Hofs and Harrows
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“Hofs and Harrows: Then and Now”
Hofs and harrows (roughly speaking, temples and altars) occupy a position of importance in both ancient and contemporary Heathenism. This article will explore what we know from extant sources, describe contemporary practice, whether derived from lore or of a more innovative nature, and suggest directions for future endeavors. Thus What Has Been, What Is, and What Is Becoming can all be honored.
Perhaps the first question to ask is why should busy people go to the time, effort, and expense to set up a harrow and maybe even a hof? First of all, most of us Heathens, while not always strict reconstructionists, do aim for a religious practice which is lore-based, lore-inspired, or at least lore-feasible, and it is demonstrable that our forefathers and foremothers in faith and often in lineage made regular use of hofs and harrows. Another reason is that land purchase and hof-building say loudly and clearly for all to hear: “We’re baaack! We aren’t some little fly-by-night cult skulking around in the shadows. We are an integral part of this community, and we are here to stay. The only thing you have to fear from us is some honest competition.” Actions speak louder than words, and this sort of action speaks very loudly indeed, and has great effect on a group’s collective Wyrd. People with something to hide tend to hide. People financially and socially together enough and organized enough to erect and maintain houses of worship are stating that they have nothing to hide and aren’t afraid to take their place in the Sun. Other issues are of pure practicality. You have to set your drinking horn, blessing bowl and sprinkling tine on something while you are doing other parts of the blót. Presto! A harrow is born. Outdoor blóts for large groups in the freezing rain aren’t much fun. The group has grown too big for your living room. A hof starts to sound pretty good. Being buried in my family’s cemetery plot, with its lovely view of a statue of Jesus that looks like he’s sitting on a toilet doesn’t appeal to me, and I doubt that the cemetery officials would approve a runestone anyway. A Heathen group incorporating a cemetery and selling plots (and maybe urns and runestones too), might very well find that the whole holy-stead-cum-hof pays for itself in the long run! My friend Thor Sheil has remarked that we are not the sort of religion that is going to put up a big Gothic cathedral type building. My take on that is that we are simply too independent and scattered for that, and much of our worship is located (rightly, in my opinion) in home and hearth. However, we can indeed put up small temples.
Hofs and harrows may themselves have at one time been innovative. According to Tacitus, Germanic worship in his time (c. 98 C.E.) did not take place in buildings nor make use of images. Rather, sacred groves were in use. At the same time, however, he speaks of the temple of the Goddess Nerthus and of her image. Words for a “temple” or “place of worship” could also mean a “grove” in some instances, further confusing the situation. One example of several given is the Old English word “hearg” meaning “temple” or “idol” could also mean “grove” (Turville-Petre, 236).
However, as building arts continued to develop in the north, temples did appear and became more common. Some of this, like the custom of wearing hammer-amulets, may have been based on a keep-up-with-the-Jones type of competition with the expanding Catholic Church. So what? We Heathens are a pragmatic lot overall, and aren’t averse to borrowing a good idea, be it temples or “taters”, when it comes along! Some Heathen temples were evidently converted to Christian use, at least in England. In Scandinavia, words used for sanctuaries and holy places include vangr, vin, akr (meadow/cornfield), and haugr (mound). Vé also denoted a sanctuary, and is represented in a number of surviving place-names (Turville-Petre, 237-8). Vé is related to the Old Norse verb “vigja,” “to consecrate,” and thus denotes a holy place set apart from other uses. This could be a temple, but also a sacred space other than a building. The vé was sometimes marked off with ropes and poles. Hazel poles in particular are mentioned here. Interestingly, Egil Skallagrimsson’s nithing pole was also made of hazel. This could indicate that wood was considered holy. From my own use of hazelwood poles <evil wink> I have found that they cut easily and cleanly and that the bark strips off almost effortlessly. The resulting pole is very white, which might denote sanctity. Snorri comments in the Poetic Edda that the water from Urð’s well is so holy that anything it touches becomes white. On the other hand, hazel is a very common and useful tree/shrub in the northern countries and one could easily read too much into these accounts (Turville-Petre, 238).
