The Ealh And Other Holy Sites
The Hof or Ealh
Our spiritual forebears first worshipped in groves as stated by Tacitus and revealed by the original meanings of the meaning of the words for "temple." Anglo-Saxon bearu and hearg were both used for "grove," long before they came to mean "temple." Gothic alhs and Anglo-Saxon ealh are also related to Indo-European words meaning "grove." Heathens continued to worship in groves until the the conversion to Christianity was complete. The Elder Heathens treated these sacred sites, whether grove or temple, as separate from the outside world, and fenced them off with ropes, hedges, or fences. Such an enclosure, was called a vé in Old Norse. Vé derives from Old Norse vígja "to make sacred, separate from the mundane." These sites were also called stafgarðr in Old Norse and friðgeard in Anglo-Saxon. Such enclosures surrounded sacred sites like temples, sacred wells, mounds, trees, and so forth. No violence could be done within them, and to commit violence could result in death for the violator.
The enclosure was an an important part of a ealh, and this probably explains why hedges seem to have played such an intricate part in Heathen belief. The Anglo-Saxon word hæg "hag" derives ultimately from the same word as Anglo-Saxon haga "hedge or haw." The ealh at Yeavering had an enclosure about it, as did the one described in Kjalnes Saga. The ealh itself at Yeavering was of long house design, about 35 feet long and 17 feet wide. The interior of it is not clearly known, although there was a pit of oxen skulls by the east door (about one foot wide, six feet long, and half a foot deep), and at the southern end appears to have been a partition. A line of small postholes run across the southern end and in front of these are three large free standing post holes. These had been filled in with gravel before the building had been burned. It is believed this is where the wéofod may have stood since the area seems to have been enclosed in a small apartment. Bede says the ealh at Goodmanham in Northumbria had such enclosures and evidence suggests the one at Harrow Hill in Sussex may have. This parallels the description of Thórólf's hof in the Eyrbygga Saga and that of Ingmundr's hof in the Kjalnes Saga. The hof at Yeavering had buttressed outer walls and inner walls lined with wattle and daub. There were two doorways in the center of the long walls, and the main pillars which supported the roof were one at end each of the short walls. Directly north and in line with the hof is what appears to have been a dining hall of similar long house design and size. To the west of the hof, was a kitchen/slaughter house where the sacrifices were prepared for the feasts. Northwest of the ealh, on a Stone Age burial mound, stood a rather large pole, reminiscent of the Old Saxon Irminsul. Unfortunately, for all this information from the archaeological digs at Yeavering, we know little detail of the interior of the hof. :
Fortunately, we do have a few descriptions of hofs in Iceland and Norway, of which we will look at the two most detailed. The Eyrbyggja Saga gives a good description of Thórólf Mostrarskeggy's hof. There was a doorway nearer to one end than the other, and inside were the main pillars, in which reginnaglar "holy nails" were driven. At one end, was an enclosure or apartment containing the wéofod upon which the oath ring and hlautbolli (the blessing bowl) sat, around the wéofod were arranged the idols. In Kjalnes Saga, we are given a description of a ealh built by Ingimundr. The hof was 100 feet long, and inside it had a circular sanctuary which contained the wéofod, and before which stood an idol of Þunor and idols of two other gods. On the wéofod sat the oath ring and the hlautbolli which was made of copper. Outside the door of the hof was a blótkilda, a sacred well in which men were drowned. The ealh was surrounded by a fence too high to see over.
What is clear from these descriptions and the archaeological evidence is that in addition to a hof's high pillars, there was a wéofod at one end enclosed in an apartment, around which thewéos "idols" stood. Upon the wéofod was sat the blótbolli and the oath ring. The hof itself was surrounded by a fence or a hedge, and it was very likely a sacred well lay outside its doors in the friðgeard. In numerous Icelandic sources, it sounds as if the feasts were held within the ealh, so there must have been benches, and tables. We are not even sure of the alignment of the temples however as the Icelandic sources point to the idols and altar being in the North, while Yeavering would have them in the South.
