Primstav - an ancient calendar
– The Fall Months – by Sarah Kirton
widespread publication of calendars, folks needed some way to mark days
of the year. In northern Europe, especially the Germanic countries
(including England), perpetual wooden calendars were once in wide-
spread use. In Norway, they were used up into the 18th century. Called "clog
almanacs" in English (Clog originally meant: 1) a worked
piece of wood, or 2) a weight, such as a block or log, that could be
a person or animal to hinder movement. We still use this word - in the
sense of worked wood – in our word for wooden shoe.), and primstav,
rimstock (Old Norse rimur = calendar), messedagstav,
and runekalender in Nordic languages, they are most often solar
and follow the old Julian calendar. Some have extra marks which allow
of lunar-determined holidays (e.g. Easter). The modern Gregorian
came into use around 1700, but primstaves were still made because of
strong tradition they represent. This tradition continues in a changed
form. On the Internet, many instances of the word primstav refer to
school calendars — from preschools to university level. Others, on
webpages, list national holidays and local or personal holidays — they
essentially modern Calendars of Events. The word primstav is
to come from Latin for the new moon — Prima Lunae. (The drawing
at left is of the winter side of a primstav from Askvoll, Norway)
Most primstaves resemble rulers with the English system along one edge,
and metric measures along the other. But primstaves make use of the
reverse side of the ruler, too. Usually each edge is marked with three
months of the year, so each side of the ruler holds a half year. One
side, the so-called
winter side, runs from October 14 to April 13th. The summer
covers the rest of the year. The drawing at left shows the winter half
year. October 14th is marked with the traditional mitten symbol.
are bigger than rulers; the modern reproductions I've seen on sale for
are about 20 to 30 inches long and 2.5 inches wide. Their thickness is
like a wooden ruler. Most of the old ones were made of wood or bone,
a very few were made of brass. One end of these staves was reserved for
some kind of decoration, and served as a "handle" for the stave. Many
holes for hanging on a wall. In addition to a score along the edge for
day, holidays were marked with appropriate symbols. A few staves had a
cross section. In this case, each side had 3 months marked out on one
edge. There was no room on the other edge for markings. Sometimes
were incorporated into walking sticks. Whatever their form, they were
useful and decorative.
Some think these calendars originated in pre-Christian tribal times.
Germanic tribes may have used them to keep track of holy days,
nature/farming dates like planting, harvest, butchering, good fishing
and hunting times, as well as tribal meeting dates. They probably used
the old nordic/germanic runes along with symbols. The oldest surviving
primstaves date from ~1200 AD, after the christianization of
Scandinavia. Sometimes called runestavs, there are usually no runes on
them. The symbols are used to mark saint’s days, and have been adapted
to conserve space and make carving easier. In folk tradition these days
came to be associated with nature and farming dates. Which merkedager
were marked and which traditions were followed varied
from place to place.
Some days have names of the form Name-s-ok. Ok is a
folk rendering of the latin term vagilia, (in Norwegian, vaka
and in English watch or wake.) It refers to a religious
night-watch. Picture the valiant young knight-to-be praying in the
chapel all night
before his knighting ceremony — not to mention the stereotypical Irish
wake. Vaka became oka which turned into ok or uk. The "s" is a
often used in Scandinavian languages to form compound words, and is
a possesive marker. So June 29, dedicated to St. Peter (Per) is Persok.
As for the symbols: most saints have one or more symbols associated
with them. These were often simplified for use as marks on the
primstav. Folk usage has added folk meanings to their original
Christian meanings — so
we have a transformation of the scales used to weigh the soul after
into a symbol for a regional market day. A small cross or a half cross
instead of a whole one as a day mark signified a lesser feast day. The
meanings of some symbols have been lost. Many days have weather
predictions. (I'm leaving out most of them.) The information below
each merkedag is from Norwegian and Danish sources about the primstav.
Most of this, of course, has its origin in folk as well as Christian
traditions. I've listed my sources, both printed and Internet, at the
end of this article. Unfortunately for us, most are in Norwegian or
Danish. Most of the web
pages have extremely nice illustrations or links to illustrations.
Below are the most common merkedager for Fall used on primstaves in
Norway. Each merkedag is accompanied by some of its local names and a
at least one of its symbols. I've chosen to use the modern year
of Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer. As space permits, future editions
the newsletter will carry merkedager for the other three seasons.
Under the oldest lunar calendars used in the north, there were 13
months, and division points between the months were different from our
modern solar calendar. September holds parts of two months: the first, Tvimengda
or Tvimånad, began in August and ended September 20th,
second, which extended into October, was called Haustmånad
the Fall or Harvest Month.
1st – St.
