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Of Temples, of Sacrifices, and of Divination — The Principal Temples in the North

3. The Worship of the Gods

Of temples, of sacrifices, and of divination

In later pagan times a great number of temples and other places of sacrifice were to be found throughout the North. During this period a considerable advance had been made beyond the state of affairs described by Tacitus, according to whose account the ancient German tribes worshipped under the open sky in groves or forests. Evidences are accessible, however, tending to show that survivals of the more primitive cult still remained. From Iceland reports have come down to us that in the early days of the settlement of the island there were men who worshipped supernatural beings living in stones and waterfalls; and in the ecclesiastical ordinances of the Gula assembly appear certain prohibitions directed against putting faith in "Land-Sprites dwelling in cairns or cataracts."

The common designation for a house of sacrifice or temple was hof. Besides, mention is made of horgar, which at the beginning of our historical epoch seem to have been very small buildings, used for sacrifice but less elaborately equipped than the hof. Originally, as the name suggests, they must have been stone altars open to the heavens; on this point, compare Norwegian dialectal horg, "rocky knoll," "mountain top"; Swedish dialectal harg (harj), meaning among other things, "rocky height"; and Icelandic hörgr, a term used to denote uneven ground. In its oldest signification, that of stone altar, horgr appears still to [268} have been used in one of the Eddic poems (Hyndluljóð 10), where reference is made to a horgr dedicated to Freyja. There is no reason, however, to believe that the horgr was employed in the worship of goddesses alone; in Sweden, on the contrary, occur such place names as Odinshargher and Thorshargher [1]

A more comprehensive signification seems to have attached to the term (Anglo-Saxon wīh , related to Gothic weihs, "holy," and to Old Norse vígja, "to consecrate"). The best rendering for the word is perhaps "sanctuary." It was used to designate the hallowed ground set apart as the inviolate meeting place for the legal assembly, which as such was enclosed within -bounds (vébond). One who desecrated the spot was denominated vargr i véum (a miscreant in the sanctuary) and declared an outlaw.

In the older literature occur several descriptions of these hofar and their furniture. Mention is made of great buildings, splendidly equipped, containing magnificently adorned carven images of the gods. The deities were here figured in the likeness most familiar to the imagination of the people: Thor in his wagon, [269} holding Mjollnir in his hand; and Frey riding on his boar. Certain of these descriptions, however, are not reliable. The best of them is the account given in the Eyrbyggja Saga of the hof erected by the Norwegian chieftain Thorolf Mostrarskegg at Breidafjord in Iceland; and the accuracy of this description, as will appear later, has been substantiated in various important particulars by recent excavations of hof sites in Iceland.

Thorolf had carried with him from his home on the island of Moster in Sunnhordland the timbers of the hof dedicated to Thor that he had had there, and also earth from the mound on which the image of Thor had stood in the old temple. Not far from his new farm in Iceland he accordingly erected "a hof, and a large building it was; it had a door in the side wall, nearer to one end of the house than to the other. Within were placed the pillars of the high seat, in which were fixed certain nails, the so-called regin-nails (nails of the gods). Inside those walls was high sanctuary. At the innermost end of the hof there was a little house like the present choirs in churches. In the middle of the floor was a stall or stand, used as an altar, on which lay a ring, unjointed and weighing twenty penny-weight; [2] by this ring all oaths were to be sworn, and the high priest was to wear it on his arm at all solemn assemblies. On the stand there was also to be placed a bowl (hlaut-bolli) for the sacrificial blood, and in it a brush (hlaut-teinn) with which the blood from the bowl, called hlaut, was to be sprinkled over the worshippers; [270} the blood was taken from the beasts offered as a sacrifice to the gods. Round about the stand the gods were stationed in their order in the inner sanctuary. To this hof all the men of the assembly district were obliged to pay a tax, and they were also obligated to make all required journeys with the chief priest . . .; but the priest himself was charged with maintaining the hof at his own cost, so that it should not fall into neglect, and with performing his ministry at the sacrificial feasts."

