Perhaps one of the most misunderstood and often maligned things in Theodism is the concept of thralldom. To some, just the idea of going by a word that means “slave” seems revolting. Thralldom is none the less a needed fixture of any theod. Theods have tried to do away with the institution in the past with disastrous results. Thralldom is at best misunderstood by most Heathens. In the least it is often much maligned because people do not understand it. Not all theods handle thralldom the same way. However, there are a few things that are true of thralldom in all theods. First, thralldom is a probationary period that one needs to go through before joining a theod. Second, thralls do physical labor in exchange for being taught about Theodism and Heathenry. Third thralls are without worth and have no rights. They cannot swear oaths nor have oaths sworn to them. They are limited in what they can do in rites. Fourth as thralls have no worth they are not generally held accountable for their actions though their are certain expectations of them.
Not all of these things will ring true for the thralldom in every theod. Each theod has its own traditions and customs regarding thralldom Similarly. thralls are treated differently in each theod. In White Marsh Theod the theod I am a member of thralls are treated with respect, not belittled or abused, and it is much more of an apprenticeship than anything else. They are expected to do physical labor or some kind of service in exchange for being taught the ways of the theod. In the past however some theods have demeaned thralls with forced subservience; thralls could not speak unless spoken to, were insulted in numerous ways, and always did the hardest labor at any gathering or get together without any help from the full members. It was more a period of hazing than it was training. Today however I know of no theod whose thralls are treated in this fashion. Times have changed. Indeed, in White Marsh “thrall abuse” is a serious offence for which one can be punished for.
It is due to this past that thralldom is maligned. Being a thrall packs its advantages. Garman Lord used to say that thralls were the freest people in a theod. They have no responsibilities to the folk, no duties to perform other than grunt work at gatherings, and they can leave the theod at any time with no questions asked. This is not true of a freeman (the term theods use for a full member). Freemen always have some duties to perform in service to someone or responsibilities to the folk. And they cannot leave the theod easily. They have oaths they must be released of and this may require a whole lot of hoops to jump through. A thrall has no such obligations.
The whole idea behind thralldom is that one needs time to learn to be Theodish. Unlike other forms of Heathenry Theodism is steeped in custom and tradition. Members are expected to conduct themselves honorably and to work towards the good of the theod or group. In addition to learning many new things, a thrall must also unlearn many things. Among the things a thrall must learn is how to serve the folk and this is done by performing physical labor. A thrall must also learn humility and this is learned by having no rights in a theod and being told what to do. Humility may seem an odd virtue for a Heathen to try to develop, but Theodism has had problems in the past with Theodsmen who had not gone through thralldom letting power go to their heads. I am among those who did this. Indeed, I can only think of one Theodish leader who did not have this happen to them that did not go through thralldom and that is my brother Eric. So humility is something that must be learned as a thrall. Desire to develop a name of renown can come later after they have learned that they always have the folk to answer to.
Thralldom is a process. This process is called worthing and is something all Theodsmen go through repeating it many times in their lives. Prior to beginning the worthing process the potential thrall will discuss why they want to go into thrall with a member of the theod. The Theodsman will then approach their lord or lady and discuss the potential thrall with them. Sometimes, the lord or lady will want to talk to the potential thrall. Not everyone is accepted. Those with backgrounds they do not want to give up that conflict with the beliefs of the theod are likely to be rejected. If the potential thrall is accepted into becoming a thrall they are “sold.” That is the person that wants to teach them gives them a lucky penny (a penny found heads up in a public place). It varies what a thrall does with this penny from theod to theod. In some theods the thrall saves the lucky penny. In other theods they must lose it in a public place. When a thrall becomes a full fledged Theodsman they must give a lucky penny to the one that taught them. Worthing consists of three steps 1) Learning. In this stage the thrall spends time learning about Heathenry, and unlearning Christianity, Materialism, or whatever background they are coming from. During this time the thrall tries to become intimate with the history, customs, rites, and traditions of the Germanic culture the theod is trying to reconstruct. There is much reading, and many discussions with their lord or lady on the topics being learned. 2) Enacting. The thrall begins applying what they have learned. In my book Þédisc Geléafa “The Belief of the Tribe:” A Handbook on Germanic Heathenry and Theodish Belief I have this to say about enacting: “Enacting is not an easy process, and may take years. It is, as much a learning process as anything. One can read about riding a bike. One can study the physics of it, and work out mathematically how it works. They can look at what muscle groups one uses when riding. Even ride a tricycle to learn how to pedal. But, until one learns to ride a bike, they cannot say they have become a bike rider.” Heathenry is no different. One can read about Heathenry, but until they start practising it they really cannot call themselves Heathen. 3. Becoming or worthing. This is the point at which one can consider themselves Heathen. They have Heathen ideas, Heathen virtues, and live a Heathen life. The thrall has become a part of the theod. This process is all about laying down deeds in the Well of Wyrd to make one’s self Heathen. It is a process that never ends for a Theodsmen and they may go through it many times after becoming a full member of a theod. Even today after twenty years as a Theodman I am still learning new things about Heathenry and applying them in my life.
Becoming a Theodsman is a serious process. Theods have experimented in other ways of bringing new members into the theod in the past, granting potential members more rights. What would happen is that seekers would come in wanting to go through the learning process and then drift off. Thralldom since it ties one to someone that teaches them mouth to ear is much more personal and only the truly serious are willing to go through a process wherein they have no rights and must do whatever is asked of them so long as it is not abusive. Thralldom because of its very name may sound bad. The idea of selling oneself into “slavery” may sound totally unappealing to most Heathens, but in reality it is not a bad process. It is not as bad as military boot camp (no one is yelling at you), and no different in some ways than the process of joining many organizations such as the Masons. It has come a long way from the time when thralls were demeaned and abused under the Wínland Ríce. It is no longer a process of hazing. If you have any questions about thralldom feel free to ask in the comments. I will be glad to answer any and all questions you may have.