The Sacred and the Holy

Wholeness and Otherworldliness

The Elder Heathens had more than one concept of what was holy and sacred; in truth, they had two separate concepts. The readily familiar is OE hálig (OFris. hélich; OS hélag; OHG heilag; ON heilagR; Gothic hailags), our word holy. The other concept after nearly twelve hundred years of Christianity has been largely lost to us, but when looked at from a Heathen context is easily understood. It is one of separateness, otherworldliness, and is represented by Old English wíh (ON , OHG wíh) "religious site." Both hálig and wíh can be represented by the Latin words sanctus (Greek agios) and sacer (Greek hieros) respectively.

The concept of something that must remain whole or healthy must be a very old concept. Etymologically, Latin sanctus is related to Old English Gesund (High German gesund) as in "healthy, in good condition," just as our word "holy" is related to other Indo-European words for health. The concept of "health and wholeness" was widely used in the Germanic tongues, and even then seemed to be the more important of the two concepts of the holy and the sacred. Hálig and the words immediately related to it were used in a variety of ways, amongst which were Old English hálsian (ON heilla) "to invoke spirits," not to mention our words health, hale, whole, and hail. All of these words revolve around the concept of health and wholeness, and the ability of healing. It was therefore a quite attractive term to the ancient Heathens, and was thus widely applied to the realm of Man.

Unlike hálig, wíh and its proto-Germanic ancestor *wíh- were applied more to the realm of the Gods. Proto-Germanic *wíh- comes from IE *vík- "to separate," and has a cognate in Latin vic- as in victima "sacrifice." As an adjectival prefix it survives today in German Weihnacten "the sacred nights" used of the Yule season. Formerly, however, *wíh- and the words derived from it saw a variety of uses all revolving around that which is separate from the everyday. Such terms as Old English wíh (ON ve; OHG wíh) "sacred site;" weoh "idol;" and wíhian (ON vigja) "to consecrate" saw fairly extensive use at one time. It was largely applied to things that were seen as "otherworldly;" and, even more so than the enclosures of Mankind; must remain separate from the "wilds" around them. The term was applied to words for cultic centers, temple sites, idols, and grave mounds, the very symbols of godly order as opposed to the "wilds" outside. This can especially be seen in Old Norse Véar, a general term for the gods. Anything that was *wíh- was something that was, at least partially, in the realm of the gods, separate from all else. An ealh (OE "temple") was therefore *wíh-, as was a friðgeard (OE "cultic site, ), thus proto-Germanic *wíh- came to mean such sacred sites. With wíh-, we are seeing the ultimate opposition of innangarðs versus úttangarðs, which is the enclosure of the gods versus the "wilds," all that lies beyond the enclosure of Mankind. Whereas hallowing something makes it whole, *wíh-ing something makes it separate from the ordinary (places it in the realm of the gods), and therefore gives it something of the Gods' power (protection from the "wilds").

A term that may be a combination of the concepts of hálig and wíh appears on the Gothic ring of Pietroassa, at the end of a runic inscription; wíhailag would appear to be synonymous with the Latin term sacrosanct, "that which is whole and separate from the ordinary." Another similar term appears in Old Norse vé heilakt "sacrosanct," as well as in Old English sundorhálga "saint." While sundorhálga may have been a creation of the Christian missionaries, it could just as well been a term used to replace a more familiar though Heathen term. The fact that Old English sundor- appears in the place of wíh- indicates it may have been a substitution of a more acceptable Christian term for one with strong Heathen connotations.

What can be drawn from these concepts of the holy and the sacred is that while the concept of "health/wholeness," was represented by the term hálig for both Man and Gods, *wíh- represented yet another concept, that of "separateness, otherworldliness." This "separateness" or "otherworldliness" would be the divine forces themselves, the gods, and the powers of their realm. Anything that was *wíh- was endowed with the qualities of the gods and their realm, it contained their mægen. This concept can be difficult to understand at times, but perhaps it is best not to try to understand it, but realize that if something is *wíh- it has qualities of the gods' realms, and carries with it powers that leave Man in awe. It can be seen in what Tacitus had to say about the drowning of the slaves who washed the goddess Nerthus' cart.

