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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.