The Holy Folkmoot
This is the sense in which the ancients uttered the phrase "The Gods". We who have heard polytheism only in the distant echoes of the Iliad no longer know how to hear the phrase. The Iliad itself is a late remembrance and reworking of an ancient Indo-European theme brought into focus in the Teutonic mythos as the War Between the Aesir and Vanir and Odin's Exile. In this period of strife, the world of men is torn apart by folk wars, as the Gods ally themselves on different sides of the fighting lines. If "The United States" ordinarily describes the Gods, in this phase of the mythology, directly fomented and painstakingly devised by Loki and Gullveig, we are in the passage of "The Civil War". The Iliad reworks this Civil War of the Gods, and gives us a picture of The Gods not united, but in conflict and at odds with each other, rendering a fragmented image of polytheism that the Judaeo-Christians were quick to exploit to their advantage. This fragmentation was the great fruit of Gullveig's work, and not their ordinary condition.
During this time, Loki set himself as a God amongst men (and what a potent phrase that is, full of implication!) and declared that no longer would the Gods be worshipped in unison, but must be worshipped in a scattered way, separately, reflecting the "Civil War" conditions. When Odin returns, he overcomes this fragmentation and restores the ancient worship-in-unison. For previously, they had, according to Saxo, vota communiter nuncupari, "cast their votes in common", "called (on the Gods) and made their religious vows and pledges in joint action".
This is significant, because it underlines a singularly important characteristic of The Gods. The first time we hear of the Gods in Voluspa, the first and foremost of the old heathen poems in the Poetic Edda, and that great prophetic vision of the long degradation of the ages since the great days of creation, we find them coming together to their seats of judgement : Þá gengu regin öll á rökstóla, ginnheilug goð (Voluspa 6), "Then went all of the powers to the stools of judgement, the awe-inspiringly holy Gods". They are gathered together in council to deliberate, to name and allot powers, to shape tools and create places of worship.
In the ancient world, any place of judgement and sovereign power was explicitly compared to the power of the Gods, and this is why judges were often glossed, sometimes quite literally, as "gods". This is The Gods In Sovereignty and Convened in Council, which was the most sacred and holy of institutions amongst the ancient-folk. Here is the heavenly echo of the inviolable sanctity of the Folkmoot, the Assembly of the People, who gathered, as juries still do, to deliberate on the most important questions of existence. As did the Folk, so did the Gods ; as did the Gods, so did the Folk. Note that it is in this context that the Gods are referred to as ginnheilug, "awe-inspiringly holy". Ginning can mean "to trick", as in the famous Gylfaginning, the "Tricking of Gylfi", but "trick" doesn't properly translate the meaning of the word. Ginn is often translated as "great", and thus Ginnungagap is called "The Great Chasm", but that very chasm gives us a clue as to the full meaning of ginn, which is that giddy vertigo and awe that comes over one at the edge of a precipice, with its sense of peril and mystery that wipes out whatever before was in the mind, as one is face-to-face with something awe-inspiring that dwarfs one's other concerns in comparison. Imagine standing out on the edge of the Grand Canyon, with its majesty and greatness. As in the presence of a great falling-in-love, one's previous thoughts are dashed to silence in the approach of something greater than oneself. The proper translation of Gylfaginning, then, would be, "The Utter Bafflement of Gylfi", or even, "Gylfi's Conquering by Awe". Underline here, therefore, the tremendous holiness of the Gods gathered in council, a power so great as to wipe the mind of all small concerns in the face of terrific responsibility, and great, creative, nourishing power.
For Coming Together in Council was indeed seen as a great, creative, nourishing power, and the judgements given were as the judgements of Gods, requiring great rede, great penetration and insight into the mysteries of existence and the matter at hand, found only in a deeply contemplative and meditative stance pursued in mutual deliberation : here is Homo Sapiens, "Man Thinking", in session.
Our appreciation of the gravitas of the Folkmoot has been overshadowed by Rome's propping of client-kings who usurped the place of the old folk-kings, and diminished the power of the Moot itself, which was the central institution of the people. Speaking of the power of the Basque folkmoot, Wordsworth spoke words that speak to the heart of the majesty of this most central of institutions, meeting by a sacred tree, as the Gods met by Yggdrasil : "Tree of holier power" which "did enshrine" "a voice divine / Heard from the depths of its aerial bower" ... "These lofty-minded Lawgivers shall meet, / Peasant and lord, in their appointed seat, / Guardians of ... ancient Liberty." ("The Oak of Guernica" (1810)). To understand this poem, we must not read the phrase "Peasant and lord" as denoting two different classes of people, but rather the same class, understood in their proper light and power : Peasants as Lords, convened as solemn Lawgivers and Guardians of Liberty.
