Historical Heathen Temples
Updated: Jan 3, 2020
Historical Heathen Temples
Please see the historical quotes on Heathen Temples at the bottom of this article. These include Uppsala, the Irminsul & Tanfana, and even Lejre. How many “temples” are famous from Heathen times? Uppsala is famous, but archaeological studies show there may (or may not) have been a cult building at Uppsala. Many scholars and archaeologists feel the literary record doesn’t match historical reality at Uppsala. Lejre is mentioned in historical sources as having great halls for Sumble, and long-houses and great halls have been excavated there. Theitmar of Merseberg, describing the Danish 9-year sacrifice (see quote below), does not mention a temple there in the mid to late January Yule sacrifices. A Saxon Temple at the Irminsul site is mentioned in the Royal Frankish Annals as being destroyed by Charlemagne in 772 AD. When Saint Boniface destroyed Thunar’s Oak in the land of the Chatti, south of the Irminsul, no temple is mentioned. Tacitus in his late first or early second century work, "Germania" states that the Germanic peoples (the Norse peoples are also Germanic peoples) do not have temples. Tacitus does contradict himself at one point however, mentioning that Germanicus destroyed a temple called Tanfana of the Marsi tribe in 15 AD, which was the same site as Obermarsberg (or Eresburg) which is the exact same spot the Saxon Irminsul later stood. (Or Tanfana was rebuilt, and later became the Irminsul, as the Marsi were one of several tribes that joined the Saxon confederation.) Hence, the Irminsul temple of the Saxon Heathens, originally built before 15 AD when it was destroyed by the Romans, was later rebuilt and became known as the Irminsul. Heathen Temples are relatively rare.
Sacred Groves: The True Heathen Temple (Old Saxon word "uuih", Old Norse word "ve")
In Old Saxon literature, we have several dozen mentions not of temples, but veneration at places called “uuih.” A uuih is an outdoor sacred grove. The Norse equivalent is “ve.” The law codes that accompanied forced Christianization in Saxony, called the Lex Saxonum, forbid Heathen veneration in Sacred Groves, and do not mention “temples.” The Norse record once again shows MANY references to veneration outdoors in groves as well. Dr. Jackson Crawford has done a Youtube discussing the Norse “Ve” and its importance in Heathen times.
Tanfana / The Irminsul
I have met German Archaeologist Sven Ne at the historical Irminsul site. Sven is also a Saxon Heathen, and he gave me a tour of the area, especially the caves below the Irminsul where the Saxons were in hiding when Charlemagne’s soldiers destroyed the Irminsul. Sven was very clear to me that the Saxons in Obermarsberg were a subgroup of the Saxons. The Irminsul was on the southern border of Saxony, and very far away from the Saxons in the north and the east. Marklo, the site of the Saxon Althing, was in the dead center of Saxony, where it made sense for all the various Saxon gau (villages) to go for the entire tribe. But the Irminsul most likely was not a cult center for the entire tribe of the Saxons due to its location on the southern border of Saxony and the Chatti and the Frankish lands. I also believe that Tanfana became the Irminsul, and that this site was the holy site of just one tribe in the Saxon confederation, the tribe of the Marsi. Eresburg is also called “Obermarsberg”, which is CLEARLY named after the Marsi. I think it is quite obvious that the Irminsul was a site of only a subgroup of Saxons, those who were originally the Marsi.
* Please note, "Irminsul" means "strong pillar." The Old Norse form of Irmin was Jörmunr and interestingly, just like Yggr, it was one of the names of Odin (Uuoden). Therefore, the Irminsul was the World Tree which Uuoden hung himself from to gain the knowledge of the runes. I believe that the Saxons applied the title Irmin to Uuoden, father of Sahsnoð. ** Please also note this THEORY of mine: Tanfana is a two part Latin word. (This part is fact). "Fana" is Latin for Temple. So my THEORY is that Tan is short for Uuoden (Old Saxon) or WoTAN (Old High German), the name of Odin. In the end, for today, I think outdoor places in nature, and our backyards should be the places of our Irminsuls. This is where I have my Irminsul and haerg (altar). We have others in our local community with godpoles, Irminsuls, or haergs in their backyards or on their property. One of the reasons why I feel that Temples are given too much thought, is hands down, in the sources, the two most attested rituals are Sumble (most attested) and blot (second most attested), and not much else is attested (at all). To do a blot, a family/clan/community needed a stone altar (haerg) and an animal to be eaten and shared with the Gods/Wights etc as food. Sumble would follow (our Ancestors Ate first) in a Wine Hall / Mead Hall. (See the Saga of Hakon the Good chapter 16, which lists a Yule Blot followed by a Yule Sumble.) Were Heathen temples a long hall for Sumble with an extra room for Bedes (prayers) with Weohs (statues of the Gods) in it? I do not think haergs were in temples. ‘Hörgr’ (Old Norse) or ‘Haerg’ in Old English are our attested words for a Heathen altar. In the Poetic Edda poem Hyndluljóð it states that “He made a high hörgr of heaped-up stones: the gathered rocks have grown all bloody, and he reddened them again with the fresh blood of cows.” Haergs were outdoors. (Not saying that in today's world, we cannot have a shrine with Weohs in our homes. I think this is totally fine, and probably also reflected historical reality in historical Heathen Times.
