Thursday, October 2, 2014

Nine Heroic Virtues

In modern Heathenry ethical practice and ideas has been heavily influenced by the Nine Noble Virtues.  First written in the 1970s citing the Havamal as their main source of inspiration the Nine Noble Virtues are one of the most widely used ethical codes in the American Heathen community.  The main flaw in the Nine Noble Virtues is in its core conception.  The super-individualism argued for by the Nine Noble Virtues is very much a product of its time.  In the 70s the first stirrings of the modern Pagan revival were being felt in the United States which was heavily influenced by the ideas of the American counter-culture of the 1960s.  
The American Heathens active during the 1970s were the loud exception to the rule. Most of these modern Heathens had military, small-town, and rural backgrounds and experiences which put them at odds with the counter-culture. This antipathy would manifest in a backlash which emphasized individualism and exclusivity and downplayed any ideas assumed to be communist, universalist, or multiculturalist.  These boogeymen continue to haunt our community, being used as pejoratives by some in the Heathen community to attack that which they do not agree with.

One thing that is key to point out is this tendency is far from the only tendency that was active during this time along with other organic, grassroots groups and individuals who were drawing more direct inspiration from what was going on in Iceland and Scandinavia or from other Pagan groups.  This founding myth, which largely serves the interests of its specific segment, is one that does not gel with other contradicting evidence in particular the growth and development of other Heathen groups and communities independent of organizations like the Viking Brotherhood and the Asatru Free Assembly.

This list of virtues, while inspired by the Nine Noble Virtues, is my attempt to address these flaws.  These virtues draw their inspiration from all of the sagas of the Poetic Eddas and the history, society, and culture of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples.  Some of the best examples of the ideals of these peoples, like any other culture, are found in the heroic actions of Gods and people. For this reason I call these the Nine Heroic Virtues, for I believe those who follow them are expressing what it means to be a truly heroic person.  These virtues are not the exclusive property of any particular group or people.  Just as the Aesir freely intermarried with Jotun and the ancient Germanic tribes adopted outsiders and captives as their own the Heroic Virtues are for all who feel these ideas speak to them.

Supporting Eddic verses for each can be found here:

And will see further additions from other primary sources.

The virtue I will discuss first is Boldness.  This virtue is expressed by pushing boundaries, testing limits, and making calculated risks.  The Eddas and the heroic sagas praise those who overcome great obstacles and seek adventure.  Especially praised were those deeds which were audacious, risky, and daring.  Whether it was Beowulf facing Grendel in the nude, Sigurd seeking battle with Fafnir, or Odin slaying Ymir risky, audacious acts stand tall and proud in the lore.

This attitude was constantly expressed in the lives of the ancients.  Arminius' assault on the Romans at Teutoberg Wald was a huge gamble. If the Cherusci and their allies were beaten the best they could hope for was slow death by crucifixion, slavery for their families, and the destruction of their homes. Victory was by no means guaranteed; at the time the Roman Empire was the mightiest power in Europe.  In spite of these dangers they rolled the dice and stopped the Empire at the Rhine.  

The expeditions of the Viking Age, whether for trade or plunder, are further demonstrations of the importance of audacity to the ancients.  Embarking on such an endeavor meant sailing across the North Sea, one of the roughest bodies of water on Midgard, or crossing the vast steppes and wild rapids of Russia.  Many never came back.  In spite of this Norse, Danes, and Swedes eagerly hopped into small oar and sail driven ships to brave the harsh unknown and its challenges.

Those who exhibit boldness are Decisive in their words, choices, and actions. They understand that in life to be bold means to face circumstances head-on and to resolve them as effectively and completely as possible. A problem left alone, after all, is a problem that festers and grows while that which is bested swiftly, cleanly, and completely is a problem that is solved. To be decisive is to seek such direct outcomes that bring about a clear resolution to the situation, one way or the other.

Wisdom is the virtue of seeking knowledge, finding answers to questions, fostering a state of intellectual curiosity, and applying one's knowledge in a practical fashion.  In the Heathen context, like all other things, any great gains made require sacrifice, labor, or struggle to achieve.  Of all the Gods Odin is the best expression of this thirst for knowledge in the lore. Whether sacrificing himself to himself on the Yggdrasil for the runes, stealing the mead of poetry, or sacrificing his eye for knowledge of the future Odin's drive for learning and knowledge is characterized by his restless pursuit of new lore. The ancients held the wise in similar esteem. Knowledge of poetry and the runes was greatly prized as was broad experience. They were quick and clever, showing great adaptability and keen desire for learning new things which could strengthen their communities.

As vital as the pursuit of wisdom is in embodying the virtue just as essential is understanding the nature of information. In the lore facts and information are assessed primarily by their veracity as opposed to their source. Odin journeys all of the Nine Worlds seeking out information from every corner of creation, riddling and seducing giants for anything that could be used for the benefit of the Aesir. He shows little interest in the source, focusing on if the knowledge holds up under scrutiny. In other sagas we see a similar process acted out by Gods and heroes where boasts and claims are challenged on the spot instead of being accepted at face value. Assessing information to gain wisdom requires the same struggle as obtaining it.

Those who are wise show Humility in their words, choices, and actions. The wise are the first to admit there is far more in the world they do not know than there are things that are known and the only way to expand one's knowledge is to constantly advance one's understanding of the world around them. Wisdom compels those who follow its guidance to always question, analyze, and critique seeking out deeper truth, new answers, and new questions. Most of all the wise know to admit there is something that is beyond you is not a sign of weakness but of true self-knowledge and understanding. When presented with new information they do not seek to jam it into pre-conceived boxes to fit with their assumptions and prejudices but rather to truly know what the information means on its terms and in its context. To arrogantly assume that one knows better on any topic without first seeking verification and understanding is the antithesis of wisdom as it closes off opportunities for learning, growth, and greater awareness.

