The Problems of Heathenry

The Differences between Pagan and Modern Society

Eric De Vries

Table of Content

HONOUR................................................................................................................................................3 FRIÐR...................................................................................................................................................6 CHRISTIANITY AND HEATHENRY................................................................................................................8 PAGANISM AND JUSTICE ........................................................................................................................10 CONCLUSION........................................................................................................................................12

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The Problems of Heathenry Part I The Differences between Pagan and Modern Society
In the emergence of the neo-Heathen movement during the last half of the twentieth century a tremendous amount of energy has been poured into the discovery of the mythological and ritual aspects of pre-Christian, Germanic paganism. However, while this focus seems fruitful in the sense that there is a common and well-accessible store of information on mythology, this fails to recognize the true context of this mythology and religion: society. In this essay I will point to the several institutions of heathen society and the way in which it operated and compare it to its modern equivalents. Also, I will discuss the influences of Christian and modern ideologies on the reconstruction of the heathen worldview. Honour The most appreciated, and most widely accepted ethical stance among neo-Heathens are the Nine Noble Virtues (NNV). Supposedly they are gleaned from the Song of the High One, Hávamál, which is one of the most pagan songs known. To most heathens they are considered the core of the neo-Heathen ethic, and constitute an important part of the neo-heathen religion. These are virtues commonly listed: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. Courage Truth Honour Fidelity Discipline Hospitality Self Reliance Industriousness Perseverance

The problem with listing virtues like these is that they are highly subjective in the sense that they exact rules of action in everyday life cannot be concluded from these abstract concepts. Let’s take a look at honour. In Culture of the Teutons, it is made clear that honour was fundamental to the Old Norse mind, and more generally, the Germanic mind:


An injury done occasions a loss to the sufferer. He has been bereft of some part of his honour. But this honour is not a thing he can do without in case of need, not a thing he requires only for luxury, and which the frugal mind can manage without. He cannot even console himself with the part that remains; for the injury he has suffered may be likened to a wound which will never close up of itself, but bleed unceasingly until his life runs out. If he cannot fill the empty space, he will never be himself again. The emptiness may be called shame; it is a suffering, a painful state of sickness. To the modern Heathen, honour might indicate some notion of prestige, trustworthiness and respect amongst their friends, family and the wider community. On the other hand, it may indicate personal integrity, the knowing that one is doing the right thing – even when the wider community disagrees. In essence, this may correspond to the pagan notion of honour in the sense that it also included concepts like ‘respect’, ‘disrespect’ and personal integrity. However, I believe that these are filled with an entirely different meaning. In no way would the modern heathen act like the pagan of preChristian Scandinavia. For the standards of dishonour, disrespect and shame are guided by very different rules. To go into this a bit more deeper. In modern times, society doesn’t really approve the killing of other human beings. That is, there might be exceptions on the rule as in such cases of self-defence, soldiers and policemen acting on behalf of the state, but generally, killing other people is wrong. That was a bit different to the pagans: they would kill whenever they felt their honour was taken from them. Let me illustrate this with the following account: When a man sits talking among others, and emphasises his words with a stick in such fashion that he chances to strike his neighbour's nose, the neighbour ought perhaps to take into consideration the fact that the striker was short-sighted, and had talked himself into a state of excitement. Nor can it be called quite good manners to jump up on the instant and endeavour to drive one's axe into the nose of the other; but should the eager and short-sighted speaker chance to be found dead in his bed a few months after, it would be understood that someone had been there “to avenge that blow from a stick”. No one would on principle deny the name of vengeance to the deed. And if the man so struck were a man of honour, no outsider would deny his right to act as he had done… (Culture of the Teutons, 74)


