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Hann vá víg í véum ok varð útlægr - religious taboos against violence in early medieval heathenry


Popular depictions of heathen Germanic peoples are often rife with gore, aggression and violence. The "vikings" are often presented as the embodiment of brutal slaughter, worlds away from their helpless (typically Christian) victims. Valhöll is shown as a warrior paradise that acts as a grim reflection of the Christian heaven and exists to label those who are less inclined to bloodshed as failures. Media like The Northman and Vikings are filled with scenes of rugged eight-pack-adorned men hacking at one another in a bleak society that seems to demand and condone such actions.[Note A] Is this stereotyping fair though?


While it would be valuable to give a full discussion attempting to deconstruct the image of the savage heathen and to show how they by no means stood out when considered in the broader cultural context of the time, this would take more time than I currently have at my disposal.[Note B] Instead I thought it might be good to focus on a specific part of this wider conversation - that amongst heathens over a wide stretch of space and time, we in fact see a strong, legally enforced prohibition against violence in holy places.


Harbouring the vulnerable



The Oklunda inscription (figure 1) from north-eastern Östergötland in modern-day Sweden, dating to the 9th century CE, gives us a fascinating example of this concept of non-violence in holy places.[6:93-96][7:297-298] Although the exact translation is debated, one version reads:


"Gunnarr cut these runes. And he fled from penalty. Sought this vi . . .

Vi-Finn carved this..." [7:297-298]


This has been interpreted by scholars as meaning that the vi, a heathen holy site or sanctuary known in Old West Nordic as a , acted as a place of refuge from the vulnerable. In this case, it was providing asylum to a man named Gunnarr who had committed a crime, possibly a murder, and based on the name of the place Oklunda, the vi may have been a sacred grove (Old Norse: lundr). Indeed, this stone bears the oldest known documentation of the right to asylum in Scandinavia. It has been suggested by some scholars such as Bertil Nilsson that the Oklunda stone's writing shows influence from Christian ways of thinking, citing for example the early appearance of this concept in Christian law. These laws in turn led to early medieval Swedish laws affirming churches as places for asylum.[7:297-298] I have no doubt that this concept was present in Christianity before the 9th century but I think there is good reason to think that there was an old tradition of non-violence in holy places that existed in heathen cultures long before the church was established in Sweden.


In Guta saga, for example, we have an account of the heathen law protecting a priest named Botair who built a church in Gotland at what was likely before a heathen holy site. According to this tale, the first church on the island he built was burnt down by the local Gutes. Never one to let one church burning ruin his dreams, he took to building another; this time when he saw they were just as serious about torching this one too, he went up onto the roof of the building and called out to them that if they burn it, they'd have to burn him with it. The priest's father-in-law, Likkair then supported him, saying that they should leave the church be because it stands at Vi. In this context, Vi is likely being used in the same way as on the Oklunda stone - to mean a holy place in which violence is forbidden. Because the Gotlanders were unable to destroy the church without causing harm, and so could not avoid violating the holiness of the vi, they left him be and the church was allowed to stand. The degree to which this account is based on historical truth can be debated but it's at least interesting to note that the author likely thought violence was not allowed at at least some heathen holy sites and that this tradition was older than the first churches in Gotland.[7:297]


As you might expect though, this custom likely wasn't always looked on kindly. English sources on heathen customs are in general pretty few and far between but we do seem to have some references to a tradition in England that resembles those in Östergötland and Gotland discussed above. In the Norðhymbra preosta lagu ("Northumbre's priests' law"), written roughly around the mid-11th century, we get a fascinating description of a crime and its required punishment:


"If there be a frið-geard on any one's land, about a stone, or a tree, or a well, or any folly of such kind, then let him who made it pay lah-slit ("compensation"); half to Christ, half to the 'land-rica ("land-owner") and if the land-rica will not aid in levying the fine, then let Christ and the king have the bot ("compensation")."[1:299]


Before we dig into the term we're most interested in here, frið-geard, let's look at one more roughly contemporary attestation of a practice which seems to be closely related. In Bishop Wulfstan's penitential laws, we are given a long list of heathen practices that need to be wholly eradicated now the church has been established:


"... we teach that every priest should promote Christianity zealously, and altogether extinguish every heathen practice, and forbid the worship of springs ... and the nonsense which is practised ... in friðsplottum and at elder trees and also at other various trees and at stones and in many various delusions, of which many are practised which should not be."[8:477][Note C]


