Friday, November 29, 2013

The Poor, the Downtrodden, the Oppressed, and Heathenry

Today, on this day best described as the apotheosis of American crass consumerism, I came across a very interesting post on the Wild Hunt by Pagan writer and activist Alley Valkyrie on the question of the poor, service, and how it fits in Pagan theology.  For those not familiar Alley Valkyrie has been long involved in a number of different causes starting with environmental activism before getting involved in Occupy up in Oregon and working with and for the betterment of Eugene's homeless population.  On top of this she's a very active Pagan writer and all-around awesome person whom I've had the pleasure to meet on one occasion.

So when she raised the very pointed question of if there is a narrative regarding the poor and downtrodden in Pagan practice as there is in Christianity it got me thinking.  I cannot speak for other practices as I am less well-versed in theirs than I am mine but I think she has a point in what she's saying.  In most modern Pagan practices there are no specific, easy to point to verses, lore, or Gods who have the same liberatory, uplifting spirit as is ascribed to Jesus in some kindlier interpretations like those of the Episcopalians, the Quakers, and Liberation Theologians.  Indeed it is far easier in many cases to find examples of Gods and Powers who seemingly stand on the side of the powerful against the powerless.  With no direct exhortations like, "Blessed be the meek" or "Blessed be the poor" one has to wonder if Heathen and Pagan practices have no space for those who have been dealt a bad hand.  I think this lack of direct, easy comparison in the case of Heathenry is more reflective of the different social circumstances facing the ancient Scandinavians and Germanics compared to those facing Jesus of Nazareth than it is due to any lack of a similar impulse.  In Heathenry there is a strong sense of duty to others in your community, both mighty and meek, that on this Black Friday deserves to be exhalted.

The first matter to discuss is that of differing socio-economic circumstances between the ancient Scandinavians and that of 1st century Judea.  In this time the peoples who lived in Scandinavia and Germany were often clustered together in tightly-knit tribes and clans living off the land as farmers, pastoralists, or a combination of the two.  Such tribal societies are the kind where every person has to pull their own weight, do their part, and look after the welfare and needs of other members of society.  The kinds of challenges they faced were different in many ways, usually dealing more with direct physical security or maintaining frith and harmony in the community, as the causes for poverty, deprivation, and suffering were very different from those facing more urbanized societies.  As a consequence they developed very unique social mechanisms, reflected in the lore, to address these problems.

The case of Judea was very different.  At the time of when Jesus of Nazareth most likely lived this region was a province of the Roman Empire and part of one of the oldest, most continuously settled and urbanized regions on Earth.  As such problems like homelessness, poverty, and similar matters took on forms that would be more easily recognizable to modern Americans than those that faced by ancient tribal societies.  This makes it easier to directly translate the idea of Jesus and his teachings into our immediate social context but it doesn't change that such ideas were not unique to the man, his culture, or the region where he lived and died.  This is not to say the ideas lack any validity; far from it.  The ease to which Christianity's ideas are applied to questions of modern social justice and poverty is partially because of this but also because of the urbanized social environment Jesus and his followers were operating in. 

All of that said we can now really dig in to what is, in fact, present in the lore.  Heathenry does have direct, relevant answers to the questions of poverty, suffering, and what we as individuals and as a society should do about it.  As I mentioned earlier there was a very strong mutual aid impulse in the pre-Christian Germanic tribal societies most strongly expressed in the hospitality custom.  As any Heathen will tell you hospitality is sacred.  In the societies of the ancients if a guest came to your door asking for hospitality the expected thing to do was to provide them with the best food and lodgings possible as discussed in the verses of the Havamal:

3. Fire he needs who with frozen knees
Has come from the cold without;
Food and clothes must the farer have,
The man from the mountains come.

4. Water and towels and welcoming speech
Should he find who comes to the feast;
If renown he would get, and again be greeted,
Wisely and well must he act.1

As these verses very laconically express the justification of hospitality was very straight forward.  As it famously says later on in the oft-quoted Havamal 78 the measure of every person is their deeds.  Those who do praiseworthy deeds become renown for it and their honor grows while those who do shameful deeds are scorned for it.  The same logic behind Havamal 78 runs through verses 3 and 4 by putting the emphasis on specific deeds expected of a host before following with the words, "If renown he would get, and again be greeted, wisely and well must he act".  It also emerges later on when discussing conduct between friends, specifically the Heathen custom of exchanging gifts:


41. Friends shall gladden each other with arms and garments,
As for each for himself can see;
Gift-givers' friendships are longest found,
If fair their fates may be.

