Historical Perspective


Outlawry in modern times seems to have been romanticized. In many forms of media and popular culture it is shown through a skewed lens of being cool or tough. This line of thinking is far removed from the original view of what it was to be an outlaw. The modern concept of being an outlaw is more accurately defined as a scofflaw, that being someone who flouts the law or fails to comply with the law. These are the people who engage in activities that are illegal but hard to prove or punish, such as drug usage, driving fast or recklessly, and other acts of that nature. All the things that popular culture tells us are the traits of an outlaw are truly scofflaws instead.

In the days before the modern penal system, outlaws were exiled and removed from the protection of the law. This meant the outlaw could be beaten, stolen from, or killed outright without fear of legal retribution. They were “outside the law,” and could no longer rely on it to protect them. Exile itself could mean death for the outlaw as well, no longer having the support or skills of their tribe to rely on. Outlawry was a last resort, if restitution was not enough to address the crime, or if the offender would not do so or had committed crimes too great to be righted.

Bearing in mind that laws changed from place to place, tribe to tribe, and over time, there were varying degrees of outlawry. With varying degrees of outlawry came varying degrees of punishment. The lesser form of outlawry meant that the outlaw still had some protection from being killed. The outlaw’s property would remain theirs. They had a set few places they could be or be on the way to and still be safe, outside of those places they were not safe. This lasted three years so long as they followed specific rules. Failing to follow these rules could make them a full outlaw. These lesser outlaws would have a chance to rejoin society after their term of outlawry was finished. Being able to rejoin society meant they could begin to rebuild their worth. Offenses that could cause lesser outlawry included the killing of a thrall (slave), insults, a man abusing a free women, or assault.

Full outlaws were no longer protected by the laws. They had all their goods and property taken. They could not be housed or even fed By members of the tribe that had cast them out. They could be killed on site by any that saw them without ramifications. Looking at it, full outlawry adds up pretty swiftly to a death sentence. If you can’t be fed or housed you’re stuck foraging in the wild. To top it off if you happen across anyone they can kill you. This was the rest of the outlaw’s life. Full outlaws truly had little to no worth. If you accidentally killed someone’s livestock you paid recompense, but if you killed a full outlaw that’s just how it goes. Your life added up to less than livestock, less than property. Some of the offense that might lead to one being declared outlaw included ignoring the prohibitions of lesser outlawry, a second crime that would result in lesser outlawry, manslaughter, an attack on the king/chieftain, arson, violence in a temple, and even weapons in a temple. Of course, these are just examples, not an inclusive list and certainly not representative of every tribe or nation.

So this all begs the question, how do we as modern Heathens use and apply outlawry? Well, as we have no Heathen governing body we can’t on a large scale. We abide by local law for punishable offenses. Honor-based offenses must be dealt with on a tribal level. However even if another group “outlaws” someone for a reason your group doesn’t agree with you are not obligated to follow suit. The opposite is true as well: there’s no way to force another tribe or Kindred to respect your tribe’s decision to cast someone out. The best one can hope for is that those tribes will acknowledge that the person has no worth, and will not wish to sully their luck by engaging them.

Outlawry in arch-Heathen times was a matter of life and death. It wasn’t a mantle worn with pride but rather a stigma to overcome. In many cases it was a stigma one died with. The idea that outlawry was in some way fashionable is a grand misinterpretation. Understanding that the modern common usage for the word outlaw and the proper definition thereof are not remotely the same helps. However, for a community that is based on reconstruction the fascination with the the idea outlaws is perplexing. It is in direct opposition to a Heathen worldview to want to be an outlaw; a worldview based around the tribe has no need for those who put the tribe at risk.


Naemr has traveled to numerous gatherings hosted by heathens across Kansas and Nebraska. His honesty and opinions are welcomed by many other kindreds, both online and in the real world. Naemr is a supporter of learning and advocates the advancement of knowledge as well as the conviction to be heathen by more than just making blanket statements but using critical reasoning and accepting information from other sources before making decisions for and with his kindred. Naemr is a father of two and has been married for over a decade.

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