Sunday, April 10, 2016

On Heathen Leadership

Ah Gods & Radicals, you are truly the gift that keeps on giving. This time out, we have a piece by none other than HUAR founder (and, rumor has it, 33% of the actual membership) Ryan Smith. Yes, the same Ryan Smith who so hilariously bungled the identification of a slavery apologist image, and who thought it was more important to condemn someone for saying "everyone should worship the gods of their ancestors" than to condemn people for actually physically raping women. Let's see where "wrong way Ryan" takes us today.

Today's topic is Heathenry and Democracy. And right off the bat, the sharp elbows of Marxist egalitarianism are flying:
There are many who argue, in Heathenry and the broader polytheist and Pagan communities, for vesting leadership and decision-making in an anointed elite who will guide the rest based on their wisdom and superior abilities. They claim these ideas are rooted in the practices of the pre-Christian ancients and natural hierarchies even though, in truth, the argument they make is far more recent than they assume.
The position advanced by these would-be theocrats is rooted in modern political theory. In the liberal democratic societies many such Heathens, Pagans, and polytheists live in there is the central assumption of an unceasing, ongoing clash between democratic governance and rule by the few. 
There are links in the original to the Asatru Alliance website, Galina Krasskova's blog, and something called the Sons of Odin 1519, which I've never heard of before, and which seems to be an explicitly racist, Odinist, outfit that seems to be one or two people with a website (and that really seems to have it in for Valgard Murray of the Alliance). So he's got a folkish source, a universalist source, and a racist source. Okay; he's got "non-Marxist Yahtzee". Let's unpack this.

"...vesting leadership and decision-making in an anointed elite who will guide the rest based on their wisdom and superior abilities."

I think you're confusing leadership
with being a commissar.
Just speaking on a practical level, as someone who has been in the trenches organizing Heathen groups for twenty years or more, it's not about someone who is an "anointed elite" or "wisdom and superior abilities". It's about having the willingness to take on an enormous amount of work, unpaid and often unrecognized, to bring people together in a place where they can worship the Gods together. Sure, there are skills that are required; some level of organization, for example. But it's not the purview of any sort of elite. In fact, the Alliance article that Smith links to puts it excellently:
If you think that you have all the qualities of leadership and determination that are required of the Gothar, if you are willing to promote Asatru, the worship of the Holy Aesir and Vanir, and the right to self determination of our Folk... then I would encourage you to start that Kindred. 
Leadership and determination. Of course, any sort of leadership, which implies followership, offends the Marxist egalitarianism that G&R in general espouses, but the willingness to be the guy who puts together the meetings isn't some sort of Divinely Inspired Ability. It's just old fashioned grit.

And Gods Forbid that someone have more knowledge about Heathen history, or mythology, or runes, or literature, than someone else. After all, Marxists have shown they know what to do with... intellectuals.

Marxists leaders?
I thought that was un-possible!
Now, in fairness, there are some strains of Heathenry that espouse a concept called Sacral Leadership (aka Sacral Kingship). Theodish Belief is best-known as the proponent of this arrangement, but it's by far not the only one. And yes, Theodism has ranks (arungs) to recognize ability, and a sacral leader who serves the function of intermediary between the folk and the Gods. But in that respect, he's just the High Priest of the tribe.

And we know that the ancient Germanic people had priests. More on that in a minute.

"They claim these ideas [that groups do better with leaders] are rooted in the practices of the pre-Christian ancients and natural hierarchies even though, in truth, the argument they make is far more recent than they assume."

Is that Zeus on a throne?
With a crown? And
a scepter? Like a... KING???
Somehow, Smith seems to think that the fact that the Germanic peoples had the institution of Þing (a sort of popular assembly), that that is somehow proof that "the pre-Christian ancients" didn't have kings with real power, priests who acted as intermediaries between the folk and the Gods, or other forms of social and political stratification.

Now we're rolling.

