Sacred Space in Viking Law and Religion
Dear Viking Answer Lady:
I'd like to know more about what types of temples and areas of worship the Vikings used.
(signed) Thor's Friend
The topic of sacred space is an interesting one, for, as Hilda Ellis-Davidson says:
Every religion must have its holy places, affording a means of communication between man, gods, spirits and forces of nature (Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 1988. p. 13).
Studying the idea of sacred space among the pagan Viking Age peoples is difficult, since the literary sources that we have which directly tell us about such areas are all written by Christians, often long after the close of the Viking Age. It is often more helpful to look at the practices of the Germanic peoples elsewhere, especially the continental Germans, of whom we have Roman-authored accounts: though practices undoubtedly changed with time, where we find correspondences between Germanic and Viking Age practices, it makes the evidence a little more solid. Another source of information comes from archaeological remains, and these have been few and ambiguous for the most part. Still, taking all these together, we can begin to get an idea of "what may have been."
First, let us define the term, "sacred space." Sacred space is an area which is conceptually sanctified or separated from the everyday world, often for the purpose of worship or transactions of law:
"Space" which is empty, uniform, and abstract, is given shape and life so it may become a ritual "place" such as a burial ground, courtroom, or cathedral. All of these are curiously vacant, even haunting, when the actions of ritual are not occurring in them. Ritual place is a matrix of ritual life. It is a generative center, though it may be geographically on the edges. A founded place is sequestered from the hubbub, even when it consists only of a circle formed by Welfare State musicians in an urban shopping center. A founded place is a forcefield eliciting gestures from ritual actors.
Ritualizing may occur without objects or implements but not without founded (fundus = "bottom," "fundamental") places. Ritual traditions differ in their views about the length of time such a place is pregnant with formative power. For some, the founding ends the moment the action ceases. For others, the place is set aside once-and-for-all by consecration (Ronald L. Grimes, Beginnings in Ritual Studies. New York: University Press of America. 1982. p. 66).
Among the Germanic and Viking peoples, sacred space consisted of natural, powerful features of the wild landscape, as well as being created using physical markers to delineate the space, to create a frið-garðr, a zone of peace. This type of sacred space was used in religious worship, but also in law courts, and suprisingly enough to create boundaries for duels as well. This article will investigate the nature and uses of sacred space in the Viking world.
Place Name Evidence and Pagan Sites of Worship
To some extent, place name evidence from Scandinavia reveals that natural features in the wild as well as more human landscapes were frequently considered to be sacred:
The oldest sites for religious worship were in the open air, in holy groves and meadows, before rocks and hillocks, or on the shores of swampy lakes into which offerings were cast. Many regions of Scandinavia are rich in such place-names as Òðinn's Meadow, Òðinn's Cornfield, Þórr's Crag, Þórr's Grove, Freyr's Cornfield and the like. Besides places sacred to a specified god, there were many others simply called "holy", which were probably thought of as the dwellings of gods or beneficent spirits, even if no name was given. The same must have been true of particular rocks, wells, and other natural objects to which individual households brought offerings. (Simpson, p. 180).
Most Scandinavian place-names which include the name of a god are compounded with the name for a farm (ON bu or by, or occasionally tuna), a field (ON åker), or a pasture (ON vang). Gods are often associated with fertility (especially Freyr and Þórr) and some names imply that the divinity may have been believed to be resident in the land, or else the land-owner may have dedicated his land to a god, trusting the deity to make his fields fruitful. Natural features (rather than man-made ones) are also commonly compounded with Scandinavian god names, most commonly grove (ON lundr) or outcrop (ON hörgr) (Edward Sproston. Pagan and Supranormal Elements in Germanic Place-Names).
