What Frith Isn’t – A Rambling Rant

Frith is not just etiquette. It’s not about saying what people want to hear so they don’t get upset. It’s not about avoiding making too much noise. It’s not about keeping your head down and going along to get along.

Frith is ethics. It’s about doing the right thing, being in right relationship, not just with the people you like personally, but with the community at large.

When activists point out that the frith is being disrupted in ways that you have been able to ignore and shrug off until they pointed it out, it can seem as though it is the activists who are breaking frith rather than whoever or whatever they are objecting to. After all, things seemed peaceful to you until they made all that noise, you could ignore the problem up until that point, and any problem you can ignore isn’t really a problem, right?

Wrong. It is NOT breaking frith to point out when frith has already been repeatedly, demonstrably broken. It is not further harm to frith to require that broken frith be addressed instead of casually, continually ignored and tolerated.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism – these are innately breaches of frith because they are rejections and abuses towards entire categories of people in our community. If it hurts you to hear about it, then you have simply had the ignorance-born-bliss of not being directly subject to it yet.

Activism is a response to society being broken, to frith being broken.

I’ll say it again: Frith is about ethics.

To argue that etiquette is more important than ethics is so obviously wrong I don’t even know where to begin on explaining why and how. Ethics are about doing the right thing. Etiquette is social lubricant. Prioritizing etiquette over ethics is applying oil to a machine with parts missing. Oil isn’t going to fix what’s broken.

If you go on a date and the person at the other side of the table is polite to you, but insulting, dismissive, or cruel to those serving them, they are not a good person. That doesn’t change when the setting is a business meeting, an interfaith gathering, or a public event. A person who is polite to those they consider peers but bad to those they consider beneath them – especially a community leader who makes public statements to that effect – is not a good person. It’s simply made that much worse when the people they consider beneath them are a category of identity.

“Wait, Ember! What about people who I believe do bad things? They’re beneath me, right?”

If I believed that, I would not do jail ministry.

People who have behaved badly are still people. They need to learn, to change, to make better choices, take better actions, and form better relationships. Sometimes we need to remove them from the community in order to protect those who remain. But they are never beneath us, and we have no right to treat them as though they are.

“What about people who have harmed me and mine?”

Tell the truth about them. Tell the harm they have done. Tell the world what weregild they owe, and why you are hurt. Express how you feel. Be angry and work against their harms to make a better world. But do not act as though they are less than human. Do not devolve into public insults, lies, and hypocrisy. If your cause requires lies, it’s the wrong cause. If your cause requires looking the other way, caring less, ignoring harm, it’s the wrong cause.

“But Ember, haven’t you done the same in the past?”

I’m sure I have. I probably will again. No one is perfect. But I strive to never lie, and I strive to always avoid ad hominem attacks, especially in public statements, because I know they have no value and prove nothing.

And I strive daily to improve myself, where I find pockets of indoctrinated racism, sexism, ableism within myself. It’s hard. I was raised liberal by social activists to pay attention to all of these things from the beginning, and it’s still very, very hard. It’s not about guilt, it’s about doing the right thing. It’s not about being silent when it’s my turn to speak, it’s about learning when it is and is not my turn. It’s not about apologizing for harms other people have done, it’s about recognizing where I am contributing to the harm, and changing my ways.

Defending myself is unnecessary. Growth is not an attack.

What am I on about here?

Ryan Smith and Steven Abell are both people I know through Hrafnar and PantheaCon in the local SF Bay Area Heathen community. I have considered them at least positive acquaintances, if not friends.

I agree with Ryan’s values, but haven’t always agreed with his tactics. I definitely agree with him that community leaders and public figures, should expect consequences to their public statements and actions.

I have enjoyed Steven’s company and storytelling, but I can not condone his tolerance of racism in Heathenry, and I am very disappointed and angered by what he has said when he has stood up in defense of the status quo and people like Steve McNallen.

As for Steve McNallen, he’s made his views and values quite clear. I don’t question his values – that would imply there’s a question. Steve McNallen is openly racist, and I find his views to be anathema, if not outright dangerous. This should surprise no one. It’s not like he hides them.