Honor is the virtue of personal self-worth. Honor is saying what you mean, meaning what you say, and doing as you say. Honor is being who you say you are and fulfilling the necessary obligations to be true to your self. In Heathenry this understanding of honor makes it a public and a personal virtue. It is public in the sense that a person's honor is determined by the esteem they are given by their peers, by the weight and worth of their words within their community, and by the consistency of a person's thought, speech, ideas, and actions. On a personal level honor is enforced by being mindful of how you are known, what obligations you are sworn to, and what you believe is right and necessary. 
The dual nature of honor, in its assessment and enforcement, is a reflection of the importance of autonomy and community in Heathenry. Behavior, in the old days as well as now, was regulated first and foremost by praise or shame as a tool of encouraging or discouraging certain actions. Every member of the community participated in this system to ensure the precepts of honor are upheld, perpetuated, and encouraged. It was in turn the duty of each individual to be mindful of their honor and work, through conscious action and choice, to maintain it. Honor is the compass which guides us on the road of life.

Those who are honorable are Respectful. At the core of honor is respect; respect for the deeds of others and self-respect. Respect, contrary to what some assume, is a two-way give and take between those who seek it and those who have earned it. By showing respect to another's abilities, contributions, and person one in turn earns respect. To act with disrespect not only ensures that none will return the favor, it can be a very effective way of getting into trouble. On the flip side of the coin those who act in a rude, disrespectful fashion are undeserving of this reciprocity. One cannot demand the respect of others for one's deeds; one can only earn it through good deeds and proper honor given to the deeds and accomplishments of others. Such things can only be dismissed or disregarded if it is proven that the deed is not as was claimed with solid, credible evidence.

Solidarity is the virtue of community. It is the feeling of mutual support and camaraderie between people who share common heritage, culture, belief systems, living conditions, or experiences. Solidarity calls on us to reach out to those we share common bonds with and stand with them in times of need based on mutual affinity. Solidarity's logic is based not on simple altruism, as its detractors would claim, but in a rational understanding of the interdependent world we live in. In the sagas there are numerous examples of warriors and heroes running to the aid of others for no other reason than shared affinity. Whether they are family, friends, or even as simple as other people in danger there are plenty of examples in song and story of solidarity in action.

The best expression of this was the nature of war and law enforcement. Community defense was a basic social responsibility. All free members of the tribes were expected to own and know how to use weapons in the defense of their homes and families. When facing invasion every person able to carry arms was expected to take their place in the line of battle. Maintaining peace and order in the community was, like defending it, the duty of every free person. 
The practice of outlawry and its enforcement was founded in this reasoning. Its power came not just from the Thing's rulings but the expectation that every member of the community would participate in denying the outlaw sanctuary up to an including harming or killing the outlawed person. It was not until the imposition of continental feudalism and Christianization that the Germanic peoples would look to external lawgivers in the form of local strongmen to keep the peace.

Those who exhibit solidarity are Reliable. The essence of solidarity is community support and there cannot be support if one cannot rely on those around them. To be reliable is to do as you say, say as you mean, and be there for others when they need it in the capacity where one can do the most good. After all if one is not a skilled mechanic it wouldn't make you very reliable if your help with another's engine made the problem worse. One shows reliability in such situations by assisting in ways that play to their strengths and capabilities, showing that even if you cannot be relied on as an auto mechanic that you can be relied on for a ride, shelter, or other forms of aid.

Hospitality is the other side of the coin from solidarity. Where solidarity says we must stand with the members of our community when they face danger or hardship hospitality encourages basic mutual aid between community members. In the harsh lands of the pre-Christian Scandinavian world life was a constant struggle to survive. To mitigate the hardships and dangers of the wild lands the customs of hospitality developed. If a person came to the door of another asking for hospitality it was the obligation of the inhabitants of the home to provide food and shelter to them. As was custom the best food and lodgings available, even the host's own bed if necessary, were to be offered to the guest. Even enemies were extended this protection. Any who flouted these traditions would quickly be seen as an untrustworthy, dangerous individual by their community. 
On the other side of the coin there were expectations of how a guest asking for the hospitality of another was expected to behave. They were expected to be courteous, thankful, not demand too much from their hosts, and be respectful of the host and all in their home. Those who were poor guests would swiftly gain a similar reputation to those who were bad hosts.

This same virtue, in a broader sense, was in effect on the community level. Those who lived in frith with their neighbors and communities were welcome and encouraged to remain. Those who disturbed frith too frequently would be cast out to seek a new life elsewhere. The other side of the custom of outlawry was seeking succor in a new community after the old one had cast them out. As part of seeking acceptance into the new community the outlaw in question had to agree to live by the laws and customs of their new home if they were to remain. 
Those who exhibit hospitality are Generous. They share freely of what they can with friends, guests, and community members. This is as true of one's material means such as food, shelter, and the like as it is of one's time, space, and energy. The hospitable give freely, confident in the knowledge that in the giving they have aided another, their community, and in turn continue the great cycle of hospitality by showing it. Only by extended the generosity of hospitality, as the hospitable know, can one expect any in turn.

Discipline is the virtue of self-control, self-knowledge, and patience. Where boldness urges us to audacious deeds it is discipline that gives us the space to find the best way to achieve these goals. Discipline calls on us to know ourselves and the situation at hand before making rash, hasty, or reckless decisions. It is the restraint to hold back long enough to apply wisdom and reason to assess a situation before acting.

Discipline is not, contrary to popular assumptions, the mandate to hold back your true self. It is also not an excuse for avoiding hard choices or necessary risks. It is founded in having awareness of yourself, your capabilities, your circumstances, and the potential consequences of your actions and recognizing it is necessary to consider all of these factors before acting. If a reckless, dangerous, or risky course is the one which is the best course based on practical and moral factors it is not a sign of discipline to abstain from action. Discipline is expressed by thinking before acting, not by cultivating abstention or self-denial. These practices harm the self by limiting opportunities for expression, learning, and growth.

Those who live with discipline are Aware both of themselves and the world around them. This is not quite the same as the deep, probing quest that is called for by wisdom but rather an immediate understanding of what is happening in the present moment inside and outside themselves. One cannot be in control of one's self if one is not aware of what is going on in the world; otherwise how could anyone act or react to changing circumstances? Without awareness the self-control that discipline brings is not possible for to be shut off from what is around you is to sacrifice the personal agency one needs to exercise it. As was mentioned this extends as much to self-awareness as it does to awareness of the world around you; if you are not aware of your own capabilities, feelings, and current situation then you are not acting fully as yourself in any given moment.