åker or akr, "open field"
sæter or setr, "dairy pastures"
teigr, "strip of meadowland"
Bodies of Water
á, "stream, small river"
áll, "deep groove in sea or river bed"
höfn or havn, "harbor"
laug, "hot spring"
strönd, "beach, shore"
sund, "sound, channel"
vatn, "water, lake"
øy or ey, "island"
Home, Farm or Hall
bólstaðr, "homestead, farm"
hof or hov, "shrine"
land, "land, estate"
Mountains, Crags and Hills
áss, "rocky ridge"
berg, "boulder, cliff"
björg, "boulder, cliff"
hlíð, "mountain side"
hörgr, "outdoor altar, stony outcrop"
skjölf, "craggy ledge"
steinn, "stone, rock"
Woods and Groves
lög, "hollow, depression"
skógr, "forest, wood"
|(Edward Sproston. Pagan and Supranormal Elements in Germanic Place-Names).
Worship in the Wild
The earliest inhabitants of Northern Europe conducted most of their religious practice in out-of-doors locations. Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson says:
Among the Celts and Germans there seem originally to have been few permanent and elaborate temples used as meeting places for worship and sacrifice. In spite of the rigors of the climate, the place where men sought contact with the supernatural powers was for the most part in the open air. The resorting to holy places was something which could be witnessed by outside observers, often arousing interest and curiosity. This in the works of Greek and Latin writers we hear repeatedly of sacred woods and groves, sanctuaries in forest clearings and on hilltops, beside springs and lakes and on islands, and of places set apart for the burial of the noble dead (Ellis-Davidson. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, p. 13).
Tacitus wrote of the Germanic peoples in the first century AD in Germania 9 that they did not utilize idols or other images of their gods, nor build temples:
Ceterum nec cohibere parietibus deos neque in ullam humani oris speciem adsimulare ex magnitudine caelestium arbitrantur: lucos ac nemora consecrant deorumque nominibus appellant secretum illud, quod sola reverentia vident.
The Germans, however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence.
Even within new Viking settlements outside of the Scandinavian homelands, the Norse peoples saw spirits in the hills and groves, and found sacred landscapes in their new homes:
When the Scandinavians came to settle in Iceland in the late ninth century, certain natural sites were chosen by them as areas of sacred space. It may be noted that these were not marked by permanent walls or obvious boundaries. An impressive example of the simplest type of holy place is Helgafell, on the peninsula of Snaefellness in western Iceland.... There seems little reason to doubt the local tradition preserved in the saga [Eyrbyggja Saga, Þórolf of Mostur] of the importance of Helgafell as a holy place which had to be kept free from pollution, and on which men and beasts were safe from injury, because no violence could be committed on the hill. It was said that no man should look on it unwashed.... It was said also that Þórolf believed that he and his family would pass into Helgafell when they died, so that the rocky hill was seen as a possible entrance into the Other World, and also as a dwelling for the dead. From one side the hill resembles a house with a door, strengthening the parallel with a burial mound where the dead is brought to join his ancestors (Ibid., p. 13-14).
Aside from place-name evidence, it is known that Vikings abroad regarded certain wild landscapes as being sacred. The Viking settlers in Dublin had a grove of huge oaks and other trees which they called 'Þórr's Grove', and which was burnt by Brian Boru (C.J.S. Marstrander, "Thor en Irlande." Rev Celt 36. 1915. p. 246-247). Similarly, the Swedish-derived Varangian traders known to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus were said to "made offerings of birds on an island in the Dneiper 'because a giant oak-tree grows there' (Ibid.)
Early Christian legal codes from Norway and Sweden reinforce this notion of widespread outdoor worship by expressly prohibiting the execution of ritual ceremonies on mounds, in groves and woods, by stones and in sanctuaries (Sproston). Traces of the custom of wild areas being considered sacred space are found in the sagas, Christian homilies and Christian laws: "for long after the Conversion people still believed that 'the good spirits of the land' dwelt in groves, mounds or waterfalls, and women still gathered by caves and cairns to eat food first dedicated to them" (Simpson, p. 180).
This belief in spirits of the wild inhabiting natural features and the sanctity of certain landmarks has continued unbroken throughout the Middle Ages and exists even today, as the following story reported by Reuters shows:
The trouble started last month when the bulldozers kept breaking down during work on a new road. The mysterious accidents in front of one particular stone brought work to a standstill at the construction site at Ljarskogar, about three hours drive north of Reykjavik. The contractors solved the problem in an unorthodox way but one which is fairly common on Iceland. They accepted an offer from a medium to find out if the land was populated by elves and, if so, were they causing the disruptions.
