From the Vaults: Vargr: The Institution of Outlawry

Here is another article that I wrote 14 years ago for the original SpikeVision website.

Vargr: The Institution of Outlawry

Dave Smith, 2004

 The institution of outlawry for punishment of severe crimes was practiced throughout the Viking age.  Further, the concept of outlaws being equivalent to or associated with wolves was widespread throughout northern Europe.   This article will briefly examine this practice, both from an historical and a literary standpoint.

 What was Outlawry?

 Although practiced throughout northern Europe, many of the best historical and literary accounts come from Iceland.  For this reason, many of the examples will be of Icelandic origin. Outlawry was a complex social and economic punishment, which could be imposed for a number of crimes, and which consisted of several components. The root of outlawry was banishment from the country.  In the case of lesser outlawry, or Fjörbaugsgarður, it was for the term of three years. In the case of greater outlawry, or Skóggangur, the banishment was for life, and after three months, the outlaw could be lawfully killed. (1)

 Often, rather than leaving the country, the outlawed man would take refuge in the heath or forest.  For this reason, such men were often known as forest-dwellers.

 The term of banishment could vary widely.  A man’s friends and family could petition the Thing for removal of the penalty, while the family of the slain could urge its extension.

 Grettir decided to go on to the Thing, and to the Thing he went. The matter was taken up by the heirs of the man slain. Thorkell gave his hand to pay the compensation and Grettir was to be banished for three years. (2)

 In fact, Grettir’s banishment lasted a total of twenty years.

 In 982 Eric the Red was outlawed for three years and used his period of banishment to organize an expedition and explore Greenland.

 The outlawed man could not petition the Thing, nor could he be named as a defendant.  If he was encountered in the land from which he was banished, he could be killed without fear of reprisal, for he was literally outside of the protection of the law.  It was common for the friends or family of a slain man to put a price on the head of the slayer.  In addition, the outlawed man lost all property.

 Though I use the term ‘outlawed man’ throughout this essay, there is evidence that a woman could also be punished in this manner.

 “If a man slays a woman he shall be outlawed just as if he has slain a man. If a woman slays a man, she shall be outlawed, and her kinsmen shall remove her from the land” (3)


 There were a number of crimes and offenses for which a man could be made an outlaw.  These include:

 Murder (cited above)


“If a well-born woman steals, she shall be driven out of the land into another kingdom. (4)

 Harboring an outlaw:

 Grettir stayed but a few nights with Grim, for he did not want it to become known that he was about to travel North across the Heath. Grim told him to come back to visit him if he needed protection. “Yet,” he said, “I would gladly avoid the penalty of being outlawed for harbouring you.” (5)

 Grievously insulting another man:

 There are three words from maliced verse between men, which are punished with full outlawry. If a man calls a man ragr or stroðinn or sorðinn. And they shall be punished as fully slanderous words, and a man is given the right to kill for these words. (6)

 Going berserk (as stated in Christian law in 1123):

 If someone goes berserk, he is punished with lesser outlawry and the men who are present are also banished if they do not bind him. (7)

 Outlaws as wolves

 The association of outlaws and wolves is very strong in the Germanic cultures. The Old Norse word vargr (OSw: varghær, OHG: warg, OE: wearg ) has been translated in a number of ways, and several Indo-European root words have been claimed as its source. These include *wergh (“strangle”, via the Germanic *wargaz) (8) and  the Germanic “wacrer” (to wander).  The latter is the root for the modern English word vagrant.  From the fact that the major component of outlawry was banishment, this last option seems to be the most likely source.  Those who transgress against society are forced to wander from their homeland.

 After the Christianization of Northern Europe, an additional aspect of being outside of the faith as well:

 _Vargr_ is the same as _u-argr_, restless; _argr_ being the same as the Anglo-Saxon _earg_. _Vargr_ had its double signification in Norse. It signified a wolf, and also a godless man.(9)

 One author holds that the association between wolves and outlaws seems to be a later phenomenon particular to the Norse cultures:

 …it is only late, and mostly in Norse, that vargr (cognate with warg) acquires the meaning “wolf” along with “criminal.” In Old English, wearg means almost exclusively “criminal” or “accursed being.” (10)

 In Anglo-Saxon lands, the term “wolf’s-head” became an accepted term for criminals (11). This connection itself is not so simple as it may seem.  At first view, it seems to be made due to the similarity in temperament between wolves and criminals.  However, deeper meanings to this connection have been suggested.  Some authors have suggested that the condemnation of an outlaw as vargr is a symbolic pronouncement that the man is now a wolf, and is worthy of strangulation (12).

