Hörgr – Altars of Stone

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The Norse built many altars of stone called, Hörgr (plural hörgar).

A hörgr is a type of cairn, which is an altar or shrine made of stones that are either piled, heaped, or stacked. They are used in Norse religion, as opposed to a roofed hall used as a hof (temple).

These stone altars called hörgr are attested in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, in the sagas of Icelanders, skaldic poetry, and its Old English cognate in Beowulf.

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The term hörgr is used three times in poems collected in the Poetic Edda. In a stanza early in the poem Völuspá, the völva says that early in the mythological timeline, that the gods met together at the location of Iðavöllr and constructed a hörgr (alter) and a hof (temple):

Old Norse:
Hittoz æsir á Iðavelli,
þeir er hǫrg ok hof hátimbroðo.
English translation:
Æsir met on Eddying Plain
they who built towering altars and temples.
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hörgr

In the third poem in the Poetic EddaVafþrúðnismál, Gagnráðr (Odin in disguise) engages in a game of wits with the jötunn Vafþrúðnir. Gagnráðr asks Vafþrúðnir whence the Vanir god Njörðr came, for though he rules over many hofs and hörgar, Njörðr was not raised among the Æsir:

Segðu þat it tíunda,
allz þú tíva rök
öll, Vafþruðnir, vitir,
hvaðan Niörðr um kom
með ása sonom,
hofom og hörgom
hann ræðr hunnmörgom,
ok varðat hann ásom alinn
English translation:
Tenth answer me now, if thou knowest all
The fate that is fixed for the gods:
Whence came up Njord to the kin of the gods,—
(Rich in temples and shrines he rules,—)
Though of gods he was never begot?

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In the Poetic Edda poem Hyndluljóð, the goddess Freyja speaks favorably of Óttar for having worshiped her so faithfully by using a hörgr. Freyja details that the hörgr is constructed of a heap of stones, and that Óttar very commonly reddened these stones with sacrificial blood:

 10. Hörg hann mér gerði hlaðinn steinum,
– nú er grjót þat at gleri orðit; –
rauð hann í nýju nauta blóði;
æ trúði Óttarr á ásynjur.”
English translation:
He made me a high altar of heaped-up stones: the gathered rocks have grown all bloody,
and he reddened them again with the fresh blood of cows;
Ottar has always had faith in the ásynjur.

The Norse often made hörgr altars or shrines to use in blóts.

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The blót is a Norse pagan sacrifice to the Norse gods and the spirits of the land (wights). The sacrifice is often in the form of a sacramental meal or feast. The verb blóta means “to worship with sacrifice” or “to strengthen or bond.”

The blót usually consisted of animal sacrifices followed by a feast at which the animal(s) would be eaten.  The animal(s) are killed in a sacred butchering and its blood caught in a bowl (Blótbolli). The priest (goði) or individual presiding over the rite will then sprinkle the rite’s participants and the walls of the temple (hof) with the sacrificed animal’s blood using a wooden blood rod (hlaut-teinn). The remaining sacrificial blood in the Blótbolli (sacrificial blood bowl) is then poured over a hörgr (stone shrine or altar).

This was how Óttarr earned the favor of Freyja in the Poetic Edda. The he covered hörgr

Traditionally, the sacrificed animal meat is often boiled in large cooking pits with heated stones, either indoors or outdoors. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using BBQs and smokers too.

In the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, we are told about how the gods were traveling in midgard on day and at the end of the day they came upon a herd of oxen. Famished, Loki slaughtered one of the oxen while Óðin and Hœnir built a fire to cook it.  So, I am pretty sure the gods would love having the sacrificed animal meat barbecued or slow roasted in a smoker.

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Due note, if you’re one of those vegetable-herbivore folks, the same tale we learn about the gods loving BBQ is the tale of Idunn and her Golden Apples.  So I am sure the gods would love an offering of golden apples.  Even though, personally, I think Thor would prefer a tender smoked bacon wrapped honey glazed beef roast….but I could be wrong.

Sorry, I got side tracked thinking about midsummer blót BBQs.

Anyways, the sacred communion continues as the folk gathered share the sacrificial cooked meat and other offerings. They have a meal together with the gods. A blessed drink of beer, mead, or wine is passed around from participant to participant to hail the Aesir, Vanir, or other wights being celebrated or bonded with in the blot.

The sacrificial butchering of animals is still considered normal practice, but there are acceptable alternatives of blessing a hörgr. The blood offering is often replaced with a votive offering of beer, mead, or wine. There are many other variations, such as non-alcoholic alternatives. These are acceptable, for example: Norwegian wights known as nisse are known to prefer offerings of porridge with butter on top.


It is possible that the Norse also built hörgr when they were away vikingr and far from their home hofs.

An example of this would be all the hörgar at Laufskalavarda Iceland and other locations inhabited by Norse settlers.

Hörgar at Laufskalavarda Iceland
Hörgar at Laufskalavarda Iceland

The making of many hörgar was depicted in the film, “Valhalla Rising” when the Norse were far away from home in possibly Vinland and are trying to reach out to the gods. The Christians made a wooden cross and the Pagans made cairns (hörgar).


Did you now the Inuit (called Skræling by the Norse) also piled or stacked rocks into what they call Inukshuk?

inukshuk Monuments made of unworked stones that are used by the Inuit for communication and survival. The traditional meaning of the inukshuk is "Someone was here" or "You are on the right path."
Inukshuk Monuments made of unworked stones that are used by the Inuit for communication and survival. The traditional meaning of the inukshuk is “Someone was here” or “You are on the right path.”

There were many known interactions between the Norse and the Skræling (American Natives and Inuit) from the Sagas.

READ: <Norse Contact with Native Americans before the Viking Age.>

Sources:

Article by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing


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