42. To his friend a man a friend shall prove,
And gifts with gifts requite;
But men shall mocking with mockery answer,
And fraud with falsehood meet.

43. To his friend a man a friend shall prove,
To him and the friend of his friend;
But never a man shall friendship make
With one of his foeman's friends.

44. If a friend thou hast whom thou fully wilt trust,
And good from him wouldst get,
Thy thoughts with him mingle, and gifts shalt thou make,
And fare to find him oft.2
In these verses, like those discussing hospitality in the Havamal and many other sagas such as the Skirnismol and the Hymiskvitha,  there is a clear demonstration of reciprocity and mutual aid as the central themes of such relationships.  What is most important about the custom of gift-giving is there is no indication or implication of quid pro quo.  In fact there is a later verse in the Havamal that refutes any such notion quite firmly:

52. No great thing needs a man to give,
Oft little will purchase praise;
With half a loaf and a half-filled cup
A friend full fast I made3

The point of these customs, as shown here, is coming from an understanding that mutual support and assistance is beneficial for all parties involved.  There is no sense of special strings or demands being attached to extending aid to friends or strangers; if anything gift-giving between friends and hospitality for guests no matter who they were are actions that are expected without question.  The Havamal itself puts best how important community, human companionship, and support was seen as here:

47. Young was I once, and wandered alone,
And nought of the road I knew;
Rich did I feel when a comrade I found,
For man is man's delight.4
This is thanks partially to a very strong concept that runs throughout the lore as best summed up in Havamal 78.  To a Heathen an action is worthy based on its own merits, not its consequences or the intent behind it.  Right action, rather than right thought, underpins Heathen practice and for an action to be right it must be justified, moral, and necessary in and of itself.  Whether or not the deed itself is successful is not relevant to the moral calculation; as is shown in many of the sagas heroes seek out mighty deeds for the sake of doing the deeds.  In the words of Beowulf:

Greetings to Hrothgar.  I am Hygelac's kinsman,
one of his hall-troop.  When I was younger,
I had great triumphs.  Then news of Grendel,
hard to ignore, reached me at home;
sailors brought stories of the plight you suffer
In this legendary hall, how it lies deserted,
empty and useless once the evening light
hides itself under heaven's dome.
So every elder and experienced councilman
among my people supported my resolve
to come here to you, King Hrothgar,
because all knew of my awesome strength.5
There's quite a bit going on in here and Beowulf, through the skald composing these words, is hamming things up a bit but the what and why are pretty clear.  Beowulf had heard of the danger facing the Spear-Danes in the form of the monster Grendel and so, at the urging of his kin and wise elders, Beowulf sets out to deal with it.  In particular he claims the reason why him was because he is renown among his people for his strength, making him just the person for the job of taking down the dangerous Grendel.  Now at this point one might argue he is nothing more than a glory-hound seeking self-aggrandizement and probably some kind of reward until he goes on to say this:

Now I mean to be a match for Grendel,
settle the outcome in single combat.
And so, my request, o King of Bright-Danes,
dear prince of the Shieldings, friend of the people
and their ring of defense, my one request
is that you won't refuse me, who have come this far,
the privilege of purifying Heorot,
with my own men to help me, and nobody else.6
Nowhere in his speech does he ask for, or show any expectation whatsoever, of any kind of compensation.  He's there because Grendel is menacing the people and this needs to be stopped.  After defeating Grendel Beowulf is given great gifts and treasure by Hrothgar but as shown in the earlier Havamal verses discussed this seems to be keeping in line with established gift-giving and hospitality practices.  The fact that he never asks for such a reward or shows any expectation of it says as much as the words the skald attributes to the hero.

