Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Month: June 2014

On Oaths

Now that the folk of a certain prominent Theod of which I was a member until very recently have voted to separate ourselves from our lord because of his actions (essentially dissolving the Theod in all but name), and I am no longer bound by the oath that I swore to said lord because of his actions, I think the time has come to write on the general topic of oaths.

The Theodish model relies on what are known as “hold oaths” to create a “web of oaths” that ultimately lead to the lord at the center of the tribe, and thence to the Gods. Metaphysically, it is through this web of oaths that the Luck of the Gods is transmitted to the members of the tribe. On a more mundane level, the hold oaths that are sworn bind one person of higher rank to one of lower rank, and vice versa. They share mutual obligations, and the higher-ranked person is actually expected to come to the aid of his oathed man (and “speed his Theodish career”) just as much as that oathed man is expected to support and assist the higher-ranked person.

Now, given the totality of the history of Theodism over the last four decades or so, it’s apparent that this arrangement just doesn’t work (among other elements of Theodism which lead me to conclude that it simply doesn’t work as a model, but that’s a post for another day). People on both ends of the oath structure simply walk away from their obligations despite the existence of the hold-oath, and hard feelings result all around, and broken oaths left in their wake.

Asatru is obviously much more flexible regarding the oath structure. I’m not aware of any Asatru group that has something analogous to the Theodish hold oath, but one hears much more frequently of oaths that are sworn between members of a kindred (or tribe) not to specific members of that kindred, but to the kindred as a whole.

On the other hand, there are plenty of Asatru kindreds out there that don’t have any such oath requirement at all, whether to the group or to an individual. If you’re a member, you’re a member (no matter what the criteria for membership are) and no formal oath is required to solemnize that relationship.

Judging just on the historical record, Asatru seems to have prospered with that much looser arrangement, which has led to relatively stable kindreds that have lasted for many years in many cases.

But, speaking of history, the whole concept of swearing an oath to become a member of a tribe is a completely modern invention. As a rule, tribe membership was based on birth or marriage, not conscious choice, and a Goth was a Goth because he was born a Goth, not because he swore an oath to the Goths, or to someone who swore an oath to the lord of the Goths. Oaths might be sworn to enter into the immediate service of a chieftain (his comitatus, or warband), but outside that special case of specially cohesive warriors, the general folk were just under whatever chieftain or king they were under. No special oaths required, even when that chieftain changed because of war or some other event.

Can you imagine the spectacle of the entire Alemanni nation swearing an oath to one another at the death of some king? It’s ludicrous on the face of it.

Now, obviously in modern times we are still in the process of establishing new tribes, new clans, and new kindreds. We’re at least several generations away from the point where “you’re born into your tribe” is the norm. But I think we as Asatruar can look beyond the idea of some formal oath structure being the basis for membership in a kindred or tribe. Perhaps a simple statement of intent, and the acceptance of the existing members of the tribe, might be enough.

Just thinking out loud, as it were. But I’m leaning strongly away from oaths as the basis of association. Recent history shows they just don’t work, and ancient history shows they just weren’t needed.

The Mainstreaming of Asatru

I think it’s quite possible for Asatru to break through into the mainstream of American society. There’s a difference between being mainstream and being a majority, of course; Jews only make up around 2% of the American population, but they’re certainly part of the mainstream of society. That’s a good thing, in my mind.

*Not* the head of the local
Chamber of Commerce

It should come as no surprise that neo-paganism (which I’m going to use very loosely here to include things such as Wicca, Druidry, eclectic paganism, and the like) are considered by most, both within and without, to be part of the “counterculture”. The neo-pagan community seems to revel in its “outsider” status, and often goes out of its way to rub the mainstream’s nose in the fact that they’re different. It should come as no surprise when society looks askance at them.

One consequence of the deliberate cultivation of a countercultural ethos within neo-paganism is a marked (and often lamented) inability of the neo-pagans to get organized. Sure, there are some national organizations such as the Covenant of the Goddess, but their influence within the broader neo-pagan world is somewhat limited. The neo-pagans are thus caught in a self-perpetuating cycle; they attract those who are rebellious and resistant to authority, and thus find it difficult to organize on anything other than a local (and often ephemeral, due to interpersonal conflicts, aka “witch wars”) level, and tend to alienate the sort of people who would be good at such organization.

Some Asatruar wear ritual garb…

This inclination also has ideological and theological implications. There is a strong current today of villainizing wealth and success, and glorifying poverty, which in turn tends to put off the relatively wealthy and successful, and leads to fewer available resources.

The inclination towards individuality also leads to a propensity towards eclecticism (often derided as “salad bar religion”) which can put off those with strong ties to a particular culture or historical faith.

Asatru is, I think, uniquely positioned to escape the “counterculture trap” that neo-paganism finds itself in.

On a theological level, Asatru is much less eclectic than neo-paganism. While there are bands of variation on various issues such as the importance of ancestry, the role of Loki, and modernity vs. reconstruction, these are questions within a relatively well-established set of boundaries determined by history and the extant literature that has come down to us. This allows a certain level of consistency and conformity (no, that’s not a bad word), but still allows for a variety of opinions within its established boundaries.

That appeals to those who are looking for consistency and guidance, and not a “whatever makes you happy” philosophy.

…some wear ties…

On a social level, Asatru is noted for its family-friendly attitude. True, there are groups made up primarily of young men in their 20’s and early 30’s who are more aggressive and tend towards individualism, but as they age and “settle down” with girlfriends and eventually wives and children, they themselves most often transform into the family-friendly groups that predominate.

That appeals to those who are more inclined towards a family environment, rather than those looking to rebel against the normative social model for the sake of doing so.

On an organizational level, although there are numerous unaffiliated kindreds and associations across the country operating on a local level, there are two or three large national groups that, for all intents and purposes, dominate the organizational landscape and to some extent drive the conversation among the Asatruar in this country. In Europe, many countries will have but one or two such groups. “Lone wolf” Asatruar are relatively rare (compared to “solitary Wiccans”) and are usually alone not by choice but because they do not know of any other Asatruar in their area. Asatru is fairly well organized, both on a local and national level.

That appeals to those who are looking for stability and who work well in groups, rather than those who are more individualistic in outlook.

…others wear polo shirts

Those three elements, I think, set up Asatru to move from the edges of society into the mainstream. I think this is a good thing in and of itself, as it will allow Asatru to grow as it becomes more accepted as a valid (and even preferable) alternative to the monotheistic religions that currently dominate the landscape. And, I would argue, as Asatru grows as a whole, all Asatruar benefit, even those who don’t share every particular ideological point.

Asatru need not change in order to accomplish this. We can do this by emphasizing those elements which are already more “mainstream-friendly”; our love of family, our non-eclectic-but-not-dogmatic theology, and our willingness to play well with others in groups. Our culture, which emphasizes honesty, honor, and self-reliance  can be used to demonstrate that one doesn’t need to be a Protestant to have a good work ethic. No changes, no chicanery; just let everyone around us know that we really are, and live up to our own ideals, and we will prosper as a whole.

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