This past Saturday, my children and I gathered in the garden to perform an old Anglo-Saxon ritual – the Æcerbot, first recorded in the 11th century. As recorded, it is rather Pagan with a thin Christian veneer; but it has become a seasonal celebration for us because of a passing mention by the Venerable Bede in De Temporum Ratione in 725.
In the passage, he describes the month Solmōnaþ, roughly equivalent with our February and beginning and ending on the new moon. He translates the name as “cake-month”, because he says that the English would offer them to their Gods in that month. Fast-forward to the Æcerbot a few centuries later, and we see that the ritual calls for digging a furrow in the garden to be planted, and offering cakes to Mother Earth.
And so, we celebrate this holiday – called the Charming of the Plow because it is a common Heathen name for holidays at this time of year, and because the original Æcerbot ritual does just that. I like to position the holiday and corresponding ritual near the full moon of February; it seems like the best way to condense what may have been a month-long practice into one holiday. Here is my re-Paganised (and slightly simplified for modern life) version of the ritual:
After sunset on the night of the full moon, go out and dig four small holes in the four corners of the garden, saving the soil. Mix together oil, honey, and yeast. If you have any perennial herbs or plants, use twigs from those to drip the mixture onto the soul three times; otherwise, use twigs gathered from nearby trees, saying this each of the three times:
“Grow mightily and fill this earth with fruits; Nerthus bless this soil with your great power.”
After that, leave the soil out in a sacred place overnight – perhaps at the foot of a mighty tree or a nearby creek.
The next day, write or inscribe the rune Berkana onto each of the four twigs reserved for this purpose. Place one into the bottom of each hole, putting the soil back into place, and saying “Grow” nine times over each hole.
In the center of the garden, stretch your arms to the sky and turn clockwise three times, keeping your face lifted to the sky. Say:
“This soil is filled with plenty. May its fruitfulness nourish the bodies of me and mine, and may my efforts give honor to the spirits of this place, the land wights, and the Earth, mother of all.”
Take some seeds that you are planning to use in that land, and place them in a bowl on the soil before you. Then say (feel free to substitute some of your own plants for those listed):
May Nerthus grant you
fields growing and flourishing,
propagating and strengthening,
tall shafts, bright crops,
and red tomato crops,
and soft sage crops,
and all earth’s crops.
May Nerthus grant you
that your produce be guarded against any enemies,
and that it be kept safe from harm,
from poisons sown around the land.
Now I bid the Mother, who shaped this world,
that none shall overturn the words thus spoken.”
Dig up a small portion of the land – or more, if you are planning to plant that day – and say:
“Whole may you be Earth, mother of men!
May you be ever-growing and ever-fruitful,
with food filled for the needs of me and mine.”
Placing the cake in the soil, just as you would normally plant seeds, say:
“Field full of food for me and mine,
bright-blooming, you are blessed
in the holy name of the one who gives all fruitfulness,
the Earth on which we live;
Nerthus, the one who made the ground,
grant us the gift of growing,
that for us each fruit and leaf might come to use.
Then say three times: “Grow, in the name of Nerthus, be blessed.”
Spade or shovel
bucket or container for soil
twigs from perennial herbs or trees on property
four twigs or small branches to use as rune staves
a few early seeds or bulbs for planting, or seeds for later planting if seasonally appropriate
cakes – these can be either like pancakes or cookies, but flavored with honey rather than sugar
Here’s a possible recipe for the cakes, based on a recipe from New Varangian Guard, a re-enactment society in Australia:
1 cup flour
1/4 cup corn starch
3/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup honey
Mix the ingredients and form a dough, spoon into a well-greased pan. Bake at 325 for 30 minutes, let cool and cut into pieces.