As to the environs of the hof we read further in the saga:

"To the land between Vigrafjord and Hofsvag, Thorolf gave the name of Thorsnes. On the headland rises a mountain; to it Thorolf attached such sanctity that no man was to let his eyes rest on it without first having washed himself; and on the mountain itself it was forbidden to lay violent hands on either men or beasts, till they had descended from it of their own accord. This mountain he called Helgafjall ("holy mountain"), and into it he believed that he himself and his kin were to enter after death. At the point of the headland, where Thor (that is, the image of Thor on one of the pillars of the high seat) had drifted ashore, he caused all judicial proceedings to be held, making it the place of legal assembly for the district. This spot he elevated likewise to such high sanctity that he would in no wise permit the slope to be defiled, either by the shedding of blood through violence or by the evacuations of the body."

Our forefathers probably knew no other form of sacrifice than that of blood, either of beasts or of men. [271} To offer sacrifice was called at blóta, and the offering itself was known as blót. [3] We have the best account of the procedure at this kind of sacrificial feast (blót-veizla) from Snorri's description in the Saga of Hakon the Good (chapter 14); certain details in this description have likewise been confirmed through investigation of the sites of ancient Icelandic temples. The description runs as follows:

"It was an old custom, when sacrificial offerings were to be made, that all the farmers should gather at the spot where the hof lay, bringing with them supplies of food sufficient for the entire period of the festival. At this feast all men were to have ale; a large number of the lesser animals [4] and of horses were killed; the blood that flowed from the slaughtered beasts was called hlaut, and the bowls in which the blood was collected were called hlaut-bowls; and besides there was something called a hlaut-teinn, made in the form of a brush or broom, with which it was customary to color the stands red and likewise the walls of the hof within and without, and in addition, to sprinkle the blood over the assembled men; the flesh was cooked to provide meat for the banquet. There were to be fires on the middle of the floor of the hof, above which kettles were to be hung. Beakers were to be borne [272} round about the fire. The man who gave the festival and held authority there was to consecrate the beakers and all the flesh of the sacrifice; first he would dedicate a beaker to Odin — this was pledged to the rule and victory of the king — and afterward a beaker to Njord and a beaker to Frey, for plentiful harvests and for peace. It was common practice thereafter to drain a beaker to the honour of Bragi; [5] likewise, to drink to departed kinsmen, 'the cup of remembrance'." In a subsequent passage from the saga (chapter 17) we read the following story of king Hakon's action at a sacrificial feast at Lade: "The next day, as men gathered at the table, the countrymen crowded about the king and demanded that he should eat horseflesh. The king would not. Then they bade him drink of the broth, but he would not. Then they bade him to eat of the fat; he would not do this either... Earl Sigurd now asked him to place his open mouth over the handle of the kettle, where the steam from the broth of horseflesh had deposited a film of fat. Then the king stepped forward, laid a linen kerchief across the handle of the kettle, and opened his mouth over it." (From Gustav Storm's translation).

It is only in Iceland, so far as we know, that the hof has left traces to this day. Among the many hof sites the location of which can with greater or less probability be demonstrated, one has recently been minutely investigated by Daniel Bruun and Finnur Jónsson. [6] [273}

This excavation — on the farm of Hofstaðir near Mývatn in the district of Southern Thingey — revealed what in this instance must have been a stately, longish building comprising two rooms: a festival hall (36.3 meters in length and 5.85-8.25 meters in breadth) and an annex (af-hús) (6.2 ca. 4 meters). The festival hall comprised a central nave and two aisles, formed by rows of pillars resting on stones. Along the middle of the floor burned long fires, and beside the long walls were seats, probably with movable tables before them. In this hall the sacrificial banquet was held; the flesh of the slaughtered animals was prepared on hearthstones that are still visible; within the hof were found the bones of sheep, goats, oxen, swine, and horses, and of haddock as well. The hall was separated from the annex by a wall, not too high for the assembled worshippers to see what was taking place in the annex, the holy of holies, where the images of the gods stood and where the temple ring lay on the stand. To each of the rooms there was a door: to the festival hall, it was, as the account runs in the Eyrbyggja Saga, "on the side wall, nearer to the one end than to the other"; while to the smaller room there was a private door through which only the priest had access.

