The concept of holy fire and holy water are concepts that are strong in Northern tradition. These traditions also lasted well into the Christian conversion and beyond, and in the case of holy water was appropriated by the Christians. The baptizing of children just after birth was a tradition that was most likely taken from a Northern tradition. Before the introduction of Christianity Northmen hallowed their new-borns with water. They called this ausa vatni, sprinkling with water. The similarities between the Northern baptism of infants and the Catholic Christening are so similar that the later must have been appropriated from Northern customs as the custom is attested to and was wide spread long before Christianity came to Northern Europe.

That Northmen considered water as holy can be seen in the large number of instances where lakes, waterfalls, pools, wells and springs were considered holy and therefore the water in them would have been as well. Whirlpools and waterfalls were considered to have been put in motion by river spirits (358) so in some cases it could be water spirits that were being venerated instead of the water itself but in other cases it is specifically the water that is considered holy. The Goths buried king Alaric in the bed of a river. They actually dug the river out of its normal course, buried king Aluric in the river bed then returned the river to its normal course. When crossing the river they would make offerings to him.

Oaths were also sworn on rivers and there are instances in which holy groves were next to holy springs. Near a village in the Odenpä district there is the holy rivulet of Livonia. The source is in a holy grove, which no one dares to break a twig and it is said those who do are sure to die within the year. The brook and fountain are kept clean and are 'put to rights' once every year. If anything is thrown into the spring or the small lake through which it flows, storms are said to be the result. As mentioned earlier the land where "the holy water of a river sweeps round a piece of meadow land, and forms an ea (aue)" is marked as a residence of the gods.

There was also a tradition of drawing water during holy nights which is very likely to be the survival of a Northern custom. During a the holy season water was drawn at midnight in complete silence before sunrise. It is Grimm's opinion that this tradition is deeply rooted in Northern tradition. Also it was a tradition that holy water must be drawn fresh from the spring. There is also a tradition of seithkonar watching the eddies of rivers and from them divining the future. In the Islandinga Sögur the exact expression used is 'worshipped the foss (water spirit of whirlpool).'

Salt Springs

Salt and especially salt springs were considered holy by Northfolk. Salt springs were considered as a direct gift of a nearby divinity and the possessing of this location was considered worthy of going to war over. One account of this comes from Tacitus in his Annals XIII, 57. In the first century, two Germanic tribes , the Hermundari and the Chatti had a dispute over who had the rites to a piece of land beside some salt springs that they considered holy. The Chatti vowed that if they won they would sacrifice their foes to Mars and Mercury (Tiwaz and Woden). The Hermundari ended up winning the battle and felt that they should likewise sacrifice their defeated foes and sacrificed the Chatti after defeating them. Grimm also says that the Burgundians and Alamanns also fought for salt-springs.

Grimm points out that a very large number of the names of rivers and towns that produce salt have the roots hal and sal in their names. These roots originally signified 'the same wholesome holy material.'

According to Grimm the distributing of salt was a holy office and he speculates of the possibility of festivals connected with salt-boiling. He further theorizes that this office was held by women and that it could be the roots of the traditions surrounding witches in the middle ages. I would like to quote his theory as it does have a ring of truth to it.

"Suppose now that the preparation of salt was managed by women, by priestesses, that the salt-kettle (cauldron), saltpan, was under their care and supervision; there would be a connection established between salt-boiling and the later vulgar opinion about witchcraft: the witches gather, say on certain high days, in the holy wood, on the mountain, where the salt springs bubble, carrying with them cooking-vessels, ladles and forks; and at night their saltpan is a-glow."

It is easy to see how that, if the wise-women were charged with boiling the salt in cauldrons at holy rites, the Christians would have taken this picture and turned it into devil worshiping witches cackling with glee over bubbling cauldrons. The reasons for this are easy to see. Before the coming of Christianity the wise-woman or spaekona was treated with great respect and in some cases even revered in near goddess-like status. They were consulted before going into battle and in all important matters. This, of course, was a threat to the authority of the church and they wasted no time demonizing the wise-woman. She went from being the wise-woman and treated with respect to being a devil worshiping witch whose only purpose was to bring ill to man. After transforming the wise-woman into the evil witch the Church wasted no time following the biblical injunction to "not suffer a witch to live." Christians made sure that the sanctifying of salt was their domain alone. I'll, hear, quote Grimm again.

