What ties you to your family and those you consider the closest to you? It’s many things, but can often be summed up as the shared experiences, emotions, obligations, beliefs, interests, goals, and traditions of a community or family. My brother and I are very close in part because of the shared experiences, emotions, and traditions we experienced growing up together. Those beliefs put into action obligations and goals between us. We are also bound by a blood relationship, and both believe in the importance of family, even if we believe differently about religion. I would do everything I could to help my brother, and he would do the same. I rejoice in his triumphs and share his sorrow.
I can share a similar story of my kindred brother, Ben. I have known him for almost 15 years. We have a strong history together. We share similar beliefs and goals in life because of the oaths we both made to our kindred. We have shared many experiences, and are invested in each other’s lives. His son is my godson, and his wife is my beloved friend. Much like my brother, I would do everything in my power to help Ben and his family, and I know he would do the same.
The descriptions above are frith in a nutshell. Frith is the joys, responsibilities, interdependence, burdens, and benefits of relationships bound by blood and oath. In modern society, these connections can be found in our blood familial relationships, kindreds, marriages, and adoption.
The Historical Frith
The oneness of the kindred was no mere conceptual ideal; it was implemented and practiced as a matter of course in everyday life, and the name for this many-faceted thew was frith. (Grönbech)]
[F]rith is a dynamic established and maintained by the bonds of oath and kinship, in which potential strife is channeled constructively and mutual respect is maintained. (Gundarsson)
When we speak of historical Frith, the first source almost always quoted is The Culture of the Teutons. First published in 1901 by Vilhelm Grönbech, a professor of the history of religion at the University of Copenhagen, and then updated and translated by William Worster in 1931. His definition of Frith seems to be the most widely accepted by modern Heathens.
“Frith is something active, not merely leading kinsmen to spare each other, but forcing them to support one another’s cause, help and stand sponsor for one another, trust one another… The responsibility is absolute, because kinsmen are literally the doers of one another’s deeds.” (Grönbech)
Frith goes beyond emotion, into action between those who are bound together. Without action, frith is meaningless. I can say that I love my brother, that I would do anything for him, but if I fall short on those actions, there is no Frith between us. There might be love, a familial bond, but there is no Frith.
In ancient society, there were two types of frith, Kin-Frith and Oath-Frith. The first was the bond between families, and the second was the bond between a lord and his people.
Kin-frith was the bond that held the tribe together, and it was also a source of strife between tribes. In Winifred Hodge’s essay for the Frithweavers Guild, she states:
This absolute, uncompromising character of kindred-oriented frith actually contributed significantly to the pursuit of feuds and strife within the larger community, at the same time that it reduced strife within the kindred, inside the pale of frith. Frith was nothing if not partisan: focused on security and stability of the kindred, it had no application to those individuals and groups who lay outside the boundaries when it came to a conflict of interest between the two. Nor could any notion of absolute, unbiased justice make a dent in it: defending one’s kindred was always right, no matter how wrong their actions were. Frith was the paramount thew, taking precedence over all others. (Hodge) Emphasis Mine
Frith was absolute. It meant backing your kin, even if they were completely wrong. So great was this love and devotion, that you must side with them at all costs. Their actions were yours and your actions were theirs. There was a oneness of belief and purpose in a family, and it came before all else.
Oath-frith (also known as king-frith) was a bond between a leader and his people. These bonds were incredibly important. The leader needed his people and the people needed their leader. In short, “the lord owed the man his livelihood, while the man owed the lord his life.” (Hodge) This was just not a one way relationships. Michael Cherniss speaks of the deep emotion that a leader had for his people
The devotion of the lord to his followers, and the love of the followers for their lord, are at least partially the result of the role which the lord plays as protector of the people. The lord’s first duty towards the comitatus is to protect his followers from whatever harm might befall them were he not present. (Cherniss)
Those oathed to a leader were expected to not just defend their lord but also to avenge him should he fall. Their deeds and actions were his, and added to his glory and reputation. They fought for him so that he would have victory.