In fact, quite contrary to the usual assumption of the ancient Scandinavians as ferocious manly chest-thumping individualist supermen, there is a surprising degree of empathy and sympathy shown for the less fortunate in the lore.  Leaving aside examples like Beowulf, the Loka Tattur, and others where Gods and heroes directly do battle against dangerous or hazardous forces there are many powerful, beautiful verses in the Havamal that deal directly with the question of poverty, human suffering, and loss:

37. Better a house, though a hut it be,
A man is a master at home;
His heart is bleeding who needs must beg
When food he fain would have7

Or here on the question of need and the impact of mischance on our lives, quite contrary to our modern consumerist assumptions:
 39. If wealth a man has won for himself,
Let him never suffer in need;
Oft he saves for a foe what he plans for a friend,
For much goes worse than we wish.8
As to the question of wealth itself the saga has this say:
76. Among Fitjung's sons saw I well-stocked folds,
Now bear they the beggar's staff;
Wealth is as swift as a winking eye,
Of friends the falsest it is.9
On the matter of material goods, best summed up in the adage of "clothes make the man":
61. Washed and fed to the council fare,
But care not too much for thy clothes;
Let none be ashamed of his shoes and hose,
Less still of the steed he rides.10
And most magnificently on the question of the relationship between the honorable and praiseworthy and suffering itself the Sayings of the High One has this to say:

48. The lives of the brave and noble are best,
Sorrows they seldom feed;
But the coward fear of all things feels,
And not gladly the greedy gives.11
Along with these sagas we have the example of Thor, the God of Thunder, Warder of Midgard, and Friend of Man who at one point is said to be the God of Thralls12, those who were enslaved to pay off a debt or as captives in war.  Nowhere, in any saga anywhere, does it depict Thor as discriminating who in Midgard he does and doesn't protect.  All of Midgard and everything in it, from the poorest and most downtrodden to the mighty and fell, are guarded by him.  For this Thor was probably one of THE most popular Gods among the ancient Germanics.  Based on the multitude of Thor-related artifacts uncovered by archeologists, and the quite credible theory the Thor's Hammer became a popular religious symbol as an act of resistance13 to the encroachment of Christian missionaries and kings, shows Thor was a very popular God among the common people.  In many ways Thor was held up in the conversion period as the direct alternative to Jesus by the ancient Heathens, an act that would only make sense if the ancients saw Thor as a credible alternative to the White Christ.  If one wanted a direct Heathen response to the famous:
Blessed be the meek for they shall inherit the Earth

It would probably be something like:
Hail to the poor, downtrodden, and the suffering!  They bear burdens beyond measure with might that knows no bounds!  Lighten their load as the deed is worthy and its doing lightens yours as well!

By now many readers are likely wondering why, exactly, these examples aren't as well known as they should be.  After all if Heathenry has its own robust potential and answer on questions of suffering, poverty, and oppression then why isn't it openly discussed, debated, and articulated?  This, I think, is for reasons that are unique to and bigger than the Heathen community.  In the case of Heathenry in particular one cause is thanks to the many voices in Heathenry who refuse to accept the world has changed since 1959 and, as a result, recoil in anger and fear from anything that argues for anything less than a distorted, unrealistic image of hypermasculine hyperindividuality.  This, however, is but one of many factors and is only the one that is specific in my experience to Heathenry.  Heathen and Pagan practices in the United States are often found wanting on these answers because Heathens and Pagans haven't made the time to find, articulate, and produce a genuinely Pagan or Heathen answer.  So much energy has been sucked up in mysticism and cosmology that both communities have completely lost sight of that one of the main purposes of spirituality is to provide answers, guidance, and succor for the problems of the here and now.  We must not, as a community, lose sight of these matters if we truly wish to be the best people we can be for each other, ourselves, and the world that we are all inextricably a part of.


1. Havamal 3 and 4, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
2. Havamal 41-44, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
3. Havamal 52, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
4. Havamal 47, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
5. Beowulf 407-418, trans. by Seamus Heaney
6. Beowulf 425-432, trans. by Seamus Heaney
7. Havamal 37, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
8. Havamal 39, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
9. Havamal 76, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
10. Havamal 61, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
11. Havamal 48, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows.  In the original translation the author used the word "niggard" which is a more archaic word that has the same meaning as the word "miser" or "greedy".  For those reasons I've opted to use the word "greedy" in the place of "niggard" for ease of communication and clarity.
12. Harbardsljoth 24, trans. by Henry Adams Bellows
13. An Archeology of Religion by Kit W. Wesler p.228, University Press of America