"Our basic approach is not to deny this phenomenon," Birgir Gudmundsson, an engineer with the Iceland Road Authority, told Reuters. "We tread carefully. There are people who can negotiate with the elves, and we make use of that."
About 10 percent of Icelanders believe in supernatural beings and another 10 percent deny them, but the remaining 80 percent on this windswept North Atlantic outpost either have no opinion or refuse to rule out their existence, a survey shows.
The medium, a woman named Regina, said the elves told her they no longer lived in the stone but nearby. However, they wanted workers to remove it in a dignified manner and not just try to blow it up. Regina was interviewed on national radio, which found itself quoting elves, albeit indirectly, for the first time in history, according to one radio journalist (Rolf Soderlind. Elves in Modern Iceland).
Similar stories have been broadcast on National Public Radio, authored matter-of-factly by Icelandic correspondents (Louise Heite. "Spirits". Hobbyhorses. Seydisfjöautrdur, Iceland). Even Þórolfr's Helgafell is still considered to be a sacred space:
Helgafell is the holy mountain that figured so prominently in Icelandic history and literature. In reality, it's a 73-metre-high hill, yet it apparently still retains some of its magic, and those who follow a few simple rules while climbing it are entitled to have three wishes granted. First, you must climb the south-west slope to the temple ruins without speaking or glancing backwards. Second, the wishes must be for good and made with a guileless heart. Third, you must descend the eastern slope and never reveal your wishes to anyone. ("Helgafell" Lonely Planet - Destination Iceland).
Worship in Enclosed Sacred Spaces - The Friðgarðr
Many sacred sites used by the Vikings were more than simply holy. Certain types of sacred landscapes were specially created or demarcated as zones of peace, or frið-garðar ("peace-enclosures"):
While unfenced areas and natural features of the landscape might be regarded as holy places, the need to provide an enclosed space, a temenos or sacred precinct, was often felt. It might enclose figures of the gods or sacred objects, or provide an obvious boundary around holy ground, separating it either temporarily or permanently from the normal world. Examples of this from the Viking Age suggested by Jacqueline Simpson are the ropes enclosing a court of law, the careful marking out of the area in which an official duel was fought, the squares on the floor used by a wizard calling up the dead, and the stone settings placed round graves (Ellis-Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, p. 27).
The belief that sacred groves enclosed in holy ropes are sacred places in which no weapon may be drawn is ancient, for similar beliefs are attested to by Tacitus in Germania 39-40:
Vetustissimos se nobilissimosque Sueborum Semnones memorant; fides antiquitatis religione firmatur. Stato tempore in silvam auguriis patrum et prisca formidine sacram omnes eiusdem sanguinis populi legationibus coeunt caesoque publice homine celebrant barbari ritus horrenda primordia. Est et alia luco reverentia: nemo nisi vinculo ligatus ingreditur, ut minor et potestatem numinis prae se ferens. Si forte prolapsus est, attolli et insurgere haud licitum: per humum evolvuntur. Eoque omnis superstitio respicit, tamquam inde initia gentis, ibi regnator omnium deus, cetera subiecta atque parentia. Adicit auctoritatem fortuna Semnonum: centum pagi iis habitantur magnoque corpore efficitur ut se Sueborum caput credant.
Est in insula Oceani castum nemus, dicatumque in eo vehiculum, veste contectum; attingere uni sacerdoti concessum. Is adesse penetrali deam intellegit vectamque bubus feminis multa cum veneratione prosequitur. Laeti tunc dies, festa loca, quaecumque adventu hospitioque dignatur. Non bella ineunt, non arma sumunt; clausum omne ferrum; pax et quies tunc tantum nota, tunc tantum amata, donec idem sacerdos satiatam conversatione mortalium deam templo reddat. Mox vehiculum et vestes et, si credere velis, numen ipsum secreto lacu abluitur. Servi ministrant, quos statim idem lacus haurit.
