Recently Real Heathenry published a piece arguing for the postion of the Gods not being personal Gods. I agree with them. Whether you agree or not, I strongly urge you to go read their piece, even if you disagree. I have found that the more I challenge my own beliefs, the more I learn and grow as a person and a Heathen.
I am not going rehash their points. I want to talk about something that goes beyond that question, into my own personal practices and beliefs. This essay is my own personal experience as a Heathen woman over the past fifteen years. It is not a criticism of anyone’s beliefs and practices. I only speak to what I believe is the best practices for me, and how I came to those conclusions.
I grew up in a religious tradition that heavily valued a personal relationship with their god. It was the focus of one’s life, and the focus of almost all aspects of worship and study. There is something deeply meaningful about the idea there is someone up above looking out for you. This belief is very pervasive in almost all modern western religion.
When I first became a Heathen, the idea of being “fultrui” with a god was common, if not expected. For many years, I considered myself a devotee of Frey. However, I never got back the relationship that I expected. I believed that all gods worked the same way. I feel silly typing that out. The fact is every goddess or god in every pantheon is a unique being with unique personalities, likes, dislikes, and quirks. If one god in one belief system acted one way, that every god in every belief system acted the same was a giant logical fallacy on my part.
As time went on, however, I still craved some sort of personal relationship with something greater than myself. I wanted to feel a protective and loving power in my life, one that many people would associate with a divine presence. This was a time of great emotional and spiritual struggle for me. I even considered finding another religious path, my desire ran so deep. I tried on a few for size, but they never compared to the soundness I feel in my beliefs as a Heathen.
This lead to a moment of “Now what?” I firmly believe that daily connection to something greater than myself is critical to my spiritual and mental health. If the Gods are not the beings to fill that role, who is? Who can I petition for the daily needs of myself and my family? Who is invested in me and mine in
a way that allows a strong personal relationship?
I was reminded who in my life has loved me unconditionally and has been there no matter what circumstances – my grandmother and great grandmother. There was no one I loved or trusted more than my grandmother and her mother. I am truly their heir. When they were alive, they both would have moved the heavens and earth to help me if I were in need.
I lost my grandmother almost two years ago, and her mother when I was a teenager. Both losses were very hard on me, because I felt as if a piece of my life was missing. However, as a Heathen, death is not the separation it is in other religions. We believe in actively maintaining our relationships with our ancestors, and they are with us. My grandmother and great-grandmother still have a vested interest in me, and as disir, they have knowledge beyond my moral human perceptions.
It started small. I wanted to build my relationship with them, since it had been a while since we talked. I set up an ancestral altar, and left gifts for them – their favorite foods, flowers, and other things I knew they loved. I visited every morning. I also began focusing on things that I knew that they enjoyed when they were living, specifically fiber work, music, and genealogy. The first two were incredibly important to this process, as my grandmother and great-grandmother taught me both.
Most of my family is buried far away, so I have made do with this altar. I go there now when I need guidance or just need to talk to them. Our relationship is just as strong as when they were alive. I get emotional writing this, because their love and presence in my life daily grounds me and helps me to remain focused on what is important. This relationship has also helped me internalize many Heathen concepts, and learn to be a more understanding and loving wife, daughter, friend, and sister.
This has broadened over time to more of my female ancestors. I collectively call them “Amma,” the Icelandic word for Grandmother. I call to them many times through my day, sometimes in need of guidance, but mostly in gratitude for my life. I go nightly to my altar and leave gifts for them in gratitude for another prosperous day.
Through this process, I have discovered that I don’t need a “personal god.” I am fortunate and blessed to have powerful ancestors who I share deep and meaningful relationships. I live a life full of luck and prosperity. I credit all of this directly to my relationship with my Amma.
To any women who might feel a bit lost in Heathenry, I encourage you to forge these bonds with your disir. I cannot speak to men’s experiences, but I know that my disir were there and eager to be a part of my life and continue to build the familial luck and prosperity. I firmly believe that your disir are eager to be a part of your life as well.
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.