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CHAPTER VIII

TEMPLE

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We have in the North a historical instance of a people having to tear up its existence out of the earth and move it over to another laud — not gradually planting it out, and thus gaining new ground for the ancient culture, but stowing it away in the hold and setting out with it across the great sea. From the stories of Thoroif and Thorhadd we know what was the emigrants' last thought in the old country, their first in the new —and we know then at the same time what was their innermost thought as they went about at home in the undisturbed routine of everyday. It was no light matter to wrench up the pillars of the high seat and scrape together mould from the holy place. It could never be a place like other places, and there were doubtless profound reasons for the Icelanders, as soon as they grew up, to turn their faces toward the land of their fathers. The accounts of Icelanders' pilgrimages to Norway date from Christian times; and in them, we cannot expect to find anything about the attraction of the ancient holy places. There is, however, one little trace, weighty with meaning, which has slipped into the Landnáma; Lopt made a 'voyage to Norway every third summer, on his own account and that of his mother's brother Flosi, to sacrifice at the temple which Thorbjorn, Flosi's mother's father, had tended at Gaular.

There was undoubtedly in the minds of many a fear of rendering themselves and their ancestors homeless in this world, in sailing away to a land they did not know, and where no place knew them. If then, as it seems, their determination altogether swallowed up their fears, it must have been because they could safely trust, nay, knew, that if they acted as they should, their gods would go with them, and they could then raise up a new Bethel; the sanctuary was centred in the things, and one could let it make choice itself of a new spot – often enough, no doubt, it would be on similar in situation and appearance to the old abiding place of the clan – and the holiness could then be led in and made fast there.

The heathen worshipped trees and waterfalls and stone, say the Norwegians of their unenlightened forefathers, when they have themselves forgotten, or wish to have forgotten, that these same trees and waterfalls were no less human in their holiness than they were divine; no man shall sacrifice to false gods, or put faith in grove and stone – thus Swedish law-men threaten their benighted contemporaries. The Law of Gothland defines all religiousness in one weighty paragraph: “None may invoke holt or hill or heathen deities, neither nor fence,” and their saga translates the imperative to the historie by saying: “Men believed in holt and hill and heathen gods.”

In the South, there are practically no remains of human holiness attaching to locality; the better, then, did men remember the more impressive fact that the gods dwelt in the holy place. Unfortunately, many of these alien accounts are so conventional that they might apply to the majority of people on the earth, and the commonness is often due to the fact that the narrator does not feel called upon to honour the individual facts with a description, but merely uses old catch-words to comprise the heathendom he sees before him, in the same condemnation as all other heathen abominations. When the writer gives a heathen this simple character; he trusted in sticks and stones, neither he nor his hero can properly fit into a monograph on the subject of our forefathers' religions; for this deep, but somewhat general truth naturally applies to all the heathen of scripture history down to our own times. Moreover, the worthy fathers copies one another's epistles and adjurations and synodic resolutions, with a zeal almost suggesting they were purposely striving to husband their own originality as much as possible; and forms of anathema suited to the spiritual needs of Greek and Italian had to serve as best they might farther north, the borrowers not even troubling to lay on a touch of local colour. The cleric did not pretend to enter into any heathen's mode of thought; there wa s general belief in the power of a common medicine to find out sickness by itself; but that the sickness largely consisted of a tendency to run about among stones and trees, is the incontestable presumption for these shepherds' care of souls.

Thus much is plain, from the various indications, that the nature of a locality was not in itself decisive. The Northmen looked to the single stone or rock as well as to the great mountain, to the waterfall as well as to the spring or the brook. And it was the same in the South. Agathias informs the educated world, which in his day, the sixth century, had personal reasons for interest in the red-haired peril, that the Alamanni worshipped certain trees, rivers, hills and ravines. Judging from the sacred biographies, the missionary in Germany had first of all to contest with trees; an axe was an indispensable part of his equipment when setting out for the dark places, and conversion falls into two parts; one prior to the fall of the holy tree, when the fear of the people was manifest, and one after, when the people wondered, and realised their error. In the Life of Boniface, we recognise at once, in many traits the regular course of procedure which was so necessary to the writing of legendary history; but the wonderfully powerful Jupiter oak, which he so dramatically felled in the land of the Hessians has at any rate typical reality. Partly with reason, but a great deal more without, the forest has assumed a dominant place in the idea of early Germanic worship. The cult which has in our days grown up about this Gothic natural church is a thing for which Tacitus is to a great extent responsible. It is he who made the Germans appear as mystics, by his profound observations anent the “invisible, viewed in the spirit”. Not content with telling what might be plainly told, that they assembled in a grove sacred to Hercules, that their god Nerthus dwelt in a consecrated grove, or, in general, that they regarded grove and copse as holy – he attempts to tell his readers something about the nature of holiness, and, like the late romantic that he is, he replaces the description given by his authorities into sentimental lyricism of his own.

