The Religious Practices, Rituals, Feasts, Holidays, of the Pre-Christian (Heathens) & Viking Age North

Lesson A Questions | Lesson Index A thru F

Lesson A Religious Practices of the Pre-Christian & Viking Age North

by Alfta Lothurrsdottir

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© 2006

Begin Reading Here, Questions at the End of this page


The undertaking of this article is one that I have felt was needed for some time. Since the Northern Way is a reconstructionist tradition I wanted to shed a little light on the actual practices of our Northern fore-fathers. The common opinion is that there is little in way of information about the religious practices of the Pre-Christian and Viking Age North. I therefore expected to find maybe 20 or 30 pages worth of notes and, from that, be able to offer some very rough outlines. It was not long before I realized that there was more information out there than I had thought. What I found is that there was information to be found. It was like someone had made a puzzle that was the Religious Practices of the North and then taken those puzzle pieces and spread them to the wind. Every book I read or every saga I looked through, would yield more pieces to that puzzle. I am confident that, had I had time and had been able to study more sources, I would have found more pieces to that puzzle. Unfortunately I had a deadline and I had to stop somewhere and start working on writing this article. So I took the puzzle pieces I had gathered and began to organize them. With each puzzle piece I began to see an overall picture of the Religious practices of the Pre-Christian and Viking Age North. I did not find all the puzzle pieces and I most likely never will, but I believe that I now have enough to be able to get a fairly decent picture of those religious practices.

It is certain that scholars have made many studies of the religious practices of the North. I don’t consider myself a scholar by any means, although I hope that my studies will one day earn me that title. I think that, as excellent as the work done by scholars on this subject is, it still lacks a view point which would, in my opinion, shed much light on the subject. That point of view is one from the believer, that is, the point of view from one who sees the Regin as reality instead of some attempt of “primitive” man to describe the forces of nature or any of the other various theories that come from the religion called Science (*). I hope to be able to offer that view (i.e. of a believer) and that those reading this article will find that view of use.

My goals with this article are to first present the actual practices that we have evidence of from the lore and from established and quality scholarship. I hope to present it in an organized manner by grouping it logically. Then I would like to offer my thoughts on how we, as modern Northmen and Northwomen, can take those practices and incorporate them into our modern practice as we honor the Regin and strengthen the ties that have with them. I will leave it to the reader to judge as to whether or not I have been successful in this.

Holy Enclosures

The types of places considered holy are surprisingly varied. A holy area might be in a grove of trees or a particular tree. A large standing stone or a spring might be considered holy or a hill or a lake. Any striking landmark might be considered holy. From the evidence we have, it seems that these types of holy sites were the norm until the Viking Age (roughly from 700 C. E. until about 1100 C. E.) at which time built structures became more prominent. Despite this, natural landmarks as holy ground continued well until the Christian conversion and beyond.

The Hof

Holy groves and various other sacred sites of that sort continued but as the Viking Age neared its end the hof became more common. Zoëga gives the definition for the word “hof” as “Heathen temple.”
(1) These “Heathen temples” were also called goðahús (House of the Gods) or blóthús (House of Sacrifice). (2) Although the word hof is generally taken to indicate a temple of some sort there is some debate as to whether or not this is true, as there have been no actual Northern temples to survive into modern times. Archeology has yielded no sure answer to this question either. Because the word ‘hof’ occurs in many place names it was once thought that this indicated the existence of many temples but later scholarship has shown this to be nothing more than the assumptions of “later antiquarians.” (3) If hof does refer to a temple proper then judging from the place names there would have been quite a few temples.

The word hof may have referred to farm buildings. Hof could have referred to a large communal hall where large gatherings were held for the feasts on holy nights. (4) It would have been used after the blót or sacrifice. If this were the case, the animal which was sacrificed was killed at the holy site and prepared for cooking in the hof, while the parts that were dedicated to the gods were left hanging on a sacred tree or on poles. An example of this type of hof was excavated in an area in north-eastern Iceland called Hofstaðir. When it was first excavated it was thought, from the ground plan, to be a large temple. Later scholarship thinks it more probably that this was a great hall for a farmhouse and that it was used by the leading gothi of the area to hold feasts during the major holy days. It would not have been built for purely religious purposes and could have been used for other purposes. (5) Possible proof of this in the lore comes from the story of how the Christian skald Sigvatr Þorðarson (c.1020) was sent by the Christian king of Norway to arrange a marriage between the king of Norway and the daughter of the king of Sweden. At this time Norway was Christian but the people of Sweden still clung to the ways of their ancestors. When Sigvatr came to a farm that was called “hof” seeking shelter he was turned away. The farm wife there explained that they were in the midst of the álfablót (Feast of the Alfs/Elves) and that she feared the anger of Othinn if the skald were allowed in. He experienced this at several farms. As noted one of the farms he visited was called hof. This could have been referring to the hall which he was barred from entering. (6) Further proof of this might be found in the word Dísasal (7) which is the name given to a place of worship for the goddesses or dísir in many sources. The Old Norse word salr means room or hall and the words salskynní and saldrótt mean homestead and household folk respectively. (8)

