On Frith

My household had a really enlightening discussion of frith last night and I want to recap some of the key points here. Frith is a very important theological term and so, it is especially important to translate it accurately. The common translation of ‘peace’ just doesn’t do the job, partly because our modern conceptions of peace do not adequately reflect the understanding of our ancestors or, more importantly, the nature of our cosmology. A better translation (and my understanding here was first shaped by Gronbech, then W. Hodge and later by my own work and understanding of this term) would be ‘right order.’ Right order is something that must be maintained, worked for, sustained – sometimes by violence (1). It must be consistently cultivated. That is far, far closer to the meaning of the word ‘frith’ than modern conceptions of ‘peace,’ which often involve ignoring imbalance and wrongdoing, even turning a blind eye to lack of virtue (2)  in order to avoid disturbing the status quo.  Frith is not the status quo. 

I think that frith is more analogous to the Roman Pax Deorum, peace of the Gods. This was not passive or static in any way. It laid tremendous responsibility on the part of the people for maintaining their part of this sacred contract. Frith, therefore, is the active and correct maintenance of a contract between the community and the Holy Powers, one the onus of which is on the community to uphold (3). It’s so important that we have a now little-known healing Goddess named Frith. That says something about the power of Frith for maintaining right order because health like frith is something that must be worked for, cultivated, and maintained. It’s about finding that inner balance, which is never static, and adhering to it. When you veer from that, you become sick. In a society when you veer from frith, that society becomes sick. Meanings of frith that translate it as security or safety are not incorrect, rather they tap into this necessary right-order and on-going course correction. 

Etymologically, frith means to reconcile, to make peace, to protect what is one’s own, to protect peace (4). While the definition ‘peace’ is again given here, there is nothing passive about it in this context. It must be actively protected and that vigilance is enshrined in the very etymology of the word. One makes frith, one reconciles and this implies not only ongoing vigilance but ongoing action. It doesn’t must mean “peace” but “guarding” that peace as well. (5) It’s not a one-time thing but an ongoing process. 

Because of this connection with right order, frith has a certain connection with ON/OE law, to the point that the term occasionally turns up in legal contexts (though griðposited on the distinction between one’s inangarð and everyone else tends to be used more frequently, usually in the sense of „safe passage“ or „detente“). As an aside, a friend of mine who is a Russian translator and who is currently working on properly rendering the heiti of Frey into Russian told me that the concept of ‘frith’ as ‘right-order’ is actually so enshrined in her language, that the word for ‘right-order’ now carries a meaning more analogous to ‘law and order.’ (6). It was, in this culture, a logical evolution of the concept of frith.

Cosmologically to maintain frith is to maintain right order with the Holy Powers. This means that we are consciously charged with doing what we can to reify and restore the architecture the Gods have created. We are charged with the power of veneration and devotion, of pouring out our prayers to the Gods, and in so doing nourishing the Tree, laying new laws in Urða’s well that further support creation. For pre-Christian Heathens, frith may have been an ideal state of harmony within the tribe but the unspoken corollary to that was always “in relation to the Holy Powers” and the corollary to that, involves a reflection of the divine and cosmic architecture which those Powers have carefully created, in which we live as every living thing does, and which our lives and devotional actions have the power to nourish…or not. It’s something like the Pax Deorum that everyone played a part in maintaining. 

Basically, if Frith is peace, it is a very active peace, an active maintaining of peace up to and including violent actions taken in order to restore it once sundered. What is at stake is the integrity of the worlds’ architecture itself. Our tribes and villages, communities, our respective inangarður are meant to mirror that greater structure. Frith is that process by which that unification with divine order is achieved and hopefully maintained. 

