Heathen Idolatry:

On the Making, Care and Feeding of God-Images

KveldúlfR Hagan Gundarsson

"Although the holy stead stood within a beech-wood, only ash and oak grewthere. Hailgi's spread arms could not have half-compassed many of thetree-trunks, neither the gnarled oak nor the smoother ash; some might havestood since the folk of early years had shaped the shadows on the stone. Astraight path led from the rock to the middle of the clearing, where a harrowof heaped stones stood beneath the most awesome ash-tree of all, an old etintowering above all the others. Its branches shadowed a great wooden shape: theimage of Wodhanar, his face masked by the shape of a helm with a crudely-cuteagle's head jutting from between the eyes and his body hidden by the deephack-marks that showed the folds of his cloak, sat throned behind the harrow. Aspear stood loose in the ring of his closed fist, its butt resting on theground and its other end lashed to a branch of the tree. No rust marred theiron point that gleamed above the God's head. Beside his seat stood a rootlesstree-stump, smoothed by the same craftsman's hand and worn by use.

`Wodhanar, grant us leave to come here,' Hailgi said softly. `Fettered, wecome to Fetter-Grove; we bring you gifts won in fight.'"

--Stephan Grundy, Valkyrie (forthcoming)

One of the finest words in the Icelandic language is skurdhgodhdyrkari"idolater," literally translated as "one who cultivates carved gods." This wasone of the greatest parts of the troth of our forebears: the cultivation ofcarved god-figures by adornment, the pouring of blessings, the giving ofgifts--in short, by all the things we do as part of our worship.

Some might ask, "Why do I need a carven shape for worship when I can alreadyfeel the Gods and Goddesses above me and speak with them in my soul?" It istrue that god-shapes are not absolutely needed for the practice ofGermanic religion--which is a good thing, since most folk who are starting outhave little or no access to such things. However, there are many reasons tohave god-figures, not only for our own sakes, but for our deities'. First, andmost meaningful to my mind, is the fact that a carven god-shape-shape that hasblessings poured onto or before it, calls made to it, and so forth, becomes astorehouse of concentrated might in the Middle-Garth for the God/ess inquestion. The earthly god-figure helps to strengthen the linkage between theworshipper and the deity--each can reach the other more easily through it,whether giving gifts, asking questions and getting rede, or simply communing.The principle is somewhat the same as that of marking out and blessing a holyspace, only more focused and longer-lasting. A tree-god also, clearly, givesthe worker both an image and a specific point to focus on when doing a rite.Again, if this is not actually needed, it is at least helpful in strengtheningone's awareness of the specific Person or Persons with whom one is dealing. Asmaller god-figure, such as can be carried at all times in purse or pocket,makes it easier to do rites, call for aid, give thanks, or meditate on one'sdeity wherever one may be. Thus while the God/esses are always with us andabout us, it is still good to be able to look upon them in theMiddle-Garth--and know that they are looking upon us as well.

We know that carved gods, or tree-gods (Old Norse trégudh, GermanHolzgott), were made and blessed by the Germanic people at least fromthe earliest part of the Iron Age onward. In The Prehistory of GermanicEurope, Schutz cites the male/female pair of road-guardians from the moorssouth of Oldenburg (made slightly after 400 B.C.E.) and the holy pair from theBraak (eastern Holstein, ca. 500-400 BCE). These figures are notable in thatthey, like the tall Danish "Nerthus" made from a minimally carved forked stickin the early part of the Iron Age (Gløb, The Bog People, p. 180),were carefully laid to rest in peat-bogs when their time of work was over--andthus hidden and preserved by the bogs, were able to survive whole until broughtforth into our day, like Líf and Lífthrasir coming forth fromtheir dark hiding place to fill the world with folk after Ragnarök.