We find Wordsworth quoted in Charles Sumner Lobingier's magnificent The People's Law (http://books.google.com/books?id=vYpCAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA11&dq=the+Folkmoot#PPR1,M1), a work too long neglected, and overshadowed by schools of scholars too enamored with kings. The People's Law restores the Folkmoot to its proper importance. As Bridget T. Hayes put it, this was a "grave and dignified body" which "had what we commonly call legislative, executive, and judicial functions ; that is it made laws, carried them out, and passed judgments." (Bridget T. Hayes, American Democracy : Its History and Problems, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1921, pp. 13 - 14.) Hayes emphasizes, as is only proper, that decision was not by voting but by consensus. Tacitus speaks of the decisions of the Folkmoot as penes plebem arbitrium, "that which is in the power of the people to judge", or "that which is in the power of the mastery and will of the folk", where de maioribus omnes ... consultant, "everyone deliberates on matters of great importance". Nec ut iussi conveniunt, sed... ex libertate, "They convene not by command or being ordered, but ... out of liberty." He says, Si displicuit sententia, fremitu aspernantur; sin placuit, frameas concutiunt. Honoratissimum adsensus genus est armis laudare. (All Germania 11). "If a proposal displeases them, they reject it with an uproar of loud growls, shouting, and roaring murmurs ; if it pleases them, they strike their spears together. The manner in which they confer the honor of their agreement and assent is to praise it with their arms."
Voluspa has never forgotten this power of the folk-in-council, and speaks of the Gods as tremendously holy in this most important of functions. Moreover, it must be remembered that Voluspa itself begins with an invocation of the Folkmoot. Tacitus says Silentium per sacerdotes, quibus tum et coercendi ius est, imperatur, "They are enjoined to silence by the priests, who moreover rule and preserve the court", or "who moreover command and enforce the law", or "who moreover preside and ward over the court". Coercendi has an aspect of curbing, restraining, and checking excesses or violations. They keep, in other words, the court in order. That it is the priests doing this underlines everything we have been saying here about the earthly court reflecting the heavenly court of the Gods in Council : every attempt is made to underline its solemnity, gravity, and holiness. Through this process the folk commune with their Gods, and it is here moreso than any liturgical rites where religion is performed.
The ljóðasmiðir, the "song-smiths", the poet-priests called Gothis for their inspired connection to the Gods, have always been the chieftain-class of the Teutonic folk, as reflected in the fact that the word Gothi in later Christian Iceland became a mere synonym for "chieftain". James E. Knirk points out that the word erilaR, found in ten older runic inscriptions, and which means "rune-carver" is related linguistically to ON. jarl, 'earl', and that there are other similar inscriptions where erilaR is replaced functionally by gudija 'priest'. (James E. Knirk, "Runes : Origin, development of the futhark, functions, applications, and methodological considerations", in Oskar Bandle, Kurt Braunmuller, Lennart Elmevik, The Nordic Languages : An International Handbook of the History of the North Germanic Languages, Volume 1, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, 2002, p. 642.) This demonstrates that the jarls were originally chieftains by virtue of being gothis.
Those who commune with the Gods through sacred poetic prophecy convene the rökstóla, "seats of judgement" where all meet in sacred council. Thus Voluspa begins with, Hljóðs bið ek allar helgar kindir, meiri ok minni mögu Heimdallar, "Silence I bid all the holy kindreds, major and minor sons of Heimdall," which Tacitus' Silentium per sacerdotes, "The priests enjoin silence (at the assemblies)", is an echo, calling all high and low, in unison to come together in council.
Later on in Iceland we still find the temple-priests, the Gothis, leading their thingmenn, the folk of their temple-district, to the Thing, the Folkmoot, to deliberate and find the law. It is the prophets who lead the people into the law and call down the ambience of the Gods-in-Judgement, and not, it must be emphasized, as theocracy, which would be subjection of law to liturgical creed, but recognition of the deed of law as theological in and of itself, which is an entirely different matter. I will repeat here what I said earlier, with emphasis : Through this process the folk commune with their Gods, and it is here moreso than any liturgical rites where religion is performed. It is here, in the sovereignty of the popular assembly, met as a jury with all the full-jury rights elucidated in Lysander Spooner's magnificent Essay on the Trial by Jury (and not its modern, pale, emasculated version) that we act as if we were Gods. No wonder the Priests ward the sacred-space to underline the gravity of our actions. Who makes the law acts as Gods for that kingdom, and thus are answerable to higher Gods. Of course, in Teutonic culture, the law is not so much made as it is discovered and found, which implies a kind of scrying process, in which the folk gather to take rede and deeply contemplate the mysteries of life that apply to the case, guided by the presence of the prophetic song-smiths who tend the temples and who have warded the assembly's stead as a consecrated and holy ground.