Although we cannot be sure that there were temples built that were solely for the religious purposes early on, they most certainly developed some time during the Viking Age and perhaps earlier. While natural features in the land were regarded as sacred sites, there developed a need for an enclosed or fenced off area as the word vé (9) (holy enclosure) indicates. From the evidence we have the use of idols to represent the Regin was a late development. We know that the Germans in the 1st centuries did not represent their gods and goddesses with images. (10) It is possible that the need for an enclosure developed as a response to the development of depicting the gods and goddesses in human form. These idols would have needed a place to set them apart and or house them.

The enclosure may have developed from something as simple as a raised earthwork or an ditch that was made to surround (enclose) the sacred area. The area enclosed could be circular, square or rectangular and include other sacred features such as posts/pillars, springs etc. (11) There are various examples of this type of enclosure from archaeological finds. One called the Goloring which is near Coblenz is circular in shape and has a diameter of about 190 metres. The dating of this site is thought to be around the sixth century B.C.E. This site contained a large posthole in the center. Could this have been for an Irminsul (see “Pillars and Posts”)? Another example is in Czechoslovakia and was rectangular in shape (80 meters by 20 meters) which was surrounded by a ditch. In it were bones of children and animals. This site is thought to have had an artificial platform and pits holding bones and pottery fragments. There was a stone in the shape of a rough pyramid about 200 cm. high which stood in the place where the offerings were made. The center of this enclosure was taken up by the grave of what is thought to be the grave of a priestess. It dates back to the third century B. C. E. (12)

The best evidence for a pre-Viking Age temple is found at Tronheim Fjord. As was common practice with the Christians, a church was built on the spot but there were signs of an earlier building that dated back to 500 C. E. which contained numerous post holes. There was signs of burning, as if the previous building there had been burned down by Christians in order to make way for their church to replace the older Northern temple. Also found were tiny pieces of gold foil which were commonly used on figures known as goldgubber in Denmark. (13) There have been attempts to rebuild temples such as the reconstruction of the temple at Uppsala but that reconstruction is based on the ground plan of a Wendish temple at Arcona which was destroyed by the Danes in the twelfth century. (14)

Whether the word ‘hof’ originally designated a large meeting hall where the community would gather for the sacrificial feast after the blót, which was held at a separate site, or if it designated a temple proper or, as Rudolf Simek suggests, that temples were simply roofed versions of hörgrs (see ‘The Hörgr’), (13) it is clear that by the end of the Viking Age it had come to designate a temple which was solely dedicated to religious functions. (14)

Descriptions of hofs do survive in the sagas and in various other sources from the middle ages. One common feature is that they seem to all have been constructed of wood. bookmark One possible example was excavated in Northumberland and is considered to be from the seventh century which places it in the Anglo-Saxon pre-Christian period. It measured 11 x 5.5 m. and had inner walls. The doors were in the center of the longer walls and there was a second building which scholars belief may have served as the kitchen, as many animal bones were found there. The skulls of these animals were not found there but in the main building in a pit. The main building had three post holes as well. (15) The temple at Mære as well as the temple at Uppsala were also described as being made of wood and post holes were found at those sites as well. (16) Although there is little doubt that there were smaller hofs constructed archaeologists have been unable to uncover any evidence or any large buildings or the outlines of such under churches. The elaborate descriptions we find in the sagas and buy such accounts as come to us from Adam of Bremen may be influenced by accounts of temples in Christian literature or from the large medieval churches built of stone. (17)

Thórólf Mostrar-skegg’s (“Moster-beard”) hof is described in Eyrbyggja Saga, in chapter 4:

“There he let build a temple, and a mighty house it was. There was a door in the side-wall and nearer to one end thereof. Within the door stood the pillars of the high-seat, and nails were therein; they were called the Gods’ nails. There within was there a great frith-place. But off the inmost house was there another house, of that fashion whereof now is the choir of a church, and there stood a stall in the midst of the floor in the fashion of an altar, and thereon lay a ring without a join that weighed twenty ounces, and on that must men swear all oaths; and that ring must the chief have on his arm at all man-motes (Things).

On the stall should also stand the blood-bowl, and therein the blood-rod was, like unto a sprinkler, and therewith should be sprinkled from the bowl that blood which is called “Hlaut”, which was that kind of blood which flowed when those beasts were smitten who were sacrificed to the Gods. But round about the stall were the Gods arrayed in the Holy Place.

To that temple must all men pay toll, and be bound to follow the temple-priest in all farings even as now are the thingmen of chiefs. But the chief must uphold the temple at his own charges, so that it should not go to waste, and hold therein feasts of sacrifice.”