 Thus it is well seen that Sigi has slain the thrall and murdered him; so he is given forth to be a wolf in holy places , and may no more abide in the land with his father (13)

 Völundur, Egill and Slagfinnur, the third son of Ívaldi, chose to become outlaws, and travelled all the way to the northernmost edge of the world, to Úlfdalir (Wolf-dales), where Gods never go. (14)

 One author has suggested that there is also a symbolic connection between the transformation of men into wolves, and the feminization of men through the practice of Seidr magic and in playing the passive role in sodomy.  The term ergi, may have applied to both of these receptive roles (15).


 Outlawry as a social institution allowed society to pass judgment and punish criminals while avoiding the authoritarian and logistical dilemma of incarceration.  In a family-based society without clearly defined leaders, it provided a social mandate for punishment that was well-suited to the temperament and attitudes of the people. The threat of being placed outside the bound of society’s protection and ejected from the homeland was a strong deterrent to discourage anti-social or destructive behavior.

 The association between wolves and outlaws is a complex one, which is not necessarily clarified by analysis of linguistic structures.  The relationship comes in part due to the temperament and unpredictability attributed to both entities, but also carries an aspect of unholiness.  As the wolf threatens the safety of the flock, so does the outlaw threaten the stability of society. Both were dwellers in the literal and metaphorical wild lands, or utangards.  Both were to be regarded with a sense of dread, as both were outside of the social construct of normal behavior.  The inability to predict the motives or actions of such protean beings would greatly unnerve members of a culture based on established social, familial and traditional patterns of conduct.


 (1) ‘Ordered Anarchy: Evolution of the Decentralized Legal Order in the Icelandic Commonwealth’, Birgir T. Runolfsson Solvason, 1992.

(2) Grettir’s Saga, Section XVI, (14th c. A.D.) G. H. Hight trans.

(3)   The Earliest Norwegian Laws,  Lawrence M. Larson trans. 1935.

(4)   Ibid.

(5) Staðarhólsbók of Grágás, Selvårv Stigårð trans. 1999.

(5)   Grettir’s Saga, Section XLVII.

(7) The Viking Achievement, P.G. Foote & D.M. Wilson.

(8)   ‘Hellhounds, Werewolves, and the Germanic Underworld’, Alby Stone, 1994.

(9)   ‘The Book of Were-Wolves’, Sabine Baring-Gould, Project Gutenberg, 2002

(10) ‘Wolf and Werewolf’, Online Etymology Dictionary.

(11) ‘Bums in Brigantia: Sacred Gender-Variance in Ancient Germanic and Celtic Cultures’, Phil Hine.

(12) ‘Hellhounds, Werewolves, and the Germanic Underworld’, Alby Stone, 1994.

(13) Volsunga Saga, ch. 1 (13th c A.D.) William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson trans.

(14) Rydberg’s Edda, ch. 43, 1889 trans.

(15) ‘Bums in Brigantia: Sacred Gender-Variance in Ancient Germanic and Celtic Cultures’, Phil Hine.

Combat Awareness by Captain Kýlan Vargr, CGM, October, AS 35


As I posted in August, I originally wrote this article for the Red Company website within the Society for Creative Anachronism. In October of 2018, the Middle Kingdom website was re-launched, and the Red Company site is no longer there.  I am re-posting this so that it remains accessible.

Combat Awareness, or Zanshin (‘reserved mind’, among other translations) in Japanese, is a state of alertness, balance, and control, both physical and mental, which can have a profound positive impact on an individual who possesses such skills.

This article is a brief, and by no means comprehensive look at how this principle can be applied to SCA armored combat. I’m sure that some will read this, and think it rudimentary and over-simplified, and others might have no desire to make this type of training part of their regimen. Both of these are perfectly acceptable reactions. It is for those who are looking for something more from SCA combat, and who have not had other appreciable martial arts training that this article is directed. There is much more to learn about this and its related concepts such as meditation and breathing exercises.