The peoples dwelling among plains and hills venerated the grove – a section of the nature that surrounded them – in the same way that rock and fall and mountain would be the most frequent – thought not the holy – dwelling place of luck for mountain races. The Swedes went as a rule to the holt – the woody hillock or hurst. But the holy place was not the spirit or idea of the grove, the shadowing, wind-breathing – it was the spot; the soil as well as the stem, the spring bubbling up out of the turf as well as the leaves; even though the grove spread out wide on every hand, its nature did not differ from that of the little spot that bore a stone, a rock, or a solitary tree.

Round about the place ran the fence of staves, the sacred enclosure, which in itself embraced as great holiness and “atmosphere” as the most mysterious spot in the darkness within. The Law of Gothland has to note the fence expressively, bracketed in honour after the , or consecrated spot, itself. “If there be frith-geard – fence of frith or peace – on any man's land about a stone or tree or a spring or suchlike ungodly foolishness . . . “ thus thunders an English edict, and it is no use wasting ingenuity on the question whether the denunciation primarily aims at the paling or at the space which is hedged off; for the two are identical, and equally inspired with holiness.

The place was not pure nature, it was marked as belonging to the world of man, and the mark seems generally to have consisted of a heap of stones; when Aud's prayer-hill was promoted to the rank of family temple, her wooden cross was replaced by a pile of stones, or horg. The laws particularly note the horg together with the hill: “We shall not sacrifice to heathen gods or heathen demons, neither to hill nor horg.”

To the holy place is added the holy house. Again and again we read in the Landnáma of this or that distinguished settler, that he build a great hof, or temple. And in the saga of the Breidafiord settlers we find a detailed description of the building which Thorolf set up at his homestead, Hofstad, when he consecrated Thorsnes with Helgafell. The temple was a great house with a door in the side wall towards one end of the house. On entering by the door, one saw, over against the side wall opposite, the high seat, with its pillars on either side, and beset with nails for token of power. Farthest inside was a small apartment, goes on the Eyrbyggja, like the choir in a Christian church, and there stood a stallr – a stone or block – in the middle of the floor as a high altar. The temple, then, consisted, if we may build upon the antiquarian knowledge of the saga, of a small god's house and a banqueting hall, or place of assembly. The excavations of ancient Icelandic hof sites have confirmed this description. The remains of the foundations indicated a large space, up to a hundred feet in length, oblong in shape, and at one end a separate chamber with a door of its own opening to the outer air, but apparently separated from the long hall by an extra thick, unbroken wall. The great hall in the hof, the feasting hall, differed in no way from the ordinary gathering place of the family; it was in fact a duplicate of their parlour. Here the participants in the sacrifice met on the great festivals, but in smaller homesteads, the gathering took place with the same solemnity and with the same effect, about the everyday hearth. The common room of the homestead was the original temple hall, and remained so in many homes throughout the whole of the heathen period. Egil came one day, we are told, to a farm where a sacrifice was going on, and was allotted quarters in an outhouse, as the sacrificial feast was taking place in the house proper.