"As Christians equally recognized salt as a good and needful thing, it is conceivable how they might now, inverting the matter, deny the use of wholesome salt at witches' meetings, and come to look upon it as a safeguard against every kind of sorcery (Superst. I, no. 182). For it is precisely salt that is lacking in the witches' kitchen and at devil's feasts, the Church having now taken upon herself the hallowing and dedication of salt. Infants un-baptized, and so exposed, had salt placed beside them for safety, RA. 457. The emigrants from Salzburg dipped a wetted finger in salt, and swore. Wizards and witches were charged with the misuse of salt in baptizing beasts. I think it worth mentioning here, that the magic-endowed giantesses in the Edda knew how to grind, not only gold, but salt, Sn. 146-7: the one brought peace and prosperity, the other a tempest and foul weather."

As we'll see later, when talking about Spring rites, the fertility rites of May, may also have been turned into witches jaunts for the same reasons.

The Need Fire


Holy Flame is a very important part of Northern practice. It can be found in some form in most all rites. Whether it be the Summer Finding and midsummer fires or the fires of the blót-feast which were used to hallow the mead or ale. Fires were jumped through during midsummer rites and cattle might be herded between fires to protect them from disease. Fire, like water, was a living being to Northmen with the power to carry things between the nine worlds. Grimm describes the need-fire as tüfel häla which means 'despoiling the devil of his strength.' He believes that this is possibly "one of those innumerable allusions to Loki, the devil and fire-god. See the article on Loki for more information concerning this.

Fire was thought to take people and materials to the other-worlds. We'll examine the more esoteric implications of this in the second part of this article dealing with how we might incorporate these practices into modern practice. But for now we'll limit ourselves to specific evidence in the lore. Davidson states that the heating and cooking (fire) of meat on the hearth was an image of the link between man and the other-world. In Ynglinga saga it was Othinn's law that dead men should be burned along with their belongings. If they did this they would come to Valhalla. It seems from this description that it was the burning that took the dead men and their belongings to Vallhöll. Even more convincing evidence of this comes from the account of Ibn Fadlin, in which he describes the funeral of a Rus Chieftain. In it, one of the Northmen attending the funeral where the chief along with his belongings were burned said, "You Arabs are fools." When the Rus was asked why he said that he replied, '"You take the people who are most dear to you and whom you honor most and put them into the ground where insects and worms devour them. We burn him in a moment, so that he enters Paradise at once." Then he began to laugh uproariously. When asked why he laughed, he said, "His Lord, for love of him, has sent the wind to bring him away in an hour." And actually an hour had not passed before the ship, the wood, the girl, and her master were nothing but cinders and ashes.' From this account is very easy to see that the Rus considered the fire as the primary element that carried their dead chief and his possessions to Vallhöll. He is further pleased when a wind comes to fan the fire so that his chief will get to his destination even quicker.

The one type of holy fire we have the most material on was called the need-fire. There is no doubt that this practice can be traced back to Northern times. It was considered, by Northmen, to be the most holy method of starting a fire. It was produced by rubbing two sticks of wood together until the friction generated enough heat to start the fire. Flame that had been kept for some time and/or had been passed from one fire to another was thought not to be of the holy quality needed for various religious and/or magical purposes. For holy use the fire must be newly struck and was called 'need fire.' As fires that had been burning a long time or had been transferred from other fires were not sufficient for holy purposes, neither were fires struck with flint and steel of use for holy needs. The obtaining of fire from the friction between two pieces of wood being rubbed together was the most holy and most desired.

Lindenbrog in the Glossary to the Capitularies describes the following method of starting a need-fire: 'If at any time a grievous murrain have broke out among cattle great or small, and they have suffered much harm thereby; the husbandmen with one consent make a nothfür or nothfeuer (need-fire). On a day appointed there must in no house be any flame left on the hearth. From every house shall be some straw and water and bushwood brought; then is a stout oaken stake driven fast into the ground, and a hole bored through the same, to the which a wooden roller well smeared with pitch and tar is let in, and so winded about, until by reason of the great heat and stress (nothzwang) it give out fire. This is straightway catched on shavings, and by straw, heath and bushwood enlarged, till it grow to a full nothfeuer, yet must it stretch a little way along betwixt two walls or hedges, and the cattle and thereto the horses be with sticks and whips driven through it three times or two. Others in other parts set up two such stakes, and stuff into the holes a windle or roller and therewith old rags smeared with grease. Others use a hairen or common light-spun rope, collect wood of nine kinds, and keep up a violent motion till such time as fire do drop there from. There may be in use yet other ways for the generating or kindling of this fire, nevertheless they all have respect unto the healing of cattle alone. After thrice or twice passing through, the cattle are driven to stall or field, and the collected pile of wood pile of wood is again pulled asunder, yet in such a wise in sundry places, that every householder shall take a brand with him, quench it in the wash or swill tub, and put the same by for a time in the crib wherein the cattle are fed. The stakes driven in for the extorting of this fire, and the wood used for a roller, are sometimes carried away for fuel, sometimes laid by in safety, when the threefold chasing of the cattle through the flame hath been accomplished." As we can see from this description grease was used to aid in the starting of the fire. Also interesting is that the main post mentioned is made of oak. In Sweden there were accounts of nine sorts of woods being used. As we know the importance that Northmen put on the oak tree, it is no surprise that oak was used for the generation of the holy need-fire.