The problem is, it’s very easy to dismiss people you don’t know personally, who hurt you, or who you never liked in the first place, as obviously wrong and bad. It’s much harder when they’re friends who have treated you well. I have seen many of my friends wrestle with this when we discover yet another member of our community has folkish sympathies. Generally, if my experience of a person is positive, I’d rather help educate them than ostracize them, but it still leaves me dismayed and nauseous whenever it happens.

I do not believe anyone is all bad or all good. I’m sure Steve McNallen loves his family. I know from experience that Steven Abell is generally a kind person. That doesn’t make McNallen’s racist behaviors acceptable. That doesn’t make Steven’s tolerance of them acceptable, even when it’s ostensibly for the sake of the larger Heathen community. I understand the political theory of cooperation for the greater good, but I don’t believe validating the leadership of people who make openly racist statements serves the greater good. I believe Ryan is right to highlight them and make that clear, and I frankly don’t understand why Steven is objecting now or previously.

Well, yes I do. It’s some of the same reasoning white male gamers and fans have been applying to demands for more inclusive gaming and fandom. So many were bullied as kids, humiliated and excluded from their communities of origin, and retreated to gaming and fandom as a safe havens. To be told the haven that seems safe to them needs to change feels threatening, so they lash out at the people demanding change. Paganism, including Heathenry, is full of people who fled mainstream religion and culture for similar reasons. The vast majority of Pagans are converts, and Heathens are no exception. People don’t change their self-identity when the one they were raised with is comfortable. So I do understand the reactions I see in people like Steven Abell, but that doesn’t make it right – or mature.

The thing is, people aren’t really good or bad, they’re just people. People behave badly and well. People who usually behave well can still behave badly. People who often behave badly can still behave well. When does the bad outweigh the good?

I see people act like even one instance of bad outweighs all prior good, and I think that’s not fair. But I also believe that no amount of unrelated good makes up for the bad. No amount of charitable donations to hospitals means you don’t owe weregild for assaulting someone while intoxicated. No amount of maintaining the walls of the house negates the need to repair holes in the roof. Neglect and harm must be addressed where they occur, not just tallied like scores in a game.

I want to say more, but I don’t know what else to say. These are my thoughts for now. I am upset. I am angry. I am hurt. I am disappointed and disgusted to be part of a community that I’m not sure is safe for my whole family to join. But most of all I am once again very worried for my community, because I don’t know what will happen next, or what I can do to help make the right things happen. Steven Abell is right that these fights may tear the community apart. But the cause of the fights is racism, not activism. Activism is the form the fight must take if racism is ever to be eradicated in Heathenry. This is not optional work.

For those who wish to plug their ears and hope it goes away, I could point out that it won’t work, but that’s beside the point. Even if it DID work, it would be WRONG.


About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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13 Responses to What Frith Isn’t – A Rambling Rant

  1. Heather Awen says:

    Reblogged this on heather awen archives.


  2. thetinfoilhatsociety says:

    I don’t know how much more clear Stephen can be than repeating, over and over, that diversity is GOOD, that ALL cultures deserve to exist with respect. If that’s racism then so be it. I’ve met Stephen in person, spent the greater part of two days in deep conversation with him, and read most of his writings. It’s easy to take what someone has written out of context. It’s not so easy to do once you’ve actually spoken at length with that same person.

    Saying that white culture deserves to exist too, not just brown cultures, is not racist. It’s diversity. It’s multiculturalism.

    And saying Abell tolerates racism is simply ridiculous.

    I sincerely doubt you will allow this comment to go through.


    • EmberVoices says:

      The comment went through automatically, actually, as you’ve commented before. I would have allowed it anyway. As long as you’re not devolving into ad hominem attacks, I don’t require people to agree with me.

      If you’re talking about McNallan, then I would say actions speak a great deal louder than words, and while he continually pays lip-service to diversity in theory, he also repeatedly demonstrates that he is a separatist who is opposed to inclusivity, and that his definition of “white culture” is extremely problematic to say the least. McNallen isn’t someone I know personally, but I know a sufficient abundance of people who *do* know him personally, and some kinds of statements – including ones endorsing a return of violent Nazi militia – are pretty clear regardless of their context.

