Frith, Peace, and Protest
Within my Druidic practice, there are three key properties that sit at its heart. Awen, the force of poetic inspiration, engenders creativity and nourishes charisma. Imbas, or life-force, brings health and prophetic vision. The third principle – Frith – is harmony and liberty. Each of these terms is rooted in a different language from my own ancestry; awen is Welsh, spoken by my mother’s family, imbas is from Irish, once spoken by my father’s family, while frith is from Old English – the language ancestral to that which I speak daily. Although the roots of Druidry in Welsh and Irish culture are well known, the ancient Druids practiced right across the British Isles, and the landscape and culture of England continues to speak to Druidic themes – frith being a part of this ongoing conversation. A conversation, I suggest, that speaks to our present duress.
Druids have a longstanding concern for peace. We have old stories of Druids striding out between opposing armies, helping them to reconcile, and during the Druid Revival in the 17th Century, Iolo Morganwg integrated a strong pacifist streak into druidic teaching. But there are certain problems with the concept of peace – and pacifism – as we understand them today. Pacifism is often used as a justification for inaction, or the condemnation of fellow activists. Although notable pacifists are often extremely qualified in their advocacy of nonviolent resistance, such nuance is all-too-often ignored by those who believe that true pacifism means all violence is always wrong. Often coming from positions of class or racial privilege, such advocates of pacifism ignore the structural nature of violence, and instead use the principle as a stick to beat other activists of whom they disapprove, or as a prop for personal cowardice or self-interest. Making a principled stand not to fight back is one thing; ignoring the nature of the violence to which you are opposed is quite another.
It is helpful here to consider the origins of the word “peace” itself. Descended from the Latin pax, the meanings are what we’d expect – tranquility, reconciliation, silence, and agreement. However, such meanings cannot be disentangled easily from the broader social structure of the Roman Empire, under whose terms pax was sustained. The Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – was created and guaranteed through extreme and often genocidal violence; committed against any who refused to accept the authority of the Roman Senate and, later, its Emperors. Indeed, one can note that as soon as a Pax is invoked as a nation’s gift to the world – such as the Pax Mongolica in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Pax Britannica that held from 1815 until 1914, or the Pax Americana under which we now live – it is more or less guaranteed that the nation concerned has achieved imperial hegemony, backed up with a vast military. “Peace” therefore has a history of concealing a backdrop of institutional violence; silent assent in the face of coercion.
FRITH IS A RADICALLY different sort of concept, because unlike pax, it directs our attention not just to the state of harmony itself, but to the wider sort of relationships that best engender it. Although frith has not survived into modern English as a synonym for harmony, the word does survive in both the words “friend” and “free”. Whereas peace is maintained through treaties, there is a sense with which frith is founded upon kinship – it is the state of harmony that should, ideally, exist between close relatives and friends. It is the active sense of safety that we work towards, ensuring that we are secure in each other’s company. It is only in such a state – wherein we are safe from harm or disturbance, due to our good relations with others – that we can be truly said to be free. It used to be the case that any enclosed sacred space would be termed friþgeard – “frith-guarded”; a place of sanctuary or asylum, where those within were free from attack. In this sense, frith is not just a social, but a sacred property – a blessed state that unites both humans and divine beings. While peace is always enforced with the stamp of a boot, frith can only be managed with friends.
The groundedness of frith in kinship and communal liberty reflects the fact that, in contrast to the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England was a small-scale society; founded upon a clan-structure, and interpersonal relationships. But it would be a mistake to believe, because our society operates at a global scale, that we have nothing to learn from the concept of frith today. Indeed, I would suggest that frith transforms our understanding in two ways – both vital for the present moment.
1 – Freedom isn’t individual
Liberty is sometimes imagined to be a matter of absolute individual sovereignty. According to this view, each man is an island, and no institution should be created that goes against this fundamental principle. Such a euphoric vision owes much to a certain pioneer spirit; combining a scepticism towards the state with a spirit of resolute self-reliance. Everyone is responsible for their own destiny. Quite often, corporations are oddly exempt from this demand – despite the fact that they can be every bit as corrosive of individual freedoms as an oppressive government.
The concept of frith points to the limitations of such a view. Being free is not simply a matter of being on your own; indeed, being abandoned to live on your own wits at the edge of the world is more akin to being an exile or an outlaw – the very opposite of frith. Frith acknowledges that true calm and equanimity emerges not when you are totally on your own, vulnerable to the elements, wild animals, and hostile human beings, but when you are surrounded by those you love and trust, who can guarantee your safety and security in their company. Just as we are determined by our genes, our upbringing, and our experiences – in short, by our relationships with others – so it is through friendly relationships that peace of mind can be guaranteed. Living in a society with frith is king – a state of “freedom” in literal terms – means being able to trust, and be trusted by, all those whom you meet. In a truly free society, we are all one family.
Fr That’s your business, not theirs. Although you might be able to evade the State and other central authorities out there, you are constantly consumed by the struggle to preserve your own life, something that is your responsibility alone. Being an outlaw gives you individual autonomy, but that is not true freedom. This can only exist in the heart of the community.
In recent elections across the Anglophone world, people have voted to “take back control” from distant, sinister central government – be that in Brussels or Capital Hill. Support continues to be thrown behind right-wing parties like the Tories or the Republicans, who promise to cut taxes and restrict the reach of the state. Thinking of freedom more broadly – not simply as an absence of the state, but as freedom from fear, pain, and harm for everyone – demonstrates how hollow such rhetoric is. Though they promise freedom, what they will do is make us all into outlaws.
2 – The Importance of Friendship
Alicia Garza, special project director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, explains this principle eloquently. Reflecting upon her own scepticism towards the Women’s March, she points out that the organisers were clearly inspired by the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, yet failed to acknowledge this – wrongly appropriating the work of black people. But despite this, and the many legitimate criticisms she has of white feminism, she participated in the March anyway. Anger has great power that must be acknowledged, Garza argues, but it is insufficient to take power. For that, we need a mass movement: She writes:
This is a moment for all of us to remember who we were when we stepped into the movement — to remember the organizers who were patient with us, who disagreed with us and yet stayed connected, who smiled knowingly when our self-righteousness consumed us…
…We can build a movement in the millions, across difference. We will need to build a movement across divides of class, race, gender, age, documentation, religion and disability. Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you. Simply said, we need each other, and we need leadership and strategy.
The aim shouldn’t be to reject justified anger on moral grounds – the same error that lies at the root of the cod-pacifism I describe above – but a pragmatic acceptance of the need for all of us to demonstrate leadership and solidarity within the movement of which we’re part. As Garza points out, this does not mean letting privileged people off the hook; now is not the time for white, male, or upper-class fragility. If anything, this moment is an invitation to draw even more deeply on our reserves of empathy, and being prepared to shut up, listen, learn, to yield, to put ourselves on the line, and to be held to account. Part of being friends with someone, an alchemical combination of tolerance and honesty – an ability to speak the truth, while knowing that it is safe to do so. Maintaining this kind of friendship is a vital precondition for taking power.
Jonathan is an animist druid from the rolling green hill country of Oxfordshire; part faun, part otter, totally gay. A leftist anthropologist by training, he spends his days talking with gods and men, reading Spinoza and Ostrom, and thinking up reasons why he deserves brownies. Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.