Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Tribalism

What do we have to offer?

Say what you will about Christianity, but the Christians have a compelling narrative, which works on both fear and guilt. They then position themselves as the only outlet for assuaging that fear and that guilt that they themselves created. For two millennia, this has been a potent combination that has enabled them to gradually displace native faiths across the planet.

Fear, in the sense that they claim that their Jehovah has the power to condemn the souls of every human to everlasting torment after death, and will readily do so if one does not believe in Jesus:

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. (Mark 16:16, KJV)

Guilt, in the sense that they claim that their Jehovah made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of mankind, and that to do anything less than acknowledging that sacrifice and acting upon it would be the height of ingratitude:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16, KJV)

That, in a nutshell, is Christianity’s “elevator pitch”. Believe in Jesus or be damned, and an ingrate to boot.

Back in the days before the coming of the White Christ, Heathens didn’t need to counter these sorts of arguments. There was no real competition from rapacious foreign religions seeking converts. The Danes and Swedes had their gods, the Romans and Greeks had their gods, and there was little attempt to force one’s own gods on others. Indeed, the reverse was true in some cases; the Pagan Romans actually had a formal ritual (evocatio) designed to invite the gods of an enemy city into Rome, thus depriving the enemy of the protection of their gods, making them easier to conquer.

Naturally, not being a Christian myself, I don’t buy into the Christian narrative. I don’t believe their Jehovah has the powers ascribed to him, and I certainly don’t feel any guilt about the death of Jesus (I’m not even convinced there was a historical Jesus, but that’s another story). And, I happen to think that we Heathens have something just as compelling to offer – kith and kin.

Heathens, particularly those of a tribalist bent, offer the promise of community to the Folk. Not just the community of a wide number of acquaintances that meet in a church once or twice a week to convince themselves that they shouldn’t feel afraid or guilty. Ours is a community in the sense of an extended family, quite literally. Odin and Heimdall are not just our gods, they are our ancestors. Members of a tribe or a kindred have a bond that is closer than any in a church or temple; they are literally becoming members of the same extended family, and can be relied on to come to each other’s aid without hesitation. Where the answer to a problem is not “I’ll pray for you”, but “what can I do to help?”

This is one reason the Germanic gift-cycle is so important – by the act of giving and giving back, repeated over and over, we strengthen those bonds which bring us together.

Therein lies one of the chief differences between the community experience of an Asatru kindred, as opposed to a Christian church. We don’t have any ulterior motives for forming our communities. We just want to welcome people home and enjoy their company for who they are. Our communities are truly extended families, with all that goes with that, not just associations of like-minded people.

The communities formed by Heathens are, in many ways, a balm for those in our modern society who feel alienated and alone. Modern society tends to pull us apart from one another, whether by work, by replacing face to face interactions with email and television, substituting wolfing down fast food with sharing a long meal with close friends and family, or pulling up roots and moving away from family for the sake of school or career.

The loss of “home” in our modern, atomized society is keenly felt, even if only on a subconscious level. By emphasizing that a return to the religion of one’s ancestors is, in fact, a return home, and that a kindred or tribe is, in no uncertain terms, a family, we can present the case for Asatru. A case made without guilt and without fear. A positive case, made of hope and belonging.

Young was I once, I walked alone, 
and bewildered seemed in the way; 
then I found me another and rich I thought me, 
for man is the joy of man. (Hávamál 47)

On Conflict Resolution

One of the things with which modern Ásatrúar and other branches of the modern Heathen family are blessed is a comprehensive and effective means of moderating conflicts between individuals and groups. The Icelandic Sagas, Eddaic Poetry, and other sources of written lore give us a plethora of examples that can, and in my opinion should, be used to resolve conflicts between modern Heathens.

First, we must turn our sights to the ancient concept of the innangarðs and the útangarðs.

It should be taken as axiomatic that members of a tribe, or other social grouping, would form a coherent block of support for any individual engaged in a dispute with someone outside the group. So, to take an example, if an East Angle had a dispute with an East Saxon, he could reasonably count on his fellow East Angles to support him in that dispute (just as the East Saxon could count on similar support). Crossing tribal boundaries, and supporting someone in the útangarðs against someone in the innangarðs would be next to unheard-of, and would certainly require some sort of extraordinary circumstance, such as sworn oaths of loyalty leading to conflicting allegiances.