There is a fear of the arcane attached to this custom for there is a reverence sprung from ignorance about that which is seen only by men who die for having done so.(Tacitus, Germania)

The slaves may have had to die because they had touched something of the godly realm, and therefore may have ceased to be of this realm. The kindest thing to do then, would have been to send them to the realm of the gods. This type of action is reflected in the Latin term victima "sacrifice," a term which shares etymological origins with the Heathen term *wih-. This type of religious awe can be seen elsewhere, as in Tacitus' tale of the grove in which the Semnones worshipped a god they believed ruled all. To enter the grove a Semnone had to be bound with rope, and if he fell, he could not stand up, but had to roll out of the grove.

The concept of *wíh- forms part of a greater Heathen perception of reality, one which is best defined by Kirsten Hastrup in Culture and Society in Medieval Iceland.

When we turn to the layout of immediate space, it appears that the most significant distinction pertaining to the spacial arrangement of the farmstead was inni:úti ("inside:outside"). The borderline between the farmstead as centre and the world outside as periphery was drawn along the fence that surrounded the farm. The opposition between innangarðs and útangarðs ("inside" and "outside fence" respectively) had important socio-legal implications. (Hastrup, page )

These implications were applied to more than the simple farmsteads of the Icelandic farmer, and can help us better understand the concept of *wíh-. But before we can fully understand the concept of *wíh-, that which is a part of the gods' realms, we must first look at how the ancient Heathens viewed their own socio-cultural order, and how that understanding of themselves extended to their understanding of the other nine realms.


Enclosures and The World

The concept of *wíh- "that which is a part of the gods' realms" was related to other concepts revolving around how the ancient Heathens viewed society and the law. Hastrup in her book addresses this concept of "separateness" between that of a husbandman's farm and the wild lands outside it and expands this explanation to Heathen society itself.

"The important point is that in our period a structural and semantic opposition was operative between "inside" and "outside" the society-as-law, allowing for a merging of different kinds of beings in the conceptual "wild." This anti-social space was inhabited by a whole range of spirits...landsvættir "spirits of the land," huldufolk "hidden people," jötnar "giants," trölls "trolls," and álfar "elves"...all of them belonged to the "wild" and it was partly against them that one had to defend ones-self... In this way the secure, well-known and personal innangards was symbolically separated from the dangerous unknown and nonhuman wild space outside the fence, útangards. "(Hastrup, page )

As Heathen familiar with our own cosmology, we know this paradigm not to be entirely correct. In truth, what the ancient Heathens truly saw was a series of enclosures comprising even larger enclosures. Thus individuals comprised the enclosure of a farmstead, several farmsteads comprised a godord and all the godhords, the Icelandic state. In most ancient times, individuals made up families, families made up clans or kindreds, clans or kindreds made up tribes, the tribes made up Middangeard. Middangeard and the other eight abodes made up the multiverse and were held in the world tree Yggdrasil. Hastrup points out later in her book:

Horizontally the cosmos was divided into Míðgarð and ÚtgardR. Míðgarð was the central space..inhabited by men (and gods), while ÚtgardR was found outsidethe fence . (Hastrup page )

This view of the universe as a series of enclosures governed nearly every socio-political factor of an ancient tribesman's life and extended beyond a socio-political philosophy into the very theology of ancient Paganism. At the base of all of these enclosures was the individual. An individual was part of a mægd "a family" and as an individual held certain responsibilities towards that family. He or she was expected to contribute to wergeld should another family member commit a crime, avenge any fellow family members wronged, defend the family's enclosures from encroachment, and generally contribute to the common good of the family. As an individual he or she possessed mægen, his or her own spiritual energy, and a fetch inherited from some ancestor. Individuals determined their own Wyrd through their own actions, each action resulting in an appropriate outcome according to a personal law that individual had laid down throughout his or her life time. All of an individual's actions had to be in keeping with that which is good. That which is good was determined by the tribe as a whole, and generally came down to "that which did not harm the tribe or one of its individuals," but actively contributed to the tribe as a whole. The word good, which has cognates in every Germanic tongue, derives from Old English gód which in turn derived from proto-Germanic *gad- "to unite, bring together." It is related to the word gather and referred to the collectiveness of the family and tribe.

Individuals are rarely treated as being solely responsible for their deeds in the ancient law codes. According to Bill Griffiths, "Compensation itself would be collectable and payable to a kin-group rather than an individual, suggesting communal responsibility." (Griffiths page ) In time, an individual's lord or guild would be held responsible (notably after the Conversion when Heathen custom was dying), but in the earliest times it was the family or kindred that was responsible for the individual's actions. The mægd was the institution that enforced the law for its members. Should a mægd fail in preventing a member from committing a crime, it was then held responsible for making compensation to the victim's family. If the mægd held that their family member was innocent, they could then take the matter to thing, or fight the ensuing blood feud. Even should the culprit of the crime flee, the family was still responsible for half the victim's wergeld under some Anglo-Saxon law codes.

