Justice? or Vengeance?

I enjoy reading Icelandic sagas and the really good part of going to Iceland in 2016 was going to Thingvelir. It’s the actual Rift Valley where Europe and North America split. Geologically, I can’t think of anything cooler, but besides that it’s the place where, for two weeks in summer, all the Icelandic vikings met once a year to hold trials and make laws. In Njal’s Saga I read about this for the first time. The Vikings set up booths and adjudicated things and sold things and socialized. Imagine, having, essentially, two weeks a year to socialize but that was more or less true. Their “booths” were dug part way into the ground, built up with rocks and completed with skins and whatever else they had. Stuff was sold and traded, but most wonderful was the Althing, the meeting of their parliament and their court.

Re-enactment at Thingvellir of a “booth”

The basic code was that the parties in a law suit would abide by the decision, but judging (ha ha) from the sagas, that isn’t what always happened. The line between justice and revenge can be almost nonexistent. When an adjudication didn’t satisfy the complainants, chances were good that someone’s house would be burned down, his wife or daughter stolen, a spear thrust through his chest. Many were the methods for exactly justice in the wilds of medieval Iceland. Still, I think the Althing worked often enough that it didn’t stop trying. It is still in existence and met at Thingvellir until the 18th century.

This morning I got this from my Senator:

On January 6, 2021, Congress convened to fulfill its constitutional duty to certify the Electoral College results of the 2020 election. A day meant to affirm American democracy instead turned into one of the darkest in our history. President Trump’s incitement ended in a violent breach of the United States Capitol by his supporters. It was an assault on America’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and the peaceful transition of power.

This attack on our Constitution cannot go unanswered. We must reject lawlessness and reassert the rule of law. We must repudiate authoritarianism and reclaim democracy. Those who organized and led the assault, those who followed them, and those who incited them – none should be beyond the reach of justice.

Last year, I voted to remove President Trump from office for his crimes against our republic. Since then, his unconstitutional wrongdoing has only grown worse…I will support any effort to impeach the president and uphold the rule of law – including steps beyond January 20, 2021, if required.

Michael Bennett, Senator for Colorado

It’s interesting that almost ALL the sagas (those I’ve read, anyway) deal with this subject. Wrongs are done, or perceived, and taken to the Althing for adjudication by a democratically chosen judge. The case is presented, evidence and testimonies given, and a verdict is rendered. If everything is satisfactory to both parties, fines are paid and life goes on. But, in that case, there’s no saga. It’s only when the parties return home without feeling satisfied that a saga emerges. The plaintiffs expect the worst and the defendants (or vice versa depending on the story) vow to exact REAL justice. The exacting of that “real justice” is the basis for the stories. I cannot right now think of a single story in which the Althing did not judge correctly, and the “justice” exacted post-Althing was always vengeance, often motivated by greed, lust, envy or a muddled combination of the three.

Violence in the Icelandic Sagas is wild, colorful, creative. Their culture was partly a raiding culture which meant there were plenty of opportunities for people to be grieved. The descriptions are amazing — grieved parties waiting for winter when the bay would be frozen and they can ride across it to their enemy’s farm and set it on fire. Having been in Iceland, staying in a house on one bay when everything else was on another bay, I get that. By car it was a couple hours drive. By horse? That would be a complicated journey of at least few days giving the soon-to-be-injured party plenty of opportunity to evade attack or stage an attack themselves. And, as it happened, there was more cover in Iceland in winter than in summer.

The problem with civilization is that people are not peaceful by nature. Anger is part of who we are and it’s kind of addictive. I think we humans look around for justifications to feed that emotion and keep it alive. A law and order society — a real one — will never satisfy that part of humanity. I think there have always been these two competing strands in human nature; one seeking a peaceful life of rule and cooperation and another ready to kill for what it wants or to satisfy a burning grievance.


20 thoughts on “Justice? or Vengeance?

  1. One of the most addictive things for humans is righteous anger. And revenge is how it’s usually handled, which generates never-ending conflicts. Yep. Welcome to Humanity. In my cynical periods, I see us as toxic mold on the face of the planet.

  2. I loved Thingvellir when we visited Iceland as well. And yes, we don’t seem to be learning very fast as a species. I did love seeing where the plates were pulling apart. Maybe it will take us falling off into the ocean literally or metaphorically to recognize that violence and vengeance are not effective in the long run.

    • A little known fact but the Crusades were basically a Pope’s attempt to contend or channel the testosterone of the unemployed second and third sons of nobility. I’m down with that theory, Rebecca.

  3. I consider myself a peaceful person, Martha, but even so, I have been very vexed over the last decade and part of me does not want to let that go, perhaps because there is no avenue for that type of Icelandic justice. I wonder whether the Althing was available to all to resolve disputes or whether it was for the privileged few only, or available especially for the privileged few?

    • The Althing was available to everyone. I’ve been most pissed off (get this) at having to be pissed off. I’m not a peaceful person, but I don’t anger easily or quickly and I find anger very uncomfortable because slaying our enemies is frowned upon, even by me. But the spirit is there. I resent it mightily when someone pushes me to the point where I must get angry as so many people and things have done these past four years, people and things against which I have no power and no recourse.

  4. I’m trying to catch up on my reading of posts…. I can only hope that there is justice and mercy. (though I’m having second thoughts about extending mercy to some people – like #45, his spawn, and Giuliani.) Anyway, I’m trying to let go so that I can get a better quality of sleep.

    • I’m behind reading posts too 🙁 I have no mercy to offer 45 and his evil spawn and sycophants. It’s a “get the behind me Satan” thing for me. Very bad people who mean no good to any one

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