Hofs, Harrows, and Churches: Towards a Heathen Definition of “Church”

From “The Shope Speaks”, Idunna 55, Spring 2003

Contemporary heathens have developed a wide range of ways to worship, from building a backyard hof to making space on a shelf in an apartment. The articles in this issue cover a variety of possibilities.

However, before discussing hofs, ancient or modern, it might be useful to take a look at “church”, the modern English word for such a building, and the associations and assumptions it carries. Since the conversion of Europe to Christianity, the terms for the place in which worship takes place and for the institution whose religion is being practiced there have become synonymous. In Greek, however, ecclesia was the word for an assembly of the people. Some religious observance would be included, because in the Ancient World no important activity took place without invoking the gods, but the purpose of the gathering might well be what we would call secular. A contemporary example would be a session of the Senate, which opens with a prayer by the chaplain.

Christianity spread first in the cities. Meeting outdoors was therefore rarely an option. As the new religion grew stronger, adherents ceased to gather in people’s houses and began to construct buildings which belonged to the religious community. Gradually, as saints’ relics were collected and religious art created, they became a place to keep sacred objects as well. Because Christians, unlike their pagan neighbors, viewed their belief as being in competition with all other religions, they felt the need to give their faith a distinguishing name. And because all the local churches were part of this larger entity, “the Church” became synonymous with the religion. Since the Reformation, that noun has usually been modified by the name of a denomination, such as Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, but belief in “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church” is still part of the Christian creed.

As DuBois points out,

The non-Christian belief systems of the Nordic region seldom if ever underwent the processes of open codification that characterised Christianity from its earliest stages onward. Even the Eddaic poems tend to refrain from direct enunciation of key beliefs, preferring instead to hint at these nuggets of wisdom in cryptic, truncated allusions. (Dubois, 1999, p. 42)

DuBois also observes, however, that pagan cults functioned “as a means of promulgating collective unity”. Therefore when, in the By-laws, we call the Troth “a church for the practice of the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples”, we are using the term in its earlier sense of an assembly of people for a purpose which includes religious activity.



Thomas DuBois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age, University of Pennsylvania, 1999