Another description comes from the Scottish highlands. "Upon any small river, lake, or island, a circular booth of stone or turf is erected, on which a couple or rafter of a birch tree is placed, and the roof covered over. In the center is set a perpendicular post, fixed by a wooden pin to the couple, the lower end being placed in an oblong groove on the floor; and another pole is placed horizontally between the upright post and the legs of the couple, into both of which the ends, being tapered, are inserted. This horizontal timber is called the augur, being provided with four short arms or spokes by which it can be turned round. As many men as can be collected are then set to work, having first divested themselves of all kinds of metal, and two at a time continue to turn the pole by means of the levers, while others keep driving wedges under the upright post so as to press it against the augur, which by the friction soon becomes ignited. From this the need-fire is instantly procured, and all other fires being immediately quenched, those are rekindled both in dwelling house and offices are accounted holy, and the cattle are successively made to smell them." As with the previous description we see that the all other fires are put out before the need-fire is started. It is also interesting to note that in this description the men involved in making the need-fire are sure to take anything made of metal from themselves.

A third description is quoted by Grimm which comes to us from Martin. "The forced fire, or fire of necessity, which they used as an antidote against the plague or murrain in cattle; and it was performed thus: all the fires in the parish were extinguished, and then eighty-one (9 x 9) married men, being thought the necessary number for effecting this design, took two great planks of wood, and nine of 'em were employed by turns, who by their repeated efforts rubbed one of the planks against the other until the heat thereof produced fire; and from this forced fire each family is supplied with new fire, which is no sooner kindled than a pot full of water is quickly set on it, and afterwards sprinkled upon the people infected with the plague, or upon the cattle that have the murrain. And this they all say they find successful by experience: it was practiced on the mainland opposite to the south of Skye, within these thirty years."

The need-fire is a practice that is still practiced in some parts of Germany in the modern era. Grimm tells that the common folk still distinguish between fire and the need fire which is started by rubbing two pieces of wood together. He states that fire started through friction is the surest mark of Northern tradition.

One of the main uses of the need-fire was the health of domestic animals. Many times after the need-fire was started cattle and horses were driven between two fires started from it. Swine were also drove between the fires to keep disease from cropping up. In Kuhn's Märkische sagen is described another need-fire tradition. "Before sunrise two stakes of dry wood are dug into the ground amid solemn silence, and hempen ropes that go round them are pulled back and forwards till the wood catches fire; the fire is fed with leaves and twigs, and the sick animals (swine in this case) are driven through. In some places the fire is produced by the friction of an old cartwheel.

One more description of a need-fire I would like to, here, quote. "In many villages of Lower Saxony, especially in the mountains, it is common, as a precaution against cattle plague, to get up the so-called wild fire, through which first the pigs, then the cows, lastly the geese are driven. The established procedure in the matter is this. The farmers and all the parish assemble, each inhabitant receives notice to extinguish every bit of fire in his house, so that not a spark is left alight in the whole village. Then old and young walk to a hollow way, usually towards evening, the women carrying linen, the men wood and tow. Two oaken stakes are driven into the ground a foot and a half apart, each having a hole on the inner side, into which fits a cross-bar as thick as an arm. The holes are stuffed with linen, then the cross-bar is forced in as tight as possible, the heads of the stakes being held together with cords. About the smooth round cross-bar is coiled a rope, whose long ends, left hanging on both sides are seized by a number of men; these make the cross-bar revolve rapidly this way and that, till the friction sets the linen in the holes on fire. The sparks are caught on tow or oakum, and whirled round in the air till they burst into a clear blaze, which is then communicated to straw, and from the straw to a bed of brushwood arranged in cross layers in the hollow way. When this wood has well burnt and nearly done blazing, the people hurry off to the herds waiting behind, and drive them perforce, one after the other, through the glowing embers. As soon as all the cattle are through, the young folks throw themselves pell-mell upon the ashes and coals, sprinkling and blackening one another; those who are most blackened and besmudged march into the village behind the cattle as conquerors, and will not wash for a long time after. If after long rubbing the linen will not catch, they feel sure there is still fire somewhere in the village, and that the element refuses to reveal itself through friction: then follows a strict searching of houses, any fire they may light upon is extinguished, and the master of the house rebuked or chastised. But that the wild fire should be evoked by friction is indispensable, it cannot be struck out of flint and steel. Some localities perform the ceremony, not yearly as a preventive of murrain, but only upon its actually breaking out." This example is like the other examples in all its major features.

