Asgard – Rules and Ranks of Society

Rules of Society

Asgardian Society is based upon, at its most simple, personal reputations and power.  Although some heights of power may never be climbed, each man, woman, and child of the Peoples has it within their grasp to climb beyond their station.  With this understood, there are a number of factors that drive daily life in the Nine Worlds.

Honor and Reputation

Reputation is everything. Warriors tell tales of old comrades and adventures and skalds sing of deeds both valorous and vile. Passing news and gossip is a common pastime from thralls to kings. Desire for a good reputation compels men to acts of generosity, valor, and hospitality, while ill-repute is rightly feared and sometimes never shaken off. Most northerners have a prickly sense of honor: A good name is all that remains after death, so most people don’t just want to do the right thing, they want to be seen doing it.

Honor isn’t the same as goodness, however. Many wicked reavers are considered honorable, and some good men are known as níðingr for abandoning the oft-cruel customs of their kin. Regardless of alignment, an honorable man is generous in gifting and hospitality, fair-minded in judgments, and fearless in battle. Cleverness and wit are also essential—they should be able to recite poetry, evade the tempers and tantrums of the gods, and be known as cunning by allies and enemies alike. Above all however they should take life stoically, retaining their composure in even the worst of circumstances. No man or god escapes his fate and complaining is pointless.

There are several aspects of honor have only loose translations in the common tongue. The nearest equivalents are Integrity, Fearlessness, and Resolve.

  • Drengskapr (Integrity) – Honorable men are called drengr. They embody drengskapr—doing the right thing. This encompasses sacrificing to the gods, keeping oaths and being loyal to comrades, upholding the laws of the Þing, honoring offers of wergild (and pursuing feuds when necessary), disavowing those made outlaw, and being a good host and leader of men. To call a companion drengr, especially if they were not born in Asgard, is a profound compliment.
  • Ofermod (Fearlessness) – Ofermod is the fearless courage embodied by Thor, essential to any northern hero. It drives warriors to throw themselves recklessly into battle but also allows for a sense of fair play and the urge to settle disputes with duels rather than a knife in the back. Skalds refer to those filled with ofermod as being “over-hearted” or “having too much heart” but this isn’t considered a bad thing. Since no man lives a moment longer than he’s fated, it’s always best to be bold and daring.
  • Sisu (Resolve) – To possess sisu is to have strength of will, determination, and perseverance beyond the norm. Ofermod may get you into a fight but sisu is the tenacity to keep fighting when the battle goes against you—a “never give up!” attitude that sees Asgardians through the long dark winters and gives them the resolve to continue bloody vendettas and seemingly impossible quests.”

Niþ (Dishonor)

A coward, a betrayer, an oath-breaker or treacherous host are those who earn this name. The níðingr is a person without honor, the object of loathing and scorn. In a world where reputation and acclaim determine status, a níðingr has proved that they deserve none. They can expect to be bullied and mocked relentlessly by more honorable men, expelled from felags and longship crews, and to receive only meager hospitality—poor food and seated in the shadows far from the lord at feasts, if indeed they are invited at all.

Although the two often go hand in hand, this is very different from being made outlaw.

Holmganga (Dueling)

Don’t fall into the ‘civilized’ ways of sarcasm, innuendo, and snide remarks: Questioning someone’s honor is asking for a fight. Sometimes it happens by accident—especially at drunken feasts—and indeed many Asgardians are quick to laugh off such happenings… once a sincere apology is given. Sometimes only bloodshed can heal a warrior’s wounded pride. This is called holmganga (“going to the island”), named after the first duel fought in this manner. When an island isn’t available, duels are typically fought at crossroads, in sacred glades, or on a cloth staked to the ground. The fight ends only when one combatant flees or is unable to continue. The concept of “first blood” is laughed at, how can a mere scratch satisfy the demands of honor?