Strength is the virtue of independence, competency, and skill. Strength urges us to cultivate our talents, abilities, and skills in such a way that we can stand as free, independent people. By improving one's ability to stand for yourself and your values you ensure that you will have the space and means to fulfill them. It is not possible to live a truly fulfilling life when under the oppressive boot of a greater power. To avoid this fate, like our ancestors, we must strive to maximize our skills to ensure our freedom both as individuals and for our communities.

Preying on the weak, the poor, and the defenseless is counterproductive to these ends. By exploiting those who lack the means to effectively assert their rights the strong weaken themselves. They replace self-knowledge with hubris built on the foundation of easy triumphs over unequal opponents. In turn they sustain themselves with the fruits of these conquests, ensuring their own capabilities for self-sustenance atrophy. Through the now-parasitic relationships they have fostered all sense of connection, community, and camaraderie break down as other people become marks to be exploited and not individuals with lives, desires, and needs of their own. 
When those who revel in such false strength face a trial that requires true strength the parasites are rarely, if ever, up to the challenge having lost all real strength and replaced it with a self-destroying illusion of supremacy. Pushing all others away, leeching off of the labor of those unable to defend themselves, and ignoring all else to satisfy themselves are actions which while seeming strong ultimately lead to rot and decay from within. Human history shows that individuals, enterprises, and nations which sacrifice this true strength in favor of the bullying power of empire always fall prey to the consequences of their hubris.

The strong understand improving the strength of others bolsters their own might. Without the support of other strong people even the mightiest individuals can be laid low by forces greater than their strength can handle. The combined abilities of many capable people greatly exceeds that of the lone individual against the world. Through encouraging strength in others the strong ensure their own security and prosperity. A society where all its members are free peers, each capable of defending their rights and attaining personal fulfillment without preying on others, is the ideal environment for maximizing individual potential. 
This stands contrary to modern understandings of strength which came to us care of the ideas of Social Darwinism which first developed during the Industrial Revolution. The beliefs influenced by this idea have built the modern American consensus that strength and domination are one in the same. In truth domination is a sign of fundamental weakness. The strong do not need to force others to provide aid, succor, or support. They know doing so weakens themselves and the people around them by taking without replenishing depriving others of the means to strengthen themselves.
On a more personal level without others to help hone and test personal strength there can be no effective measure for improvement. Teaching and training others leads to self-reflection which fosters greater self-knowledge. The company of strong peers gives them more perspectives for assessment and opportunities for testing and pushing the limits of their prowess.

The strong are Ambitious. This is not to say they live in a constant glut of conquest and domination for that is an illusory sort of strength that vanishes at the slightest slip. Instead they seek to constantly better themselves by seeking out new opportunities, new challenges, and new chances to push their skills to the limit. By reaching what we see as hard limits we can truly know ourselves and in turn become stronger people for it. To the strong pushing these boundaries is done as much for the sake of the challenge as it is for the results. This is not, as some might think, a drive for relentless perfection for perfection is a goal that cannot be attained. Even the Gods themselves, as shown by their scars and mistakes, are not perfect. The point is to be the best at what one does and to seek the best of yourself in all things.

Labor is the virtue of work, industry, and crafting. As deeds are how we live and express our lives labor, as a series of large and small deeds, is one of the most enduring expressions of who we are as individuals and as people. The nature of the work a person does and what they produce is one of many means by which a person's worth is assessed. 
Unlike the Protestant work ethic Heathen labor is not about encouraging work for the sake of working and production for the sake of producing. Trade was driven by a system described by modern economists as being a gift economy. Under such a system the purpose of trade was to acquire the goods or commodities needed to meet one's needs and desires. Capital accumulation and profit were not part of the equation. Production, therefore, was driven primarily by the needs of individuals and communities and not by the demands for ever-increasing hoards of wealth. The hoarding of wealth was generally frowned on; in the Volsungsaga and Beowulf the dragons faced by the heroes of these sagas were among other things guilty of greedily hoarding great treasures. In fact it was the sharing of wealth, not its accumulation, which is celebrated in lore and history. Chieftains who were generous with the gains of expeditions and raiding were hailed as generous ring-givers while those who were stingy often found their halls empty of people.

In our modern world, where so much is dictated by the demand to accumulate stuff for the sake of having stuff and to produce for the sake of producing it would be wise of us to consider what the ancients considered genuine productive, industrious labor. In a Heathen context, based on the lives of our ancestors, the most logical conclusion is to question this never-ending hunger to fill our lives with needless things. Similarly it forces us to question if the work we are doing is work which adds value to our lives, the lives of those around us, and to our communities as a whole. Just because one is capable of producing prodigious quantities of useless, profitable widgets or reaping great rewards by providing unnecessary or even harmful services does not make one industrious. To add value to life through work is the essence of virtuous labor.

The purest expression of labor is to be Purposeful. Those who labor know that their work, consisting of thousands of tiny deeds, is a reflection of who it is they are as a person. As such they always seek to work for a worthy purpose and not merely for the sake of making wheels spin. Every act leads to new acts, new choices, and new possibilities so those who seek to make their labor count do so with deliberate intent, thought, foresight, and clear objectives. Labor for the sake of labor is very much contrary to this ethos; for labor to be virtuous it must be labor that builds to a greater end whether that is as humble as meeting the necessities of existence or as world-shaking as curing cancer, writing the next great novel, or helping others in need. What matters is that the work is done for a reason and not simply for the sake of working.

Courage is the virtue of endurance, determination, and perseverance in the face of hardship, struggle, and loss. Where boldness is the urge to leap at new challenges courage is the sheltering shield against the slings and arrows of life. Courage is the strength to carry on in spite of the suffering, toil, and weariness of life.