So we now have both friðgeard and friðsplott, but how should we understand them? Both these compound words contain as a first half frið-, the ancestor of modern English "frith" - another word for "peace". Here, -geard is also found in worlds like Middangeard (the world we're living in right now) and is the forebear of Modern English "yard" - broadly meaning "an enclosed space". On the other hand, -splott means "plot of land" or "spot". A potential translation offered for both friðgeard and friðsplott is "sanctuary", a place in which one can take refuge and be safe from those who would do them harm, just like our vi mentioned above. A great point made by Audrey Meaney is that in Norðhymbra preosta lagu, it is explicitly stated that the land-rica ("landowner") will get some of the fine money if they help the officials in enacting punishment on the person who made the friðgeard. This, in turn, suggests to us that it was typically not the land-rica making them at the time of the laws' writing; instead, it was far more likely to be the poor and lower class folk acting in secret, making hidden sanctuaries in the woods and other places they saw as holy. This seemingly was so abhorrent to the Church officials that it led to efforts to stamp it out.[8:486-487] 


Quite how these friðgeardas and friðsplottas were used is not clear beyond this but there are far more detailed accounts out there that attest to the wider culture of the strict upholding of frith in holy spaces. It is to these that we shall now turn, taking a look first at hallowed landscapes.


Fields, firths and fells



Landnámabók, tells us that a hofgoði (roughly "sanctuary-chieftain") named Þórhaddr the old, wanted to migrate to Iceland from Mære in what's now Norway. To do so, he undertook preparations which are quite typical of these tales - he dismantled the hof (a hall, often but not always with connotations of use in heathen religious practice), and took the soil from beneath it, along with the high-seat posts, with him across the sea to Stǫðvarfjǫrðr in Iceland. Once there, he proclaimed Mærina-helgi ("the Mære holiness") over the entire firth area and nothing was allowed to be killed there except the farm animals.[7:168,291-292][Note D] Here, the hallowing of the settled land is directly linked to the obligation for frith and also to the original cult site from which Þórhaddr travelled. It seems likely that the Mære holiness was upheld in Mære before the hof was taken down and possibly also extended to the holy meadow or meadows (Hælgjin) that once grew next to it.[7:143,291-292]


Another account is in Eyrbyggja saga when the central figure Þórólfr follows a very similar process as Þórhaddr the old, taking down the hof and taking the earth from beneath it with him to Iceland, along with the high-seat posts. This time though, he throws the posts overboard and settles where they land in Breiðafjörð, dedicating great parts of it to Þórr (Thor). The saga tells how on the ness was a fell that they called Helgafell ("Holyfell", see figure 2) into which they believed they would go when they died - this is later seen happening in a beautiful passage which describes the hillside opening up and the dead being welcomed in by those who were feasting and drinking inside. Þórólfr set up a ­þing ("assembly") near there and considered Helgafell so holy a place that no one was allowed to sully the field around it with excrement or blood that was shed in rage. When nature called, one was instead to relieve oneself in a nearby skerry appropriately named Dritsker ("Dirt-skerry").[2:chapters 4,11][Note E] Furthermore, when a new hof was built by Þórólfr and his kinsmen, they placed the high-seat pillars with the reginnaglar ("gods' nails") inside the door of the hall and the place was considered a friðarstaðr ("place of frith").[7:292] Here, there is an explicit link between the holy status of the hof, Helgafell and the field around it and the prohibition of all violence. What's more, when blood is shed later on the the tale, they move the þing site that was held there to the eastern part of the headland, which then becomes seen as a holy place too.[7:292,295]


A further example of a holy field is argued by Gabriel Turville-Petre to be featured in Víga-Glúm's saga. In chapter 7, we are introduced to the field Vitaðsgjafi ("Sure-giver") which lay close to the hof of Freyr and was so fertile that it always gave a good harvest. It was so sought after in fact that it was shared between two groups, each harvesting it every odd year. When an argument over usage rights breaks out, the saga's namesake Víga-Glúm kills a man in the field and from then on his luck appears to turn, with him seemingly opposed to Freyr from then onwards. The father of the killed man goes on to blót an ox to Freyr, asking for Glúm to be driven from the land. As time goes on and Glúm gets into a host of further problems and further offends Freyr, he has a dream in which he sees the god sitting on a high seat, with his dead kinsmen asking for forgiveness for Glúm. Freyr remembers the ox given to him, however, and holds firm with bringing his demise. Soon after this, Glúm is forced to sell and give away his land and he grows old sad and blind. The idea that Freyr would be seen as the provider of an unusually fruitful field seems completely in keeping with what we know about the god from other sources; it is to him and his father that toasts are made til árs ok friðar ("for a good harvest and frith") and it is to him that the legendary time of peace, Fróðafrið ("Fróði's frith"), was attributed in Ynglinga saga. The bestowal of frith and prosperity are intimately intertwined with the god and his interactions with mankind - it seems apt then that the tainting of one of his gifts with blood shed in violence would mark a turning point in Glúm's luck in the saga.[3:chapters 7-9,26][9:318,330]


