• Jess

Repairing the Damage: Weregild

Updated: Jan 24



In last week's post, I wrote about Heathen ethics and how they shape us as practitioners who operate outside a system of good and evil. This post is part of an ongoing series about Heathenry and ethics, in theory and practice.

Disclaimer: I'm going to be speaking briefly and generally about how we address conflict and harm, including incarceration. If you're not up for that, feel welcome to circle back to this post another time. The views I'm talking about here are my own, gleaned from lore study and personal practice and personal gnosis.

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We have all been harmed by others. We have all harmed others. As Heathens, family and community is incredibly important to how we practice our religion. So is frith (from the Old Norse friðr), which I think of as the bare minimum for considerate, respectful, healthy relationships. Frith is an essential part of the goodwill which makes community possible. In a modern context, it's often translated to "peace", "harmony" or "security", but frith is more than that.


It's a mutual agreement to avoid causing harm to another person (or more often a group of people), no matter how deeply there was disagreement. To break frith was to show yourself as untrustworthy and to be exiled from your community. For obvious reasons, this was an undesirable consequence. Practically speaking, frith was a lot easier to uphold when we lived as tribes or under the guidance of chieftains; it was built into the legal structure.


When harm is done, for us to repair our relationships, we need to enter into conversation and take action. This is where weregild comes in. Weregild is an Old English word that can be translated to "man price" . In contemporary times, I think of transformative justice as being the natural evolution of weregild.


In the Viking Age, when a person had committed a crime, especially a violent crime such as murder, there was an understanding that what that person meant to their family (including the financial impact of the loss of their life) and that their life couldn't be replaced. Balance had to be restored, and so weregild was expected, much in the way that we in modern times might pay a parking ticket or a company might need to pay money as part of a legal settlement.


On a very human level, we can understand that when harm is done, it harms both the person who is responsible for it and the person who experiences it. Harm damages trust, respect and goodwill in relationships and as a species which relies on our connection to each other for well-being and survival, this creates a serious problem very quickly.


For minor offences, a verbal apology might be enough. But an apology is only one part of meaningfully repairing harm. If we don't understand why we did something harmful, why and how it was harmful, it's very likely to happen again. Transformative justice is an incredibly effective and compassionate blueprint for understanding these things and building skills to meaningfully make repair and find non-harmful ways to respond to challenges.


I really appreciate Mia Mingus work. Here's her definition of transformative justice:

"Transformative Justice (TJ) is a political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence. TJ can be thought of as a way of “making things right,” getting in “right relation,” or creating justice together. Transformative justice responses and interventions

1) do not rely on the state (e.g. police, prisons, the criminal legal system, I.C.E., foster care system (though some TJ responses do rely on or incorporate social services like counseling);

2) do not reinforce or perpetuate violence such as oppressive norms or vigilantism; and most importantly,

3) actively cultivate the things we know prevent violence such as healing, accountability, resilience, and safety for all involved."


So, why do I think transformative justice is helpful for a modern Heathen context? Well, the idea of weregild as it was once practiced seems incomplete, like paying for your problems to go away.

In an exploitative system like capitalism, paying weregild seems like it has the possibility to most severely impact those who are already most vulnerable in terms of income and social supports. There's something transactional about weregild : I harmed someone, I paid for it, the impact and my responsibility are now over.


Transformative justice feels deeply Heathen to me because it works to get to the source of the harm, the supports needed for each person involved to feel resolved and cared for, like they have dignity and deserve respect. TJ recognizes that conflict and harm don't just occur between two people: the effect of that conflict ripples out into the lives of their loved ones and other community members.


We cannot have healthy communities if our mistakes (even when they are grave) are met with shaming, the loss of our treasured relationships and exile from community-- this is how our current carceral system "works" and for a system which supposedly works well, it has high rates of recidivism. Hopefully it's clear that in no way am I condoning anyone escaping responsibility for the ways they have harmed someone else. I simply don't believe that we can achieve safety, connection and security through punishment, isolation and shame-- these are the mechanisms the criminal justice system and prison industrial complex rely on.


If frith and community are important to us, then that must extend to accepting that we will each cause and experience harm, and that there are mechanisms for us to access repair (when all parties are interested in that outcome). As long as we fear that our actions could make us disposable to the people we love or respect, we can't truly be honest, and people who are fueled by shame, dishonesty or impostor syndrome miss out in powerful ways when it comes to being able to live their wyrd. More than that, their community misses out on their gifts because they feel too afraid to be criticized and scrutinized.


Do these ideas come from the Eddas and the lore? Not specifically. But as our culture, technology and environment change, that change informs and reshapes how we practice our religion. There's no value to being stuck in the past for the sake of "authenticity" if it comes at the cost of meeting people in their modern lives. We have the capacity and the opportunity to fill in the gaps from the histories of our forebears and to fill them in with compassion and deeper humanity that meets us where we are in this moment.


In an upcoming blog post, we'll talk about frith and grith,concepts of boundaries, as well as the importance of oaths and why it's important, within a Heathen context, to be true to our word and make promises carefully.



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