By Arnbald OR-B & FS (Brittany & French Saxony)
For many Odinists today, the Yule tower (Jullechter) appears as one of the main cultural artefacts in the family hof. As its names suggests, it is mainly involved in the Yule time celebrations. If it has became an important symbol of the old faith, the artefact itself – as we shall see – not necessarily an old symbol.
The Northern Tradition is alive. And as a living faith, it changes, evolves, creates new cultural way, new ceremonial practices, gathers in new holy places… But everything is done in the respect of the old paths, of the spirit of the Forebears. Maybe, in the days of old, Tyr and Ullr were one and the same God; today they are different with very specific functions (and these distinctions create deep and useful meanings). Maybe too, the goddess Ostara or Eostre was never worshipped by the ancient Germanic people. Anyway, she is today a wonderful goddess of spring and renewal, with powerful symbolism, especially for the women of our faith.
In the same way, the continental European followers of the northern path have popularised a wonderful artefact linked to a winter solstice practice: the Yule Tower (or Yule candlestick, from the German Julleuchter). Every heathen hearth or house (and most of the rooted generic pagan, too) on the European mainland (Germany, France, Belgium, Lombardy…) has — at least — one Yule Tower. But curiously, the Anglo-Saxon countries (United Kingdom, USA, Canada…) almost ignored it, until very recently.
Is it an ancient artefact? Did the Ancients use it? I shall not develop these points here. Let me just explain the symbolism and the practice linked to this object. And you shall see that however old it is, it has an important place in the northern tradition as it embodies most of the northern world-view.
In brief words (but we shall develop these points below), the Yule tower represents the eternal return of the sunlight, the central axis of Yggdrasill, and the threefold side of the northern tradition. As fire symbol (because we light a candle on or inside it), it is the hearth and the heart of the household. And as eternal return symbol, it is also the artefact of the lineage, the link we get from our ancestors and that we shall transmit to our children.
Everyone can understand that it will be difficult to resume all this complex and holy symbol in so few words. But let us go on.
First: let us describe the artefact. It is a pyramidal terracotta (or baked clay) object, with a flat summit. Generally, it is about one foot high. If, today, most of the Yule towers are baked, it is said that, in the days of old, the Ancients used consecrated non-baked clay, which could be shaped when it was wet, then hardened when dry. Thus, if the holy tower was broken (if the village was invaded or when the tribe journeyed), we only had to reshaped the consecrated earth after we had submerged it in water.
On the summit of the tower, there is a small cavity to host a candle. The tower itself is hollow (there is no bottom), thus we can put a candle inside it (we shall see how and why). And we can see different designs (some of them hollow, and thus we can see inside the tower) on each face.
Second: How must we use it. As its name suggest, it is firstly an item for the Yule celebration. During the Yule blòt (for example, the OR members can use it as sacred fire during the Yule blòt. Actually, the OR-Brittany & French Saxony members use it as sacred fire for all the celebrations), you put inside the Yule tower the old candle of the last Yule. On the summit, you set a new candle. You light the old candle. Then, you pass a small twig (or a match, but it would be easier and it would be a kind of cheat) through a hole of the faces (generally, the Hagal rune, because of its symbolism of eternity and its place in the Futhark row – the ninth, and I do not have to remind the importance of the holy nine – in the Futhark row). You light the twig with the old candle, switch off this latter with the twig, and then bring back the flame outside the tower to light the new candle. You have the sunrise symbolism: at Yuletide, the sunlight is low (under the tower), but it will go back up soon, and thus we help it in lighting the new candle (well, it is said that if the flame goes out when it passes through the Hagal rune, it is a bad omen for the coming year. Honestly, it is not difficult to bring back the light from inside the tower).
If you want to go further in a ritual way, you can put the Yule tower on a nine-fold grid (always the 9, associated here with the four [four seasons, four directions, four branches of the fylfot, and so on]. See the picture). This grid will symbolise the Vé (and the nine worlds. The central square,
where you put the tower is of course Midgard, the Middle-Earth), but also the cosmic axis, the holy centre, the human spine…
On each square, you can put a cultural item for the celebration or a design. Of course, as anything in the heathen path, there is nothing dogmatic. Any elements here are suggestions which may help for the understanding of the blòt. That is only our way of practising in OR-B & FS.
Thus, on the north square, you can put the drinking horn (symbol of knowledge and of Woden, the raven god).
On the East square, you will set a bow or at least a single arrow (attribute of Ullr, the winter god ; symbol of the rainbow Bifrost, bridge between the gods and men, and symbol of perfection as the arrow which must hit its target and is also a symbol of mind, thus of the left brain).
On the South square, you will have the Ullr’s ring (on which you swear, as it is told in the old texts).