The sagas and historical accounts of the Viking Age are rich with tales ofgod-shapes both great and small which were worshipped by our forebears. Thebest-known of these, of course, is Adam of Bremen's description of the greattemple at Uppsala, where "Thor" sat in the high seat, armed with his "sceptre"and flanked by "Wodan," who was dressed for battle, and "Fricco1"with his large phallus. Other well-known tree-gods include the image ofThórr at Trondheim, which "was large and all wrought with gold andsilver. Thórr was set up so that he sat on a chariot. He was veryradiant. Before him were two wooden goats...Both chariot and goats ran onwheels" (Flateyjarbok I, ch 268, p. 320). The practice of having agod-shape which could be pulled in a holy procession may go back to the BronzeAge, as shown by the Trundholm Sun-wagon (a bronze image of the Sun in a waindrawn by a wheeled horse).

Hákon the Great, one of the mightiest warders of Norwegian Heathenry,had his own hof in which the images of his family idises (dísir)Thórgerdhr and Yrpa, stood. As told of in Brennu-Njál's sagach. 88, Thórgerdhr was "as big as a man; she had a great gold ringon her arm and a headdress on her head." When Víga-Hrappr came to burnthe hof, he took one arm-ring from Thórgerdhr, another from Yrpa, and athird from the image of Thorr (which, like the tree-Thorr at Trodheim, also wasset in a chariot). According to Flateyjarbok I, ch. 173, Hakon had alsogiven Thórgerdhr a thrusting spear; in ch. 114 it is described how, whenHakon brought his friend Sigmundr Brestissonar to ask for her blessing, afterdue worship had been given her, Thórgerdhr loosened the silver ring onher arm, which Sigmundr kept as the embodiment of her favor and luck. It isclear from these and other references that tree-gods were adorned withtreasures and clothes like human beings, and that these treasures could embodytheir might. In the prose of Hdlgakvida Hundingsbana II, it is mentionedthat Dagr made sacrifice to Odhinn for revenge, and that the God lent Dagr hisspear; this may well suggest that, as envisioned in the fictional quote above,the image of the God could have held a real spear which was used in ritual andwhich could have been lent (together with all its might and luck) to a humanfor a time in return for a fitting gift.

There are also references to tree-gods being made strong enough to walk andtalk, as is the case with Thórgerdhr in Flateyjarbok I, ch. 173.In Gunnars tháttr helmings, the image of Freyr is carried aboutSweden in a wain by his gydhja, who is also referred to as his wife. Thetree-god is strong enough to wrestle with Gunnarr, but Gunnarr wins the fightand takes his place, causing much rejoicing among the folk when their God showshimself able to eat drink, and get his wife with child. While it is entirelyprobably that the portrayal of the over-credulous Swedes in this talerepresents the Norwegians' first recorded "Swedish joke," it is also, asEllis-Davidson observes (Gods and Myths, p. 94), almost certainly basedon a genuine practice of carrying the god-image about in a wain for peace andprosperity, as was done within the Wanic cult since the time of Tacitus'Germania. The activity of the tree-gods is itself meaningful to us;whether we believe that such images were actually able to move about untouchedby human hands (more likely, one may guess, in the case of thewagon-Thórrs) or not, it is clear that they were mighty sources ofdirect rede for our forebears--that it was, and still is, possible to speak toa carved god-shape and get a clear answer back.

Tree-gods also took an active part in other ways. Eyrbuggja saga tellshow Thórólfr Mosturskeggi, when choosing a place in Iceland tosettle, cast the pillars of his high-seat overboard. One of these was carvedwith the image of Thórr; Thórólfr decided to follow theguidance of his God and settle where it landed. It is very likely thatThórólfr had actually given worship to his God through thisparticular pillar in his house, as well as the images in his temple; for himthe carven shape through which he could see Thórr would have been alsothe heart and the support of his home and clan. H.R. Ellis-Davidson alsomentions the "god-nails" in the pillars of Thórólfr's temple,comparing them to the seventeenth-century Lappish thunder-god images which heldhammers and had an iron nail and a bit of flint driven into the head forstriking fire. She suggests that the "god-nails" might have been used forstriking ritual fire, and also have been connected with the bit of whetstoneleft in Thórr's head after his battle with Hrungnir (Gods and Mythsof Northern Europe, pp. 78-79). If this is so, it would strengthen ourunderstanding of the God/esses as taking part in our religion on everylevel--even the most physical, where Thorr stands as the earthly giver of thehallowed hof-fires!

