Årsgång & The Midnight Mass
Årsgång | The Year Walk
The Year Walk (Swedish: Årsgång) is a rich if oft overlooked oracular custom in the Nordic magical tradition of Trolldom, with roots dating back to at least the 17th Century. Accounts of the ritual detail a perilous journey, usually undertaken in pursuit of omens and revelations, and always taking place over the course of a single night.
During this night of Walking the Year's Walk (Sw. att ga årsgång) a practitioner sought encounters with visions beyond the Earthly plane of being, revealing glimpses of future insight and answers to vital questions of well-being in the year ahead. Some more ambitious seekers have also embarked upon the Year Walk in a quest for direct powers of divination and healing, or in the hope of acquiring magical objects and formulae to aid in those practices, in the folk-magic tradition of the Cunning Men (Sw. Trollkunnig).
Among the common people it is noted that these direct powers (if bestowed) were likely transitory, requiring subsequent Year Walks to be completed as a form of upkeep, although it was said that among the wise ones a single walk may be sufficient to obtain a lifetime of magical power. (Tidebast och Vändelrot: Magical Representations in the Swedish Black Art Book Tradition, 2010).
Many of the motifs found in records of the Year Walk are shared among the folklores of the Nordic countries, with similar rituals of omen-seeking appearing throughout manuscripts and Svartkonstböcker (Black Books) of the period. Despite this familial tapestry of folk customs, much of the existing source-material regarding the Year Walk itself originates in the Southern areas of Sweden, with perhaps the oldest written account of the ritual appearing in Antiquities from Småland (Småländska Antiqviteter, 1700). With several later records appearing in Character and Customs of the Peasantry (Beskriftning om Svenska Allmogens Sinneslag och Seder, 1774) and Collection of Superstitions, Samling af Widskeppelser, 1750, collected 1946) among others.
“An old custom in Småland has been to search for all of the year’s properties and learn how to observe what will happen in the following year. How the crops will turn out, who will live and die in the farmstead, if there will be significant death, if someone from abroad will visit, if there is reason to fear war and unlucky fate, if there will be fire or lack of water in the farms or villages, if wicked sorcery will be performed, if fishing or hunting will be good, and much more.” (Småländska Antiqviteter, 1700)
Traditionally, the most powerful times for performing The Year Walk have been marked by the seasonal observations of Christmas Eve, New Years Eve and Trettondagsafton (Twelfth Night), closely followed by Midsummer, Lucia and Winter Solstice. Regardless of the date, the majority of the accounts indicate that the Year Walk had to begin at midnight, and that the walker would be at great risk if they failed to complete their journey before the sun rose on the following morning. While missing this deadline could bring only a benign failure of the walk, in many cases the walker would be stricken with some terrible malady or illness.
In one account from Gotland, a less corporeal but no less disastrous fate befell an unsuccessful Year Walker, who abruptly vanished without trace after failing to complete the circumambulation of the Cathedral of Visby. (Folkminnen Och Folktankar, 1937)
In any case, long before the Year Walker is able to face these dangers, the records clearly indicate they must observe certain physical and spiritual preparations. In a practice familiar to a myriad acts of magic and shamanism around the globe, these ceremonial preparations include fasting, vows of silence, shunning social-interaction and (of apparently grave importance here) the avoidance of sources of bright light or fire. Only through strict adherence to these rituals can the Year Walker begin to align their senses with the liminal spaces they hope to traverse. With perseverance and a little luck, the walker may succeed in attuning their senses to the world of the supernatural.. to see and be seen by the beings that pierce the veil during these dark periods of the year.
With all of these preparations complete, and the misty cloak of Midnight draped upon the forest, the Year Walk could finally begin. Adhering again to a set of strict instructions, the seeker would have to follow a pre-ordained path encompassing destinations such as stones, crossroads, secluded forest spots and most often and most prescient, clusters of local parishes and churches. Throughout this journey the walker would expect to encounter obstacles in the form of supernatural visions and forms, all of which would seek to distract and waylay the walker, driving him from his quest (and perhaps, to his doom).
One monstrous example of threat appears in several records as a warning of the terrifying Gloson, a great horrifying ghost-sow depicted often with burning eyes and a razor-saw back. The Gloson is noted to charge directly at the walker in an attempt to slice him neatly in two. (Folk Belief and Traditions of the Supernatural, 2016).
Another common theme is for the Gloson to carry a rune staff in its mouth, and if the Year Walker manages to acquire this through swiftness or other miraculous feat, the magical item could be used to instruct the Year Walker in sorcery (Blekingeboken: Årsbok, 1923).
Even after managing to evade the Gloson the safety of the walker may not be guaranteed. Another recurring apparition is the deathly Church Grim / Kirk Grim (Sw: Kyrkogrim) who guards the premises of the churchyard. The Kyrkogrim is usually believed to an apparition of the first being that is buried when a new church is built, however animal bones found walled up in churches during restoration or demolition may hint at the purposeful creation of such a guardian. In either case, this being is a natural enemy of the Year Walker, who had to pass the graveyard and circle the church (Studier om kyrkogrimen, Folkkultur 6, 1946).
