One of the main questions posed to Heathens and Pagans when we first explain our beliefs to others is usually something like, "So you actually believe in those Gods?" The common assumption in this question is the entire point of religion and spirituality is worshiping divinity. If the Gods a person believes in do not exist it would argue, logically, the beliefs surrounding those Gods are equally invalid. To the modern polytheist it is not what beliefs you hold that matters most but what you do with them.
At first glance this seems at odds with religion. This is because our ideas about religion are heavily shaped by the omnipresence of Christianity in modern society. For over a thousand years intellectual, cultural, and philosophical life in the West has been dominated by Christian monotheistic dualism. As a result belief and ideas are defined by orthodoxy, correct thought, and heterodoxy, different thought. Ideas and actions are measured for correctness by their adherence to established orthodoxy. Holding unwanted thoughts is just as dangerous as engaging in sinful acts.
Polytheistic practice bases its ideas in different ground. The main idea is orthopraxy, correct action. The emphasis in ethics and practice is on how one speaks and acts, not on what one thinks or feels. Orthopraxy argues speech and action are the best means for assessing a person's character. Actions are the best expression of a person's intentions. Unlike thoughts speech and action is permanent. Thoughts and feelings unexpressed can be reconsidered and assessed. Action and speech, once done, cannot be undone. The impact on people, society, and the world is lasting with consequences which can echo across time.
Emphasis on rightness of action over rightness of thought means there is a much wider diversity of opinions in orthopraxic spirituality. In orthopraxy there is no need to force people to conform to a specific set of ideas and thoughts. The main concern is if the actions that make up their lives are beneficial for themselves, their families, and their community.
In Heathenry this is most eloquently expressed in the popularly quoted verse from the Havamal:
The Harbardsljoth gives an excellent example of the intent behind this verse in action. In the poem Thor and Odin, disguised as the man Harbard, engage in a battle of insults across a great sound. Most telling is the nature of the taunts used. The bulk of the two's clash consists of recounting of stories of great exploits. Wherever possible Thor and Harbard seek to undermine the other's claims. Verses 32-39 provide an excellent example of volleying tales in action.
At the beginning of this section Harbard asserts Thor's word is no good by citing an incident where Thor promised to help and was not present. Thor responds first that he would have helped if he could but he was busy fighting on the island of Hlesy. Harbard taunts him claiming his actions were shameful because the people he killed were women. Thor dismisses Harbard's charge boasting, "She-wolves they were like and women but little"2.
This section of the poem demonstrates a few things. Thor and Harbard's battle of the wits is centered on an ethical value judgment. Harbard's charge is very clearly an attack on Thor's character. He is arguing Thor's word is no good because he was not present when Harbard needed his help. Thor replies by stating he was unable because he was fighting on Hlesy at that time. Even the sexist remarks regarding the berserker's wives are telling; when Harbard claims the battle was shameful because Thor's opponents were women Thor retorts they fought as fiercely as she-wolves. His rebuttal is based, like Harbard's charges, on their conduct in spite of the chauvinistic expectations of the day.
The same process is repeated in Beowulf. When Beowulf arrives in Heorot the visit begins with Beowulf and Horthgar exchanging tales and boasts3. During this exchange Unferth questions Beowulf's honesty4. With the exception of lines 503-506 which claim he is envious, a particular aside which is not used elsewhere in the poem, Unferth's challenge rests solely on citing a specific event. He claims Beowulf is not being honest by reminding him of his defeat in a swimming race by Breca. Beowulf replies by saying he lost because he was waylaid by sea monsters, effectively refuting Unferth's charges5.
This exchange follows the same pattern seen in the Harbardsljoth. With the exception of lines 503-506 Beowulf and Unferth's dialog follows the same pattern as Thor and Harbard's. A challenge to one person's integrity on specific grounds is refuted with specific examples of actions, not thoughts or intentions. The use of similar structure further demonstrates the common use of this rationale for character assessment in the Old North. The locations where these poems were likely composed was separated by the harsh waters of the North Sea in two distinctly different languages. Of the two it is believed Beowulf is the older of the two, having been written around the same time as the Harbardsljoth's composition. This shows a fairly consistent standard across a broad, geographically separated and linguistically divided world.
The conversion of Iceland neatly summarizes the key differences between this mindset and traditional religious orthodoxy. In the year 1000 the people of Iceland were facing the threats of a possible religious civil war and invasion by the King of Norway. Thorgeir, a lawspeaker respected by Christians and Heathens alike, offered a compromise that would protect Iceland's freedom and the freedom of the Icelanders. He proposed that Iceland would convert to Christianity on the condition that traditional polytheistic worship in the privacy of the home would be respected and protected.
For the Christian missionaries this was a great victory. Their usual method of conversion was to gain support the of local elites and work through them to convert the population. Official endorsement by the Althing was in line with their usual pattern. For Heathen Icelanders, where actions mattered more than thoughts, their lives were not going to change much. In Iceland worship was usually done in the home. Protecting private worship meant the polytheistic Icelanders could continue their traditional practice with minimal interruption. This decision's impact has been felt to the present, proving critical in preserving Iceland's traditional practices and folklore which are the core of the modern Heathen revival.
As orthopraxy shows there are deeper roots to modern polytheistic practices than superficial worship of ancient Gods. Assessing of merit by the rightness of actions is a fundamentally distinct mindset from traditional religious attitudes. Focusing on actions over adherence to specific beliefs gives far greater freedom while calling for greater responsibility. A person is held accountable based on what they do and not persecuted for what they think. In turn they must act to live the balance between their individual needs and their duties to society.
1. Havamal 78, Poetic Edda trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
2. Harbardsjloth 39
3. Beowulf 399-424, trans. by Seamus Heaney
4. Beowulf 506-568
5. Beowulf 529-586