Sacred Space in the Lore and Modern Paganism

Key Concepts

Sacred space is any area that has been sanctified or seperated from the ordinary world. One can think of it in terms of innangarðs and utangarðs. Kirsten Hastrup explains these two concepts as:

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.

She takes this paradigm from the cosmology of the worlds themselves:

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.

Sacred space is an area made into an innangarðs and given to the Gods. How this is done is in part related to the ideas of Old English hálig "holy" and Old English *wíh "sacred." Holy was seen as that which was "whole, healthy," and thus was not being attacked by illness causing wights of the wilds. *Wíh, the sacred, was that which was seperated from the wilds by an even greater degree than the typical enclosures of Mankind, in essence, an abode of the Gods. We see the concept of the holy in words such as Old English hálsian and Old Norse heilla both meaning "to invoke spirits," not to mention our words health, hale, whole, and hail. The idea of sacred is behind Old Norse vigja "to make sacred, " Old Norse vé "sacred site," and Old English wéoh "sacred image." Other concepts are also tied to the idea of sacred space such as the concept of frith. In Old English, friðgearde was used of sacred areas, while its Old Norse cognate friðgarðr was used of legal areas where peace must be maintained such as law courts and thing steads, but also the area where judicial duels took place. Sacred space was perhaps then seen as land owned by the Gods which cannot be attacked by illness causing spirits, and where frith must be maintained (even if it requires strife to restore that frith).

Creation of Sacred Space in the Lore

Establishment of sacred space is seen in several places in the Lore and through a variety of means. One of these was the establishment of boundaries thourghout various means. Within the Lore the following means are seen used as ways of establishing the boundaries of sacred space: 1) Symbols placed around the area. 2) The building of fires at certain points and the erection of some symbol. 3) Circling the area with fire. 4) Use of ropes called in Old Norse vébond, tied to hazel poles called in Old Norse höslur. In addition, sacred space was also often established by bringing soil from another sacred place, or in the case of temples, transporting the sacred pillars to the new site and using them in the new temple. The god Thunor (Thor) could also be invoked. Many rune stones are inscribed with "Þorr uiki " or in English "Thor make sacred." Finally, some areas were held to be innately sacred due to their natural beauty or other qualities. Each of these ways was seen often more in conjunction with specific types of sacred space. The vébond were most often used with law courts and places where judicial duels were faught, and were temporary. Erecting symbols and the use of fire was seen generally with land taking for use as farms, while circling with fire is seen used for temple areas. The transport of soil from another sacred site to a new one is only seen with the erection of temples as is the transport of high seat pillars.

Within the Landnámabók, we are given examples of each type, and in some cases, these can be confirmed by material in the Anglo-Saxon literature. Two brothers, Vestmann and Vemund, though Christian fell back on pagan principles when taking land.

Þeir fóru til Íslands ok sigldu fyrir norðan landit ok vestr um Sléttu í fjörðinn. Þeir settu öxi í Reistargnúp ok kölluðu því Öxarfjörð. Þeir settu örn upp fyrir vestan ok kölluðu þar Arnarþúfu. En í þriðja stað settu þeir kross. Þar nefndu þeir Krossás. Svá helguðu þeir sér allan Öxarfjörð.

"They set an ax on Reistargnúp and called it Öxarfjörð. They set an eagle up in the west and called it Arnarþúfu. And the third they set a cross. They named it Krossás. So they hallowed all of Öxarfjörð. (Landnámabók)

This type of land claiming and hallowing is also seen in the Anglo-Saxon Aecer-bot:

Genim þonne on niht, ær hyt dagige, feower tyrf on feower healfa þæs landes, and gemearca hu hy ær stodon.... Nim ðonne þa turf and sete ðær ufon on and cweþe ðonne nigon siþon þas word, Crescite, and swa oft Pater Noster

"At night, before dawn, take four turfs from the four quarters of your lands, and note how they previously stood..... take the turfs and set them down there, and say these words nine times, ‘Crescite’ as before, and the Lord's Prayer as often " (Gavin Chappel translation)

While heavily Christianized the Aecer-Bot account may reflect earlier pagan practices, just as the account of Vestmann and Vemund may also. It is not said whether these actions took place at cardinal points, or at the cross-quarters, or even if they were evenly spaced. Accounts of Heathens taking and sacralizing land on a large scale nearly always involve fire however. Helgi, a man who practiced both Christianity and Paganism built fires on his land to claim it:

Helgi var blandinn mjök í trú. Hann trúði á Krist, en hét á Þór til sjófara ok harðræða. Þá er Helgi sá Ísland, gekk hann til frétta við Þór, hvar land skyldi taka......... Helgi kannaði um sumarit herað allt ok nam allan Eyjafjörð milli Sigluness ok Reynisness ok gerði eld mikinn við hvern vatnsós ok helgaði sér svá allt herað.

