Freedom. It is an interesting word. A word that has been with the various Anglo-Nordic peoples since (at least) the dawning of Proto-Germanicism, which, like Celticism, was the only branch of the greater Indo-European tree that developed the notion out of a root (*pri-) that originally meant “beloved”.

This is the same root that we get the word friend from incidentally.

One might think of the development of the word free — from “beloved” to “not in bondage” — in terms of, say, who you would have as a room-mate in your home. Or who you would invite to home-sit for you while you were away on some extended trip. In short, in terms of who you would grant the freedom of your home to. And the answer is of course, to one’s beloved, to one’s friend/s, to those who are trustworthy and so can be trusted to conduct themselves as you yourself would; and who are thus free to “act as they will” (ie. in a beloved, friendly manner) within one’s home.

Certainly, one could argue that such a state isn’t exactly “unburdened by constraint”, but it is not a conscious matter of legalities and/or a check-list of criteria either. Friendship and the freedom that walks hand-in-hand with it are mostly organic evolutions, the unconscious attraction of like to like, such that among friends there is not a feeling, much less a manifestation of constraint. Each are acting, unrestrained according to their own habits of conduct, as they please. It’s just that the conduct that pleases one is also the conduct that pleases the other, eg. I don’t have to demand that you wash your dishes because you dislike dishes piling up just like me and act accordingly.

A common thew is shared between friends, and in a broader cultural sense between the free; thew being an Old English (and uniquely West Germanic) word that means “custom, habit, morals, conduct” and carries implications of “sinew, muscle, strength”, acting as what we today might call “social fabric”.

One could thus easily say that, like friendship and freedom, thew and freedom walk hand-in-hand; though again one is forced to acknowledge that thew doesn’t necessarily leave the individual “free of constraint” in any universal or objective manner, and contains within itself an implicit set of criteria which, if not organically met, will certainly leave a new-comer feeling constrained, a long-stander ashamed, and in either case, as the odd-one-out.

“Everyone! Look! There’s Johnny!!! He has no clothes on!!!”

Freedom it would thus seem is something of a relative state, that comes with implicit constraints that are most apt to be imparted and enforced socially, organically. Indeed, by the reckoning of our ancestors — in fact by the reckoning of common sense — freedom had no effective existence outside of social interactions and relationships, outside of human society, and was a thing that could only be achieved in relation to one’s fellow man.

To be free meant, to our ancestors, the freedom to take part in society; shouldering it’s obligations and benefiting from it’s privileges.

In contrast to the free, our ancestors had, not so much the thrall or slave, much less the young — both of which had no rights under law, but nevertheless benefited from the rights and freedoms enjoyed by their owners or adult relations — but rather the wretch, who, regardless of his degree of self-sufficiency, was left without either law or loved ones to shield him and secure his rights, to care for him in sickness and/or old age, and who was left to contend with the merciless tyranny of nature and any man or group of men that wanted to work ill-will upon him. And whose line would, at best, end with him, or alternately, produce offspring who would be damned to a wretched life of loneliness, hopelessness, and perhaps even inbred dysfunction.

As the Havamal poem says, “Man rejoices in man”. Likewise the Old English Rune Poem.

This freedom to take part in society, as a member of society, was imparted by our Anglo-Nordic ancestors at the tribal assembly, the (ahem) “state” assembly, as noted as early as Tacitus, who wrote,

Then in the presence of the council one of the chiefs, the young man’s father, or some kinsman, equips him with a shield and a spear. These arms are what the “toga” is with us, the first honour with which youth is invested. Up to this time he is regarded as a member of a household, after-wards as a member of the commonwealth.”

It can also be gleaned in the respect of the indigenous Germanic state for freedom and thew, as seen in it’s largely fine based system of crime and punishment. Their system of crime and punishment was itself a manifestation of Anglo-Nordic thew, representing one aspect of our shared customs and habits of conflict resolution; a thew evolved to deal with the inevitable sprains and tears in thew, which, as such, remained largely in the hands of the people and their locality, to be used or not used, used well or poorly, as the participants saw fit, and in which the state played little to no role. This led to the characterization of the Icelandic gothar for example as being “lazy” and/or (ahem) “too permissive” in regards to the conduct of their folk, ie. “too respectful” of their freedom. Only in the most severe of cases, such as deeds which threatened to undermine the collective trust, eg. secret killing, was the state empowered to mete out more familiar legal punishments such as flogging, imprisonment or execution. This attitude extended to military service outside of a certain distance from one’s own locality among the Anglo-Saxons. No law could be invoked to oblige a man to take part in his king’s call to muster or force a man to go aviking; though thew might well prompt a man to do so at least once in his youth. Whatever the case, as a matter of both law and thew no man would be forgiven for failing to rise to the defense his own locality and he would be dealt with very harshly, be it by law or mob, and understandably so I would think, by his neighbours within that locality for refraining to do so.

It can also be seen in the beliefs and functioning of the Germanic hierarchy as well; in which the free could fall into thralldom (play at dice anyone?), the thrall win his freedom, and being the firstborn of the reigning king vouchsafed one nothing. As the Havamal states, a king’s son, an uppity thrall, none should be so trusting as to trust in these. Unlike the caste structure of our fellow Indo-European belief system, Hinduism, the indigenous Germanic hierarchy was dynamic rather than static, and while ancestry certainly meant something, the ability of the individual was given it’s rightful due. And the right of even a thrall to self-rule — not to mention basic obligation of self-sufficiency — under his own roof-tree was recognized and observed; albeit by thew rather than by law.

The problem with freedom in this post-modern world is a lack of thew, a lack of common identifiers, and the self-regulation that comes with it. And it was toward the notion of thew in general that Tacitus was speaking when he wrote, “good habits are here more effectual than good laws elsewhere.”, and provide the real reason why, among the Anglo-Saxons for example, state executions were so rare (ie. based on an examination of felon graveyards).

Not strong laws, but strong thew.

Freedom flows upward, out of the soil, into the sole’s of one’s feet, and throughout one’s entire being. And only then can it, not so much descend, from “on high” as it were, from the state, as simply turn about, reflect and affirm, that which gave it life and upon which it’s continued vitality relies. Freedom does not come from political institutions, laws, or intellectualized social constructs or ideologies.

Freedom comes from the habits of a people. From thew. Or not at all. And thew cannot be all things to all people. It cannot be intellectualized and instilled. It evolves through local, first person interaction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s