Setting aside the history of just about every pre-Christian culture, from ancient Egypt to Sumeria to Persia to Greece to Rome had monarchies (and noting the exceptions, such as Athens and Rome, which were by no stretch of the imagination democracies in the modern sense of the word, lacking any concept of universal suffrage), let's turn to the Germanic peoples.

"The position advanced by these would-be theocrats is rooted in modern political theory."

Apparently, anyone who thinks that a group does better with a leader, or that espouses anything other than pure Marxist egalitarianism, is a "would-be theocrat". Leaders rising to the top of any sort of social structure, by dint of the fact that they're doing most of (or in many cases, all of) the work, and people just naturally look to them for the qualities of leadership because they're doing the work that leaders do, is in and of itself theocracy.

This fixation on the vilification of hierarchy is fascinating to watch. It's like a bacillus, moving from one writer to another over at G&R. They must've had a staff meeting or something.*

Smith makes a great deal about the fact that pre-Christian Germanic kings were somewhat beholden to the Þings. And it's true; the reason there was a check on the power of kings, and why their rule was not absolute (i.e., not an example of "the divine right of kings", which is not at all the same as "sacral kingship") is because the Þing and those who ran it were the local powerful warlords, who together could gang up and tell a king to shove off if he overstepped his boundaries.

Wait... what? What about the Þing where, according to Smith,
Every free person, man or woman, could speak before the Thing and seek redress of their grievances and in some cases even thralls were given voice and space before these assemblies. These Things were the bodies that made and deposed kings. The leaders of the Germanic world, quite contrary to the assumptions cultivated in popular culture, ruled at the behest of the Things.
Well, yes, Þings made kings. They elected a king from a body of contenders based on their ancestry; a candidate for king had to be related to someone who himself had been a king. And those semi-divine royal lineages all traced their ways back to either Odin (in the case of the Saxons, Anglo-Saxons, and others) or Freyr (in the case of many Swedish lineages).

In other words, not anyone could get elected king. The kings that got elected were from a pool of people quite literally descended from the Gods. How's that for an "anointed elite"? As William A. Chaney puts it in The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England (p. 20):
'Let us sit and weigh the Races of Kings,' the goddess Freyja says in the Hyndluljoð, 'of all men that sprung from the gods'; in one of the oldest epics, the Hamðismal, 'the god-sprung king roared mightily, as a bear roars, our of his harness'. If, as shall be seen, Anglo-Saxon monarchs also came of a divine race, they shared this in common with other Germanic ruling houses.
As has been observed, the entire royal kin and not merely the holder of the kingship was elevated into the divine race by the descent from deity. The royal dignity was transmitted to the family; 'the realm belongs to the royal race', as Libermann says.
Not exactly the picture of the proletariat assembling in their soviets** to overthrow a king who cut their ration of bread, eh?

Hilmar Örn, allsherjargoði of Iceland.
Wait - I thought they were supposed to be the good lefty types?
Don't tell me they have leaders, too!?
Could they be... fascists?
And thralls given voice at Þing? Gonna have to ask for a source on that one, Ryan. It's certainly possible, maybe as a witness in a court case or something, but I can't recall anything saying it was a common practice just to air some grievance.

So much for the egalitarian election of leaders by the Þings. But leadership (and thus anti-egalitarianism) in general?

Amazingly, Smith non-ironically undercuts his whole argument in his choice of quotes when he describes the power of the Þings to overthrow rulers:
“As soon as the king had proposed this to the bondes, great was the murmur and noise among the crowd."
“We bondes, King Hakon, when we elected thee to be our king..."
"...we bondes have resolved among ourselves to part with thee, and take to ourselves some other chief, who will so conduct himself towards us that we can freely and safely enjoy the faith that suits our own inclinations."
“The bondes gave loud applause to this speech, and said it expressed their will, and they would stand or fall by what had been spoken.”
Who are these "bondes"? It comes from the Old Norse term bóndi, which according to Cleasby-Vigfussion means:
"...originally a tiller of the ground, husbandman, but it always involved the sense of ownership, and included all owners of land (or bú, q.v.). from the petty freeholder to the franklin, and esp. the class represented by the yeoman of England generally or the statesman of Westmoreland and Cumberland: hence it came to mean the master of the house..."
Yes, that's right. the Þings that Smith is so laudatory about, and which he claims were examples of true democracy in pre-Christian Germanic society... were led by the fucking landowners! The wealthy! The leaders! The ones who had men under them (the griðmaðr, or land-tiller) and who provided the troops for the king's army.

