Ritual – Land Taking

The Icelanders settled a new land; odal (family) land and inheritance of property were important in the laws and customs of all the Germanic peoples; one of the activities of vikings was seizing land. Hence we know how the ancient heathens marked a formal taking that they were taking possession of a place, and it is a good idea to follow the custom. It announces to the local wights that you have taken up legal residence and formally declares that you will be living and probably practicing there as a heathen.

The essential element is fire. Hallbera tells Víga-Glúmr he must leave his ancestral land because she has claimed it with fire; he has lost the land to her son under a legal agreement at Thing, but it is the fire-lighting that formally ends his possession: “Sittu heill, Glúmr, en ekki er hér nú lengr at vera; komit hefi ek nú eldi á Þverárland ok geri ek þik nú á brott með allt þitt, ok er helgat landit Einari syni mínum.” “’Good day to you, Glúmr, but you must not stay here any longer; I have now brought fire to the land of Thverá, and I now eject you and all yours from it, and the land is dedicated to my son Einar.’”1 In Landnámabók, Önundr claims a swathe of territory before Eiríkr can get there, by shooting a flaming arrow (tundrör) across the river.2 Jan de Vries points out that in Guta Saga, Þielvar is said to have stopped the island of Gotland from sinking under the sea in the daytime, and thereby made it habitable – claimed it for mankind – by introducing fire.3

Usually, the Icelandic settlers lighted a series of fires around the perimeter of the territory, each one visible from the last.4 However, the terminology used, fara eld um land(nám), can be translated either “put fire around the land (claim)” or “carry fire around the land (claim).”5 Since we are in any case rarely claiming vast tracts of land, and since the examples above indicate that one fire can be sufficient, modern heathens usually carry fire rather than setting numerous perimeter fires.

You may have noticed that in the quotation from Víga-Glúms Saga, the verb I have translated “dedicated” is helgaði. Similarly, Önundr helgaði sér svo landið – “thus dedicated the land to himself.” In fact the first meaning Cleasby-Vigfusson lists for “helga” is this one, “to appropriate land or the like, by performing some sacred rites.” And the second and third are also legal terms: “to proclaim (a person’s) inviolability” and the modern “to protect by law.” Etymologically, the word is “hallow” – to bless, to render holy – but that is only a specialized ecclesiastical meaning in Icelandic. The more commonly used religious word since heathen times, the word used of Thor “consecrating” Baldr’s pyre with Mjöllnir, for example, is vígja. So there is a distinction between claiming property and hallowing it; however, there is also an undeniable connection, and in fact the landtaking ritual is the basis of our hallowing with fire, as described in the “Rites” section of this site.

To claim a new home, get something that will stay lighted for a while and can be held safely, such as a Zippo lighter (not other types of lighter; they rapidly become too hot to hold and they blow out more easily), a hurricane lantern or lamp, or a fire-starting “gun.” Start at the northernmost edge of the land, light the fire, and say something like “Wights of this place, I claim this land and property as my (and my family’s) home.” Walk clockwise around the land as close to the boundary as you can manage, emphasizing the outward direction but not avoiding letting the fire cross out of your property. At each corner or wherever view is obstructed toward the last point where you stopped, stop and repeat the words. Make a full circuit and repeat the words for the last time at the starting point. If the light goes out, re-light it and repeat the words. If an obstruction prevents you from walking continuously around the property, quench the fire, go around to the next accessible point, and begin again there. If the property is entirely indoors – an apartment or room – you have more options for fire; matches, tapers, skewers, or incense sticks can be waved relatively fast around the edges of indoor walls without going out – but you may have to be very careful of setting off smoke detectors. There is no need to define the upper or lower boundaries of an indoor space, but in a multi-storey townhouse, you should carry the fire up or down the stairs to the other floor(s) if possible.6

This is a taking; if you are only staying temporarily, for example as a renter, you should plan to formally announce to the wights at the end of your stay that you are relinquishing your claim on the place (and you should probably not do the claiming in front of the landlord). If you move house, it is also politic to renounce your claim; the next resident may not have any such custom and the wights might get confused. And you should avoid laying claim to common areas, for example if you are sharing a house with non-heathens. It is greedy and impolite to claim as yours areas that are actually common property.7 This may require a bit of thought about terraces and patios; you may not want to claim right up to the edge in such cases, but only the part where you are intending to set an altar, a god-image, or a bowl for wights – or pets.

Land-taking should be done before hallowing an area for honoring the gods. When we hallow, we call specifically on Thor/Thunor/Donar; this is not necessary in a land-taking, and unless the place is to be used as a hof, it is probably unnecessary to mention the gods at all in a land-taking.8 They are not limited in where they can see or where their presence can be felt. It is possible to combine the land-taking with setting up protective “wards,” but unless you are too experienced as a magician to really need this article, it would be better to keep them separate.

You may also want to mark your boundaries;9 but in the West today, this has usually been done already. A fence around a vé or sanctuary is part of hallowing, not land-taking; a fence around an entire yard will probably take a while to erect, and land-taking should be done as soon as possible. The ideal time is when you take possession of the keys, or when you drive up with the moving van, before you unload it.

1. Víga-Glúms Saga ch. 26; ed. G. Turville-Petre, 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1960; my translation.

2. ch. 62 in the Netútgáfn Fornrit online edition at http://www.snerpa.is/net/snorri/landnama.htm this uses modern Icelandic spelling so the names appear as Önundur and Eiríkr and the arrow as a tundurör.

3. Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte v. 1 p. 296, 2nd ed. Berlin: de Gruyter 1956, repr. 1970.

4. De Vries p. 295; for example in Landnámabók ch. 66, Helgi . . . gerði eld mikinn við hvern vatnsós ok helgaði sér svá allt hérað – “Helgi . . . made a great fire at each lake-mouth and so dedicated the entire district to himself”; example taken from the Oxford Icelandic-English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Clarendon, 1957, repr. 1975, commonly known as Cleasby-Vigfusson, “helga.” The standard work on the topic is Dag Strömbäck’s article “Att Helga Land.”

5. See Landnámabók ch. 60, ch. 90, Eyrbyggja Saga ch. 4, Cleasby-Vigfusson “fara” A.II.2; de Vries 295 mistakenly un.

6. Edred Thorsson, A Book of Troth, p. 157 (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1989), advocates starting at the door when land-taking, rather than the northernmost point. For indoor spaces this may be more meaningful.

7. This is my objection to the eruv, an enclosure delineated by stringing wires or fishing line that makes an entire neighborhood “home” under Jewish law so that observant Jews can carry their keys or their infants within it on the Sabbath. I regard it as an imposition for someone to define where I live – and blót my gods – as their “home” under the laws of their god(s); so I would not wish any heathen to do the same even on a small scale.

8. I obviously disagree with Thorsson (pp. 157-58) on this point; his hallowing rite uses the hammer sign and asks Thunar to hallow and ward the land, in addition to addressing the wights.

9. Ann Gróa Sheffield’s article on this topic, “Landtaking and Leavetaking: Rituals for Moving House,” emphasizes boundary-marking, using poles or cairns for example, as an alternative attested approach.