The word “horgr” also crops up with some frequency in Old-Norse-derived place-names. While cognates in other Germanic languages can mean “sacred grove,” this meaning does not appear in Old Norse. It is sometimes used to refer to a pile of stones set up in the open as an altar Hence we have the use of the word “harrow” in contemporary Anglophone Heathen usage to mean “altar.” Later the meaning of “horgr” shifted to mean a roofed building. Two possible examples have been excavated in Iceland (Turville-Petre, 239). Some Heathens use the term “stalli” to refer to an indoor altar (Jerome, 198).
As can readily be seen, place names quite unwittingly preserve some recoverable Heathen lore that would otherwise be lost. However, it is sometimes very hard to even impossible to know with certainty such things as whether a place name incorporating ‘Thór” originally refers to the God himself and commemorates a place where he was worshipped or whether on the other hand the place was named after someone with “Thór” as an element in his or her name (i.e. “Thórstein” or “Thórgerda”) and who may have not been a Thór devotee or even a Heathen (Ahlbäck, 387)! Don’t let these uncertainties keep you from developing your own Heathenism. It should be an informed and carefully considered religious practice, but not a rigid or inflexible one.
Kveldulf Gundarsson and Diana Paxson remind us that what little we know about the old forms of worship concerns public acts. They do suggest however that an excellent spiritual exercise for the individual worshipper is to set up a personal harrow. The research and thinking involved in doing so can do much to bring a Heathen closer to our Gods and Goddesses. The harrow can be placed anywhere in the home that is safe from the unwanted attentions of children and small animals, who can be amazingly inquisitive about such matters. A harrow can be dedicated to a patron God or Goddess in particular or to our Gods and Goddesses in general (Our Troth, 394). Images can be ordered online (Sacred Source has a Norse line and Heathen woodcarver Donna Kaunike does excellent work; both of these should be readily searchable). Pictures can also be copied online or from books free of charge. One can also of course “get creative” and do one’s own artwork. Many prefer to use symbols rather than “graven images.” A hammer can represent Thor, a spindle Frigga, an object with a Tiwaz or Ingwaz rune on it Týr or Frey respectively, etc.
Such private religious practices are indeed hinted at by surviving lore. After the forced conversion of Norway, Ólaf Tryggvason’s (may Niðhogg gnaw him slowly) favorite poet, Hallfreð, was accused of keeping an ivory image of Thór in his purse and worshipping it secretly (Turville-Petre, 248). Several such small images have survived, although none of the large images from a hof has been found. One of the Vikings who journeyed to Vinland with Leif Eiriksson, Thórhall the Hunter, was caught praying to Thór in time of famine, “staring up at the sky with eyes and mouth and nostrils agape, scratching himself and pinching himself and mumbling.” They soon found a beached whale to eat. Thórhall attributed the find to a poem he had composed in Thór’s honor (Magnusson, 96). We have here possible solo trance work (from my perspective as a seiðmaðr anyway) to contact a God, with a poem as an offering; perhaps because nothing else was available (remember from the Havamal that “a gift looks aye for a gift.” Note that once Heathen worship was no longer officially permitted, folks had to make do with a minimum of “props,” and hofs and harrows would have been among the first things to go.
My own harrow is rather interesting. In addition to images and symbols for my own exclusively Germanic work, there are Hindu images and a number of other things from my partner’s highly eclectic practice. In addition to commercially produced images, two of which (Thór and Oðin) are replicas of excavated small figures, I use small carved sailors purchased in a store to represent Njorð and Ægir. For some of the other Gods and Goddesses, I got pretty creative. The Dwarves have a small crystal clump. Any visiting Ljósalfar or Landwights are welcome to check into a small piece of petrified wood I have provided. Ran has a small abalone shell whose holes suggest the net she uses to drag down sailors. Frigga has a key, since Norse wives carried a bunch of keys to various locks on their farmsteads. Hella has a small crystal skull. There is a small image of Nerthus I made myself, Síf has a small bundle of rowan twigs and ripe grain, Týr has a tiny, sword-like dagger, and Balder has a little bronze sun (he’s not a sun-God but has some solar characteristics). Last but not least, Loki has a small “coyote stone” a Pagan friend of mine found. It looks a bit like a dog’s head. He said it has a lot of Coyote/trickster energy and that would seem to be the case. The American Indian Coyote has a good bit in common with Loki, and I’ve heard Heathen’s call coyotes “Loki’s dog.” Some surviving Scandinavian dialects have plant names evidently hearkening back to an original form meaning “Loki’s grass,” “Loki’s oats,” etc. (Rooth 197-8) so why shouldn’t he have a dog too? In any case, Loki’s stone stays between the statues of his traveling companions Oðin and Thór, which should keep him out of trouble! I “pay him off” every Wednesday when I offer mead to Oðin, since he swore not to accept a drink unless Loki got one too. All jokes aside, this custom has enabled me to develop a working relationship with Loki as well. Finally, my main rune bag and my seiðr pouch hang above the harrow on the north wall of our study.