That said, it is certainly not the case that the only sort of resolution of conflicts between individuals, families, clans, or tribes is the feud. A long and deep tradition of shild, the payment of monetary recompense for wrongs or other crimes, up to and including murder (where it is termed wergild), is evident throughout the lore. We see it in examples in the Sagas of Icelanders, and built into the Germanic law codes that stem in their earliest forms from the unwritten tribal codes of conduct (“thew” in the contemporary Théodish parlance). For every wrong there is a price that can be paid to make it right.

In cases where the wrongdoing was laid out plainly in the code of law, the issue was simple. A price was specified, and upon payment the crime would be absolved and the matter settled. The wronged party explicitly gave up any rights to vengeance once the shild was paid. So it is in contemporary Heathenry. Once shild is agreed to and paid, the wrong is completely wiped out, frith (peace) is once more obtained, and no one on either side has a right to complain about the act or its consequences in the future. Failure to abide by these strictures is the chief reason that feud could result; society because out of balance once the implications of a paid shild were ignored (or where shild, which might have restored balance, was not paid in the first place).

For cases where the code of law did not lay out a specific price for a specific wrong against someone, there was yet again a way to make it right. There are three ways that a dispute could be resolved; samning, sjálfdoemi, and jafnadardórmr. The point is that both sides, no matter the mechanism, arrive at a mutually acceptable price. Once the price was named and paid, the matter was done. It could be as little as a handshake and an apology, or as much as land and gold. Whatever the specifics that are agreed to, once the shild is paid, the matter is done and any further claim of vengeance was invalid.

  • Samning is the ordinary process of negotiation. Such negotiations were handled through a third party, acceptable to both sides, in order to be able to avoid direct contact between the two parties prematurely, which could result in heated words and a breakdown in the negotiation process.
  • Sjálfdoemi means “self-doom”, and essentially lays the question of shild, or recompense, on the other party. It was used with the expectation of goodwill. One offering sjálfdoemi to another essentially gave up all rights to negotiate to that other person. There are rare occasions where it was misused (and the misuser lost standing within the community, and his reputation was harmed), but on the whole it was an effective tool when both sides in the dispute were known to be honorable, reasonable, and would not take advantage. It essentially took the form of the injurer to ask the injured what a fair shild would be. The injurer was, by offering sjálfdoemi, bound by whatever price the injured named. 
  • Jafnadardórmr was somewhat different, and involved what we might today call “binding arbitration”. It was done in the context of Þing, and the arbitrator was a respected member of society whose interest was maintaining the peace. He could be counted on to make a fair and impartial ruling. Because of a lack of established law-courts within the modern Heathen community, this is quite obviously not an option used overly much, but as the Ásatrú community grows and matures, it can be hoped that it could see more widespread use.

There are two places the system breaks down.

The first is in situations where the wrongdoer fails to acknowledge the wrong done. That was the definition of murder in ancient times – to kill someone without owning up to the deed. To kill someone and acknowledge the fact to the next person one saw was, in fact, the honorable and correct thing to do. In such a circumstance, one could then pay a reasonable shild and restore the balance and the peace of society. But if one denies that a wrongdoing has been made, then there is no basis for negotiation.

The second is when arbitration is attempted, but spurned. Such spurning could take the form of either a direct refusal to negotiate, or the setting of some shild that was so obviously outrageous (either outrageously high or low) that it was obvious to any impartial observer that there was no negotiation being made. As a rule, this required something of a history to actually be established – someone with a history of this sort of behavior was named an ójafnaðarmaðr (“one who does not deal fairly”), and his reputation suffered accordingly, sometimes fatally in extreme circumstances.

When the process of negotiation has broken down, despite the efforts of at least one party to make it work, then our ancestors were forced into more violent means to resolve their conflicts. Feud, einvigi, and holmgang. The particulars of such are outside the scope of this particular article, but it should be noted that the potentially deadly outcomes of duels render them relatively moot in terms of modern practice. There is no tradition of “foam swords at dawn”, and the threat of physical harm or even death is not something that can reasonably be removed from the equation. Without that potentiality, it becomes a non-option in modern society. So arbitration and compromise become our modern options, and if they fail, we resort to feud. Fortunately, feud in our modern world ends up being insults and accusations hurled across email, and that, in and of itself, does not imbalance society.

The Ins and Outs of Heathenry

One of the basic principles of Heathenry is the concept of the innangarðs and the útangarðs. Literally, these two Old Norse terms mean “inside the enclosure” and “outside the enclosure”. The concept is applied more broadly to kinship and kithship. There are those who are “in the group”, and those who are “outside the group”.

