Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Vikings, Valkyries, and Valhalla

In the Heathen community there is a great deal of discussion and glorification surrounding the  ideas of Valhalla, glorious death in battle, big burly Vikings, and of course the final battle of Ragnarok.  It forms a very powerful, intoxicating set of romantic images, ideas, and concepts which pervade the whole of Heathenry.  While there is little doubt in the ancient world the place and role of the warrior was highly valued in the modern day there seems to be a bit of misunderstanding as to what that actually meant.  Along with that we have the whole problem of a host of testosterone-poisoned minds who take it to extremes, issuing bold proclamations like, "Mine is not a religion of peace!" and other such declarations of whole-hearted, blood-lusting glorification of the romanticized image.  When one examines the facts behind Vikings, Valkyries, and Valhalla, most importantly the social context in which these ideas emerged, the picture becomes much less one of a civilization of burly bromancing boisterous bruisers and more a society where life was hard, times were tough, and everyone had to do their part.

The first aspect of these concepts worth discussing is the nature of war and warriors in the pre-Christian Germanic world.  Quite unlike the feudal period which would follow and the Roman Empire whose full-time professional legions were contemporaries to the tribes of ancient Germany the armies of the Germanic tribes were not groups of professional soldiers or made up of a specialized warrior caste.  As is described first in Tacitus it was expected for every free member of every tribe to own weapons, know how to use them, and be prepared to take one's place in the line of battle against the tribe's enemies.(1)  In practice it had far more in common with the Swiss citizen-militia system and the Classical Greek citizen-hoplite armies than it did to the later feudal armies led by soldier-aristocrats or the professional forces of Rome, Han China, or what is the norm in most of the modern world.

On the topic of leadership he notes there were particular chiefs and leaders who took charge in battle but these commanders were not anything like what we would expect.  As Tacitus relates these individuals drew their legitimacy from family ties, their own skill at arms and tactics, and most importantly the personal charisma to compel people to follow them voluntarily.  These were not generals who had power of life and death over their soldiers but simply more respected, honored members of their communities who commanded based on the voluntary obedience and respect of the warriors they led.  If anything they share far more in common with pirate captains in the Caribbean whose authority was only good so long as the ship was in combat and could, and often were, be deposed or even marooned if they were deemed unfit to lead by their crew.

Also crucial to understanding this system of leadership was the broader method used by the tribes in ancient Germany to decide policy, settle disputes, and make what could be best described as political decisions. This was handled not by the direct despotic rule of chieftains as petty kings but through what is known as the Ding or Thing system. A Thing was, to use modern terms for the purposes of facilitating understanding, very much like a direct democratic assembly very similar to the New England town hall approach to governance. In these Things any free person, man or woman, could petition for justice or make proposals. The Things themselves were presided over by an individual known to us as a lawspeaker whose duty was to recite all the laws the community had bound themselves to in previous assemblies. Their job was not to rule or dictate but to ensure process was upheld, the Thing proceeded smoothly, and all went in accordance with the law. Decisions on proposals, laws, and resolving disputes were handled by the Thing as a whole through direct vote of all members of the Thing. In this system justice was exacted, like it is in all societies, with the intent of keeping the peace and order in the community but not through the modern dichotomy of retribution and rehabilitation. The purpose of the Thing mediations and rulings was not to lay down the law but to keep the peace, ensure fairness, and stop fights and feuds before they started. It was after all attempts for redress through the Thing failed that a blood feud would begin and not before.

This system was not unique to the continental Germanic tribes. In Scandinavia, England after the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and Iceland similar processes, referred to as moots in England and Things in the Scandinavian world, were used for handling the affairs of society. What is especially striking about the Icelandic example is this was established in the wake of the importation of continental kingship to Norway by Harald Fairhair seeing many people fleeing to Iceland where they re-established them primacy of Things in the form of the Althing. The Thing model even shows up in the Scandinavian mythic and heroic lore with discussion of councils and assemblies being so common it is impossible to go through the Eddas or the Heimskringla without tripping over at least half a dozen examples of Gods and heroes resolving matters through council and deliberation as opposed to kingly fiat with the creation of Midgard as one prominent example(2). Even Odin, seen by many as king of the Gods in spite of lacking any such title or kenning asserting this claim, often leads by example or doing his own dirty work rather than issuing dictates or decrees for minions to carry out on his behalf.