Of all the Suevians, the Semnones recount themselves to be the most ancient and most noble. The belief of their antiquity is confirmed by religious mysteries. At a stated time of the year, all the several people descended from the same stock, assemble by their deputies in a wood; consecrated by the idolatries of their forefathers, and by superstitious awe in times of old. There by publicly sacrificing a man, they begin the horrible solemnity of their barbarous worship. To this grove another sort of reverence is also paid. No one enters it otherwise than bound with ligatures, thence professing his subordination and meanness, and the power of the Deity there. If he fall down, he is not permitted to rise or be raised, but grovels along upon the ground. And of all their superstition, this is the drift and tendency; that from this place the nation drew their original, that here God, the supreme Governor of the world, resides, and that all things else whatsoever are subject to him and bound to obey him. The potent condition of the Semnones has increased their influence and authority, as they inhabit an hundred towns; and from the largeness of their community it comes, that they hold themselves for the head of the Suevians.
In an island of the ocean there is a sacred grove, and within it a consecrated chariot, covered over with a garment. Only one priest is permitted to touch it. He can perceive the presence of the goddess in this sacred recess, and walks by her side with the utmost reverence as she is drawn along by heifers. It is a season of rejoicing, and festivity reigns wherever she deigns to go and be received. They do not go to battle or wear arms; every weapon is under lock; peace and quiet are known and welcomed only at these times, till the goddess, weary of human intercourse, is at length restored by the same priest to her temple.
The sacred grove of the Semnones is a place in which not only weapons may not be borne, but neither may one's hand be raised in violence since the hands are bound. Similarly, the precinct of the goddess is a similar zone of enclosed peace.
A particularly Scandinavian type of friðgarð was the vé, an open space, often V-shaped and set aside using rocks, ropes or fencing:
One type of sanctuary was the vé, an open space marked off by some barrier such as ropes or fencing, within which the ground must not be defiled by bloodshed, nor weapons carried. A vé could be of great size, judging by what may perhaps be a monument of this type, erected by the Danish king Gorm the Old, who reigned at Jelling and died about 940. It consists of an artificial mound containing a double grave-chamber (perhaps for Gorm and his wife), to the south of which were found a number of standing stones. It has been suggested that there were originally 200 of these, enclosing a narrow V-shaped area about 200 yards long; this the excavator interpreted as a vé, a sacred enclosure for public worship (Simpson, pp. 180-181).
Halls, Farms and Temples as Sacred Space
A common place name element is ON hov, Old Norwegian hof which denotes a heathen shrine. Scholars, however, do not believe it likely that all of the hof names originally meant "temple" or "shrine", rather most would have referred to a small building or area of a farmstead devoted to heathen worship. There is no evidence of buildings used solely as pagan temples being widespread in Scandinavia. As almost all of the places with names compounded in hof are actually farmsteads, an original meaning along the lines of "farm where cult meetings were held by the locals" might be more appropriate (Sproston).
Certainly, temples with "special enclosures" which may represent friðgarðar were known among the pagan Anglo-Saxons, as is shown in the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Book II, Section XIII:
... I advise, O king, that we instantly abjure and set fire to those temples and altars which we have consecrated without reaping any benefit from them." In short, the king publicly gave his license to Paulinus to preach the Gospel, and renouncing idolatry, declared that he received the faith of Christ: and then he inquired of the high priest who should first profane the altars and temples of their idols, with the enclosures that were about them.... This place where the idols were is still shown, not far from York, to the eastward, beyond the river Derwent, and is now called Godmundingham, where the high priest, by the inspiration of the true God, profaned and destroyed the altars which he had himself consecrated.