Just as the Gods here afla lögðu (Voluspa 7), "lay out strengths", "allot and appoint resources and increase of herds", so the folk, gathered together under their nobility of shamanic song-smiths, yearly convoke the sacred jubilee-custom of redistributing the fertile lands of the clan-odal, as Caesar describes in Gallic Wars Book 6.22, magistratus ac principes in annos singulos gentibus cognationibusque hominum, qui una coierunt, "the magistrates and chieftains every year allot fields and farmlands to the clans and families of people who assemble together". This is precisely analogous to the Gods' afla lögðu, "laying out of resources and productive abundance".
As context to this laying out of herds and productive abundance, it should be noted that one of the first things the Gods do is create places of worship (hörg ok hof, Voluspa 7). Since this is the time of their great Forging of the World, we are to understand with our poetic insight that the world itself is a place of worship. This Beloved Earth is worshipful. Snorri, in Skaldskaparmal 2, quotes a strophe by the poet Hallfreðr, Sannyrðum spenr sverða snarr þiggjandi viggjar barrhaddaða byrjar biðkván und sik Þriðja, "With truthful words the gallant clasper-of-the-sword receives on his steed the gentle support of the barley-haired waiting-wife of Thridi (Odin) himself," or, "With decrees of justice, truth, and equity the gallant clasper-of-the-sword on his steed receives the hospitality of the gentle, barley-haired, prayed-for-wife of Thridi himself," and then comments, Hér er þess dæmi, at jörð er kölluð kona Óðins í skáldskap, "Here it is deemed that Earth is called the Wife of Odin in poetry." In other words, the warrior (clasper of swords upon a horse) who wishes to possess Odin's wife, the Earth, must woo her with words of truth, justice, and equity. Here gaining land is seen as the equivalent of "praying for the wife of Odin", or "receiving the hospitality of Odin's wife". Land-deeming is a sacred act, and was so seen by the ancients, sharing in the hospitality of Beloved Mother Earth, who is Odin's wife.
Tacitus says that Agri...ab universis in vices occupantur, quos mox inter se secundum dignationem partiuntur (Germania 26), "The fertile land is occupied by everyone in turn, succeeding by lots, who next distribute it between themselves out of respect." They pay heed and regard to each other through this practice. Caesar explicitly states that they justify this custom as ne qua oriatur pecuniae cupiditas, "preventing usury and greed for property from arising", ut animi aequitate plebem contineant, "to secure to the common people a spirit of justice and equity", and ne latos fines parare studeant, potentioresque humiliores possessionibus expellant, “to prevent the strong and powerful from expelling the weak and poor from their property and possessions". In other words, the þiggjandi...barrhaddaða ...biðkván und sik Þriðja, "the hospitality of the barley-haired, patient-wife of Odin himself is received" through Sannyrðum, "just verdicts", "reports of fairness", "decrees of equity". In the ancient tribal society encountered by Caesar, the þiggjandi of jörð, "the hospitable reception of the earth" is made with Sannyrðum, just words that secure the common people equity, protect the weak from the strong and the poor from the rich, and prevent usury from spoiling the land.
And it is the people, coming together as one, to find their one pulsing heartbeat called the law, that secures the justice of the earth, through which Beloved Mother Earth herself is wooed. What could be more weighty than that? The Gothis, calling on the Gods as they consecrated the holy grounds of the Folkmoot, uttered the Teutonic equivalent of "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," recognizing the sanctity of the rede they would pronounce, performing religion at its most essential, by coming together in council, as the Gods did, as one, with one heart, and one will. This is accentuated by the fact that often when the folk spoke to Christian missionaries about their unwillingness to give up their religion, they referred to it as their "law", for law and holiness were one. This again does not designate some sort of legal idolatry or theocracy, but quite the contrary, a prophetic sense of the peril and importance of law, through which the will of the Gods' justice would be done or denied on earth.
That is a sense of holiness we have lost as juries have been bled and their powers given over to Congresses and (un)representatives, but it is something that we, as retribalizing heathens, can remember in our kindreds, realizing that when we come together in rede to contemplate and discover what is right, we are enacting religion even moreso than at our liturgical services which should only serve to remind us of the awesome holiness and righteousness of the Gods. Truly, as the Hebrew prophets told their own people, when justice is not done in the land, the ceremonies are empty.
May Right be Done ; May Our Actions be Trustworthy and Truthful. This is True Religion, and No Else.
All translations copyright 2009 by Siegfried Goodfellow