No modern man would be treated with respect – though perhaps respect out of fear – when he killed another man “to avenge that blow from a stick”. Simply, he would be a murderer. Even the use of violence in such a case, especially as a conscious, premeditated act would earn little more than rejection. However, when a man is seriously humiliated people understand a violent reaction. Still, it is considered an act of passion and not the cold act of the man in the above account. The reason for this difference between these two conceptions of honour might be sought in the differences between our society and that of the Scandinavian pagans. The main difference lies, obviously, in the conception of honour. In western societies there appears no sense of honour so strong that one would fight for it. However, this was a bit different some time ago: until the 18th century duelling was not prohibited by law and even after legislation had been passed men continued to duel. The idea behind these duels was not to kill the other man – most of the time – but to regain some sense of honour by fighting and, hopefully, conquering him and thus showing mastery over him. Here we see much of the same idea of honour – though the standards appear a bit differently – apparent in 19th century Europe. The reasons for the disappearance of honour in mainstream and/or upperclass society would seem the strengthening of the state and its monopolization of violence. With the strength of the state and its ability and willingness to intervene in social and interpersonal conflict seems to influence the existence of and the willingness to kill for honour. For in pagan society – if one can call it that – there was no larger, regulating organ with the ability to protect its citizens. In effect, there was no state, meaning that it was every man to himself and his family (we’ll come back to this). The same goes for the period up to the 19th century: the willingness of the state to intervene in personal conflict was not that great. And so, every ‘gentleman’ had to show his willingness to fight, to prove his manhood and dignity. This pattern still shows in the ghetto’s of black America where there is virtually no law maintained, and no real protection offered by the police, that is, the state. This gave rise to the ‘code of the street’ which means that every man has to show and demonstrate his willingness to use violence, to protect himself. Thus, this can largely be considered the way in which honour is determined by the usefulness of using violence or demonstrating one’s 5

ability to use it. However, the violence used for honour can be regarded as one of the ways in which order was maintained in pagan times: the threat of death upon the crossing of another man seems enough imperative not to cross him. To explain this more accurately, we should look at the five ways in which conflict is managed in societies, provided by the sociologist Donald Black: 1. Self-help, largely constituted by the actions described above. 2. Tolerance, in which the behaviour is tolerated since one can do little about it. 3. Avoidance, one simply goes away since one can do little about it. 4. Negotiation. 5. Settlement. In pagan Scandinavia conflicts were not resolved in most of these ways. Rather, the extremes of this scale were common: self-help in the form of vengeance was a way of solving this. The other way was by requiring the offender to pay were-gild, that is, a some of money that would settle the conflict. However, this settlement was arranged at the occasions where law would be spoken, and appears to be influenced by Christianity, which opposed the killing of men. However, in modern times the most efficient way of solving a conflict is either 2 up until 5, but certainly not self-help – this tends to induce arrests, prison sentences and other kinds of punishment. Still, an accurate reconstruction of pagan ethics would naturally imply 1, or perhaps five – not 2, 3 or 4. The only conclusion possible is that honour, as it existed in pagan Scandinavia and perhaps the wider Germanic area, is impossible in modern times. For the standards and environment of man have changed to much that it is impossible to live up to these standards. This poses a serious challenge to modern Heathenry as a whole. Friðr Friðr is the value behind the virtue of fidelity in the Nine Noble Virtues. In itself, the word friðr means ‘peace’ and is also related to the older words from which ‘friend’ is derived. What friðr points at in mind of the Old Norse is not simply the existence of peace, that is, the absence of conflict. Rather, it describes the rights, duties and obligations between two persons or between an entire group of people that share a common power. This power is the honour of the Germanic pagan. 6

The concept of friðr is what can best be described as the defining characteristic of pagan social life. All things could be divided in a twofold way: friðr or not. Within the circle of friðr one finds kinsmen, that is, family. Father and sons share friðr, mothers and their children, brothers and their sisters, uncles and nephews, etc.. All within the family were subject to this force. Brothers might not agree with each other: they could quarrel, argue perhaps even offend each other. However, a fight never had a lethal point in which the word uttered would turn into blood-coloured earth. As soon as a man saw the bonds of kinship, no hand could be raised. This is one of the most fundamental description of friðr, no the absence of conflict but the way in which that conflict was resolved: always in a way that was profitable for peace. Friðr not only implied the existence of peace but also the existence of a shared identity. And like every identity in the Germanic mind, it had honour. The honour of a family is tied to the honour of the individual, and so a man could act upon the loss of honour of a kinsman. But also, a man could lose his life because of the offences uttered by one of his kinsmen. And this is a thing so very strange to our culture: the killing of a man who had no part in, not even knowledge of the deed for which his life was taken in vengeance. The Germanic people saw themselves as part of something – the clan, the family, the circle of friðr. They could not see the difference between themselves and the next in their circle, and every defiance of their kinsman’s honour was as if they themselves were hurt. In modern times this is not true, but it could be if one would live up to its standards. Though certainly, the same forces that were at the basis of friðr still act today: the feeling that family should back up each other, always and forever is omnipresent in our society. However, the obligations do not go as far as in pagan times. Rather, what friðr tells us is that society has changed, radically. And not only its dominant culture, history or genetic make-up but also its basic mode of organization. To put it bluntly: western society is about being big, pagan society was about a man and his family. Thus, the mode of organization in the West is the individual and groups of individuals not necessarily family, while the pagans saw everything in terms of family and kinship ties.