Still, certain leaders among the pagan Viking community, including kings, jarls, and goðar (Icelandic chieftains), had obligations to perform certain religious ceremonies on behalf of the entire community:
Temple buildings were also much used in the Viking Age, though little is known of their appearance. Certain small rectangular structures found on some farmsteads may well be little shrines for family use, but kings and chieftains would need something larger. Within the vé at Jelling there are traces of a wooden building with a clay floor and a single massive roof-post; if this was a temple, it was destroyed at the Conversion, for its remains are covered by those of a Christian church. In Sweden too, at Old Uppsala, traces of an ancient wooden building underlie the medieval church; everywhere in Europe it was normal practice for Christian converts to raise churches on the sites of demolished temples (Simpson, p. 181).
Or, as Hilda Ellis-Davidson recounts:
In 1908 a building was excavated at Hofstaðir in north-eastern Iceland; the ground plan was thought to be an example of a large temple, and is shown as such in many books on the Viking Age. It seems however more probable that this was the hall of a farmhouse used for communal religious feasts, perhaps that of the goði or leading man of the district who would preside over such gatherings, and there was no indication that it was erected purely for religious purposes (Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, p. 32).
An example of the type of building used for personal, family, or community sacrifices and worship is found in Eyrbyggja Saga, which tells of the hof built in honor of the god Þórr by Þórolfr of Mostur:
It was a mighty building. There was a door in the side wall, nearer to one end of it; inside this door stood the posts of the high-seat, and in them were the nails that were called the Divine Nails. The inside was a place of great sanctuary. And right inside at the far end there was a chamber of the same form as that of a church chancel nowadays. And there in the middle of the floor stood a stand like an altar, and on this lay an arm-ring without any join, weighing twenty ounces, on which men had to swear all oaths. The chieftain had to have that ring on his arm at all public gatherings. On the stand there must also lie the bowl for the blood of sacrifice, and in it the blood-twig, like a holy-water sprinkler, with which to sprinkle from that bowl the blood, which was called hlaut and was the kind of blood shed when beasts were slaughtered as sacrifice to the gods. And all round that stand, the gods were set out in that holy place.
A similar description is given by Snorri Sturluson, describing a tenth-century temple at Trondheim, Norway:
At the time of the feasts there, all local farmers gathered, bringing enough food and drink to last all through the festival, and also cattle and horses to be sacrificed. Their blood was caught in bowls and sprinkled all over the building, outside and in, and all over the people; the flesh was boiled in cauldrons over fires in the middle of the temple floor, and people sat around them to feast. The chieftain conducting the sacrifice consecrated the meat and drink, and the horns were passed to and fro over the fires for ceremonial drinking: the first toast to Öðinn, for victory and the success of the king; the second to Njorðr and Freyr, for a good harvest and for peace; then the "leader's toast"; then toasts to the memory of buried kinsmen (Simpson, p. 182).
Despite the elaborate descriptions of temples given in the sagas, it is well to be skeptical of the sagamenn's claims:
There are descriptions of fairly elaborate temples in Scandinavia in saga literature, but these were written relatively late, and may have been influenced by accounts of pagan temples in the Old Testament or Virgil, or by familiarity with large medieval churches of stone. Up to now archaeological research has failed to establish the existence of any large building used as a temple, or outlines of such buildings under churches. The most convincing evidence for a pre-Christian sacred site is at Mære on Trondheim Fjord, where an important sanctuary is known to have existed in the Viking Age. The medieval church there originally stood on an island, and traces of earlier buildings were discovered beneath it. The earliest appeared to date back to about AD 500, and was marked by post-holes which held the main pillars of the building. These had signs of burning at the bottom, and a number of tiny pieces of thin gold foil known as goldgubber in Denmark were found. .... It has been thought that they symbolize the marriage of god and goddess, and that they may have been used at weddings, or to bless a new home; in this case, it appears, they were used in the rite of hallowing a temple building (Ellis-Davidson. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, pp. 32-33).