Egedius Day, Kvernknarren, Yrjansmesse: (St. Egidius ( = St.
Giles) Day) — symbols: millstone,
half cross, cross, leaf, branch, or a trap. — This day
the availability of millstream water for the winter. If the stream was
frozen, it boded ill for being able to grind the grain from that
harvest. (Kvernknarren is the growling sound a mill (kvern) makes.) It
was a good sign if it rained that day. St. Egedius, who founded a
cloister in Provence, was the patron saint of archers, and against
drought. One of many (supposed) days that
bears collect bedding for their dens.
5th – "Gamle
barsok" (old barsok) — symbol: a
little cross. Some areas celebrated this day on Sept. 2nd, and
called it "3rd barsok." There are two other barsoks in the year;
is on Aug 24th, for St. Bartholemew. (Most of my sources say there are
three barsoks in all, but I could find no date listing a third one!
it wasn't too important.) All cattle should be home from the summer
by this day, because this was when the huldrefolk would move onto the
farms. You wouldn't want for them to use your cattle, nor would you
to interfere in their lives.
Marimesse siare, Marimesse om hausten, Vår Frues
dag (Mary's later mass, Mary's mass in the fall, our Lady's
— symbols: sheepshears, a tree, 2 oaks, a crown, a
head, or an “M”. This day celebrates Mary's birth. Sheep
be sheared on this day.
12th – Fingergullmesse
(Goldfinger mass) — symbol: a half sun. In honor
of a relic — some drops of Christ's blood —
which was taken to Christ Church in Nidaros (now Trondheim) in 1165.
reliquary was in the form of a finger of gold. (Sorry, all you James
fans!). This holiday was fairly local to the Trondheim area. In other
it was the day to shear sheep.
14th – Krossmesse
om hausten, Opphøginga av krossen (Mass of the Cross,
or Raising of the Cross) — symbols: a large cross or
a peg-leg. In memory of Emperor Herakleios, who returned Christ's
cross to Golgotha in 629 after it was stolen(!) the year before. This
day marked the beginning of fall. All fences should be taken down, and
livestock should be inside by now.
21st – Matteusmesse,
Mattismesse om hausten (St. Matthew's mass in the fall) — symbols:
an axe, a ram, a fish, or a running horse. St. Matthew — the tax
collector — was killed with an axe in Persia. In Romerike, the day is
called "Mattias lauvriver" (Matthew's leaf-tearer/ripper), since it was
often windy enough to get the last of the leaves off the trees. Leaf
fodder should be gathered for the winter. And on this day, bears are
(again!) engaged in the work of gathering moss and grass for their
29th (or 24th
or 30th) – Mikkelsmesse or Mikeli
(Michaelmass) — symbols: scales, lur (long horn), a
haloed head, an archangel's trombone, or wings — to honor
the archangel Michael, who leads the angels to fight the forces of
evil. Michael was
said to weigh the worth of one's soul with his scales. This is an
holiday. Michael cakes and other special foods are eaten, and harvest
finished. Many places had market day today — a folk interpretation of
scales symbol. It was the day to change employers, move, and pay off
loans. Today may also have been a pre-Christian harvest/thanksgiving
this night, all farm animals should be under a roof, otherwise "they'll
what will happen to them during the next year. This is craziness."
this day, one cannot be safe from snow.
contains the last half of the old harvest month, and in mid month (the
14th) the old "gormånad" (butchering-month; gor
meant blood in old Norse) begins, and with it, the winter side of the
4th – St. Frans/Frantz (St. Francis of Assisi
Day) — symbols: half cross, cross and tower; in
a fish, cloister, or a cross and book. St.
created the Franciscan order around the year 200.
7th – (or 9th)
Britemesse, Bruemesse (for St. Birgitta
fra Vadstena, Sweden) — symbols: book or tablet,
arrow(s), rings, cross, or crown. Birgitta (d. 1373) founded a
cloister. In Telemark and Setesdal the symbol was sometimes a tree, a
or heather twigs. People in those parts believed this was the day when
dig out their dens and gather heather for it. It was also called
Kåldagen (Cabbage Day); cabbage should be harvested and stored
for the winter now. Around this time often comes a stretch of warm
weather called Brittesommar in some places.
9th – Dinesmesse
(St. Dionysos, or St Dennis) — symbols:
bishop's staff, a fish, or flag. St. Dennis, the first bishop of
Paris, was martyred in 286. One can expect a strong wind on this day,
leaves are blown from the trees.