Three great sacrifices were held yearly: "At winter-day (October 14th) sacrifice was offered for a good year; at mid-winter (Yule) for a good harvest, and at summer-day (April 14th) for victory." [7] According to Gísli Súrsson's Saga (chapter 15), the autumnal sacrifice was offered to Frey, "to bid welcome to winter." [274}

There were in existence both public hofar (chief hofar) and private hofar. It was in the chief hof that oaths were taken in cases of judicial procedure. The consecrated ring that lay on the stand was on such occasions colored red with the blood of the sacrificial animals, and the person who was to swear an oath by the ring made use of the formula: "So help me Frey and Njord and the almighty god" (no doubt Thor).

The chieftain who ruled over a public hof had the title in Iceland of hof-goði or goði; [8] women also were qualified to superintend such a hof, and in that office bore the title of hofgyðjur (singular, gyðja). Any one who chose to do so was at liberty to offer private sacrifices; we thus hear of women who in their own homes offered sacrifice to the Elves. In Norway the dignity of priest was doubtless commonly joined with that of the secular chieftain of a district, the hersir. Since the title of hersir, as it happened, was the most esteemed and the most frequently employed title, the designation of goði seldom occurs in Norway. In Iceland, on the contrary, where titles such as hersir, earl, and king were under a ban, the appellation of goði came to be the usual title for the officiating head of the temple. In Iceland as well they were not merely officials of the temple, but also secular chieftains and judges; and these combined offices, called goðorð — of which there were, in the second half of the tenth century, thirty-nine in number, connected with an equal number of hofar — passed down through certain families in hereditary succession. [275}

Our forefathers were accustomed, like all other pagan peoples, to seek at sacred ceremonials to learn the will of the gods in matters of importance. This procedure they called "to make interrogation" (ganga til fréttar); it was done most commonly by means of "cutting sacrificial chips," as the practice was denominated. The details of this ceremony are not disclosed in the sagas; but Tacitus describes the custom as it prevailed among the German tribes, as follows: From a tree bearing fruit they selected a branch, which they then cut up into small chips, each of which they marked with a sign; thereupon they scattered them at random on a white cloth. The priest, in matters affecting the general weal, or the head of the house in matters of family concern, offered up prayers to the gods and then with upturned eyes picked up the chips one by one; this ritual was thrice repeated, and the meaning of the incised marks was interpreted. [9]

Another procedure, when information about future events was desired, was to appeal to soothsayers or magicians. Particularly women, the so-called volur, occupied themselves with soothsaying and sorcery. There were two types of sorcery, galdr and seiðr. Galdr is supposed to have been first practised and spread abroad by Odin; it was regarded as more permissible than seiðr, and probably consisted for the most part in magic chants and formulas, [10] to some extent in combination with the cutting of runes. [276}

Seiðr, on the other hand, owes its origin and diffusion to Freyja. Women especially were instructed in this lower type of magic, considered disgraceful to men. Nevertheless seiðr continued in some measure to be practised by men, as late as the beginning of the Christian era; even men of high lineage were practitioners, as for example Ragnvald Rettilbeini, the son of Harold Fairhair. A seiðr-man or wizard (skratti), as he was also called, was no less feared than hated and despised by reason of the offensive ceremonies and oaths that pertained to this sort of sorcery.

  1. On the horgr, see M. Olsen, Hedenske kultminder I, p 285 ff. Those horgar which have left reminiscences in the Icelandic place names Hörgsdalr and Hörgsholt, have been excavated by Björn M. Olsen and Daniel Bruun (see Arbók hins íslenzka fornleifafjelags 1903, p 1 ff.). At the place first named the existence of an oblong, four-cornered building (9.7 x 6.3 meters, interior dimensions) was demonstrated, which was certainly roofed over and which by means of a wall 60 centimeters in height was divided into a small room to the north and a room twice the size of the first to the south. At Hörgsholt the horgr measured only 5.3 x 1.6 meters, with a cross wall toward the northern end; it was probably a sanctuary open to the sky.
  2. In the Norwegian text: ører. —Translator's note.
  3. This word has no connection with the word "blood." The term at blóta comprised prayers and spoken formulas, and therefore the word is used also of cursing. It was not customary to use the locution "at blóta to Thor," but "at blóta Thor." The Anglo-Saxons had the word as well; from it is derived the Anglo-Saxon bletsian, "to bless" (Old Norse bleza, "to bless," is borrowed from the Anglo-Saxon).
  4. Especially sheep.
  5. See note to p 18, line 12.
  6. The results have been presented in Aarbøger for nordisk oldkyndighed 1909, p 245 ff.
  7. Ynglinga Saga, chapter 8, cf. p 276.
  8. Gothic gudja, derived from the word for "god."
  9. There can be no thought of runes in this case, since runic writing was unknown in the time of Tacitus.
  10. Galdr, related to at gala, "to crow," "to cry."

