The Heathen Priest-Kings

There’s no indication that the ancient heathens ever had priests; at least not the kind to which we’re accustomed. Instead, heathens had leaders that also served in certain spiritual capacities.

Perhaps the best-known example of this is the Icelandic goði. “Usually a wealthy and respected man in his district,” the goði served as a leader over the less-powerful landholders in his goðorð (the area over which he held sway), and he maintained “the communal hall or hof in which community religious observances and feasts were held.”


The king, throughout Germanic tribal history, was considered the holder of the luck of his tribe. The onus was upon him to maintain a good relationship with the divine, and it was through him that his tribe received the blessings of the gods. Unlike Christianity’s “personal relationship” with their god, the heathens – as always – saw this in practical terms: would the gods have time for the petty whims of each and every human? Surely not. As with any interaction between tribes, it was leaders or their representatives that were sent on behalf the the larger units to interface with Asgard’s clan.

“When the king’s ‘luck’ or charismatic power is maintained, the favor of the god rests with the tribe; when he has lost his ‘luck’ and is impotent to secure the divine blessings, his people are justified, even obliged, to do the only thing possible, to replace him with another who can make the office once more effective.”

[note]The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England, William A. Chaney[/note]

The heathen leader – then and now – was expected to produce results. The king’s material success and his victories in battle were both indicative of his fitness to lead, and it was expected that he would share liberally the spoils of his victories and the gains of his efforts with his people. (There were no “one percenters” in heathendom; then, as now, such people are unfit to lead heathens and should not be tolerated.)

Thus we begin to see the picture of the heathen leader: his deeds would need to be exemplary in order to win the favor of the gods. There would be no “separation of church and state” because his leadership – like being heathen in general – saw that there was no separation between the spiritual and the material. The heathen king wasn’t a despot who lived for nothing save his own whims; he was a man who lived – and would die – for his people.

If one has a good grasp of frith, and one understands that the king would maintain frith with his people, then this picture solidifies into completion. There is a oneness between the king and his tribe, and yet, for him, there need be frith with the tribe of gods and goddesses. More than most, the king must lose himself; yet, simultaneously, he must exude the power and confidence necessary for his dealings outside his kith and kin.

It is well-known that many an Anglo-Saxon king declared Woden as his original ancestor. Georges Dumézil


is known for his trifunctional hypothesis


of “three classes or castes—priests, warriors, and commoners (farmers or tradesmen)—corresponding to the three functions of the sacral, the martial and the economic, respectively.” In this scheme, Odin (Anglo-Saxon Woden) and Týr (Anglo-Saxon Tiw) represented the priest-kings, with Odin being the lord of orlog (“primal law,” i.e. wyrd, or universal laws) and Tyr holding governance of the laws of men (Tyr was “the god of the Thing,” the tribal assemblies.)

“Jan de Vries


has argued that the ‘luck’-centered role of kingship was originally distinct and is reflected in the Tacitean

[note] (see[/note]

differentiation between the rex chosen by his birth and the dux or war-chief chosen by his virtus. These two aspects of kingship, he contends, are in their turn rooted in the different functions of the gods Tiwaz (Tyr) and Woden. The priestly functions … reflect the sacral aspects of the ruler, centered in Tiwaz, god of order and law, and displayed in Tacitus’ conjunction of sacerdos ac rex. The dux, on the other hand, is the function of kingship centered in Woden, god of the creative element, and expressed in the regal role of war-leader.”

This kinship between kings and Tyr – “god of the Thing” – and Woden, the wanderer, the vitki, the leader of the gods, the warlord, all folds into the role that the heathen leader must personify. He must uphold the laws of the tribe without wavering, yet at the same time maintain the energy and flair of the warrior-poet Odin, the god who gave up an eye for wisdom and sacrificed “myself unto my self”


for the sake of rune-knowledge for his people.

Ultimately, the heathen king was perhaps the original “servant leader,” knowing that his sole value is in what he can bring to his tribe. His success depended upon the success of his people, and, on every level, he had to be willing and able to do whatever was necessary to be the tipping point that put his people over the top, again and again.




I think coding is amazing. I like thinking about how the ideas of magic(k) are made manifest by our use of technology, and how we can approach technology in ways that make it feel as magical as it is.

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"The king, throughout Germanic tribal history, was considered the holder of the luck of his tribe. The onus was upon him to maintain a good relationship with the divine, and it was through him that his tribe received the blessings of the gods."

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