Weiha and Háilag: A Closer Look at the Germanic Conception of Holiness

By Ælfric

    The ancient Germanic peoples understood holiness in a way that has been largely forgotten in modern times.  Their conception of the holy was two-sided, each aspect being described by its own word, but only one of these words has survived in modern Germanic languages.  With the coming of Christianity into Europe, one of the two concepts of the holy slowly began to disappear, and today is almost entirely absent.  The two words are Proto-Germanic *wíhaz and *hailagaz,1 Gothic weihs and háilags, Old High German wih and heilig, Old English wéoh/wíg and hálig, Old Norse vé and heilagR. *hailagaz survives as the modern word “holy” in many Germanic languages including English, but *wíhaz does not enjoy such common currency.  The complete Germanic (and Indo-European) concept of the holy, however, cannot be understood as *hailagaz alone, but must be understood as *wíhaz-hailagaz.2

Gárman Lord summarizes the difference between that weihs and, háilags:3

...wéoh, understood to mean something like “set apart,” and halig, understood to mean something like “wholesome,” are two quite different concepts, which, if so, are useful to us in understanding how it may be that a “holy” innangardhs (i.e., a wholesome place for people to live) may contain within itself a “wéoh” stead, a parcel reserved for certain very special sacral kinds of community purposes and kept roped off against casual trespass.

    In his article “The Holy,” Edred Thorsson discusses the meaning and significance of *wíhaz in the Germanic concept of the holy.4  This important study sheds a great deal of light on this topic.  Nevertheless, some questions remain, and there is further ground to cover in a thorough understanding of some key points in such a study.

    For example, more clarity is needed concerning the similarities and differences between the two concepts of the holy.  Thorsson writes, “Although the two terms have been separated by history, we must again understand them as two parts of a single concept -- as they were to our forbears -- inseparable and mutually dependent.”  Further, he states, “So something must be *wíhaz before it is *hailagaz -- the two are merely functions of the same state or process.”5  These statements can falsely give the impression that weihs and háilags are simply two different ways of describing the same thing, even though the rest of Thorsson’s article is dedicated to demonstrating how they are two entirely different aspects of the holy.  The unity between the two aspects is that they are both parts of a single process (i.e., the process of consecration), not that they are they same. After all, if the two were the same, there would be no need for using different words to describe them.

    Weihs is the doer of the act of consecration, and háilags is that which has been consecrated by weihs.  Weihs, as “that which is set apart,” is the divine source of blessing, and háilags is that which is blessed.  An example from grammar can be used to illustrate the relationship between weihs and háilags: weihs is like the subject of a sentence, and háilags is like the object.

    That weihs is a very different concept from háilags can be seen in the connection between weihs and battle.  In the various Germanic languages, weihs means “set apart,” sanctity, priest, village, idol, sacred grove, grave mound, site where court is held, standard or banner, sanctify, consecrate, hallow, ordain, and also refers to the altar and temple.  Further, it seems to refer to the warrior, battle, strife and battle grounds.6   “In Gothic, weihan means both “to consecrate” and “to fight.”  In Anglo-Saxon, the only surviving verb form of wéoh is wígan, which also means “to fight.”  When one considers that Germanic religion was a warrior tradition, and many of its gods were associated with aspects of battle, it is easy to see why the Germanic concept of sanctity would be closely related with the concept of fighting.

    The warrior tradition in Germanic society was important, because defending the folk in battle against the enemy was a way of preserving the sanctity and wholeness of society and its land.  The enemy must not be allowed to profane the folk and land with raiding and pillaging, or by conquering and subjecting the folk to a different tribe and their customs.  The gods, who are weihs,7 were understood to have a significant role to play in deciding the outcomes of battles, and thus the act of battle among men itself was the means by which the gods protected (sanctified) the folk  Religion and battle were intertwined among the Germanic tribes.  The ideal death was a death in battle defending the folk, which the warrior hoped would earn him a seat in Vallhal, Woden’s hall of the slain warriors.  Therefore, battle and warriors were considered weihs, or “set apart.” Battle, thunder, and ritual sacrifice show how weihan often involves giving up or destroying one thing as a means of preserving and sanctifying another.

    Weihs reflects the Germanic notion that worth is forged in the fires of ordeal, that conflict brings about right, and that anything worth while will be earned through challenge.  Háilags carries no such associations, but instead has a more peaceful and nurturing nature.  In that sense, weihs and háilags might be compared to the differences between worth and frith, male and female, and the natures of the Æsir and Vanir gods, respectively.