What distinguishes courage from boldness is how it is expressed. Boldness pushes us to seek out new horizons, new challenges, and new opportunities. Courage, by contrast, gives us strength while we are in the midst of the worst life throws at us. Contrary to popular understanding courage is not a lack of fear or doubt. It is a very human, normal thing to experience these emotions when facing great trials in life. Courage is when we push past these fears and doubts, opting instead to proceed with the chosen course in spite of the shadows lingering in our hearts and minds. 
Like all other virtues one must consider when embarking on a course of action whether said action is right or needful. Pressing on for a good or necessary purpose is a deed worthy of the highest praise. Carrying on to satisfy vanity, greed, or simply out of fear of failure is not. As in all things we must, as Heathens, never forget our deeds are the sum of our lives. Courageous determination, in and of itself, is not inherently good. It is when one pushes forward in spite of all odds and obstacles for the sake of a right or necessary purpose that one truly expresses the essence of courage.

Those who are courageous exhibit Determination. Courage, as many of the wise have said, is best expressed when one is in fear for themselves or those they love. Those who are fearless are not courageous as being fearless is a consequence of being disrespectful or unaware of danger and risk. Instead they are determined, unflagging, and unrelenting in pushing forward in spite of these factors. To move beyond fear, doubt, and danger rather than succumbing to it is the true essence of courage and comes in many guises ranging from the more obvious such as a firefighter charging into a blazing inferno all the way down to the quiet determination of a single mother struggling to raise her children in the healthiest, most nurturing environment they can provide.

Of these virtues all are equally important. The order of the virtues in this list should not be construed to mean any one virtue is more important than any other. All are vital for living a virtuous, fulfilling Heathen life. They balance on another, providing perspectives, approaches, and vital checks to ensure that the negative potential of any of these virtues or of any deeds do not outweigh the positive, beneficial qualities they embody.

Nine Heroic Virtues Verses Cited

The verses cited are the most solid examples of each virtue in action, there are others that likely provide compelling support for these ideas that have not been included here.


Voluspol 3, 4

Havamal 15, 16, 19, 48

Vafthruthnismol 6-8

Skirnismol 10-13

Hymiskvitha 5-7

Lokasenna 1-5, 13-15, 44-46, 50

Thrymskvitha 25-28

Baldrs Draumar 1-6

Volundarkvitha 22-25

Helgavitha Hjorvarthssonar 6-9

Helgavitha Hundingsbana I 6-8, 18, 26-32, 47-50, 55

Helgavitha Hundingsbana II 2, 3

Reginsmol 13, 26

Fafnismol Opening Prose, 6, 7, 16, 17, 25-29, 42-44

Sigrdrifumol Prose between 4 and 5, 5, 25, 31

Guthrunarkvitha II 39-44

Atlakvitha 9-13, 23-25, 27-29, 33, 34

Guthrunarhvot 1-3, 6

Hamthesmol 28, 30

Atlamol 13, 26, 27, 35-38, 41-43, 56-58, 91-94, 99


Volusopl 5, 6, 9, 23, 24, 25, 27-30, 47-48

Havamal 1, 5-7, 10-11, 17,18, 22-28, 53-56, 63, 80-83, 85-89, 103-109, 134, 135, 137, 139-146