Hofs were often constructed either close by or made to include natural sacred landmarks. These could be sacred groves and/or sacred trees or springs or standing stones to name a few. (18) In Hörd’s Saga Thorstein Gullnapr has a “sacrificing house” in which is a stone which he venerates. In the Saga Thorstein sings this song to the stone:

Thou hast hither Before the sun shines,

For the last time The hard Indridj

With death-fated feet Will justly reward thee

Trodden the ground; For thy evil doings.

Hörd’s Saga chapter 37

It was also common for smaller individual shrines or personal hofs to be built. The Old Norse word for this was stalli or stallr, meaning altar or support for an idol. (19) One example of one is the “temple” that Thorolf of Helgafell built next to the holy mountain. In this hof or stalli was kept the sacred ring of the god and the hlautr bowl used to catch the sacrificial blood. (20) The stalli was considered as distinct from the hörg. (21) It is also possible that the larger hofs were specifically for larger gatherings, such as a district who, when they came together would have need of a larger hall and that the smaller hofs were personal hofs or no more than a covering for personal stalli. (22)

The hofs were built in such a way that they could be disassembled and moved if need be. There are examples of this in the lore such as Landmánabók and Eyrbyggja Saga. In Landnámabók Thorhad who was an old hofgothi (temple priest) in Thrandheim in Mœri, decided to move to Iceland. He carried with him the temple mould (dirt) and the altars and settled in a place called Stödvarfjord. He rebuilt his temple there and the whole fjord was considered holy from that time on. (23) The bringing of dirt from the foundation of the temple to the new location seems to have been a common practice as we find it done in what is probably the most well known example of a temple being moved, in Eyrbyggja Saga. Here Thórólf Mostrar-skegg (“Moster-beard”) sets out for Iceland after disassembling and bringing most of the his temple with him, including the two high seat posts. (24) The mould brought was said to be specifically from under where Thorr had sat. (25) When Thórólfr neared Iceland he took the two high seat posts, one of which had the likeness of Thorr carved on it, and threw them overboard. He said that he would land and make that place his home where the pillars came to land. It was said that the pillars immediately began to drift toward a ness much faster than most thought was normal and it was at that ness that Thórólf landed and named Thorsness. (26)

The post holes mentioned so often most likely have a more practical purpose. This practical purpose could have very well been put to ritual and/or sacred use as well, as in the case of Thórólf who carved the likeness of Thorr into one of his high seat pillars. To understand the practical use of the posts in hofs you must know a little about how hofs and Stave Churches were built. Although there is no proof that hofs were built in the same fashion as Stave Churches, I would postulate that to be the case. H. R. Ellis Davidson discusses this method of building in her excellent book “Myths and Symbols In Pagan Europe.” Instead of the walls and pillars being set in the ground and surrounded with stone, which, according to Davidson does not last very long, the Stave Churches were built on what are called ‘groundsills’. These were four massive lengths of timber laid down in the form of a square. From this a series of masts or pillars rose, which supported the walls and roof of the structure, rounded at the foot like the masts of a ship. The post holes found in so many sites by archaeologists were possibly there in order to ‘anchor’ this groundsill. (27)

Stavekirk Temple

Stave Churches

Before moving on I should take a few lines to describe the Stave Churches. Anyone who has seen a picture of these beautiful churches is well aware of their uniqueness. There is much debate as to whether or not these represent true Heathen temples that were later used by the Christians or if they are basically Christian in origin. There are about 31 of these churches that have survived from a period between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries in Norway. There is nothing like them anywhere and are nowhere close to the heavy stone and brick constructions found in England and Germany. As mentioned above these Stave Churches were built in a way that allows them to last a very long time. The masts or pillars that anchors them to the ground is also the way in which they are described, i.e, a one-mast church for those with one central pillar rising from the center of the groundsill, or many-masted church for those like the one in Borgund where “the sleepers forming the sill are arranged to form a square inside a rectangle, and the masts are set round the square. At Borgund there are as many as six different levels from the ground to the central tower, and a series of roofs of different heights are grouped around the central sanctuary.” (28) The strongest argument for the theory that these churches are examples of Heathen hofs comes from the fact that they had been brought to a “standard of perfection” as early as the 11th century. The development of such a beautiful and intricate style that has never been duplicated elsewhere could not have happened in so short a time if they were Christian inventions and must have come from a long tradition native to Norway. (29)

The earliest Stave Churches have many elaborate carvings on their walls and pillars that are obviously from Norse lore, which shows the likely possibility that these churches were converted Heathen hofs. Dragons protrude from the gables in the same way they would have from the prows of the Viking longships. According to Davidson, who quotes Lorenz Dietrichson, there is an obvious link between the building techniques of the Stave Churches and ship-building. He points out that, “‘A row of arches, upside down, is placed between different rafters, just as it was between the ribs of a Viking ship. In the ship these ribs were not attached to the keel, and similarly the rafter arches and the beams are separate from the ridge beams of the church…. The entire church is strengthened throughout by elbow joints and brackets, just as the Viking ships are.’ Inside the churches it is dark and mysterious, and the fact that the roof rises in the center gives an impression of narrowness and height, drawing the gaze upwards. A building of this kind would emphasize the centrality of the sacred place, while the series of different levels would be in accordance with the picture of the world of the gods and men and supernatural beings grouped vertically and horizontally around the World Tree.” (30)

