Tribes and kindreds

I must be missing something. I just don’t get this thing that some heathens have about tribes and kindreds. Oh, I totally get the importance of family in the heathen ethic. What I don’t get is how someone could think that he or she is authentically living that ethic by creating an artificial group based on a common religion. I would call that a community, not a kindred. I understand the concept of intentional communities. The idea of intentional kindreds or intentional tribes seems a bit forced. Okay — more than a bit.

Still, I’m open to understanding if I can find someone who can explain cogently why it isn’t just some modernist silliness.

I’m in the minority here, being neither folkish nor modernist myself. I’m a heathen because it’s the proper religion for me, not because I have some special calling from the gods. My ancestors came from Sweden. My surname is my badge of membership in their kindred. If I want to follow a non-Christian path, the only proper path for me is the pre-Christian religion of my kindred. It doesn’t matter whether I get along with them. In fact, I have ongoing issues with a few of them. It doesn’t matter that many of them are Christian. They’re still my kindred. It does help that the gods planted in my heart a passion for Norse sagas. It also helps that my Mom instilled in us a proper respect for tomten and encouraged us to pray to our ancestors when we need help. (After a few martinis, she’ll also remind us that we’re descended from Freyr and it doesn’t hurt to thank him for our prosperity if we want it to continue.) Christian or not, it’s inevitable that I’d be required to pay the proper respect to the Elder Kin. And, being more of the not, really my only choice is how much I want to learn about my ancestral faith and the obligations that go with it. I can flirt with any religion or philosophy that takes my fancy (and I often do), but I can’t not give proper honor to the gods of my ancestors. It just wouldn’t be proper.

But that’s just me. I don’t expect anyone else to see things the same way. We see people whose surnames announce their membership in a Gaelic kindred taking leadership positions in heathen organizations, and no one thinks it’s odd that they choose to honor gods foreign to them. Or, perhaps they have some sort of maternal connection to the Germanic peoples but they don’t take it seriously enough to legally change their surname to associate themselves with those maternal kindreds. Or, they adopt illogical names — like Thorsson when in fact they are not sons of a man named Thor. I have an online chum — most of you know who she is — who happens to have no known Scandinavian ancestry, but she takes her religion seriously. Unlike some people who merely pay lip service to the idea of kindred and honoring the gods, she changed her name to a properly Scandinavian name without the pretension of filiating as the daughter of a god or goddess. She would disagree, I think, but it seems to me that by changing her name she severed her kindred ties, at least as far as our gods are concerned, and brought herself before the gods as a new woman and an honorary Swede. Such stoutness of heart! Surely, this is the kind of approach to the gods that they would never deny.

One of the things that bothers me is that the heathens who talk about the importance of kindred don’t care as much about their own kindred as they do about participating in a modernist project to re-create a tribal society. They don’t seem to notice that our society uses hereditary surnames as a badge of kindred membership. And, for most of us, those surnames were adopted 800 years ago. So long ago, in fact, that they have moved from being indiciae of family membership, beyond badges of clan membership, and solidly into being tribal labels. My surname is only 250 years old, and the surnames of some of my Swedish cousins are less than 100 years old, but most Americans belong to British and Continental patrilineages going back to about 1200 CE. Yet, somehow, their heathen members don’t regard membership in these tribes as important. They want to create new tribes.

I dislike saying — or even thinking — that anyone is wrong in matters of faith. But, it’s pretty easy to be dysfunctional in such matters. I hope someone tells me I’m wrong. I’m hoping that someone can explain to me how ignoring your own kindred to create an artificial tribe is an authentic way of honoring your relatives and giving the gods their due.

Fritterfae responded:

Kin and kindred are people you are genetically related to, and who fall within your anthropologic structures of kinship. Would you include adopted children among your kin? And what about marriages that bring people of different ancestry or religious traditions together, are your in-laws among your kin?

Kith was another of those old terms that gets tied with kin a lot. Kith refers to your familiar friends, neighbors, and probably some of your relatives (perhaps the not-so-close ones).

But both of these are of anglo-saxon origin, so why don’t the heathens use an actual scandinavian term like “släkting” for actual relations or “själsfränder” for people of like mind and avoid that silly confusion.

As for tribes of intention, I think that’s a valid distinction. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation,, has members that include:

“indigenous peoples, occupied nations, minorities and independent states or territories who have joined together to protect their human and cultural rights, preserve their environments, and to find non-violent solutions to conflicts which affect them.”