The ultimate breakdown of this military and political system was not thanks to any particular flaws but thanks to the great socio-political transformation which was imposed on the Germanic societies first by the influence of the Roman Empire and then finally with the conversion of the region to Christianity. First, under the influence of the Romans, Germanic mercenaries returning from imperial service brought with them the ideas, methods, and concepts the Romans applied to government and war. The great upheaval and migration of many of these proto-states and their newly minted warlords during the collapse of the Roman Empire furthered the process on the continent before gaining full speed with the adoption of Christianity and its ideas of kingly sovereignty flowing from an all-powerful creator God.

A similar process would occur in Scandinavia spurred by the growing wealth and influence of successful Viking leaders who, like the Frankish, Saxon, and Visigothic warlods in Europe, found the power stratification and justifications offered by Christianity and continental kingship to be a much more attractive model for rule than the unruly, independent, and freedom-loving things. Even then with the adoption of these approaches the old political system did not fade away completely with Thing government continuing in Scandinavia well into the medieval period. In Anglo-Saxon England a similar system, following the original Folkmoot, was preserved in the form of the Witengemot until 1066 when it was swept aside in favor of Frankish-influenced Norman military autocracy by Duke William the Bastard of Normandy.

Just as the political systems which the Germanic societies operated under were never fully displaced by the imposition of crowns and crosses so to did the roots of the militia-based systems of Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia persist long after the conversion to Christianity. In England we have the example of the fyrd system where every landowner was required, like in the older days, to own and keep arms with the expectation of using them in defense of home and country. Two excellent examples of this system in action was first at the Battle of Stamford Bridge where Harold Godwinson's fyrd levies triumphed over the equally Christian Harald Hardrada's invading forces followed shortly after by the close, hard fought Battle of Hastings where the fyrd was bested not by the superior prowess of the invading Normans but thanks to a brief break in discipline which the Normans were able to swiftly exploit(3). Given how close the battle was it isn't hard to imagine it ending with William falling from a fatal arrow wound and Harold returning to London triumphant on Christmas Day. In Scandinavia a similar system, known as the leidang system was used by the Kings of Norway and Sweden as the backbone of their military forces. Under the leidang system the kingdoms were divided into districts with each district being obligated to provide a ship for war with a full armed and trained crew when their monarchs called for it. This system endured for centuries after, seeing use in periods as late as the Norwegian invasions of the Orkney and Shetland Islands in the 1200s.

Based on all of this and the fact that many of the Gods of the Scandinavian pantheon have some kind of warlike aspect it is clear there was a strong understanding that war, far from being a profession for the few or a special honor to serve, was very much a civic duty with every member of society expected to do their part. Even women participated in the fighting as the recent re-examination of Viking graves from the 9th century in northeastern England demonstrates. Such a conception of war was radically different from what we know today making it understandable why war and battlefield death was highly honored; to have such an end was to make the ultimate sacrifice for one's community against outside invaders or to redress a great wrong. Yet these facts and elements only tell part of the story. The other element, which the romanticized image completely glosses over, is that of the actual experience, difficulties, and conditions of the time and place in which these peoples made their lives. When one considers these factors, especially in comparison to the modern day, it makes even more sense why death in battle was seen as a good end.

The first thing one learns when studying the history of pre-Christian Scandinavia is how difficult it was to grow food in the harsh climate and rocky soil of the region. Food production was often meager and limited with starvation waiting in the wings of any bad harvest to swoop in. Infant mortality, as is the case in most societies pre-dating modern medicine, was spectacularly high with death in childbirth being one of the most common ways women died in this time. Surviving to adulthood and an age where one was expected to fight was an equally grim prospect for many constrained by a whole host of factors far beyond one's control ranging from disease to the weather and the fate of far-off trading expeditions. On top of this winters were a long, dark, lean time where it would not have been uncommon for one to succumb to cold, hunger, or go mad from extended isolation. Along with this was the hazards of working to make a living using hand-crafted iron tools which, while constructed with a high degree of skill, were also somewhat simple ones which were not as durable or reliable as modern machine-produced steel tools leading to many life-altering or even life-ending on the job accidents.

If all of this was not enough there was also the issue of disease. While the ancient Scandinavians in particular were clever enough to develop an approach for disease management similar to modern isolation wards in some ways this didn't change that in an age long before the advent of germ theory, antibiotics, and reliable vaccines the prognosis was rarely good and the odds often long. This could take many forms from the more conventional kind of outbreaks of plague or influenza to suffering from a festering infection thanks to a wound which could be caused by any number of things. Life was hard, often short, and dying a “straw death” of old age in bed would have been the exception rather than the rule.

