.
  Index | About | Mission | Vor Vegr | Resources | Contacts | Book Store | What's New |
 

.

SYMBOLISM OF THE SACRIFICIAL PLACE

.

The principle of life, the mode of experience that determines the ideas and actions — and their harmony or interplay —among the Teutons necessarily impart cosmic importance to the blot; this fundamental characteristic of the feast suggests a view of the sacrificial place as a cosmological symbol, and a hypothesis of this kind is borne out by a comparison with related rituals in other parts of the world, not least by the expositions of the Brahmanas concerning the Vedi. The sacrificial place represented a dramatic imitation of the whole world, as it is likely to be expressed in our language, the prototype and origin of the dwelling-place of mankind, as it must be defined by the Teutons and their spiritual kindred. In the North, the fireplace and the kettles together with the ale vat composed a cosmic scene abounding in symbols which took their several parts in the drama; on this stage, or altar, heaven and earth had their substitutes, as we gather from a number of stray allusions. The map of the world unfolded in S E becomes intelligible when it is discovered to be drawn from legends founded on ritual representation. The waters that give rise to all the rivers feeding the earth are found in the sacrificial kettles and still bear names suggestive of their provenance: Hvergelmir, or kettle gelmir, and the two Kerlaugar, or fluids of the vessels (S E 11, 21).

This cosmic character of the altar contributes greatly to the elucidation of several obscure verses in the Eddic poems. Grimnismál 42 suggests a ritual act of dramatic significance; from his place between the fires Odin says: “The favour of Ull and all the gods shall light upon the man who lends a hand at the fire, for open worlds expand round the sons of the gods when the kettles are lifted off the fire”. And the words of the god in a former verse (4): “the land is holy which I see extended near the gods and the elves”, reveal the image of the place round the fire as it presented itself to the view of the sacrificer. Through Hávamál 107 we catch a glimpse of the stirring activity of the scene: “Now Öđrörir has been brought up and placed on the rim of the earth”, the extremity of the sacred place of mankind (according to the cogent conjecture of Bugge). The verse implies a dramatic rendering of Odin's descent into the nether world for the drink of life, as it is related in the Suttung myth; by means of this verse we are made spectators of the final scene, when the kettle is solemnly put into its place in the hall.

By these hints we are initiated into the mythical geography of the altar, and at the same time into the cosmic importance of such acts as the kettles being placed on the fire or taken off. This observation further throws a light upon the composition of the Grimnismál and suggests an inner, associative coherence in what seems at first glance a lumber-house of mythological items. The poet starts by depicting Odin standing between the fires, and proceeds to give a list of the manors and an inventory of their furniture; now we understand that the author's didactic synopsis of divine dwelling-places is motivated by his experience from the blot hall. It is also of interest that he makes use of a ritual term for fire, funi, as does the poet of Fafnismál in an episode of ceremonial origin (vv. 32, 37 cf. Alvis. 26).

The altar contained a symbol representing the useful, fruitful earth, probably consisting of a small heap of mould. The ritual name of this cosmic mould is aurr — “earth is called aurr among the high gods”, we learn from the didactic Alvismál. The aurr is styled white, certainly not on account of its colour, but in allusion to its purity and its holiness, its power of cleansing and blessing. This sacred symbol is further called the power or luck — megin — of earth (e. g. Hynd. 39), and from such formulć as that mentioned in Gud. II 21, we learn that it was used for purposes of consecration, mixed up with other sacrificial ingredients such as water and fluid from the kettles. This aurr was poured, laid round the roots of the world ash to ensure its being green and fresh (Vsp. 19). Vsp. 14 offers an allusion to this ritual spot when it is said of the newly created dwarfs that “they proceeded from the flagstones of the hall to Aurvanga”, the seat of the aurr-fields, aurvanga sjöt.

The centre of the world is formed by the holy ash Yggdrasil, from the roots of which the life-giving waters take their rise. According to the account of S E (20-1) the boughs of the ash tower up into heaven and spread out over the whole world; it has three wide-branching roots, one among the gods, another among the frost giants in what was once Ginnungagap, and a third one over Niflheim; under this root Hvergelmir flows, and Nidhogg gnaws the root. Under the root stretching towards the frost giants is Mimir's well. The third root stands in heaven, and the most holy well, Urdarbrunn, is under this root. At first sight this description impresses the reader as lacking inner coherence, and possibly it is made up from several legends of different origin; but it is by no means improbable that the altar contained several representations of the water, Urd's well as well as Mimir's well — for Hvergelmir cf. supra p. 288. The sacred tree and the well belonged to the holy place outside, but the principle of the blot rendered it indispensable that they should be represented on the altar. When it is said that the rivers take their rise in the centre of the world, it is identical to saying that they flow from the feast and spring from the ideal —i. e. the real — world situated on the altar in the sacrificial place.