In fact, the epic poem The Battle of Maldon, men swore to their lord they would:
- not to forget the goods and wealth received from their lord
- to always fight before their lord
to wrest glory from the foemen they face
- that they will not flee one foot-step from the battle
- to avenge their lord if he is slain or die trying
- to avenge their lord and fight themselves until slain
When they go into battle, it is a disgrace for the chief to be surpassed in valour, a disgrace for his followers not to equal the valour of the chief. And it is an infamy and a reproach for life to have survived the chief, and returned from the field. To defend, to protect him, to ascribe one’s own brave deeds to his renown, is the height of loyalty. The chief fights for victory; his vassals fight for their chief. (Tacitus)
Frequently, blood-frith were also held in common with oath-frith, strengthening both bonds. However, when the two came into conflict, blood-frith always took precedent over oath-frith.
In the next installment, I will examine Frith, Holy Ones, and Holy Places.
Cherniss, Michael D. Ingeld and Christ: Heroic Concepts and Values in Old English Christian Poetry. The Hague: Moulton, 1972.
Grönbech, Vilhelm. Culture of The Teutons. Trans. William Worster. Vol. 1. London: Oxford University Press , 1931. 3 vols.
Gundarsson, Kveldulf. Our Troth. Ed. Diana Paxson Ben Waggoner. 2nd. Vol. 1. Book Surge Publishing, 2007. 2 vols.
Hodge, Winifred. On the Meaning of Frith. n.d. 28 April 2017. <http://www.friggasweb.org/frith.html>.
Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. Germania. Trans. Alfred John CHURCH. 1910.
This was originally published at Heathen Talk on 26 December 2016
When I first became a Heathen in the days before Facebook and a plethora of digital archives, the Hammer Rite was a staple of Heathen ritual. Most, if not all, of the blots, fainings, and sumbles I attended were began with that familiar call of “Hammer of the North! Hallow and hold this holy stead.” I have fond memories of my own rites as a new Heathen, and the excitement of being in a sacred space. As time has passed, more and more information about the Arch-Heathens come available, we have discovered that the history that was used to create the Hammer Rite is flawed. While the Hammer Rite was once a temporary bridge across the vast chasms of gaps of knowledge, modern Heathenry has grown past needing the Hammer Rite to conduct ritual.
To understand how this flawed history was used to create the Hammer Rite, we need to first examine these ideas and how they came into modern culture. While there are many events in the late Victorian age that influenced modern Paganism, the largest influence came from a woman named Margaret Murray.
Murray is described as an Anglo-Indian Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, and folklorist. She was the first female lecturer in archeology in the United Kingdom, and served as president of the Folklore Society, a very prominent British organization that is almost 140 years old that has published yearly journals, and has curated over 15,000 books on British folklore. 1 Murray was also a fan of a Johann Jakob Bachofen*, who put forth the Das Mutterrecht (Mother Right) hypothesis that all societies were once a matriarchy, a hypothesis that respected scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell said stood in radical opposition to the Aryan origin theories of religion, culture and society, and suggested that Bachofen’s theories only adequately explain the development of religion among the pre-Aryan cultures of the Mediterranean and the Levant, and possibly Southern Asia, but that a separate, patriarchal development existed among the Aryan tribes which conquered Europe and parts of Asia in his book Occidental Mythology.
One of Murray’s most well-known works is The Witch Cult of Western Europe, which put forth the idea there was a homogenous, gynocentric religion that existed in all of Western Europe prior to Christianity. The so called “Burning Times” of the European witch trials were, in her hypothesis, the Catholic Church trying to eradicate what she called later in her book The God of the Witches “The Olde Religion.”
Early criticism of her works came from scholars such as George Burr, an American historian who reviewed her book in The American History Review in 1922. His review refutes many of Murray’s claims as far too narrow, and says she was not acquainted with the “careful general histories by modern scholars” and criticised her for assuming that the trial accounts accurately reflected the accused witches’ genuine experiences of witchcraft, regardless of whether those confessions had been obtained through torture and coercion. 2
Murray had her critics, but never less, her ideas took hold not just in the academic community, but in pop culture. The God of the Witches was written for a mainstream audience, and Murray’s hypothesis was included in the Encyclopedia Britannica under the Witchcraft entry from 1929 until 1969. 3
Founder of Wicca Gerald Gardner was also a member of the Folklore Society where he had access to Murray’s research, and as a result, he adapted many of Murray’s ideas when he created Wicca sometime between 1939 and 1956. 4 5 For many years, Wicca was seen as historically valid because it was in agreement with Murray’s widely accepted Witch Cult hypothesis.
