Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Feuds Are To Be Avoided At All Costs -- Except One's Honor

It has been asserted that feuds were a necessary part of honor. I must disagree. I would call feuds an unfortunate consequence, at times, of maintaining honor, but often of pure foolishness, and certainly to be avoided at all costs short of losing one's honor. To look at the Icelandic Sagas and conclude that feuding was necessary to the maintenance of honor is, I think, to put the cart before the horse. It was necessary to maintain honor, and this sometimes led one, either through unfortunate weaving together of circumstances or one's own rashness and arrogance, into feud.

The aspect of honor we're discussing here, which must be distinguished, is the reputation for strength, specifically, one's reputation in the community for not putting up with being stepped on. It was very necessary that everyone demonstrate that they would not tolerate being stepped upon, and that would include anyone in their clan or kindred being stepped on. We must remember that this was a society without police, and therefore people had to provide their own protection, and under those circumstances, in a sense they had to be their own police, and therefore to demonstrate that they were not going to let their law or the frith of their kindred be violated. There were many ways of doing this, feud being only the most extreme, and there was an entire legal apparatus as well as a set of societal mechanisms of arbitration to allow other avenues for asserting and demonstrating this strength, and receiving compensation.

Even the Sagas themselves, however, are full of warnings against feuds, and characters talking about how feuds need to be put down and stopped, because bloodshed was not something that was valued.

It is easy to get the impression that Icelandic society almost entirely consisted of these feuds if one reads the Icelandic Sagas, because they are essentially dramas, and dramas focus on conflicts because there's not too much that's interesting about merely talking about bringing in the harvest and milking the lambs. People want adventure and action in stories, and that is what is preserved. However, consider that we have 43 Icelandic Family* covering the entire two hundred years from pagan settlement to Christianization, and the Sagas often cover the next two hundred years after that as well, so we're talking about anywhere from two hundred to four hundred years being covered by little over fourty sagas. That's not even one saga for every five years, and close to one saga for every ten years. By necessity, it is the conflict-points that are being looked at.

Even so, the dramatic impression belies the actual truth of the matter. The violence was kept at a very low minimum. In fact, in the Sturlung Age that followed, an age of civil war, violence escalated to a level that was absolutely unacceptable to the Icelanders, and it's been determined that that rate of killing was about that of the homicide rate in the United States under a very large police force and law and order. What has become normal for us, in which we, for the most part, walk around within the United States and consider ourselves to be living within a fairly peaceful society --- that level of violence was absolutely unacceptable to the Icelanders at that time, which shows you that the previous age, the actual Saga Age itself, must have had a considerably lower level of violence.

Moreover, when you look at the Mythic Saga in its totality, it is a tale of warning of taking feuds too far. Weland, who can't let down his desire for vengeance, and threatens the world, no matter how many arbitration missions are sent. Svipdag, who kills Halfdan and sets the world on edge. The epic shows Loki and Gullveig scheming to involve the world in feud, and what strife this brings to men. These tales show just how dangerous feuds can be.

So the actual lesson if one looks holistically at all of the material is the danger of feuds, the danger of being too warlike, the danger of being too arrogant. We have a famous saga hero saying on his death bed, "That of which I am most proud is that I never aggressed against another man." An astounding statement.

It must be remembered that when we talk about honor, we're talking about a sort of bundle of various kinds of reputation which together in sum and in composite form form one's honor. There is one's reputation for integrity and good dealings, which is an extremely important part of honor, which is often forgotten by those pursuing a little too much testosterone, and there is indeed one's reputation for standing up for one's rights, and not standing to be stepped upon, which is simply the right of self-defense, and the right to self-dignity for oneself as well as one's kindred. This is a pragmatic matter. It's basically what we would call in the modern world a "Second Amendment" matter, that we have the right and the duty to self-defense, that you're not going to tolerate aggression or arrogant imposition by others. It is what is necessary in order to maintain a state of freedom as well as the state of peace, which cannot prosper if one is aggressed upon. There is also one's reputation for excellence, whatever you have proven to be good at, whether you were an exceptional warrior, exceptional at various sports, whether you were exceptionally wise, or exceptionally good at poetry. Wherever it was you excelled, that was another reputation that was bundled up in that composite word we use, "honor".

We also have to remember that the Icelandic Sagas are stories of family conflicts that were passed down and written down by Christian Icelanders remembering back two hundred years! Now we grant under many circumstances that oral history can have a great deal of integrity, but when a country has undergone a spiritual revolution, and taken on an entirely new faith, where that faith is actively persecuting aspects of the old faith, we can't assume that everything has been passed down in its entirety nor integrity. And again, the Sagas do little more than present us with dramas of an external nature, presenting an external picture of the society, as remembered two hundred to four hundred years later! The Sagas of Kings, which Snorri presents us with, clearly demonstrate that the wizards had been eradicated. We know that the Gothis were transformed into secular chieftains who then became part of the ecclesiastical structure of the church. So the whole inwardness is lost. Anytime the Sagas even mention a temple or religious feasts and so forth, the information is completely sparse, and to assume that the Sagas give us a complete inview into the heathen mentality is just absurd. I would never say that they aren't important. They are a critically important piece of the puzzle, but we have to piece that puzzle back together. We can't simply take the Sagas as the end-all and be-all.