Mental preparation is a vital part of any martial art or athletic endeavor. It seems that relatively few armored combatants in the SCA have a physical training regimen outside of fighting itself, and fewer still go beyond to examine the mental aspects of our combat. It’s often fairly easy to identify those who have mastered the mental aspects of our combat, as they are often adorned with coronets or white belts or baldrics. When two combatants are equally matched in physical skill, the one with a better mental state will usually win the fight. Even against a superior opponent, a less experienced fighter can often make up the difference mentally.

First it should be understood that this kind of awareness is not a mystical and unobtainable state, but can be learned through repeated practice. By following a few simple steps on a regular basis, good habits that promote awareness and mental focus can be developed.

The level of mental preparation required by any given fighter will be different, and the same fighter might need different degrees of preparation in different circumstances. A pre-fight regimen of stretching and clearing the head of obstructions is a good first step. (If nothing else in this article sticks with you, believe me on the stretching. Always stretch out before fighting. Lack of this is probably the single largest cause of preventable injuries in our combat.) Duke Moonwulf’s article The Metaphysics of Fighting has a good example of this, using visualization as a preparatory ritual. Make the donning of armor into a ritual of its own. Spend as a little as few minutes paying attention to the details of your actions. Let extraneous thoughts drain away. Be present in the moment.

Mental State:
There are multitudes of factors that can affect your performance mentally. Sleep deprivation, anger, hunger, and numerous others. Many of these factors cannot be directly countered. Awareness of their presence is often the best that can be hoped for. Some factors, however, can and should be dealt with. Never fight if you are angry. It leads to injuries, either yours or your opponent’s. Even if no one is injured, you will still not fight up to your true capability if your mind is preoccupied. It is better not to fight, then to fight unsafely.

Not everyone can maintain a state of calm while fighting, especially during large tournaments, but even a small amount of attention paid to settling yourself can go a long way. Between rounds, try to relax. If you have pieces of armor that are restrictive or uncomfortable, and can be easily removed, do so. Breathe deeply. Shallow, panting breaths are not as efficient in supplying oxygen to the bloodstream. Deep breathing also promotes a more relaxed physical state.

Too often in armored combat, we lose focus and become distracted. This can include anything from falling prey to a feint, to something outside of the listfield catching our attention. The key to avoiding this is to look broadly rather than deeply. Don’t fixate on any one thing visually. Scan continuously. Take advantage of your peripheral vision by looking through your opponent rather than at them. This will give you a better overall ability to detect minute movements or changes in direction. It should go without saying, but concentrate entirely on the fight you are in. Never look past your current opponent in a tourney until you have helped them up from the ground to shake their hand.

Awareness includes awareness of your surroundings, of your opponent(s), and of yourself. Study your own movements, and those of your opponent. This will provide maximum efficiency in both offensive and defensive movement. The ultimate goal is to have complete control of your own timing and movement. This will allow you to control the fight. If you know where you are in relation to the borders of the listfield at all times, and your opponent lacks this awareness, it can give you a distinct advantage.

Awareness of the self can include factors such as your range of motion, your exact weapons range, and the ability to determine if you have been injured, even through a good dose of adrenaline. Your body knows when its hurt or overheating, so listen to what its telling you. If you practice slow work, or with a pell (and I highly recommend both), learn how correct stances and movement feel to your body. How do the muscles in your arm feel as the blow goes through its range of motion? How does your weight transfer as you move? How are your feet positioned relative to each other? Can you feel the point at which you must decide to recover to a ready stance, or to continue movement into a combination? If you can develop enough body awareness to feel these things, they can become second nature to you. The key is not to expect too much too soon. Pick different aspects to concentrate on each time you practice. One instructor I have trained with outside of the SCA emphasized the mantra: “Grace before speed.” In practicing these techniques, this is of utmost importance. Learn your moves slowly, deliberately, and correctly, and your body will remember them.

The ideal defensive situation is to be able to focus on the immediate threat, neutralize it, and forget about it. Analyze the details of the fight after it is over.
Whether you win or lose, analyze how and why the fight ended. Another side to awareness is concealment of your own intentions. Part of this is not revealing weaknesses in your own style to an opponent. Don’t give anything away. If you can’t block a rising wrap shot to save your life, then don’t put yourself into a position where you have to. If you are losing to a particular person, or against a particular weapons form, train to adjust your techique appropriately. Remember that an experienced opponent will be trying to do the same things to you that are to him or her.