Also, the conflict between clans (extended families) shows this organization. The act of self-help or vengeance against another group in which it does not matter who is the victim – either the offender or his kinsmen – occur when groups are tightly organized and sharply separated from another group. This model is highly applicable to pagan society: every clan was a unit in itself, and sharply separated from every other clan – though marriages could tie clans together. It is this tightly organized and sharply separated group that is missing in modern society. The existence of a family is not necessary for survival – protection, food, clothing etc.. Rather, modern people are treated as individuals, who have no principal loyalty to their kin which goes above all else. The individual deals with the institutions, both of society and the state and in this whole the family appears to be non-existent. Though they may be of emotional importance. Here again we encounter a serious problem: the reality of the pagans was so much different from the modern one. Though a person can feel a bond of friðr, feelings of warmth and love and the reluctance to harm the other, this is not what makes the concept of friðr. Friðr was a relationship that went beyond this and demanded to act in accordance with the honour ethic, which raises problems in our times. Christianity and Heathenry Generally, neo-heathens consider themselves to be pagans in so far that they think of themselves that they maintain a pre-Christian religion. What exactly this pre-Christian religion constituted is not clear. When it comes down to mythology a lot of progress has been made but when it comes down to ethics, worldview and the ideas about the afterlife this progress hasn’t been made. In general, the Nine Noble Virtues are interpreted in such a way that they appear favourable to mainstream society – by most neo-Heathens, most of the time. Also, they are interpreted in such a way that they do not limit one’s life in general. As I’ve shown above, following the pagan ethic of honour would mean, probably, a life in jail. So, the honour ethic is interpreted differently. However, this modern interpretation of Hávamál and other Icelandic sources is not done without any preconceived notions of right and wrong. If we take a good look at the Nine Noble Virtues the virtues of the founding ideology of capitalism shows clearly. To put it shortly: the NNV


are stated in such a way that they encourage standards that are generally fruitful in a capitalist society. Such values as ‘discipline’, ‘industriousness’, ‘perseverance’, ‘self reliance’ are all potential vices for a capitalist businessman. Now, I’m not saying there is something wrong with capitalism (not necessarily), but the spirit upon which capitalism was founded is definitely un-Heathen. ‘The Spirit of Capitalism’ that was put forward by Max Weber in one of his books, was founded upon the (work-)ethic of Protestantism: work industriously, with great perseverance and discipline. Eventually, the (work-)ethic of the Protestants secularized, along with the rest of Western society. And today one can found it in popular interpretations of the Nine Noble Virtues. Not because this is some hidden, Protestant scheme to keep neo-Heathens believing in a Christian ethic, but because it is this ethic that is most profitable, most rewarding, most respected in modern society. Thus, this is the most popular interpretation of these virtues. As you might know, many of the Western democracies have a protestant legacy: Germany, the US and the UK are some examples. And in other fields of Heathenry there also appears general Christian and specifically Protestant beliefs. Especially concerning the afterlife. There is very little known about the heathen afterlife; only that it was highly individual and pluralistic. This has given some problems in reconstructions, but generally a modern model has been found. Generally, Vallhöl or Valhalla is centred at the top of the world-tree inside Asgard or the home of the gods. generally, the ‘good dead’, those who died in battle or in dedication of Odin go to this place. Here, the dead feast and fight in eternal glory. Below, all the way downward, there is Hell which is not a place of torment, but of rot, death and oblivion. Generally, this is the model as it is found. However, this isn’t a really pagan model. Sometimes the eternal fighting in Valhalla appears below ground, which destroys the dichotomy of heaven=good and hell=not so good. Furthermore, a horizontal instead of vertical cosmology was popular among the pagans, and certainly the worlds were not suited on top of each other. Also, the dead often ‘died into the land’, went to the home of their favourite deity or were reborn into another world.


