The Power of the People in Germanic Culture

The Swedes have the right to elect and likewise reject a king. — The West Gautish Law

With this simple statement, the ancient law-codes of the Western Gauts encapsulated a principle common across all Germanic cultures; namely, the limited nature of Germanic kingship, and its ultimate subordination to the will of the collected folk. The same principle was active in Norway late into the Viking Age, when King Hakon “The Good” was forced to acquiesce to the wishes of his people and give up his plans to convert the nation to the new Christian faith.

That the institution of kingship was universal to the Germanic peoples is today fully accepted by secular scholars (see, in particular, Chaney’s Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 8-11). It is similarly clear that, prior to the ascension of the Christian rulers in the North, that the kingship practiced within Germanic culture was relatively weak. Tacitus points out that the kings of the Germanii were not absolute rulers in the Greek sense, but very limited in their authorities, albeit vested with sacral duties (such as the interpretation of omens on behalf of the nation) that were relatively unique to them. This is also found in both the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian models of kingship, where the assumption of authority over other rulers is especially tenuous, and all are dependent on the goodwill of the ruled.

As a specific example, one need look no further than the Saga of Hakon The Good from Heimskringla. Most specifically:

The next day, when the people sat down to table, the bondes pressed the king [Hakon] strongly to eat of horse-flesh; and as he would on no account do so, they wanted him to drink of the soup; and as he would not do this, they insisted he should at least taste the gravy; and on his refusal they were going to lay hands on him.

There was, accordingly, no sense that the king was in any way inviolate. If he acted in such a way that his men perceived was contrary to the interests of the folk (in this case, due to his refusal to honor their religion), they were prepared to show him the error of his ways with their swords.

In an even starker demonstration of the power of the folk to force a king to their will, Heimskringla is replete with demonstrations of how a king, in time of famine or other period of ill-luck, would be sacrificed in order to change the luck that was afflicting the folk. The mechanism here was clear; the prosperity of the land depended on the luck of the king. When the prosperity failed, it was a sure indicator that the luck of the king had likewise failed, and the remedy was, simply, to find a new king. Even King Harald, before the Battle of Stamford Bridge, is said to have his “luck” flee from him, thus resulting in disaster for him and those he led to England.

We see here three specific points.

1) When a king’s luck fails, he can be replaced.
2) When the king bucks the will of the folk, he can be replaced.
3) A king was expected to periodically present himself before the folk, through the mechanism of the Thing or Folk-Moot. They could, by withholding their acclamation, force him to be replaced.

In ancient times, of course, “replaced” would most often be a euphamism for “killed”. A king that lost his crown would be an inconvenient problem at best, as he would doubtless endlessly scheme to regain it. But, as the example quoted at the beginning of this article demonstrates, it was not always intended to be so; the folk could simply disenfranchize a king, opening the throne for another whom they would select by acclamation.

In modern times, the fact that such replacement was even possible in theory should stand as a warning to all would-be despots. Unlike contemporary Wicca with its multitudinous “witch wars” and would-be gurus, modern Heathenry is fortunately lacking in such figures, perhaps specifically because it is not a place for such leaders to find a foothold, knowing that the average Heathen is one who would toss out such a one on his ear. Let us count ourselves lucky for that!

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