On temples, sacrifices, and divination

Page 276, line 11 — Further reference may be made to R. Keyser, Nordmœndenes Religionsforfatning i Hedendommen, Christiania 1847 (=Samlede Afhandlinger, Christiania 1868, pp. 249-399); K. Maurer, Die Bekehrung des Norwegischen Stammes zum Christenthume II, München 1856, pp. 188-238; Henry Petersen, Om Nordboernes Gudedyrkelse og Gudetro i Hedenold, Copenhagen 1876; cf., in addition, the handbooks of mythology listed in the bibliography. One specific phase of the worship of the gods, the sacrificial banquet, has been exhaustively treated by Maurice Cahen, in his Études sur le vocabulaire religieux du vieux-scandinave. La libation, Paris 1921.

The principal temples in the north

The sites of the pagan worship we know partly from ancient written accounts in the Norse tongue and in Latin, and partly from names of places. [1] In the present section a survey will be made of the most important testimony from older literature as to the sites of prehistoric worship; in the nature of the case, the main concern will be with the principal temples of the North.

Two of these are mentioned in closely connected passages from ancient literature. Snorri refers, in the Ynglinga Saga, chapter 5, to one such located at Sigtuna, in the following words: "Odin made his abode near Lake Mälaren, at a spot now called Old Sigtuna, and there established a great hof and place of sacrifice, after the manner of the Æsir." In chapter 10 he gives the following account of a notable [277} temple at Uppsala, dedicated to Frey: "Frey erected at Uppsala a great hof and there established his chief seat, to which he added all his rents, lands, and chattels. This is the origin of the Uppsala-domain, [2] which has been ever since an appurtenance of the crown." As to the furniture and appointments of the temple at Uppsala, we gather further details from the account given by Adam of Bremen. [3]

Denmark also, according to a foreign writer, had a principal temple, situated at Leire. [4] The German chronicle writer, Thietmar of Merseburg, writing about the year 1000, records the following narrative (Book I, chapter 9): In the chief town of the kingdom, Lederun (Leire) in the province of Selon (Zealand), all the people were accustomed to assemble each ninth year in the month of January for the purpose of sacrificing to their gods ninety-nine human beings and the same number of horses and of dogs, and — in lieu of hawks — cocks. He adds in a later passage that King Heinrich Vogelfänger was the first to compel the Danes to abandon -this particular cult (about the year 930). Danish sources, meanwhile, are wholly silent on the subject.

Several well-known principal temples are mentioned as existing in Norway. Such a one was located, for example, at Throndenes on the island of Hinney (í Omð á þrándarnesi), where in all likelihood the ancient kings of Halogaland had their seat. Concerning Sigurd [278}

Thorisson, brother of Thori Hund, Snorri relates the following story, in the Saga of Olaf the Saint (chapter 117): "Sigurd dwelt at Throndenes in Omd... So long as paganism endured, he was in the habit of holding three sacrifices during each winter, one at winter-night, one at mid-winter, and one toward summer. When he embraced the Christian faith, he continued to give banquets in much the same manner: in the autumn he made a great festival for his friends; at Yule another festival, to which he asked a large number of guests; and a third time at Easter, on which occasion also he had many folk in his house." As is well known, the sagas make further mention of great temples at Lade near Trondhjem and at Mære in Sparbu. Legendary sources contain accounts also of a principal temple in Viken, at Skiringssal (now Tjølling), where kings were said to officiate at the sacrifices.

In addition to public hofar such as these, there were in Norway many private temples erected by powerful farmers and chieftains on their estates. In Iceland all of the hofar were in reality private, being the property of the priests; but since the priests, as explained above, were the bearers of hereditary jurisdiction, the hofar thus took on a public character, so that they may properly be juxtaposed with the public hofar in Norway. [279}

  1. As to the Norwegian place names containing reminders of the pagan cult, information will be found in the Norwegian text, § 86.
  2. The royal domain of Sweden; auðr, "riches," property."
  3. See pp 117-18.
  4. Norse form, Hleiðrar.


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