In all probability the tree was carried into the hall in the form of a branch or twig. The cosmos of Vsp. being, as we have seen, drawn against the background of the feast it becomes probable that the volva, who says that she remembers the time when the tree was beneath the mould, has before the eye of her mind a dramatic situation previous to the moment when the branch was planted in or at the side of the aurr.

In Vsp. 27 the tree is honoured by an epithet, heiđvanr, that is certainly not a piece of poetical embellishment. The compound immediately suggests as its meaning: something connected with an object or a person called heid, or possibly — in accordance with a usage like that of Sigrdr. 36: something that wants, cannot do without heid. This word recurs in a couple of mythical compounds evidently of ritual origin. In the first place mention is made of a goat, Heidrun, who feeds from the leaves of Lćrad and fills the ale vats from the stream of her udders (Grimn. 25, S E 40); secondly Sigrdr. 13 speaks of some runic lore that Hroptr found in the fluid flowing from the skull of Heiddraupnir and the horn of Hoddrofnir. Regrettably enough the verse is not elucidated by any parallel tradition regarding these enigmatical images, but the context suggests that heid refers to the contents of the ale vessel. We are further led to think of a mythic phrase in one of Kormak's poems (Skjald. 79): gjalda haptsoenis heiđ; haptsoenis is not clear, but the compound is probably connected with Son, the ale vat. Thus an examination of heid leads to a hypothesis that heiđvanr turns upon a libation of ale performed over the tree that shaded the aurr on the altar.

As already mentioned the waters were represented by the kettles and the ale vat. “All the waters spring from Eikţyrnir's horn: Kormt and Ormt and the two Kerlaugar”, we read in the Grimnismál. Through these kettles Thor went to Yggdrasil, or in other words, the god of the drama passes by the kettles in his ritual procession — “for the bridge of the gods is on fire and the sacred waters are seething” (hlóa, Grim. 29; possibly Hlorridi is a ritual name to be explained in allusion to this rite).

The ale vessels and the meat kettles are hardly distinguishable in the legends, for this very reason probably that they were identical from a dramatic point of view, representing either the holy waters, or the prototype of the sea and the rivers; their ritual name is lögr (cf. supra p. 284) designating ale and blood, and consequently in the poetical derivation of the ceremonial language: sea and water.

As shown in the text, the treasures and heirlooms of the clan incorporated the life and luck of the family; the ring of the chieftain, at once the symbol of his honour and the warrant of his authority, accompanied him to battle and thingmoot, it was used when oaths were sworn, it rested on the stallr of the blothouse (cf. II 139). From their sacred character we may safely draw the conclusion that the treasures entered the blot; their presence was necessary on account of their incarnating the hamingja of the clan, on the other hand they must, like their wearers, participate in the new birth originating in the sacrifice (cf. 11167). The ritual power of the treasures is transfigured mythically in Draupnir, the ring of the god, that every ninth night sheds eight rings of equal value (S E 58-9, 97 seqq., Skirn.21).

The analogy of Vedic ritual suggests that the gold was dipped into the primeval waters, and this guess is confirmed by the verse of Grimnismál (27), where it is said that the rivers coming from Hvergelmir flow round the hodd or treasure of the gods. In the language of the poets this dramatic scene is fossilised in a number of kennings, paraphrasing gold as the light or splendour of the water (cf. infra 336 and Lokas. init. prose). The oath mentioned in Helg. Hund. II 31: “by the bright water of the light and the cool stone of the wave” possibly alludes to a ceremonial act: words confirmed by the sacred fluid and the gold resting in its midst and thus enforced not only generally by the power of the blot, but also particularly by the actual event inherent in a dramatic scene.

The ritual name for gold and possessions or rather for the luck of the heirlooms and possessions is auđr (cf. Add. Note 2, eadig); to be deprived of audr and joy is the quintessence of human misery, the existence of the niding and the wolf (Helg. Hund. II 33). This audr is personified and entered into the cosmic genealogy, as a near relative of earth and day and night, in recognition of the fact that audr played a part in the drama representing the creation of the world (S E 16, 92, Skjald. 147).