One of the offensive uses of awareness is noticing and capitalizing on weaknesses in your opponent’s technique. Sometimes these openings are immediately noticeable, sometimes it requires several exchanges, or even several losses to a particular opponent before you can see the patterns. Look at how your opponent moves. When you’re not fighting, watch others who are. The things you learn by observation can pay off greatly.

In the literature of Mizoguchi’s ITTO-RYU school of kenjutsu, it says:

“Zanshin means to reserve one’s mind and is the principle of never letting one’s guard down, even when one’s victory seems to be complete. It is very difficult to judge whether the opponent has any other trick ‘up his sleeve’, even when you feel that your cut or thrust has had a good effect. There are many examples of unexpected defeat in history. When you strike down the opponent and cut his head off, you should still never let down you guard, and this is Zanshin.”

You may perhaps have seen the application of this principle. Has an opponent in mid-drop whose legs you have just taken ever hit you in the head? Have you ever been certain that a shot you threw was good, only to hesitate just long enough to watch a sword rebounding off your face plate? These are only two examples. Until you are certain that the fight is over, never drop your defenses.

I hope that this article has shown the importance of the mental aspects of our combat, as well as the benefits of cultivating a sense of combat awareness.
Once learned, these skills have a broad range of applications outside of combat activities as well.

Combat Awareness

One of the fun things about producing content on the Internet and Web for almost 25 years is when I come across something that I wrote nearly two decades ago, and can reflect on what I learned from writing it. Tonight I ended up reading my article on Combat Awareness that I wrote for the Red Company website 18 years ago. The Red Company is an order in the Middle Kingdom of the Society for Creative Anachronism that serves to recognize leadership and proficiency in heavy weapons combat. The article can be found on the Red Company website, which I originally created back in 1998.

Where are going, and why are we in this handbasket?

I watch the news, and I think of what Iggy Pop as Angry Bob said in the movie Hardware. “As for the good news – There is no fucking good news!”

Things are pretty bleak in the world at the moment, The distractions wear thin. Anger and fear and xenophobia are on the rise. As a nation, we are at our worst at the moment. More and more people are beginning to realize that we are simply pawns in a long game intended to funnel power and wealth to the few at the top.

Maybe Jim Morrison was right, and it’s time to get our kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames. If the world is to end, then let us send it out with debauchery.


I’ve got an idea emerging for a new bit of writing. Will it be an essay? A book? Who knows. But Now I’ve injected this piece of information into the bitstream, and thus I cannot shirk from its realization. Take that, future Dave.

From the Vaults: The cautionary tale of Dr. Pepper and the 23 enigma


Originally published 6/13/2006


The 23 enigma is a well-known underground cultural phenomenon which owes its popularity in part to its frequent mention in the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. Among those who investigate the enigma, many with a wink and a nod, the presence of the number is thought to be the hallmark of a vast conspiracy, perpetrated by a secretive global organization. Some have attributed it to the dread Illuminati, but Wilson and Shea maintain that the real origin of the mystery lies with the Discordian sect of the Justified Ancients of Mummu.

Shea and Wilson credit William S. Burroughs with uncovering the mystery, which he relates in his story of the ferryboat captain Clark, whose ferry sank after 23 years without incident.

The number seems to be everywhere one looks, acting as a beacon of the strange. A number of artists and musical groups in the industrial genre have latched onto the number over the years in order to tap into its conspiratorial chic.

To get an understanding of why this phenomenon occurs at all, a basic understanding of a straightforward concept of psychology, priming, is helpful. As Tom Stafford and Matt Webb write in Mind Hacks:

“Primed concepts hover just below conscious thought, ready to pop out at a moment’s notice. It is probably this priming that underlies the phenomenon in which, having learned a new word, you suddenly see it everywhere. The word is near the front of your mind and so all the times you would have otherwise ignored it become times when you now notice it.”

