It seems weirdly logical that the month following Halloween was once called ‘Blood Month’. The clue to reasons why this is, is the name the Anglo-Saxons gave their moon at this time – Hunters’ Moon.
The Celtic peoples of northern Europe celebrated their new year at Halloween – Samhain – and this was also the start of the winter. Winter was hard. There were no crops for the people to eat and no shops to buy in any imported foods. So began the hunting time so the Dark Ages folks could have meat to see them through the winter.
Generally, meat was not consumed in any great quantity by the ordinary people in Anglo-Saxon England. Its role was that of a stock cube, that is, it was used to flavour the stews and soups that were made from root vegetables and herbs. Rabbits were caught via hawking (as seen in Medieval depictions of the seasons) and the livestock people kept all year were slaughtered at this time.
As with all cultures, particularly of those two thousand years ago, all practical events had a religious significance too. According to the monk and historian, Bede, November was the “month of immolations”. He went on to explain: “for then the cattle which were to be slaughtered were consecrated to the gods.” There has been archaeological evidence to support this. In Berkshire, England, a boar’s head was buried with Roman tiles placed on top and in Cambridgeshire, an ox head was buried face down. Archaeologist David Wilson claimed that this was evidence of sacrifice to a pagan god. There have been many examples such as these.
Cattle, or ox, appear to be the most common animal to be given in sacrifice. There are depictions of blood being collected and maybe this was given to the spirits of the trees. Or perhaps the Dark Ages peoples knew about blood being an excellent fertiliser for fruit trees. The meat would have been dried or salted and stored for winter consumption. When the shortest day arrived at the winter solstice, there would have been a great feast to celebrate the fact that people had made it through another year. Plenty of meat would have been eaten simply because there was little else.
So the new year started in the darkness of winter, with the sights, sounds and smells of animal sacrifice (some have argued that there were human sacrifices too). It gets darker and colder. The leaves die and fall from the trees. People succumb to illness and disease and die as well. November truly was an ugly, dark month.
The Anglo-Saxons, as those before them, hoped that there was enough meat to last. A bit of help from the gods and maybe they could live until the light wins out in the spring.
I really don’t like November. But I am not in the right time nor place to complain so I consider the month as a time of remembrance. So I’ll think about those who died in the past whether they be soldiers or ordinary folk.
(c) 2015 A.J. Sefton