More importantly, if we lose out on the fact that the myths themselves speak of a Golden Age in many different places, a Golden Age before there was strife, then all the strife we see in the myths, especially if we piece them all together in the right order, makes little sense, whereas the myths themselves constitute a history of how the world came to be in such strife. It is not a celebration of such strife. There is an understanding that one has to defend oneself against it where that has become a reality, but it is not a celebration of it. There is a celebration of people who will defend their freedom and who will be even heroic and fight for other's freedoms, but if we take these relics of the Axe Age as the entirety of the religiosity, then we have, in essence, become worshippers of the Axe Age.

`We have to step back and ask some questions, questioning basic categories often repeated but without much thought. Warrior culture? Or decentralization of police and defense functions? In the absence of centralized police and defense forces, everyone has to know how to use arms and protect themselves, and everyone has to be ready to demonstrate their willingness to enforce their rights. When you realize, however, that the kindred essentially functioned as a mutual-protection society, and get that this is happening outside the context of the State, it immediately becomes evident that the kindred must police its own and discourage any unnecessary provocations which might involve the entire kindred in a dispute which amounts to a pissing contest. The core issue in any specific conflict is whether the situation warrants an assertion of the rights of the kindred, or whether this is simply troublemaking on the part of an unstable individual, for whose actions the rest of the group doesn't want to have to pay. The Sagas repeat again and again as undesirable traits those who trouble-make, who are arrogant, who stir up strife, who are unnecessarily rash, etc. Under this decentralized situation, you don't want feuds to start because you don't want to have to suffer for some idiocy your cousin engaged in. People need to behave and learn how to take a few insults if necessary. Only where it appears that one is becoming a doormat is swift and decisive action necessary

As power became more centralized, coming up from the Continent, from Germanic cultures that had once been decentralized, but had become more centralized and militarized through contact and clash with the Roman Empire, we see Scandinavian society, especially in Norway, becoming more cannibalistic and self-predatory, preying upon their own, as we see in the endless numbers of time in Heimskringla where Snorri mentions such-and-such earl or such-and-such king going off harrying and burning villages and devastating farms and other such nonsense that no person who wants peace and prosperity could ever want, because that is a complete waste and destruction. We see the evidence of that happening. That is a result of the centralization of power, and should not be taken as an ordinary situation. Any society which continued for any length of time under those self-predatory conditions would tear itself apart, and is definitely not something to be idolized, admired, praised, or imitated, and to be perfectly honest, I would have to question the mental health of anyone who could realistically, not from a place of fantasy but from a place of reality, idealize a condition of essentially ongoing civil war and predation upon productive, peaceful activity that we see in all the havoc in Heimskringla. No, what we are seeing there is not the normal state of that society. What we are seeing are the disruptions caused by the interference with the ordinary small-scale, decentralized way of life, as kings attempt to take more and more power. It's been said in places, wrongly, that kings were a part of every Germanic culture, especially by those under the thrall of William A. Chaney's The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, a work I find personally to be not only dull and dry, but simply wrongheaded, scholarship. We know the Saxons deliberately had magistrates instead of kings, and it was the Thing and not the King which was the central force in these societies. Moreover, indigenously, the king was more like a chieftain who brought several clans together through his diplomacy, bold example, and generosity, and not the huge national kings and over-kings who came to dominate later on in history.

People who are ready to fight at any insult -- which some characters in Icelandic Sagas are -- are brittle, weak folk lacking any confidence or self-respect, and these are unstable characters who don't make for a strong society. They contribute to an unnecessarily unbalanced culture of machismo which lacks the wholeness of the male-female balance. This is sometimes an unfortunate side-effect of a culture that has had to fight against overwhelming imperial powers, but it is nothing -- I repeat nothing -- for us to emulate in the present.

To imitate the worst failings of Iron Age societies that had succumbed to the Axe Age and taken within themselves militaristic and imperialistic tendencies is, in my mind, not only foolish, but to mistake this entire movement, which should be about spirituality, not glorifying over-brittle, rash, pompous, meathead jocks who can't take a few insults and are ready to reach for their sword at the first perceived slight. Those are called assholes and bullies, not exemplars.

It is our poets, our wise men, our wizards, our smiths, and our farmers who deserve far more attention. Not the least reason for which is to moderate the testosterone frenzies that unrealistic and ahistorical glorifications of the Viking Age too often unfortunately inspire.

* (and 61 small thaettrs or tales, 34 Fornaldasagas, which are not histories but fantasy-romances, along with 15 king-sagas in Heimskringla (Ynglingasaga doesn't count as authentic history as it consists of mythic and legendary material), along with the Jomsviking Saga and the Orkneyinga Saga)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

An excellent commentary and guide. As one who has struggled to both learn to defend myself and to not get into needless strife, I say thanks.

6:53 AM  

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