It's interesting to note that in these cases the lands which seem to be considered holy, and thus ritually protected from bloodshed, are located close to a hof, a cult building where religious ceremonies would likely have taken place. One of these is dedicated to Þórr and another to Freyr. If there are such great repercussions to defiling these holy spaces though, one would need to know where it was that was holy in the first place. In cases like Helgafell, the fell itself is a clear marker. In the case of places that are only hallowed some of the time, or those without distinct geography, we need another solution.


Bounding holiness



In some Nordic contexts, we see the boundaries of outdoor holy spaces marked by rope or possibly wooden staves. In Egils saga and Den ældre Frostaþings-Lov (the older Frostaþing's law) we see the cords marking this boundary referred to as vébǫnd ("sacred bonds"). In Egils saga there is a detailed description of how these were implemented at the Gulaþing in south-western Norway:


"There was a flat plain where the court was established, and hazel staffs were set in a circle, with a cord around them. This was known as vébǫnd. Within the circle sat the court, twelve men from the Firðafylki, twelve from Sygnafylki and twelve from Hǫrðafylki."


Here the men from each region represent the parts of the wider community. It closely resembles the description in the Frostaþings law, with the main differences being the different region (and thus split of representatives) and that the Frostaþing laws record practices from after the adoption of Christianity by elites, and would have thus been held in a Christian context that nonetheless continued using vébǫnd to mark out the law court. Before going ahead, it's probably worth digging into this term a bit more. Bǫnd simply enough refers to bonds or cords whilst vé means a holy space. As mentioned above, it's the West Nordic form of the word vi that we met in its eastern form in Gotland and Oklunda in the section above.  is a general term though and doesn't have to be outside - we also find it used when referring to hof.[7:294,299-301] Another term we see used for an enclosed holy space is hofsgarðr ("hof-yard"), the end of which, -garðr, is cognate with geard in friðgeard. It is perhaps reasonable to suggest that a friðgeard closely resembled a , with a boundary marked by something physical such as rope held up by wooden rods (such as is custom in AUK events, as shown in figure 3).


We also see legal spaces marked out in other Germanic contexts. In Gothic, the word staua "staff" can be used to mean "court" or "judge", whilst the Old High German poem Muspilli describes a court as enclosed. Perhaps most interesting is the 7th century Frankish legal text Lex Ribuaria which stipulates that oaths must be sword inside an enclosure made of hazel, just as in Egils saga.[7:300-301] We see what may be a branch of this tradition in the archaeological record in places like Helgö and Lilla Ullevi, where wooden posts or fences were put up to likely mark off the ritual space. These were sometimes further accompanied by dug ditches.[7:301-302]


There are exceptions to this practice of marking boundaries though, with one example found in Tacitus' Germania, written all the way back in the 1st century CE. Here, Tacitus tells us that Nerthus was worshipped by a number of Germanic tribes such as the Engle (Angles) and the Reudingi, and at certain times, she would be brought forth on a wagon from the island grove in which she lived. Throughout this time, Tacitus remarks that no wars may be waged and all is peaceful and quiet until she returns to her island.[4:chapter 40] Here, the holy space is not created by any physical rope or fence but rather by the dynamic procession of her wagon. In this context, the sheer distance covered was likely too great for any boundary marking to be realistically implemented, even if such practices were upheld in smaller sacred spaces that far back.


The marking of holy spaces is intertwined with legal procedures, as seen with the vébǫnd, but the link goes yet further. These places of frith were not simply reserved for idealistic dreams of how a world should be. Instead, they were enforced by law in the legal systems of heathen communities and those who violated them faced stern consequences.