In other words... the only reason the Þings had the authority to even stand up to kings was because the kings at the time were too weak to stand up to the powerful bondes under them. It had nothing to do with democracy as we know it today; it was just an example of the stratification of power. King at the top, bondes under him. Get enough bondes together, and they can stand up to the king.

But it's also interesting that Smith omits a crucial example in his article; Iceland.

They famously had Þings in Iceland; a whole system of regional Þings, and then the central Alþing. And who ran these Icelandic Þings? The goðar (that's where modern Asatru gets the word "godhi", which is pretty much what Smith is railing against - the concept of a priesthood or leadership of any sort, even if it's self-selected and affirmed by acclamation of the folk he or she purports to lead).

*You* tell Ragnar Lothbrok
he's not a king
The topic of Icelandic goðar is far too interesting and detailed to get into here, but suffice to say that they didn't just serve as priests, but they were, for all intents and purposes, the leadership of the island. They were the wealthy landowners, and they took on clients among the people, which would give those people the protection of the goði to whom they were allied. This would help them in court, in disputes with other farmers, and in many other ways.

And the goðar ran the Þings. They made the decisions. They were in charge. Don't believe me? Read Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power by Jesse Byock, or (for a Scandinavian point of view), Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla by Sverre Bagge, which says (p. 125):
The real aristocracy is not confined to men with these titles [hersir, earl, lendr maðr - landowners]. In his narrative, Snorri repeatedly refers to men as esteemed, mighty, and so forth, who have a strong position in their region and act as spokesmen for the people and local leaders. Such men may or may not be attached to the king's service as lendr menn. The term "magnate"... is meant to include those men as well as those holding formal titles.
Its aristocracy and leadership all the way down, Ryan.

It's not surprising that Smith didn't include that example, but it is telling. He has no argument. Leadership in general was certainly present in pre-Christian Germanic society, and the fact that a bunch of sub-leaders could band together and overthrow a high-leader that got too big for his britches doesn't alter that fact.

Ryan Smith: Fascist

In closing, I must say I am shocked, shocked! to find out that Gods & Radicals would even publish such a counter-revolutionary piece as the one written by Ryan Smith. After all, weren't we told not too long ago that one of the warning signs of creeping fascist/New Right influence is a respect for tradition? Yes, I'm very sure we were:
Our Sacred Traditions: The New Right advocates a return to ‘older relationships’ between humans and the Sacred. As part of their critique of modern civilisation, they believe that the sacred order of the world has been disrupted (through Democracy, or Marxism, or Monotheism) and humanity must embrace pre-modern traditions, be those Christian, Pagan, Polytheist, or Heathen.
And yet, here we have Ryan Smith making an appeal against kingship (and leadership in general) on the basis that it wasn't historically practiced by the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. The fact that his arguments fall flat on their face on examination is irrelevant - what matters is that he attempted to make an appeal to "Our Sacred Traditions" (in this case, a democratic tradition).

There's a sure sign of creeping fascism in your ranks, Rhyd. Might be time for a purge.


* If so, did someone call the meeting to order? If so, xe may be a fascist. Keep your guard up! They may be infiltrating you even as you read this, G&R!

** "Soviet" just means "council". One can't help but wonder if Smith doesn't make that, dare I say romanticized connection. From the way he describes the power of the Þings, it doesn't seem impossible.

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