Thoughts and Ponderances on the thrall…

The thrall…

According to the mythic ideals found within the Rigsthula, the thrall caste of the elder hierarchy were representative, not only of the lowest rung in the tribal hierarchy as is often spoken of, but also of the first generation of men, Hence, the mean and dirty Thrall is the issue of parents whose names translate as “Great Grandmother” and “Great Grandfather”. The poem further relates how the god Heimdal — whose name directly translates to Brightness of the Home and implies the fire of the hearth and its own full range of connotations — visited the humble dwelling of Great Grandmother and Great Grandfather, where he graciously received their crude and simple hospitality. And of how nine months later Great Grandmother gave birth to a lad who was sprinkled with water and named Thrall. According to the poem Thrall and his issue “established the yard” (lögðu garða), and are attributed the qualities of a simple, but otherwise physically strong and fundamentally capable, self-sufficient folk accustomed to hard work and rude pleasures. The poem also quite clearly implies that they were both hospitable (within their means) and properly pious. Hence the manifestation of the spirit of kinship among them. Hence the sprinkling with water at birth; which is an ancient birth/naming/acceptance custom that long precedes the coming of Christianity to NW Europe.

And this picture of the thrall is not remarkably different than that painted in Tacitus’ 1st AD Roman survey of Germanic society where we read,

Thralls in general do not have particular duties about the house and estate allotted to them, as our slaves do. Each has control of a holding and home of his own. The owner demands from him a stated quantity of grain, live-stock, or cloth, as he would from a tenant. To this extent the slave is under an obligation of service; but… To flog a thrall, or to punish him by imprisonment and hard labour, is very unusual

A wise thew that last bit, in a hierarchical society in which every one was subject to someone, even if only to the community as a whole and its divine progenitor, and so not surprisingly found reflected in the nature of the Thing system. As we read in Tacitus’ work once again,

Execution, imprisonment, even flogging, are allowed to none but the priests, and are not inflicted merely as punishments or on the commanders’ orders, but as it were in obedience to the will of the god…

Getting back to the Rigsthula and its inter-generational (ie. not simply hierarchical) nature; as it proceeds we find that it is Grandmother and Grandfather, with the spirit of Heimdal between them, that give issue to Churl (Freeman), while it is Father and Mother that give birth to Earl (noble). And it is only to his latter, Earl, the mortal vessel most fit to receive and bequeath his divine blessings on the whole community, that Heimdal directly returns, first to test, and then to foster as his own.

Indeed, while Heimdal does again return to the first generation of Earl’s offspring, it is only to one of them. At it is to the last born at that, and all that implies regarding succession and worthiness. This lad is named Kon, called Kon the Younger, which, in keeping with the hierarchical theme of the poem, is word play on the Old Norse word konungr, which is cognate to the Old English cyning, from whence we get the modern word king. The word carries the technical meaning of “offshoot of (-ing) the related people (cynne, kin)” and perhaps even carries the implications of “Ing of the Kin”, ie. the embodiment of the god Ingui-Frey.

And yet, for all of what might be perceived as “preferential treatment” of Earl and King by Heimdal, we find the Eddic poem Voluspa opening with a call for attention to “all of Heimdal’s holy children, both high and low”, which we know from the Rigsthula includes the caste of thralls.

Thralls were not wretches, as they often regarded by modern Asatruar. Much less were they despicable nithings. At worst they were characteristically luckless in one manner or another (or many), but no less definitively then any other of the offspring of Mannus.

Of the upbringing of the various castes that made up preChristian Germanic society, Tacitus once again relates,

In every home the children go naked and dirty, and develop that strength of limb and tall stature which excite our admiration. Every mother feeds her child at the breast and does not depute the task to maids or nurses. The young master is not distinguished from the slave by any pampering in his upbringing. They live together among the same flocks and on the same earthen floor, until maturity sets apart the free and the spirit of valour claims them as her own.

And this is how life remained for much of the folk, under most usual circumstances; working and living and facing life’s challenges together. And even as far back as Tacitus, it was a dynamic hierarchy, in which the caste of one’s birth vouchesafed nothing, and the potential of the individual, as a child of Mannus, was given its due. A thrall could rise out of his caste, a churl could fall into thralldom, and being the first born of the reigning king was no safe assurance that you yourself would one day be king.

“A king’s son, an uppity thrall…”, after all.

