Saturday, June 20, 2009

Jubilee and Redistribution

Our modern word "jubilee" captures the sense of rejoicing and celebration associated with redistribution customs. Caesar said the land was redistributed every year, and given its Indo-European closeness, it is likely that like the Roman Saturnalia, where the ancient Golden Age of Saturn was invoked, this occurred around the Winter Solstice, at Yule. This would be a traditional time to do so, as gifts were given at this time, and the Gods were said to be walking amongst people on earth. Lucian lets us know that Saturnalia often inspired the common people to clamor for redistribution, recalling the ancient days when this was done. Amongst the Romans, this is a mere distant memory, but amongst the pre-Roman Germani, such land reform was an annual custom.

Yule was also associated with Freyr, inn Frodi, "the Fruitful one", to whom a boar was sacrificed upon whose head everyone had taken sacred oaths, and we find an echo of this Yule custom in the Christmas ham. The connection with Frey inn Frodi is the clue that allows us to unlock many elements of this sacred holiday. Frodi found the folk in subjection to wolfish kings who had robbed them of their odal-rights with the intimidation of jotnar-bodyguards, and through organizing them into guilds and militias where they rediscovered their joys and dances, helped them regain their old rights.

We make a tremendous mistake if we think of the old allodial rights in terms of private property. Odal was the clan-land, and as such, designated the entire village manor as it were, the homestead upon which all of the families of the clan lived in hamlet. The odal was inalienable to the clan at large, who was warded over by a chieftain, the paterfamilias of the most prominent family of the clan, and each family had their own cottage and yard within the hamlet which was inviolable to them. The hamlet was surrounded by fertile agricultural lands, meadows and pastures, woodlots, and finally forests and heath, all of which constituted the odal. This was folcland, the land of the folk. Here people made their living, and the right of making a living was recognized in Magna Charta, where no one was to be deprived of their estovers (sustenance from gatherings out of the commons) and wainage (tools and equipment to work the land), not even for debts or taxes. It is true that in a Norway and Iceland with an entire millenium of Roman private property rights encroaching upon the older notions, odal takes on more trappings of private property, but it is never individual property as such, but that of the entire clan. Belonging to this heritage is what ennobles one (atheling literally means a child-of-the-odal, but is translated as "noble") to participate in the Folkmoot, where the sacred decisions of the community are made.

Participation in the community property of the clan entitled one to inalienable house and yard (with its kitchen garden), a lot in the agricultural fields, and sustainable use of the common meadows, pastures, and woodlots. Every year the fields, which were divided into strips, were assigned by lot to a different family, who would work them for the following year. In this way, the variability of terrain and fertility of the soil was distributed equitably so no one had place to complain of unfairness, for fairness and unfairness were equally shared out over time. Without such equitable distribution, jealousies and factions arise, as Caesar tells us these laws were meant to prevent. Ynglingasaga tells us that seidr, that Art perverted by Heid, was able to transfer unluck from one person to another, and it is this kind of "evil eye" politics, of jealously eyeing and coveting the possessions of others, which greed for privatization brings, which the old laws were meant to circumvent ; greed and contentious sorcery go hand in hand.

Every year one would receive one's lot of fertility for the year, which invokes the customs Carlo Ginzburg uncovered in his The Night Battles and Ecstasies, where sacred mummings, mock-battles, and shamanic night-farings were undertaken at critical changes of the seasons and holy days to secure good harvests. As I have pointed out before, it is in this context that Frodi's armies are most profitably to be understood. It is also here, perhaps, that we may understand the custom of the volva who comes in the winter-time to predict the season's prospects for the coming year. As people received their yearly lots, so would they receive their fates. Yuletime has traditionally been a time of trying to see one's future for the year through various divining customs, including explicit night-faring such as we find with the Saint Lucy's Stools, tripods with which women would sit on the crossroads, attempting to intercept elves about that night, to gain what wisdom they could, and fare with them to their sacred underworld sabbats. The sabbats of the elves were notorious : full of dancing, mirth, magic, and love-making, as befits the Lord of their Land, Freyr himself.

Just as in the Roman Saturnalia the Golden Age of the Kingdom of Saturn was re-enacted, so during Yule the spirit of the Frodifrith, the great Golden Age of Peace and Prosperity, was re-enacted. "Peace on earth and good will towards men" was readily appropriated as a phrase to describe this time. The redistribution-customs were attested by both Caesar and Tacitus as real practices, while Saxo evinces a mythic tradition that the great patriarch of old, Scyld, the great Earl of Rig, forgave all debts of the folk out of his own purse, and thus the land-redistribution converges upon a general debt-forgiveness, just as we find in the Biblical jubilee. While scholars may doubt, as they do, that the Biblical jubilee was ever widely practised, there is no doubt that the redistribution-allotment of the village-community was a widely and anciently practised custom of the Indo-European folk (amongst others).

