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FORMS OF WORSHIP AND RELIGIOUS LIFE
1. Kings and Chieftains were Priests. — The general administration of the Norse kingdom and the performance of the acts of religious worship formerly devolved upon one person. The king was the "Guardian and Protector of the Altar," and it was his duty to see that everything in religious matters proceeded properly and in order. He had charge of the sacrifices of the kingdom, and if any unlucky year came over the land, there were cases where he himself even was sacrificed for the attainment of better conditions. As the king's representative the Jarl kept up the sacrifices on the king's behalf in the different provinces. The smallest division of the country, the herath (Lat. centuria), was governed by the Gothi (from goth, meaning "god"), whose name clearly signifies that his functions were of a religious nature. The institution of the Gothi is known especially from Iceland, from which country as usual we get the best information; but similar conditions probably prevailed throughout the North. In any case we meet the word Gode upon a few Danish rune-stones — on one with the addition, "The honored servant of the holy places." An actual priestly office like that among the Egyptians or the Gauls, our forefathers hardly knew. A "thulr" is mentioned on a Danish rune-stone on the hills of Sal (the village Sallov near Roskilde). This word means "Speaker, Wise-man," but it is not possible to determine what is really meant here by this designation, and perhaps it has no religious meaning at all.
2. Temples. — Originally the Germanic peoples certainly had no buildings for their religious services, but worshiped the gods in the open air, especially in sacred groves such as Tacitus describes in his Germania. But it was not long before the whole race of people learned to build temples, probably from a foreign model. The temple of heathen antiquity in the North was called Hof or Horg. The last word means in general "a holy place," hut perhaps signifies the especial temple of a goddess. The Hofs were large square, occasionally round, houses, built in the same style and of the same kind of material as the common dwelling houses, very nearly like the guild-halls of the chieftains. They faced west and east, and had a circular recess at one end in which the images of the gods were set up. In most cases the temple was of wood, comparing in size with village churches in Denmark, and surrounded by a fence. The first Christians immediately transformed the Hof into a church, after the images of idolatry were put away and the place was consecrated. It is needless to say that they employed all the splendor and art which the times allowed. Gold and silver, woven carpets, and carved columns were hardly lacking in any Hof. Often the Hof was built in or by a sacred grove.
3. Interior of the Hof. — Just inside the door of the Hof stood the posts of the high seat, in which were fixed great nails, but the meaning of these is not known. At the opposite end (the Korrunding or apse) stood the images of the gods, and in front of them or under them the splendidly ornamented Stall, which one of the Icelandic sagas compares with the Christian altar. Upon its iron-covered upper side burned the sacred fire which must never he extinguished, and there also lay the open silver or gold ring upon which all oaths must be sworn. The ring was moistened in the blood of the victim, and on all festive occasions the Gothi had to wear it upon his arm. Upon the Stall stood also a large copper bowl with a sprinkler (hlautbolli and hlauttein). In the bowl the blood of the victim — animal or man — was caught and sprinkled over those who were present. The Stall also, perhaps the whole interior of the temple, was reddened with it. The statues of the gods were most often clumsy images carved from wood (skurthgoth, meaning 'carved gods'), and were set up on the Stall or upon a pedestal, and dressed in accordance with the festal costume of the period. That there was always a hammer in the hand of Thor's image there can be no doubt.
4. Sacrifice. — The heathen word for sacrifice is blot, and blota means 'to sacrifice.' The gods were worshiped with bleeding victims — in the older time, human beings, generally prisoners or bondsmen; later, beasts, the flesh of which was eaten by those taking part in the sacrifices. As a matter of course an individual man or a single family could institute private sacrifice, and of this many accounts exist. In general the blot, 'sacrifice,' was regarded as a public act and a religious festival, conducted by the highest chieftain of the place.
Hofs in Norway. — In the Heimskringla there are given — especially in the sagas of the two Olafs — not a few details about the heathen temples and the sacrifice.
Hakon Jarl had been forced to accept Christianity and to take priests with him to Norway. He put them ashore at the first opportunity, and when he himself reached home he went ashore and made a great sacrifice. "Then there came flying two ravens and they screamed loudly; the Jarl thought that lie might know that Odin had accepted the sacrifice, and now the Jarl had a favorable opportunity to fight."
King Olaf Truggvason went with his army to Northmaer1 and christianized the people.. Afterwards he sailed to Hlathir,1 had the Hof broken down, and took all the goods and all the costly ornaments from the Hof and from the gods. He took from the door a large gold ring which Hakon Jarl had had made, and after that caused the temple to be set on fire. The same king also proceeded harshly against the peasants of Trondelag. He went into their Hof at More, accompanied by a few retainers and peasants. "But when the king came where the gods were, Thor was sitting there and was the most honored of all the gods, decorated with gold and silver. The king lifted his gold-inlaid ax, which he had in his hand, and struck at Thor so that the latter fell down from the Stall. Then the king's men sprang forward and thrust down the other gods."
