The role of Goðar in historical and modern contexts
-by Dan Coultas
The titles of Goði and its female equivalent Gyðja are some of the most hotly debated in modern Heathenry. In this article I shall explore the evidence we have of the role of Goðar historically before discussing the different ways in which the role has been adapted into modern practice and the controversy that surrounds it.
The word Goði derives from Goð meaning God, and the earliest known form is the Proto-Norse Guidija, which in Old Norse became guþi and later Goði. The only attestations from mainland Scandinavia come from runestones, one in Norway and three in Denmark, one of which describes the Goði as having an association with the Vé (sacred grove).
Most of the written record of the historical role of Goðar comes from Iceland. Here we see that the Goðar had a role in political as well as religious leadership. ‘They kept control of the administration, and at the same time, they took the lead in religious affairs. They controlled legal business at assemblies, and they presided over sacrifice in the temples and at assemblies.’ An Icelandic Goði in the 10th century was effectively a combination of chieftain and priest, with their area of responsibility codified in law in 964. After the Christianisation, the Goðar ‘retained their office and their secular power’, but spiritual leadership was transferred to the church. It is also interesting to note that the decision to adopt Christianity as the official religion in Iceland in 1000 CE was taken by a Goði, after going ‘under the cloak’ to consult the Gods.
There are two Icelandic texts that describe some of the actual religious role of the Goðar in more detail than simply stating that they led ritual. The first is Eyrbyggja saga which states:
'In the inner part of the hof (temple) was a room in a form similar to the chancel of churches nowadays; and a stall stood in the middle of the floor there, like an altar, on which lay a twenty ounce penannular ring, and all oaths should be sworn on it. The hofgoði should wear the ring on his arm at all public meetings. In the room the gods were disposed around the stall. All men should pay tolls to the hof, and be bound to follow the hofgoði on all journeys, as Þingmenn are now bound to follow their leaders, but the goði should maintain the hof at his own expense, so that it did not deteriorate, and hold blót-feasts in it.'
Landnámabók gives a similar description, but with some added details:
'A ring of two ounces or more should be on the stall in each principal hof; each goði should wear that ring on his arm at all established assemblies in which he himself should participate, and redden it beforehand in gore from the blood of the beast he personally sacrificed there. Everyone who needed to perform legal duties there at court should previously swear an oath on that ring.'
There are several important points about the role of the Goðar we can take from these passages. Firstly, the term hofgoði seems to indicate that a Goði was tied to that particular hof. That is where there religious authority lay. Secondly, an arm ring (the weight of which is disputed between the two sources) seems to have been vital to the Goði’s role. It was this ring that oaths would be sworn upon, after being reddened with gore from an animal sacrificed by the Goði. The fact that such oaths were to be sworn before anyone could conduct legal duties again highlights in inseparability of the religious and secular role of Goðar.
The idea of men paying tolls to the hof, and being sworn to follow the hofgoði is more in keeping with the more chieftain-like side of the Goði’s role, whereas the reddening through sacrifice pertains far more to the spiritual side. As Aðalsteinsson states, ‘the function of the Goðar was many sided, extending to matters later distinguished as religious or social. Both functions were a natural part of their duties, whether they were presiding over cases at assemblies or sacrifice in the cult-centre.’
The saga of Hákon the Good gives some more evidence of the spiritual role of Goðar. Whilst it does not use the term Goði specifically, referring instead to ‘the man who made the feast and was the leader’, it does state that blót was held in the hof, and the other sources we have examined have pointed to the hof being presided over by a Goði, so it seems a fair assumption that the ritual actions it describes here would have been conducted by Goðar:
'…the man who made the feast and was the leader should “sign” the drink and all the blót-food: first Oðinn’s toast – that should be drunk for victory and the might of their king, and then Njörðr’s toast and Freyr’s for a good season and freedom from strife.'
The passage also describes the reddening of the walls of the hof with blood from the sacrificed animals, as well as sprinkling the people gathered for the feast with blood, a concept supported by Snorri, where he describes the reddening of the hof, the people gathered and the idols of the Gods as a way of empowering them and sharing energy. Again, it seems likely when viewed alongside the other sources that this reddening would have been conducted by Goðar.
Most of the written sources we have describe the Goðar as presiding over the sacrifice, and there is an assumption that one Goði could lead the sacrifice to any and all of the Gods. The only reference to a Goði being dedicated to one particular deity can be found in the saga of Gísli Súrsson, where Þorgrímr Þorsteinsson is referred to as “Freysgoði”, a priest of Freyr. There is no other known historical record of any other heathen deity having their own dedicated Goðar, but that does not mean to say they definitely did not exist.
In modern Heathenry there are many ideas on what the role of Goðar should be, and indeed whether they should exist at all. There are those that believe in ordained clergy, those that believe Goðar should be appointed and recognised by the community they serve, those who believe that the role should only be held temporarily for the duration of a ritual, and those who do not believe the role should exist at all.
There are several large Heathen organisations that offer clergy training programs for Goðar.
In Iceland, the Ásatrúarfélagið has a course for trainee Goðar, and also uses the title allsherjargoði for their leader, a title currently held by Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson.
In the USA, the Troth have a programme which, according to their website aims to: '1. Provide training in knowledge and skills needed by those serving as clergy in heathen traditions in general and in the Troth in particular.
