There are three different models of religion that are present in Western society today, the first and most known is the Obedience model of the Abrahamic faiths, the second is the Mystery model typified by Wicca, Golden Dawn, Mithran and similar creeds, and the last is Relationship, typified by Asatru or Heathenry. Inside each faith are obviously elements of each, but the fundamental assumptions that form the core of that faith are based on one model alone, and form the lenses through which all questions are viewed. For this reason, an understanding of ethics, and of practice, must begin with an examination of those assumptions, for if we do not understand which of these assumptions we carry already, we will have little chance of seeing through the wrong lenses the truths that our ancestors left in their words.
If you were raised in North America or Western Europe, North Africa or the Middle East, you were raised in a society that was shaped by the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Islam or Judaism. These “faiths of the book” are Obedience based. Good is defined as obedience to divine will, Sin is not defined as doing bad things ,but disobeying god. For this reason the lenses through which all questions are viewed is one of obedience to divine will, and rules derived from teachings of that will.
Another model that comes to us from antiquity is the Mystery model; the mystery cults of the Central Mediterranean and Ancient Persia follow this model, and it was very much the heart of the Wiccan revival in the last two centuries. The creed: “An harm none, do as you will” clearly isn’t much of a useful decision making tool, as the central feature of Mystery model faiths is initiation and craft. Mystery models reveal truth in levels as aspirants learn hidden truths as they journey along the paths of their instruction, with harsh rules reguarding sharing information with those not initiated to the same degree in the same tradition. The central pillar of these traditions is craft, or magic. Divination and spell-craft are more important than deities, as your spiritual connection is deemed to be felt through the exercise of power, raising , sharing, and directing energy. While less well understood by modern people, the Mystery cults persisted throughout the Christian era as Templars, Masons, Sororities and Fraternities, the Medieval Guilds, Colleges of Medicine and Law all follow this template. It is part of Western Society, and part that is often overlooked as even those who participate in forms of it are often unaware that they are partaking of ancient pagan practice .
The last model is the one that forms the basis for Heathenry. It is the relationship model. Unlike Obedience and Mystery models, it does not hold with universals. Unlike Obedience models it holds no concept of One True Faith, holding no Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy and thus no concept of heresy. A traditional model familiar to all Indo-European pre-Christian peoples, it looked at all things sacred, moral, legal, and practical from the single axis of relationship. Our ancestors accepted that every tribe had its own relationship with the gods, their ancestors, the wights of the lands and waters. It was expected that each would have its own practice, and even its own understanding of who was honoured as a god, rather than respected as a powerful wight, Jotun or Alf. (spirit, giant, or elf for the non-Norse in the crowd).
In Heathenry we don’t have Ten Commandments, or a one line Creed. The closest we have is the Havamal, or “Sayings of the High One”; which is a collection of wisdom that represents the wisdom shared by the cult of Odin over the centuries. Rather than being a book of rules, it is a collection of commonly accepted truths about how to live both practically successful and with estimable honour in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people. Unlike the Universalist ethics which call upon us to treat everyone the same regardless of who they are to us and how they have acted towards us, that we see from the Abrahamic faiths and schools of ethics derived from them, the relationship based ethics of heathenry assumes that the fundamental question in any moral or practical situation is determining where the balance of your duties lies in the relationship in question. As there really can be no one universal rule for the right answer, what the Havamal gives us is a set of priorities to weigh, a set of tools to strengthen and build relationships, and the tools to recognize where relationships exist or may be created inside given situations.
Modern man, by this I mean those born into the post WWII era of Western Society come from a period that accepts individual rights and freedoms, that looks upon the individual as unquestionably the centre of all questions. Our ancestors did not. They defined themselves on who they were in relationship to others, as part of a community. It is this fundamental assumption that is often missed by modern heathens, heathens in the classical period did not think of themselves as isolated from society, but as part of the community. To understand their ethics, you must understand their sense of identity, the definition of “me” they based their decisions on extended beyond their own skin, often including their whole family, or in some situations, community. Selfish and selfless have different definitions and applications when you do not agree on the definition of self. In this case the pragmatic “best for me” solution can seem to be an act of sacrifice, when in heathen terms, like those of cold biology, for a definition of self that is genetic or familial rather than personal, sacrificing your personal existence for the guarantee of the continuation of your line is a simple matter of pragmatism or self-interest,
Central to heathenism is the concept of worth. In modern society we place most emphasis on self-worth. Indeed much of the problems that youth experience with self- worth is that human beings are social. Like classic heathens, our sense of worth is community based. In each community our worth is built by that communities judgement of how our decisions have honoured our obligations to that communities definition of our duties, both to them, and to others. That has two significant points commonly missed; first our worth does not necessarily carry over from one community to another. You may in fact have high worth in one community, be unknown to many communities, and be held of little worth in other communities. To modern man and woman this is confusing and attacks our sense of self, as we have a modern derived concept that we have an intrinsic worth. Our society does not, and never has functioned that way. Justice is depicted with a blindfold to be blind to the differences between us, our laws are designed to treat us “as if we were all equal” but at no time did we actually accept this. Beautiful, rich, popular people with great accomplishments are not ever going to be treated the same way as ugly poor people with poor social skills no accomplishments and little fame. We give respect to signs of success, to physical perfection, signs of wealth, power, or fame from almost any source. This is a truth that modern man has largely forgotten, and as such has allowed fame to replace worth in our weighing of words. More people can name the Kardassians than the Nobel Prize or Medal of Honour or Victoria Cross winners.