      As for Abell, he’s stuck his foot in it several times both in public and in private. He’s not generally expressing racist views himself, but he keeps trying to convince us to be tolerant of folkish and racist elements in Heathenry while demanding justification from people of color when they speak up. He’s on the wrong side of this one, and while I believe he means well, I also believe that he’s been handed plenty of information about why what he is doing is a problem, and he has doubled down in response.

      But I don’t expect you to start agreeing with me any time soon if you’re on the other side of this particular gap. As long as you’re respectful in your manner of disagreement, so be it.


      Liked by 1 person

      • EmberVoices says:

        The biggest problem is simply that “white” *isn’t* a culture, and neither is “brown”. To the degree that whiteness is a binding feature, that’s entirely a colonial attitude cultivated to place whiteness above darker skin tones, as a pseudo-scientific justification for supremacy. Do cultural traditions deserve to be preserved? Sure. Right up until the tradition in question is primarily for the purpose of keeping others down.

        But culture is not the same as ethnicity, and neither are the same as skin color.

        McNallan has already repeatedly demonstrated a lack of understanding about the difference between open and closed traditions, and keeps wanting to treat Heathenry as closed when it never was historically and has no reason to be today *other* than for white surpremacy. Germanic influences in our culture are not particularly endangered. While Pagan traditions arguably are, thanks to two thousand years of Christianity, the angles from which McNallan defends Germanic traditions are more consistent with separatism than with preservation.

        I’m also rather wary of anyone whose response to being called out on problematic narratives is “You’re just trying to shout me down!” instead of “Really? How so? Hmm…”



      • thetinfoilhatsociety says:

        As a person of Jewish descent who happens to worship the Vanir (mostly), and who has met Stephen McNallen and has had extensive conversations with him, I am most definitely on the “other side” of the gap. In fact, it was spending 2 days with Stephen and his wife in the wilderness that won me over. There is nothing wrong with white culture – the problems people have with it stem MUCH more from Xtian culture than they do from white culture per se.

        I happen to be a member of the AFA, and I was quite honest in my essay for membership that I believe the Gods call who they call, without respect to ‘culture’ and we don’t know what aspect of genetics may be being expressed by that call. I was actually told that this is exactly what they are looking for in members so I have a really difficult time believing that people who have met Stephen McNallen in person, and TRULY listened to what he has to say without prejudice or pre-conceived notions, believe he is racist.

        I will say that his post about the Freikorps could have been better stated. In fact, the Freikorps that he was referencing basically had their leadership wiped out by the Nazis for refusing to endorse their racist BS. Look it up if you don’t believe me. It’s unfortunate that so many good groups have been co-opted by forces that are other than the originators’ aims.


        • EmberVoices says:

          > I was actually told that this is exactly what they are looking for in members so I have a really difficult time believing that people who have met Stephen McNallen in person, and TRULY listened to what he has to say without prejudice or pre-conceived notions, believe he is racist.

          That’s a “No True Scotsman” argument, by the way. You’re basically saying that anyone who comes to a different conclusion than you must not be truly listening to him.

          No, really, plenty of people who have known him for years and years have come to the same conclusion about his views. I’m not saying he doesn’t talk a good game, or that he’s rude to random strangers – I believe you that your experiences with him have been positive, just as my experiences with Abell have been positive. I also believe the many people who have had negative experiences with McNallan, and I know from direct evidence on both of them that what they are being called out for are things they really did say and do.

          There’s only so long a “misunderstanding” can be perpetuated before much of the responsibility for the miscommunication – if indeed it IS miscommunication, which I don’t entirely believe – lies with the one who keeps making problematic statements for all to see and “misinterpret”.

          As a private individual, everyone is free to hold whatever beliefs. As a leader within Heathenry, I can not support McNallan’s views, behaviors, or frequent, problematic public statements.


          Liked by 1 person

        • EmberVoices says:

          I agree that “whiteness” as a construct has come up significantly within the Christian era and culture.

          That doesn’t mean it needs extracting. Whiteness is one of the *about* Christian colonialist culture that we need to discard.