Scholars believe that the temple at Mære was built of wood, as was the famous temple at Uppsala, described in Adam of Bremen's eleventh century history, Gesta Hammaburgensis Eccelesiae Pontificum. Despite the general belief that a temple existed at Mære, no unequivocal remains of a pagan temple have been found beneath the church there:
Sune Lindqvist discovered traces of an earlier building and a few post-holes which could have belonged to a temple. The reconstructed Uppsala temple model to be seen in Scandinavian museums was based largely on the ground plan of a Wendish temple at Arcona, destroyed by the Danes in the twelfth century and described in detail by Saxo Grammaticus, which was reconstructed by Schuchardt in 1921 (Ellis-Davidson. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, p. 33).
Adam of Bremen describes the large religious establishment at Uppsala as being similar in size and grandeur to Graeco-Roman temples:
Noblissimum illa gens templum habet, quod Ubsola dicitur, non longe positum ab Scitona civitate vel Birka. Prope illud templum est arbor maxima late ramos extendens, semper viridis in hieme et aestate; cuius illa generis sit, nemo scit. Ibi etiam est fons, ubi sacrificia paganorum solent exerceri et homo vivus inmergi. Qui dum non invenitur, ratum erit votum populi.
Catena aurea templum circumdat pendens supra domus fastigia lateque rutilans advenientibus, eo quod ipsum delubrum in planitie situm montes in circitu habet positos ad instar theatri. In hoc templo, quod totum ex auro paratum est, statuas trium deorum veneratur populus, ita ut potentissimus eorum Thor in medio solium habeat triclinio; hinc et inde locum possident Wodan et Fricco.
Those people have a famous temple called Uppsala. Near this temple is a large tree with wide extending branches, always green in winter and in summer. There is also a spring at which the pagans make their sacrifices, and into it immerse a live man. And if he is not found, the peoples' wish will be granted. It is not far from the towns of Sigtuna and Birka.
Around the temple is a golden chain. It hangs over the gables of the building and sends its glitter far off to those who approach because the shrine stands on level ground with mounds all about it like a theater. In this temple, covered entirely with gold, the people worship the statues of three gods in such a way that the most powerful of them, Þórr, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber. Óðinn and Freyr have places on either side (Magistri Adam Bremensis, Gesta Hammaburgensis Eccelesiae Pontificum IV, 28).
It is believed, however, that this description has been heavily influenced by Adam of Bremen's knowledge of stone or brick Christian churches and of accounts of Graceo- Roman temples in the classical literature. Some elements are probably correct, others have almost certainly been greatly exaggerated in order to allow Adam to tell of a truly spectacular victory for the Christian faith when this "enormous, rich temple" was finally overthrown.
Left to Right: Hopperstad, Oslo, Borgund, and Bergen, Norway
Despite the lack of documentary evidence for large heathen temples in Scandinavia, it is believed that the wooden stave churches built in Norway between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries may provide a possible clue as to what kind of sacred buildings were set up there in pre-Christian times:
As many as thirty-one stave churches survive... and they are strikingly different in appearance and construction from early churches of brick or stone in England and Germany. ... The earliest stave churches have rich and often fantastic carvings on doors and walls, and grim, sinister heads set at points where the pillars touch the roof, recalling ancient gods and monsters rather than Christian symbols and markedly different from fantastic heads of Anglo-Norman churches. Outside dragon shapes protrude from the gables like figure-heads from a ship. (Ellis-Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, p. 34).
Stave Church Details.
Left, Urnes Carvings. Right, Oslo Gable-Dragon
The essentially pagan nature of the stave churches is further emphasized by the folklore associated with these buildings that is still recounted today. For instance, the following legend of the building of the Heddal stave church by a mysterious figure who dwells inside a nearby hill closely echoes the myth of how the walls of Ásgarðr were built by a giant who asked for the Sun, the Moon, and Freyja as his builder's fee, yet the gods escaped the payment by a trick:
There is a legend telling of five farmers of Heddal who together decided to build a church here. One day, Raud Rygi, who was one of the five farmers, met a stranger who was willing to do the work. But he set three conditions one of which must be fulfilled: Raud Rygi must either fetch the sun and the moon down from the sky, forfeit his life-blood, or guess the name of the stranger. Raud thought that the last condition should not prove too difficult, and so he agreed to the strangers terms. But Raud got but little time to in which to find the answer, for during the first night all the building material arrived, the spire was built during the second, and it was clear that the church would be finished on the third day. Down at heart and fearing for his life, Raud walked over the fields, trying to think of the unknown carpenter's name. When he had come to Svintruberget (a hill south-east of the church) he heard a strangely beautiful song, clearly audible:
"Hush-hush, little child,And so the riddle was solved. The builder was called Finn, and he lived inside Svintruberget. Finn, known as Finn with the Fair Hair, could not stand the sound of the church bells, and so he later moved to Himing (in Lifjell) (Audhild and Cecilie Solveig, Heddal Church in Story and Legend).