The reason for the popularity of this vertical model and its view of heaven as a good place and below as a not so good – though not evil – place, can be sought in the Christian upbringing of many neo-Heathens. It is quite probable that the popularity of this vertical model can be sought in the long history of Christian indoctrination. To conclude this paragraph I think we should establish that Christianity has had a considerable influence upon the ideas of modern Heathenry. And that many Christian elements are found in the ‘Heathen’ faith. Ironically, this process resembles the Christianization of many heathen elements, which were later incorporated into Christianity. Perhaps we should be speaking of ‘paganization’ to describe this process. Paganism and Justice Another problematic anachronism in the way neo-Heathens and pagans act(ed) is the different points of view on abstract concepts, most importantly Justice. Hereunder I will go into this and discuss the most important implications of the pagan worldview upon the modern one and the way in which this would change the actions of neo-Heathens if applied properly. Let’s just take a thing the Vikings are known for: plundering. Why did Vikings plunder? Well, because it made them rich, it meant they could sustain a high(er) standard of living for themselves and their families and friends. They didn’t consider this an unjust act. In the modern day this would simply be classified as ‘robbery’, and thus dishonourable and bad. The same goes for the taxes the kings and his men would collect from the Finns and other people. This is simple extortion. Extortion, murder and robbery isn’t that bad. In a way, many people today rob, extort and kill for their living. So even though it is considered bad, there are people who do it. However, there is a thing that is so strange to our culture that violates all the standards we hold as sacred. This thing is slavery. The Vikings were slave-holders, who ‘owned’ other people and could do with them as they pleased. Today, luckily, slavery has been abolished. But the fact remains that the Old Norse considered slavery a very normal thing, and certainly it was not unjust.


The fact is that these problems of looting, tax-collecting, murdering and slave-holding are so strange to our minds, that most neo-Heathens haven’t really considered the implications of the worldview that justifies such actions. The fact is that such a worldview is based upon the right of might. Those who have the power to control others, are right to do so. In the pagan mind the right thing is not the same as the right today. Right, today, is an abstract notion: being ‘good’, which consists mainly of having good intentions and acting upon them, and praying that the outcome will be good. Lying is considered evil; cheating is evil; harming somebody is evil; forcing somebody is evil. As you might have noticed these are all things that are very internal: the outcome of one’s actions is fairly irrelevant – though in some cases it is. The pagans did not care about intentions: it is what one does and doesn’t. Thus, the actual action matters, not the intent behind is. It has been proposed that this difference between the conception of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is mainly dependent upon the development of religion. Abstract notions of good and evil arrived when the divine was separated from nature. Thus, Judaism developed abstract notions of good and evil when god went far away from the earth, somewhere in heaven. In contrast, pagan society was permeated by the idea that the Gods were ‘close’; they intervened in everyday life and were separate from the world, at least not more separate than humanity. Thus, these abstract notions did not develop there. Therefore, the notion of living life good was not based upon conforming to some abstract standard, but to a practical standard of living or dying. In essence, this gave light to an egocentric approach to reality: one stood in the middle of the kin-ring, who stood in the middle of society, which stood in the middle of the country, which stood in the middle of the universe. Thus, acting on behalf of oneself is not unjust: it is very smart, if one wants to live. The same goes for kin, society and country. This means that those who don’t belong to these groups or are opposed to them, are not ‘human’, and can be used as one pleases – if one is able to do so. In defence of such a worldview: others looked at the world in the exact same way. If one did not take care of oneself and kin, no one would.


Applying such a worldview to our modern society induces: nepotism, corruption, lying, cheating, murder, repression, rape, violence and all sorts of crime. Conclusion Judging the above problems I feel that it is difficult to live life the Heathen way. This is because pagan society was so very different from our modern one. Ours is complex, institutionalized and extremely large. Theirs was small and simple. The ethics that functioned in theirs, cannot function in ours – as I’ve shown. So now it is up to the great minds that study heathenry to find out a way to apply that pagan way of thinking, that very special ethic to our modern standards and society.


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