    In what contexts does the holy apply?  Holiness primarily seems to be present (or absent) in people, places and things.  There are the “holy people” in the sense of weihs, such as kings, priests and warriors.  In Gothic, a priest was called a weiha.  Therefore, the person of the Germanic priest possesses and embodies that mysterious, dangerous divine power which makes things wholesome for the people of the tribe.  He was “set apart” from society by his possession of divine power in larger quantities than the ordinary man.  One can see why a Germanic priest would be considered weihs: the Germanic “holy man,” possessing the mystical powers of the Germanic poetic tradition, could kill a man or drive him mad with words alone.8  He represented the gods to the folk, and knew the secrets of maintaining the tribal rituals by which the raw divine power was invoked to respond with hailiz to the human community.  In this way, the old Germanic sacral priest-king could also be considered “set apart” from society, and thus weihs.  The rest of the people in the tribe were made “whole” or háilags, by the actions of the weiha or priest.

    Aside from those men who are weihs, there are the people who are háilags, or “made whole;” by weihs in its various forms.  In a tribe, this group should ideally include as many of the folk as is possible.  It is the duty of the weihs such as the king, priests, reeves and other authorities to ensure the háilag-ness of the folk to the best of their abilities.

    Beyond the human ambit, holiness is widely associated with places: holy steads and sacred sites were and are central to the practice of Germanic religion.  A vé in Old Norse is a holy stead, and the place where court is held.  In Gothic, a village is called weihs. Villages, towns, shires, kunja and kingdoms each surrounded a central holy site.  A village is weihs not only because it surrounds a central holy site which sanctifies it, but because the village is the weihs-center from which men go out into the fields to work at making them háilags, or fertile and fruitful.

    Holiness can also be found in objects.  Holy objects can be either weihs or háilags, and can be either naturally occurring or man made.  The wéoh, or god-image is a good example.  The paraphernalia of worship is considered weihs, and so are such things as a thors-hammer pendant, holy stones, the altar, and the holy sword.  A great, worthy sword is weihs because it is dangerous item, forged with ancient mystical smithing secrets, and which has the power and function of bringing háilag-ness.  Also weihs are the ancient sacred cult objects of the tribe which had been passed down from kings, priests and heroes of old, such as those which the Tervingi Goths carried across the Danube with them when they crossed into the Roman empire.9  As for naturally occurring weihs, it is present in such things as sun, lightning, sky, rain, stones, trees and rivers, which have wights (spirits) living in them, or higher concentrations of main.  These are some of the sources of weihs upon which all things háilags, or whole, are dependent.

    Concerning the relationship between weihs and háilags, Thorsson states that “the two concepts cannot exist without one another,”10 however, he does not give any evidence of why this is so.  It is clear that the existence of háilags is dependent upon weihs, because weihs is the source of háilags.  There is, however, nothing inherent in these concepts to indicate how or why weihs would be dependent upon háilags.  Neither does Thorsson give any evidence for a dependence of weihs on háilags.

    In ancient times, the survival of men depended upon them being recipients of the háilags, and the blessings of the gods were the source of that háilags.  The gods, or véar, could thus be said to fall into the category of weihs.  There is very little indication that the gods depend upon men for their survival, even though such a dubious belief seems popular amongst certain Asatrurar.  (At the most, it could be said that the memory of the gods on earth is dependent upon men).  Do the gods need the gifts of men in order to survive? Considering that the little which men can give back to the gods came from the blessings of the gods in the first place, a divine dependency upon men does not seem likely. Furthermore, between the times of modern and ancient heathenry, hundreds of years of Christianity have passed in which the gods have received hardly any worship from men. If the gods’ survival depended on our gifts, then it seems unlikely they would have survived to refound their religion among men in the 20th century.

    Or perhaps the gods depend upon men to be their army to fight against ettins at Ragnarok, as is told in the late Norse sources, and in that way, “they need us as much as we need them.”  It should be remembered that the entire Ragnarok myth is of very late Norse origin and is not evidenced among other Germanic tribes or in earlier Germanic times.  Also, since the myth can be shown to be a Christianized and dualistic reduplication of the “Battle of the Heodenings” legend, which had nothing to do with the gods, the idea that the gods depend upon men begins to seem arrogant and highly unlikely.  Thus, while it is clear that háilags is dependent upon weihs, there is in fact no compelling evidence or arguments to indicate that weihs is dependent upon háilags.