Vafthruthnismol 1-4, 11-55

Harbardthsljoth 14, 15

Lokasenna 27-29, 57-61

Thrymskvitha 17-19

Alvissmol 8, 35

Volundarkvitha 19-24

Helgavitha Hjorvarthssonar 14-17, 46

Helgavitha Hundingsbana II 1, following prose, 5-10

Gripisspo 1-3, 6-18

Reginsmol 1-4, 16-25

Fafnismol Opening Prose, 1-4, 12-15, 32-39

Sigrdrifumol Prose between 4 and 5, 5-14, 24, 26, 27, 36

Sigurtharkvitha en Skamma 55-60

Guthrunarkvitha II 23, 24, 39-44

Oddrunargratr 6-8

Atlakvitha 1, 6-8, 42-46

Guthrunarhvoth 4-6, 8

Hamthesmol 27

Atlamol 2-4, 6, 7, 9, 10-12, 14-25, 27, 70-72


Havamal 42, 43, 57, 69, 75, 77, 78, 110, 127

Vafthruthnismol 11-19

Grimnismol Prose, 52

Harbarthsljoth 8, 11,12, 14, 15, 26-29,37-39

Lokasenna 9, 10, 15, 19-26, 30-33, 35-37, 53, 54

Alvissmol 4-8

Helgavitha Hjorvarthssonar 10, 11, 14-17, 31-34

Helgavitha Hundingsbana I 6-8, 11-13, 33, 34, 42-44, 46

Helgavitha Hundingsbana II 5-10, 13-15, 22, 23, 28, 29, 42-48

Gripisspo 22, 23, 38-40, 45-48

Reginsmol 1-6, 9-11

Fafnismol 19-22, 32-39

Sigrdrifumol 23

Brot af Sigrurtharkvithu 1-7, 16-20

Guthrunarkvitha I 20, 23

Sigurtharkvitha en Skamma 1, 2, 5-8, 14-21, 26-28, 30-37, 1-4

Helreith Brynhildar 2-5, 7-11

Guthrunarkvitha II 15, 16, 18-22, 29

Oddrunargratr 1-4, 9-11, 16-18

Atlakvitha 8, 32

Guthrunarhvot 1-3

Hamthesmol 6-8, 16-18

Atlamol 29, 30, 64-69, 86-90, 96


Voluspol 45-47

Havamal 34, 40-44, 47, 50, 52, 57, 62, 66, 72, 75, 119-121, 127, 154

Skirnismol 1-9

Harbarthsljoth 32-34

Hymskvitha 11, 16

Lokasenna 27, 37-39, 51

Hyndluljoth 2-4

Svipdagsmol 1-6, 55, 56

Helgavitha Hjorvarthssonar 10, 11, following prose, 31-34

Helgavitha Hundingsbana I 9, 10, 46, 53, 54

Helgavitha Hundingsbana II 15, 16, IV Prose to 17, 24-27, Prose VI, 35-37, 42-48

Sigrdrifumol 22, 32-34, 37

Brot af Sigurtharkvithu 3-5

Guthrunarkvitha I 2-10

Sigurtharkvitha en Skamma 1, 2, 10-12, 29, 53-60, 64-68

Helreith Brynhildar 12-14

Guthrunarkvitha II 1-3, 6-13, 18-22, 34

Guthrunarkvitha III 6

Oddrunargratr 18-22

Atlakvitha 2-5, 16-18, 32, 36-40, 42-46

Guthrunarhvot 1-3, 4-7, 9-22

Hamthesmol 3-5, 9-11, 13-15, 29

Atlamol 1, 7, 31-33, 44, 45, 49-53, 70-80, 86-90, 91-93


Havamal 2-4, 30-33, 35, 48, 66, 67, 132, 133, 135, 136, 146

Vafthruthnismol 6, 9

Grimnismol Prose, 1-3

Skirnismol 14-18, 38

Harbarthsljoth 20-22

Hymiskvitha 1-3

Lokasenna 6-8, 16-19, 64, 65

Alvissmol 3

Atlakvitha 1, 14-18

Hamthesmol 20-24

Atlamol 5, 8


Havamal 7, 12, 13, 19-22, 29, 64

Grimnismol 51

Lokasenna 47

Sigrdrifumol 29, 30, 36

Atlakvitha 22-29

Hamthesmol 27

Atlamol 70-72


Voluspol 17, 18, 27-30

Havamal 8, 9, 36-38, 49, 61, 68-71, 75

Skirnismol 24

Harbarthljoth 37-39

Hymiskvitha 34-37

Thrymskvitha 11-13

Hyndluljoth 37-39

Volundarkvitha 18, 22-25

Helgavitha Hundingsbana I 17

Helgavitha Hundingsbana II 2, 3, 19, 20

Reginsmol 10, 11

Fafnismol 7, 8

Sigrdrifumol 36

Sigurtharkvitha en Skamma 22, 23, 38

Guthrunarkvitha II 31, 32

Guthrunarkvitha III 3-10

Atlakvitha 22-29

Hamthesmol 30

Atlamol 13, 32, 34, 46-49, 56, 59-61, 99


Voluspol 7

Havamal 36-39, 58, 60, 70, 71, 75, 76, 80, 126

Harbarthsljoth 23

Volundarkvitha 1, 6, 8, 19-21

Reginsmol Gram Prose (between 14 and 15)

Sigrdrifumol 35

Brot af Sigurtharkvithu 7-10


Voluspol 52-56

Havamal 48

Skirnismol 10, 24

Harbarthsljoth 9

Hymiskvitha 23, 24

Lokasenna 58

Volundarkvitha 18, 22-25

Helgavitha Hjorvarthssonar 34-36

Helgavitha Hundingsbana I 6-8, 47-50, 55

Helgavitha Hundingsbana II 15, 16, 19-21

Gripisspo 53

Reginsmol 13, 26

Fafnismol 16, 17, 24-29

Sigrdrifumol 25, 37

Sigurtharkvitha en Skamma 22, 23

Altakvitha 19-25

Hamthesmol 10, 30

Atlamol 32, 49

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Question of Belief

In recent weeks there's been a whole flock of posts flying across the Pagan blogosphere regarding the question of polytheism, atheism, and whether or not one must believe in the literal existence of the Gods to be a proper polytheist.  For those unfamiliar there has been a growing uproar over this matter with much in the way of data spilled in some rather ferocious condemnations of any who do are perceived as being in disagreement with this assertion.  The loudest voice in the Heathen context on this topic since this past fall has been Galina Krasskova.  She argues that modern polytheisms, as religions, by their nature must automatically put this at the center of their practice if they are to have any meaning.  For those who deny the existence of the Gods or seek to understand them from any perspective other than as a literal entity Krasskova all but denounces them as heretical and apostate.  To support her argument Krasskova mostly points to her Master's degree in Classics while refraining from citing any pre-Christian sources or outside scholarship.

This, of course, raises the question of what the foundation of her ideas actually is for making this bold assertion and obscures how much this perspective diminishes the Gods and the rich theological and philosophical potential non-literal, alternative perspectives offer Heathenry.  Quite contrary to what one would assume the questions of belief, thought, and the literal existence of deity are concepts that are unique to Abrahamic forms of monotheism with no evidence these dilemmas were ever an issue in the pre-Christian Scandinavian, Germanic, Frisian, and Anglo-Saxon cultures modern Heathenry draws its inspiration from.  For these peoples, and many other animistic polytheistic cultures the world over, the existence of Gods, spirits, and other entities was accepted without question and this existence was not effected in any way by a person's belief in them or lack thereof.

Central to the whole debate on belief is whether belief is absolutely necessary for one to be religious.  A simple survey of the world's religions shows this question is one that, while central to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, doesn't come up very often in other places.  The best illustration of this is when one compares the central answers behind Buddhism to those that define Christianity.  To some this may seem arbitrary due to the obvious differences between the two religions but when one considers the historical circumstances that shaped both systems of belief it makes the most sense to put them side by side.  Buddhism, like Christianity, was founded based on the teachings of one man, Siddhartha Gautama, and his followers.  Like Christianity and Judaism Buddhism emerged in a cultural world that was largely dominated by polytheists.  Buddhism was, and is, also spread by missionary efforts and in the past with the active support of different states and empires.

In Buddhist religious practice the question of divinity is simply not a major issue to Siddhartha Gautama's central teachings.  According to the heart of Buddhist thought is embodied in the Three Trainings, the Four Noble Truths, the Five Precepts, and the Eightfold Path.  Each of these discusses a specific aspect of Buddhist spirituality yet in none of these does the question of divinity's existence come up.  All of them are rooted in the actions of people with no mention given of thought.  This is best illustrated by the Four Noble Truths:

The Buddha's Four Noble Truths explore human suffering. They may be described (somewhat simplistically) as:
  1. Dukkha: Suffering exists: (Suffering is real and almost universal. Suffering has many causes: loss, sickness, pain, failure, the impermanence of pleasure.)
  2. Samudaya: There is a cause for suffering. (It is the desire to have and control things. It can take many forms: craving of sensual pleasures; the desire for fame; the desire to avoid unpleasant sensations, like fear, anger or jealousy.)
  3. Nirodha: There is an end to suffering. (Suffering ceases with the final liberation of Nirvana (a.k.a. Nibbana). The mind experiences complete freedom, liberation and non-attachment. It lets go of any desire or craving.)
  4. Magga: In order to end suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path.(1)
In fact Buddhism, quite contrary to Christianity and Islam, makes no claim of being the sole arbiter of truth.  As is explained in the FAQ at

Are Other Religions Wrong?

