Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Role and Responsibilities of a Modern Thyle

This essay was co-written by Craig Winkler and Mark Ludwig Stinson.

Many kindreds have designated a role of responsibility called the "Thyle" (pronounced "Thule.")  Craig Winkler is the Thyle for Jotun's Bane Kindred, and he co-wrote this essay with Mark Stinson.  Some of the concepts and ideas contained in this essay were outlined in a discussion held at the Midwest Thing in Minnesota (in 2010) involving Craig Winkler, Brody Derks, Mark Stinson, Rod Landreth, Gunnar Miller, and Dan B-E.

Craig Winkler declaring Grith at Lightning Across the Plains 2010

<span class=" fbUnderline">The Mead Hall</span> by Stephen Pollington is an excellent book to read regarding how Symbel's worked among our ancestors. On page 181 he writes, "While little is known for sure of the specific duties of the feast officers, and much of our information is taken from a handful of poems, the following appear to have been the usual participants at an early English symbel." He then goes on to to describe some of the positions of responsibility that existed in the Hall during Symbel.  One of these positions is the position of Thyle which he describes on page 188.

"The OE word thyle glosses Latin terms such as orator 'spokesman' and scurra 'satirist.'  There is some confusion surrounding the proper interpretation of the word, for which our only evidence is the behavior of Unferth the Thyle at Hrodgar's court in Beowulf.  In the 'courtroom' analogy of the hall, the Thyle appears as a kind of 'prosecutor' whose function is to query and question the applicant's credentials and motives, almost as a devil's adocate.  This probing of the evidence presented allows the leader to reach an informed decision about the course of action to be followed."


The modern Thyle serves in the role of protecting the Wyrd and Luck of his kindred and the assembled Folk during Symbel.  At the beginning of Symbel, he announces what is acceptable and unacceptable during Symbel, and ensures that everyone present is aware of the kindred's traditions and thew regarding the event.  Throughout the Symbel, he is watchful for disruptive or disrespectful behaviors, and quickly addresses and stops such behaviors when they occur.  The Thyle has the responsibility of ensuring that Grith is maintained during the Symbel.  During High Symbel or Symbels with a fair number of people in attendance, it is helpful to assign several Hall Wardens who assist the Thyle in this task, and the Thyle directs and guides these Hall Wardens in the completion of their duties on behalf of the Chieftain.  This allows the Chieftain, as Lord of the Hall, to focus on his guests and their good words spoken over the horn.

The Thyle also serves an important role in questioning and testing boasts made over the horn during Symbel.  Is the boast true and stated accurately?  If a boast seems a bit "off" or exaggerated, the Thyle will ask the person making the boast questions regarding the matter.  While the Chieftain, Valkyrie, or anyone in the Hall can ask questions ensuring the validity of a boast made over the horn, it is specifically the Thyle's role and responsibility to do so when the need arises.  If the Thyle is satisfied that a boast is true and accurate he will allow it, but a boast that continues to appear questionable after being probed and examined will not be allowed.

Craig, Rod, Mark, and Nathan on a Kindred Canoe Trip

When an oath is made over the horn, it is the Thyle's responsibility to closely examine the oath being made, ensuring that it is clear in its meaning and intent, and a worthy oath to be made over our horn.  Toward this end, he may ask questions or suggest alternative ways of wording the oath to ensure clarity in its meaning.  If an oath is deemed to be silly, worthless, or inappropriate, the Thyle will not allow the oath.  While the Chieftain, Valkyrie, or anyone in the Hall can raise objections or question an oath, it is specifically the Thyle's role and responsibility to safeguard against oaths unworthy of being spoken over the horn.

Every oath that is made, should include a Shyld (or obligation) that will be paid should the oath not be fulfilled.  This allows the person making the oath to retain some portion of their Honor should they fail in their oath.  And it protects the Luck of the kindred, in that the kindred can enforce the Shyld if an oath made over their horn is not completed.  It is specifically the role and responsibility of the Thyle to judge the Shyld offered for an oath, and to accept it or reject it as sufficient.  If the Shyld offered is insufficient or inappropriate, then the Thyle can suggest an alternative Shyld that he believes is more appropriate.  If the Thyle and the person making the oath cannot agree on a proper Shyld for the oath, then the oath is not allowed.

The Chieftain, Valkyrie, and Thyle work very closely together to ensure that the Symbel goes smoothly, that good words are spoken over the horn, and that the Wyrd and Luck of the kindred and those assembled are protected.  While they each have different areas of responsibility during Symbel, there is some overlap in their duties.  When an exceptionally problematic or sensitive situation arises, such as the removal of a participant for obnoxious intoxication, it is completely appropriate for the Symbel to be briefly paused, so that the Thyle can confer with the Chieftain and Valkyrie about the best way to handle the situation.  But, if the problem is clear and the is Thyle confident in how it should be handled, he can take whatever actions are necessary to protect Symbel and the Luck of the kindred and those assembled.