At this moment, you may well be thinking, "Well, gee, this is all very well andgood, but I live in a small apartment, not a great hof, and have no more ideaof how to make a big elaborate god-image than I have of how to breed wombats."Fear not, you do not have to be a professional woodcarver to make anacceptable, traditional tree-god. You don't even have to have any greatartistic skill. One of the mightiest, and most beautiful, tree-gods of our folkis the Danish Nerthus-figure mentioned above--a tall, very slender tree-trunkwith a thin fork about halfway down (her legs), slightly carved to make itclear that she is female. No head, no arms, no elaborate detail: just the slimshadow of the Goddess, her mystery brought forth forever in the silent wood.One of her male counterparts, the Broddenbjerg God, consists of a more widelyforked stick with legs planted in the ground and a third branch jutting out at"crotch"-level (yes, he's likely to be Freyr!), and the outlines of a beardedface very roughly carved at the top. The Oldenburg pair were even simpler: flatboards sawed into crude outlines--the male being a square head on top of aserrated rectangle, the female an oval head above three pairs of curves(breasts, well-fed waist, and hips?), the bodies terminating not in legs, butin the single stakes by which the god-shapes were driven into the ground. Insome ways, I have found when looking on the surviving tree-gods of ourforebears, the stylization or crudity of the carving actually helps in sensingthe God/ess beyond it; the eye is not distracted by detail, but can take in thewhole gestalt of the deity.

In the Viking Age, sticks or posts tipped with heads were quite common asgod-images. The Germanic peoples, like the Celts, knew that the head was theseat of the mind, and thus the part most likely to embody the whole. In fact,the Norse word stafr (stave, staff) was used both for human beings andfor god-shapes; we know the former from poetry, the latter from the Lithuanianborrowing of the word for their own tree-gods: stabas. Such holy staveswere most likely to have been god-posts of the sort that ibn Fadlan describedthe Rus merchants as setting up and worshipping along the Volga. As thesecarved gods were made of wood, none of the larger ones have survived, but we dohave a smaller head-post (27 cm.) from a 10th century settlement. This figureis armless, but wears a cap or helmet and has been carved with belt and shortpleated tunic-skirt (From Viking to Crusader, cat. #277, pp. 300-301).Small head-topped sticks (6-8" long) are also common in Trondheim and othermedieval Scandinavian towns; the catalogs comment is that "They must have had aspecific purpose, perhaps as dolls" ((From Viking to Crusader, cat.#579, pp. 380), but it is also possible that these small posts show us the lastsurvivals of hidden home worship in the North. To show our Gods in this mostbasic way, is to strengthen our sense of kinship with them; for it was thusthat Odhinn, Hoenir, and Lodhurr made us--as staves of wood given breath,speech/madness, and warmth and good looks. Even as we are kinfolk of theGod/esses, we see both them and ourselves in the simple staves that embody usall, from humans to deities, to the very World-Tree.

So go out into the woods and look for a fallen branch that already seems tohave the might and shape of the God/ess within it, waiting for only the leasttouches of your trusty X-Acto or Swiss Army knife to bring it out, or go to alumber store and find a post on which you can rough-carve a head. Another wayto make portable pillars is to buy a flat plank of wood, draw your deity's faceon it, and then grave in the lines you have drawn with V-cuts (follow the linesin one direction with your blade slightly angled, then cut back with your bladeangled in the opposite direction, forming a V-shaped groove). You might,perhaps, want to add symbols of your god/ess below the face: a Hammer forThorr, a necklace for Freyja, and so forth. It is good if you can get a type ofwood which is fitting to the deity in question, but some caution is called forhere. Oak is a very holy tree, and hallowed to Thorr, but it is also very hardand should be approached with the greatest caution by the beginning woodcarver.I have found that the best woods for carving in are ash (rather hard, but witha good grain and not likely to break or split on you), birch, linden (calledbasswood in the States--soft, and carves easily, but will break if you presstoo hard on it), and pine (soft, clean-grain, easy to work). If you actuallyhave to cut a branch (asking the tree's leave and doing a fitting rite ofthanks and repayment, of course), do not start carving it right away becausegreen wood will split. Instead, seal the raw ends with wax and put it in a dryplace to season for a time depending on size--a smaller piece will need only acouple of months; a section of medium-sized tree-trunk can take years. Careshould also be taken in dealing with large found pieces, as sometimes they canbe rotting out from within.