Tomorrow Finn will bring you the moon.
He will bring you the sun and Christian heart,
pretty toys for my little child to play with".
The Law-Court as an Area of Sacred Space
Law-courts and other areas in which law-related activities took place in the Viking Age were commonly marked out with hazel poles (höslur) and "holy ropes" (vé-bond, "sacred bonds") and like religious spaces so marked, they were considered to be friðgarðar or "peace-enclosures," in which no weapons could be drawn.
Originally, a Þing was to some extent a religious gathering, "hallowed" in the name of the gods, and the peace which all must keep during the lawsuits and debates was akin to the peace surrounding a sanctuary [vé] (Jacqueline Simpson. Everyday Life in the Viking Age. New York: Dorset. 1967. p. 157).
In Egils saga Skallagrimssonar the lawcourt area or dómhringr of the Gulaþing Assembly is such an area:
The place where the court sat was a level plain and hazel poles were set in a circle on the plain linked by ropes. These were called the sanctuary ropes. Inside the circle sat the judges, twelve from the Fjordane District, twelve from the Sogn District, twelve from Hjordaland. These three twelves should judge the lawsuit. (Egils saga Skallagrimssonar, 90).
The settlers of Iceland combined the sanctity of the friðgarðr with the sacred qualities of plain, crag, and fiercely running river:
Of a different nature is the meeting place of the Alþing, the Law Assembly for the men of Iceland, deliberately selected in the tenth century by Ulfljot's brother Grim, after Ulfljot returned from Norway with a code of laws for Iceland. According to Ari the Learned, he chose this site after exploring all of Iceland, and once more it is not difficult to see why he felt that this particular place was suitable. It is formed by a natural volcanic rift in a large sunken valley, where the swift-flowing river (Öxará) runs into a large lake. A line of sinister twisted rocks provides an impressive background and natural sounding board, which would have been effective when a section of the laws was recited every year at the "Law Rock" by the Speaker or Lawman who presided over the Assembly. In front stretches an open plain, providing ample room for representatives from all over Iceland to set up their "booths," small shelters of turf and stone tented over, when they came at Midsummer to attend the Alþing (Ellis-Davidson. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, p. 14).
Hólmgang and Sacred Space
From before the Germanic Migrations into Scandinavia, the Germanic peoples considered the duel of honor to be a special sort of religious rite. Tacitus's Germania suggests that even among the Germanic tribes that the duel took place within a sacred area:
Est et alia observatio auspiciorum, qua gravium bellorum eventus explorant. Eius gentis, cum qua bellum est, captivum quoquo modo interceptum cum electo popularium suorum, patriis quemque armis, committunt: victoria huius vel illius pro praeiudicio accipitur.
They have also another method of observing auspices, by which they seek to learn the result of an important war. Having taken, by whatever means, a prisoner from the tribe with whom they are at war, they pit him against a picked man of their own tribe, each combatant using the weapons of their country. The victory of the one or the other is accepted as an indication of the issue (Germania 10).
This description is included by Tacitus in the paragraph titled, "Auspicia sortesque ut qui maxime observant" (Auguries and Method of Divination) which describes various methods of augury of which the duel is but one, including varieties that take place within the same type of sacred groves in which a friðgarðr is established.