Buddhism is also a belief system which is tolerant of all other beliefs or religions. Buddhism agrees with the moral teachings of other religions but Buddhism goes further by providing a long term purpose within our existence, through wisdom and true understanding. Real Buddhism is very tolerant and not concerned with labels like 'Christian', 'Moslem', 'Hindu' or 'Buddhist'; that is why there have never been any wars fought in the name of Buddhism. That is why Buddhists do not preach and try to convert, only explain if an explanation is sought.(2)
Historically speaking the result has been a pattern of consistent syncretism with local belief systems with Buddhist ideas and practices being integrated with native beliefs as opposed to co-opting or suppressing them.  In India Buddhist practitioners, following a variant known as Mahayana Buddhism, freely integrated the practices, ideas, and even the Gods and spirits of the larger Hindu society around them.  Japanese Shinto, similarly, received Buddhism with a similar approach with some instances of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines being incorporated in the same overall structure.  This all shows a religion that, in its own words, is not concerned with the question of whether or not greater powers exist.  To them, as is the case in many polytheistic cultures, it is simply accepted as true even though Buddhists do not actually worship them but instead see their acts of reverence as signs of respect and thanks.

In very stark contrast are the clear exclusionary practices that run strongly throughout Christianity and other Abrahamic belief systems.  Unlike Buddhism, which clearly had no problem working with local polytheistic cultures, from Judaism on the Abrahamic spiritual family has been at odds with its proverbial neighbors.  Probably the best expression of this is from the Book of Leviticus:

Yahweh spoke to Moses: “Speak to the Israelites and tell them: I am Yahweh your God. Do not follow the practices of the land of Egypt, where you used to live, or follow the practices of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. You must not follow their customs. You are to practice My ordinances and you are to keep My statutes by following them; I am Yahweh your God. Keep My statutes and ordinances; a person will live if he does them. I am Yahweh.(3)
From there, and throughout Leviticus and later in Deuteronomy, a number of practices ranging from sexuality to ritual purity, feasting, and a whole host of others are listed out and defined by their opposition to existing polytheistic practices.  Unlike Buddhism, which rejected some of the trappings while embracing certain core ideas of local religions, Judaism and its later descendants in this time were defining themselves by opposition and distinction from the surrounding religions.  In Deuteronomy this is taken in some cases to the level of advocating wholesale slaughter:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess, and He drives out many nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you— and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you and you defeat them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.(4)
This tone of all or nothing conflict was reflected in the numerous wars that have raged across the region where the land of Canaan, thanks to its highly strategic position along the only land connection between Asia and Africa, played host to the armies of empires ranging from Egypt and the Hittites to Assyria, Persia, Alexander, and the Romans.  In such an environment it is not surprising the understanding of monotheism that would develop was strongly adversarial to the existence of other deities.  Even deeper, however, is a key metaphysical dilemma posed by monotheism in such a context.  As was discussed earlier the surrounding cultures were all polytheistic ones who took the existence of Gods as a given.  There definitely were conflicts and debates over which was more worthy of worship than others but overall there was never any question the competing cult's God existed.  Abrahamic monotheism presents a very sharp break from this assumption.  In their context all of the other Gods either are not deities or they do not exist.  Yet this also creates a powerful dilemma: if one can deny the existence of other divinities that are clearly seen as real without question then who is to say the One God even exists? 

It is likely this dilemma was one of the many factors that formed the Christian concept of sin of thought.  This is most directly expressed in the New Testament in the words of Jesus himself from the Sermon on the Mount on the topic of murder:

21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors,[e] Do not murder,[f] and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother[g] will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’[h] will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.(5)

And adultery:

27 “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery.[l] 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.(6)
The more common interpretation of these passages is that Jesus was more concerned with what a person was thinking or feeling instead of what they were doing.  What these also imply is that if one doubts the existence of God in their heart then such an action is the same as openly denying God's existence.  This is most pointedly stated in the Gospel of Mark:

29 But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin(7)
From these verses and many other places it is clear one must not just be a good person but one must also BELIEVE without any question in God's existence and all that comes with it.  To do otherwise is transgressing against God's laws and invites God's wrath.  This is all perfectly summed up in the Christian concept known as the "Dark Night of the Soul", a kind of crisis of the faith triggered by the perception by the believer that God has abandoned them.

From these examples we can see, quite clearly, how central the idea of belief is and why this was perceived as necessary for early Judaism and Christianity.  There is also no question, as we have seen in Buddhism, that such fervent belief is not needed for a spiritual practice to be considered a religion.  This leaves us with the question of how this matters in Heathenry.  It is clear the fervent devotion, not just in deed but in the heart as well, was key in Christianity's development but it is quite possible the pre-Christian spiritualities that inform Heathenry could have gone in a similar direction.  They lived in a time of great conflict spurred on by the religious tensions that came with the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia during the Viking Age.  One could argue a similar belief may have developed by the time the Poetic Eddas were written down.