          Liked by 1 person

        • EmberVoices says:

          So, I wanted to check in with you as to how you’re doing with the recent AFA stuff. There’s been some antisemitic statements and a pretty blatant anti-trans, anti-queer, white supremacist statement out that everyone is on about.

          Are you ok?



  3. Reblogged this on facingthefireswithin and commented:
    I became aware of some of the events that triggered this through a different source. If we can to be taken seriously, we need to oppose racism and similar problems. I want to be clear that I do not know Ryan Smith at all and Steven Abell only through his writings related to the Troth. I fear he is quite wrong about McNallen and resent that I have had to convince a number of people that I am neither Nazi nor racist.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wyrd Designs says:

    I think we tend to limit what “Frith” wholly entails. I’d say most of the heathens out there think Frith only means peace… like we should all sit around a fire singing the heathen equivalent to kum-ba-yah.

    But the predecessor to the modern day police/peacekeepers were the Anglo Saxon frithguilds, their job was to maintain the order of the community. Those who broke frith were penalized: either a monetary fine, exile (and therefore outlawery), or execution.

    For the most part I concur with you, however, historically frith was less about ethics, and more about the prevailing values of the powers that be for a given community. *I suppose this may just be a case uf semantucs iver our mutual oreferred term choices).

    A community’s values could be bloodthirsty. So if the community leaders didn’t see a problem with murdering merchants who weren’t members of the community so you could still their wealth, by the standards of that communuty, that was frithful.

    Murder might be bad, but if you’re murdering someone who is an outlaw, or outside of the community the offense may have been ignored. If it was an outlaw it was tolerated (even assumed), for that’s what it meant to be an outlaw, you no longer had the protections of that community. You could be beaten, robbed, murdered with impunity.

    I don’t want to imply that means we can be asshats to others, just because they are different. But when we come together and we open ourselves up to gatherings of more varied persons, the host has to make clear what is proper.

    Regardless, I always put my prevailing attitudes to what is respectful to the Gods, Ancestors, and Vaettir first. If we look to antiquity being within the boundaries of the sacred meant the Gods came first. Drawing a weapon was grounds for punishment.

    After putting the Regin (Holy Powers) first, then I think of the human component which with the modern religious and political divisions we have is an utter mess.

    BUT frith is a far richer concept than many realize. John Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary states that the Old English word friþ meant: 1. peace, tranqility; 2. security, refuge; 3. privilege of special protection and the penalty for the breach of it; 4. the restoration of rights to an outlaw.

    I like to think of it as ‘right action’ in a given cirumstance as it pertains to the interrelationships of people and the community. If someone has committed murder, then it behooves the community to see justice done for it. Just as much as it can be about providing hospitality at a gathering.

    Not only do we think of Frigg as lady of the hall, but then in the Goddesses of Hlin and Syn, we see one who is appointed to guard the hall and keep out those who could not enter, and another appointed by Frigg to protect a designated person if need be from harm. So frith wasn’t just making nice, it has a martial component to it as it applies to ‘protection’ and meting out a penalty to those that violate it as well.

    It is frithful to kick people out of ritual for disrespectful behavior.

    I actually have similar values to you. But I love discussing the nuances of frith, and agree those who exclude persons who are and would be respectful to our Gods, are to me, in the wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • EmberVoices says:

      “the prevailing values of the powers that be for a given community” are the ethics of that community, yes, so this is one where while the historical values in question don’t match our values today, the underlying truth is still that whatever constitutes ethics for the community in question is relevant to Frith.

      I hope we all know the values of today are not the values of any given historical point. Pretty much all forms of crime are less acceptable now than they used to be, and I rather like that about our society.

      I do appreciate the historical details, thank you!



  5. Widdershins says:

    Community is never static, eh? … my thought as I was reading this is it sounds like you’re moving on in some way and these things are threads of what is passing away.


    • EmberVoices says:

      Does it? I’m not leaving, I’m just exhausted. February was never my best time of year, anyway, and PantheaCon is always a huge amount of work. I do understand resistance to change, but the things my activist friends are fighting for seem so *obviously* right to me that it’s sometimes hard and always tiring to try and understand why anyone would object to making things better. ~sigh~ -E-


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