Shortly before this, at an encounter at More, where the peasants had invited him to take part in the sacrifice, King Olaf pronounced the following characteristic words:
"We have then agreed that we should meet here at More and make a great sacrifice. But if I join with you in sacrificing I shall have instituted as great a sacrifice as was ever known — and solely with human beings. And for this sacrifice I shall not select serfs or wretched men, but on the contrary shall make my choice so as to provide for the gods the chief men, and for this I choose Orm Lygra from Methaihus,2 Styrkar from Ginisa,2 Kar from Gryting, etc." It is needless to say that the chieftains named who had no men for armed resistance hastened to make peace and reconciliation with the king.
5. Chief Sacrifices. — In the course of the year the Northmen celebrated three principal sacrifices, the midwinter, summer, and harvest sacrifices. The first sacrifice was our fathers' greatest festival, and was observed in January or February. They sacrificed then for good luck and good crops in the coming year, and upon the sonar-goltr, or 'sacrificial hoar,'3 they laid their vows concerning the great deeds they wished to accomplish in the course of the year. "After the ceremonies with the victim's blood were performed, the flesh was cooked; the broth was drunk, and the flesh together with the vital parts was distributed to be eaten. In the middle of the floor in the temple there was kindled a fire, over which the kettle hung. The beakers had to be carried around the fire no doubt the consecrated fire upon the Stall — and with the viands were blessed in commemoration of different gods — certainly of Thor, Odin, and Frey, although Snorri gives a different account." Every peasant who takes part in the sacrifice brings his contribution to the feast; but a chieftain who, at his own expense, holds one of these sacrifices gains great prestige thereby.
6. National Sacrifice. — At a certain period of the year the midwinter sacrifice was observed with especial solemnity in the whole kingdom or large parts of it. For this, also, temples and places for sacrifice were found in different parts of the kingdom (in Denmark, at Ringsted, Odense, and Viborg). We get the best information on this point from Upsala, where a great sacrifice to Frey was held every ninth year. All the men from Sviaveldi, i.e. the whole Swedish commonwealth, resorted thither, and they held an assembly, fair, and market at the same time. Adam of Bremen describes the Upsala sacrifice, which was observed even in his time: "There is held every ninth year at Upsala a solemn sacrificial feast for all the provinces of Sweden. High and low, one and all, send their gifts to Upsala. No one, not even one who may have accepted Christianity, is excused. Offerings are of the following nature: from all living beings there are sent nine males, with whose blood it is the custom to appease the gods. The bodies are hung up in the grove surrounding the temple; there hang dogs, horses, and men all together. A Christian man told me that he had seen seventy-two such dead bodies hanging round about in the trees. Moreover, the ceremonies which are connected with such a sacrifice are manifold and hardly honorable, wherefore it is better to be silent about them."
7. Prophecy and Omens. — Just as the North knew little of any real priestly office, so was there little trace of religious mysteries in the worship in which the whole people openly took part. On the other hand, it was very common at sacrifices to take omens for coming events. This is true of all Northern lands. The expression used was ganga til frittar, 'to go to investigate.' The omens were taken in a very simple manner, either from accidental circumstances during the sacrifice or, most often, by drawing lots with small wooden sticks, upon which the necessary signs were made. Besides the clear and simple forms used in public worship, many superstitious ideas were deeply rooted in the consciousness of the people, and we have frequently called attention to these.
Here we should also remember that our information deals only with the last centuries of paganism. It is probable that the chief characteristics of the forms of worship which we have sketched above have a much earlier origin, for a people always adheres with great fidelity to the religious usages inherited from its forefathers. That many more things than we have been able to relate should have taken place at the sacrifices and in the daily worship is perfectly natural. The sagas give an abundance of information about the religious customs on certain occasions, e.g. when the Thing (assembly) was to be consecrated, at the holmganga and other duels, and at the institution of foster-brotherhood. Every important act of the individual as well as of the community was, in heathen times, accompanied by religious ceremonies which, generally speaking, were of very ancient origin. Besides this, witches, wizards, and sorceresses played a very prominent part in the daily life. In Norway prophetesses (sibyls) or wandering fortune-tellers enjoyed for a time great reputation.
1 Now Nordmore and Lade.
2 Now Melhus and Gjemse.
3 Large, choice boar; sonar itself means "swine."