It is my opinion that the Stave Churches were, as Christianity has done with so many other aspects of our tradition, appropriated and that they are genuine examples of what pre-Christian hofs would have looked like in Norway. It is my hope that one day I will be able to visit those churches personally one day. It is also my hope that one day we will see one constructed, with the same techniques, here in America.

The Hörg

Another type of sacred site was known as the Hörg which is defined as “a heathen place of worship, cairn or altar of stone.” (31) This could have also included the many stone circles that can be found all over Northern Europe. The hörg was considered as distinct from the stalli. (32) Although the stalli was an altar and might be made of stone it was distinguished from the hörg because the hörg was under the open sky and surrounded by an enclosure of stones. (33) In modern Norwegian and Icelandic the word hörg is used for “mountain top.” When hörgs were destroyed they were described as being “broken” instead of burned as is used when describing the destruction of hofs. (34) They were often dedicated to particular deities as we see was the case of Ottar’s hörg described in the lay from the Poetic Edda called Hyndluljoth. (35) There it is said of Ottar by Freyja that:

10. “For me a shrine of stones he made,-

And now to glass the rock has grown;-

Oft with the blood of beasts was it red;

In the goddesses ever did Ottar trust. (36)

The Old Norse word used here and translated as “shrine of stones” was hörg. Various sagas in the Fornaldr Sögur and others support the view that the hörg was in the open air. (37) There were other terms for open air sacred sites (some of which we will examine below) such as ‘lundr’ meaning ‘grove’ or ‘field’ which is similar to the word vé which means ‘temple or sanctuary’ (38) and is generally taken to refer to groves and similar sacred areas. (39)

The altar of the hörg was one that was sacrificial in nature. As is seen in the strophe from Hyndluljoth, the hörg was reddened with the blood of sacrifice so much that is was as shiney as glass from fires. That they were often dedicated to particular gods or goddesses is seen from the descriptions in the lore and by place names, such as Þörshörgr and Oðinshögr. (40) Sacrifices to the Dísir are mentioned as being given on hörgrs such as the one in Hervarar Saga. In that saga, the princess Alfhild is acting as gythja and conducting the sacrifice to the dísir by reddening the hörg at night when Starkard kidnaps her.

So from the evidence we have it is clear that the hörg could be considered any open air altar that is made of stone and/or stone circles that enclose a sacred area.

Sacred Groves

The oldest form of sacred space we have record of is the sacred grove. The various terms for sacred enclosures of natural origin, such as groves was “lundr” meaning ‘grove’ (41) and vé meaning ‘sacred field or sacrificial site’. (42) One of the earliest, if not the earliest, mentions of a sacred grove comes from Tacitus’ Germania. Here he tells us of the practice of the Germans in their worship. They have no images of the gods and goddesses and indeed judged it unsuitable to have them. Their places of worship were whole woods and groves and they called them by the names of their gods. (43) Tacitus also tells us of a pair of gods who are brothers called “Alcis” who are worshiped in a sacred grove. Their priests were said to dress as women. Again here he tells us that there were no images present in their worship of these two brother gods. (44) The gods were considered to dwell in these groves among the boughs of the trees. (45)

Even though hofs would become more prevalent as the Viking Age came to an end the vé (pronounced like vay rhyming with hay) was still a place of worship well into the Viking Age and even afterwards. The Christians made it a special point to either build churches in them or cut them down. A song in the Königinhof mentioned a grove from which the Christians scared away the sacred sparrow which dwelled there and the bishop, Unwan of Bremen made it his special task to have sacred groves cut down. (46)

One tradition connected with sacred groves, which I’ll examine in more detail later was the hanging of the heads and/or skins/carcasses of animals in the branches of a sacred tree or the trees of a sacred grove. This practice is attested to having been done at the great temple at Uppsala which had an adjoining sacred grove. In this sacred grove where hung the bodies and animals and men which had been sacrificed. It is most likely that the animal carcasses were actually the heads and skins of the animals. Perhaps a fine distinction but I’ll discuss why that might be so later on when I examine this practice in more detail. (47)

Like hofs, sacred groves were some times adjacent to other sacred land marks. There is an account of a rivulet in Livonia which originated in a sacred grove and which supplied a sacred fountain. No one was allowed to cut any of the trees in this grove and if someone even broke a twig there they were said to be sure to die that year. The fountain was kept clean and if anything was thrown in the fountain storms would result. (48) In Hervarar Saga Hlöðr Heiðreksson was said to have been born in a holy wood with weapons and horse. (49) In the Prose Edda Snorri tells us of he sacred grove called Glasir:

“Why is gold called the Needles, or leaves, of Glasir? In Ásgard, befor the doors of Valholl, there stands a grove which is called Glasir, and its leafage is all red gold, even as is sung here:

Glasir stands

With golden leafage

Before the High God’s halls.