In contrast, the harrow I set up at my brother’s house, which was built by our grandfather in land passed down through the paternal line in our family since our earliest known ancestor in that line received it as a grant for his service in the Revolutionary War, is very simple. I carved an Ansuz rune into a tree and paced an upright piece of flat concrete below it about six inches from the tree. Another similar piece rests on the first and against the tree to complete the harrow. He and his wife use it for offerings, as do I when I visit them. They’ve picked up a lot of Heathenism from me over the last few years.
While I use this harrow for my daily workings, I set up a separate, free-standing harrow for blots, be they public or private. I often use our small, squarish coffee table. One reason for this is personal issues. I’m glad to share an altar for space and relationship reasons with my non-Heathen partner, but I don’t want Shiva on my harrow during a full-scale blót! Another reason for this practice is that a free-standing harrow works much better for group workings. Folks can gather in a circle around it. A Heathen friend of mine has what I call a “port-a-harrow” made among other things from a small folding table like folks used to use to eat in front of the TV set. My own blót harrows generally have the following things on them: my drinking horn in one of its two stands; a blessing bowl/hlautbolli, a twig for sprinkling, a bottle of mead or juice, a cloth to wipe the horn between drinkers (picked that idea up when I was Catholic but have no illusions about any actual hygienic benefits), and something to clear sacred space (my walking stick/gandr leaning against the harrow is the most common, but I sometimes use an antler for Frey, a tiger’s-eye necklace for Freya, and a dagger when invoking Týr). These ideas come from Heathen pioneer Steve McNallen’s blótbooks, which were among the first ones available. Incense and a burner, a candle or two, and an image of the God or Goddess to which the blót is offered often complete the harrow. I like an altar cloth under all this, but not everyone does.
A couple of tools used by Thor and Audrey Sheil are worthy of mention. One is a knife for carving Runes on objects used in magical workings. I personally have something to carve Runes on candles, but use a woodburning pen for wooden objects. Another tool, which he variously calls a shield, compass an disc, is a wooden or stone disk “divided into quarters by a black cross, these are subdivided by a white cross, making eight equal segments.” Some folks put the Elder Futhark around the edge. This reminds me both of a sunwheel and an ægis-hjalm. A small circle is drawn in the center (Sheil, Hedenskap, 33-4). The device can be consecrated for protective purposes. Sheil understands this talisman as being a derivation from from two distinct sources, an offering plate and a battle-shield. Battle-shields were often decorated with personal protective symbols or talismans. It could represent such things as Midgard and the seasons or directions as well, due to its shape and the doubled four-fold divisions marked on it (Sheil, The Twisting Trail, 25-6). I mention this “shield” because, while probably not “traditional,” it seems to incorporate many traditional concepts and much Heathen symbolism and thus to be worthy of further development, experimentation, and use by Heathens who make use of their personal harrows in magical workings.
Remember my comment about animals and harrows? My partner had a cat, now deceased, which had some chronic digestive problems for years. Whenever they started acting up, she’d get up on the harrow to drink water from a vessel containing a charged healing stone. I’d tell him: “Your cat is drinking altar water again, watch her for health problems.” More often than not, I was right. Animals do often seem drawn to rituals and magical workings in progress. Keep this in mind if you pet tends to jump up on things!