As Scandinavian society continued to evolve throughout the Viking Age, mechanisms to control violence within the society were developed. One of these was te development of the hólmgang, a regulated duel that limited bloodshed and helped to prevent escalation of violence into out and out feud between families. The hólmgang was different from ordinary combat in that it was associated with specific rules or customs known as hólmgangulog (literally, "hólmgang-law" or "hólmgang-rules"). The hólmgangulog was not a single, formally codified law, as the word -log would suggest, but apparently varied from place to place.
Perhaps the most elaborate dueling rules or hólmgangulog of all the surviving materials is to be found in chapter 10 of Kormáks saga:
These were the roles for the hólmgang: a cloak five ells square was to be laid down, with loops in the corners. Pegs with heads were to be rammed in there which were called tiösnur. He who attended to this was to approach the tiösnur in such fashion that he looked up between his legs while holding onto his earlaps and speaking the spell which later was used in the sacrifice which is called tiösnublót. Three borders (or furrows), each a foot in breadth, were to be around the cloak, and at the edge of these borders must be four posts which are called höslur (hazels). And when all this had been done the spot was called "hazelled" (völlr haslaðr). Each contestant was to have three shields, and when they were destroyed then he must step on the cloak again if he had left it before, and defend himself with his weapons thereafter. He who had been challenged was to have the first blow. If one of the two was wounded so that blood flowed on the cloak, then no further fighting was to be done. If either one stepped outside the höslur with one foot, then that is called "he yields ground"; but "he flees," if with both. Each contestant was to have someone to hold his shield for him. He who was wounded hardest was to pay hólm-ransom (hólmlausn) -- three marks of silver (Hollander, Kormáks saga, 33-4).
All duels were conducted within a hólmgangustaðr, a bounded area which was often on an island or hólm. It is likely that each district had its own dueling-place, where traditionally such battles were fought. The hólmganga in Kormáks saga were all fought on Leiðhólm (leið is a court), while hólmganga arising at the Alþing were always fought on the hólm in Axewater (Jones, "Characteristics", 213-214). Within this area was secured a cloak approximately nine feet square. A series of three lines was cut into the ground around the outside of the cloak, each a foot apart. It is interesting to note that the Old Norse term for challenging a man to hólmgang, skora a hólm: skora, "to challenge," means literally "to cut or to score," thus skora a hólm was "to mark out or appoint a place for the combat (Jones, "Characteristics", 213).
Around these marks was a boundary of ropes and hazel posts (höslur) [Kormáks saga] or of stones (markasteina) [Egils saga Skallagrimssonar], and this boundary was called the hólmhring (Jones, "Characteristics", 216). Thus, the total fighting area was no more than about twelve feet square. The entire marked out area in which the duel would take place was called the hólmgöngustaðir, and served both legally and ritually as a court of law (Jones, "Characteristics," 214).
By rituals such as the tiösnublót, and by the marking of the dueling site as a liminal area, the hólmgang was shown to participants and observers alike to be a sacred activity, and this in turn added weight to the hólmgangulog, making it more likely that the rules would be followed by all concerned, and that the families of the participants would not continue hostilities into a feuding situation. Further, although the location of the hólmgang tended to physically separate the combatants from any onlookers who might be caught up in hostilities, the placement of the duel on an island (hólm), at a cross-roads, or within a specially marked area hounded by hazel poles indicates that the area considered appropriate to the hólmgang was one which was already considered to be a special, restricted, or even holy area, an area of sacred space.
Cult places were enclosed by the höslur and vébond (Ciklamini, "Old Icelandic Duel," 185-186). The holy grove is the opposite of the hólmgöngustaðir, where the holy ropes separate a friðgarðr on one side, and the normal world of violence and weapons on the other. Since the law courts and cult places used the same method of delineating the friðgarðr as did the hólmgang, the association with the rule of law and the judgment of the gods served to help limit violence arising from the duel by conceptually confining the conflict within the vébond. The weight of cultural expectations and religious belief helped prevent bystanders from becoming embroiled in the conflict.
For more complete information on hólmgang, see the Viking Answer Lady article Hólmgang and Einvigi - Scandinavian Forms of the Duel.
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