During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the first sparks of what is now the Asatru/Heathen movement began to stir. 6 Unlike modern Heathens, the first group of people who attempted to revive Heathenry didn’t have access to as many academic sources and information. Much of what was available was out of date, or heavily influenced by Freemasonry and ceremonial magic such as the writings of Alexander Rud Mills, one of the first documented Odinists. 7 As a result, they worked with what they had. One of the pieces they did have was Wicca was a historically accurate religion. Since Wicca encompassed an Anglo-Celtic perspective, and the idea that there was a homogenous cult prior to Christianity, it makes sense for those Heathens to look to Wicca for clues as far as structure in ritual.
The Hammer Rite is part of this legacy. The idea of casting a circle, calling forth the directions, and using a sacred object to so is common in Wicca and in the magical practices of Freemasonry, Thelema, and Ceremonial Magic that influenced Wicca. 8 This allowed them to start some sort of practice that honored the Gods. Their praxis wasn’t correct, but it was at least an effort to do something to revive a dead religion.
The idea of Wicca being a historically accurate religion began to fall apart in 1999 when Ronald Hutton published The Triumph of the Moon. Hutton, a professor at the University of Bristol who specializes in pagan British religion, conducted detailed research into the claims that Wicca was “the old religion.” His conclusion was that Wicca was “a mélange of material from relatively modern sources.” Hutton effectively demolished the notion, held by Wiccans and others, that ancient pagan customs existed within medieval Christian practices. This research reveals that outside of a very small number of traditions, such as decorating with greenery at Yuletide and celebrating May Day with flowers, no pagan practices have survived from antiquity. Hutton found that nearly all rural seasonal pastimes once viewed as “timeless” fertility rituals, including the Maypole dance, actually date from the Middle Ages or later. This research helped lead to a widespread consensus among historians that Catholicism thoroughly permeated medieval Europe, with their culture of saints’ shrines, devotions, and even charms and spells. The idea that medieval revels were pagan in origin actually come from the Protestant Reformation.
Hutton also challenged the Wiccan narrative ancient Goddess worship. His strongest argument against the theory of Goddess worship is that pre-Christian Europe believed in many gods and goddesses, being true polytheists. The concept that their gods and goddesses represented different aspects of a single deity was foreign to that culture. The Germanic cosmologies are crowded with discrete spirits. It wasn’t until the second century this idea was introduced by the Roman writer Apuleius, who claimed Isis was in fact the same as other goddesses representing forces of nature.
At the same time, Heathen scholarship was beginning to take off. Books such as We Are Our Deeds were published, and Heathens began pulling away from the practices influenced by Wicca. During the last fifteen years, the average Heathen has obtained access to a plethora of academic sources that were not easily accessible before they were digitized on the web. Now almost any Heathen could really dive into what it meant to be a Heathen prior to Christianization, without the need to depend on other Pagan traditions to fill in the canyons we once had in Heathen belief and practice.
As a result of the increased scholarship, the Hammer Rite fell out of favor, though some groups still use it. I have found two types of groups that still use the Hammer Rite – those who are more interested in practicing a more Neo-Pagan influenced ritual, and those groups who formed prior to the mid 2000’s, when the Hammer Rite fell out of favor. The latter group has a historical and tradition based reason to continue to use the Hammer Rite, and while I don’t agree with it, I find it hard to argue with an established, regional tradition.
Heathenry is coming into its own, and with the existing scholarship, along with current innovations in practice and ritual, we have no need to borrow from Wicca, or any other religion in terms of constructing ritual. The Hammer Rite is a piece of the past, one we should remember, but keep in the past.
* Bachofen never left his house after he retired.