Designing a Pagan Temple
These are some thoughts on the design of a Norse pagan temple that came out of the design competition for the Temple of the Asatrut in Reykjavik Iceland.
Evolution of Christian places of worship
The pre-christian Greek and Roman pagan temples were internally restricted to the gods, priestly class and those with special relationship with the god or gods. Public offerings and worship happened outside of the temple.
The Christians would later develop the architecture of the Roman basilica and mausoleum into a place of worship where priests and the public would worship together.
The Norse Evolution
For Norse paganism nature and landscape was and is a fundamental part of Asatru worship. The Norse pagans did have internal as well as external places of worship, and I will go through some of the sources below. A new temple (Hof) therefore needs to be fully integrated with the landscape and external functions as well as fulfilling internal worship of the temple. To a wider context a Hof also needs to perform an outward symbolic role for the Asatru congregation.
For more than a millennia no known pagan temples have been built to the Norse gods, so it can be difficult to find sources for the exact use of spaces, it’s rituals, symbolism and accommodation of the old religion (Gamla Sid). Any new pagan temple buildings have the potential to become a new building archetype for pagan temples. A link to the ideas and functions of the ancient temples should be a fundamental aim of new temple designs in order to maintain a dialogue with the past.
Resources for Asatru pagan temple designs include the Edda and the Icelandic sagas, “Edda” and “Heimskringla” by Snorri Sturluson are especially valuable resources. Folklore associated with historically pagan, now Christian, holidays. Especially days associated with solstices and equinoxes. The archaeology of pagan temples, especially from Uppsala in Sweden and Norwegian Stave-churches can be explored. The travel logs of Ahmad ibn Fadlan (10th century) gives some ritual descriptions but little in terms of buildings, and the same can be said of “Germanica” by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus. There is also a chronicle written by Thietmar of Merseburg about sacrifices at Lejre, after 994AD. The best source has been the descriptions of Adam from Bremen of the Temple of Gamle Uppsala (1075).
Ritual sites varied in the descriptions and sometimes the archaeology does not support the claims. Worship at home did exist, with totem poles having a significant place in the feasting hall. Trees and tree groves are important places where sacrifices are made.
There are evidences of processional routes, sometimes lined with wood pillars or stones. Pagan temples were buildings used to house the statues and symbols of the gods, some with altars for sacrifices. External altars made from stone have also been found. Stone circles are a pan-European ritual motif.
A large Yew (sometimes) with a pond at its roots are used for sacrifices and prayers, referring undoubtably to Odins journey to Mymir to achieve wisdom. These trees would be decorated with items representing “wishes”. Traces of this ritual can be found in the Christmas tree of today.
Large wood poles like Irminsul were used for ritual purposes and traces of that ritual can be found in the May-poles and associated dances. There were many rituals and each had it’s special place, and some of these have survived to modern times.
Norse World Paradigm
“Níu man ek heima, níu íviðjur, mjötvið mæran, fyr mold neðan.”
One of the core principles of the Norse was the world tree, Yggdrasill. Described in the Edda as an “Ash tree”, but now experts believe it a wrong translation of the word and that the tree was in fact a “Yew tree”. This mistranslation explains the discrepancies between the description of the large ritual tree in Upsala, Sweden, as told in Adam from Bremen’s accounts. An Ash is a seasonal tree while the tree in Adam’s account is an evergreen. The ritual association of the yew as mentioned above, carried on into Christianity where it was long associated with the afterlife. The Christian celebration of Christmas, the old celebration of the winter solstice, still uses decorated evergreens which traditionally represents re-birth or nature. Now it’s called a Christmas tree.
Another important motif is the model of the world paradigm. This I think is a three dimensional model demonstrated some principles of the belief system. The world is divided into three levels; below, middle and above (roots, trunk and crown of the tree). Through those levels there are 3 “branches”; Human (Hel, Midgardur, Asgardur), Nature/Elve (Svartalfheimar, Alfheimar, Vanaheimar) and Elemental/Primordial (Niflheimar, Jotunheimar, Muspellsheimar). In Adam’s account he describes the main temple as having three towers. Perhaps representing the three branches of the faith.
The “gold” chain that Adam describes as circulating the temple can then be extrapolated to be assumed to represent the Midgards Worm that circulates the world.
Adam from Bremen:
The numbers three and nine are significant in most of the descriptions
The temple was decorated with gold
It has three towers
It has a golden chain hanging of it´s gables visible from afar.
Its sits in an amphitheater surrounded by hills
Next to the temple is a grove of trees used for sacrifice rituals
Next to the temple is a large evergreen. Under the tree is a spring (refers back to the Yew of Yggdrasil where Odin drank of the spring of wisdom etc.)
Three statues of gods are in the temple and worshiped; Odin, Freyr and Thor
Odin has Armour and is specifically worshiped for war
Freyr has Phallus and is specifically worshiped for marriage (fertility)
Thor has Hammer and is specifically worshiped for famine or starvation (nature)
Each god has its own priest/priests that sacrifice to the statue for worshipers.
Every nine years a common festival is held for all the gods.
Blood sacrifices are made in the tree grove, including 9 males of every species.
Nine day festival at the spring equinox
Archeology at Uppsala
In a dig inside the Uppsala church timber postholes point to a concentric rectangular structure similar to stav-churches, possibly the ancient pagan temple. (1926, Sune Lindqvis)
In the last few years ground penetrating radar has shown evidence of buildings and a wider area of ritual use. The use of the landscape is more in common with the Stonehenge site than Greco-Roman temples.
Ground penetrating radar points to another design or a single storey longhouse, or a feasting hall.
Two lines of wooden post promenades (app. 7 meter high). One is a kilometre long, the other is half a kilometre long.