2. Evaluate and certify those who have demonstrated that they have the qualifications and have fulfilled the requirements for service as Troth godwo/men and elders.
3. Maintain a registry of clergy accredited by the Troth.
4. Maintain an e-list for Troth clergy and trainees for continuing education and mutual support.
5. Provide information and referrals to Troth members and others seeking the services of heathen clergy.'
On successful completion of the programme the title of godwo/man is conferred.
The Asatru Community (TAC) also offer a clergy training programme:
'It's one of TAC's many goals to provide dedicated individuals with the tools they need to become a legally recognized Gothi/Gydja in their local area. The course itself has been created by Volunteers and other qualified Gothar with the student in mind. Whether you've only been following the Old Ways for a year or two, or if you've been a practitioner all your life, we hope to supply and strengthen your abilities to walk out of the course with something new and useful to you and your community.'
Opponents of this idea often question the authority of those providing the training. They also point out that an online course cannot be a substitute for years of learning and real-world experience. We have no historic record of training for Goðar, but that does not necessarily mean it did not happen. In Iceland, where the religious and secular authority were combined, the title could be inherited. In this case it is likely that there would have been knowledge passed from parent to child over many years. At the same time though the title could also be bought and sold, and in this case it would likely have just been a case of learning on the job. Outside of Iceland where most knowledge was passed orally, any training of future Goðar is likely to be done by word of mouth.
There are others who believe that Goðar should be appointed by the community they serve when they have proven themselves worthy of the title. Under this system Goðar may not be recognised by a large nationwide organisation, but they are trusted to fulfil the role of spiritual leader in their own community. This is how many Heathen kindreds in the UK appoint their Goðar, including Heathens of Yorkshire. They have no authority outside of their own kindred, and hold no qualification. They can have the title taken away if they lose the trust of their community, and are not expected to be recognised by any other kindred or organisation.
Often Goðar appointed in this way have not set out to achieve that status. They have not set out to become a Goði or Gyðja, instead they have been chosen by their community after showing that they have the required skills in ritual organisation and leadership, knowledge of the Gods, Goddesses, wights and ancestors and pastoral care. Like the Goðar of old, the role of modern Goðar is many-fold. Most communities who have appointed Goðar in this way believe the role extends far beyond writing and leading blót.
Opponents of this system sometimes argue that without a qualification, Goðar have nothing to prove their knowledge and experience. This is, however, unlikely to phase groups that use this system, as they do not expect their Goðar to be recognised by anyone outside of their group. Again, we have no record of how Goðar were appointed outside of Iceland, but it seems likely that each tribe, village etc would appoint their own, using their own system, and that they would not care if others recognised their Goðar. If the chief said that they themself, or someone they appointed was a Goði or Gyðja, that is likely to be good enough. We also know that in Iceland Goðar were tied to an area centred around a hof, so the idea of Goðar being tied to a particular group goes someway to following this model.
The third view of the role of Goðar in modern Heathenry is that it should be adopted temporarily for the duration of a ritual. Groups who follow this model have no permanent Goðar, but instead appoint a different person to write and lead each ritual. That person is only a Goði or Gyðja for the duration of the blót. For such groups this temporary role is usually restricted to ritual only, with no expectation of deep knowledge, teaching others or providing pastoral care.
Opponents of this system would point out that there are many other things Goðar can do other than lead ritual, and by focusing purely on this you are denying your community that service.
The final view is that there is no place for Goðar in modern Heathenry. This view is often adopted by Heathens who are opposed to any form of organised religion, and do not believe they should recognise the spiritual authority of others. It could also be that someone is not necessarily against modern Goðar existing in principal, but that they believe there is currently nobody qualified to fulfil the role. Opponents of this would point out that Goðar can provide an important service to the community now as they did historically.
There is of course no right or wrong answer here. The fact that Heathenry has no central and universally recognised authority means that there will always be different ideas on who, if anyone should qualify as Goðar. Even with the large US groups, a Goði or Gyðja ordained by TAC may not be recognised by the Troth, and vice versa. There are those who think we should have a UK based training programme, and others who believe this to be unnecessary. As the vast majority of kindreds in the UK are independent, and not branches of a larger organisation, it is unlikely they will want to abandon their traditions and adopt the model of another. Those who have appointed Goðar are unlikely to want to give them up, and those who don’t believe in appointing permanent or temporary Goðar are unlikely to be convinced that they should. Even if an organisation such as Asatru UK were to start ordaining clergy, there would be nothing to make anyone outside of that organisation recognise them if they didn’t want to. Like many things in modern Heathenry, it is likely that different groups will continue to do things in their own way when it comes to Goðar.
Byock, Jesse L. (1993). "Goði". Entry in Medieval Scandinavia, an Encyclopedia (Phillip Pulsiano, ed.), 230–231. Garland: NY and London  Klaus Düwel (2008). "Runen als Phänomen der oberen Schichten". Studien zu Literatur, Sprache und Geschichte in Europa. p. 69
 Aðalsteinsson, Jón (1998) A Piece of Horse Liver. p. 121.  Aðalsteinsson, Jón (1998) A Piece of Horse Liver. p. 125.  Translation by Joan Turville-Petre.  Translation by Joan Turville-Petre.  Aðalsteinsson, Jón (1998) A Piece of Horse Liver. p. 54.  https://asatru.is/  https://www.thetroth.org/programs-offered/clergy.html  https://www.theasatrucommunity.org/ctp