[The following is the first of two guest posts from Nick Ritter, a member of Axenthof Thiâd, and The Wild Hunt’s resident expert on all things Théodish. Given the rise of Dan Halloran, a Republican New York City Councilman, congressional candidate, and Théodish Heathen, I thought it best spotlight a truly informed voice on the subject of his religion. This post will deal with Théodish belief, while a second post, published tomorrow, will deal with Dan Halloran specifically.]
While Théodish Belief has been “public” for about twenty years, it is still relatively unknown by most people in Paganism-at-large. For this reason, Jason has asked me to write an introductory post about Théodism and issues surrounding this religious movement, so as to better help the reader when Théodism comes up in the news.
First, though, I should introduce myself, and mention why I might know a thing or two about Théodism. I became Théodish in 1996, when I was inducted into Frêsena Thiâd. This was a Théodish group in the Upper Midwest, primarily Minnesota and Wisconsin, and led by Gerd Forsta. Gerd was a “fosterling” of Gárman, the founder and (at that time) leader of Théodish Belief; Gerd had entered into tutelage under Gárman with the understanding that he would eventually split off and found his own, independent Théodish organization. Over the next few years, our théod made trips about once a year to upstate New York, where Gárman lived. There, I was able to speak with Gárman, and train under him as a wéofodthegn (priest). I was certified as a wéofodthegn by Gárman, and also chosen to be his steward for a while. I also published a number of articles and two books through the Théodish press, was a member of the Thunor-gild (i.e. a Thunor cult), and founder of the scops’ gild (a guild of poets). I am currently a member of Axenthof Thiâd, serving under Gerd Forsta.
What is Théodish Belief?
Théodish Belief, or Théodism, is one of a number of approaches to the practice of pre-Christian Germanic religion. There have been individuals and groups attempting to practice this religion since at least the late 19th century, but such attempts really took off in the U.S. in the mid 1970s. Théodism got its start in 1976 in Watertown, New York, with a man known as Gárman Lord. This was about the same time that American versions of Ásatrú were getting their start in Texas, with folks such as Edred Thorsson and Stephen McNallen. Théodism started independently of Ásatrú, and there was not much interaction between the two until the late 1980s or early 1990s.
For some time during the early part of this interaction, much was made out of the ethnic distinction between Ásatrú and Théodism: Ásatrú was taken to be primarily Norse, and Théodism to be primarily Anglo-Saxon. While there are still Anglo-Saxon Théodish groups, the Théodish approach to religious reconstruction has branched out into the particular religious forms of the Frisians, the Continental Saxons, and the Goths. Scandinavian varieties of Théodism would be quite possible (as would other Continental forms), but no one has taken that project up just yet. The distinction between Théodism and other forms of heathenry is therefore not a matter of which people’s particular heathenry we’re trying to reconstruct, but rather a matter of approach and definition.
The differences between different approaches to Germanic religion such as Ásatrú, Forn Siðr / Forn Sed, Heiðni, Odinism, and Théodism, etc. grow out of differences in the definition of what constitutes Germanic religion, and what defines a successful practice of it. For instance, one approach might be that Germanic religion is simply the worship of the Germanic gods; therefore, to worship Germanic gods – in any way – is to practice Germanic religion. In Théodish Belief, Germanic religion is defined as the pre-Christian religion* of the Germanic peoples; as such, successfully practicing Germanic religion means practicing the religion as the pre-Christian Germanic peoples practiced it, to the best of our knowledge and ability. This means that we are continually trying to improve our knowledge and practice of Germanic religion. It also means, as Germanic religion was not really clearly separable from the rest of Germanic culture, that practicing Germanic religion also means, for us, adopting the culture of which it was a central part, specifically what might be called the ideological or mental component of culture; e.g. the worldview, ethos, etc. To do otherwise, we feel, would be to arbitrarily decide what is and is not “religious” about early Germanic cultures, and risk mutilating (or at least severely misunderstanding) the religion. The adoption of the early Germanic worldview has certain consequences in how we arrange and govern ourselves, as will be discussed below.
I sometimes liken our approach in reconstructing Germanic religion and culture to experimental archaeology: we research Germanic religion and culture extensively, put in practice what we learn, observe how it works, and make changes as we learn more. Along the way, we hypothesize and experiment; some of these experiments work, and some don’t, but we keep what works until we find something better.
Our religious practice, developed from our research into pre-Christian Germanic religion, has certain characteristics. For one, ours is a votive religion, insofar as we make offerings to our gods in return for their continued help and friendship, and we seek to enter into a relationship of reciprocal gift-giving with them; these offerings are in the form of libations, valuables, food offerings, and animal sacrifice (which is also, in part, a food offering). Théodism emphasizes right action, including right ritual action, and lets people sort out the specifics of belief for themselves; the forms and rituals of Théodism are primarily those of public worship in a group, and the private religious practices of individual Théodish people are not something that we try to direct. Along with the emphasis on correct ritual action, there is an emphasis on the composition and performance of religious poetry, often hymns to the gods, and usually in an old Germanic language; to date, there have been Théodish religious poems composed in Anglo-Saxon, Old Frisian, Gothic, and Old Saxon.
