Disir – female ancestors
The disir, or idises, are the souls of the female family line, often thought of as the elder mothers.
The term ‘dis’ can refer to human women, female ghosts, goddesses and even Valkyrie. Snorri called them Norns.
If they appear dressed in white they bring good fortune, dressed in black they will be harbingers of death.
In Olaf’s saga, Flateyjarbok, during a Winternights feast, Thorhallr has an ill boding that someone will die that night. Later, Thidrandi, with sword in hand and hiding under a woodpile heard riders galloping from the north:
He saw that there were nine women and they were all in black clothes and had drawn swords in their hands. He also heard riders galloping from the south; they were also nine women all in light clothes on white horses. Then Thidrandi wanted to turn inside and tell folk of it. Then the black clad women came forward and attacked him, but he warded himself well and manfully. Some time afterward Thorhallr woke up and asked if Thidrandi was awake, and he was not answered. Thorhallr said, “Then you must have over-slept.” Then they went out. There was moonshine and frost weather. They found Thidrandi lying wounded and he was borne in. And when folk had words with him he said all that had happened. He died at dawn that same morning and was laid in a howe according to the old custom of heathen folk.
Thorhallr interprets this event:
I expect that your disir which have followed this old faith have now learned of this changing of customs and that they shall be forsaken by their kin. Now they must not want to have no share from you before they part from you and they must have taken this as their part. But the better disir must have wanted to help him and were not able to do so as things stood.
Disir can also mean living female relatives, but is used most often to refer to female ancestors. These women are thought to watch over their female descendents and help them in a variety of ways. They are called on to help in matters of healing, childbirth, safe passage when traveling, aid in battle and magic, such as the spae-dis.
Hamingja is the ancestral folk soul that travels with a person’s family from generation to generation, being added to, like soul parts, with each new generation. It is said to represent a family’s luck, or lack of it. The disir are thought to maintain a family’s hamingja and to offer help and advice to the living generation.
The Disir are widely worshipped at Disablot, blessing of the idises, which is held around harvest time. It is held in the home and attended by close kin, rather than being a public event.
Mother’s Night, or Mōdraniht, which is held the night before Yule, is attended by the women in a family and is specially held to honour the female ancestors and the traditional female arts, such as cooking, baking and sewing.
Another term for the Goddess Freyja is Vanadis, the idis of the Vanir. Her brother Freyr is known as lord of the alfs, male ancestors. These terms may indicate that Freyja and Freyr are the chief guardians or leader of the disir, but this is a not widely held view. The connection with Freyja and Valkyries, as chooser of half the slain in battle provides another connection between her and the deceased.
I will expand more on Freyja in an upcoming article.
Sources / Reading:
The Elder Troth by KveldúlfR Hagan Gundarsson, Lesson Three: Wights, The Troth, 1996
Teutonic Religion by Kveldulf Gundarsson, p106-118, Llewellyn, 1993
Our Troth: History and Lore, Vol.1, The Troth, Ch 22, Booksurge, 2006
A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru, Patricia M. Lafayllve, Ch 4, Llewellyn, 2013
Teutonic Mythology Vol.2, Jacob Grimm translated from the Fourth Edition by James Steven Stallybrass, Ch27 , George Bell and Sons, 1882
Scandinavian Folktales by Jacqueline Simpson
Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend by Reimund Kvideland and Henninbg K. Sehmsdorf, University of Minnesota Press, 2014