Vinternatt/Vettradagen, Calixtusdag (Winternight/day, St
Callistus day) — symbols: mitten, glove, leafless
tree, papal hat. St. Callistus was pope from 217 to 222. This was
the first day of the old Norse new year, the first day of winter, and
the first of
three days celebrating the beginning of winter. It marked the start of
“winter side” of the primstav. In pagan times, offerings held on this
welcomed winter and insured a good year. A variety of housecleaning
were done today for good luck and health. Cold weather takes hold now,
the day’s weather predicts weather for the coming year (or winter). In
places, hired hands changed employers on this day. After today, horses
wear sleigh bells.
18th – Lukosmesse
(St. Luke's mass) — symbols:
an ox, a butcher's bench, a cross, or a picture of Mary. St. Luke
is patron saint of doctors and painters. In Christian art, he's often
depicted with a winged ox. So, accordingly, this was cattle butchering
day in some places. Now it begins to rain a lot, and people believed
that Noah's flood occurred at this time of year. In
Västergötland, Sweden, this
day was called Kål-Lukas (Cabbage-Luke). All root and other
vegetables should be gathered in by today.
21st – Ursulamesse,
11000 Virgins, Maiden's Day, St Mogen's Day — symbols:
a boat on land, an arrow, palm branch, women, ring, or a crown.
In memory of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who were killed
outside of Cologne when they returned from a pilgrimage to Rome. The
Huns, who killed them, were hunted down by the heavenly hosts, and St.
Ursula became the patron saint of Cologne. The number of virgins is
misrecorded, and should be merely eleven. The misunderstanding came
about when an M for martyr and a V for virgo were added
the Roman numeral for 11 (XI) – yielding "XI.M.V." in the records.
On this day, ships should be drawn into their winter berths. One should
not work with anything that goes around — like spinning wheels,
millstones, etc. today. (The ring symbol is a reminder of this!) The
St. Mogen's day bit seems to be derived from Magnus, an earl of Orkney.
He has several
days named for him on the calendar.
28th – Simonsmesse,
Førebod — (St. Simon's mass, Preparation) symbols:
threshing flail, spear, (double armed) cross, or a branch with 2
leaves. Today honors the apostles Simon and Judas, who were
missionaries in Persia. Simon was martyred under Trajan
in 107, by being "sawed to death." He became patron saint of
woodcutters. He's always mentioned with Judas Thaddeus (Jude in English
— the patron
saint of lost causes), and they share a saint’s day. This was once
"the two apostles' mass." The animals should now be given winter food
than let to graze. Snow was expected after this day, and one could
November is the rest of the old Norse
butchering month and about two thirds of Ylir, the next of the
1st – Helgemesse,
Allehelgensdag (Saints' mass, All-Saints-Day), symbols:
ship, one or more crosses, a house, a church,
a tray with a cross, a book, a wimple, or an inverted ship. Feast
memory of the saints, and all holy ones in heaven. A flood was expected
either now or in the spring (how's that for weather forecasting?). On
day, the winter bread supply should be baked. This holiday was estab
by Pope Gregory IV in the 8th century. It was retracted during a
reduction in 1770, but folk still celebrate it.
One can dream true dreams on this night. Go to a room where you've
never slept before. Sweep it out with a new broom, made before Jonsok
(June 24th) by somebody you didn't talk with during its making. You can
take a little cheese, rutabaga, and a set of scales. Lie down, sleep,
and try to remember any dreams when you wake. To ensure good dreams,
put a hunk of meat, a
broom, and a rutabaga under your head when you lie down! (Perhaps you
can lie on them a few minutes, but remove them before actually trying
As for the symbols, the ship is said to symbolize the Christian church,
but was understood to mean that travel by ship was over for the season.
(Perhaps the ship had something to do with those flood predictions,
2nd – Alle
Sjelers Dag (All Souls' Day) — symbols: picture
of several people, church. In memory of all those in purgatory
which the living should be praying for. One should neither spin nor
weave on this day, because the thread will tangle, and the fabric will
11th – Mortensmesse,
Bjørnekvelden (St. Martin's mass, bear-evening) — symbols:
a goose, a pig, a bishop's miter, a bishop's staff. In memory of
St. Martin, bishop of Tours
(d. 397), patron saint of France. When he was elected bishop, he hid in
a flock of geese in an attempt to avoid election. The geese made a big
to-do, and he was found. Therefore folk eat goose on this day. Geese
a common farm animal on the Scandinavian peninsula, so pork was usually
On this day one slaughtered all livestock which would not be fed for
the winter. No “honorable miller” would grind grain on this day. Bears
went to their dens. One should be well prepared, because "winter takes
revenge with jaw and big belly." If it snowed on this day, there would
be rain or snow for the next 50 days in a row. Martin is patron saint
livestock, the poor, the sick, and close friends.
