I’ve recently come home from a heathen festival in the UK, the Asgardian. It was a fantastic experience and we had wonderful weather with barely a drop of rain – which I believe must be some sort of record for England. There were interesting lectures and workshops covering topics from an in depth analysis of the Wild Hunt phenomenon to magical music among finns, sami and norse peoples. There were vendors selling a lot of good stuff, a couple of food vendors with really good food, a tavern that was well frequented and for some reason a small reenactment camp (not my thing at all, but each to their own, I guess).
There were also blóts, which are always a lot of fun! There were of course the opening and closing blóts, there was a ceremony called Flame of Frith, and I myself held a Freyr’s blót (it was really good to be able to do that – I’m thankful to the organizers that I could get that in, even though the schedule was actually full by the time I talked to them.) I really like to have the opportunity to see when other heathens hold blóts. Even though I’m happy about the way we do it, I’m always interested in seeing other ways and hopefully learning something new. I’m especially interested in the ways we establish sacred space – and what that means when we do so.
First of all, I think that most of us have a very fuzzy idea about the concept of “sacred” or “holy”. We may THINK we know what it is, but when asked to explain people often end up saying something vague about gods and religion. The word “sacred” is obviously from the latin “sacer”, meaning the same, which in turn is ultimately from a PIE root meaning “to sanctify” or “to make a treaty”. It does tie in well with Roman religion, which was (is?) very much about making exquisitely detailed treaties with the divine powers about duties and responsibilities, payment and services. In modern English it can mean a few different things: set apart by religious ceremony or use; not secular; designated or exalted by divine sanction; inviolable.
“Holy” is a germanic word, and it goes back to a Proto-Germanic word meaning “healthy”, “whole” and of course also “holy”. This meaning goes all the way back to the PIE root with the same meaning. It is easy so see how that which is healthy and whole is a good thing, and it does bring us closer to an understanding of the concept itself in a germanic context. Explaining the word in modern English gives things like: dedicated to a religious purpose or god; revered; set apart.
In modern English there is, to my knowledge, no direct descendant of the Proto-Germanic reconstructed adjective *wihaz – holy – but in Swedish there is the verb “viga”, a word that is most often used to mean “to wed” (meaning what the officiant of the wedding ceremony does). The word can also be used in the sense of “ordain (a priest or minister)”, “consecrate” or “dedicate”. *wihaz is also the root of *wihana, meaning “holy place”, which eventually was to become “ve” or “vi” in Old Norse. It turns up in the modern German word “Weihnacht”, meaning “holy night”, and in Dutch “wierook”, meaning incense but literally translated means “holy smoke”. In Old English there was the word “weoh”, meaning idol. If I were to guess I’d say that the original meaning of the word would have been “holy object”, though, being related to *wihaz. That is itself cognate to the latin “victima” (offering, sacrifice), and they are both descendants of the PIE *weyk- which mean “to choose, separate out, set aside as holy, consecrate, sacrifice”.
(All etymologies above are taken from en.wiktionary.org)
Common to all three words are the ideas of something set aside, separated from other things, dedicated or chosen. A sacred space, a ve, is then a space set aside for cultic purposes – I realise that this is not perhaps a great revelation, but when discussing how one make sacred space it is useful to know that one is talking about the same thing.
There is a number of ways that heathens set a space apart for cultic purposes, and keep it separate. In pre-Christian times holy places were generally, as I understand it, permanent – smaller or greater structures kept continuously pure. While some of us modern heathens have this opportunity, most of us don’t, and we have developed ways to make do with the conditions we live with. Usually that means in one way or another to mark the border between the sacred space and the rest of the world to set it apart. I believe that the most common method of doing this among many heathens is some version of Edred Thorsson’s “Hammer rite”, where the performer with an actual hammer (full size or a pendant) or by making a “hammer sign” with their hand calls on the power of Thor to protect the site, usually this is done in two, four or six directions. The words spoken are often along the lines of “Hammer in [direction]; protect and hallow this place!”