Plutarch, invoking Sparta -- another Indo-European tribe --'s equivalent of the law-giving patriarch Scyld (or indeed, Rig, as this figure was clearly legendary), Lycurgus, describes in mythic terms another famous custom of redistribution. Plutarch describes the redistribution as if it were a onetime historical event, but it seems likely, given the legendary qualities of Lycurgus, that this was a mythic event which at one point in time provided the eponymous mythic background to the annual allotment custom of the Indo-European village community. Plutarch says, in Greek Lives (Robin Waterfield translation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998),

"Lycurgus persuaded them to pool all the land and then redistribute it all over again, so that everyone would live on equal terms and with the same amount of property to provide an income. In the future the only ascendancy they would seek would be assessed by the criterion of excellence on the basis that there was to be no difference or inequality between any of them and another except as determined by criticism of shameful deeds and praise of noble ones." (p. 16)

This is phrased in terms of a discrete event in the epic cycle :

"There was terrible inequality, crowds of paupers without property and without any means of support were accumulating in the city, and wealth was entirely concentrated in the hands of a few people." (Ibid.)

Lycurgus' motive for introducing "the most revolutionary" of "constitutional reforms"?

"In order to banish arrogance, envy, crime, luxury, and those more chronic and serious political afflictions, wealth and poverty ..." (Ibid.)

Caesar explicitly mentions that one of the reasons evinced by the Germani for their redistribution customs was to prevent greed, usury, oppression of the poor by the rich, and the rise of factions and strife, qualities which go hand in hand with the coming of Gullveig ("Power of Gold", "Drunk on Gold") as Heid ("Shiny, Glittering", but also "Money") amongst the people and setting them in competition. Scyld's legendary deed of debt-forgiveness, described by Saxo, fits into this setting as a corrective, as do the redistribution customs described by both Caesar and Tacitus.

Lycurgus' legendary character (rather than historical reality) is easily demonstrated. Plutarch begins his narrative by saying, "Even allowing for the fact that there is nothing indisputable to be said about Lycurgus the legislator, since there are divergent accounts of his family, his travels abroad, his death, and above all precisely what he achieved with regard to the laws and the constitution, there is particularly little agreement about when the man lived." (p. 9) In other words, there is almost no agreement about anything important about the man's life at all, which always hints at a purely legendary character ; in any case, had such a man existed at all historically, these remarks point to the fact that by this time he had passed entirely into the realm of legend. But further remarks of Plutarch make it probable that Lycurgus was never historical and always a part of legend : "...the Pythia called him 'beloved of the gods' and 'a god rather than a man'." (p. 13). "...[H]e has had the highest honours conferred upon him, since he has a sanctuary there, and they offer him sacrifices once a year as if he were a god." (pp. 40 - 41.) These are customs that honor a traditional legendary patriarch.

The customs associated with Lycurgus are given sanction of divine inspiration, the result of deep meditation and prayer : "He claimed that when he had asked for lawfulness the god had granted and promised him a political system of such quality that it would leave all the rest far behind." This is a similar and cognate spirit to the actual customs Caesar inquired about.

The most evident thing about the Yule season now called "Christmas time" is the free exchange of gifts, a practice which goes all the way back to pre-Christian Yule time, as is readily demonstrated in the Icelandic Sagas. This gift-giving is the Spirit of Yule, the "reason for the season", and demonstrates how things function on Earth when they are in tune with the Heavens, when the Gods travel amongst the folk in that special time of year. It is a temporary suspension of the iron age and restoration of golden age customs. Given Holda's function as an Earth Goddess, and her frequent association with the Wild Hunt, that especially features in the Yule season, it is strongly plausible that Tacitus' description of the pageant and procession of Nerthus amongst the Langobardian and surrounding tribes also describes the Yule season :

Laeti tunc dies, festa loca, quaecumque adventu hospitioque dignatur. Non bella ineunt, non arma sumunt; clausum omne ferrum; pax et quies tunc tantum nota, tunc tantum amata, "Joyful, fertile, lush, and happy days then, in the holiday places of festivity, when anyone who arrives is deemed worthy of hospitality, lodging, and entertainment. They do not enter into war, nor take up arms ; they shut up all tools of iron and weapons ; one discovers peace, harmony, and calmness of an incredible extent, at that time, as well as tremendous amounts of love." (translation mine, copyright 2009 Siegfried Goodfellow)

Peace on Earth, Goodwill Towards Men, Merry Yuletide!

This is the time when lots are redistributed, gifts are given, fates are shifting for the next year, sharing is abundant, truly a time of joyfulness, peace, and happy days! Days to remember, days to learn from. Tacitus says pax et quies tunc tantum nota, tunc, which can also mean, "At this time, one learns peace and calm of magnificent extent". One learns. Meaning, there are lessons for everyday life here.

During times of redistribution, the Gods walk amongst us, for the Gift-Economy matches their free and wondrous giving, as is evident from all our blessings. A gift calls for a gift, so freely give, and do not stop giving! There is much to learn from times of giving, including joy that can last throughout the year.


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