But whatever sort of carved god you decide upon, and whatever kinds of wood youuse, when you are carving, remember always to cut away from your body.Otherwise your deity will get a blood sacrifice right then and there--whetheryou meant to give it or not--and Thorr didn't really want you to openyour veins all over him, did he? (Odhinnists can only beware...)

Once you have your tree-god, you will want to start hallowing him/her. This canbe done by holding a blessing to that particular deity and pouring drink overor in front of her/him, then sprinkling it from the blessing-bowl at everyritual. Holy fires can be lit or candles burned before your tree-god (beingcareful, of course, not to actually catch it on fire, which would be a very badsign) to give him/her might. S/he can be adorned with flowers or crowned with awreath of leafy branches, or offerings of flowers can be left in a vase; foodand drink should also be left out in front of him/her (according to ibn Fadlan,the Rus on the Volga let the town dogs eat the food set before the god-posts asproxies for the Gods). In the old days, the carved gods were sprinkled with theblood of the beasts given them as offerings; while few of us still slaughterour own, in many places it is possible to purchase the blood of swine or cattlefor cooking, and this makes a very good offering, especially at Winternightswhen the autumnal slaughter (and thus hallowing the slain animals to theGod/esses) took place. You can adorn your tree-god with jewelry and/or clothingand other gear--especially that gear which is meant to be in the deity'skeeping at all times, except when you borrow it for ritual. Even the simplesthead-post can have rings of silver wire twisted about its person or a cloaksewn on about its neck.

As well as the larger tree-gods, our forebears also had small carven shapesthat they carried about with them at all times. As early as 500 C.E., some richDane had a tiny, beautifully crafted gold man with a gold ring about his neckand a helmet on his head, who could have been carried in a pouch or mounted onsomething by his feet (which had holes for this purpose) at need. It is hard totell who this old figure might have been: perhaps Freyr, perhaps (though he hadtwo eyes), since he is helmed and his left hand is cupped as if a spear mighthave fit into it, Odhinn. In Flateyjarbok I, ch. 274, Hallfredhrvandraedhaskald is accused before Olafr the Traitor (Tryggvason) of having "inhis pouch a likeness of Thórr made of a tooth" (probably a walrustooth). A small silver figure of a man sitting with chin in hand and asubstantial erection, thought to be an image of Freyr, was found inSödermanland, Sweden. In Vatnsdaela saga, Ingimundr inn gamli hasjust such a silver image that he carries with him. He loses it and is muchdistressed; but a völva tells him that it is in Iceland, and thatit is the God's will that he settle there (ch. X). Ingimundr sends three Finnsout to look for it; they find the piece in the place Freyr has chosen for him,but cannot bring it back; he must go there himself. One of the most famous, andmost often reproduced, pieces of Viking Age art is the little bronze image ofThórr sitting with his Hammer in his lap (found in northern Iceland).

Such pieces would have been the earthly embodiment of the blessings and luckgiven by the God to his worshipper, the token of the ever-present friendshipand oneness between the two of them. At the end of the Heathen era, small,personal god-shapes must have become even more important. Hallfredhr was, atleast according to the rather biased saga-writer, a Christian at the time theabove-mentioned accusation was made, but there is little doubt that Heathenfolk probably carried such figures with them when it was no longer safe to havegreat tree-gods in house or grove, and quietly held them to worship while theirChristian associates were praying to the foreign invader.