"Helgi's faith was much mixed. He held troth with Christ, but called on Thor on voyages and hard journeys. Thus when Helgi saw Iceland, he asked Thor, where land he should take........ Helgi took all of Eyjafjörð between Sigluness and Reynisness and made fires at every estuary and hallowed the land." (Landnámabók)

More throughly Heathen men portrayed in the Landnamabok, generally circled their land with fire. This usually seemed to have invovled the erection of a temple. Jörundr goði carried fire around the land his hof was to be built on to hallow it.

þar er nú heitir á Svertingsstöðum. Hann reisti þar hof mikit.....Þat land fór Jörundr eldi ok lagði til hofs.

"There he called it Svertingsstöðum. He there build a temple.... That land, Jörundr carried fire around where he later laid his temple." (Landnámabók)

Thorolf who also established a temple, carried fire around his land to claim it.

Eftir það fór Þórólfur eldi um landnám sitt, utan frá Stafá og inn til þeirrar ár er hann kallaði Þórsá, og byggði þar skipverjum sínum.

Hann setti bæ mikinn við Hofsvog er hann kallaði á Hofsstöðum. Þar lét hann reisa hof og var það mikið hús.

Thereafter Thorolf fared with fire through his land out from Staff-river in the west, and east to that river which is now called Thors-river, and settled his shipmates there.

But he set up for himself a great house at Templewick which he called Templestead. There he let build a temple, and a mighty house it was. (Eyrbyggja Saga, Morris & Magnusson translation)

That fire is not needed to claim land is shown by the other examples, and nor is it specificly associated with hallowing as we see this done too without it (though only in mixed Christain and Heathen contexts). However, it is clear that fire is associated with the erection of temples and a part of the rituals to prepare the land for it. The concept of using fire to claim land and specificly land associated with temples may be related to the idea of "need fire." Need fire was a widespread custom amongst the Germanic, Celtic, and Slavonic peoples. It had to be generated by wood drill, fire bow, or other methods of producing fire with wood against wood, flint and steel was never used. All other fires in the village had to be extinguished and then relit from the Need Fire. It was often used to drive away pestilence, esp. amongst cattle who were driven through its smoke (see Fraizer's Golden Bough and Grimm's Teutonic Mythology on this topic). Amongst the Germanic peoples, it was sometimes made annually. Grimm states that:

Needfire.---Flame which had been kept some time among men and been propagated from one fire to another, was thought unserviceable for sacred uses; as holy water had to be drawn fresh from the spring, so it made all the difference, if instead of the profaned and as it were worn out flame, a new one were used. (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology)

Need fire therefore may have been seen as holy water, in some way sacred. Considering it was thought lucky to leap over the Midsummer bonfires in many parts of Northern Europe, and as already pointed out, that cattle driven through the smoke of a need fire would be cured of murrain, and that the accounts of Hofs in the Lore portray them with fires that are never to be put out, it seems quite reasonable that fire's purpose in land taking was not only to claim the land but to literally hallow it, drive away illness causing wights. The use of fire is only half the formula though, as we are somtimes told they carried fire and then hallowed the land. This perhaps is where the "Þorr uiki " formula seen on rune stones comes in. That the ancient Heathens had two seperate concepts of holy and sacred is clear. It is therefore reasonable to assume that once they had hallowed the land, "made it whole," they might then make it sacred. Thor as the one who makes things sacred is well attested to in the Lore, his hammer or a symbol of it was used to hallow brides at weddings, and he is even referred to as Veurr "the one who makes sacred."