When a special feasting hall was built, it was connected with the sacrificial chamber, af hús or side apartment, as the Eyrbyggja calls it with an expression derived from comparison with the Christian churches. Generally , the homestead would have its little temple, a place of sacrifice, the seat of the gods, or rather, of divinity. In the story of the night visit of the sons of Ingimund to Hrolleif and his mother, Ljot, we are given an outline of the localities; on entering the courtyard they first of all perceived a small hut outside the entrance, separated off from the house door by a little space, and Thorstein said at once that this must be the good people's blot-house, or sacrificial hut. And this is by no means the only occasion on which we hear of such blot-houses set close to the dwellings of men. On the night when the sons of Droplaug lost their way in the storm, they discovered their whereabouts by fumbling about round a building which suddenly appeared before them; on coming to the door, they knew if for Spakbessi's blot-house. When Hord's saga lets Thorstein go off to his blot-house and offer up a sort of morning prayer before a stone, the narrator's thoughts move as his own religious customs suggest to him, but has undoubtedly an ancient tradition in mind, which recalls the former arrangement of the place. In the erection of churches, men probably followed for the most part, or often at least, the same old rules. The description of the drinking hall and the church at Jorfjara, in the Orkneys, is strikingly suggestive of Ljot's homestead; there, the drinking hall had a door in the eastern end wall, at the south end of the building, and the church lay before the door to the hall, so that as the place was built on a slope, one would walk down from the hall to the church.

The blot-house represented the holy place; according to old ideas, they were identical, but this does not necessarily imply a literal identity of site. The blot-house is in its being the same as the horg, and has also a right to the name, when hof and horg form a permanent connection to denote the entire temple – sacrificial hut and banqueting hall together. The curious investigator who subjects such sacred terms as horg and vé to a comparative linguistic examination in order to use etymology for the purpose of charting the Germanic holy land, will arrive at a miserable result for horg, which in the Nordic is the cairn of stones and the house marking the holy place, is among the southerners the grove itself. The secrets of structure are not to be drawn from the words, but for him who wishes to know what there is, and not what he thinks there ought to be, they are full of information. What the hill and the grove, the horg and the blot-house actually are, is vé, the holy, the holy place, the well-spring of power, and the reference to a definite form, such as house or heap, as fenced enclosure or fence forms but a shell about the great kernel of meaning; there the name glides imperceptibly from the one thing over to the other, and therefore the word can apparently take on the vague application which leaves us ignorant as to the picture intended at the moment by the text. On Aud's prayer hill there rose a horg to replace a cross, and perhaps too the horg was covered by a house; we have seen that Thord Gellir was consecrated chief of the house by being led “up in the hill”, and these words might probably apply to the blot-house. The Norse Law threatens with dire penalties the man convicted of having erected a mound or a house and calling it horg, and is here undoubtedly aiming at the various forms of belief in holy places.

The blot-house doubtless stood on the site of the holy place itself when the latter, as it might do, immediately adjoined the dwelling house. On the other hand, the horg at Aud's old place, Hvamm, seems rather to have lain somewhat apart. Earl Hakon's blot-house was reached, according to the information furnished by a saga writer, by going out from the courtyard into the wood, first along a broad road, then branching off by a little foot-path. The path ended at a clearing, in the midst of which stood a house surrounded by a fence of staves. Inside this enclosure there was, according to our authority, a house with so many glass windows as to leave no shadow anywhere. The room was filled with a host of gods, and in their midst throned a goddess with a ring on her arm. The Earl threw himself headlong on the ground before her, heaped a multitude of silver before her feet and thus obtained that the goddess slowly relented so far as to open her hand and permit the Earl to draw the precious ring off her arm. This description of the interior smacks of mediæval book learning and of clerical imagination, but the monk evidently weaves his fancies about a body of fact, viz. that the Earl led his friend Sigmund to his blot-house to procure blessing for him before sending him out on a dangerous expedition, and that the blessing was contained in a ring resting in the sanctuary. Genuine too, that is in the true spirit of ancient life, are the words: “The Earl said that Sigmund was never to part with this ring, and Sigmund gave his promise.” In almost all the Norse recollections from the age of Olaf and Hakon, we can trace the mediæval display of miscellaneous reading and the indomitable tendency of the scholars to apply what they have learned. Nevertheless the clerical imagination has in most places a traditional foundation to build upon, and hardly anywhere do we see more clearly where reality ends and imagination begins than in this description of how Sigmund was “led to the horg” by Earl Hakon.

