Heathenry Musings Pt. 2: Frith

I started reading Vilhelm Grønbech’s The Culture of the Teutons in an effort to further my study of Heathenry. It is one of the most highly commended books for understanding the Heathen worldview. It’s a long, dry, dense read, so it’s recommended to read a chapter, then discuss and contemplate it. Here, on this blog, I will organize my notes into thoughts.

Chapter 1 is about frith, which is, understandably, a difficult concept. It is not merely a state of the relationship between two people; it is a mindset that has been lost now thanks to the tide of Christianity. In the same way Americans value our own independence and individuality, to the point where such characteristics are ingrained onto our souls as our necessary rights, so too was frith so ubiquitous and ingrained into the arch-Heathen’s soul. Grønbech argues, actually, that frith formed the basis of the arch-Heathen soul, and all words and deeds sprang forth from it. The arch-Heathen did not choose to act in order to bring about frith; instead, frith willed the arch-Heathen into action.

But what is frith? I’ll start with the definition Grønbech gives: that is, reciprocal inviolability.

We’ll get the easy part of the term out of the way first. Something that is reciprocal is something shared, something requited. It’s a mutual give-and-take from all involved parties. Inviolable comes from the Latin inviolabilis; its root, violare, means “to do violence to” something. Therefore, something inviolable is something that cannot be harmed, injured, or brought into conflict. It cannot be broken, infringed, or dishonored.

When two people have frith between them, no matter how much they quarrel or hold antipathy toward each other, they must come eventually to an equal and balanced peace. Frith prevents conflict between kinsmen; back then, it specifically pertained to conflicts of violence (killings), but nowadays, we might see it as legal disputes, public slander, and anything else that would equate to “killing” a person (and also actual bodily, mental, or emotional harm, of course).

The following examples come from the first chapter and are what I believe to be the best examples Grønbech gave of frith:

  • The husband of Thurid is killed by his enemy. His enemy’s son approaches Thora, Thurid’s daughter, and asks for her hand in marriage. As much as Thora is disgusted, she accepts, on the condition that her father’s murder be avenged; three participants in her father’s murder are killed on her wedding night. She later convinces her husband to join her brothers in killing a relative of her father’s murderer; said relative was trying to woo her mother. Thurid, on her part, accepted the man’s advances in order to draw him into an ambush so her son-in-law and sons could kill him.
    • Here, Thora and Thurid both understand what their love of their father and husband, respectively, demanded — what their frith obligated them to — and that fulfilling those demands was paramount, in spite of it all.
  • When Egil mourns the death of his son, it is not that he alone is mourning; his kinsmen mourn through him. In his grief, he is not a father grieving over his son; he is the entire community mourning the fragmentation of their wholeness.
    • From Grønbech: “No individual can suffer without affecting the whole circle.”
  • In the tale of Gisli’s outlawry, Gisli is brothers with Thorkel. Thorkel’s BFF Thorgrim kills Gisli’s BFF Vestein; to avenge Vestein, Gisli kills Thorgrim in his sleep. Thorgrim’s allies hunt Gisli down to avenge their fallen comrade. Thorkel rides with the party, but arrives at Gisli’s house first and hides the evidence of his brother’s deeds. Throughout the saga, Thorkel continues to ride with Gisli’s enemies while, at the same time, sneaks about trying to protect Gisli.
    • The interesting note here is that Thorkel is being passive in his frith-keeping; frith demands that Thorkel loudly and bravely support his brother before Thorgrim’s allies, instead of riding with them (his brother’s enemies!) and sneaking around.

Which leads me to most interesting fact about frith: it is active, full of will, firm, and passionate. It does not passively accrue; it is not passively maintained. It requires conscious action. A man would kill another, then flee to the houses of his kinsmen, and even if they scold him for the murder, they would invariably, unquestioningly raise up defenses and prepare for the vengeance that the murdered’s family will — invariably — bring down upon their heads. Frith is, therefore, simple and straightforward. It does not take into account the “why” of something; only the “what” and only the “who.”

“Kinsmen are literally the doers of one another’s deeds.” —Grønbech, The Culture of the Teutons

Grønbech continues to expand on the deep connotations of frith that are lost in modern translations. He emphasizes that frith is not the tender, passionate, consuming love we hold between our friends and family members in his modern age. Frith is a steadfast, solemn, sober security. It appears cold to outsiders, but when you venture below the surface, frith is full of joy and delight; the pleasure one feels when at home, surrounded by family and friends; the selfless grace to protect, fight for, and — if necessary — commit wrongs for the benefit of a kinsmen; love; and the gladness one feels when one is in want of nothing.

In Eric Wodening’s We Are Our Deeds, frith is equated to goodness, righteousness, society, the inner-yard, law, and customs. I don’t mean that they are all related; I mean that they are one and the same thing. This leads me, of course, to ask certain questions:

  • How can we apply frith to a modern life, to a modern society where the inviolability described above is no longer widely recognized?
  • How important are blood ties in this modern world? We no longer rely on our blood families to survive harsh winters. What happens when our family members are abusive, or if we have complicated relationships with them? How is frith maintained in those situations?
  • Outside of my blood family, to whom can I point and comfortably say “these are my kinsmen; they are responsible for my actions, and I, theirs”? What does that mean in this modern world, when we no longer exact vengeance through blood?

After discussing the chapter with Brooke, I’ve formed a few additional thoughts. In particular, if conflict between kinsmen (or in modern day terms, people in the inner-yard) breaks frith, then a kinsman who has caused harm (bodily, mental, or emotional) to another is a frithbreaker. I might be wrong, but for the arch-Heathen, the punishment for kinslaying was outlawry. So in cases of abusive relatives, I would say that they are immediately frithbreakers, and the family is no longer obligated to maintain frith with them if they so choose. Such frithbreakers can be cast into the outer-yard or beyond.

We also discussed how to decide which unrelated individuals are supposed to count as our inner-yards. Since frith is not about love, but about security and stability, I suggested that the inner-yard is reserved for those people who make us feel safe — mentally, emotionally, but also physically. In my case, it means the people around whom I don’t have to raise walls or wear masks; it means people with whom I can comfortably discuss deeply personal and embarrassing topics. That sense of safety is why I love them and willingly put them in my inner-yard.

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