Just before the winter solstice I wondered if I indeed heard that Aat van Gilst had recently published a book about Midwinter traditions. He did indeed and I finished it before the end of the period that this book is about (“From St. Lucia until Epiphany” as the subtitle goes).
Like other books of Van Gilst, this latest work is mostly ‘collective’, as in: tons of information, anecdotes and quotes crammed together in a book. Therefor the book again reads a bit like an encyclopedia. Still, Van Gilst proved himself an antiquarian gathering his information from the weirdest places and putting them together between two covers so that us readers do not have to find everything ourselves. The bibliography is exactly 100 titles.
The author speaks about the traditional ‘twelve nights’ that not everywhere and in every time span the same period. Usually we are talking about the winter solstice until Epiphany, but our Dutch Sinterklaas is in some way a start for the midwinter celebrations and we celebrate it at December 5th. Van Gilst teaches us a thing or two about death and fertility celebrations that have become a range of ‘Christian’ feasts for saints, but in which a lot of prechristian elements survive. Also noteworthy are the history of the ‘Christmas tree’ (which is different from the romantic view of many contemporary heathens), Christmas songs and of course a gigantic number of folkloristic traditions that we see and saw in the darkest period of the year.
Much lacking is an index and the images have too little contrast, but for the rest this is a wonderfull book to draw inspiration from for your traditional solstice information and celebrations.
2014 Uitgeverij Aspekt, isbn 9789461535269
Van Gilst earlier wrote another book that is reviewed in these pages called De Eeuwige Ordening (‘the eternal order’). His new book is called Midzomer In Europa, het feest van de zomerzonnewende (‘midsummer in Europe, the feast of the summer solstice’). I find De Eeuwige Ordening a nice book. Van Gilst sometimes holds theories different from my own, but his first book is very readable, highly informative and a classic about the prechristian faith in the Dutch language. Midzomer In Europa is thinner (about 200 pages) and entirely dedicated to customs around Midsummer, or the summer solstice. The book mostly consists of massive lists (but then put behind eachother like plain text) of customs and habbits surrounding the longest day in Europe. Herbs, dances, songs, rituals, fires, superstitions, you name it, Van Gilst tracked it down and noted it down. I have the impression that the writer is pretty exhaustive, even my tiny birthvillage is mentioned. The index isn’t specified enough, so you will have a hard to finding something back. Also the book doesn’t read too well since it is often merely an enumeration of facts, dates and customs. A great book if you are interested in the folklore around Midsummer, but not a book to just read for background information.
After having read several standard works about Northern religion and mythology in German of 25 to 125 years old, there is finally a brandnew book and in Dutch too. With its 384 pages, it is much thinner than for example the Altgermanische Religionsgeschichtes that I have. Still this new book is big enough to be a reference work. Older books about the subject usually have a part with the history of mythology and the investigation of it, a part with information about spirits, giants, dwarves, etc. and the different gods and goddesses and a part with the (religious) life of the Norsemen. Van Gilst -however- starts with a part about the stone-, bronze and iron-ages to give you an idea of the earlier history. The writer appears to me of a follower of the school of Dumezil, meaning that the Northern tradition is placed in a larger Indo-European context and that parallels are sought with the religion and mythologies of other traditions. Others -however- see in Van Gilst more of a “naturalist” deminicing the gods to natural events or divined human beings. Therefor you will sometimes find other ideas or opinions than in other books or the conclusions of the writer differ from you own. This doesn’t matter, but it may be helpfull to know this in advance. In general I am delighted by this book, the fact that there is finally a recent one about the subject and the fact that it is written in Dutch. The writing is sometimes a bit sloppy, but this doesn’t effect the contence. So, all who can read Dutch are advised to get a copy of “The Eternal Order”.
Extra note, I know people very well informed in the Germanic religion who are not at all happy about this book. I like it myself, but just keep this in the back of your head.