We know but little as to the other Germanic temples, and this little fits without effort into the traditional picture. The only instance we have in history of an English temple is given as of a horg with an enclosure, and the horg is a place roofed over, a sacrificial hut. Bede shows us the converted heathen “bishop,” when in his first eagerness he charges upon the old gods. “Who is to be first in throwing down the altars and the horg with the fence about them” is the question, and the “bishop” answers: “I.” And then he broke though fear and veneration by casting his spear into the horg, and his fellows completed the work by tearing it down and burning it with the surrounding fence. – The Roman indications are scattered here and there; now a casual observation as to the site of a temple, now an equally casual note as to the fact that a temple could be razed to the ground – so that the isolated details cannot be pieced together into a coherent picture. The temples we hear about lay in groves, i.e. immediately on the holy place; there were no buildings to prison the divinity within, says Tacitius, and we must doubtless suppose that he had some authority for this remark, even though we may not let ourselves be dazzled by this generalisation. Certainly the horg often stood in the open, this we can surely read between the lines in the description of the Roman soldiers' meeting with Varus' lost legions; the bleached bones of the warriors lay on the field side by side with fragments of weapons and dead horses, severed heads hung in the trees, and in the grove close by were altars where Roman officers had been sacrificed. Since, on the other hand, we are told of sacrificial feasts in the grove, and of temples levelled to the ground, we may doubtless conclude that houses of some sort or another were erected in the vicinity of the horg; naturally all holy places worthy of being mentioned in a highly official history must be centres of great communities, and consequently of a more elaborate character than the humbler sanctuaries of the clans.

Inside the blot-house stood a stone, says Hord's saga, and this boulder is a good evidence that the narrator wove his descriptions of Thorstein at his morning devotions about a real tradition, for without such a rein to hold him in check, he might equally well have given the worshipper an “idol”. Through the medium of this stone, the future was revealed to Thorstein in a verse on his approaching death, and on his way back across the open space, vengeance fell upon him. This block, too, being the seat of the gods, is one in essence with the horg and with the stone that was the dwelling place of the holy power of the house of Hvamm, the homsestead of Thord Gellir.

Such a block was called a stallr, and it is again and again compared with the alien altar. One could tread upon it, in order to enter into connections with the power and set them in motion. On it lay the holy things, the chief treasures of the warden of the temple, first of all the holy arm ring, which on all important occasions represented the gods and great holiness. On this ring great oaths were sworn, and it was worn by the chief when the warrior host marched out in holy battle array. Fortunately – for us – the temple ring once saved the master of Helgafell, Snorri Godi, when Steinthor's blow after the fight at Kársstad struck his arm; for it is this ineffective stroke we have to thank for being now in happy possession of an historical fact in place of a necessary assumption. We knew that the priest wore the ring at the law meetings in token of his authority; now, we know that it went with him wherever he drew upon his great luck. And then we understand at once why warrior and ring go so inseparably together. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle tells of some wicked Danes whom Alfred and brought to reason; they vowed peace upon the sacred ring, an honour which they had never before conceded to any people. Tacitus had heard, regarding the self-consecration of the Chatti to a warrior's life, that they took the ring and wore it as a sign of their right to front rank in the battle, and of their indifference to peaceable occupation, in other words, the ring was a token that they belonged to a holy host set apart from the ordinary round of lie.

This treasure was as far beyond ordinary possessions as the great holiness was beyond the ordinary blessing of everyday, and from it all other valuables derived their power; the sacred object was the fountain head of the riches belonging to the family, as is expressed mythically in the legend of Draupnir, Odin's ring, that is said to drip eight rings every nine nights. The religious character of the temple treasure shows through the monk's account of the ring which Earl Hakon took from the arm of Thorgard Holgabrud and gave his friend to have and to hold. Sigmund had to promise the Earl never to give it away, and he kept his promise, even when sorely tempted. After Hakon's death, when Sigmund had become Olaf's man and God's, it chanced that the king caught sight of the heavy gold ring. He looked at it closely, and said: “Will you give that to me, Sigmund?” But Sigmund answered frankly that he knew the giver's luck and friendship were too goof for him to give away the treasure. “It may be that you think well both of the ring and of the giver,” said the king, “but that luck will not avail you, for the ring shall be your death.” And so it came about. Olaf was right, one cannot bear God's strength in one's limbs and Hakon's sacrificial ring on one's arm.