Notes:

  1. For instance, while this is not meant at all to encourage violent action, theoretically vengeance is sacred in our tradition. We see this again and again in the sagas: there is no frith until loss of luck has been restored. That is a very difficult idea for modern Heathens to fully comprehend. Frith is about the wholeness and integrity of a contract between the community and the Gods and that means there are times when, if frith is broken, debt will be accrued by the community and an obligation for restoration. Every individual has to do his or her part because every individual is part of the community upholding that contract. This is why in a properly ordered community law should serve frith – right order—and why it is so important to cultivate an active, aware piety in all one’s people. The restoration of peace, of right order, when frith is broken, must occur not only on a physical, communal level, but on a spiritual one as well which is why vengeance is sometimes sacred and in fact good and necessary. 
  • By this, I mean virtue in the classical sense. 
  • The Gods after all, already pour blessings into our hands every day that we draw breath. Were they never to give anything else, we would still owe Them everything. That They DO give more is a tremendous grace. 
  • See Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, by J. de Vries, p. 142.
  • Ibid. de Vries gives Frieden, schutz, and versöhnen as definitions of this term. The etymology is full not only of the idea that frith is a treasure to be guarded, that it brings peace and goodness to a community but more importantly that it must be actively protected. 
  • The word in Russian is Правопорядок. There are elements in the way the word frith was used in both ON and OE that point to the idea of fealty, legal protection, and specific legal rights as well. This led to T.V. following my own translation of ‘frith’ into English as ‘right order’ to the Russian term above, which now just has a meaning of ‘law and order’ but originally meant something much more akin to frith. 

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on February 15, 2021, in Heathenry, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. To add to your thoughts, in anglo-saxon society you had the frithgild, they were a consortium of neighbors united in an alliance for self-defense who oathed to what they determined the operating guidelines of frith between them to be. Eventually this would evolve to a sort of precursor to policing, and is in fact why police are called “keepers of the peace”. I.e. people were empowered to be active against those breaking the frith within the community (those who had made oaths had to uphold it if those in their purview had broken the frith between them). The take-away here is that frith wasn’t just this kumbaya let’s sing in perfect harmony moment, but was something that you have to be active to maintain.

    This is why criminals were called breakers of the peace. When they were outlawed, it wasn’t that they were just being punished for a sentence, but they were stripped of the rights of frith in the community they had wronged. IN some cases that their land and property was forfeit, and they could be murdered with impunity free of any official recriminations. Obviously this example is more related more to things we think of today with criminal laws, but there’s other ties to religion too.

    In AS you had the term frith-yard (forgive me, I don’t know the precise AS spelling), and was a term used to denote an area of sanctuary, such as a site in dedication to the Gods.

    A Frithyard would have been a sacrosanct area, like a holy area set aside for worship to the Gods. The concept of a church offering sanctuary, is also impacted by this old word and custom, as there’s a frith-stool that was symbolically sat upon in the sacred areas when someone official was petitioning for sanctuary.

    I also read some interesting thoughts on some related Swedish words recently (can’t recall them, or what source I was reading that talked of it). There’s a splinter/derivative term the Swedes have in their language that can be applied as a label for certain non human things that are meant to be undisturbed. Like animals not to be touched, or perhaps certain plants, or a wooded area.

    This reminded me of the concept we see with the horse sanctuary in Thrandheim, or of something I read a while back that spoke of how concepts of frith tied to things like having forests protected and managed by local aristocrats post 1066 with their own official hunters and game wardens. In this guise our modern Park Rangers are carrying on concepts of frith, in that they’re trying to protect nature, and be the agent to allow outsiders to visit, while still protecting the nature in the parks bounds. I can’t help but wonder given what we know of Things and Moots and the boundary of the sacred area against that which wasn’t, of sacred groves, and the like, if this concept of protected natural lands came out of concepts of protected sacred groves and other elements in nature believed sacrosanct for one reason or other.

    It very much to me is an underpinning of all aspects of our society.

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    • Oh and of course, I think it’s telling we have the Goddesses Hlin and Syn who look over the hall and the guests n a watchful and defensive capacity. So I see their function as supportive of frith, and ensuring order is kept. ^_^

      Liked by 1 person

    • and pinging off that, I think the ideas of inangard and Utgard, implicitly present in so many IE cultures, but particularly the Germanic was a reflection of deeper, religious distinctions between sacred and profane.

      I’d also add that inangard/Utgard isn’t about determining worth but relationship. It’s like when I went down to do genealogy work in Appalachia and was asked, “who are your people?”. It’s not meant to imply other people are bad, but we need to know who yours are so we know where to place you in the web of relationships, obligation, and debt that form kin and community.

      Liked by 1 person

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