Bloody Cloaks and Beer: The Duties of a Frithwebbe, Part II

She greeted the chief of the Geats, gave thanks to God,
wise as she was in her words, that her wish had come to good,
that she might have confidence in some hero,
a comfort in her woes. He partook of the cup,
the fierce slayer, from Wealhþeow's hands,
and then chanted his eagerness to fight.

-Beowulf [1]

To the uninitiated, the above exchange is nothing more than the Lady of Heorot graciously welcoming an honored guest to her husband's hall; a skilled frithwebbe, however, will recognize the multiple layers of interaction, each fraught with meaning. For the purpose of this topic, we will focus on just one: the boast. More specifically, Wealhþeow's inciting of the boast. It is in this deceptively simple interaction that the power of a woman's words in the ancient Germanic culture is put prominently on display.

As Weahlþeow hands the cup to Beowulf, the poet specifies how wise her words are. In the cleverness of her speech, she elicits a boast from a great hero that he will save her people from terror. Such is the nature of the timing and location of the boast that it must be kept. The Queen had secured a promise of action. Wealhþeow is weaving frith.

This is not a unique or isolated incident. Delving into the extant literature, such as the writings of Tacitus, an image of a culture of women begins to emerge. These women, highly tuned in to the currents of their households and political climate, felt very much that it was their duty to ensure that men did what was expected[2] and in this way, their defense of their homes can be viewed as a frithful act.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that these women limited themselves to pretty words of entreaty. Equally important is the weaving of frith through the aggressive protection of honor and the seeking of revenge. To the ancient Germanic people, the loss of honor was akin to an endlessly gaping wound, incapable of healing while the dishonor remained.[3] Any such injury to the wellness of the tribe, be it from without or from within, was not to be abided and the women would not let it fester and rot away the threads of their woven frith.

In Culture of the Teutons, Grønbech observes, "honor at once brings up the thought of vengeance. It must be so, he who thinks of honor must say vengeance, not only because the two are found together in stories, but more because it is only through vengeance that we can see the depth and breadth of honor."[4] When we assess the sagas and accountings, we can see this is plainly true, and we can clearly conjure the image of a woman at the forefront of mending the wounds.

In the restoration of honor and the goading of their men, they were nigh ruthless in their pursuit of vengeance, oft employing cutting insults meant to question courage and mocking the living with the blood of the slain.

In Njál's Saga, Hildigunn seeks vengeance for the death of her husband. Her uncle is determined to resolve the issue peacefully but that will not suffice. After an elaborate tableau in which her uncle is both praised and insulted by her in succession, each remark a cutting reminder of the loss she has suffered and his duty to those with whom he bears frith, she turns to weeping - an outwardly physical demonstration of her grief meant to stir his emotions. When subtlety fails, we see Hildigunn resort to something much more dramatic. Grandly, she produces the cloak her husband was wearing at the time of his death and drapes it over her uncle's shoulders. This is not without meaning. The cloak, a gift from her uncle to her husband, is still coated in blood and the dried flakes cover him.

"This cloak, Flosi, thou gave to Hauskuld, and now I give it back to thee; he was slain in it and I call God and all good men to witness that I adjure thee [...] by thy manhood and bravery, to take vengeance for all those wounds which he had on his dead body or else be called everyone's bastard."

Horrified, yet reminded of his duty, he agrees to Hildigunn's demands and sets off to avenge her fallen husband. [5]

In Laxdæla Saga, Guđrun uses the bloody clothes of her husband to spur her sons to venegeance;

"these same clothes you see here cry to you for your father's revenge."[6]

And while it might seem that such provocation is needlessly cold to one's kin, it is important to remember it was done in defense of frith, a prodding spearhead meant to stir the tribe to taking the right action.

This motiff is repeated over and over again throughout the sagas, so frequently that one must conclude that it was the expected norm. Drawing from extant lore, Enright suggests that such goading was so pervasive and so effective that it became internalized. Just the idea that his honor deficiency and perceived dearth of masculinity might be ridiculed was enough to drive men to action.[7] In this instance, the woman need not even be present; she speaks so strongly for her wronged kin that her voice of derision can be anticipated and heard even in her absence. The guarding of honor falls under the scope of weaving security and peace for a tribe. If the tribe is bleeding out their honor, then no peace can be had until the wrong is avenged. "This was the women's great task," Grønbech writes, "and from all we know, they proved themselves equal to it."[8]

