Human nature is one of the foundation stones of ethical philosophy. Every philosophy the world over, from Rousseau’s theories on the General Will to Lord Shang's stark Legalism, are based on fundamental axioms of what defines humanity. These assumptions regarding human nature determine how one should treat other people, view the world, and live your life. In the West the most dominant theories of human nature can be summed up in one of two schools of thought.
One school of thought holds that humans are inherently flawed by nature. Whether the cause is Original Sin or our barbarous natural state the assumption remains the same. Humans are imperfect. Society must therefore assume that people will, given the choice, give in to their base natures putting their self-interest ahead of all other concerns. If one assumes that people are innately flawed and prone to acting in a potentially destructive fashion to fulfill their base desires then all responses are going to assume that people must be restrained for their own good.
This is not the only understanding of humanity that has sprung up in the West. The other holds a much more positive view. This view, first summed up by John Locke in his Two Treatises on Government, argues that humans far from being creatures driven by impulses we must struggle against are blank slates when we come into the world. We are neither good nor evil by nature but instead boundless potential shaped by our experiences in life. We are not given to destruction as a result of being human but as a consequence of one's experiences and circumstances. In this understanding humans do not need to be held back from danger but given the best tools to guide ourselves to the best possible outcome in pursuing our desires.
The genesis of the assumption of flawed humanity can be found in the creation myth of Christianity. While later philosophers like Thomas Hobbes have built on the foundation Genesis provides it is from the first book of the Bible that this assumption is born. In Genesis Yahweh creates the first two human beings, Adam from dust and Eve from his rib, and places them in charge of the paradisaical Garden of Eden. In the Garden He places two trees, one the Tree of Life which gives life everlasting and the forbidden Tree of Knowledge which gives understanding of the world. It is in this idyllic setting created for humans shaped in the image of God that the Original Sin, the first act of willful disobedience, took place. By eating from the Tree of Knowledge Adam and Eve disregarded the restraints imposed by Yahweh leading to their exile from Eden and the end of Paradise on Earth. In this narrative we see the classic hallmarks of the understanding of humanity as flawed. Humans must be restrained for their own good, which we may or may not understand, and we are given to trespass by our nature in spite of these necessary restraints. This assumption casts humans as being torn between free will and their destructive base urges forever locked in a battle to do what is right.
The more positive, blank slate idea is one that for the modern world was born with Locke and the Enlightenment. Yet this is not the first time this idea took root in Western thought. It is from the Voluspo, the whirlwind tour of Norse cosmology, where we find this idea rooted deeply in pre-Christian Germanic thought. This saga describes the creation of Midgard, the Earth, and the ordering of the universe by the Gods. Part of this, quite predictably, includes the creation of humans by the Gods. In the Voluspo three Gods; Odin, Honir, and Lodur, are walking along a beach in Midgard having shaped the world and set its boundaries. On their walk they come across two pieces of driftwood. They decide to take up the dead logs and give them life, making the first two humans. As it says in the Voluspo:
Soul they had not, sense they had not
Heat nor motion, nor goodly hue
Soul gave Odin, sense gave Honir
Heat gave Lothur and goodly huei
After creating the first humans the Gods let them go on their way. There is no special charge or rules handed down after They finish their work. Ask and Embla are given shape, life, and sense before going out into the world to live their lives.
Aside from the obvious differences there is a profoundly different assumption about human nature in these two creation stories. In Genesis humans are created from nothing in a perfect world under the firm hand and guidance of Yahweh to serve as His stewards for creation. When they fail to follow the rules He arbitrarily laid down humanity is marked with Original Sin for all time and cast out into the wilderness. The Voluspo couldn't be any further from Genesis in intent if it was deliberately trying. Odin, Hoenir, and Lodur do not lay down any special tasks, prohibitions, or directives to Their new creations. They do not admonish them to obey unexplained rules. All They do is give form, life, and sense then let the first humans go on their way. Humans are not made in the image of a perfect God and marked with an original, underlying flaw that will perpetuate their imperfect nature as an act of punishment. Humans in Germanic lore are divinely created with the Gods letting them live their lives.
This distinction is a fundamental one when it comes to the question of human nature. In Judeo-Christian tradition the flawed, sinful nature of humanity is the justification for needing repentance and redemption. The problems with humanity are ones that are inescapable partially because they are imposed from on high as a punishment for disobedience. This simultaneous tug of war between perfection and damnation drives human motivation in the Abrahamic tradition. Humanity, because of this fall from grace, must redeem itself in the eyes of Heaven. Consistently humans are portrayed in the Bible as sinful, given to their base desires, and easily tempted. This is escalated in Christianity and Islam with the inclusion of adversarial figures; Satan and Iblis respectively, who war with God to bring down humanity. Caught between mighty forces and their own drives humans must strive to do what they have been told is right trusting in the ineffable wisdom of God.
In the Heathen tradition humanity is not trapped in such a conundrum nor is it cast in such a negative light. Humans were shaped by the Gods then left to go out into Midgard. We are not given stewardship over the world sculpted from Ymir's flesh but neither are we punished with any equivalent of Original Sin. This implies a strong sense of trust the Gods have in us. They did not put us in a special, controlled paradise to be watched over with unexplained rules handed down. They created humans and let us go on our way, secure in Their knowledge that the gifts of life, sense, and form we received from Them would be enough. Instead of coddling and sheltering humans from the world then thrusting them out as punishment They put us in Midgard and trusted that Their gifts were all they needed to give us. This tremendous level of trust by the Gods implies that humanity was not viewed as some innately flawed creation that had to be set on a specific path to avoid falling into self-destruction. It says humans are perfectly capable of living our lives with the gifts the Gods gave us as a compass to guide help guide us. This is not to say there are no expectations of what is right and wrong but rather that the Gods trust us to do what is right without divine proclamations setting the boundaries.
The Heathen view is an optimistic understanding of human nature. We are not imperfect creatures given to falling in to destruction without a firm hand to guide us but beings divinely shaped and gifted with the freedom to stumble and learn from our mistakes. Quite contrary to the Abrahamic view which holds a somewhat pessimistic view of humanity the Heathen understanding is one where humans have no such inherent flaws. Having never been punished with the burden of the constant danger of temptation and sin we are free to shape our lives through our deeds with the gifts of Odin, Honir, and Lodur as the tools to do it.
iVoluspo 18, Poetic Edda translated by Henry Adams Bellows