Typical provocation for a duel is accusing a warrior of a crime, cowardice, or falsely claiming credit for heroic deeds. Whoever caused the offence has three days to publicly apologize for the slight or meet the aggrieved party for the duel. Failure by either side to show up earns them a reputation as a nithling and in some cases can lead to outlawry for a year or two. Each warrior is traditionally allowed to take their personal arms, armor, and three shields to the dueling ground. Breaking a shield or throwing it down ends a “round” of fighting, allowing a brief respite (no more than a minute) to catch one’s breath before battle begins anew. Contestants may use magical items and their own magical powers, but outside assistance is forbidden.

Martial characters naturally have a great advantage in holmganga, but honorable men of all professions are expected to go the island when necessary. If a duel is grossly mismatched, a champion may fight in one’s place or the defender can go before the local Þing and petition to have the duel declared unfair. Despite this, many warriors make a good living as wandering duelists, making challenges in order to extort “gifts” from men unable to stand against them.

Feasting and Hospitality

To provide hospitality is one of the most important obligations of honor. A warm hearth, a hearty meal, and stout walls are the only respite from the dark and dangerous wilderness, and guests are one of the few ways to learn foreign news and gossip. How someone acts when guest or host is considered a telling mark of their character.

In exchange for the host’s generosity, guests are expected to pay them back not with coin but by behaving themselves, defending their host from attack, and giving their own gifts (or aid in time of need) while staying beneath another’s roof. Even deadly enemies and monsters usually adhere to the laws of hospitality—or at least the letter of it. Local notions of what’s hospitable may not match the traveler’s own, however.

The Þing

Travelers familiar with an autocratic feudal society are often surprised by the democratic traditions of Asgard. Families and neighbors sort out local matters among themselves without concern for jarls or kings, but every region also has a regular meeting called a Þing (pronounced thing) that’s a combination of court and trade fair. Asgardians from miles around come to settle quarrels, make vows of peace or war, forge new alliances, celebrate great deeds, and invoke ancient laws.

A council of wise men (“lawspeakers”) and jarls oversee debates and attempt to broker satisfactory settlements, but all the discussions are public and any freeman can have their say. Much is decided by the influence of local lords and bullies, but big decisions usually need public approval—although like all politics intimidation and backstabbing goes on behind the scenes. Even in relatively peaceful
times there are arguments to settle and feuds to avert, so the Þing’s lawspeakers are always busy. Disputes range from hunting and pasturage rights, debts unpaid and stolen thralls or cattle to more serious matters like kidnapping and murder. If agreement and recompense cannot be reached then there is always the sanctity of the duel or declaring a feud. There’s also trading to be done. As well as raid booty to dispose of, most families have slaves, cloth, fine weapons, cattle and oxen, salt, wax, hides, raw materials and a variety of hand-crafted household goods to offer in trade. Master craftsmen, rune masters, and wizards also prowl the Þing in search of potential customers, and in a region with few cities it’s the best opportunity for a wealthy man to lay his hands on exotic or magical items.

Kings and powerful jarls from outside the area sometimes send men to the Þing to safeguard their interests and ensure events progress to their advantage. Locals despise such sly emissaries however, and it’s not uncommon for such folk to have their heads removed and sent back to their masters as a message that people prefer to manage their own affairs. This and duels are the only violence permitted at the Þing, although most attendees consider it a poor event if less than three or four men travel the hel-road during a moot. Death is always great entertainment, a fine sacrifice to the gods, and a good way to remind everyone how useful the peace of the Þing is. Most Þings take place at a traditional spot: A sacred glade, blessed rock, world tree, or other location sacred to Tyr. Borders are a common locale, allowing rival regions to stay separate between debates. A nearby hall may host prominent visitors but most people camp in the surrounding fields. Divinely sent afflictions and public condemnation await those who break the Þing’s solemn truce.”

