Primstav - an ancient calendar form
– The Fall Months –
by Sarah Kirton

Primstav from Askvoll, Norway Before the 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 tied to 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 calendars, and follow the old Julian calendar. Some have extra marks which allow calculation of lunar-determined holidays (e.g. Easter). The modern Gregorian calendar came into use around 1700, but primstaves were still made because of the strong tradition they represent. This tradition continues in a changed form. On the Internet, many instances of the word primstav refer to online school calendars — from preschools to university level. Others, on private webpages, list national holidays and local or personal holidays — they are essentially modern Calendars of Events. The word primstav is thought 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 side covers the rest of the year. The drawing at left shows the winter half year. October 14th is marked with the traditional mitten symbol. Primstaves are bigger than rulers; the modern reproductions I've seen on sale for tourists are about 20 to 30 inches long and 2.5 inches wide. Their thickness is about like a wooden ruler. Most of the old ones were made of wood or bone, although 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 had holes for hanging on a wall. In addition to a score along the edge for each day, holidays were marked with appropriate symbols. A few staves had a square 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 primstaves were incorporated into walking sticks. Whatever their form, they were both 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 connecting letter often used in Scandinavian languages to form compound words, and is also 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 death 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 associated predictions. (I'm leaving out most of them.) The information below about 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 sketch of at least one of its symbols. I've chosen to use the modern year divisions of Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer. As space permits, future editions of 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, the second, which extended into October, was called Haustmånad — the Fall or Harvest Month.
Sept 1 1st St. Egedius Day, Kvernknarren, Yrjansmesse: (St. Egidius ( = St. Giles) Day) — symbols: millstone, half cross, cross, leaf, branch, or a trap. — This day predicted 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.
Sept 5 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; one 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! Evidently it wasn't too important.) All cattle should be home from the summer pastures by this day, because this was when the huldrefolk would move onto the mountain farms. You wouldn't want for them to use your cattle, nor would you want to interfere in their lives.
Sept 8 8th Marimesse siare, Marimesse om hausten, Vår Frues dag (Mary's later mass, Mary's mass in the fall, our Lady's day) — symbols: sheepshears, a tree, 2 oaks, a crown, a crowned head, or an “M”. This day celebrates Mary's birth. Sheep should be sheared on this day.
Sept 12 12thFingergullmesse (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. The reliquary was in the form of a finger of gold. (Sorry, all you James Bond fans!). This holiday was fairly local to the Trondheim area. In other areas it was the day to shear sheep.
Sept 14 14thKrossmesse 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.
Sept 21 21stMatteusmesse, 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 winter dens.
Sept 29 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 important holiday. Michael cakes and other special foods are eaten, and harvest is finished. Many places had market day today — a folk interpretation of the scales symbol. It was the day to change employers, move, and pay off loans. Today may also have been a pre-Christian harvest/thanksgiving feast. On this night, all farm animals should be under a roof, otherwise "they'll see what will happen to them during the next year. This is craziness." After this day, one cannot be safe from snow.

Oct 4 October — 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 primstav.
4thSt. Frans/Frantz (St. Francis of Assisi Day) — symbols: half cross, cross and tower; in Sweden: a fish, cloister, or a cross and book. St. Francis created the Franciscan order around the year 200.
Oct 7 7th – (or 9th) Britemesse, Bruemesse (for St. Birgitta fra Vadstena, Sweden) — symbols: book or tablet, house, arrow(s), rings, cross, or crown. Birgitta (d. 1373) founded a Swedish cloister. In Telemark and Setesdal the symbol was sometimes a tree, a bush, or heather twigs. People in those parts believed this was the day when bears 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.
Oct 9 9thDinesmesse (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, so that leaves are blown from the trees.
Oct 14 14th 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 the “winter side” of the primstav. In pagan times, offerings held on this day welcomed winter and insured a good year. A variety of housecleaning jobs were done today for good luck and health. Cold weather takes hold now, and the day’s weather predicts weather for the coming year (or winter). In some places, hired hands changed employers on this day. After today, horses should wear sleigh bells.
Oct 18 18thLukosmesse (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.
Oct 21 21stUrsulamesse, 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 to 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.
Oct 28 28thSimonsmesse, 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 called "the two apostles' mass." The animals should now be given winter food rather than let to graze. Snow was expected after this day, and one could travel by sleigh.

November is the rest of the old Norse butchering month and about two thirds of Ylir, the next of the old months.
Nov 1 1stHelgemesse, 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 in 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 this day, the winter bread supply should be baked. This holiday was estab lished by Pope Gregory IV in the 8th century. It was retracted during a holiday 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 to sleep?!)
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, too.)
Nov 2 2ndAlle 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 be faulty.
Nov 11 11thMortensmesse, 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 weren’t a common farm animal on the Scandinavian peninsula, so pork was usually eaten instead.
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 of livestock, the poor, the sick, and close friends.
Nov 21 21stMarimesse, Maria offer — (Mary's mass, Mary's presentation at the temple) — symbols: cross with rays, crowned head with halo. When she was three years old, Mary was brought to the temple in Jerusalem by her parents. Hosebands (to hold up one's socks) were doled out to the young, and linen, thread, and hosebands were brought with a tithe of wool to the priest's women. One assumes these ladies were housekeepers, or keepers of the parish supplies. Before the advent of government care, parishes kept stores of food, cloth, and other necessities for the poor and for famine times. From what I've read, this custom of communal storage for hard times predates Christianity.
Nov 23 23rdKlementsmesse, 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 anchor.
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.
Nov 25 25thKarimesse, 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.
Nov 30 30. Andreasmesse (St. Andrew's mass) — symbols: cross of St. Andrew (i.e., X-formed cross), a fishhook, or a fox trap. The day was also called "Andreas Fiskar," (”Andrew the fisherman” — he was patron saint of fisherman). Folk should catch fish today for Christmas eating. Wood for carving should be set aside to season for evening work during the next winter. In Beiarn (in Nordland, Norway) the day was called Jul-Anders day, and folk went "jul-ander-ing." People dressed up and went around to other farms during evening meal time. This meal was traditionally (in Beiarn, anyway) sheep's head and feet, and the visitors got to eat a foot! But first they were asked where they came from. They'd claim to be from a neighboring valley. If they didn't like what was served, a teasing 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 internet references.

Printed Material:
1. Primstaven, Breivega, Titta H., Det Norske Samlaget., no pub. date given.
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, 1931.

Internet Pages: The first four of these were the most informative.
1. <>
Great information about primstaves, symbols, and each merkedag. Illustrated with modern interpretations of the old symbols.
2. <>. 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, <> has more info than I hope you'll ever need on Nordic/Germanic runes and various aspects of Nordic/Viking folk culture.
3. <> A list of days and a really fine drawing of a primstav.
4. <> A calendar of Norwegian and international holidays and anniversaries. Just click on the dates.
5. <> In English. Has some info and a very nice photo.
6. <> Holidays, with historical tidbits.
7. <> A contemporary list of Norwegian saints' days.
8. <> A contem-porary list of Catholic saints' days from a Norwegian perspective.
9. <> A list of merkedager.
10. <> A short list of merkedager.
11. <> Rural customs and merkedager.
12. <> In English . Has a bit of good info, and some nice drawings.
13. <> In English.. About clog calendars.
14. <> A dictionary site. In English. §