“When the first churches were built, they were generally consecrated with the observance of various heathen customs which the people would not part with. One of these was to sacrifice some animal to the old gods beside the foundation-stone or outside the churchyard wall. These animals were buried alive, and it was believed that their spirit or ghost wandered about in the churchyard in the ghostly hours of the night; they were called “Kirkegrimer”. (Scandinavian Folk‑lore: Illustrations of the Traditional Beliefs of the Northern Peoples, 1896)
Having succeeded thus far in their quest, the Year Walker may expect to encounter a spectral funeral procession, making its way through the church yard. Although proceeding without immediate threat to the walker, it is noted in that if the walker queries the procession over the identity of the departed, they may discover they have been unfortunate enough to have witnessed a future glimpse of their very own funeral procession. Surely sealing their fate in the year to come.
If the Year Walker successfully traverses these various horrors, upon arrival at the church still more rules and rituals await. Most pressingly, the church building should be navigated a given number of times in a given direction, in a nature similar to the act of circumambulation. Other rites must often be observed during this pursuit, such as a recital of passages of Trollformler common to the Svartkonstböcker before the door of the church upon each passing. Often the Year Walker is instructed to breathe or peek into the keyhole of the door as they pass, revealing strange sights which in turn offered further revelatory glimpses into the coming year.
It is here that the Year Walk crosses paths with the folklore surrounding the Christmas or Midnight Mass of The Dead. In several records the dead may be glimpsed by the Year Walker, occupying the church and performing their Mass of The Dead, with corpses and skeletons being conducted in service by a revenant priest.
If someone known of the living was seen among them, it was a sure sign that the person was going to die in the following year. Furthermore, if a Year Walker dared to attend the service of the dead, he or she could learn many more things pertaining to future events. This was a path fraught with danger though, as the dead do not tolerate the living and in some horrifying descriptions would attempt to tear the Year Walker to pieces. In most most folk belief it is considered dangerous to be touched by supernatural beings such as ghosts and revenants, and even upon escaping the church the Year Walker may fall foul of madness, illness or curse.
'The Midnight Mass of The Dead'
“The stories about the midnight mass of the dead constitute a type of migratory legend. As early as the fourth century A.D. in stories about saints' lives, the midnight mass is celebrated by angels, the blessed dead, and the saint. Another version, possibly based on popular tradition, is found in Gregory of Tours's De gloria confessorum (sixth century), in which the midnight mass is attended by the dead and ordinary people rather than by angels and saints. In folk legends the story is consistently focused on the fear of the dead and on the narrow escape of the unwitting observer.”
(Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend, Henning K. Sehmsdorf and Reimund Kvideland, 1988)
The Christmas Mass of The Dead
“Late one Christmas Eve in the end of the eighteenth century, a man from the Inga Islands was on his way to the mainland with a load of fish. When he came to the church at Inga, he saw lights in the windows and heard the sound of singing. “That's strange,” he thought, “the clocks on the islands must be slow. They're already celebrating the early Christmas service. I'm going to let my horse rest for a while and go into the church myself.” He tried, but the gate to the churchyard was locked. “Boys will be boys,” the man thought and climbed over the wall. Once inside the church, the man walked almost all the way up to the transept. There he sat down in a pew and took part in the singing. But when he looked around, he saw that everyone there, even the minister by the altar, was dead. When they sang the last verse, he thought it best to leave. Just as he walked through the gate, he heard a loud noise. Turning around, he saw the lights in the church go out and heard screams and a rushing in the air as if from many birds. When the man got home, he threw up blood and lay sick for seven weeks.”
(Collected in 1902 by V. E. V. Wessman from Karl Bergstrom in Sibba, Finland. Printed in Wessman, Sdgner 3.2 (1931)
The Dead Grabbed Her Coat
“The dead would gather in church before the regular service began. In any case, this was their custom on Christmas morning. In the old days when the church was still at Saltnes, it happened that a woman from Vik was on her way to church early one Christmas morning. When she passed by Halsmoen, she saw candlelight in the church. She thought she might be late, so she hurried. Well, she got to church, but as she walked down the aisle, she could see that all the pews were already filled with people. She made her way to the place reserved for the folk from Vik and sat down next to another woman. Entering the pew, she looked around at the other people there. She knew some of them; others she did not. But everyone she recognised were people already dead. Then she turned toward the woman by her side. It was a neighbour who had died some time ago. Before the woman could collect her thoughts, the dead woman said: “I tell you, you must hurry out of the church, or you will be in trouble.” The woman got out of the pew, but, at the same moment, the dead started slowly from the pews and followed her. And just when the woman got to the door, they grabbed ahold of her coat. It was a wrap without sleeves. The woman quickly undid the clasp holding the wrap together. And that is how she saved herself.”
(Collected by Ragnald Mo in Saltdal, Nordland, Norway. Printed in Mo, Eventyr og segner. Folkeminne frd Salten 2 (1944)