Friday, September 12, 2008

The Injustice of the Thrall System

Vilhelm Moberg's A History of the Swedish People (Volume I : From Prehistory to the Renaissance, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1970, Chapter 1) is invaluable and enlightening. In particular, it exposes the injustice of the thralls, as they actually existed in Viking Days. Every society has contradictions. Moberg exposes some of the glaring class contradictions of Iron Age heathen society.

It is certainly easy to imagine a position for Thralls that is not unjust --- for example, temporarily creating indentured servants out of those who cannot pay their wergild-debts for crimes against others --- and indeed, the institution perhaps began in this kind of way, but Moberg illustrates that it was a hereditary class in which slaves were bred and kept as slaves. It was brutal, unjust, and a reduction of human beings to chattel.

Absolutely, totally incompatible with the freedom that our ancestors claimed to cherish. A glaring, bloody contradiction in their societies that is irredeemable, and tremendously under-addressed in modern heathenism.

Moberg argues that texts like Rigsthula were utilized by the Jarls to claim that this unjust social system was Divinely Ordained so that the thralls would keep their place. This kind of nonsense is not religion ; it is ideology, plain and simple. Rigsthula doesn't have to be interpreted in that way, but it does take a lot of twisting to get any liberatory interpretation out of it.

How does one excuse the ancestors for disgracing Freyr in this way? Freyr whose very name means freedom, who sets all bonds free?

This is deeply troubling, and it should be deeply troubling. It is proof that the religion of our ancestors was not yet fully developed, for they had not yet been able to fully realize, articulate, and put into effect the reality of the Gods they worshipped. It is a contradiction to worship Freyr and to hold slaves.

This level of class contradiction and division cannot but help poison a society. Moberg makes it very clear that it was Christianity that brought a new ideology that allowed bondsmen to be freed because they were now seen as fellow human beings rather than property. Moberg does not romanticize Christianity, because he shows that the freedman did not become an equal of the carl, but was still maintained in a servile laborer class ; nevertheless, he makes a strong argument that it was the Asa-religion as wielded by the jarls of the time that forged the ideological manacles of the thralls, and that it was the change to Christianity that allowed the thralls to be freed in a recognition of common humanity. This was undoubtedly a tremendous gain on all levels, a positive step towards human liberty.

The average heathen likes to imagine themselves in the light of the nobles, but pure numbers suggests that most of us would have been in the lower carl and thrall classes. What their take on heathenism was is not recorded. There is no necessity for such class division in the religion as even Rigsthula suggests that all human beings, thrall, carl, and jarl, are Sons of Heimdall, but in actual practice as reflected in the laws there was absolutely no sense of human brotherhood.

People were bought and sold in open markets, slave women were purchased from abroad in order to breed more offspring who would not be free, who had committed no crimes, but would be enslaved themselves. Thralls could be killed or maimed at the owner's discretion, and any sign of disobedience would be met with corporal punishment.

We want to remember these things when fellow heathens idealize the old days. I don't think any of us would have wanted to live in those dark and corrupt Iron Age societies, however much we may have the freedom in a far freer age to romanticize them.

Our ancestors who created this religion only planted the seeds, but they did not yet bring their vision and realization of the Gods to fruition. No society can do so perfectly, but at least a society can try to do so in good faith. There is no way that bond slavery of the proportions of those times was in good faith. Truly, it was not Asatru. It did not hold True Faith to the Gods in their best of capacities.

If we do not admit this, if we do not admit that the ancestors fell short in their ability to realize the mandates of the Gods, and instead maintain that the religion was perfect as is, then we open ourselves to the quite legitimate charges that the religion itself was corrupt as such, and needed to be replaced by a more liberatory one. I, for one, do not accept that conclusion, but it is at times a difficult one to resist, even with my disdain for Official and Organized Christianity.

Often it is the most militaristic of folks who will whine the loudest about how Christianity was imposed by force, not realizing the utter hypocrisy of their statements. By their own logic of the strong against the weak, we should be celebrating Christianity for winning military victories. Obviously Odin and Tyr were on their side! And perhaps they were. It is not foreign to religious traditions to suggest that the God(s) utilize foreign enemies to punish impiety amongst a native population.

Could slavery have been the sin that cast the Gods' aspersion?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes. And I am right glad to see someone hold this up to the light. I am sick of uncritical adoration of tribal systems by folks who have never lived in them, and don't notice sexist, classist, cruel-to-animals, etc. traditions therein. I suspect nigh every ancient or nonwestern culture has both something we could learn from and something that should have been wiped out.
I really like this blog, and haven't said so earlier because the comment system was alien to me.