Far and wide, this tree is the fairest known among gods and men. (50)

The Old Norse used here is lundr, which as we showed previously refers to a sacred grove or field.

The point to be made from this is that pre-Christian and Viking Age Heathens had a great veneration of groves as places holy to the gods. No tree within a sacred grove was to be harmed in any way and the gods and goddesses themselves were some times thought to dwell there. Mention of sacred groves could be found throughout Scandinavia. In Romove, Prussia there stood a holy grove in which was a holy oak which was hung with clothing. This grove was considered the most sacred spot in the land and to be the seat of the gods. No unconsecrated person could enter nor any beast slain there. There were said to be many groves like this throughout Prussia and Lithuania (51) Another reference comes from an account of a battle between the Franks and the Saxons at Notteln in the year 779. A wounded Saxon had himself conveyed into a holy wood where a deity was thought to dwell. Grimm believes that the word given for this deity was purposely chosen to avoid naming a “well-known Heathen god.” It is not clear whether the Saxon wished to die there or if he felt he could be healed there. In either case it is easy to see the veneration that sacred groves were held in. (52)

There is some reason to believe that sacred groves were, more often than not dedicated to the Vanir or one among their ranks. The sacred grove in Uppsala would have most likely been dedicated to Freyr as he was worshipped above all by the Swedes at that time and his grave mound was said to be among the howes of that hof. Tacitus tells us of a sacred grove dedicated to the earth mother Nerthus who is thought to possibly be the consort of Njörthr. (53) Elves were also thought to be caretakers of trees and of groves. These groves sometimes found enclosed by silken thread were called elfträd-gårdar by the Swedes. (54) We know from the Prose Edda that Freyr is considered the ruler of the alfs (elves) and that he was given Alfheimr (elf-home) as a tooth fee (footnote):

5. Ydalir call they the place where Ull

A hall for himself hath set;

And Alfheim the gods to Freyr once gave

As a tooth-gift in ancient times. (*)

– Grimnismol, Strophe 5 (55)

Sacred Trees

Sacred groves were not the only natural landscape feature that might be considered as sacred. Individual trees, either in groves or elsewhere many times were considered holy. There are numerous mentions of sacred trees in the lore, especially oaks and the rowan which were considered sacred to Thorr. Although oaks were mentioned quite often and considered the most holy according to Grimm, as in the case in Romove mentioned already, there were other trees that were held to be sacred as well. The Beech tree and the Ash were considered sacred and to this day it is considered dangerous to break the bough of an Ash. (56) The world tree Yggdrasill is said to be an Ash, and it is under this tree that the Regin hold the Thing. (57) In Tacitus’ Germania is a description of the method used for consulting the gods and it has been conjectured that this description is of the runes being used. Although it is by no means certain if the description is of the runes it certainly is not beyond the realm of possibility. In the description wood from a certain type of tree is said to be used for the divination. That wood is any wood from a fruit bearing tree. (58) Deitmar describes a grove of Beech wood trees on an island which were venerated as sacred. (59) The Vita S. Germani Autisiodorensis written by Constantius (circa 5th century) tells of a pear tree which stood in the middle of Auxerre and was honored by the Heathens. (60) This would lend further support to Tacitus’ statements concerning the special nature of fruit bearing trees. Hazels were in olden days used to hedge in a law court and the elder also was held in veneration. (61)

It was not an uncommon practice to leave offerings at the foot of a sacred tree or for wreaths to be hung on them. This practice continued after the Christian conversion. (62) A tenth century Greek account tells of a practice of the Rus who were traders on the Dnieper who brought cocks with them for the purpose of sacrificing as a thank-offering. They laid their sacrifices at the foot of an enormous oak on an island now called St. Gregory’s Island. This oak survived into the nineteenth century. It is thought the Rus were sacrificing to Thorr who was often called upon to assist travelers and with whom the oak was associated. (63) The Langobards also left offerings at trees as is evidenced from their “blood-tree” or “holy tree.” (64) There is evidence of this with other cultures such as the Lettons who believed their god Pushkait lived under the elder tree. They would leave bread and beer for him beside the tree and would not burn elder wood for fear of bad luck. (65) And of course there is the practice of hanging animal heads and carcasses/skins in the limbs of the tree which we’ll examine more closely later in the article.