Analogy from the ritual of other peoples further warrants the conjecture that the cult implements resting on the altar played a part in the drama; they would symbolise a person or a place and could not be handled or moved from one spot to another, taken up or put down, without marking a mythical event. While the gold rested in the middle of the waters it may have represented a world in the process of being created, or a place in the new-born world. Some hints regarding the dramatic employment of the symbols may be gathered from mythology and poetical kennings.

From among the cult objects exhibited on the altar we are not astonished to perceive the gleam of a sword. The Fjolsvinnsmál is a repertory of ritual images, but on account of its abrupt allusive character it presents to us the appearance of a lumber-room of riddles; v. 31 however apparently treats of a hall which constantly — for a long time — quivers on the point of the edge and is surrounded by a fire: vafrlogi (cf. infra 334). This allusion recalls a verse in the Vsp. (37 cf. S E 65), in which we are introduced to the ale house of a giant situated in Ókolfir, the place where it is never cold, and the name of the hall is Brimir (brimis blođi (Vsp. 9, cod. reg.) is irrelevant, being a false reading, cf. parall.). Further we know from Grim. 44 that Brimir is the name of a sword — the most excellent sword, as it is called with an epithet used to distinguish divine or ritual objects. These broken hints fuse and achieve some sort of coherence when they are confronted with a piece of sacral language cited in Sigrdr. 14: “He stood on the hill with Brimir's edges and in a helm, then Mimir's head spoke its first wise word”; this “he” is Hroptr who found runic lore in the drops of Heiddraupnir's skull. This picture reflects the figure of the sacrificing chieftain as he approached the altar and lifted the sword, which was inspired with luck through its sharing in the blot, in order to take omens. In the light of this passage the other verses cited above discard some of their obscurity; the sword — or in Fjolsvinnsmál possibly the spear — might also like the gold symbolise a place in the ideal world.

From these allusions to the role played by Brimir in the ritual we are led on to a verse in Lokasenna (49) suggesting that the fettering of the demon Loki was illustrated by a ritual act in the sacrificial hall, and that this act implied the use of a sword: “the gods will bind you on the sword with the bowels of your frost-cold kinsman”. The myth alluded to tells us that when the gods had caught the trickster they slaughtered his son Vali and tore out his bowels to bind Loki; now the ritual is clear: the demon is chained down by the intestines of the victim. Haustlong offers a glimpse of the sacrificial place at this point in v. 7, elucidated by v. 11, alluding to Loki as “He whom the gods see fettered”; the poem contains a description of mythological scenes painted on a shield, and in the first place this sentence applies to the picture on the shield; but this picture reproduces as is evident from the very wording of the phrase — a scene in the blot hall, where gods and men had the captive demon before their eyes in some symbol or other. This makes clear sense of an obscure verse in Vsp. (35): “She saw lying below the wood of the kettles — the tree on the sacrificial place in fetters something sinister in the semblance of Loki”, viz, a cult symbol of the fettered Loki. From this ritual picture the author draws his inspiration for the stirring prelude to the day of doom: “The ash shivers, the ancient tree, the giant goes free” — the demon, who was lying tied hand and foot under the tree in the hall, breaks his fetters.

The wisdom engendered by the blot was hidden in the holy waters under the tree; good counsels, omens and prophesies flowed from the well to be garnered by ritual means; out of the well destiny was born, or in a mythical personification, the norns, the hamingjas who gave to men the luck of the future. This wisdom or power of good oracle had a representative in Mimir, the counsellor of Odin. Sometimes Mimir makes his appearance as a head, and a myth retold by Snorri explains how it came to pass that his head was severed from his body and was preserved for oracular purposes; the legend is founded on a ritual fact, viz, a head that gave out oracles —to be looked for either in the skull of the victim or in the kettle or more plausibly in either symbol — represented Mimir, the power of wisdom. Mimir's well, the ale vat, was the centre in a ritual scene alluded to in the verse of Vsp. and in the didactic prose of S E, when Odin pledged his eye to obtain the wisdom, but owing to the abruptness of the tradition and the lack of parallels any attempt at reconstructing the ritual act is doomed to failure (Vaf. 49, S E 20, 63, Vsp. 20, 46, Sigrdr. 14, Vsp. 27, S E 21, Heims. I 13).

   

   

   

 
back                                 index                                next