The other “h-word” we need to consider in detail is “hof” itself. It is the most commonly used term for a temple in the sagas. However, the word probably assumed that meaning only in the last few centuries of the (first) Heathendom. Nevertheless, it is the word most commonly used today for a Heathen temple. Many of these were put up on private land by goðar, and that custom has been revived. A family with land and resources decides to put up a hof and does so, perhaps with some of the labor and even materials contributed by others who also will use the hof. Several such hofs currently exist in North America. As I suggested earlier in this article, perhaps one day The Troth will have its own hofs. I’ve been advocating for years that we need to go ahead and do this, or at least start fund-raising to prepare for future land purchase and hof construction. I believe that we will need a hof on each coast of North America and one in the central region. I will keep mentioning this in the confident hope that doing so from time to time will eventually get the ball rolling!
Alongside the later and better-preserved information from Scandinavia, we also have evidence that such places of worship existed in Merry Heathen England. The Anglo-Saxon words for a Heathen place of worship that have survived in place names there are “ealh,” a “temple;” “hearh” or “hearg,” a hill-sanctuary; and “weoh,” cognate with the Old Norse “vé, and meaning “idol,” “shrine,” or “sacred spot” (Branston, 43).
The only detailed description we have of a hof is from Eyrbyggja Saga. The description may well be accurate; although it was written down long after the building itself ceased to exist. On the other hand, the description may be influenced to an unknown and probably unknowable degree by the setup of a typical Roman Catholic church. The hof in question belonged to one Thórólf Mostrarskegg. He was a devout worshipper of Thór and when he immigrated to Iceland he took the pillars of his hof with him. This might have been a purely secular act as he was going to a place where good building timber has always been very scarce, but he also shipped the hallowed soil beneath the temple’s altar as well, and one of the pillars bore the image of Thór. He threw the pillars overboard and built the temple where they landed. Thus, while the decision to emigrate and take his temple with him was his own, he left the exact location of the new temple-site up to Thór.
In any case, the building was a substantial one. There was a doorway in a sidewall nearer to one end, and the main pillars were inside. Divine nails were driven into those pillars. I have seen such nails driven into oak trees in Thór’s honor by contemporary Heathens, some of whom compare those nails in Thor’s sacred pillars (tree-trunks, of course) to the whetstone chip left in Thor’s forehead by the sorceress Gróa, who was too distracted by Thór’s news of her missing husband Auvandil to finish the galdr which was loosening the stone fragment. There was a main part of the building, like the chancel where a Christian congregation assembles. There was also a raised portion in the front, also like a Christian church. The altar was there, but unlike pre-Vatican-II Roman Catholic altars it was freestanding. There was a 20-ounce oath-ring on the altar or more precisely “pedestal,” which was an arm-ring as opposed to a finger-ring. The goði was obliged to wear it to all public gatherings. Perhaps this was a badge of office. I remember discussions on at least one Heathen list as to what clerical outfit a modern-day goði should wear. Some of the suggestions were so elaborate that in a naughty moment, overcome by a bit of sarcasm at the thought of goðar, even outside of ritual settings, decked out in elaborate vestments, I suggested that a horned helmet with the word “clergy” on it would be understood even by non-Heathens! Perhaps the oath-ring could be revived in this context. Mine has some real silver worked into it but I think twenty ounces would be a bit heavy. A bowl and twig for sprinkling sacrificial blood were on the altar, and the “idols,” i.e. images of various Deities were arranged around it. Evidently the other Gods and Goddesses had a place even in what was specifically a Thórshof. “Hofstaðir,” meaning “Temple-Steads” was used four times as a place-name in Iceland (Turville-Petre, 241).
The grandest and last to fall of the old-time hofs was the Great Hof in Gamla Uppsala, Sweden. It was said to be decked in gold and had a sacred grove associated with it, in which the bodies of sacrificed humans and animals were hung in a great sacrifice celebrated every nine years (Turville-Petre, 244-6). While not mentioned in the passage by Adam of Bremen quoted by Turville-Petre, there were (and still are) also three great howes (burial mounds) on the site, and Heathen worship has returned to the site. Ms. Ingeborg Nordén, who travels to Sweden nearly every year, tells me that the church built over the temple site there has been deconsecrated and is now a museum. Maybe one day it will be a hof. After all, we were there first!