    Further, is Thorsson’s statement that “something must be *wíhaz before it is *hailagaz” actually true?  His article does not discuss things which are weihs but not háilags, and vice versa.  Does something that is weihs have to be háilags, and does something that is háilags have to be weihs?  If something were to be both weihs and háilags, it would have to be something which is both the consecrator and the consecrated.  Anything which is consecrated must have become so from contact with something else which was already possessing the power of consecration.  Certainly some things have been consecrated, and now themselves consecrate other things.  The question here, however, is if all things holy must be both consecrators and the consecrated.

    To answer the above question, perhaps it would be best to discuss a couple of examples. A Sacral King has the power to make the fields fertile.  In so doing, he is weihs, because his embodiment of mysterious divine power makes the land háilags.  He himself, however, was not always weihs: rather, at one time, he was consecrated, or installed as king and shown to the gods.  Therefore, a king, as both the consecrated, and a consecrator, is weiháilags.11

    Is this the case with all holy things, though?  What about thunder, which also hallows the fields?  Thunder obviously embodies a mysterious and sometimes dangerous divine power which is necessary in order for the crops to properly ripen, and thus thunder is unquestionably weihs.  Is thunder, however, háilags -- is it something wholesome that was once consecrated?  Not really.  It is powerful and dangerous, (not particularly wholesome qualities), even if it can bring about wholesomeness in other things.  Also, there is no evidence, either materially or in the Germanic lore that indicates there was ever such a thing as “unholy thunder;” there is no thunder wielded by the ettins or other baleful sources.  Rather, thunder is raw holy power that was always so even though itself was never consecrated.

    Another example of something weihs is the sun.  It is very powerful, and its levels of heat and light could be described as dangerous, to say the least.  Yet the heat of the sun produces the temperatures on earth required for life, and the vegetation which sustains all life on earth is built out of sunlight in the process of photosynthesis.  It destroys the freezing cold that would otherwise annihilate almost all life.  The sun, which was never consecrated, is one of the most primal sources of weihs, and it makes life on earth háilags.

    A Greek philosopher might argue that a thing cannot bestow wholesomeness unless itself first possessed wholesomeness, just as a man with no money could not give money to others.  Fortunately, the Germanic peoples did not make use of Greek logical thinking, which so often tends to outsmart itself, as our above examples demonstrate.  háilags does not need to have its origins in a pre-existing háilags; rather, háilags has its origins in weihs.  Something weihs might be able to bring about wholesomeness in other things, but this does not mean that it is wholesome within itself.  Thunder is thus weihs, but is not háilags.  We can see, therefore, that there are two categories of consecrators: those which are weiháilag, and those which are only weihs.

    The question remains, does something that is háilags but not weihs have the ability to consecrate?  The fact that one Germanic word for “consecrate” is “hallow” may suggest that háilags does have consecration powers, but the use of the word “hallow” to describe the process of consecration in Germanic languages might also have come about due to the Christian reinterpretation of the holy (see below).  We have already established, with the example of the Sacral King, that something which has been consecrated can itself become a consecrator.  However, once something that has been made holy begins to consecrate other things, it graduates to the type of holiness embodying the more central divine origin, and is thus referred to as weihs.

    An example is the “idol” or graven images of gods which were made by the Germanic peoples, and called wéohhas in Anglo-Saxon.  The image begins as a piece of wood from a tree, perhaps from a sacred grove and therefore already considered to posses special powers.  The wood is cut in a customary way according to mystical principles, perhaps accompanied by special chants or galdors, designed for the purpose.  Then the piece of wood is consecrated: it is made holy by being formed into the shape of a god.  The image is then ritually installed on the altar, and the divine power is invoked so that the god may use the image as a “seat” during the ritual times, when he descends from heaven to the sacred grove.  The god’s presence in the image is the final stage of consecration which makes the image holy.  The image is, however, not merely something to be blessed and made fruitful, but rather, it is consecrated so that it may be the seat of divine power from which a god blesses his people and their land.  It thus becomes a wéoh because it has an active, rather than passive role in the consecration process.