Radical Faeries have discussed at length their identity as tribe, and whether or not we should actively consider ourselves a separate people. Why? When we have no established qualifications as members of the tribe, we can’t decide on who or what is Faerie, we have these constant splits over what we do and don’t do as a group, etc. etc. There’s something in our spirit that tells us we are among these people. Does that mean we reject or disrespect our heritage, our families, no. We take on additional names, sometimes even changing our names legally to our Faerie names, does this mean we disrespect what we were given at birth, no, we have discovered ourselves. At least that’s how I see it.

But I’m of the touchy-feely Pagans, as well as a moral relativist. No conviction is so firm as to be unflexible with me. So, take my explanations as you will.

Then I said:

My post might have been a bit clearer if I had taken time – as you have – to define kith and kin, then made the point that intentional tribes are really kiths, not kindreds. Uncountable years ago I belonged to a wicca group called Cyth Dana, which was the founder’s version of Community of the Goddess Danu 😉

Would you include adopted children among your kin? And what about marriages that bring people of different ancestry or religious traditions together, are your in-laws among your kin?

Of course I would include adopted children. Else what would be the point of adoption? It might take some work, but I think you could fairly extrapolate from what I wrote that I regard the surname as the determinative factor for membership in a kindred, and that would naturally include anyone adopted into the kindred. I’m not much impressed with arguments that family is defined by blood. It seems to me, rather, that families are defined by cultural structures – which is why the surname is the badge of membership.

As for in-laws, history shows that the Germanic peoples took marriage so seriously in part because it linked the ørlög of two families. In the oldest literature, one often sees children being named for, say, an uncle by marriage, or the father’s father-in-law from a previous marriage. No blood relationship to the new child. What was being honored was the union of the fates of the two families. The child was thereby linked not just to its own kin, but also to the kins of its affinal relatives.

Radical Faeries have discussed at length their identity as tribe, and whether or not we should actively consider ourselves a separate people.

Not my place to judge a system that works for you, but I am willing to say that in my opinion the Radical Faeries are an intentional community of people called out of the common herd by the gods. It would be impious not to honor that call on its own terms. I personally have too much American Indian in me to be troubled by any Anglo prejudice against having as many names as you can wring out of the universe. Every additional name, in my book, is its own dose of power. But, when you legally change to your Faerie name, you are changing your relationship to your kindred. I’m assuming that the name someone would take is something other than the name of a maternal kindred, so to my way of thinking the change severs the primary tie to kin, and replaces it with a primary identity as a Radical Faerie. As a heathen, it would trouble me greatly to do something like that, but I can understand that personal identity as a Radical Faerie could take first place for some people. Whether the change is disrespectful or a rejection of kindred is something the individual would have to work out between himself, his kin and his gods. If you’re not starting from a heathen premise that family plays a primary role in religion, I’m not sure that a heathen perspective is even relevant.

But I’m of the touchy-feely Pagans, as well as a moral relativist. No conviction is so firm as to be unflexible with me. So, take my explanations as you will.

I’m glad you took the time to comment. When I wrote this entry, I never expected to have the challenge of thinking about the Radical Faery perspective. I could never be one of you, but I have a special place in my heart for the spirit embodied by the Radical Faeries.

Wednesbury reponded:

Well, I have to admit that I see nothing wrong with trying to re-create a tribal society myself. I don’t see anything dysfunctional in it, although I will admit that at best all we can achieve at the moment are proto-tribes. My thought is that since ancient heathendom was originally practised in a tribal setting, then the same should hold true for modern heathendom. If this is indeed the case (and it is possible that i am wrong), then the best idea would be try to re-create a tribal society.

Here I must stress that I differentiate between kindred and tribe. One’s kindred is one’s blood kin or those that have been legally adopted into the family. One’s tribe is a group of people, not all of whom are going to be necessarily related by blood, with whom one shares a common history, heritage, et. al.

Anyhow, I have to disagree with you that “who talk about the importance of kindred don’t care as much about their own kindred as they do about participating in a modernist project to re-create a tribal society.” My kindred, whether heathen or not, is central to me. And it seems to be for most theodisc types. One cannot have a tribe without kindreds. I am lucky to have heathen who are part of Miercinga who are related to me by blood. As to my Christian relatives, I simply regard them as non-participants in the tribe.