The need-fire seemed to take place at different times depending on what area you were in. Some areas held it at or around the spring equinox while others held it at midsummer. The Danes and Scandinavia hold midsummer fires. Grimm gives an account of a tradition performed on Whitsun morning. On that morning some stablemen were seen to make a need-fire and boil their cabbage over it. They believe that by eating it, they would be protected from fever in the coming year. On June 20th 1653 the Nürnberg town council issued the following order: "Whereas experience heretofore hath shown, that after the old heathen use, on John's day in every year, in the country, as well in towns as villages, money and wood hath been gathered by young folk, and thereupon the so-called sonnenwendt or zimmet fire kindled, and thereat winebibbing, dancing about the said fire, leaping over the same, with burning of sundry herbs and flowers, and setting of brands from the said fire in the fields, and in many other ways all manner of superstitious work carried on---Therefore the Hon. Council of Nürnberg town neither can nor ought to forbear to do away with all such unbecoming superstition, paganism, and peril of fire on this coming day of St. John (Neuer lit. anz. 1807, p. 318)." St. John's Day was the Christian adaptation of Midsummer. Although the need-fire was resorted to in times of an outbreak of murrain, it was also done at set times of the year as a preventative measure, especially at Midsummer.

Although the need-fire was normally started either at times of disease or during Midsummer as a preventative measure the need-fire was also a part of the major feasts. The need-fire was considered most holy so it is easy to see why it would have been used at the major feasts and most likely at any rite that was holy in manner. Indeed the need-fire seems to have been common all over Europe.

Just as the need-fire was especially important during Midsummer so was there were fires lighted at the opposite point in the year, at Yule. This was the burning of the yule log. At Marseille it was a large oaken log which was sprinkled with wine and oil and it was the master of the house who would light the log. In Dapuphiné they called it chalendal and lighted it on Christnas eve and sprinkled it with wine. It was considered holy and it was allowed to burn in peace. The English called it yule-log and the Scandinvians called it julblok. Part of the yule-log was saved for the following year where it would be used to start the new yule-log fire.

There is also a Candlemas tradition that, according to Grimm, most surely has its roots in a Northern tradition. Candlemas is held at Midwinter. In this tradition the head of the household would gather all her servants in a half-circle in front of the oven door and all bent down on one knee. They then would take one bite of cake and drink to the fire's health. The remainder of the cake and drink was cast into the fire.

Before moving on to discussing the Landvættir I would like to relate some of the miscellaneous traditions concerned with fire. A Norwegian custom holds that so long as a child is un-baptized the fire must not be allowed to go out. The fire used for a magic bath was not to be heated with common flint and steel fire. The instructions for making the fire were again much like the wild-fire (need-fire). "Go to an apple tree which the lightning hath stricken, let a saw be made thee of his wood, therewith shalt thou saw upon a wooden threshold that much people passeth over, till it be kindled. Then make firewood of birch-fungus, and kindle it at this fire, with which thou shalt heat the bath, and on thy life see it go not out" In the Midsummer fire it was traditional to throw into the fire, herbs of all kinds and to leap through it. When tossing in the herbs the person throwing them in would say, "May all my troubles go off in the fire and smoke!" The jumping over the fire during Midsummer seems to have been a very wide-spread practice and most certainly has its roots in Northern tradition. At Nürnberg they jump over the fires and in doing so have good health for the coming year. On St John's Day (Midsummer) they leaped over the fire and drank mead over it.


From: "The Religious Practices of the Pre-Christian and Viking Age North" by Alfta Svanni Lothursdottir