    In Gothic, the earliest recorded Germanic language (mid 4th century), the distinction between weihs and háilags is more pronounced, no doubt due to the fact that translation of the bible into Gothic took place while the Goths and their religious conceptions were still heathen.  As a result, more archaic heathen concepts can be seen in Gothic than in the later Germanic languages.12  In Gothic, the term used to denote consecration was weihan -- “to sanctify,” or weihnan -- “become holy, be hallowed.”  The verb forms of Gothic háilags were hailjan -- “to heal,” and hailnjan, become well, be healed, whole.” háilags  referred only to that which was consecrated, or made whole, and was not used to describe either the source or process of consecration.   This clearly demonstrates the importance of the differences between weihs and háilags.

    In many later Germanic languages, the old heathen concept of weihs was falling out of use and being replaced with háilags.  In Anglo-Saxon and Old Saxon, which post-date Gothic by several hundred years, the use of weihs has narrowed in scope.  For example in Anglo-Saxon, weihs survives only in wéofod: altar, wíg: idol, strife, battle.13  Hal still means whole, but the meaning of halor has been mutated to mean salvation.14  Haligan retains its original meaning “to heal,” but now halignes denotes sanctity, a holy place, a sanctuary, a holy thing, a relic, and sacred rites, where such things were previously called weihs.

    It might be argued that because Anglo-Saxon is not directly descended from Gothic, and developed in a much different and far away land among tribes who were only distantly related to the Goths, the use of the verbs weihan and halgian could be merely tribal peculiarities to the east and west Germanic peoples respectively.  However, the several hundred year gap between Gothic and the West Germanic languages, in which few traces of intermediate Germanic languages survive, and in which Christianity was regularly practiced by Germanic peoples, is too large not to assume that Christianity had changed the Germanic concept of the holy within that time period.

    While weihs did not survive in Modern English (accept perhaps as vie: to strive, through French envier), it did survive in other modern Germanic languages.  In Icelandic, “holy” is also only heilagur, and a consecrator is only a helgar, or halgari; however, “hallow” and “consecrate” are both helga and vigja.  A “consecratory” is sem lytur ath helgun etha vigslu: both halgian and weihan.  This seems to indicate that in the Christianized Norse lands the old heathen concept of the holy might have been preserved to some degree along side that of the new Christian viewpoint.  It is clear, though, that vigja is still secondary to helga in importance, as would be expected in a Christian society.

    Weihs also survives in modern German with much of its original meaning intact:  German weihen, “consecrate, sanctify, ordain.” Heil is “well being, salvation, whole, savior, heal,” and heiligkeit is “sanctity.”15  Weihs enjoys continued use in such words as weihrauch, “incense,” and weihwasser, “holy water,” where its original meaning as the source of consecration is preserved.

    One way to trace changes in the concept of the holy in Germanic tribes is to look at the lord’s prayer in various Germanic languages to see if weihs or háilags is used.  The line “hallowed be thy name” gives us a good opportunity to observe the changes.  As might be expected, the Gothic version preserves weihs: “...weihnai namo thein....”  While some of the other early and/or east Germanic related versions of the prayer retained weihs,16 all later Germanic versions of the prayer accept the Old Saxon call “the lord’s” name not weihs, but háilags.17  Further, all versions of the prayer in modern Germanic languages use háilags exclusively.  This reflects how the Germanic view of the holy changed after exposure to Christianity.  To the early Christian Goths, then, “the lord’s” name embodied the nature of a god, and the power of the divine was present within the name itself; thus it had to be surrounded by taboo.  The name of the god could be used to invoke the god and bless something, making it holy, but it could not be casually spoken or bandied about carelessly, lest the god be offended and his wrath invoked.  The Gothic use of weihs to describe a god-name, and the taboo which this implies is exactly the way in which Germanic heathen viewed the names of their gods.18

    On the other hand, “the lord’s” name to the long Christianized Germanic peoples was no longer a mysterious divine power which had to be treated with care, but rather, was merely a spiritual comfort that nobody actually understood or really truly believed in, that was subordinated to the needs of the individual.  It was merely a vehicle for the more self centered conception of nurturing halignes.  After all, halignes had also come to mean “salvation,” in the Christian sense.  The use of háilags to describe a god-name is not in keeping with Germanic heathen religious conceptions, but instead reflects a Christian way of thinking.

    This change in the conception of holiness reflects the de-spiritualization of the Germanic peoples.  By adopting Christianity and abandoning their old heathen faith, the Germans were abandoning weihs, or the real divinity, for the false divinity of the foreign Christian pantheon.  No longer was the divinity itself important or understood in Christianity; all that mattered was its effect on the individual.  With the true divine abandoned and no longer responding, the true nature of the divine was no longer visible to men.  The divine was therefore only seen in terms of “what it could do for you,” in other words, the supposed “halignes” of good feelings in life arising from self-delusion, and supposed salvation at the time of death.

