Heathen Morality

When talking with new Heathens or others outside of our faith, the question of morality often comes up. How do we as Heathens determine what’s moral and amoral, especially in a religion that has no set doctrine – no Bible – and therefore no outside source to tell us what’s good and evil? How do we determine what’s right and wrong? Well, those are questions I’m hoping to answer right here in this article but meanwhile, I think it’s important to note that much like everything else in Heathenry, the concept isn’t quite as simple as “good and evil”. Heathenry is tribal at its core and as such different groups are going to do things differently, and that’s okay and is usually seen as acceptable to most rationally-thinking Heathens. So in this article, we are going to objectively discuss some of the more common approaches to morality, their respective histories and what they’re based off of, as well as some of the common reasons some groups either embrace or shy away from them. At some point in the article, I’ll detail the approach taken by this Kindred.

The Nine Noble Virtues: There are two sets of ‘Nine Noble Virtues’, both are extremely similar but were created by two different groups.  The first set was codified sometime in the 1970’s by a former member of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union Of Fascists and Leader of the Odinic Rite. As the rise of Asatru started in North America, there was a push to gain legal legitimacy through the U.S government and a codified “creed” was required to gain just that. So John Yeowell (a.k.a. Stubba) and John Gibbs-Bailey set out to simplify the Havamal (the third poem in the Poetic Edda, commonly accepted as being advice from Odin himself). As a result, the general concepts of the Havamal were broken down into a set of nine “virtues”. Courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, self-reliance, industriousness and perseverance became the nine principles that guided practitioners of Asatru during that time. In 1983, a second set of similar virtues were codified by Stephen McNallen of the Asatru Folk Assembly in his journal, The Runestone, titled ‘Some Odinist Values’.

  1. Strength is better than weakness.
  2. Courage is better than cowardice.
  3. Joy is better than guilt.
  4. Honour is better than dishonour.
  5. Freedom is better than slavery.
  6. Kinship is better than alienation.
  7. Realism is better than dogmatism.
  8. Vigor is better than lifelessness.
  9. Ancestry is better than rootlessness.

From the 70’s and into the present day, these virtues have served as one of the most popular and generally-accepted values of the modern Heathen, that is, until recently. Due to the political nature of the organizations that codified these concepts, and their close ties with fascism, neo-volkism, and far right wing extremist ideologies, groups such as The Asatru Community (T.A.C) have chosen to distance themselves from these virtues because of their “tainted history” and have created their own guiding principles now known as the ‘Nine Oaths to Odin’ written by Topher W. Henry. ‘The Nine Oaths to Odin’ are similar to the ‘Nine Noble Virtues’, centering around the same guiding principles but with their own spin on them.

  1. Kith & Kin
  2. Frith
  3. Truth
  4. Honor  
  5. Knowledge   
  6. Diligence
  7. Independence
  8. Defender
  9. Fortitude

Each of these “oaths” come with their own meaning and explanations on how their followers should apply them to their own lives. However, it’s important to note that whether you’re an adherent to the ‘9NV’ by the Odinic Rite, ‘Some Odinist Values’ by The AFA or ‘Nine Oaths to Odin’ by T.A.C, these concepts are modern constructs designed to fit Heathenry into a modern political system. While based on the Havamal, many Heathens disagree with these tenets because not only are they modern constructs, they are also historically inaccurate to the customs of arch-heathens as well as inaccurate according to the bulk majority of our lore. For example, Odin is known to lie and deceive to gain an advantage during times of conflict. In Hardbardsleod, Odin tells Thor of a time when he raped two women and wished Thor had been there to help him hold the two women down. Many of the gods and goddesses in our lore have many wives or bore children with multiple women or entities. Just these examples alone make the case that truth, fidelity and even honor were subjective in arch-heathen times, which brings us to the next model of Heathen morality.

Morals in arch-heathen times were subjective and largely circumstantial, rather than objective truths dictated by a specific doctrine. As a tribal society, individuals were expected to do what’s right by them, their family, and their tribe. A man who took good care of his family, sacrificed for them, worked hard, protected and defended them was seen as an honorable man as these were the things that were important. “Right” and “wrong” largely depended on the needs of the family and tribe. Is stealing wrong? Most of us in modern times won’t hesitate to say yes, and even in Heathen circles the answer is almost always yes, as theft is rarely a necessity to provide life and therefore harms the reputation of the thief and in turn anyone associated with him/her. But, think of this: if you fell hard on your luck and had no financial means to provide food for your children, and all community resources have been exhausted, is it better for your family to take the moral high road and let them starve on principle? No, by all means, if theft is your last resort and will determine the difference between eating or starving then by all means, steal that loaf of bread and feed your children. 

