Saturday, December 28, 2013

Anglo-Saxon Saturdays: Geol

In my previous post, I introduced my new series on the Anglo-Saxon world of England in the Early Middle Ages by discussing the word hwæt and what it can tell us about the nature of the Anglo-Saxon oral storytelling culture. This week, I'd like to share about the word:


Yay-ol ("ol" like in "bowl")

The word geol (sometimes spelled geohol) comes from the word gal, which meant "light" or "merry," and it once refered to the two midwinter months of December and January. This time was filled with various feasts and festivals celebrated by the Pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons. For example, December 25 was called Modranect (Mother's Night) and was celebrated as the beginning of the new year. Many of these festivals had to do with fertility (in winter, a time of infertility) and the Germanic god and goddess twins Freyr and Freyja may have been involved.

Once Christianity dominated the culture and Christmas replaced the pagan winter holidays by the 7th century AD, geol's meaning narrowed to reference the 12-day Feast of the Nativity, which began the day after Christmas Day (December 25) and ended on January 6, Epiphany, or the day when the coming of the Magi was celebrated. Later, use of the word geol narrowed even further to simply refer to Christmas Day, and was eventually replaced by the word "Christmas" itself. (Later on, the German version of the word, Yuletide, was imported into English again and still refers to the midwinter and/or Christmas season today.)

As a side note, there is no evidence that the Yule log tradition was celebrated in Anglo-Saxon England, though historian Henry Bourne theorized such. It is more likely that this particular Christmas-time tradition was imported to England in the Early Modern period, from the Germanic area of mainland Europe.

God Geol! (Good Yule!)

Selected Sources:
A Compendious Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary, by Rev. Joseph Bosworth, Forgotten Books 2012, Originally Published 1848.
"Yule (n.)," Online Etymology Dictonary.

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