A notable absence in the ancient law codes are laws dealing with crimes within a kindred. These crimes were dealt with by the mægd itself without outside interference. This was because the mægd formed a legal unit in and of its self. A glance at the Icelandic sagas will quickly reveal the strength of the family in this respect. The strength of the family as a legal unit also extended into the spiritual realm. Just as the individual possesses a fetch, the family possesses a kin-fetch called in Old Icelandic the kinfylgja, and as an individual possesses mægen, so too does a mægd. Similarly the collective actions of a family comprised that family's wyrd. Families were the most important enclosure within a tribe. While within Anglo-Saxon England there were Hundred courts, and Iceland, the Godords, that came between the families and the tribal assembly itself, it was the family that wielded the most power.

While families were the principle enforcers of the law, they were not its creators. In a metaphysical sense, every individual lays down law as personal wyrd, as does every family. But the laws that governed individuals' behavior were generally decided upon by the tribe as a whole in various mæþels and things. The þéod or tribe was the enclosure, the innangards. The law created by the þéod was customary in nature. The tribal assemblies did not "make laws" so much as rule on how existing customs or traditions would apply to a given situation (for example the dispute between two families over a boundary). The customs or traditions of a þéod were considered its wyrd, its doom, the actions that as a collective whole the þéod had laid down in the Well of Wyrd. Kirsten Hastrup maintains that:

"In Iceland 'the social' was coterminous with 'the law' was eloquently expressed in the notion of vr lög ('our law'). By logical inference 'the wild'...was coterminous with 'non-law.'" This philosophy was expressed when the Heathens and Christians in Iceland declared themselves ýr lögum "out of law" with each other at the Icelandic Althing of 1000 CE.18" (Hastrup page )

Ancient Germanic law was not connected to political boundaries as modern law is now, it was by tribal membership, by blood. That is, an ancient Jute would only be tried under Jutish law, not by the law of the þéod he had committed his or her crime in. The tribe was the law, was that which was good, was the innangard, and all outside the tribe was útangards for all practical purposes. The tribe as an innangard served as "contained space" for deeds to be done. It is the sort of contained space Bauschatz is talking about in his book the The Well and the Tree:

"For the Germanic peoples, space as it is encountered and perceived in the created worlds of men and other beings, exists, to any significant degree only as a location or container for the occurrence of action...The container is action, whether of individual men, of men acting in consort or in opposition, of men and monsters, or whatever. In all cases, immediate actions are discontinuous and separable deriving power and structure from the past." (Bauschatz, p.)

These deeds done within the innangard of the tribe by its tribesmen are its law, its orlay. A þéod is no different than a mægd or an individual in that it too lays down its own wyrd in the Well of Wyrd. This wyrd or doom is the law of the tribe. Just as there are spiritual correspondences between the individual and the family, so too are there between the tribe and the family. The tribal leader was seen as possessing the mægen of the tribe, and for the tribe to remain successful, it had to obey its laws. Failure to do so would result in a loss of mægen. The Anglo-Saxon Miercinga Ríce believes that our law, orlay, wyrd, and mægen operate on the very same principles. The same principles that the ancient Heathens may have believed in.

Here we are brought back to the discussion of *wíh-. The tribe in ancient times was the largest social enclosure of Mankind. In a sense, that which was *wíh-, was also outside its realm, outside theinnangards of Mankind, tho not a part of the "wilds," the Útgard. Not all outside the realm of Man was thought threatening. In sooth, much of what lies outside Man's realm is helpful, esp. the Gods. Perhaps then we have struck upon the primary reason for worship, to build a bridge between the enclosures of the gods and the enclosures of Man.

Enclosures and Otherworldliness

In her book Culture and History in Medieval Iceland, Hastrup makes it appear that the Elderen saw all outside the guarded enclosures of their home as dangerous, not to be trusted. However, this is not in keeping with the ancient Heathens being fearless adventurers, routing the Roman navy on the open seas, colonizing Russia, and even sailing to the coasts of America. It could be argued that the physical unknown did not faze the ancient Heathen, but that the spiritual unknown was quite a different matter. To a great extant this may be true. In the ancient lore when we are met with otherworldliness it is often of the dangerous variety. Grendel is a prime example as are the countless tales of ettins and thurses. Yet, we are faced with the concept of *wíh-, that which was part of the realm of the gods, and therefore seemed to be desirable to achieve. To the ancient Heathen, there were but two types of beings outside Mankind, those that would help Man, and those that would harm Man. There were countless shades of gray between, but most beings fell into these two categories. The ancient Heathens worked charms to rid themselves of arrows shot at them by ill wishing elves and sang prayers to invoke the gods. All of this constituted an interaction between enclosures. It also constituted the ancient Heathens' concepts of good and evil.