    The importance of weihs, and the distinction between weihs and háilags are very important both on the level of their primal manifestations, and in terms of human involvement with the two aspects of the holy.  According to Thorsson, the object of "magic" is to "...reach into the *wíhaz realm with a form that is intelligible to it that it may respond with hailiz -- holiness -- in some form."19  From a religious, rather than magical perspective, a Theodsman might instead say that “it is the object of the Wéofodthane or priest, and his ritual workings, to reach into the weihs realm with a form that is intelligible to it that it may respond with háilags.”

    Now, in modern heathenry, or at least in Théodism, the old Germanic two-sided concept of the holy is being revived along with the old gods and traditions.  Concerning the distinction between weihs and háilags, Gárman Lord is most certainly correct when he says “the difference seems so crucial that if we didn’t already have words for such a distinction, we’d have to invent some anyway; it’s all quite necessary to everything we do.”20  It could even be said that the proper practice of heathenry is dependent upon understanding these two distinct aspects of the holy, and how they work together in a single process.  “The bridging of the gap between the world of *wíh- and the mundane world is the true purpose of religion...”21  It is important that modern heathen set aside the Christianized concept of the holy as a single force, separated from the true nature of the divine, and instead understand the true spiritual reality of weihs and háilags.

1. Which descended from Proto-Indo-European *vík- “to separate,” and *kail- “to be whole, invulnerable.”
2. Henceforth referred to in the shorter Gothic forms as weihs and háilags.
3. From: Gárman Lord, Date: Sunday, August 04, 2002 7:38 AM Subject: re: Re: [wisdomschool] WKS Lesson 2
4. Thorsson, Runa, Vol. I., No. 2, Yule, 1982, Green Runa, 1993, pp. 46-50, THEOD, Vol. IV., No. 2, Waelburges 1997, pp. 9-13.
5. Thorsson, THEOD, pp. 12.
6. While the weihs words associated with battle are usually thought to descend from an entirely different root, it should be noted that the forms of “fight” and “sanctify” in Germanic languages parallel each other very closely, and that the two concepts are not
foreign to one another, but are intertwined, as described in this article.
7. The gods are called véar in Old Norse.
8. Gárman Lord, conversation.
9. The Catholic veneration for relics and sacred objects is indeed a most heathen custom.
10. Thorsson, pp. 12.
11. Weiháilags can also be said to be the union between the divine and that which has been consecrated by the divine.  For humans who deal with weihs, it is important to balance this function with háilags.  Dealing with too much weihs without enjoying the counterbalance of háilags can be dangerous and result in “burnout,” where too little weihs can result in a lack of spiritual worth.
12. For example, the surviving manuscripts which preserve what we know of the Old English language date from at least a couple hundred years after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.  The Gothic language, on the other hand, was written down even before the official conversion of the Goths to Christianity, when the new religion had only made very small inroads among the Goths, and was still subject to severe persecution by the Gothic authorities.  Gothic should certainly be expected to preserve Germanic words with their earlier, more original heathen meanings.
13. And in related words such as wíggild: idol, wígweorthung: idol worship, wígsmith: idol maker.
14. In Gothic, háils means “whole, sound, safe,” but is not used to denote Christian salvation as was the case in later Germanic languages.  In Gothic, salvation was described as nasjan “to save.”  This serves as further evidence of how the concept of the holy changed under Christian influence.
15. Both weih- and heil- are used to refer to surviving heathen holidays: Allerheiligen, “Hallows Eve.”  Heilig “Christmas Eve” and Weinachten, “Christmas.”
16. Allemanic “uuihi namun dinan,” Bavarian “kauuîhit sî namo dîn,” Rhein Franconian “giwîhit sî namo thîn.”
17. East Franconian “geheilagôt thîn namo,” Anglo-Saxon “þin nama gehalgod,” Frisian “namme hillige wurde,” Old Saxon “geuuîhid thîn namo,” Icelandic “helgist thitt nafn.”
18. Gárman Lord, Way of the Heathen, Watertown: THEOD, 2000, pp. 199-200.
19. Thorsson, pp. 13.
20. From: Gárman Lord, Date: Sunday, August 04, 2002 Subject: re: Re: [wisdomschool] WKS Lesson 2
21. Thorsson, pp. 11.