating dried fruits and nuts, because it is a time to celebrate the fruit harvest.
This reminded me of what I do like very much about modern Judaism, and that is its emphasis on the earth and nature. Maybe the holidays are out of sync with one’s local weather unless you’re in the Middle East, but they are still about harvests, animal husbandry, and the phases of the moon. The moon phases at least are universal.*
I thought to myself, “I want to celebrate a religious festival that is about trees.”
Shortly afterwards I thought, “We need a holiday in honour of Yggdrasil!”
As Sven will attest, I like trees. I grew up in the northeast, among deciduous forests of pines, oaks, maples, birches and other trees that are also common in northern Europe. Sven grew up in southern California with palm trees, eucalyptus trees and California maples. When we visited San Antonio, TX about a year ago all the dense forestation along the highways were completely alien to him.
I’ve written here and there about Yggdrasil in this blog. When I was thinking about tree holidays, my thoughts naturally went to her—and Yggdrasil is female in my mind.
(Frigga shrine with Yggdrasil holding incense as I cook. If you look closely you can see a little Ratatosk at her feet.)
I’ve also talked about the Frigga shrine which in on a corner of the counter in my kitchen. Beside the Allmother stands a tealight holder that I bought to represent the World Tree. A friend of mine gave me a tree pendant for my birthday that I also identified with Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil supports the Nine Worlds, is watered from the Well of Wyrd by the Norns, and was where Odin sacrificed himself to himself for the Runes. There is mention in the Eddas and other lore about the suffering of the tree as Niddhogg gnaws at her roots.
As humans poison the oceans, mow down the Brazilian rainforests and pump excess CO2 into the atmosphere, it is easy to mentally personify this destruction as Niddhogg. While there is no evidence that the medieval Norse worshipped Yggdrasil per se, there was certainly the image of the Irminsul in Germany that was considered dangerous enough to Christianity that Charlemagne had it destroyed. Saxo Grammaticus says that the Irminsul was worshiped, but given the source, a monk, this claim has to be taken with a shaker of salt. It does seem that it was an axis mundi, a terrestrial duplicate of the tree that is the center of creation, uniting the nine worlds, and a gathering place for religion and commerce.
Although I haven’t written the ritual yet, this column having popped into my head only this afternoon, what I would want to see is a kindred planting at least one tree that is indigenous to the region and using that tree as a gathering place throughout the year. I would like the ritual to contain readings about Yggdrasil, the tree planting itself, a blot to the tree-nisse of the area and promises to do one new thing ecologically for the benefit of Jord and Yggdrasil.
As a stodgy reconstructionist, I know this is an innovation. The pre-Christian Norse and Germans didn’t have a practice like this, but they didn’t need to. We’re the ones who are mentally and emotionally separated from nature. Connection to the ancestors of blood and tradition reminds us of who we were, who we are and who we are becoming. It is in our interest to ease the suffering of the World Tree and remember that we live in Midgard at the pleasure of Jord. Hail, Yggdrasil. Hail the traenisse. Hail, Jord.
*Yes, I just compared Asatru and Judaism. They are both ethnic religions now in diaspora. If you have problems with that, you need to seriously contemplate why.