Grønbech is not alone in his observations. In Germania, Tacitus notes that the wives and mothers demanded to see the injuries received by their men in battle, administering food to the soldiers, and also words of valor and encouragement.[9] Time and time again we see that the Germanic women of yore were greatly concerned with courage as the physical manifestations of honor. This likely draws heavily on the damage that can and will be done to themselves as women, and the tribe as a whole should their men fail to succeed or run cowardly from battle. If the frithwebbe is kidnapped and raped, or taken as spoils of war, who will feed her children? If her men are already cowardly or not courageous enough to win a battle, who will avenge her honor when she is brutalized by the enemy? To Tacitus, it seemed that the women were wholly aware of the dangers that cowardly men posed to them and to their families. He mentions that the women at times actually accompanied their warriors to battle; not to fight at their sides, but to stand bare-breasted and screaming to remind them of the horrors that would descend upon them should failure become reality. In the world of the ancient Germanic people, when men were cowards women and children paid the ultimate price. The wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of weak men were taken as chattel, forcibly married and pressed into what can only be referred to as both sexual and physical slavery. What male children were not slain outright were taken as slaves. Families were shattered, women and children were decimated, and men lay in pieces on the ground. So it was that the destruction of honor and frith were not abstract conceptions or tenets of a religion only tenuously observed, but very real and tangible cornerstones of life, the loss of which carried dire consequences.

With this in mind, we can explore the link between facilitating honor restoration and frith. One of the core elements of frithweaving is the soothing of ill feelings and the creation of interpersonal peace within a tribe. When a blow is struck honor is stolen, leaving a void in which the peace and health of the tribe begins to leak out. This robs the frithwebbe of her ability to do her work - peace and safety are unattainable when one's lifeblood is spilling out onto the floor. She must guard the safety and sanctity of her home, even if it must be guarded from the inactivity or shirking of duty from the very people who dwell within the frith of that home. Here, all becomes clear. While men traditionally saw honor avenged, women goad them into action in defense of frith.

We see an element of this surface during the ritual of symbel in Beowulf. In her introduction, Wealhþeow is portrayed as the pinnacle of a Heathen frithwebbe. She is gracious, an extension of her husband throughout and the weaver of cohesion and friendship among all gathered with her bearing of the mead cup. After Beowulf has returned, victorious, she becomes acutely and anxiously aware of the danger that he poses to her children. If he were to become the next King, her sons would be placed in peril, poised to be slain to ensure succession through lineage, and she herself would likely have become his next bride. Now that the monster is dead, and her kingdom is secured, she turns to shoring up the security of her familial frith web. This hero who has just saved her kingdom, carries with him the potential to decimate her web of frith, and so she entreats him to take all the treasures he is being offered and get out. [10]

Wealhþeow here must not be seen as being an ungracious hostess or an ingrate. She is poignantly aware of the magnitude of what Beowulf has accomplished and all that would naturally follow suit. She offers him treasure and begs his friendship for her sons. Though her motivations may be centered around the future of her sons, her words and machinations are every bit indicative of her station of the graceful Lady of the Hall. She is flawless in the duality of her role as defender of frith and queenly host.

Through these women, we are able to glimpse the dual nature of the goading frithwebbe, weaving frith through words of encouragement and ferociously defending it through provocation. Today, though we find ourselves in a cultural climate much removed from that of Wealhþeow's, there still exists conquering men and conniving women who would see the frith and honor of others destroyed. There remains those who given chance will harm and molest any whom fall under their power; and Heathens are not exempt from these tragic circumstances. It serves no one to ignore the reality that while our grievances are no longer satisfied with bloodshed, we still have a responsibility to serve our families within the fullest extent of the laws of the lands in which we live; and a duty to protect the frith and safety of our homes. Honor must always be preserved, and if needed, restored by legal or social means.

It is essential to our identities as Heathen women that we adopt this idea, and not just the fortification of our children and our rooftrees. To protect the sanctity of our woven frith, we must also protect ourselves from those who would prey upon us. I urge every woman to consider their honor, and their family's honor, and consider what that means. We must become like Wealhþeow, doing all that our families, our religion, and our honor demand of us in gladness, as weavers of frith and stewards of the familial security.

  1. Beowulf 625-630 ↩︎

  2. Johanna Friđriksdottir, Wisdom and Women's Counsel in Hrolf's Saga Gautrekssonar ↩︎

  3. Vilhelm Grønbech, Culture of the Teutons: Volume I; ch 2 pg 43 ↩︎

  4. Vilhelm Grønbech, Culture of the Teutons: Volume I; ch 2 pg 39 ↩︎

  5. Njál's Saga, Chapter 115 ↩︎

  6. Laxdæla Saga, Chapter 60 ↩︎

  7. Michael J. Enright, Lady With A Mead Cup pg 47 ↩︎

  8. Vilhelm Grønbech, Culture of the Teutons: Volume I; ch 2 pg 61 ↩︎

  9. Tacitus, Germania Chapter 7 ↩︎

  10. The discussion of Widowhood, Wealhþeow, and her scheming to kick Beowulf out of the kingdom is far too vast to properly explore as a simple aside, and will be the subject of next week's Autiofile. Those interested in the topic further should reference Michael J. Enright's Lady With a Mead Cup chapters one and two. ↩︎