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The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia




Chapter 3

Temples and Images

In common with other peoples, the ancient Scandinavians erected special buildings in which to worship their gods, and in which their images were placed. These temples (called hof, goa-hof, goa-hs, and blt-hs) must not be thought of as in any way comparable to those erected by the more cultured Aryan races, such as the Greeks and Romans. It is true that Adam of Bremen describes that at Upsala in Sweden, which he calls nobilissimum templum, as being 'all of gold,' while a note to the passage says that it was surrounded by 'a golden chain hanging on the pinnacles of the building, and seen glittering afar by those who approach the place'; but it is very doubtful how far this description is trustworthy. In any case the Upsala temple would naturally be much superior to those in less central localities; from other indications it appears to have been specially well endowed with landed and other property. Unfortunately there is no evidence from which any general idea of the heathen temples in Sweden and Denmark can be obtained. In Norway they were, like the ordinary houses, constructed of timber, and in many cases were probably of small size and insignificant appearance. Mention has already been made of the temple of Thor in the island of Mostr, which Thorolf took down and carried off to Iceland when he went to settle there. The same thing is told of Thorhadd, who was priest of Mrin in Thrandheim; he also took down the temple, and carried with him the temple-mould and the chief pillars. Some of the building, no doubt, may have been more imposing, and even to some extent furnished with costly ornaments. When Olaf Tryggvason gave orders to burn down Earl Hkon's temple at Hladir, 'he made them take all the treasure and ornaments out of the temple and off the images of the gods.' A large gold ring was also removed from the temple door, but it afterwards proved to be only brass internally. It may also be noted that various accounts of temples speak of them as being lighted by glass windows 'so that there was no shadow anywhere in them.' Beside the great temple at Upsala there was a sacred grove, and the evidence of place-names shows that similar groves existed elsewhere in Sweden and Denmark: as regards Norway and Iceland there is no positive information on this head.

Of the temple which Thorolf erected at his Icelandic home on Thorsness an interesting description is given in Eyrbyggja Saga, which is thus the chief source for what knowledge we have on the subject. It is described as a great house, with doors on the side-walls, nearer to one end of it than the other. In from these doors stood the chief pillars, and in these there were nails, which were known by the name of regin-nails (regin was one of the names for the gods, but its precise meaning here is not certain). The part of the building lying inward from these pillars was a great sanctuary. At the inner end there was a smaller building 'of the same form as the choir in churches is now'; and here, in the middle of the floor, stood a pedestal of the nature of an altar. On this lay a ring weighing two ounces, on which all oaths had to be sworn. It was the duty of the temple-priest to wear this ring on his hand at all assemblies. On the pedestal stood also the sacrificial bowl (hlautbolli), and in this were placed the sacrificial twigs (hlaut-teinar), by means of which the blood of the sacrifice (hlaut-bl) was sprinkled upon those present at the ceremony. 'This was the blood from those animals that were offered to the gods.' Round about this altar the images of the gods were arranged. All those living in the district had to pay toll to the temple, and were bound to attend the temple-priest on all expeditions, 'as thingmen are now bound to attend their chiefs.' On the other hand, the priest had to keep up the temple and not allow it to fall into decay, and to hold in it the sacrificial feasts.

In the late and fictitious Kjalnesinga Saga there is given a similar description of a temple, which may possibly have some basis in local tradition. It is described as having been a hundred and twenty feet long, and sixty broad. At the inner end was a circular annex, the shape of which suggested a cap or hood; this had windows, and was hung with tapestry. Thor was the chief god there, and stood in the middle, with the other gods on each side of him. In front of them was an altar with an iron plate on the top, on which a fire was kept constantly burning: 'the called that hallowed fire.' The silver ring on which oaths were sworn, and the bowl for the sacrificial blood, are also mentioned, but the account of them may be derived from the passage in Eyrbyggja Saga already quoted. 

In a much more reliable source, Landnmabk, there occurs the following passage relating to the ring and its use. 'A ring of two ounces or more in weight had to lie on the altar in each chief temple. Each priest had to wear the ring on his arm at all assemblies over which he himself presided, having previously reddened it in the blood of the animal which he himself had sacrificed there. Every man who required to do legal business at a law court had first to take an oath on that ring, and name two or more witnesses. "I name [M. and N.] witnesses herein," he had to say, "that I take an oath on the ring, a lawful oath, ---so help me Frey and Njrd and the Almighty God, as I shall pursue (or defend) this suit, or bear witness, or give verdict or judgment, according to what I know to be most right and true and in accordance with the law."' In general agreement with this is the account given in Vga-Glms Saga: 'That man who was to take a temple-oath took in his hand a silver ring which was reddened in the blood of the sacrificed ox, and which had to weigh not less than three ounces.' In taking the oath, Glm is represented as using the words, 'I take a temple-oath on the ring, and I say to the god,' etc. ; here the names of Frey and Njrd are omitted. (1)

While Iceland was being colonised from Norway, the place and number of the temples would depend on the religious zeal of the settlers in the various districts, but when a fixed constitution was adopted in the year 930 special regulations were made with reference to this. 'The land was divided into quarters, and there were to be three places of assembly in each quarter, and three chief temples in each assembly-district. Men who were noted for intelligence and just dealing were selected to have charge of the temples; these had to appoint the law-courts at the assemblies, and to superintend the legal proceedings there. Each man had to give toll to the temple, as they now give toll to the church.' References to the payment of this tax are not infrequent in the sagas, and one of the results of the preaching of Christianity by Thorvald and Bishop Frederic in 981-985 was that in the north of Iceland 'many men abandoned sacrifices and broke their idols, and some would not pay the templetax.' We also meet with such remarks as, 'the men of Geitland had to maintain half of the temple along with Tungu-Odd.' The chief temples were thus legally endowed religious buildings, but it would appear that there were others which were the private property of individuals, and no doubt many of those which were entitled to legal support were originally erected by the more prominent of the settlers. An interesting case of temple endowment is that recorded of Grm Geitskor, who travelled over all Iceland to find the most suitable spot for holding the yearly assembly. For his trouble he received a 'penny' from every man in the island, and this money he gave to the temples. One of the early settlers in the east of Iceland is recorded as having taken formal possession of an unoccupied piece of land for the behoof of a temple which he had built there.

As has already been mentioned, the inner part of the temple was more particularly the sacred place, where stood the altar and the images of the gods. The main part of the building served as a kind of hall, in which were held the entertainments which followed upon the sacrifices, and at which the flesh of the slain animals was eaten. As in the ordinary halls, there were fires in the middle of the floor and seats down each side. In some of the sagas dealing with prehistoric times in Sweden mention is made of a dsar-sal (in connection with the worship of the dsir: see p. 33). What relation this had to the usual temple is not clear: it has been supposed to be no more than another name for the templehall, but this is not at all certain.

The temple being a holy place, there were naturally certain restrictions attached to it, of which a prominent one was that no weapons were to be taken inside it. This is clearly illustrated by an incident in Vatnsdla Saga, where Ingimund enters the temple first, and Hrafn the Norwegian follows him, wearing his sword. Then Ingimund turned to him, and said, 'It is not the custom to carry weapons in the temple, and you will come under the wrath of the gods unless you make amends for it.' Then Olaf Tryggvason entered the temple of Mrin in Thrandheim, he carried a gold-mounted staff, but his own men and those belonging to the district were weaponless.


1. In the ceremony of entering into 'foster-brotherhood,' each person swore to avenge the other, 'and named all the gods as witnesses.'


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