Other Holy Sites
Many of the words for "holy site" or "altar" come from words that originally meant "grove" or a wooded area. Old English hearg and bearo both refer to groves and holy sites. The trees within such groves were held to be sacrosanct and could not be stripped of boughs, and were never to be cut down on the penalty of death. According to Groenbech, around such groves, or any holy site would be a fence of staves, which served as a sacred enclosure. Other sources tell us of hedges about such sites. Within the grove would be a hearg, a heap of stones serving as an altar and were from the tress hung the hides of sacrifices, and in the grove, placed the various votive offerings of individuals. It can be assumed thatwéos, images of the gods would also set near the altar.
Within the groves were often sacred trees or poles such as the Old Saxons' Irminsul. A tree was said to stand near the temple at Uppsala, and throughout the lore are references to trees thought to be holy. In the Middle Ages, such trees were still garlanded, even though they no longer received Heathen sacrifice. Thought particularly holy were oaks, sacred to .unor; ash, which resembled Yggdrasil; hazels, whose wood served as the fence for a thing or other sacred/legal site; elders and elms, which represented the feminine principle. Other trees such as birch and yew also received much reverence. The yew in particular appeared in ancient grave yards and was also thought to resemble Yggdrasil, while the birch has a rune named for it.
Other natural sites served as holy steads, particularly those of great beauty. Thingveillr in Iceland was chosen in part for its great view of the country and its wondrous beauty. Waterfalls, mountains, springs, and rivers have all served as holy sites. Finally, the mounds of the dead also served as sacred sites. There were barrows near the temple at Uppsala and near the hof at Yeavering in Northumbria.
One may with relative ease create their own sacred site or ve even in their own back yard. To do so, one will need the following things: 1) A hearg or altar. 2) A form of enclosure for the site such as a privacy fence. 3)wéos or idols of the gods if desired. The layout of such a frithgeard is largely up to the individual, but the hearg should be in the north. It may be a pile of stones, or a wooden table, and may be inscribed with holy signs or runes. It may be surrounded bywéos or allowed to stand alone. Sacrifices may be allowed to remain on it for the gods to consume. The site itself may be surrounded by a fence, traditionally made of hazel, although a natural enclosure of trees or a hedge may do as well, or even a temporary one of rope (vebond). One may want to add other features, such as a fire pit, or one's own sacred tree. During times of the holy tides, one may wish to decorate the area with garlands and wreaths made of biodegradable materials, tie ribbons to the trees, or set out candles. Such decor can be timed to the season; Easter eggs for Easter, Yule wreaths for Yule, and so forth.
If one is fortunate enough to have property of their own other than their own backyard to set up a frithgeard, they will want to go about a selection process. Groves are the most desirable sites if one is fortunate enough to own a wooded tract of land. However, nearly any natural site will do that gives off a feeling that is mystical and spiritual. One will want to select such a site first on the feeling it conveys, and second on whether or not the land wights are friendly. One can win the friendship of the land wights by performing simple rites to them, giving gifts of bread, milk, or porridge. Such a site can be set up in the same way as a frithgeard in one's backyard, only more elaborately. One may one to use a natural enclosure such as a blackberry bramble or construct one of wood. The hearg and firepit can be larger and be permanent features, and one can choose one of the larger trees as the sacred tree. If at all possible, such sites should be as secluded as possible.
There are a few rules regarding such holy sites. No weapons that have not been blessed for religious use should be brought into the enclosure. Only sacred speech should be allowed within the frithgeard, and no tree within the enclosure can be harmed in any way.
Having one's own holy stead gives one a place to worship the gods on a daily basis, hold small gatherings, and brings one nearer the gods. If one has a backyard, or a farm or other piece of property to establish a small holy site, they by all means should do so. If no such site is available, a room in one's house or apartment dedicated to the gods will so. A table or desk can serve as a small altar and one can keep theirwéos of the gods close by. Like the outdoor holy site, the indoor altar room can be decorated to fit the occasion or holy tide. Finally, temporary holy staeds can be created using a portable altar, rope of a natural fiber, as poles made of hazel or birch. One will want to rope the area off and set the portable altar up in the north. A gift needs to be given to the land wights of the area, but after that, one can perform any rites needed. The ancient Heathens worshipped in groves, at river banks, and under waterfalls. It should be no different for ourselves today, and having one's own site can lead to years of joy and pleasure in worshipping the gods.