Good was, of course, that which helped the entirety of one's tribe. Included in this would be the members of the tribe, their dead ancestors, the tribal gods, land wihts, and other beings that had proven themselves worthy in a time of need. Evil was that which sought to destroy the tribe. The contrast between the two can be seen in the early words for evil. The majority of words fall into two groups. The first group is in stark contrast to the concept of the "holy " for these words deal with evil as illness. Old English bealu, our word bale "evil," derives from an Indo-European root meaning "illness" and is related to Old Slavic bolu "sick person." Similar is Old English traga "evil" a variation of trega "grief, pain," and Old English niþ with its secondary meaning of "affliction." A term that came down to us as meaning "sick" originally meant "evil" in Old Norse. Illr should be readily recognizable as our word "ill."

This concept of evil as an illness can be seen in the Anglo-Saxon charms where wights from outside the enclosures of Mankind are blamed for causing illnesses. Illnesses, growths, and sharp pains are seen as ésascéot "arrows or spears" from elves, witches, and other wights or fléogende áttres "flying poisons."

Evil was not only seen as illness, but also as the wights outside of the innangarðs of Man that might cause illness. Thus Old English wearg meant not only "outlaw" but "evil" as well. Similarly, Old Norse fiandR "outsider" was cognate to Old English féond "demon," our word "fiend." Just as illr is in opposition to holy, so was wearg to good, and such words as Old English sibb which meant not only "relative or kinsman" but "peace."

How the ancient Heathens handled these "out dwellers" can only be seen in the Old English charms and in the interaction with outlaws in the Icelandic sagas. Throughout the Old English charms, "outdwellers" are threatened with sheer magical strength. In the charm Wiþ Færstice the spellcaster after stating he has shielded himself from the "mighty women" causing the sudden pain in the victim goes on to say:

Stód under linde       under léohtum scielde
þær ða mihtigan wíf       hyra mægen beradden
and hie giellende       gáras sendan
ic him oðerne       eft wille sendan
fléogende fláne       forane tógeanes.

I stood under linden       Under light shield
There the mighty women       Are deprived of their strength
And their yelling       Spears sent
Another I will       Send back at them
Flying arrows       Forward in reply!

Here it is clear that the spellcaster has taken an active and somewhat combative role in chasing off the wights causing the sudden stitches in the victim. Other charms are not quite so dramatic, but clearly reflect the ancient Anglo-Saxons belief that illnesses were caused by "outdwellers" and that these "outdwellers" must be dealt with in an aggressive way.

Outlaws fared not much better in the Icelandic sagas. They were open game for anyone that came upon them (it was not illegal to kill an outlaw as they were no longer a member of the tribe and therefore, not protected by its law), and could not expect the aid of anyone. They were stripped of any lands they might own, and more often than not wound up dead at the hands of some citizen. Outlaws were men without tribe, and men without tribe were without law. Not even hospitality, one of the greatest of Heathen virtues, need be extended to an outlaw.

Of course, not all "outdwellers" were considered a threat to the enclosures of Mankind, and many such as the Gods were considered necessary, so that while illr and wearg came to be used of wights intent on harming Man, holy and *wíh- came to be used of those that were helpful to Man. Here we come to one of the primary reasons for engaging in Heathen worship: to provide a way in which modern Heathen can interact with those beings that help Mankind. This may mean more than just performing rites and prayers however, for to receive the aid of any wight, much less the Gods, one must first prove to be trustworthy, brave, and worthy of the other qualities our forbears found desirable. First and foremost one must understand Wyrd and the Law.


Bauchatz, Paul, The Well and the Tree, Paul, The Well and the Tree, University of Massachuetts Press; Amherst, 1982

Gronbech, Vilhelm, Culture of the Teutons, Oxford University Press; London, 1931

Hastrup, Kirsten, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland: An Anthropological Analysis of Structure and Change, Claredon Press; Oxford, 1985


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