Compared to this is battlefield death. To be killed on the field of battle, unlike these other possibilities, offers the promise of a quick death. Whether by bleeding out from an amputation, decapitation, arrows to vital organs, or stabbing it was very likely if your enemy hit you hard enough and in the right place you were probably going to go down quickly. Compared to drowning, freezing, or starving slowly one can imagine a sword to the belly or an arrow to the face would have been seen as a much better way to go. Of course there is another important matter in understanding the true significance of battlefield death: the same old problem of disease and infection. War, especially in the Early Medieval period, was an incredibly dangerous and quite unhygienic pursuit. Even the smallest cut, if not treated properly, could become infected leading to a slow, lingering demise while the warrior rotted away as a prisoner in their own body.

In fact, compared to death in battle, it was very likely if you were a warrior you were far more likely to die of secondary infections or outbreaks of disease than from an enemy's weapon; one grim reminder of this fact is that the first war in human history where genuine battlefield deaths outnumbered death due to disease and secondary infections was the First World War thanks to the combination of better medicine and more efficient methods for killing large numbers of people very quickly. Considering these facts dying as a warrior was no guarantee you wouldn't die in a slow, painful, and agonizing fashion. Given the options available going out clean on the field would have likely been preferable to the more likely, gruesome prospects.

This is not to say the warrior tradition of the ancients has no place in the modern revival of Heathenry. As we've seen it was a vital, essential element of their society but it was not the only one or seen as the most crucial. The problem running rampant in Heathenry today is that many Heathens, especially several vocal ones, have gone overboard and run in the opposite direction. In grabbing on to the glorious, romanticized warrior image crafted by clever skalds, Romantic nationalists in the 19th century, Victorian authors, and many other sources since then they have completely swept aside the genuine warrior traditions of the ancestors. One especially ironic aspect of this is the similarity between the depiction of the glorious reward expected in the hereafter by these Heathens and that of the common misunderstanding of the martyr's reward in Islam when one takes into account the rampant Islamophobia running wild among some the loudest of the chest-beaters.

What would be a more appropriate response than the massive overcompensation which has taken place would be to right our collective ship by re-assessing our priorities. Quite contrary to the assumptions of the Vikings, Valkyries, and Valhalla ethos there were many people, roles, and qualities in pre-Christian Germanic societies which were prized as much as fighting ability. The most obvious of this is the quality of being quick-witted and learned. There are many examples, with an instance from the saga of Erik the Red being an excellent case for analysis, where being clever and wise was praised even more highly than might at arms. The vast quantity of surviving art objects in graves, archaeological dig sites, and other places is a silent testament to the place and importance of the artist in their world. The multitude of surviving sagas, which are undoubtedly at best a minority of what was likely composed and sung in the ancient world, shows the importance of the skalds, poetry, and the knowledge needed to write such verses. One of the best examples of this is Egil Skallagrimmson who was as famed for his raucous exploits as he was for his skill as a poet. The high degree of skill shown in the craftwork of the ancient Germanics, coupled with practices like the naming of swords and ships, shows the importance they placed on good quality workmanship. Of course, finally, one cannot leave out the vital importance of those who do the necessary work that keeps society functioning like farmers, sailors, and merchants.

In re-centering the role and importance of the warrior tradition in our community we should keep all of these aspects in mind and remember above all else, prior to the onset of insurmountable social stratification during and after the Viking Age and overwhelming Roman influence and even for centuries after, defending one's community was civic duty. Every person was expected, when their community was threatened, to take part in the defense of their home, family, and society. In the modern day this same basic duty remains unchanged but the nature of the threats to those we love has. Where once it was possible to deal with a dangerous enemy with a sword in hand many of the challenges modern Heathens face are not overtly violent in nature or can be resolved through violence. This does not mean one cannot fight against such challenges, simply how one fights must be in the fashion that is most effective for resolving the matter. Issues like unemployment, ill-health, intrusive state power, prejudice, corporate greed, and community disenfranchisement remain just as life-altering and life-shattering as a Frankish invasion or a raid by a rival tribe. These problems do not march in ordered ranks or wear uniforms but that does not change these are things we must face now just as our ancestors struggled against the many threats to their communities.

1. Germania 6-7, Tacitus trans. by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb.
2. Voluspo 6-16, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows.
3. Kelly DeVries, Battles of the Medieval World, (Amber Books, 2006), 20-25.