The Translation of Saint Alexander of Rome (c.855 AD)
Rudolf of Fulda, The Translation of Saint Alexander of Rome, circa 855 AD.
“They also worshiped in the open air a vertically upright trunk of no small size, [called] in their mother tongue, Irminsul, or in Latin ‘columna universalis‘ in the sense that it carries everything.” *Please also note, the fact that Rudolf of Fulda doesn’t mention a Temple at the Irminsul site, contradicts the Royal Frankish Annals, written in the 8th century, which was a contemporary source. Rudolf of Fulda is only writing 70 years after the destruction of the Irminsul, in the 9th century. Some argue that the Royal Frankish Annals may be inaccurate in its testimony of a Saxon temple. Just being honest, I lean to the view that there was a temple building at the Irminsul site.
The Royal Frankish Annals (772 AD), also called the Reichsannalen
The Royal Frankish Annals state the following regarding the year 772 AD: “The most gracious lord king Charles (Charlemagne) then held an assembly at Worms. From Worms he marched into Saxony. Capturing the castle at Eresburg, he proceeded as far as the Irminsul, destroyed this idol and carried away the gold and silver he found. A great drought occurred so that there was no water in the place where the Irminsul stood. The glorious king wished to remain there two or three days in order to destroy the temple completely, but they had no water.”
In book 1, chapters 50 and 51 of his Annals, Tacitus says that forces led by Germanicus massacred the men, women, and children of the Marsi during the night of a festival near the location of a temple dedicated to Tanfana: 50. They were helped by a night of bright starlight, reached the villages of the Marsi, and threw their pickets round the enemy, who even then were stretched on beds or at their tables, without the least fear, or any sentries before their camp, so complete was their careless and disorder; and of war indeed there was no apprehension. Peace it certainly was not—merely the languid and heedless ease of half-intoxicated people.
51. Cæsar, to spread devastation more widely, divided his eager legions into four columns, and ravaged a space of fifty miles with fire and sword. Neither sex nor age moved his compassion. Everything, sacred or profane, the temple too of Tamfana, as they called it, the special resort of all those tribes, was leveled to the ground. There was not a wound among our soldiers, who cut down a half asleep, an unarmed, or a straggling foe. The Bructeri, Tubantes, and Usipetes, were roused by this slaughter, and beset the forest passes through which the army had to return.
The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg Chapter 17 (circa 1000 AD) "As I have heard odd stories concerning their ancient mid-winter sacrifices, I will not allow this custom to be ignored. The middle of that kingdom is called Lederun (Lejre), in the region of Sjælland, all the people gathered every nine years in January, that is after we have celebrated the birth of the Lord [Christmas], and there they offered to their gods sacrifices; 99 people and just as many horses, dogs and hens or hawks, for these should serve them in the kingdom of the dead and atone for their evil deeds." Please note, no temple is mentioned in Lejre.
There is the Icelandic word "hofgothi" which implies that there were some structures in Iceland that may have been temples.
Völuspá, verse 7
The Aesir met at Iðavollr, There, Hörgr and Hof (temple) they built high; Forges they set, ore they smithed, Tongs they wrought, and tools formed.”
Egil’s Saga, Chapter 49 “A great sacrifice was set to be held in the summer at Gaular (west Norway). Here was the most renowned large temple. To there flocked many from the fields and the fells, and from Sogn, and almost all the great men.”
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Tacitus Germania (late first to early second century AD) Tacitus writes of Herðum: “The German peoples honor Herðum, who is Mother Earth, and believe that she mixes in human affairs and comes journeying to the peoples. On an island in the sea lies an inviolate wood sacred to her, her wagon stands there, wrapped in covers and only a single priest may approach it. The latter knows when the Goddess appears in the sacred wagon. Two she-oxen pull it away and the priest devoutly follows. Wherever she condescends to come and accept hospitality, there are happy days and weddings, no war is fought, no weapon reached for, and iron is locked away. Only peace and calm are then known and desired. This lasts until the Goddess has sojourned long enough among humans and then the priest leads her back again into her sanctuary. Cover and Goddess are washed in a remote lake. But the servants who perform this are afterwards swallowed by the lake. A secret terror and sacred uncertainty are therefore always spread over this, which only those who die immediately afterwards witness.” *Tacitus implies Herðum was venerated in a “sacred wood”, which matches the Germanic “Sacred-Grove concept.”
The ENTIRE passage of Adam of Bremen, writing in Saxony first about the Saxons, then giving us the famous Uppsala 9-year sacrifice passage, which inspired the Vikings TV show episode 8 in season 1.