As would be expected certain trees were immune from cutting. Oaks and hazels were not to be cut. In order to cut wood from the elder tree, a prayer was required sometimes on bent knee and bare head in later times. This is most likely a survival of a Heathen tradition. Tales exist of men beginning to cut down certain trees only to hear a voice commanding them not to cut down the tree. (66)

Many times individual trees were given names, specifically names of goddesses (67) or were addressed with female titles. The later traditions of beautiful maidens sitting inside the hollows of trees and even later Christian traditions of the ‘Madonna in the Wood,’ were possibly derived from this tradition. Tree’s might be called by the names of Hlin, Gna or be address as frau or dame, Old Norse words for woman or lady. (68)

The Veneration of sacred trees was something that continued into the Christian conversion. In Minden on Easter Sunday the young people of both sexes used to dance, with load cries of joy, in a circle around an old oak. (69) Despite this survival of Heathen custom, the Christians went out of their way to cut down sacred trees. There are cases, however, where the Heathens stood up and would not allow the Christians to desecrate their holy sites according to Grimm. Despite those instances of resistance Christians were always ready to cut down sacred trees and groves wherever they found them and replaced them with Christian churches. When ever they did not chop down the trees the sites they were on were converted to Christian churches. The church at Fritzlar was actually said to have been built out of the wood from the sacred oak that had stood there. (70)

Like sacred groves there is evidence that may point to sacred trees being connected with the alfs. Some pine trees were thought to have what was called a ‘hafs-fru’ (sea-maiden?) dwelling under them. It was said one could sometimes see snow-white cattle being driven up from the lake and through meadows to them and no one dared to touch the bows of the tree. Trees of this sort were thought to be sacred to individual alfs. (71) There are also descriptions of processions being made to a holy oak near Wormeln, Paderborn once every year. Most all the evidence we have for processions are connected with Vanir gods and goddesses. (72) As we have seen, the alfs and Vanir seem to be intimately connected. In the Eddas one would expect that when the tribe of the Aesir and Vanir to be with when talking of the gods. It is interesting to note that instead it is Aesir and Alfs many times.

It is then possible to say that the vé (sacred grove or field) was a particular feature of Vanir worship? In Viga-Glúms Saga we here of a field that was devoted to Freyr. Glúm killed someone in that field and thereby incurred the wrath of the Vanir god. (73) While we could not say for sure that sacred groves and trees are a feature of Vanir worship we could say that there is a strong possibility of such, as most all the references we have of the veneration of trees and groves are connected either with Vanir deities or with the alfar.

Sacred Stones

Another sacred space used by Northern European Heathens was the sacred stone. These were many times massive and/or strangely shaped stones. (74) In Landnámabók we find Eyvind the son of Lodin who is said to have settled in a valley and on the edge of whose land was the Gunnsteinnar (Gunn-rocks) which he worshipped. (75) Heathens were adept at arranging great masses of stone and many times used them in grave-mounds as well. (76) Oaths were sworn on holy stones at Things and stones were used in sacrifices as well. (77) There are also examples of folk traditions surviving that most likely have Heathen origins such as the Hollow Stone near Hesse. On Easter Monday the youths and maidens of the villages nearby carry nosegays and draw some water and will not venture down from the area of the stone unless they have flowers with them. (78)

Holy Mountains and Hills

There were quite a few examples of whole mountains or hills being considered sacred. Some of these are shown in place names such as Wodan’s Hill or Thunar’s Hill. (79) Thórólf Mostrar-skegg (“Moster-beard”), when he moved to Iceland found a large outcropping of rocks which he named Helgafell and considered most holy. He believed that he would fare there to live with his ancestors upon his death and no one was allowed to look on it (pray to it) without having washed. Nor, as is common with sacred space, were the animals living there allowed to be killed. He also built a hof nearby. (80)

According to Grimm the so-called ‘witch’s mountains’ of later Christian times were originally places sacred to Heathens and used for sacrifices. The Christians, of course, turned them into places where ‘devil worship’ occurred by witches. Elves also took up residence in hills quit often and these alfs were often given offerings. (81)

Sacred Rivers, Lakes, Bogs, Springs etc.

There are many examples of sacred bodies of water in the lore. There have been many archaeological finds indicated offerings from bogs and in lakes. River bends that formed an ea (aue) were thought to specially sacred to the gods. (82) There were many instances of a sacred spring or well located beside hofs or sacred groves. There are still folk customs that have their followers making offerings to these wells and springs. (83) Offerings were thrown in lakes and there was an example of man who threw offerings of food into a waterfall in Iceland. (84) In Skedemosse on the island of Öland a large number of objects have been recovered from a dried up lake bed. These objects are thought to have been offerings. (85)

Descriptions of Sacred Places

There are more than a few descriptions of hofs and sacred spaces that have survived in various literature. Some may have been influenced by the author’s knowledge of Christian churches in England or on Mainland Europe. One of these descriptions about which there is much debate among scholars as to whether it is an authentic description of a Heathen hof is Adam of Bremen’s description of the hof at Uppsala. It is described as being made completely of gold and to house the statues of three gods. Thor was said to occupy the middle seat and to the left and right were the statues of Wodan (Othinn) and Fricco (Freyr). The temple was encircled by a golden chain which hung from the gable of the house, the reflection of which was able to be seen very far off by those approaching the hof. (86) It is doubtful that the whole hof was constructed out of gold, although this could have been wood which was coated with gold foil.