H. R. Ellis Davidson reminds us that the Norwegian stave churches represent an indigenous building tradition very different from that used to construct churches elsewhere in Europe. They could well be the closest things to an old-time hof still standing (Davidson, 138-40). That being the case, it is particularly ironic that one of them was burned down a few years back by a young fanatic who did it as a protest against Christianity and was either a Satanist, a Heathen sympathizer, or even a self-proclaimed Heathen! More than one stave church has been built in North America as well, as can be seen at these websites: www.scandinavianheritage.org/church.htm and www.norskwoodworks.com/golstave.shtml. I suggest that the prospective North American hofbuilder unable to travel to Norway check out at least one of them in person for inspiration!
Sacred fields, groves, and hofs were surrounded by a “garth” or “enclosure” in which holiness was maintained. This “frithgarth” can be marked out by posts and rope or by a fence (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, 196). I have seen such enclosures set up at Heathen gatherings. In the “old days,” such sacred sites could be defiled by excrement or bloodshed. People were not even allowed to look at one of them without having first washed (DuBois, 43 and 76). Weapons were also traditionally banned from such places (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, 196). This is particularly true in contemporary Heathenism in rites devoted to the Vanir. Some make an exception for consecrated ritual weapons (ibid). This putting away of weapons is at least in part rooted in the Roman historian Tacitus’ description of the description of the spring rites of the Vanic Goddess Nerthus, whose worship entailed the putting away of weapons (Mattingly, 134). To what extent such traditional, taboo-derived customs are revived and practiced by modern Heathens is of course up to the individual and/or group involved. I encourage folks to avoid superstition while at the same time maintaining due respect for our Gods and holy places. While groveling is inappropriate to Heathen faith, there are certainly times for awe and this is one of them! Disrespect in a consecrated holy place of our faith could echo through the Worlds and one’s own Wyrd, as such hallowed places stand both in Midgard and the Other Worlds (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, 195-6).
It occurs to me that a harrow itself might provide a link to Ásgarð. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson refers to the Gods themselves building altars in Ásagarð. The Roman Catholic Mass asks Yahweh to send his angel to take the offering (the consecrated bread and wine) on the altar to his altar in their heaven. Platonic philosophy holds that an ideal World of Forms holds the ideal example of every thing. This is of course speculation, but a consecrated harrow in Midgard could provide in a very real sense a link to the Gods’ altars in Ásgarð and facilitate the exchange of gifts between us and them. The essence of our offerings goes to them, enabling them to work more actively in our world, and their energy comes back to us, enabling us to evolve to be more like them. Remember, in the theology of many if not most Heathens, the relationship between us Heathens and our Gods and Goddesses is a symbiosis, and while we honor and respect them as our Elder Kin, they do the same to us as their Younger Kin. No disrespect intended, but in a very real sense the Aesir and Vanir need us about as much as we need them! In any case, when it comes to worship etiquette, be sure to learn in advance and respect the customs of a group with which you are worshipping for the first time.
Our religion, like any other living faith, changes over time and incorporates emerging new technology. The Internet in particular has enormously facilitated folks finding us and educating themselves in their chosen faith. A few months ago I heard from a Namibian (Southwest Africa) of Irish descent who had found my own website very helpful. For those without access to a hof or other vé, there are now virtual ones in Cybergard, including Vanic Vé at http://homepages.nildram.co.uk/~fealcen/vanicve.htm, Frey’s Vé at www.northvegr.org/virtual/freyr/links.html, and a sizeable group of cyber-hofs at www.nycpagan.com/diety.html.
In regard to Heathen holy sites and harrows, of the past, present, and future, THÓRR VIGJA! THUNOR WEOH! MAY THÓR HALLOW!
Note: Readers residing in Canada and the United States should be able to obtain these books, with the exception of the Sheil’s and perhaps Mr. Jerome’s titles, via interlibrary loan at little to no expense. A fellow Heathen on the Trothmembers e-list mentioned how useful bibliographies can be in helping the budding Heathen scholar build a reading list. It is in that spirit that I offer the following:
Ahlbäck, Tore. Old Norse and Finnish Religions and Cultic Place-Names: Based
Papers Read at the Symposium on Encounters between Religions in Old Nordic
Times and on Cultic Place-Names held at Åbo, Finland, on the 19th-21st of August
1987. Åbo, Finland: The Donner Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural
History, 1990. A variety of very enlightening articles in English and German.