Of course, the one flaw I can see in trying to re-create any sort of tribal society is that it is going to be somewhat artificial at the outset. I think at best what we are doing now is creating proto-tribes that may one day become full fledged tribes. But I do think it is a worthwhile project. And I don’t see it at all in conflict with blood kinship–in fact kinship is needed if it is to succeed at all.

Then I said:

Just so we understand each other, I also see no problem with trying to re-create a tribal society. My issue is only with the means.

The problem I see with current efforts is that they treat tribe as synonymous with a type of particularly close community, when in fact tribes were larger kinship groups, albeit fictive in many cases.

I’m not up on current anthropological theories but back in the day when I was studying, tribes were thought to have formed around a core kinship group. While there was probably a large accession by recruitment, one of the salient features was the fiction of a common descent from a semi-divine eponymous ancestor – the Saxons from Saxnot, the Ingvaeones from Ingvi, and so on. Among the Teutons, kingship was elective but only from among the male members of a sacral family, almost certainly the family around whom the proto-tribe coalesced, and to whom new members were tied by bounds of adoption, marriage and conquest.

It strikes me as a bit disingenuous to posit a necessary connection between tribalism and religion, then ignore the pieces such as a common descent and a sacral dynasty that would have mattered most to our ancestors. I’m sympathetic to the dilemma that these elements, if necessary, could be an almost insurmountable barrier to creating modern tribes. Nevertheless, I have to think that what matters is the whole system, not just the easy parts.

Of course, none of this will be anything new to you. The piece that’s missing for me is how you get from here to your particular brand of tribalism.

When I think about the ways tribalism might be re-energized (not re-created), I think about the Scottish clans. My understanding is that they are actually tribes, the word clan having taken on another meaning among anthropolgists and ethnographers. They have the fiction of a common descent (which is nevertheless an actual descent, at least in the maternal lines for many clan members). And, they have chiefly families, some of whom are desendants of ancient dynasts. Indeed, if I remember correctly, McLean of Duart is thought by many historians to be descended in the male line from the Yngling dynasty of Uppsala.

My own bit of tribalism extends only as far as memberhip in the Clan Sinclair Association. I am descended – maternally – from the Sinclairs, and through them from the ancient Jarls of Orkney, from whom the Sinclairs derived their Earldom. If I were ever to be tempted into a tribalist project, I think it might be a cooperative project with other Sinclair heathens (or some other family group with whom I have an actual familial connection). Considering the high interest many Sinclairs have in their Norse heritage, I don’t think it’s an unlikely scenario.

And he said:

Well, I’m not sure that current efforts do treat tribe simply as type of particularly close type of community. The Ealdriht and the groups that emerged from it were always aware of the importance of kinship. Whether by design or by coincidence, I am related to a good number of my fellow theodsmen. Some of those relationships are very close–Swain is my brother. In other cases, the relationship are more distant–Brian is my second cousin. In some cases they are so distant that we simply share descent from Penda and Alfred through William the Bastard. But there are relationships there and they have always played an important role in the Ealdriht and now the groups descended from it.

The problem is that not everyone who wishes to be part of any given tribe (or proto-tribe, as the case may be) are not going to be necessarily related blood. I could not seriously see restricting membership of a tribe to blood relations as this would seem too restrictive to growth. Ultimately, while blood is important, there are other matters, such a shared belief system, shared customs, shared history, that are as important. Besides which, I see a tribe as composed of kindreds, of extended families. Not everyone in a tribe is going to be a close relation, or even a slightly distant one.

Anyway, I see it, this is something that will take time. Over time we will establish our own customs and develop our own shared history. People will marry and have children. This is how I see us achieving a truly tribal society. I admit that it is going to be difficult and it is not without obstacles, but I honeatly think that it can be done.

And I said:

Well argued. Although I disagree, I think it’s only fair to let yours be the last word.