The hof of Thórólf Mostrar-skeggr is described in Eyrbyggja Saga. It was made of wood and possibly sat on a groundsill as it is mentioned that he took earth from beneath the ‘platform’ when he took the temple down to transport it to Iceland. There were two pillars on either side of the high seat on which Thorr’s statue would have been placed and one of the pillars had the likeness of Thorr carved into it. The door to the temple was in the side-wall near one end and just within this were two more pillars, the ‘sacred columns’ on which were the reginnaglar (god- nails.) These columns as I have postulated before could have been primarily used to anchor the groundsill. This of course does not bar them from having sacred significance as well. Within this hof there was another, like the choir in Christian churches, and in the middle of the floor stood a platform or stalli (an altar) which lay a ring that was un-joined and the hlautr-bolli, (sacrificial blood bowl) (87) which was used to catch the blood from the sacrifices. This ring was the oath-ring which was worn on the arm of the gothi or chief at the Things and which weighed 2 ounces (20 ounces in other accounts). On it were sworn holy oaths. Also on the stalli was the hlaut-teinn (sacrificial blood twig) (88) which was used to sprinkle the sacrificial blood on the walls, altar and those present at the blót. Around the platform stood the statues of the gods. ‘Near at hand’ was the dómhríngr (Doom Ring) within which stood Thorr’s Stone over which the back was broken of those to be sacrificed. (89)

Thorgrim Helgisson was said to be a great performer of sacrifices. On his farm land at Kjalarnes he had a hof which is described as being one hundred feet long by sixty feet wide. Thorr received the highest honors there and it had a round vaulted roof. Thorr’s statue was the central statue with the statues of the other gods grouped around his. Before Thorr’s statue was a stalli. This stalli was covered on top with iron and there was a fire which burned on it that was never allowed to go out and which was called the sacred fire. Also on the stalli laid a large silver ring which like the one in Thórólf Mostrar-skeggr’s hof was worn by the hofgothi during meetings such as at Things and which all oaths were sworn on. There was also a hlaut-bolli here as well which was made of copper. The animals sacrificed were served at the feast and the humans who were sacrificed were thrown in a bog nearby which was called the blót-kéllda (sacrificial pool/bog). (90) (91)

There seems to have been, as can be seen in previous sections, an inner room or area where the statues of the gods and the stalli were located. This part of the hof would have been smaller than the main part of the building in which the feasts were held assuming they were not held in a separate hall. The feast hall had fire pits down the middle over which cauldrons of meat were cooked for the blót feast. On each side of the fire pits would have been tables and benches on which the participants in the feast sat and ate. (92) This is also supported possibly, in Fridthjof’s saga where we find the kings and their wives sitting in a room were fires burned on the floors and their wives sat anointing the gods. There was drinking going on in another room. (93)

Depending on the resources of the person who owned and/or maintained the hof they could be very beautifully decorated. But even the smaller hofs could have been carved with beautiful carvings in wood and hung with elaborate tapestries. The hof dedicated to Thorgerd Hörgabrúd, who was possibly the family dís of Hákon Jarl, is described as adorned with inlaying of gold and silver on the inside and to have had so many windows that there was not a shadow in the whole place. (94) When Charlemagne destroyed the Irminsul (8th century) he is said to have removed great treasures of gold and silver from there. Gold vessels, beautiful broaches, one of which was in the shape of an eagle, and a great jeweled collar were among the treasures removed from a site at Petrossa, Romania in 1837. The well known Gundestrup Cauldron may have been dismantled and removed to deposit in the bog it was found in and is thought by scholars to have been from a hof. (95)

There are many places in the sagas where the hofs, especially the smaller ones, are said to be tented and hung with tapestries. It was common for Norse chieftains to hang their halls with beautifully made tapestries so we can trust that this was a genuine practice for Heathens in decorating their hofs. (96) In the late Kjalnesinga Saga there is a description of a hof that is much similar to the one built buy Thorgrim Helgisson. It was one hundred and twenty feet long by sixty feet wide. At the inner end was a ‘circular annex’ shaped like a cap or hood. Tapestries hung within. Like Thorgrim’s temple the chief god was Thorr whose statue stood in the middle with the statues of the other gods surrounding him. There was also a stalli topped with an iron plate on which was a fire kept constantly burning and silver oath ring and a hlautbolli. (97)

Another feature we find common in descriptions of hofs is that most have a gold ring which is hung on the door. There was one said to have been ordered by Earl Hakon for the hof at Throndheim. (98) Another is described as coming from the door of a temple at Hlader which Olaf had taken in Olaf Tryggvasson’s Saga.

