My dear friend Alvidar once said to me once that joining a kindred was not unlike how marriage was perceived before romance became the driving factor. It is a joining of people into a family that creates familial bond of mutual benefit, and often includes a strong emotional bond in the process. When someone joins Black Bear Kindred, they hold the status with other oathed members as family. To most of us, that puts them in the same circle of obligation as siblings. My husband and possible future kids come first, but they are second only to my brother by blood.
Looking across the Heathen spectrum, most groups I have encountered have some sort of process to admit new members or to teach their ways to others. It can range from informal classes to complex webs of oath and ritual. There are as many processes as there are successful groups. Theodish groups have a very well defined process that I have observed being called “thralling” or “thralldom.” (Apologies to those who cringe at the word thralling.) I don’t practice Theodish belief, so my understanding of their process is strictly as an outsider. Becoming a thrall is a ritual process, where one binds themselves via oath to an active member of the group. There is a very strong bond formed, because if a thrall messes up, the person who owns their worth is punished, not the thrall. The process is significant and religiously meaningful to all of the members of that Theod. However, unlike many modern Heathen groups, there is no fictive kindship established. The Theod would be more comparable to a village, where there is a web of oaths and frith and bind each member to the other. Becoming a thrall is also not seen as a “probationary membership.” It is a significant religious process that I cannot fully grasp because I have not experienced it, however I have seen the results of the process on friends and can see the profound impact it has on them. The concept and process of not just becoming a thrall but taking on thralls is a significant part of the religious practice and helps construct their web of oaths.
My experience of groups in the Midsouth and Midwest is that our practices of admitting new members may have some common elements to the process of becoming a thrall in a Theod, however the intent and bond created is very different. Most of the groups I know are built on concept of building a family of choice. This was a big draw to me when I first discovered Heathenry many years ago, and I think it is a big draw for many people. We no longer live in the large, extended families, and for many of us that have come to Heathen beliefs, the idea of building an extended familial bond brings an enormous sense of comfort and spiritual peace.
I will freely admit that I have looked at groups that are successful to see what is working. I think it would be foolish not to do so. There are people in the greater Heathen community who have been at this a lot longer than I have, and have been able to produce some tremendous results in building strong, healthy groups full of people of worth. I want to learn from the best, so that my group can be looked at in the same light. I am also not afraid to ask questions about what make someone successful, and giving credit where credit is due. I have made mistakes, and my group’s process is one that will continue to evolve over time as we learn and experience more.
One thing I have found that is common is every successful group I have encountered is that this is a process of learning for both sides – learning the kindred’s ways and learning about each other. It is a time where the potential member should learn enough to make an informed decision if they want to tie their luck to the group, and it is a time when the group decides if the potential member is a good fit. Either can part ways in some manner and there is no broken frith or oaths.
The method of this process I am continually impressed by is the one-on-one relationships that the thrall process brings in Theodish communities. There is an undeniable bond that is built that helps make the community as a whole stronger. I have also seen this process work well in secular groups such as 12 step programs and even my own experience pledging a sorority. This is something I have instated in my own group when someone wishes to join. They are paired with someone who is responsible for guiding their education during the process, and this person becomes their touchstone and guide when we have ritual, allowing them to have someone to look to for appropriate behavior.
Groups in the Midwest have many different ways of describing their process. “Worthing” seems to be very common, as does “pledging” and the very simple “prospective member”. The term “pledging” would be a term I would consider using if it didn’t have the American associations with sororities and fraternities. Each group has nuances and theological reasons for what they call their members, taken from the lore or from their own practical experience. Most can point to a reason as to why they use the terminology they use.
Our process for joining our kindred is based heavily on teaching new people our ways and the skills we believe will make them successful in the kindred. I have based the core of it on the Víglundar Saga. In this saga, the mother of Ketilríðr Hólmkelsdóttir refused to teach her daughter how to be an adult. Ketilríðr’s father was mortified by this refusal, so he took his daughter to the family of Thorgrímr Eiríksson to be fostered and taught the life skills she needed. Almost everyone joining a kindred has not been raised with the knowledge and theology to develop the Heathen worldview. We want to take people who would like to join our group and teach them the skills that we believe will build that worldview before we allow them to take an oath that binds their worth and luck to ours. In honoring the example in the Víglundar Saga, we call our process fostering, as we are fostering a Heathen worldview in those who wish to join.
Some Heathen groups have taken it upon themselves to start calling what they do “thralling.” I think that using this term is not productive due to the very strong associations the Theodish belief has spent decades building with their own process. I feel that this particular word has developed a distinct meaning, one that the Theodish have rights to lay claim because of their unique structure and religious language. To put it bluntly, it is something that is sacred and meaningful that shouldn’t be appropriated by other groups.
I also believe there is a certain historical reasons that dictate that the term Thrall isn’t one that is appropriate unless you are specifically are putting this person in a servitude position, and declaring them having no rights and no worth. I have never seen a non-Theodish group that engages in ritualistic selling of themselves into thralldom. I certainly am not conquering random Heathens and forcing them to join my kindred, either.
As Heathens, I witness a lot of anger and complaints when things we hold sacred are misused by New Age and Neo-Pagans. We claim that they do not understand the context or the sacred nature of our God/desses, culture, or worldview. According to every person of Theodish Belief I have asked, their process of Thralldom is incredibly sacred, and it is my conclusion that outsiders simply cannot grok the full meaning because we are outsiders. To use their terms is to appropriate them in a similar manner as the clueless Wiccan who tries to demand our Gods do their bidding. It is not just disrespectful, but it is also profane.
There is no religious authority that can force any Heathen group to use any specific terminology. Each person and group must decide for themselves how they wish to approach this situation, using their own education, worldview, and best judgment, and be prepared for the consequences, good or bad, of your decisions.