Branston, Brian. The Lost Gods of England. New York: Oxford University Press,
1974. One of my very favorites and one of the few I have read several times.
Clear explanation of the surviving bits of English Heathen lore, with comparison
and contrast to the much more extant Scandinavian sources.
DuBois, Thomas A. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Contains chapters such as “Religions in the Viking Age:
Contexts and Concepts for Analysis” and “Intercultural Dimensions of the Seiðr Ritual.”
Ellis Davidson, Hilda. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. London and New York:
Routledge, 1993. Yet another very scholarly but equally readable work from one
of the greatest experts in the field. Read anything by her that you can get your hands
Glob, P. V., trans. Rupert Bruce-Mitford. The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved.
Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1969. Note the humorous but accidental
link between the author’s last name and the condition of the bog bodies. Some of the
bogs were used as holy sites and offerings were found around a carved image of a
God or Goddess.
Gundarsson, Kveldulf, ed. Our Troth. n.p.: The (Ring of) Troth, 1993. Most of this
work is available online at http://www.thetroth.org; go to the “Resources” link at
the bottom of the page and click there. A revised and updated edition is in
preparation and will be published.
-----. Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs & Practices of the Northern
Tradition. St. Paul: Llewellyn Press, 1993. n.b.: this book is again in print as an
ebook at http://www.aswynn.phpwebhosting.com/home1.html for US $12. I
believe that it can also be purchased there as a paper copy for an additional charge.
Jerome, C. A. The Orðasafn of Gamlinginn. Albuquerque: Hrafnahús, 1991. This wonderful modern Heathen classic is
once again available for purchase for $9 each or 5 copies for $40. Just send a cashier's check or money order made
out to Angela Carlson (email@example.com) to: Angela Carlson c/o Othala Hearth P.O. Box 35 Alameda, Ca
94501. I'll try to fill orders ASAP, baby permitting. (Personal checks also accepted, books will be sent when checks
clear). The case discount is 28 books for $175. In case you don't know about this great little resource, Gamlinginn
published a compendium of Asatru and other stuff 13 years ago which graces the shelves of a lucky few. It's been
out of print for ages and for this printing we also added many of Gamlinginn's articles & editorials. If you have
further questions, please use the e-mail address above.
Magnusson, Magnus and Hermann Pálsson, trans. The Vinland Sagas: The Norse
Discovery of America: Grænlendinga Saga and Eirik’s Saga. n.p.: New York
University Press, 1966. Icelanders Magnusson and Pálsson have done us Heathens a
great service by translating many sagas into very readable English. May the High
One reward them well!
Mattingly, H. Tacitus on Britain and Germany: a New Translation of the “Agricola” and
the “Germania.” Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1951. The oldest
account available of the Germanic peoples and their customs, written in 98 C.E.
Pálsson, Hermann and Paul Edwards, trans. Eyrbyggja Saga. London: Penguin Books,
1989. Lots of ghost/draugr lore in this one as well.
Rooth, Anna Birgitta. Loki in Scandinavian Mythology. Lund: C. W. K. Gleerups
Förlag, 1961. Also analyzes possible Loki survivals in folklore, plant names, etc.
and compares Loki’s myths with myths from other cultures.
Sheil, Thor and Audrey. Hedenskap: The Folk Religion of Ancient Scandinavia.
New York: Trollwise Press, 1992. Their hands-on and very practical understanding of
Heathenism as a household religion. Unfortunately, all the Sheil’s works are long out
-----. The Twisting Trail to Bifrost’s Way: The Journey Through the Northern Mysteries.
A primer for seeking the Mysteries through Norse myth, legend and folklore.
The title, if over-long, is very self-explanatory. New York: Trollwise Press, 1992.
Turville-Petre, E. O. G. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient
Scandinavia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1964. One of the most
important books in English on the subject of Germanic religion. This book was
very instrumental in putting me on the road to Heathenism, and I’ve read it several
last modified 10/30/2004