Essentially, the more you look for the number 23, the more often you will notice it, to the exclusion of other numbers which may actually be encountered with greater frequency.
Now a major marketing campaign has tapped into the power of this enigma. Dr. Pepper lore, and now their advertising claim that the drink’s distinctive flavor comes from a blend of 23 fruit flavors. The bottle label has even begun to sport an “authentic blend of 23 flavors” badge with the number prominently displayed. Accompanying this change is a new media campaign which implies that “23 is everywhere.” This caught my interest, as I am both a fan of the drink, as well as a student of the 23 phenomenon itself. My screen name on a number of online haunts is in fact, Vargr23. Trying to determine if there was anything to this connection, I located The Highly Unofficial FAQ online.

Although the FAQ addresses the 23 fruit juices claim, there is also information, some of it unfortunately unverifiable, that refutes the veracity of this claim. Having read the account in the FAQ of a 67-year employee of the oldest Dr. Pepper bottling plant in the world, the claim of 23 flavors brings to mind many of the pitches that a sideshow man I know uses to get folks behind the banner line. It’s a harmless bit of exaggeration to better immerse the marks into the experience.

Consumers are developing a resistance to traditional advertising methods. The advertising industry is well-aware of this effect, and is scrambling to compensate for it. New ideas for grabbing and holding our attention are the lifeblood of what Douglas Rushkoff calls “The Persuasion Industry.” He gave viewers a window into this world in the November 9th, 2004 episode of Frontline titled “The Persuaders.”

In a market supersaturated with products that are often difficult to distinguish from one another, each is trying to find an edge on its competitors in the war for our brand loyalty. A creative advertising campaign which avoids the filters that consumers inevitably develop as a result of living in the era of media and marketing overload is the first step in getting this edge.

Although the question is interesting, the actuality of whether or not the flavor of Dr. Pepper comes from a blend of 23 flavors is irrelevant to the matter that I’m most interested in. Someone who has a very good understanding of the popularity of conspiracy theories and the power of a tried and true underground shibboleth has created a marketing campaign which has a massive amount of pre-existing mind share. For this masterstroke I applaud the ingenuity of whatever individual or team produced this project. The very ease with which this hipster meme was co-opted demonstrates with unquestionable clarity just how easy this sort of thing is to accomplish. Any portion of culture, whether it is pop or underground, is ultimately vulnerable to use as a tool of persuasion.

Fourteen Internet years ago.

I was going through some of my archives, and I found a complete site capture of from 2003.  I always liked my little iconoclast and libertine guys. The former pertained to all writings focused primarily above the waist, the latter pertained to those things below.

The main entry page as it appeared in 2003.
The main entry page as it appeared in 2003.

It’s a good time for getting your SpikeVision on

The recent political movements in the United States are alarming. A potentially irrational, and certainly narcissistic president moves us each day closer to a totalitarian state, carried aloft on the obnoxious bray of his supporters, both idiots and hatemongers alike.
Now is a good time to put on your SpikeVision goggles, and see without filters the course that our nation has been put upon. I myself had been lulled into believing that many of the positions that I hold dear had come to be the new norm. I was wrong. I was Naive. I did not see how much hatred, intolerance, and ignorance had simply burrowed into the ground to hide for eight years, like so many locusts ready to feast upon the unguarded freedom of those who thought that our nation had evolved socially. Now the swarm has emerged, and we find ourselves obliged to renew our fight for personal freedom, bodily autonomy, and rationality. And fight we shall.

The Power Five and the Feel Good Hit Of The Summer

So, my mischievous apprentice put forth her will into the universe, and thought that someone should put the names of the Power Five into the song Feel Good Hit Of The Summer by Queens of the Stone Age. And the universe listened. It spat forth the following:

HAI2U, Lemonparty, Meatspin, tub girl, 4 down of the power five – Go go go go go goat-se.

As I am sure you no doubt recall, the original lyrics are :
Nicotine,Valium,Vicodin,marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol – Co co co co co cocaine.

I think that you can tell something about a person’s length of time living on the Internet by which name they refer to the image known as tub girl. I always knew it as “fecal Japan” when I first encountered it. The signifier changes, but the signified remains the same, retaining all of its august dignity and gravitas.

Is the world past the tipping point?

This weekend I pondered whether or not civilization has in fact already begun the slide into dissolution or not.  In the future when I look back, will there be a moment that I can pinpoint the slide as having begun? I wanted to put a post here to mark this occasion, so that when I look back, I’ll have a point to refer to.