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.