Of like importance with the Norse accounts of the ring on the stallr is Tacitus' description of the holy “signs” in the form of animals which were taken out from the grove in time of war and borne among the people. The Northmen also knew such treasures of chieftains, “banners” or more properly 's, which could both show the way to an army in battle and turn luck as they pleased. Harald Hardrada had a banner called “Land-waster”, and this impressive winner of battle had surely had many forerunners resting in blot-houses at the homes of the great warrior chiefs. The unity of the banner with the holy places is implied in the name , which is used indiscriminately to denote the banner and the secret enclosure.

That it was particularly the rich and powerful who built themselves special temple halls is due to something more than the fact that they possessed the means of doing something out of the common. Luck made the clan great, augmented its wealth, and gave rise to the need of a spacious place of assembly for all kinsmen when they gathered from far and near to strengthen their common life. When a branch of the family detached itself to lead an independent life, it would probably fetch holiness from the ancestral horg and plant a daughter sanctuary in its own midst, but the feeling of community was not sundered with the dissolution of the narrower unity in common memories and common aims. At the great festivals, all assembled in the holy place from whose strength the new centres of luck had been formed. And on the spot where the clan was wont to meet from old time a great hof was raised, large enough to admit all who confessed to the same hamingja – and with them other clans who had sought shelter under the gods of the mighty. Such hofs were those which Thorhadd and Thorolf took with them on board; for from the context it is plain that their temples were of importance to others beside the little party that set out on the long voyage; Thorolf and Thorhadd had in strength of their luck been chieftains in their ancient homes, and as soon as the pillars of their high seats were set up in the new country, the power of the temple to attract people made itself apparent. The petty kings of the mother land became leaders among the settlers, and their sacrifices were attended to by all who acknowledged their supremacy.

But the hof was not a necessary condidtion for the worshipping of the gods, and we have no right to draw a line placing on the one side great men with a hof, and on the other smaller folk with but a blot-house. The growth of a clan did not necessarily disturb the old relation between the sacrificial hut and the feasting hall; and even when the number of clansmen led to the erection of a special house of assembly, the extension would not inevitably mean building a temple of the Icelandic hof type. Possibly the Icelandic device of combining the hut with the hall was suggested to the settlers by their acquaintance with the Christian houses of worship which a number of them had seen during their stay in the British Islands; an innovation of this kind might easily occur to a population which had to begin life afresh in a new country. The relations of the dealings that the reforming kings of Norway had with their stubborn subjects in matters of religion do not contain a hint of church-like buildings. When Olaf remonstrated with the idolators of Drontheim for their old-fashioned practices, they could – according to the saga – pose innocently as no more than good comrades who liked to meet occasionally at a friendly feast. “We had Yule banquets and convivial drinking all about the district, and the yeomen are not so niggardly in preparation for their Christmas but something is left to make merry with afterwards. And as to Mæri (the ancient place of sacrifice) it is a big place with plenty of room, and the neighbourhood is largely peopled, and men think that drinking in company adds to the mirth,” – thus the yeomen blandly met the king's accusations.

In the Laxdocla, we read of an Icelandic chieftain, Olaf the Peacock, who had by his personal qualities raised himself above his father's social position; after a while, his tents grew too small for him, and he therefore built a banqueting hall at his homestead, the splendid decorations of which are praised in Ulf Uggason's poem, the Drapa of the House. People who had seen the wood carvings of Thor's fight with the Serpent of Middle-garth, and Balder's burning, maintained that the hall was more beautiful in its bare state than covered with hangings as was customary at great festivals. This house is clearly not a hof, and the saga is probably quite right in describing Olaf's great deed as a purely worldly undertaking; but naturally such a feasting hall is the place for sacrifical assemblies, and the building at Hjardarholt may have been typical of a certain sort of larger homestead.

A century after the first settlement in Iceland, all sacrifices ceased, but they did not leave a blank behind. The wealthy men continued long after to call their friends and kin together to a feast at harvest time. And in the festival hall, the old pillars of the high seat would here and there remain as a link between the present and the past.

 

   

 
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