The distinction between that which is within the boundary – that which is civilized and known and safe – and that which lies outside the boundary – that which is wild and (potentially) dangerous, penetrates into the very conception of the Heathenry cosmos. As Swain Wodening puts it:

The innangarðs (ON) is all that is within the nine worlds. Outside is the útangarðs (ON), the wilds where man has no control. Thus you have the nine worlds, and then Útgard; that outside the sphere of both Man and the Gods (as well as the giants, elves, and dwarves). It is a place where creatures such as Útgard Loki dwell.(1)

This is most obviously seen in more tribalist forms of Heathenry such as Théodish Belief, where the distinction between a member of the tribe and an outsider is sharply defined and has implications for both ritual and social interactions. It is also seen, however, in most other forms of Heathenry, where the basic group, the “kindred”, is very specifically defined. Whether membership in the kindred is formalized by the taking of an oath, or by the consensus of the other members of the group, or some other formula, we see a drawing of the boundary. One is in the group, or one is not. To once more quote Swain Wodening on the subject:

The ancient Heathens applied this reasoning to their social units as well as Mankind as a whole. They viewed the world of man as a farmstead with its enclosing fences. All inside the world of Man was inside the fences. This applied to tribes, who were viewed as their own enclosures. The law of Mercia did not apply to someone from Northumbria even if the crime was committed in Mercia. Each tribe was its own innangarðs.(2)

This is not to say that there is a velvet rope around every Heathen group. The major international groups have a membership that is obtained by paying dues. But where it counts, in the everyday local groups, there is almost always a standard that must be met in order to become a “member”. More than just showing up to a ritual.

Too, it should be remembered that the distinction between the innangarðs and the útangarðs does not mean that guests are unwelcome at Heathen events. Far from it. Théodish groups, generally considered to be on the more exclusive end of the spectrum, specifically have “goodfolk”; friends and guests of the tribe who, while not members, are treated with great respect and goodwill when they attend a gathering of the tribe.

The situation is somewhat analogous to initiatory faiths such as Wicca, but relies more on social cues than initiatory rites. The thought is generally less “you have worked hard and earned the right to participate in our rituals” and more “we like you, you fit in well with our group, and we are ready and willing to take our social bond to the next level.”

As might be inferred, the line between innangarðs and útangarðs is a permeable one. The lore is replete with examples of individuals who were adopted into a tribe, raised as a foster-child in a tribe, or married into a new tribe. But even so, the differences between the in-group and the out-group are best thought of not as a single line, but as a bulls-eye. In the center of the bulls-eye is you and your immediate family. The next ring is your extended family. Then your tribe. And so forth. This is one reason (among many) that the majority of Heathens don’t tend to associate with or identify with neo-Pagans. They are simply way too far out in the rings of the bulls-eye to warrant a lot of attention. There are a lot of folks who will be closer to the center of the bulls-eye, regardless of faith. The relationship is both subtle and situational, but the distinctions between the “in” and the “out” are very real.

(1) Wodening, Swain. Þéodisc Geléafa “The Belief of the Tribe”, p. 80. Miercinga Theod, TX, 2007

(2) Ibid, p. 81

Subjective Ethnicity today calls our attention to a fascinating paper from Scandia 2008; Dark Age Migrations and Subjective Ethnicity: The Example of the Lombards. Wow.

The premise is that most of what we today consider to be tribal and ethnic groupings from Classical writers aren’t really so. They’re “subjective” groupings based on the personal followers of a particular warband leader, or a particular grouping of war-leaders. It was only later that the cultural identity of these tribes emerged, resulting in linguistic and cultural differences that could be readily used to identify one tribe or the other.

To say that this has implications for tribalist Heathenry is an understatement. Definitely worth reading.

The Gift-Cycle in the Modern World

One of the centerpieces of ancient Germanic culture was the gift-cycle. Warriors in the service of a chieftain would be rewarded with gifts in return for their loyalty; one of the kennings (poetic circumlocutions) for “king” is “giver of rings”, a reference to the practice of giving arm-rings of precious metal to one’s supporters. It is said to be cyclical because gifts are given in return for service, which is given in return for gifts, which are given in return for service, etc.