Wodening responded:

Well, I know you were going to let Eric’s be the last word here, but I have something to add. I think part of the problem is we are seeing tribes differently. The Clan Sinclair is a clan…. not a tribe. In our particular brand of neo-tribalism we break it down into tribe, clan, family, or in our own Anglo-Saxon terms, þ&eacure;od; sibb, mægð. The sibb could also be called a kindred. Your mægð are folks immediately related to you; brothers, sisters, first cousins, aunts, uncles, mother, and father. The sibb are all related to you out to five or eight generations (for example Brian Smith of Néoweanglia is mine and Eric’s sixth cousin by blood). The þ&eacure;od; are all those that claim a common line of descent no matter how common, share a common history, and a common identity. Now this is the only place we really have to stretch things. Instead of claiming a common descent as the ancient tribes did with ancestors like Ingvi, Irmin, and Esta (mentioned in Taticus’ Germanic), we are more vague… folks that are of English descent OR participate in an English derived culture.

All that aside House Wodening, our sibb, is very much the sort of thing you were talking about with a theorerical cooperative project with other Sinclair Heathens. So we are indeed approaching it in a way you seem to think we should. Beyond that, I think we may simply be using terms differently.



Then he added:

Well, I think part of the problem is that Asatruar in American decades ago adopted the term kindred without really thinking about what it meant. What they were really trying to say I think was tribe or, at least community. Believe me though there has been go arounds in the Heathen community about the true meaning of the word kindred.

As to forming an articial tribe, whose to say that means throwing off your own true kindred and ignoring them is part of forming a tribe? The majority of my family are Xian as are my wife’s, and we are still very much a part of them, and yet, also very much a part of our Heathen tribe. I simply cannot see where you are coming up with one would have to ignore their own family in order to form a Heathen tribe.

Maybe it is different in the path you have chose, but in Germanic Heathenry probably 90% of the folks I know still feel they are a part of their real (birth, genetic, what have you) family, Xian or not.

I responded:

I don’t know why I’m so disappointed in yours and Eric’s response. I guess I just thought there’d be more. I’ve thought on and off all day about how best to respond. The easy answers would be to let myself be distracted by the details — Do you really think the Anglo-Saxon mægð is well-enough understood be considered a subunit of the Sippe/sibb? How do their traditionally cognatic structures play into your use of them as subunits of a tribe? Or perhaps you do not envision the tribe you’re creating as agnatic? Why have you set the limit of the sibb so much further than the Anglo-Saxons seem to have done? Why do you disagree with the contemporary schools of thought that define the Scottish clans as tribes? Looking at your descent from Penda, which I assume is one of the scholarly conjectures currently in favor, where did you find one that passes through William the Bastard?

I’d love to know the answers to these questions, and others, but I would be doing injury to our topic if I went off on a tangent.

I’m sympathetic to many of your arguments, but you seem to be glossing over my principal concerns. As I read your comments, it seems to me that the bottom-line answer is that you’re choosing the path that seems practical. Perhaps you regret a few of the compromises you are making, but you regard them as necessary to achieve your goal. (It’s taking a bit of reading between the lines, so correct me if I’m wrong.)

You and Eric both objected to me saying that forming a modernist tribe amounts to throwing off your own kindred. I think you mis-read or misundstood my meaning. I don’t want to patronize you, but I do want to be very clear about this point, and I’m not sure how accustomed you are to thinking about kinship in scholarly terms (as opposed, let’s say, to educated terms).

Each of us belongs to a named lineage, typically agnatic. This lineage is marked by the use of a particular surname. It should not be confused with a bilateral kinship group (that is, with the relatives you think of as your relatives on both sides). If your surname is English, and I assume it is, it’s probably about 800 years old — perhaps a little more, perhaps a little less. You were born into that group. And, here’s where the misunderstanding seems to arise.

I am not saying that forming modern tribes involves a rejection of your aunts and uncles and cousins — your bilateral kinship group. I’m saying that forming a modern tribe with people of different agnatic lineages — different surnames — evidences a disrespect for the lineage you were born into.

Just to play the devil’s advocate for a moment, you could respond that Rice Miercinga is composed primarily of people who trace their surname line back to the area of Mercia, with a few folks here and there who have been formally adopted and changed their surname. I could have very little objection to that, except to churlishly quibble about whether such a project should be centered in Mercia. If you were to add that arrungs take into account a person’s proven descent from the nobility of Mercia, at whatever period, and that you see House Wodening becoming the sacral family for the tribe — well, I might not personally want to join your project, but I would hold it in high esteem as an authentic reconstruction project.

My real, heartfelt objection to modern tribalism is that there is no way to claim on behalf of your entire named lineage that you belong to this tribe or that. It is only possible to subtract small sub lineages from their authentic surname group and attach them to new groups.

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