The dísarsalr (hofs dedicated to the dísir) are described in the lore as well. In Fridthjof’s Saga it is described as the highest among buildings in the Baldr’s Grove. It had fires along the floor and seats on either side. (99) The hall was thatched with bleached linen which was probably connected with the goddesses who are weavers and spinners. (100) The Dísar hall described in Ynglinga Saga was big enough for King Adils to ride around with his horse. There may be some indication here that the kings actions were somehow disrespectful and where the cause of his horse stumbling which caused his death. (101) (102)

Unlike the temples of the Greeks and Romans, Heathen hofs do not seem to have been very much mention of going to them for purposes of healing. (103) This seemed to be the domain of grave mounds and other open air sites. (104)

Most hofs seem to have been dedicated primarily to one god or goddess although more than one were worshipped in the same hof. As can be seen above there was usually one god who was placed in the center and was considered the deity for whom the hof was primarily dedicated to. This spot seems to have been normally taken by Thorr. (105) Freyr seems to have occupied this position as well in many temples. (106) In Hrafnkel’s Saga, the saga’s namesake built a hof that was sacred to Freyr and he was called ‘freysgothi.’ (107)

With the larger temples it was common to have a “temple tax” to assist in the upkeep of the hof. In one instance the hofgythja (gothi or gythja responsible for collecting the tax and up-keeping the temple) Steinvör had a problem getting a certain Thorleif to pay his temple tax as the other men in the district did (108) In Ynglinga Saga we are told by Snorri that Othinn imposed a scat or tax on each person which was used to maintain readiness to defend the country and to pay for the sacrifice feasts. (109) When Freyr took over there were said to be several districts called Uppsala-Aud (Uppsala wealth) that were set apart to help pay for the maintaining of the hof and to help pay for the great sacrificial feasts. As may have been the case in most instances such as this, some of the land was considered the personal property of the hofghothi. (110) The temple near Helgafell that was built by Thórólf Mostrar-skeggr also had a temple tax of which everyone in the district was expected to pay. (111)

Lesson A Questions
(by Lady Arianna aka Donna K.)

Send your answers to the following questions
in an email with the subject line:  “Teutonic Religious Practices Lesson A from _______ (your spiritual name)”

1.  What types of landmarks or places were considered holy?

2.  Roughly which period of time were these types of “holy sites” considered the norm?

3.  Who give us the definition of “hof” and what is its meaning?

4.  “Heathen Temples” were often called what ? Describe their meaning.

5.  Fill in the blanks:   Because the word ‘hof’ occurs in many place names it was once thought that this indicated the existence of many __________ but later scholarship has postulated this to be nothing more than the ___________ of “later antiquarians.”

6.  Hof could have referred to a large communal hall where large gatherings for the feasts that were held on holy nights were held. (4) It would have been used after the blót or sacrifice. Give a specific example of this type of hof, and how they think it was used.

7.  Fill in the blanks: Possible proof of this in the lore comes from the story of how the Christian ________ Sigvatr-Þorðarson (c.1020) was sent by the Christian king of Norway to arrange a ________ between the king of Norway and the daughter of the king of _________.

8.  What is álfablót ?

9.  What does the word Dísasal mean, and where does it originate from?

10.   While natural features in the land were regarded as holy sites, there developed a need for an enclosed or fenced off area called what?

11.  It is possible that the need for an enclosure developed as a response to the development of what?

12.  Describe the ve, and name an example.

13.  The best evidence for a pre-Viking Age temple is found where? and dates back to when?

14.  Thórólf Mostrar-skegg’s (“Moster-beard”) hof is described in what saga?

15.  What is a “Hlaut? and what was it used for?

16.  In Hörd’s Saga Thorstein Gullnapr sings to a stone, write the song from chapter 37 of the saga.

17.  Fill in the blanks: It was also common for smaller individual _________ or personal ______ to be built. The Old Norse word for this was stalli or stallr, meaning _______ or support for an idol. One example of one is the “________” that Thorolf of Helgafell built next to the holy _________.

18.  The hofs were built in such a way that they could be disassembled and moved if need be, give some examples:

19.  Match each word to its definition:

Stave church a. one or many mast church with a center pillar
The Horg b. oak, ash, rowan, beech
Holy Groves c. offerings were thrown into these
Holy Trees d. Wodan’s hill
Holy Stones e. used as gave mounds
Holy Mountains and Hills f. cairn or alter of stone
Holy Rivers,lakes, bogs, springs    g. oldest form of holy space

The following last two questions are not in the text.  See if you can still find the answers:

20. What famed History professor and author incorporated Old Norse and Viking traditions into his novel series. (Hint: Three Oscar-winning movies were made from one of his novels).

21. Which language in the series was actually a derivative of Old English and Old Norse? (Hint:  It starts with an “R”)