7:18 AM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Thank you! Well said. Please keep coming back!

3:03 PM  
Blogger Audrie Mallory said...

I wish I had found this earlier. I haven't read the rest of the blog yet, but will. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

I have not read the book mentioned here yet, but have come to similar conclusions in my piecemeal research and reading on the web. I've been having problems getting my mind around this, also the status of women. The more I dig into it the more I wonder if Christianity, especially the Celtic type, might have been welcomed by the underclasses. Very much looking forward to the rest of your thoughts.

I hope I am not posting this twice, if yes, please delete this one, the comment system seems to have lost the first attempt.

9:11 PM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Hi Audrie,

Welcome. Debt-slavery, even as a kind of bail-bondage/coerced-community-service for criminals, can quickly degenerate when an agricultural community realizes the surplus to be generated through enslavement. It's a real contradiction that must be confronted.

The status of women was fairly high for that age, and the importance of the avunculate as averred by Tacitus in Germania shows the traces of a matrilineal orientation that had given over to patrilineality by the time our historical records begin. This shows that even the high status of women in Germanic society was not as high as it once was.

Keep in mind as well that the Vikings were not only impacted by the social changes brought about in ripples (far from the borders) by the confrontation with the Roman Empire, but were more proximately influeced by Muslim commercialism, which no doubt empowered Gullveig in a way seldom felt before, and that avarice expanded the traffic in human beings to a veritable slave trade of shameful proportions. Gold's intoxication, as our myths show, can tear even the Gods apart if they are not careful, and that base orientation is so pernicious that even though they burned her three times, still she arises, still the greed for gain asserts itself. But let us not genderize this by playing a "blame the bitch" game similar to the Eve-politics in Christianity, because without Loki's active collaboration, without the spreading of lies, slander, fraud, legal trickery, smokes and mirrors, disguising artifice, machination, and manipulation, the whole thing would be exposed for what it is and would be overturned in a fortnight. When these two combine, the monsters of bondage and restriction (the serpent with its coils), of ravenous, insatiable war (the wolf), and of scarcity, famine, and disease (Hela-Leikin) are let loose in the world. Only the combined action of the Gods can bind them into harmlessness. There are very clear lessons here for us to assimilate.

And we are not bound by the contradictions of the ancestors, who were caught in their own historical tangles. That was their wyrd. We are free to weave our own, letting unwyrd drop, and reweaving the most fortunate potentials of the deeds of the past into our present struggles and endeavors.

5:21 AM  
Blogger Audrie Mallory said...

Thank you. I have a lot of study ahead of me. I am deep in the coils of Rydberg [from your reading list] already. I really wish to understand the world view/s and spiritual life of my ancestors. However, I have little patience with Romantic re-enacters, with those who would be king, etc.

Eventually I want to bring my thought forward to present day as much as possible, somewhat along the lines of what might have happened over time if the ethos came forward naturally. Well, as much as I can conceive it. Heathenism for the 21st century so to speak.

I appreciate the thought, work, and perseverance that must go into your blog. Thank you for staying with it. It is already proving to be a fine resource. Again, much appreciated.

12:31 PM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

A gift well received is a gift well given.

If you have any questions about Rydberg, or any of the material I've synthesized here, I'd be happy to help.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Audrie Mallory said...

Thank you for you kind offer but you must be careful! I might eventually have a thousand questions...or more. :) I'll try not to be too much of a pest.

I am about halfway through Rydberg. Could you point me to some criticisms that are balanced? This is so different from any other material I have read.

I am doing my best to at least keep up with your current posts. If only real life would quit interfering with my studies. I am in awe of your scholarship and it was truly a lucky day for me when I discovered your blog.

7:56 PM  
Blogger SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

I would look to for said balance. Excellent stuff there. Rydberg is controversial and dismissed by many, but the last time I checked, truth wasn't a democracy, so use your reasoning and check in with your deep intuition and work it through. Does he plausibly piece together the fragments in the lore? I think so. No one else has tied Saxo so firmly together into the rest of the tradition. If not every synthesis of his actually existed back then, so what? In fact, it does fit into a wide Indo European framework that makes sense. But even to the degree it was an original synthesis, it is so in the same way Tolkien was : faithful, full of reverence and troth, and such careful attention to sources and lore ought be how we generate new lore, a perfect combination of scholarly rigor and poetic insight (remember Rydberg was one of the foremost poets of his day).

9:24 AM  

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