Killing someone in a was strictly forbidden and strong punishments were implemented for those cases in which the taboo was broken. Den ældre Frostathings-Lov states that until attendees return to their homes, those who violate the grið ("truce" or "temporary peace") forfeit their rights to land, personal property and frith among men, and are outlawed. In Landnamabók, a man accompanying King Harald Fairhair was also outlawed for this crime (Hann vá víg í véum ok varð útlægr). The phrase "vá víg í véum" is also used later on when a man named Özurr repeats this offence and has to leave to Iceland. A third time the formula is used is when according to Skáldatal, the skald Erpr lútandi killed someone in a  and was sentenced to death. He was only spared by the king from his grim end after he composed a drápa ("praise poem") for the king's dog that seemingly went down very well.[10:97]


It was not only bloodshed that could be banned in  but the very carrying of items that could bring it about. In Egils saga, Queen Gunnhild's brother Eyvind was outlawed and called a vargr ("wolf") for stabbing someone when a fight broke out at a feast; the saga tells that though everyone else leapt to their feet, none was armed in the hall (also referred to as a ) because hofshelgi ("hof-holiness") prevailed there.[7:294-295] Similarly, in Vatnsdœla saga when a man named Hrafn goes into a hof whilst armed, he is warned by Ingimund, who led the settlement of Vatnsadal, that the gods would be angered by his transgression. Ingimund goes on to explain that the only way for him to make amends for his disrespect is to give up his sword to Ingimund.[5:Vatnsdœla saga, chapter 17][9:328]


The importance of protecting the holy spaces and ensuring that their rules was so great that it became a central responsibility of rulers. It is for this reason that kennings for rulers include vǫrðr véstalls (ward or protector of the vé-stand) and vés valdr (wielder or ruler of the vé), and the Rök stone tells how Sibbi was considered as vīaværi ("the custodian of the vi").[7:290,305-306][Note F] Their legitimacy was so hinged on the holy place's integrity that they became targets for enemies seeking to overthrow the ruler, as attested in the many hall burnings recorded in Germanic lore and archaeological record. Hof are recorded as being put to flame, their contents desecrated and hǫrgar (another type of heathen holy site) broken by the famed Christianiser king, Ólafr Tryggvason throughout his missionary work in Norway as he sought to crush the heathen religion and the power of local goðar. In the Heimskringla version of his saga, we're told how Ólafr said he would accept the local farmers' requests and he would hold a blót in the hof at Mære. When he got there, however, he hacked down Þórr and his men threw down the other gods before killing the leader of the locals, Járnskeggja. In a swift blow, the holy site and its leadership were destroyed without recorded resistance and the surviving farmers were forcibly baptised. It doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that the farmers went unarmed to the hof, as in the other accounts, and in doing so were left helpless when the king began his attack.[7:307-309]


A fascinating side of this though is that when the Ólafr and his likeminded kinsmen established Christianity in the North, aspects of these practices seem to have lived on in new settings, be it the vébǫnd of the Frostaþing or the friðgeards made by the persecuted and landless heathens in England. What's more, I would argue that though there was an active effort to "altogether extinguish every heathen practice", the asylum in churches do stand in continuity with these heathen ideas - not in the sense that priests "took" the idea from heathens but that to the locals in this part of the world, they went from having frith upheld in hofs and outdoor yards to having it upheld in churches. In a local sense, the practice endured, making a space for itself in the new systems. An idea can be both heathen and Christian - that doesn't make it less of either, and when we accidentally define heathenry as that which Christianity is not, we tend to miss important bits of both.


Perhaps this continuity shouldn't surprise us though. Throughout history, the vast majority of people, be they heathen, Christian or anyone else, have always just wanted to live in frith and safety. It makes perfect sense then that the bringing of violence into their holy places was seen with horror by medieval heathens and was punished as one of their most severe crimes.  The summary presented in the post is far from exhaustive and is only intended as an introduction to the topic of holiness in heathenry but I hope it has succeeded in giving some light to something rarely talked about. Amidst the widespread stereotyping of heathens as inherently brutal and savage folk, it is an important point to make that there are many accounts of blood shed in anger acting as the antithesis of right practice. It defiles holy hof and . Far from winning the love of the gods, as is often presumed, this brings their wrath.


Original post written for the North West Heathens blog and shared by AUK with permission


Notes

A. Me disliking what I consider an unbalanced depiction of the historical period isn't meant to be a criticism of their value as a whole. For example, the material culture depicted in The Northman is mind-blowingly well-researched and should no doubt act as a guide for future works. Regarding Vikings, while I wasn't a massive fan of it as a whole, some scenes had really powerful moments that I really enjoyed. In my opinion, the issue can arise when depictions overwhelmingly shift into a trope that does not match up with reality, which in turn colours perceptions of the actual history.


