Dipping my toe into a contentious issue here, especially at Yule.
We know that the Icelanders enforced frith when they came together at the Thing – by bounding the area and by having swords tied by frith-bonds so that they could not be drawn. We know that Yule is a time when frith must be kept. We know that kinship was very important to the ancient heathens, so important that being split from his dead kin was what made Radbod step back from forsaking the gods and being baptised, and so important that great friends swore blood brotherhood.
But we also read in the sagas of many a dust-up at thing – both verbal and physical – and many a falling-out between kin. One heathen organisation has traditionally enjoined those who attend its annual moot to be ever blithe as well as frithful; one hears tell of attendees “stepping outside”, leaving the campsite, to have out an altercation, and many years one saw an eruption of controversy on e-lists after they all came home. Germanic people are famously fractious – we heathens can’t even agree what to call our way. What are we supposed to do when we disagree with someone on a list; or in a kindred; or in our blood family? This ideal of frith doesn’t even fit the lore, let alone the needs of actual living.
In fact, it’s a re-dressing of Xian peace, perhaps, as in Rydberg’s work, with a focus on the family and the tribe. Compare the advice in Hávamál: friendship is so wonderful because you can speak your whole mind (121); no true friend says only what the other wants to hear (124), and perhaps most tellingly: Eldi heitari / brennr með illum vinum / friðr fimm daga – “Hotter than fire / burns for five days / the relationship between bad friends” (51), where I’ve rendered friðr by “relationship”. This is what you get, in fact, when you only say good things to each other and don’t share your true thoughts: a five-day friendship, and a falling-out. (Or a peaceful moot followed by an explosion on the lists.) Nothing gets settled at such a moot, nobody reaches a deep understanding with another that way, no flame jumps from person to person (57). It’s a dead end and a waste of an opportunity, even when it doesn’t end in enmity. It’s suppressing one’s true thoughts for the sake of an alien ideal of peace. And it may seem that the Hávamál passage uses friðr oddly there, but Cleasby-Vigfússon suggest that that was the original usage: joy, friendship, a relationship. Notice that that’s the word for the “favour” of a false woman in 90: Svá er friðr kvenna. There’s a flood of later uses, in both Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, where it means “truce” or “peace”, but the heathen texts do not bear out the notion that the Xian ideal of peace for its own sake is heathen. Rather, what Hávamál says, what saga figures (and families) do, and even Hávamál’s uses of the word, indicate otherwise.
Which is actually kinder to your friend: to tell her as soon as something she is doing starts to be a problem for you, or to grin and bear it and seethe inwardly? Which is actually better for your family, both in reputation and for those who are stuck with being members: to make excuses for the guy who chronically misbehaves (pilfers; “tags” public property with his name; is rude to women in the street or on-line … ) or to tell him as a family to shape up, preferably before it does become a habit that’s hard to break or a criminal matter? Which benefits children more, for their families to tell them it’s ok even if they do badly in school (and maybe then be disappointed or even angry), or for them to tell them clearly that they should do all the homework and ask for help if it’s hard, because how they do in school does matter? “Little white lies” should be little. If you really care, you should say something. No true friend – or kinsman – says only nice things. And that is after all what a moot is – a meeting. The ancient Things were places to court and marry, and to catch up on news, but they were also law courts at which to get things done, including having out and resolving contentious issues.
There is no putting of peace first in heathenry. Týr, as we know, is not a peacemaker. Baldr, Snorri tells us in Gylfaginning, is the wisest, sweetest-spoken, and most merciful of the gods, and his judgement is irrevocable. Forseti, his son, settles all law cases brought before him so that the parties go away reconciled. Those are the closest: Baldr and Forset resolve situations, without the battle that would be the other way to resolve them. It’s not that we should be using the holmgang to resolve every dispute, or encouraging fights at moots, or treating family members the same as enemies (Hávamál has many verses distinguishing dealings with friend and foe, idiot and wiser person, and advises us that family is a good thing and having no one is not). It’s not that we should be blithe the way Víga-Glúmr was – when he decided to kill someone. Our blitheness at Thing, or with friends and relatives, should come from a genuine relationship, a genuine togetherness, a genuine exchange of views.
And that’s the kind of frith I wish us all this Yuletide, and after.