The same can be said about killing, as we can’t say that taking a human life is always objectively wrong. In cases of the defense of your own life or the lives of your family, killing may be justified as it was your only option to provide the best result for you and your family. The arch-heathens believed that our social responsibilities were divided between Utengarđ and Innangarđ or outer and inner circles. The first priority was providing for one’s immediate family and then contributing towards one’s tribe. That was your innangarđ. Anyone who fell outside of your tribe was considered your utengarđ and therefore wasn’t owed as much in terms as responsibility, but there were expectations that governed both. This brings us to our next two concepts, as we explore morality in heathen society: Law and Thew.

Law: In arch-heathen times, the concept of ‘law’ was a bit different than what we know it to be today – but similarities do exist. There were general expectations placed between individuals or groups of people, such as tribes, that governed their behavior towards one another. Ever hear of the adage, “lay down the law”? This is where that comes from: in arch-heathen times, when alliances were made, representatives of each tribe would sit and convey their expectations towards one another based on what is good for each tribe. If they reached an agreement, they’d work together, and if there wasn’t an agreement then the alliance wasn’t formed. Laws were still seen as subjective and geared towards what’s best for the individual and tribe, but sometimes what’s best for me isn’t always what’s best for you and for this reason people would often find themselves in a dispute. In these cases, the two people who were butting heads would go in front of an Althing where they would sit on a stump, make their individual cases, and a lawspeaker would decide what was fair and just. This is the foundational concept that kept peace between two tribes or what we call ‘Grith’. Grith is defined as “peace, security, or sanctuary imposed or guaranteed under various special conditions”.

Thew: Thews, on the other hand, aren’t generally accepted expectations between two groups of people but more of cultural customs within a group of people. Adherence to these customs within a group largely determined a person’s honor. For example, if a woman married into a new tribe and went to market and saw a beggar and then decided that her household had enough wealth that it wouldn’t impose on her family and decided to toss a coin to the beggar, is she right in doing so? Well by most modern standards that would be considered an honorable act, but if it wasn’t within the customs of her tribe and family then she just dishonored her family by giving away hard-earned wealth to someone who didn’t deserve it. Thews can be seen as being the same as law, but apply more directly to the individuals within a group as opposed to conduct between two groups. As is within the concept of laws, this opens up room for disputes and disagreements. Whenever two people within a group were at odds with one another they’d sit with their chieftain, both would state their case, and the chieftain would decide what’s good and fair for both people. This is the system that keeps the peace within the innangarđ and this is the concept we call Frith. It’s important that Frith be maintained within a tribe at all times because without it blood feuds may start up and the tribe itself would be at risk of being torn apart.

As we grow our communities in modern times, we must work to realize that regardless of whether you’re guided by any of the external doctrines or an internal compass based on what’s good for you and your tribe as my kindred is, other groups may not be guided by the same morality and even they are, what’s good for you and your group may not be what’s good for another. Warring tribes happen when one group imposes their morality on another without an understanding of the culture within the opposing tribe. If we wish to spread peace within our Heathen society we have to learn to just make the decision that’s best for us, and let others do the same. If you can’t come to mutually agreeable terms with another group and figure out what’s best for both groups, then just don’t work with one another. In modern times, with the help of technological advancements, it’s easy for one tribe to go to war with one another because as each person is safely tucked behind their keyboards and there’s really nothing of value at stake other than each other’s pride and reputation – but as we grow, one must realize that the day may come that you need something from a group you’ve had fundamental disagreements with. If nothing else, we have to at least consider the division and harm we’re causing to our greater community as a whole by feuding over petty differences.As with any major concept, it’s impossible to go into every single detail and explore every aspect of Heathen morality in just one article. If one wishes to gain a deeper understanding of this subject, there are entire books devoted to this exact subject. Just a couple of good ones I’d recommend are We Are Our Deeds by Eric Wodening and The Culture of the Teutons by Vilhelm Grønbech. These are, in my opinion, two of the most fundamental books in fully understanding morality as it pertains to Heathen society.

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