Bringing soil from a former sacred site, as well as in the case of temples, the sacred pillars, was also an important step in the case of establishing new sacred space. Whether this was totally necessary does not seem to have always been the case. But, it occurs often enough in the Lore that it seemed a good thing to do. Thorolf when he came to Iceland brought the pillars of his temple from Norway with him as did Thorhadd, and Inigimund the Old (see Landnamabok).

Temporary sacred space could apparently be made using vébond, ropes tied to hazel poles. Such a space was described in Egil's Saga:

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. (Egil's Saga Fell translation)

Most Thing sites though, esp. such as Thingsvellir in Iceland were already thought innately sacred. The sort of sacred space created by vébond therfore may have been a sort of sacreder than sacred space, sacrosanct so to speak. This type of space was not only seen with law courts, but also dueling sites. Such dueling sites marked by hazel poles and vébond are seen in Kormack's Saga, although in Egil's Saga such a site is marked by stones. At first, it may seem strange that duels, which are in themselves are violent in nature, should be faught in areas considered sacred, and otherwise where weapons were banned. However, it must be recalled that in Heathen duels the judgement of the Gods was being sought, not to mention the Wyrd of both men being weighed against each other. In addition, it may have been thought that no unfair means could be used if the duels were faught in sacred space. In other words, only the orlogs and the will of the Gods could affect the outcome of combat that if faught outside sacred space could be affected by ill wishing wights, magic, or other under handed means.

Some areas were thought innately sacred. Such was the case with Helgafell in Iceland. Many of the early Christian law codes forbid Heathen worship at water falls, trees, and other areas of natural beauty. None of these natural areas seem to had have been made sacred by men. Folks merely considered them sacred upon first sighting them, and began bloting there.

Ideas for Creation of Sacred Space in Modern Times

Armed with a few key concepts, and information from the Lore on how sites were made sacred, it is easy to come up with ways we too can make areas sacred. While bringing sacred pillars from ancient holy sites is impossible, and even shipping soil from ancient holy sites in Europe a bit unfeasaible, we are still left with many ways to make areas suitable for worship. It would appear that regardless of what intial method was used to "claim" the land (which in earlier times may have been the literally hallowing), a second, and maybe third step may have been involved. One first may have erected symbols of ownership, this may have been part of the purpose of the Irminsul of the ancient Saxons, to mark the site as sacred, not to mention the large pole at the temple at Yeavering. We do know from the Landnámabók and other sources that this was done. One alternatively can use fire, either built at certain points, or by circling the area. Or one could use hazel poles and vébond. This first step may not have been so much "land claiming" as often portrayed in the Lore as much as it was true hallowing, "making whole." In a couple instances in the Lore, it is clear that the fire is linked with the act of hallowing the land.

Second, while it is not implicitly said anyway in connection with land, one may have invoked Thunor to make the area sacred. We know from the Lore Thunor was invoked to make brides sacred, and the used of phrases on rune stones to either make sacred the stones or the runes themselves, that this may be a possibility. This may explain why we sometimes see the act of circling with fire and hallowing seperated in the Lore. They may have been in more ancient times seperate actions of hallowing and then making sacred. Only later did the religous element of circling with fire or the erection of symbols become divorced from the action of hallowing, and hallowing became confused with making something sacred. Finally, the third step seems to have been bloting the Gods. Accounts of areas that were considered innately sacred upon sight in the Lore, never fail to mention that blots were then conducted. The blot is linked in the ancient Heathen mind as needful even to areas that are naturally sacred. For example, Thorolf considered all of Helgafell sacred, and immediately started bloting there.


Benediktsson, J. (ed.), Landnamabok, Hidh islenzka fornritafelag, Reykjavik, 1936).

Chappel, Gavin, Anglo-Saxon Charms

Fell, Christine (tr.), Egil's Saga, University of Toronto Press, Tornoto, 1975.

Frazer, James George, Sir, The Golden Bough, The Macmillan Co., New York,1922.

Grimm, Jacob, Stallybrass, J. S. (tr.), Teutonic Mythology, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass. 1976

Hallakarva, Gunnora, Sacred Space in Viking Law and Religion

Hastrup, K. Culture and History in Medieval Iceland, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1985

Morris, W. & Magnusson, E. (tr.) The Saga Library, Vol. II: The Story of the Ere-Dwellers, Bernard Quaritch, London, 1892.

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