Justice, Feuds, and Wergild

An Asgardian’s concept of justice can be hard to define. There are relatively few crimes—most come down to theft or dishonoring someone’s good name—and ‘justice’ is synonymous with compensation or avoiding a feud, not some abstract idea of right or wrong. Assuming they have not committed an especially heinous crime (treachery for example), the accused may well not be treated as a criminal by the populace at large, or even by their victims. Fines are the usual punishment, known as wergild or mansbot, paid by the offender to the victim and/or their family (traditionally in silver rings), and in exchange the victim and his kin swear to let the matter drop. If the accused isn’t around to answer the charge themselves, then their family or comrades are expected to pay up. Those who cannot pay must serve as bondsmen until the debt is paid off or face outlawry and a reputation as a níðingr. The crux of deciding a wergild is often not whether or not the accused is guilty, but how much they should pay. There are no written laws detailing appropriate amounts, so this is typically decided by debate at the Þing and modified by the social status of accused and victim, and the greed of all involved. This ambiguity is a potential plot hook not to be overlooked.

Sometimes things aren’t as clear cut as just paying a fine, however: Arguments often arise over who is truly responsible. Disputes are heard at the Þing and dplomacy decides the matter. The community rarely stands for lawyerish babble. ”

Feuds

If debate or holmganga cannot resolve an issue (or neither party is interested in trying them), then a feud is likely in the offing. Immediate and extended family, neighbors, and the victim’s friends are expected to avenge him by inflicting the same woes on the criminal and his kin. Sometimes the motivation is a genuine sense of justice, often it’s just an excuse for robbery and murder. Feuds rapidly get out of hand as each side calls in debts and alliances, creating an ever expanding circle of violence (and more wergild needed to settle it) that can go on for generations. Pressure from the Þing can sometimes end them, but otherwise they continue until one side flees the area, is destroyed beyond capacity to strike back, or—much more rarely—both sides weary of continual bloodshed.

All factions court adventures to aid them, both officially and unofficially, and the call for allies or the duty of a guest to their host are easy ways to embroil honorable characters in a conflict, sometimes on the wrong side. Even intervening to break up a fight can thrust an unwilling party into the feud—or be the cause of a fresh one.

Outlawry

Outlaws have been banished from honorable society. They are outcasts, sometimes by choice or circumstance but more commonly as a punishment. In this unhappy category are beggars as well as men made outlaw for crimes. Literally “outside the law” they can be killed without penalty or fear of wergild or feud. Their families are supposed to treat an outlaw as if they were dead, while strangers should not offer them hospitality or aid, treating them as they would a wolf that came scratching at their door. Sometimes a bounty is offered by the outlaw’s victims, and some jarls reward anyone who kills a known outlaw.

Outlawry is sometimes for life and sometimes for a set period—often a year or three years or until the king or jarl who declared it is dead. Outlawry applies only in the region of the outlaw’s local Þing or kingdom however. Depending on the nature of their crime an outlaw may be ignored or even welcomed in neighboring lands. Outlawry itself doesn’t carry much stigma (it’s an occupational hazard for most adventurers), but the deed that caused it may reflect significantly on the outlaw’s reputation.

Ranks of Society

Social Structures of Asgard
Nobility
Konungur King
Hirðmaðr First Lords/Ladies of the Clans, Craftholders, and Warlords
Jarl Clan Leaders / Freeholders
Skald Bard / Loremaster
Middle
Class
The Jarn Riddari Members of the Asgardian chivalric order
Karl Military Officers
Goði Priests
Kaupmaður Merchants
Handhafi Landowners
Lower
Class
Maður Unlanded Freemen
Óslafa Freed Slaves
Property Þræll Thralls/Slaves

The Jarn Riddari

The Jarn Riddari (“Iron Riders”) are a chivalric order present within Asgard.  There are three degrees associated with the Order:

  • Third Class – Awarded for services to the Realm.  The symbol is an iron arm band bearing the symbol of the Valknut.
  • Second Class – Awarded for extensive services, either singly or as an accumulation of the Third Class award.  The symbol is the same as the Third Class with added runic engravings.
  • First Class – Awarded for services in the face of great danger or sacrifice to the Realm.  Carries a title of hereditary nobility (“Thane”) and associated lands.  The symbol is the same as the Second Class with a chain loop that is fastened at the shoulder above the band.

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