Etymologically, the Old Norse word hof is the same as the Dutch and German word hof, which originally meant a hall and later came to refer to a court (originally in the meaning of a royal or aristocratic court) and then also to a farm. In medieval Scandinavian sources, it occurs once as a hall, in the Eddic poem Hymiskviða, and beginning in the fourteenth century, in the “court” meaning. Otherwise, it occurs only as a word for a temple. Hof also occasionally occurs with the meaning “temple” in Old High German. In Scandinavia during the Viking Age, it appears to have displaced older terms for a sacred place, vé, hörgr, lundr, vangr, and vin, particularly in the West Norse linguistic area, namely Norway and Iceland. It is the dominant word for a temple in the Icelandic sagas, but is rare in skaldic poetry.
Many places in Scandinavia, but especially in West Norse regions, are named hof or hov, either alone or in combination. These include:
- Hov on Suðuroy, Faroe Islands
- Hof in Vestfold, Norway
- Hof, a village in Iceland
- Hov, part of Båstad Municipality in Scania, Sweden
Some placenames, often names of farms, combine the word, such as:
- Several places in Iceland named Hofstaðir, one the site of a hof excavation
- Norderhov, a former municipality in Norway – dedicated to Njörðr
- Torshov, a neighborhood in Oslo and Thorsø, a farm in Torsnes, Norway – dedicated to Thor
There is also one in England: the village of Hoff in Cumbria, with an associated Hoff Lund, “temple grove.”
The most famous heathen hof of the Viking Age is that at Gamla Uppsala (“Old Uppsala”) in Sweden, which was described by Adam of Bremen around 1070, likely based on an eyewitness description by King Sweyn Estridsen:
That folk has a very famous temple called Uppsala . . . . In this temple, entirely decked out in gold, the people worship the statues of three gods in such wise that the mightiest of them, Thor, occupies a throne in the middle of the chamber; Wotan and Frikko [presumably Freyr] have places on either side. The significance of these gods is as follows: Thor, they say, presides over the air, which governs the thunder and lightning, the winds and rains, fair weather and crops. The other, Wotan—that is, the Furious—carries on war and imparts to man strength against his enemies. The third is Frikko, who bestows peace and pleasure on mortals. His likeness, too, they fashion with an immense phallus. But Wotan they chisel armed, as our people are wont to represent Mars. Thor with his scepter apparently resembles Jove . . . . For all the gods there are appointed priests to offer sacrifices for the people. If plague and famine threaten, a libation is poured to the idol Thor; if war, to Wotan, if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frikko.
A note or scholion appended to this passage adds the following description:
A golden chain goes round the temple. It hangs over the gable of the building and sends its glitter far off to those who approach, because the shrine stands on level ground with mountains all about it like a theater.
Another scholion describes natural features near the hof:
Near this temple stands a very large tree with wide-spreading branches, always green winter and summer. What kind it is nobody knows. There is also a spring at which the pagans are accustomed to make their sacrifices, and into it to plunge a live man. And if he is not found, the people’s wish will be granted.
Rather than a single tree, the passage that follows on the great sacrifices held every nine years at Uppsala speaks of a sacred grove adjoining the hof, of which each and every tree is sacred and in which the human and animal victims are hanged.
Adam’s presumed source, Sweyn Estridsen, was in service as a young man (from 1026 to 1038) with King Anund Jakob of Sweden, and therefore had the opportunity to personally see the hof at Uppsala. But we do not know how accurately Adam reports what he said. Accuracy concerning heathenry was not his objective in writing his history.