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.

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