Yet quite to the contrary of this assumption there is no evidence of this being a problem in the Eddas themselves.  At no point anywhere is anyone taken to task for not properly believing in the existence of the Gods.  Throughout the sagas, poems, and writings of the ancients there seems to be no evidence of this question ever being a serious problem.  Indeed when one compares the Scandinavian sagas to the Bible there is no mention, anywhere, of a person's inner voice.  In fact it is in the heart of the Havamal that one finds a verse that eloquently and directly rebuts Jesus' denunciations of sinful thoughts:

78. Cattle die, and kinsmen die,
And so dies one's self;
One thing I know that never dies,
The fame of a dead man's deeds.(8)
Another illustration of the focus on deeds over thoughts can be found in the Fafnismol, one of the poems from the Volsungsaga.  In the Fafnismol Sigurd and Regin set out to confront the dragon Fafnir to slay him and lay claim to the Rhinegold.  Following his victory over Fafnir the dying foe gives Sigurd this warning, all couched in terms of his past experiences with Regin and his reputation based on his deeds:

22. "Regin betrayed me, | and thee will betray,
Us both to death will he bring;
His life, methinks, | must Fafnir lose,
For the mightier man wast thou."(9)
Following the dragon's demise Sigurd, after drinking some of the blood from Fafnir's heart and obtaining the ability to hear the speech of birds, overhears the conversation from the dwellers of the nearby boughs and branches:

A nut hatch said:
32. "There sits Sigurth, | sprinkled with blood,
And Fafnir's heart | with fire he cooks;
Wise were the breaker | of rings, I ween,
To eat the life-muscles | all so bright."

A second spake:
33. "There Regin lies, | and plans he lays
The youth to betray | who trusts him well;
Lying words | with wiles will he speak,
Till his brother the maker | of mischief avenges."
A third spake:
34. "Less by a head | let the chatterer hoary
Go from here to hell;
Then all of the wealth | he alone can wield,
The gold that Fafnir guarded."
A fourth spake:
35. "Wise would he seem | if so he would heed
The counsel good | we sisters give;
Thought he would give, | and the ravens gladden,
There is ever a wolf | where his ears I spy."
A fifth spake:
36. "Less wise must be | the tree of battle
Than to me would seem | the leader of men,
If forth he lets | one brother fare,
When he of the other | the slayer is."
A sixth spake:
37. "Most foolish he seems | if he shall spare
His foe, the bane of the folk,
There Regin lies, | who hath wronged him so,
Yet falsehood knows he not."
A seventh spake:
38. "Let the head from the frost-cold | giant be hewed,
And let him of rings be robbed;
Then all the wealth | which Fafnir's was
Shall belong to thee alone."(10)
Nowhere in either of these instances from the poem is there any hint given that this was somehow plucked right from Regin's brain.  Fafnir bases his assertion on his own observations and experiences with his brother Regin(11).  The birds, being in the trees all around them, likely overheard Regin when he was hiding some distance away from the battle between Sigurd and Fafnir.  Either way the flow of this poem and its drama is clearly driven not by the innermost thoughts or feelings of the actors but by their deeds.  

We also find, in a more historical example, that this attitude of actions mattering more than thought was consistently practiced in pre-Christian Scandinavian society.  A perfect example is in the clash between worldviews shown in Snorri's account from the Heimskringla of the reign of King Hakon the Good of Norway.  Hakon the Good was one of the first Christian kings of Norway following its unification under Harald Finehair and was elected based on his promise to restore the udal-rights of possession of the land to the men who lived on it(12).  He built support for his rule by going from Thing to Thing where each declared support for the new king(13)Following this he fought a short war against the unpopular King Eirik and his supporters to cement his claim(14).  The first major domestic point of contention he had was when he tried to introduce Christianity to Norway(15)

At the Frosta-thing Hakon stood before the people in attendance and made an impassioned, vigorous plea for them to convert to Christianity.  Throughout he explained the concepts of the Virgin Mary, God, Jesus, and clearly professed his belief in them as he demanded an end to the practices of their native polytheism(16)The crowd did not receive the proposal well, saying Hakon was seeking to take their faith from them, that there was no way they could cultivate the land if they honored the Sabbath, and that the prohibitions against the eating of meat would sap their strength and ran contrary to his and his family's reputation for generosity(17).  One man, Asbjorn of Medalhus, stood up and said in reply to the king:
"We bondes, King Hakon, when we elected thee to be our king, and got back our udal rights at the Thing held in Throndhjem, thought we had got into heaven; but now we don't know whether we have really got back our freedom, or whether thou wishest to make vassals of us again by this extraordinary proposal that we should abandon the ancient faith which our fathers and forefathers have held from the oldest times, in the times when the dead were burnt, as well as since that they are laid under mounds, and which, although they were braver than the people of our days, has served us as a faith to the present time.  We have also held thee so dear, that we have allowed thee to rule and give law and right to all the country.  And even now we bondes will unanimously hold by the law which thou givest us here in the Frosta-thing, and to which we have given our assent; and we will follow thee, and have thee for our king, as long as there is a living man among us bondes here in this Thing assembled.  But thou, king, must use some moderation towards us, and only require from us such things as we can obey thee in, and are not impossible for us.  If, however, thou wilt take up this matter with a high hand, and wilt try thy power and strength against us, we bondes have resolved among ourselves to part with thee, and to take to ourselves some other chief, who will so conduct himself towards us that we can freely and safely enjoy that faith that suits our own inclinations.  Now, king, thou must choose one or other of these conditions before the Thing has ended."

The bondes gave loud applause to this speech, and said it expressed their will, and they would stand or fall by what had been spoken.(18)
Nowhere in this speech or anywhere else in the saga is Hakon himself condemned for being a Christian.  The main objections at the Frosta-thing, which Hakon ultimately agreed to and as such remained king until his death(19), were to Hakon forcing the people of Norway to give up their old faith.  From where they sit this isn't just a matter of losing the practices that had served their ancestors so well in the past.  From the beginning Asbjorn makes it abundantly clear this is about the power the king is trying to claim and the people of Norway retaining their traditional freedoms.  Most telling is Asbjorn's compromise which allows Hakon to continue to reign, without having to cease being a Christian, rather than responding as would most definitely have been case in the same period anywhere in Christendom by howling for his head come Hell or high water.  As a sign of his support for the traditional practices Hakon makes good on keeping the peace and holding to the law by hosting the customary sacrifice feasts in the years following the Frosta-thing(19).  There is little doubt, based on what we have from the saga, that the central issue wasn't belief but the expectation of proper practices, conduct, and good relationships between the people and the king.  After all Asbjorn only threatened Hakon with war if the king chose to go ahead with the proposed policy of forced Christianization.