Sometimes the officiant will ask the dwarves of the points of the compass – Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri – to protect and hallow the site, and I’ve heard of this done also with the four harts feeding off of Yggdrasil – Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór – having been called upon in this capacity. The usage of the four cardinal directions to define a place is probably an influence from Wicca, and ultimately from Western Magickal tradition and Hermeticism where the directions are associated with times of the day, days of the year and the four Greek elements of earth, air, fire and water. The philosophy behind the practice goes back to the idea that everything is made up from these four basic components, and by bringing them to one’s sacred space one purifies balances it. The circle of a wiccan or hermetic ritual is meant to be a hermetically sealed (sorry for the pun…) room. A spaceship, if you will, that travels away to the realms of spirits and gods. In order to do that, one needs to build strong walls and protect oneself from leakage, in or out. The area must also be “sterilised” and all “contaminants” removed in order to not upset the delicate balance of the magic circle.
Now, I would argue that the sacred space of a blót is a different beast altogether. I would argue that since we are standing on the giantess-cum-goddess Jörðr, we merely have to remind ourselves that we are already on holy ground. We must perhaps change ourselves, our state of mind, to remember that, but the earth is always holy in and of Herself. While we certainly don’t want to be disturbed by malevolent forces, the presence of the gods themselves is likely to dissuade most trolls, goblins, jotnar, thursar or angry ghosts. Especially if we invite the Thunderer to our blót. Still, some might want to give apotropaic offerings some way away from the site where the blót is to be held, offering troublesome spirits a sort of tribute to stay away.
Looking into the lore there’s a practice from Landnámabók explaining how the early settlers in Iceland would take land by walking around it carrying fire and by lighting fires on their way. For our purposes the case of Thorolf Mostrarskegg may be the most enlightening. On his arrival in Iceland he threw the pillars from his temple in Norway overboard and followed them ashore. He called the place where they floated to “Thorsnes” and built his settlement there; he took the land by walking around it carrying fire and declared that the land was hallowed to Thor alone.
This may also tie in with the belief that existed that islands were floating around, but if someone went ashore and lit a fire, the island had to stay in that place ever after. In the Gutasaga Tjelvar (who may be the same as Þjalvi, Thor’s servant and Röskva’s brother) lights a fire on Gotland, thereby breaking a spell that makes the island sink during the night. There’s also the mention of fire in hofs at the blót in Hákonar Saga Góða which is sometimes also taken to mean that fire in itself was considered sacred and powerful, a tool to hallow horns being passed over it. There is also many examples in myth of fire being a barrier, the wall of fire surrounding Sigrdrifa in Sigrdrífumál and the similar obstacle in Skirnismál that Skirnir has to cross to get to Gerðr. In Fjölsvinnsmál the home of Menglöðr (who is Freyja, according to most interpretations) is also surrounded by a wall of flames.
Fire, in other words, is well established as a means of claiming, protection and setting aside in practice and myth. Making a ring-shaped bonfire in which to celebrate the blót is perhaps not very practical, or safe, but there are alternatives. Lighting a torch and carrying around the site where the blot is to be held – similar to how the practice in Landnámabók – has been a very effective way to establishing sacred space, in my experience. Even in full sunlight the feeling is powerful, and the spiritual force inherent in fire tangible.
A torch, though, may be too dangerous to have indoors and even outdoors i can at times be impossible walking around the site of the blót. However, if you agree with me that the Earth is holy in and of itself, and a blót can be protected well enough by the presence of the gods, it’s not necessary to define the perimeter thus. Instead we need only to remind ourselves of the holiness of the ground we’re standing on, and a central fire will do that. In places where a live fire is impossible, a candle or symbolic fire may be used instead. In our tradition we invoke the power of Thor’s and Freyja’s fires – we use a hammer and fire steel and flint for this; thus accessing the power of fire and the protective megin of Thor and Freyja. (In the 19th century ethnographic survey of Småland, Sweden, scholar Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius recorded the belief that distant thunder that can be seen but not heard is Freyja striking her firesteel over the barley to see if it’s ripe, this lightning is called “kornblixtar”, barley-lightning.)
I think most or all of us would prefer permanent holy structures to worship in, or at, such as ve, hörgr, hof or hult, but the majority of heathens today live in cities where it would be hard or impossible to build any of them. We rely mostly on places that will not be treated as holy by those that come there after we have been, and weren’t by those that were there before us. While I argue that the Earth is holy in Herself, I know we need help to remind ourselves of this, and we do this in different ways. Our religion doesn’t enjoy the same conditions it did a thousand years ago, so we find new ways of doing what we need, and we can find them in lore, in other religions or in direct inspiration from the gods.