B. Full text is as follows:


"And we teach that every priest should promote Christianity zealously, and altogether extinguish every heathen practice, and forbid the worship of springs and necromancy and auguries and incantations and the worship of men, and the nonsense which is practised in various kinds of sorcery and in sanctuaries and at elder trees and also at other various trees and at stones and in many various delusions, of which many are practised which should not be."


"And we lærað þæt preosta gehwilc cristendom geornlice arære and ælcne hæþen-dom mid ealle adwæsce and forbeode wilweorþunga and licwiglunga and hwata and galdra and *manweorðunga and þa gemearr, þe man drifð on mistlicum gewiglungum and on friðsplottum and on ellenum and eac on oðrum mistlicum treowum and on stanum* and on manegum mistlicum gedwimerum, þe men on dreogað fela þæs, þe hi na ne scoldan."


C. It is probably worth stressing that even if it were the case before the establishment of Christianity that all of heathenry was absolutely obsessed with excessive cruelty and violence, it would absolutely not have to be the case now in modern forms of heathenry. We live in vastly different societies and the everyday threat of attack is so far flung from how it was a thousand years ago. What I hope to make clear with this article is that while there are definite examples in which fighting is praised, this does not capture the whole cultural perception. The wider picture is far more complex and interesting.


D. Text is as follows:


"Þórhaddr the old was a hofgoði in Trondheim in Mære. He wanted to travel to Iceland, and before he went, he took down the hof and brought all the soil of the sanctuary and the high-seat posts. He came to Stǫðvarfjǫrðr and proclaimed the Mære Peace over the entire fjord area and nothing was allowed to be killed there, except the animals on the farm."


"Þórhaddr enn gamli var hofgoði í Þrándheimi á Mæri. Hann fýstisk til Íslands ok tók áðr ofan hofit ok hafði með sér hofsmoldina ok súlurnar; en hann kom í Stǫðvarfjǫrð ok lagði Mærina-helgi á allan fjǫrðinn ok lét øngu tortíma þar nema kvikfé heimilu."[7:168]


E. The term they use for defecating here is álfrek ganga ("doing one's elf-frighteners"), in reference to the belief that the act could drive away elves from the land. The euphemism "doing one's elf-frighteners" is definitely one I can get behind.[11:215-216]


F. Translations are the article writer's own, based on the source, which gives the translation of vǫrðr véstalls and vés valdr as "the protector of the sacred stand" and "the ruler of the sacred place" respectively.[7:290]


Great figures' abilities to ensure the taboos are respected is possibly seen in Beowulf, in which we're told that in King Hroðgar's hall Heorot, "no crimes did the Scyldings commit". The word used for crimes here is faecenstafas, literally meaning "baleful runes". Interestingly, the Old Norse cognate term feicnstafi is used in the exact same context when referring to the upholding of law in Baldr's hall Breiðablik. This has led scholar Anatoly Liberman to suggest they were both seen as sanctuaries, similar to that described by the Oklunda stone.[12:40]


References

Primary

1. Thorpe, Benjamin (2012). "Law of the Northumbrian priests". Ancient Laws and Institutes of England. Cambridge University Press. pp. 290–303. ISBN 9781139177412.

3. Head, Edmund. "The Saga of Viga-Glum - Icelandic Saga Database". Icelandic Saga Database.

4.  Smiley, Jane (2001).The Sagas of Icelanders: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition). Penguin Publishing Group.ISBN 978-0-14-100003-9.

5. Bozzi, Lamberto. "De origine et situ Germanorum (Germania)". Centro Risorse Territoriale di Pesaro e Urbino. Retrieved 4 January 2024.


Secondary

8. Meaney, Audrey L. (January 2004). "'And we forbeodað eornostlice ælcne hæðenscipe': Wulfstan and Late Anglo-Saxon and Norse 'Heathenism'". Wulfstan, Archbishop of York. Brepols Publishers. 10: 461–500. doi:10.1484/m.sem-eb.3.3720.

9. Turville-Petre, Gabriel; "The Cult of Freyr in the Evening of Paganism" Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society 111(6):317-322 (1935)

11. Wanner, Kevin J. (2009). "Purity and Danger in Earliest Iceland: Excrement, Blood, Sacred Space, and Society in "Eyrbyggja saga"". Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. 5: 213–250. ISSN 1782-7183.

12. Liberman, Anatoly (2004). "Some Controversial Aspects of the Baldr Myth" (PDF). Alvíssmál. 11: 17–54.

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