The modern Thyle's role outside of Symbel, mirrors closely his role within Symbel.  A kindred's Thyle should be someone for which the Chieftain has immense trust.  Trust that the Thyle understands how to act in a loyal and frithful manner.  Trust that the Thyle understands his position and is 100% dedicated to his responsibilities.  Trust that the Thyle knows and comprehends the ways and thew of the kindred, and is able to communicate and preserve that thew when necessary.  For this reason, the Thyle should be someone who has been in the kindred awhile, and has had time to get to know its history, its culture, and its ways.

The Thyle works closely with the Chieftain, warding the Luck of the tribe.  Since the Chieftain holds the Luck of the tribe, one responsibility of the Thyle is to shield the Chieftain from harm.  Shielding the Chieftain can be done in many ways. First and foremost, the Thyle acts as an advisor to the Chieftain.  A frankness and openness should exist between the Chieftain and Thyle, that allows the Thyle to be enormously direct in private when he feels the Chieftain is making an unwise decision or following a course of action that will damage the Luck of the tribe.   It is also appropriate for the Thyle to declare Grith at heathen gatherings, and then ensure that Grith is maintained by supervising whatever security has been put in place for the event.

Publicly, when something is happening that could embarass, undermine, or diminish the Chieftain in some way, it is the Thyle's responsibility to quickly prevent the damage that is about to occur.  This can be done with a simple distraction.  For instance raising a horn and making a toast, drawing all of the attention away from the negative situation.  If a guest is baiting the Chieftain into an argument, and it appears the Chieftain may lose his temper inappropriately, then the Thyle should diffuse the situation with a distraction or even a joke, or simply pull the Chieftain away for an "important matter" that does not actually exist.  Those Thyles that are skilled in reciting poetry or song, can also use these skills to draw attention away from or prevent a situation that could damage the Chieftain's Gefrain or Luck.

Brody Derks, Thyle of Volkshof Kindred and Craig Winkler, Thyle of Jotun's Bane Kindred

Assisting the Chieftain in warding the Luck of the tribe can take many forms.  Is a heathen gathering hosted by the kindred sufficiently planned and prepared for?  Is the kindred fully prepared for an Open Faining or Blot they are hosting?  Is there something negative about a potential new member to the kindred that the rests of the kindred seems to be overlooking?  Are the decisions being made by the Chieftain and the kindred consistant with the kindred's history, purposes, and thew?  Truly, the Thyle is expected to keep a close eye on things, and express concerns that may come up in an appropriate fashion most likely to lead to a successful resolution of the concerns.

A kindred's Thyle is the protector and keeper of the kindred's thew, customs, and traditions.  It is helpful for the Thyle to keep a book, wherein he records the history of the kindred, events that take place, decisions that are made, and problems that are encountered and solved.  This book can be somewhat general or enormously detailed, and that will probably depend on the personality of the kindred's Thyle.  But the Thyle's book, sometimes called a "Thew Book," can serve as the kindred's memory, or its lore.  Some Thyle's are skilled in verse or song, and can further fulfill this role within the kindred, by composing and performing poems or songs that preserve the history and memory of the kindred. 

As the keeper of the kindred's thew, the Thyle has a responsibility to educate potential or new members to the kindred regarding the kindred's thew, customs, traditions, history, and ways.  He can share this information through conversations, having them read from his book, or even holding classes.  This will vary depending on the needs of the kindred and the preferences of the Thyle.  A simple way to look at this though, is that the Godhi is responsible for the spiritual education and guidance of new members, while the Thyle is responsible for the thew education and guidance of new members.

It is important that the Thyle should record in his book the oaths, promises, and obligations made by kindred members and the Shyld they are required to pay should they fail in these commitments.  Individual failure in an oath by a kinded members, affects the entire kindred to some degree.  So, part of the Thyle's role is recording these oaths, and if necessary, prodding or reminding kindred members that seem to be falling short on an oath.  This should not be mistaken for "babysitting."  Each individual is responsible for their own oaths, and ensuring that they fully fulfill whatever commitment they have made.  But no one is perfect, and sometimes a firm reminder from the Thyle can turn failure into determined success.  Such is the power of the Thyle.

Craig in Symbel, raising Chieftain's Folly...

A successful Thyle needs to be a little thickskinned, firm, detail oriented, and able to interact well with other people.  It also helps if they have equal measures of wit and wisdom.  Every kindred will approach things a little differently, and some of these differences will be dictated by the personality and skills of the person who is recognized as their Thyle.  But, we wanted to share how JBK views this important role within our tribe.

Craig Fairhair Winkler & Mark Ludwig Stinson
Jotun's Bane Kindred
Temple of Our Heathen Gods


  1. Not bad, but I'd explore the "scurra" valences a little more closely :

    "fashionable idler, man about town, rake; professional buffoon, comedian/clown..."

    The thyle may be the one whose irreverence wards the reverence of the hall, a tricky office.

  2. Thanks for that comment. I would agree that the right person in that role, could use those talents to support the reverence of the hall. Very often, if the thyle is not the person using humor to diffuse possible embarrassing or conflict-worthy situations in the Hall...then it is another member or members of the kindred doing so.