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Taking Luck On Your Back


What is a chieftain?  He or she is the person who can and will take the luck of their people on their back. 

The Law serves the Folk.  The chieftain serves the law.  The luck of the Folk is thereby served.

Today we have many names, from many sources and points of view, for the indispensable station of chieftain:  goði, gyðja, harugari (if I understand the word properly), drighten and drottning, and other terms from ancient or “foreign” tongues; and still more interchangeable terms from Standard English, including the misleading appellation “priest/priestess”.  (I regard this last term as inappropriate inasmuch as it expresses one function of leadership – spiritual guidance and/or spiritual intercession – but not the broader function of leadership.)

Preferring words in common usage, understandable by non-Vinnish people, I tend to use the word “chieftain” as a gender-neutral, more tribal term for the station of leader amongst the Folk, and will continue to use it here to describe the social station discussed here. 

Likewise, I tend to use the word “luck” where others might use “wyrd” and örlög, sometimes interchangeably, or even “karma” or “fate”.  This is because this word, taken to mean “random good or bad fortune”, often thought to mean “unearned good or bad fortune” over which we have little control.  It is a word with roots as ancient as the untranslated words often used today, and refers to the same quality:  fortune, one’s lot, and an influence on what happens.  If one considers the gambler, inventing “systems” and dodges to “help his luck along”, drawing a card giving him good or bad fortune both by virtue of his system; and by virtue of things totally beyond his control – the “luck of the draw” or “the unseen hand” – one comes closer to my meaning of the word luck as it expresses itself in ones life.

The chieftain is not the system, nor is he or she “the unseen hand” dealing out the cards.  The chieftain is the custodian of the luck of his or her people, of that spiritual and temporal force which proceeds from the actions of the Folk, both together and individually, predisposing them to their lot and dispensing the “judgment of random fortune”.  He aids in both working the “system”, then, as well as in guiding “the unseen hand”.  In order to be a proper steward of his people’s luck, he or she takes his or her people onto his back.

Today we have many attitudes and views on the station of chieftain, not all of them positive.  The negative attached to the station has often been the result of personal flaws on the part of those taking up the position, from arrogance to inexperience to complete unsuitability as a human being; or the result of reactions to the leader by those for whom the leader was responsible and actions by those people in and out of the chieftains sphere of influence; or even the actions, stated opinions and undermining of people completely outside the leader’s experience or control.  People sometimes resist leadership, seeing leadership as “bein’ the boss o’ me”.

Chieftainship, as leadership itself, is as necessary to the forward progress of our people as is the recognition that we ARE a people, a distinct people, and that the Æsir and Vanir are the Gods of our people. 

History and Lore are full of excellent examples of chieftainship, sacral kingship, and the place of leaders in the fortunes of their people.  We are treated to stories of good kings bringing good harvests, and bad kings, jarls or chieftains bringing ill fortune to their people.  There are stories of kings being offered as blood sacrifice to expiate the ill fortune of those for whom they’ve been responsible.

Leadership, then, was seen not only as an office of direction – do this, don’t do that, put the sofa over there, and paint the meadhall this, not that, shade of blue – as it was in times of war (either by choice or by circumstance), with the chieftain at the apex of the shield wall.  It was more frequently an office of responsibility without much power, it’s duties executed by suggestion, admonition and example, rather than by force.

The chieftain was, as Dr. Byock relates, in his excellent history Viking Age Iceland, a force for order and especially for peace.  In an isolated island culture, with limited resources, often tending to deadly combat for things as odd to relate to today’s heathen as the carcasses of dead, beached whales, a peacemaker was a precious commodity. 

The chieftain had secular duties – advocacy at the Thing, for example – as well as spiritual or communal religious duties, although some such as the hofgoðar had a more limited “brief”.  This is a responsibility carried over, in Iceland, from the heathen to the Christian eras, with both Snorri goði and  (under duress) Eirik rauða building and maintaining chapels.

Finally, the chieftain was respected to be a source of advice.  Wisdom, as evidenced throughout Lore, was as precious a commodity as was a calm, level head.  I’m sure that wisdom had it’s elements of “knowing that which isn’t seen”, but I personally have encountered few instances in Lore of vitki or seiðkonar being consulted beyond the limits of their areas of expertise. A chieftain, on the other hand, was an advisor, advocate, and stood as supporter in things ranging from rights in fishing disputes, land issues and marital arrangements.  Wisdom, in my opinion, was a knowledge of people.

So, apart from being “handy”, why is the chieftain today so necessary?

It is because the chieftain, taking as example (but not as a straitjacket) the actions of chieftains past – both ancient and modern – should be expected to act as agents of the law, and therefore as agents of order.  They should act in ways suggesting and promoting peace and guiding their people toward success, not merely gratification.  As in ancient and more modern times, they should be expected to be repositories of tradition, both in Lore and in form, in matters of communal worship and observance.  They should be the signposts of their people, and not their masters.

They are important because the actions of a people, as the actions of an individual, are the measure of their worth, just as the fruits of those actions can be taken as the measure of their luck.  No matter how smart or energetic, a worthless person – duplicitous, lying, venal, fractious – should be expected to harvest his share of ill-fortune.  Going back to the example of the gambler, he may have a splendid “system” which will serve him well, but he will one day encounter the wrath of the intangible…if the traditions of our Folkway relating to the existence of the Wyrd Sisters are the least bit true.

By the same token, a people can be persuaded to act in ways which “muddy up” their reputations and self-image, thus effecting their luck.  We need not consider the actions of the German people acquiescing to the lure of National Socialism and racial purity for an example, but can look to the actions of more modern heathen kindreds and voluntary religious associations.  People, kindreds, periodicals, and associations have come and gone with amazing rapidity in the last thirty years of revived Germanic heathenism, owing many will admit to bad planning, bad advice, personality clashes…and, I submit, to simple bad luck.

I further submit that we’ve seen some associations have lasted a generation and are still going, often with the same leadership, prospering at their own pace.  The Ásatrú Alliance is preparing to hold it’s twenty-third Althing of the modern era, taking the trust over from the old Ásatrú Free Assembly early on.  These draw less attention than some of the more entertaining and spectacular failures, but stand as equally telling examples.

Many of the failures can be attributed to bad, ignored or absent chieftainship; and certainly all of the successes can be attributed to the custodial successes of the chieftains involved, acting to advise, guide, and act for the good of their folk.

When chieftainship works best is when the chieftain recognizes that the luck of his folk depends on its having a good custodian.  It is when that chieftain is willing to step up from his or her own life, both social and spiritual, and take not only his or her own actions as his or her handiwork, but to take the actions of his or her folk as a personal charge of responsibility. 

It is recognizing that we are responsible for our individual actions, and that a people are responsible for their collective actions, and that actions have consequences, both immediately and concretely as well as spiritually and abstractly.  The chieftain is simply the first one to stand up, sometimes the only one, willing to take the full brunt of fortune, knowing that it was his or her own advice or lack of advice, or leadership or it’s lack, as much as the actions of those for whom he or she is responsible, which has brought the fortune to their doorstep.  If, as some believe, luck is earned, the wise chieftain guides his people to earning the best luck they can achieve.

This is “taking the luck of one’s people on your back”.  It is a holy thing.