While the Germanic peoples had been exposed to the international slave trade network since at least the time of Tacitus, and came to take part in it and fall under its dehumanizing influence no less than the “heathen savages” of Africa or the Americas — who likewise observed their own native forms of “slavery” — it is nevertheless worth noting that on the eve of the Norman Conquest that the thrall population of Anglo-Nordic England is reckoned to have been about 10% of the total population. Statistically this means that only one in ten Englishmen were slave-owners at the time; though in reality Anglo-Nordic dwellings were not defined by single person dwellings and slave populations would have been concentrated among the most affluent. Suffice it to say that the English have never characteristically been a race of slave-owners, and that our native culture was conducive to the maintenance of the humanity of the thrall, and so the overall health and integrity of the community.

A thrall, while characteristically humble of means and perhaps even ability, perhaps best defined once again as lacking luck in life, was nevertheless (and as a general characteristic once again) self-sufficient and quite capable under most circumstances of providing for themselves at a subsistence level.

In contrast, take your typical modern Westerner, high or low, no matter their religion or atheism, put them in a time machine and send them back to 7th century England or 1st century Germania… and thralls wouldn’t remain the lowest rung in society for very long.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts and Ponderances on the thrall…

  1. Tom Rowsell

    Jaan Puhvel thinks the Germanics lost their caste system due to deterioration of the priestly caste but that it reappeared among Anglo-Saxon and Norman Christians who had been influenced by Druidic hierarchies surviving among their Celtic Christian countrymen

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    1. Tom Rowsell

      I have the quote here:

      …among the Celts, where Caesar separated the Gauls into druides (priests), milites (warriors), and miserrima plebs (wretched masses), or early Ireland, where the druids (cf. Vedic brahmán-), the flaith (‘dominion’; cf. Vedic ksatrám), and the bo airig (‘cow freemen’ cf Sanskrit ärya-ka- and Avestan västryo-fsuyant-) are uncannily reminiscent of the Indo-Iranian kind. Unlike Germanic society, where the system had been broken by the virtual disappearance of the priestly class, the tripartite societal pattern lingered on in its insular Celtic holding tank, and by the end of the first millennium it experienced a remarkable recrudescence in Anglo-Saxon England. About 900, in his own Old English version of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, King Alfred the Great divided a ruler’s subjects into gebeðmen. fyromen, and weorcmen, which Aelfric and Wulfstan echoed a century later by oratores, bellatores, and laboratores. Just as the Celtic-Germanic symbiosis in England had saved the tradition, the Norse superstrate on both sides of the Channel (culminating in the Norman invasion of 1066) facilitated its spread to the north of France during the eleventh century, whence it expanded to form the basis of the medieval European and later three estates, which in France lasted as the basis of society down to the revolution of 1789. This is another illustration of the insidious power of Celtic persistence, not unlike its substratal ability to overhaul a seemingly triumphant Latin into subsequently unintelligible French.

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      1. jameybmartin Post author

        The evidence of the Nordic Bronze Age such as it is indicates the presence of both a hierarchy and an “aetheling” caste from which kings were drawn. Probably a dual kingship that flowed from “the Alcis” and along the lines of the Dioscuri sprung Spartan system of dual kingship.

        The end of the Nordic Bronze Age, the enormous set back that it was for the fledgling Germanic peoples, provides a time frame for a lot of “cultural instability”, which might very well have impacted the old aetheling houses.

        Certainly, the idea of a clock-work universe, in which the priesthood had long since mastered the flow of time and the changing of the seasons, came crashing down, as the climate change c.500 BC brought all of that calendar knowledge into question.

        As Professor Kristian Kristiansen characterized the proceeding era,

        “The whole pre-Roman Iron Age is characterised by a cultural and religious fragmentation of the former rather hegemonic Nordic Bronze Age culture into local and regional variation. It marks a decline in international trade and in Nordic interaction that was only reopened towards the end of the period.” (Households in Context. Cosmology, Economy and Long-Term Change in the Bronze Age of Northern Europe)

        Nevertheless, to say that they lost their hierarchy is more than a little reaching. After all, based on what? Caesar? When Tacitus would clearly beg to differ?

        I certainly think that something/s BIG happened in the wake of 500 BC, but I would have to be convinced that the Germanic peoples lost their hierarchy. And I’m not sure the evidence necessary for that exists.

        But perhaps “lost” is a poor choice of words? Perhaps over time and under different historical influences it can loosen up or become rigid. Such as when the aethelings are converted to a foreign law (eg. Christianity) and so come to look upon their people as foreigners? Or perhaps when they come to rule over a population not comprised of their own folk?

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