The same emphasis on conduct and actions is seen in the final moments of Hakon's life.  In his last moments Hakon, dying of a mortal wound sustained in battle, says to his friends:

"And if fate," added he, "should prolong my life, I will, at any rate, leave the country, and go to a Christian land, and do penance for what I have done against God; but should I die in heathen land, give me any burial you think fit."(20) 
Clearly Hakon, in these final moments, sees himself as a Christian with many sins that he must do penance for.  It is hard not to see that from his words given his dying desire to repent but in spite of this he still allows for his friends to honor him in the way they thought was most appropriate if he was unable to achieve his final wish.  Hakon passed on shortly after and the people with him raised a mound for him and held the traditional ceremony including praying for his admittance into Valhalla(21)Following his demise the skald Eyvind Skaldaspillar composed a poem describing Hakon's entrance into Valhalla.  In it he gives a very specific reason for why Hakon, a Christian, would be admitted into Odin's hall:

"Well was it seen that Hakon still
Had saved the temples from all ill;
For the whole council of the gods
Welcomed the king to their abodes.
Happy the day when men are born
Like Hakon, who all base things scorn.
Win from the brave and honored name,
And die amidst and endless fame."(21)
As far as Eyvind Skaldaspillar was concerned his protection of the temples from destruction, the continued practice of the traditional rites, and his own glory and fame on the battlefield were good enough reasons for the Christian Hakon to earn a seat in Valhalla.  It is possible there are other poems and works that do not survive who take a contrary position but that does not negate the fact that Eyvind's argument is rooted in action over belief and it is highly unlikely anyone trained in the skaldic arts would put forward a line of reasoning that would not be at least somewhat persuasive.  Such an argument only works if the core of pre-Christian Scandinavian practice was based on what was seen as proper conduct, praiseworthy deeds, and your relationships with society as opposed to your innermost thoughts, feelings, and doubts regarding the existence or nonexistence of divinity.

This question is more than just an academic one.  Those who argue we must base our practice on the foundation of belief in the literal existence of the Holy Powers do so to the detriment of our development as an enduring, meaningful spiritual practice.  At the heart of this assertion is the implicit presumption of a complete understanding of the Gods and their natures.  From a theological perspective, based on what is in the lore, there are huge problems with human beings assuming they possess an anywhere near complete understanding of these mighty powers.  These beings operate on a level that is far beyond the one we are existing at presently.

The best example of this is in the Voluspa.  In it the Gods create the universe(22).  Consider for a moment how truly vast physical reality is.  We, as a species, are still making new and astonishing discoveries about life on Earth, nevermind what lies in the vast depths beyond the sky's edge.  By this act of creation the Gods show they clearly are operating on a level that suggests a very complete understanding of the mechanics and laws that guide the universe as we know it.  This kind of knowledge is, without any doubt, several orders of magnitude beyond our current level of understanding.  Now one must ask oneself how incomprehensibly vast, in every applicable meaning of the word, the Gods themselves are when set alongside the human mind.  It would be, quite frankly, impossible for any person to truly, fully, and completely comprehend such a presence on its own terms as it is operating based on capabilities and assumptions we can only just barely grasp the outlines of.

That is why the Gods must be understood as more than just literal cosmic entities.  What it is we know and understand of them is filtered through our experiences and our human faculties.  This includes the cultures, languages, ideas, and practices of the people who are seeking to understand them.  It is in this way the Gods are more than just divinities; they are a medium that human beings have used for time immemorial for comprehending the world around them, finding solutions to social problems and challenges, and wrestling with the greater meaning of life itself.  Just as much as the lore and modern practitioners seek to describe the Gods as completely as possible so to are these descriptions a reflection of the ideas, practices, and expectations of the adherents.  If we only understand them in their cosmic dimensions and functions then we lose sight of the rich potential these discussions, ideas, and discourses can offer.

One thing that is clear, regardless of your opinion of deity, in the sources and Heathen practice our deeds in the here and now are what matter the most.  Those who would condemn with words of glowing coals any who seek answers to satisfy their curiosities lose sight of this.  Human history has shown time and again the great danger that comes with making specific thoughts criminal, heretical, or otherwise forbidden.  If we obsess over what happens in the privacy of others hearts and minds at the expense of addressing their words, actions, and their consequences in the world around us then we will be flying in the face of one of the most central ideas of the practices of the ancients.

Correction: as was first published this piece stated Galina Krasskova is currently with Ironwood Kindred.  It turns out Ironwood Kindred self-disbanded last November.  The text has been updated to reflect this.

3. Leviticus 18, Holman Christian Standard Bible
4. Deuteronomy 7:1-2, Holman Christian Standard Bible
5. Matthew 5:21-22, Holman Christian Standard Bible
6. Matthew 5:27-28, Holman Christian Standard Bible
7. Mark 3:29, Holman Christian Standard Bible
8. Havamal 78, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
9. Fafnismol 22, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
10. Fafnismol 32-38, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
11. Reginsmol 9-10, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
12. Hakon the Good's Saga 1, Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson trans. by Samuel Laing (Forgotten Books: 2008)
13. Hakon the Good's Saga 2, Heimskringla
14. Hakon the Good's Saga 3-6, Heimskringla
15. Hakon the Good's Saga 15, Heimskringla
16. Hakon the Good's Saga 17, Heimskringla
17. Ibid
18. Ibid
19. Hakon the Good's Saga 18-19, Heimskringla
20. Hakon the Good's Saga 32, Heimskringla
21. Ibid
22. Voluspa 5-6, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows.  Some interpret the creation of Midgard to literally just mean planet Earth but in this author's opinion the description of the Gods setting the courses of the sun, the moon, the stars, day, night, and twilight implies they were responsible for a whole lot more than just Earth and most likely created all of physical reality as we know it.  At the very least these verses, from a modern perspective, imply the entire solar system at a minimum and last I checked even that scale of creation is far beyond the capabilities of the entire human species.