On the Western square, you shall place Mjöllnir, the Thor’s hammer. (These are our descriptions and use. We have our reasons to put Mjöllnir in the West, for example. But, you can naturally choose to put it in the north or somewhere else. Anyone may have his or her own perceptions).
In each corner squares, you may draw a Little or Great Bear, which symbolise the moving of the holy stars around the polar axis of the north star (of course, you will have guess that the tower is the central axis of Yggdrasill and that the light at the top is also a symbol of the polar star, that is Thulé, the original world, or Ur-Welt). And this journey of the stars around the north light are also a reflection of the Fylfot, the association between fixedness and dynamism (the grid itself embodies the fylfot, which is a ground symbol of the northern world – and by these words, I mean all the northern hemisphere from Iceland, Germany, Scandinavia to China, India and Japan).
Now, let us examine the tower itself. Traditionally, it is said that the tower had on each side a heart and an Hagal rune. The heart is the most widespread symbol of the Germanic world. It stands for the Love and Joy, for the Hearth of the household. And we have already seen the Hagal rune, the hail rune, and its natural & important symbolism for this time of the year. We shall see farther that both the heart and the Hagal rune are linked with the powerful symbolism of centrality which is the main dimension of the tower.
Certainly, the Julleuchter (JL) may be linked to the so-called Hagal year (HY). It is difficult to know what the real cultural year was. Was it divided in two parts, four parts, eight parts? Or why not six parts? It could appear logical in a Germanic view. We would have the two solstices, and then four intermediate full moons, among which we would have Ostara. We would find a direct connection between the JL and the HY.
But as we may set the tower on a grid, we can imagine a lot of other designs on the artefact for aesthetical, but also symbolical, reasons. I think, it is always essential to keep the Hagal rune on one side (which could be the north side, where the Gothi stands to perform the ritual). But, for example, we could have also on other sides a
Jera-rune (important here, because it is the twelfth rune, as we have twelve days during the Yuletide and twelve months in the year. And it is the rune for good year and harvest). This rune could stand on the east side.
Then, on the opposite side (West), we shall put an Eihwaz-rune, the yew-rune (for Yggdrasill, and so on). And on the south side, we shall end with the Gebo-rune (rune of gift, and do not forget that yuletide is the time of gifts. The first gift being the Life itself and the sunlight.)
But we could imagine a lot of other runes or symbols (like the Fylfot or the Irminsul).
Thus, we have seen that, during the Yule celebration, the ritual of the tower remind us of the Eternal return of the sunlight, of Spring, of Life, of Joy. Now, the tower itself stands for the idea of Centrality, of Origin, of cosmic axis. As the Irminsul or Yggdrasill, it is the ultimate central axis, which, in a lot of traditions, is symbolised by a mountain (see the Meru mount of Hinduism, the Olympus Mountain of the Greek…). For the northern tradition, it is Himinbjorg, the Sky-mountain, abode of Heimdal (and that is actually Yggdrasill itself, but also the rainbow Bifrost. And, in any cases, it stands for a bridge between men and gods. This is why we find too a heart and the Hagal-rune (the crystal-rune for ancient runologists as List, Gorsleben and Liebenfels, which would stand at the heart of our planet earth).
Ultimately, the Yule tower is an image of Thule, of the symbolic Asgard, in each northern hearths, households and families. It symbolises the family. And this is why it was traditionally given on the wedding day and sometimes the birth of a child.
We could speak hours and hours of this item. At the beginning of this text, I said that I shall not answer here to the question of the antiquity of this artefact, of the ancientness of this tradition. Was it used by the Ancients? This is difficult to answer. And impossible in such a brief talk. I only want to say here that we can see some Yule towers in Fritz Lang’s famous movie, Die Niebelungen, in the 1920’s and some other artefacts very similar to the Yule tower were discovered at the beginning of this century in Russia and in Scandinavia. We can see some of them in Scandinavian museums. The only real question is the question of the ritualisation of the tower. Was it really used as we use it today? We know that some northern revivalists of the last century, like Karl Willigut / Weisthor, rediscovered and used this artefact. Anyway, beyond any historical or polemical context, we must consider that the symbolism of the Yule tower is so strong and decisive for the northern faith, that the symbolism of this item lies at the heart of this northern path and that it embodies most of our deep cosmological mysteries, and thus we cannot ignore it.
And finally, as I said, if it is a new ritual symbol based on very ancient and powerful and traditional meaning, it is a proof of the living dimension of the northern tradition and, no doubt that more and more northerners will use it in all the world.
1.When I first talked of this artefact at the Great Moot, in 2002, there was almost no Yule Tower at that time in the OR in UK.