Gesta Hammabirgemsos ecclesiae pontificum (c.1073 AD)
Adam of Bremen, Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg, 1073 AD.
“For the Saxons worshiped those who were not gods. Among them they venerated Woden, who they were to venerate on holy days, even with human sacrifice. They did not think it was appropriate to confine their Gods in Roman temples or mold them in any likeness of human form. They consecrated groves and they venerated ancestral spirits there with reverence. They valued with reverence leafy trees and springs. They worshiped also a stock of wood of no small size, set up in the open. In the native language, it was called “Irminsul” (strong pillar) which in Latin means “universal column,” as it sustains everything. The excerpts about the beginning, the customs, and the religious observances of the Saxons (the Slavs and Swedes still observe their Heathen rites) we have taken from the writings of Einhard.
The Swede Folk have a famous temple called Uppsala. Near this temple stands a large tree with wide spreading branches, always green in winter and summer. What kind it is no one knows. There is also a spring at which the Heathens are accustomed to make their sacrifices, and into it plunge a live man. If he is not found, the peoples' wish will be granted. The spring is situated close to the city of Sigtuna and Bjorko. Around the temple, a golden chain is wrapped. It hangs over the gable and sparkles from a distance to those approaching because the temple stands on level ground, but surrounded by hills like a theater. In this temple, entirely decked out in gold, the people worship the statues of three gods. The mightiest of them, Thor occupies a throne in the middle, Woden and Frikko have places on both sides. The people also worship heroes made gods, whom they endow with immortality due to their remarkable exploits. For all their gods there are appointed priests to offer sacrifices for the people. If famine or plague threaten a libation is poured before the idol Thor, if war, to Woden, if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frikko. It is customary to gather at nine-year intervals in Uppsala, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden. All Swedes must attend this feast. No one is exempted. Kings and people all send their gifts to Uppsala. What is most distressing is that those who have adopted Christianity have to pay to redeem themselves from these ceremonies. They sacrifice nine of every living creature, all males. The sacrifices last for nine days. On each day they offer a man along with one of the other living beings. In the course of the nine days, seventy two sacrifices are made. This feast takes place around the time of the vernal equinox. They hang the bodies of the sacrifices in a sacred grove next to the temple. This temple is so sacred to every Heathen that all believe even the trees in this sacred grove are divine. A Christian, one who is seventy-two years old told me this, that he saw the bodies hanging there in the trees posthumously. There are incantations sung there that are so evil it is better to keep silent about it."
From this passage, we learn the following about the Saxons: 1. Adam right out of the gate accuses the Saxons of venerating those "who are not Gods." 2. Adam says the Saxons venerated Woden. 3. Adam says that the Saxons did human sacrifices to Woden on "feast days." This conflicts with the Old Saxon Heliand poem that states that the Saxons did not do this. Since the Heliand was also written by a Christian monk, Adam of Bremen must be called into question here. Heliand verses v.5198-5200 show that human sacrifices was AVOIDED on Saxon Feast days. 4. The Saxons venerated in sacred groves. 5. The Saxon Irminsul was their world tree. While Adam mentions this, he seems to have no idea of the fact that the Royal Frankish Annals, a contemporary source written when the Irminsul was destroyed, does record a temple next to the Saxon Irminsul. The Old Saxon Heliand shows that the Saxons had their temple next to a river. Once again, the Heliand, written in circa 830 AD, and the Royal Frankish Annals, mention a temple.
For the Swedes we learn the following: 1. Adam states that the Uppsala temple was next to a large tree, similar to the Old Saxon Irminsul, i.e. a temple was next to the Saxon Irminsul. 2. Adam mentions two seasons: Winter and Summer. Pre-Christian Germanic Heathens had only two seasons: Winter and Summer. 3. A man is drowned in a river. This is similar to Tacitus' testimony of priests being drowned to Nerthus. Tacitus wrote in 97 AD, in his work "Germania." 4. Adam gives the names of three Gods who had large idols inside the Temple. One (Thor) is in Norse spelling. Woden is a Saxon spelling, not a Norse spelling. Scholars GUESS that Frikko is "Freyr." 5. Thor is the supreme God to the Swedes at Uppsala per Adam of Bremen, who heard this second hand. Thor was sacrificed to for famine (good crops), Woden for war, and Frikko for fertility. 6. Adam says all Swedes must attend, even the christian Swedes. 7. Adam says that 72 animals (and humans) were sacrificed over 9 days, one man, and 7 male animals each day for nine days. 8. Adam states that this gathering was at the time of Disting (i.e. near the vernal equinox, but not on it.) Historical Pre-christian Norse Disting was on the third full moon after the first full moon after the winter solstice. This most years is middle of March. This cannot be Sigurblot, the start of the Norse Summer, as Sigurblot is typically a few weeks after the Equinox.