Figurines of this sort are easier to find in stores than full-sized god-shapes,for obvious reasons. Any small, solid, well-carved figure or head which looksfitting for the deity you wish to have with you will do quite well. Should youhave trouble finding something appropriate, you can cut a twig and make aminiature version of the god-staves described above--a simple head on top of apost. Likewise, a little figurine of an animal that is holy to your deity ofchoice can be used to embody that deity, and may come to you more quickly thana human shape. If you give special worship to your ancestors (alfs or idises),a small skull might be fitting.

Such a little carved god should be put in a pouch of a fitting color andmaterial and carried with you wherever you go. I myself have a Wodan-headcarved from a pieced of fossilized ivory,2 which I keep in his ownpouch in my pocket. When I drink alcohol, I always share a few drops withWodan--an act which, with quick hands, can be done even in front of suspiciousfaculty members without drawing unwanted attention. When I write, he standsupon my computer; when I do rituals at home, he stands on my harrow, butwherever I am, even thirty thousand feet up in an airplane, I can draw him outand have the full blessings of my God and my holy stead about me whenever Ineed to call on him. Such small figures, as well as being blessed in any dailydevotions you do, should be brought out and dipped into the blessing-bowl atrituals, and hallowed in whatever other ways seem fitting and feasible (as perthe discussion of the large tree-gods above).

Thus it can be seen that carven gods, both great and small, help to bring usand our holy kin together, which is clearly a good thing. As Hár says inHavamal 119:

Veiztu, ef thú vin átt, thannz thú vel trúir,fardhu at finna opt;thvíat hrísi vex oc hávo grasi vegr,er vaetki trødhr.

Know you, if you have a friend in whom you trust well, you should fare oftento find him--for bushes grow, and high grasses, on a way that is seldomtrodden. The God/esses of the North are our friends in whom we trust well;when their shapes are ever with us in Middle-Garth, the way between us isshort, clear and trodden always. So go forth today and start your Heathenidolatry--or, as early Scandinavians might have said, your Heathen idolo'tree!

Book Hoard

Einar Ol. Sveinsson (ed.), Brennu-Njáls saga. Islenzkfornrit XII (Reykjavík: Hidh islenzka fornritafélag, 1954).

Einar Ol. Sveinsson (ed.), Vatnsdaela saga. Islenzk fornrit VIII(Reykjavík: Hidh islenzka fornritafélag, 1939).

Einar Ol. Sveinsson, Matthías Thórdharson (eds.), Eyrbyggjasaga. Islenzk fornrit IV (Reykjavík: Hídh islenzkafornritafélag, 1935).

Ellis-Davidson, H.R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Harmondsworth,Penguin, 1964).

Flateyjarbok, 3 vols. (Oslo, P.T. Malling, 1860).

Gløb, P.V. The Bog People (London, Faber & Faber, 1977).

Grundy, Stephan, Valkyrie (unpublished ms.)

Kjaerum, Poul; Rikke Agnete Olsen (eds.), Oldtidens Ansigt (Århus,Poul Kristensens Forlag, 1990).

Neckel, Gustav; Hans Kuhn (eds.), Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regiusnebst verwandten Denkmälern (Heidelberg, Carl Winter,1962).

Roesdahl, Else, David M. Wilson, From Viking To Crusader (New York,Rizzoli, 1992).

Schutz, Herbert, The Prehistory of Germanic Europe (New Haven, YaleUniversity Press, 1983).

Tacitus, Cornelius, Agricola, Germania, Dialogus, Loeb ClassicalLibrary ed. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1980).

Turville-Petre, E.O.G. Myth and Religion of the North (Westport,Greenwood, 1975).

de Vries, Jan. Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, 2 vols., 3rd ed.(Berlin, Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1970).

1Usually thought to be Freyr. The name "Fricco" itself is a commonOld High German man's name, a weak masculine formation from the Proto-GermanicGoddess-name *Frijjo (Frigg), which Adam probably substituted in his effort totranslate the Norse forms into German.

2Fossil ivory usually comes from mammoths or long-dead walruses, anddoes not endanger any living species--as opposed to ordinary ivory, which does.If you have the chance to get an ivory god-shape, be sure that it is certifiedas having been made from fossil ivory.