This same concept is seen in the Germanic approach to the Gods. Sacrifices (Old Norse blót) are made to the Gods in order to secure Their favor. This could be for some specific purpose (such as the votive offerings in the form of tiny ship figurines that have been found, presumably offered for safe passage while at sea) or for a more general effusion of good fortune (what those in the Théodish branch of Heathenry would call luck). Snorri Sturluson makes it plain that at certain times of the year, sacrifices were made to elicit specific things in return:

“þa skydi blota I moti vetri, til ars, onn at mðjum vetri blota til groðrar, it briðja at sumri, þat var sigrblot”

“On winter day there should be blood sacrifice for a good year, and in the middle of winter for a good crop, and the third sacrifice should be on summer day for victory in battle.” – Heimskringla, Ynglingasaga ch. 8

Modern Heathenry is similarly informed by the gift-cycle. Most contemporary Heathens make offerings to the Gods with a motivation similar to that of their ancestors; they give gifts, thus obligating the receiver (in this case, the Gods) to reciprocate. This is one reason that many Heathen rituals will seem quite different than Pagan or Wiccan rites; they are not magical in nature so much as votive. Most contemporary Heathens make offerings of food and drink, although other sorts of offerings are not uncommon.

Théodish Heathens, with their emphasis on the tribal social structure and system of “hold oaths” that bind the individual members of the tribe together in a “web of oaths”, demonstrate this gift-cycle within the tribal structure as well as between tribes. The chieftain of a tribe will give gifts to the members of the tribe (often in elaborate and ritualistic settings such as the ritual known as sumbl (in Old Norse) or symbel (in Anglo-Saxon)), who in turn reciprocate with their service to the tribe and its leader.

This does bring in a question for contemporary Heathens and others who follow the gift-cycle either on a social or purely religious level; how does the gift-cycle fit in to modern society? Instinctively, we have some idea of the mechanism on a cultural level, which was humorously and pedantically pointed out in The Big Bang Theory episode “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” (2008):

Sheldon: Wait! You bought me a present?
Penny: Uh-huh.
Sheldon: Why would you do such a thing?
Penny: I don’t know. ‘Cause its Christmas?
Sheldon: Oh, Penny. I know you think you are being generous, but the foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven’t given me a gift. You’ve given me an obligation.
Howard: Don’t feel bad, Penny, it’s a classic rookie mistake. My first Hanukah with Sheldon, he yelled at me for eight nights.
Penny: Now, hey, it’s okay. You don’t have to get me anything in return.
Sheldon: Of course I do. The essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift you’ve given me. It’s no wonder suicide rates skyrocket this time of year.

Where things get curious is when we have ordinary transactions in the context of modern living. When I hand someone $5 and get a hamburger in return, have I just participated in the gift cycle? When I am taxed, and those taxes are given to someone I don’t even know in the form of food stamps, is that part of the gift cycle? The answer would be no, as those sorts of transactions are lacking in one crucial aspect; the expectation of reciprocity. There is no expectation on the part of the hamburger cook that I will, having finished one burger, then pay for another (or that I will seek out that particular establishment the next time I am hungry), nor do I feel any obligation to do so.

Salaries and other pre-agreed payments for services rendered do not fall under the rubric of the gift cycle, for exactly the same reason. Bear in mind that the very name implies that what is given is given voluntarily on both sides; as a gift between friends.

Taxation and the receipt of government largess is a different story, but is similarly outside the gift-cycle because it is impersonal. There can be no expectation of reciprocity unless there is a face to whom one can reciprocate; when someone receives a welfare check, there is no single individual to whom they can offer thanks and reciprocate (except in some instances where a particular government official positions himself to be seen as the font of such largess, which is a phenomenon politicians are all too aware of and willing to exploit).

Similarly, notions of anonymous charity such as those espoused by certain Christians and others, would fall outside the gift-cycle because they explicitly break the notion of reciprocity. By dropping a coin into the poor box when no one is watching, one is taking steps to ensure that whatever use is made of the money, it cannot be traced back to the donor, and thus no thanks can be given (except, one imagines, by the Christian God, so perhaps in that sense it’s not so anonymous after all!).

This is not to say that “tribal” Heathen communities are somehow isolated from the rest of society, and such Heathens have one set of rules that apply to fellow tribe members and not to others. As noted above, the idea of the gift-cycle is embedded within us on a cultural, and perhaps psychological, level. It can be seen to work on as simple a plane as the man who rakes his neighbor’s leaves while he’s gone for the weekend, only to find his walk shoveled a few months later after a snowstorm. We instinctively know the gift-cycle to be a healthy and community-building way of behaving, even if we don’t always call it by that name, or indulge in it self-consciously.  The Hávamál may say that “a gift demands a gift”, but in more modern terms we can simply acknowledge that being good and generous to others tends to make others good and generous to us. By following traditional modes of dealing with others, such as the gift-cycle, we set ourselves up as a good example for our non-Heathen neighbors.

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