One of the things that people find off-putting about Théodism is that it is unabashedly hierarchical in its arrangement, even elitist. Our reasons for adopting such a hierarchical social structure in Théodism – aside from such a social structure being evident in early Germanic cultures, and thus our adoption of it being in keeping with our adoption of early Germanic culture – are mainly twofold.
On the one hand, we have learned through experience and observation that groups function best when people have responsibilities and duties befitting their own qualities and character; we do not assume beforehand that everyone is the same, and so there is a process of testing and observing new people to see if they will fit in with the group, and where (more on this below). Also, our hierarchy is based on demonstrated merit, rewarding responsibility, intelligence, vision, hard work, and ethical uprightness with more social standing and influence, but also a higher degree of responsibilities to the group as a whole. The social structure is therefore aristocratic in the original sense, with power (Greek kratos) being given to those who have demonstrated themselves to be the best (Greek aristoi).
The other main reason for our adoption of a hierarchical social structure is based on our observations that a democratic, egalitarian social structure is the easiest kind to subvert; who is to blame if no one is in charge, if wrongs done were done by committee, and in the name of the group? Instead, we put individuals in power, state clearly what powers and concomitant responsibilities those individuals have, so that when wrong is done, it is clear who has done it and who carries the blame.
That said, certain decisions need to be made by the group as a whole, and this is where the thing – the tribal council – is used as a means of making decisions. In the thing, everyone has a say regardless of rank, and everyone has a chance to try and convince the group through argument and persuasion.
What is Sacral Kingship?
Along with a hierarchical and aristocratic social structure, another important element of Théodish social structure is the institution of sacral kingship. The king is someone selected from the highest level of a Théodish group to be both the leader and highest religious functionary of that group, and has religious functions distinct from – and complementary to – those of the priests. It is important to note that no current Théodish groups have kings; although we do believe that sacral kingship is a valuable role, it is not a role that can be filled by just anyone. It is also important to know that sacral kingship is not monarchical: the king is answerable, is held responsible, perhaps to a greater extent than anyone else.
When Gárman was king of the Winland Ríce (a Théodish organization comprising several théods), he accepted a few people as “fosterlings”, that is to say that he trained them to eventually go off and lead their own, independent Théodish organizations, perhaps eventually to become sacral kings in their own right. Two such fosterlings were Gerd Forsta and Dan Halloran.
What is Thralldom?
As mentioned above, people who want to join a Théodish group have to go through a process of being observed and their character tested before being allowed in as full members of the group. This process is called “thralldom,” and the would-be entrants “thralls,” terms that tend to put people off. This is intentional: the name is part of the test of one’s character. If one can submit to being called something unpleasant, to sacrificing the gratification of one’s ego in return for something better, that says something important about one’s worth. As in the military, as in traditional martial arts, as in traditional initiatory practices the world over, so in Théodism: one must be broken down a little bit so as to be built up into something better.
Théodish groups tend to be somewhat small and tightly-knit; they are real communities with a great deal of internal loyalty. As such, they are justifiably wary of new people coming in and upsetting things; thralldom has developed as the method of teaching and observing would-be entrants to make sure that they will fit in their new community, and that this will be beneficial both to them and to the Théodish group they are trying to enter. Théodish thralls have no responsibilities within Théodism other than to listen, observe, and learn, and to repay their teaching with work; thralls have no rights either, except for the right not to be abused, and the right to walk away from Théodism. To ensure that thralls are not abused, Théodish Belief has at times made use of ambihtsþylas (ombudsmen), a function I served in for a while. If a thrall walks away, no questions are asked, but that person will not be allowed to gain entry into a Théodish group again. Over the decades, there have been a few exceptions made, where people have been allowed in without having to undergo thralldom. In all but one case, this has proven disastrous. As a result, we are much more consistent now in the application of this custom.
Thew: Custom, Customary Ethic, Customary Law
Another important aspect of Théodism is thew, which means something like “custom” “ethos” “customary law.” We do not write down bylaws or rules to govern behavior, as we have observed that it is very easy to subvert a written rule, and hold to the letter of the law while breaking it in spirit. Instead, we govern ourselves by thews, customary laws that – as I have read about English Common Law – can be written about, but which can never be entirely and definitively formulated in writing. Thus, if one breaks a thew, the thew is broken: there is no hiding behind the written form. Learning how to behave in Théodish society is therefore more complicated than memorizing a list of rules: one must be immersed in it and learn by observing, asking, listening, and doing. This immersive learning is the institution of thralldom mentioned above. We find that people are less likely to break the customs of a culture that they have become immersively enculturated into than the laws of a group they happen to join without any real initiation.
The word “thew” carries with it the notion of both strength and flexibility. The thews of a théod are the bonds that bind the group together; strong bonds, but also flexible ones that develop organically over time.
Having given an overview of Théodism and its more salient outward features, my next post will be about Dan Halloran specifically, and why he is a controversial figure within Théodism. In that post, I will be referring back to some of the points covered in this one.
* This does not mean that elements of this religion did not survive the wholesale conversion of the Germanic peoples. We recognize these elements as part of Germanic religion, and include them in the definition and practice of our religion.