Þæt Ealdríces Heargtræf
Within the Ealdríce, godyield is most oft given within the wéohstede (ON: véstaðr or vé) of some holy grove, hill, or hallowed field. A sacrificial stone heap, bound about by stake and rope, a wéohstede is an outdoor holystead wherein the gods are fained and blót, “sacrifice,” is given. Such was the thew of our fore-elders. As they did then, so do we the same.
Yet when fitting, a temple-tent, which we call a heargtræf, is raised for our rites. Within Bede’s history of the English, there is found a writ from Pope Gregory to Bishop Mellitus (601 CE), wherein the pope bid the bishop to keep those indoor heathen temples that could be made fitting for Christian worship. Gregory knew well that, as it was the thew of the théod to gather for blót at such temples, conversion to Christianity would feel less foreign to the folk were worship to the new god to be given at the old holysteads. Moreover, as it was the oldenway of the Anglo-Saxons to raise tabernacula… de ramis arborum, “tabernacles of boughs,” about such temples for the offering of oxen to the old gods, such thew was still to be held, though now for the worship of saints.
Such tabernacula may have been a far reaching heathen thew as Sozomen wrote of such for-a-time holysteads in his history of the Goths (5th century). Whilst the context is Christian, it is worthwhile to note that the Goths gathered in tabernaculum ecclesiæ, “churches that were tents” during the Gothic théod’s folkwandering. Yet such tabernacle tents were likely common to both Gothic heathen and Christian alike. Uprooted, driven afar, and wandering about the Roman world, the Goths were without wéohstedas, the holy groves, hills, or hallowed fields of their homeland much less any lasting indoor temple. Thus the Gothic king, Aþanareiks, bid that a graven god be borne about the Gothic camp within a wain so that the folk of that théod might give godyield. In its begoing ’tis likely that the holy wagon stopped before any number of such temple-tents, not merely the Christian tabernacula that Sozomen wrote of as having withheld worship of the godly wain.
As hap would have it, such temple-tents are to be found in Beowulf’s (8th century) only account of heathen worship. As was remembered by the scóp who shaped the lay:
Many oft sat,
mighty in rune, and reckoned rede,
of what strong souls were best
against the fear-horrors to frame,
whilst they pledged, at temple-tents [hærgtrafum],
worshipped godlikenesses, and with words bade
that the ghost-bane would frame their rescue
against the theod-threats. Such was their thew,
the hope of heathens; Hel they remembered
– Beowulf lines 171b-179 – Þórbeorht, wend.
Wordlorewise, the root of “tabernacle” is the Latin tabernaculum, itself akin to taberna, “tavern.” Both words find their wellspring in the Latin trabs, “beam,” the Old English kindred being træf. Whether overlain with limbs or covered with cloth, the heart of the heathen heargtræf seems to have been its beams, perhaps recalling the highseat posts of the Norse hof.
It is this thew of raising a heargtræf for heathen worship that the Ealdríce has sought to rekindle in the raising of its own holy-tent. At Whitthenge Heall, the folk of the Ealdríce have cheaped for their worship a worthy heargtræf shaped after the Anglo-Saxon geteld-tents of yore.
Whilst the greater share of our holywork is held outdoor within a wéohstede known as a friðgeard, there are times and holytides when the heargtræf is raised for worship or witchery. When such happens, a wéofod, a “holy table,” is set within, between the beams, and bedecked with wood wrought godlikenesses. Then it may be that the blótere, “priest,” will fain or even give blót to the gods. Or, free of watchful eyes, it may be that rune-scored lots will be cast that the mood of the gods might be made known. The witan, the “witty ones,” may very well meet therein to moot or the wives may gather within to gealdor, “charm,” the wights with their witchery. What may be said for sooth is that beneath, between, and about the heargtræf‘s beams, the merry folk of the Ealdríce gather to follow the thew of their fore-elders. As they did then, so do we the same.