21st – Marimesse,
Maria offer — (Mary's mass, Mary's
presentation at the temple) — symbols: cross with
crowned head with halo. When she was three years old, Mary was
to the temple in Jerusalem by her parents. Hosebands (to hold up one's
were doled out to the young, and linen, thread, and hosebands were
with a tithe of wool to the priest's women. One assumes these ladies
housekeepers, or keepers of the parish supplies. Before the advent of
care, parishes kept stores of food, cloth, and other necessities for
poor and for famine times. From what I've read, this custom of communal
storage for hard times predates Christianity.
23rd – Klementsmesse,
Båtsok, (St. Clement's mass, boat watch) — symbols:
anchor, church, papal crown. St. Clement I (pope, 92 — 101). was
exiled from Rome, and sent to the Crimea to a working punishment.
Together with other exiles, he tore down heathen temples and built
churches. When Trajan found out, he ordered Clement killed. A legend
tells that he was drowned in the Black Sea with an anchor around his
neck. In church art he is often pictured with an anchor. An anchor
often represents this day to signify that now all ships should lie at
One should not give children very much food today so they'll learn to
value the Jul season. Now winter storms will come, and one can expect
hard frosts. Clement is patron saint of seamen.
25th — Karimesse,
Kari med rokken, Sancta Katharine, Mass mjøbinge
(Catharine's mass, Kari with a spinning wheel) symbols: spinning
wheel, sword, crown, wheel, arms of a cross on a chevron. Feast day
of St. Catharine of Alexandria. According to legend, she was put on a
wheel and tortured under the emperor Maximinus. A miracle occurred, and
the wheel broke into pieces. So instead she was decapitated. She is
usually depicted with a destroyed wheel. In folk tradition the wheel is
most often thought of as a spinning wheel, as this was the season for
spinning. A folk saying tells that she spins a road of light to Jul. If
there's clear weather on this day, there will be beautiful Jul candles.
(St. Andrew's mass) — symbols:
cross of St. Andrew (i.e., X-formed cross), a fishhook, or a
trap. The day was also called "Andreas Fiskar," (”Andrew the
— he was patron saint of fisherman). Folk should catch fish today for
Christmas eating. Wood for carving should be set aside to season for
during the next winter. In Beiarn (in Nordland, Norway) the day was
Jul-Anders day, and folk went "jul-ander-ing." People dressed up and
around to other farms during evening meal time. This meal was
(in Beiarn, anyway) sheep's head and feet, and the visitors got to eat
foot! But first they were asked where they came from. They'd claim to
from a neighboring valley. If they didn't like what was served, a
rhyme was recited.
References: All are in Norwegian unless otherwise noted. Many of
the web pages are illustrated and also provide links to other
illustrations. The symbols I’ve used in this article were mostly
sketched from the first two printed references and the second and third
1. Primstaven, Breivega, Titta H., Det Norske Samlaget., no pub. date
2. Historien om en primstav, Werenskiold, Werner, og Durban, Arne,
Aktieselskapet Norsk Aluminium Company, Oslo,1944
3. Tidsskrift for Valdres Historielag, “Gamle merkjidaga,” published by
O.K. Ødegaard, Gjøvik, Mariendals Boktrykkeri, pp. 217,
Internet Pages: The first four of these were the most
Great information about primstaves, symbols, and each merkedag.
Illustrated with modern interpretations of the old symbols.
2. <www.arild-hauge.com/runekalender.htm>. In Danish. One of the
nicest pages I found. It also has a list of links to photos of old
primstaves. If you're interested, <www.arild-hauge.com> has more
info than I
hope you'll ever need on Nordic/Germanic runes and various aspects of
Nordic/Viking folk culture.
A list of days and a really fine drawing of a primstav.
4. <home.online.no/~lahlum/alma/dager.html> A calendar of
Norwegian and international holidays and anniversaries. Just click on
5. <www.bjorkasen.bgs.no/bcd/bcd1-99/Primstav2.html> In English.
Has some info and a very nice photo.
6. <www.hf.uio.no/iks/nfs/merkedager.html> Holidays, with
7. <home.c2i.net/samuelsen/> A contemporary list of Norwegian
8. <www.katolsk.no/biografi/kalender.htm> A contem-porary list of
Catholic saints' days from a Norwegian perspective.
9. <www.caplex.net/web/tabeller/tabeller.asp?art_id=t-merked> A
list of merkedager.
10. <www.vaardal.net/svein/primstav_merker.htm> A short list of
11. <panozoom.net/info/merkedager.htm> Rural customs and
12. <www.vikinganswerlady.org/primstav.htm> In English . Has a
bit of good info, and some nice drawings.
13. <www.norway.org/christmas/engelsk/primstav.html> In English..
About clog calendars.
14. <http://www.wkonline.com/d/Clog_almanac.html> A dictionary
site. In English. §