Revenge – Relief – Retaliation – Repeat
The recent killing of Osama bin Laden as a payback for the lives lost in the 9/11 bombing brings to mind the code of revenge practiced by the Vikings centuries ago. It was a matter of both duty and honor for them to take a life for a life taken – or at least burn down the other guy’s mead hall! Blood feuds were a regular and accepted feature of Viking life.
They did, however, have an alternative solution: one could pay wergild, a “man- price”, in a system where each person literally had a price, an agreed-upon value according to rank and status, a legally fixed compensation. Thus the payment of gold or other goods could sometimes appease the family or the tribe of the person slain.
Another way around the demands of this revenge ethic involved Viking women. They could be married off to rival and warring chieftains with the duty of becoming “peace-weavers”, charged with using their female talents for reconciliation to end old feuds and prevent new ones. In my novel, Faces in the Fire, King Hrothgar’s daughter Freawaru finds herself in this position; married to Ingeld of the Heathobards, she is expected to ward off a resumption of the feud which has killed family members on both sides.
In modern times we still use the death penalty. Exacting it is sometimes said to bring “closure” to the survivors of a killing. Watching the convicted person die in the electric chair apparently now provides the “compensation” that wergild once provided for the Vikings.
In the 21st century we may view ourselves as more “civilized” than the old Vikings, but in fact we continue the cyclical pattern of revenge-relief-retaliation-repeat. A common expression among Quakers is that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Are they right?