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Musings: The Frithyard in ritual and at Thing

As is so often the case for me... discussion on a mailing list provides excellent fodder to stretch the heathen mind, and chew on some food for thought. Recent discussions on one of the ML's I'm a member of have been discussing the role of weapons in ritual. As is all too often the case, there are texts that give the false impression to Asatru that weapons are regularly if not always used in ritual, such as Scott Mohnkern's poorly researched A Year of Viking Rituals. When in truth weapons were usually forbidden in religious rituals, save for the blade used by whoever was killing the blood sacrifice. Based on archaeological finds we know that weapons when given in offering to the Gods were either broken and buried, burned, or tossed into a bog/body of water (to rust, lose their edge and sink so far down only a dead man (by ancient technology) could retrieve them.

Here's an excerpt from Tacitus' Germania (Brian Banston's translation from The Lost gods of Eden) describing the ritual procession/celebration around Nerthus and the taboo placed upon weapons during this time:

  • On an island in the ocean sea there is a sacred grove wherein waits a holy wagon covered by a drape. One priest only is allowed to touch it. He can feel the presence of the goddess when she is there in her sanctuary and accompanies her with great reverence as she is pulled along by kine.

    It is a time of festive holiday making in whatever place she decides to honour with her advent and stay. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, in fact every weapon is put away, only at that time are peace and quiet known and prized until the goddess, having had enough of peoples company, is at last restored by the same priest to her temple. After which the wagon and the drape, and if you like to believe me, the deity herself is bathed in a mysterious pool.

    The rite is performed by slaves who, as soon as it is done, are drowned in the lake. In this way mystery begets dread and a pious ignorance concerning what that sight may be which only those who are about to die are allowed to see. - Germania, ch. 40

If you look to Njal's Saga, Section 144 "The Battle at the Althing" shows the edict of weapons barred from the thing being violated as a fight breaks out. Eventually this leads to both wergild, and outlawry/exile. And if memory serves me correctly the ban on weapons at the althing is also mentioned in Hfrankel's Saga. And if you look to Eyrbyggja's Saga there's also mention of what wasn't permitted (bloodshed). As an FYI, when you see items in our lore banning bloodshed (save perhaps whatever blood was shed from a sacrifice) it's implying that if bloodshed wasn't allowed, weapons most likely weren't either. It's not necessarily the case, but it suggest this was the case, and taken in consideration with other evidence makes the ppossibility more and more likely the reality.

Tacitus first writes of the Thing as it applies to Germania... but other related cultures also had Things. Some of the more wellknown sites are Norway's Frosta and Gula, Sweden's Uppsala and Skara, Denmark's Viborg and Oresund, and Iceland's Thingvellir. I think it's important to step back and understand what a "THING" was. The Althing was part Supreme Court, Part U.S. Congress (as it passed and made law, formed alliances and trade could be worked out), it acted as a debutante ball for the daughters who were of marriagable age for they accompanied their male relatives showing off their 'wifely' skills by cooking and making ready items for the men. This enabled those families a venue to advertise those daughters as they sought out advantages matches for marriage alliances (it also from a genetic perspective kept a continual supply of fresh DNA to more isolated communities). It was also a venue where the sons of a family could have their own acknowledgment as coming of age and being recognized as men. The Thing was started with a religious rite... a blot (or at least the Althing was).

So here you have a gathering of people from all over, some who no doubt were at odds with one another, people of varying opinions... so things could very much get heated. Legal cases were being listened to and judged... and passions were high. Passions could also flare from the sheer conveyance and physical attraction between people present. So picture if you will this crazy tumult. It makes complete and utter sense that there would be strict customs in place about the use and bearing of weapons within the official designated site of the Thing.

This custom, no doubt stems from the same custom as we see first pointed to in Tacitus' Germania regarding the worship of Nerthus. Again, we have a community of people coming together, some who could potentially be in feud with a neighbor. It makes sense that the decorum and dignity of worshipping your Gods is giving cultural precedence over your personal beef with another, and thus weapons are forbidden.

If we look to the understanding of the 'frithyard' this can certainly be seen in religious and other major gatherings such as Things.

To understand frith, let's look at the definition from Hall's A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, the Old English word friþ meant: 1. peace, tranqility; 2. security, refuge; 3. privilege of special protection and the penalty for the breach of it; 4. the restoration of rights to an outlaw. So the desgianted space of frith (or the frithyard) was a sanctuary and refuge, where peace was to rein during the purpose of the gathering. At the Icelandic Althing this area was designated by rope. To read up more on frith, you may find this article of some interest (and it has a list of items for further reading): www.friggasweb.org/frith.html.