Lets look at Heathenry, and what relationship based practice and ethics looks like. The Havamal begins with a dire warning:
“1. Within the gates | ere a man shall go,
(Full warily let him watch,)
Full long let him look about him;
For little he knows | where a foe may lurk,
And sit in the seats within.”
There is no assumption that everyone out there is your friend. It is expected that you be paying attention, and not put yourself into a bad place. You breeze into Starbucks and in front of you in line up will be your psycho ex-boyfriend and your former friend he’s now dating. Do you really need to get in line up behind them and begin awkward conversation number 21, or might you walk another block before your morning Latte and get it at the next branch. First thing the Havamal tells us is to pay attention to who you are dealing with, because everything is based on that question.
The next several stanzas are about the duty of guests to hosts and hosts to guests. Hospitality is key, because it is with hospitality that strangers become friends, friends become kindred, and kindred become family. The reciprocal gifting relationship is the foundation of heathen practice, it is the basis of worship, the basis of social relationships, the basis of community building and strengthening. A gift for a gift is what we are taught, and how we think.
41. Friends shall gladden each other | with arms and garments,
As 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.
So, here we are told that exchanging gifts, and in their society gifts included exchange of hospitality, and offering of praise as well as physical gifts, is important, and that fostering such relationships will improve your own success. The next stanza shows you that your duty to exchange a gift for a gift is dependent on the conduct of the recipient. What truth is owed a liar, what honesty a deceiver? None. Relationship based ethics are not Kant’s suicide pact or the Bible’s blind obedience in the face of all reason. Lie if you need to to those to who have proven liars to you, or from whom you need to protect yourself. Do not give weapons to be used against you, do not give ammunition to your enemies, or put yourself in a position to be harassed, embarrassed, or humiliated because a liar wants to win truths from you. The gods never asked our ancestors to be stupid or make trouble for yourself.
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 his mingle, | and gifts shalt thou make,
And fare to find him oft.
Ok, here is the part that takes some work; you have a duty to be a friend to those who are friends to you. This has a corollary to not give support to those who are acting as enemies to your friends. Right and wrong action is determined by what duties you owe the people in question. To a heathen the twin scales that are being weighed in an oath conflict are level of duty to each, and relationship to each. A danger to life to an acquaintance will outweigh the danger of embarrassment to one closer to you as one duty is of vastly greater weight than the other, and this trumps the degree of relationship. Given the choice of protection of a family member or obedience to the law, two absolute duties, of equal weight, the question then becomes degree of relationship. Duty flows in series of concentric circles from our inner-guard, our innermost circle, to our family and friends, co-workers, community, nation, and world. In a conflict between equal weighted duties, the closer to the inner circle the relationship will win out. In this case protecting the life of a family member will trump the law. Family is closer than community or nation. A conflict between differently weighted duties might go entirely the opposite. Say you come to pick up your best friend to car pool to work, when you arrive you hear them having an argument with their wife, and you hear it getting physical. He is your best friend (close relationship), you keep forgetting her name, and can’t really remember the last thing you said to her, or she to you (more distant relationship). His need not to get arrested (serious) is balanced against her need to be protected from abuse (critical). Here the heavier weight of her need trumps the nearness of his relationship and you would probably dial 911.
In any situation of conflicting interests and duties, each community will judge the action based on its needs and understanding of your duties. Commonly, the same decision can get you both applauded and reviled by people of similar ethics, but different relations to the people involved. Point of view determines a lot of how we view an action.
In kindergarten you learn to share. How did we ever forget the power of that action? Clearly we did somewhere. You see the Tim Horton’s craze of going through the drive through, and paying for your coffee, and the order of the person in line behind you. Random acts of kindness. The Havamal tells us:
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 made.
How much difference can you make with a cup of coffee, a kind word, a compliment, a beer, or seeing a new neighbor struggling to move something large and just literally lending a hand. It doesn’t take much effort, to make a large difference in someone’s perception of their situation, or themselves.
Practical matters: what do you owe who? Well, what do they mean to you. Some person who won’t talk to you at work is moving and needs a truck, just like the F150 in your driveway. Do you owe them? No. Do you want to foster a relationship with them? If yes, this is an opportunity, if not, then don’t make a gesture that will not be reciprocated, and end with you feeling used by someone you had no cause to believe would behave differently. Same situation, only the person has been there for you a number of times, this is someone whose opinion matters, but you only have a Ford Focus. Well, Hel, where there’s a will there’s a way. You can at least help, and maybe order pizza if you are not up to doing any of the heavy lifting. You owe this person much, not out of debt, but due to the worth that relationship holds for you.
What do we owe strangers? Well, in our society, strangers are either members of our community, or guests. We don’t tend to encounter enemy tribesmen, as our national borders are fairly distant, and our borders either friendly or defended. To another citizen you have a duty, as you do to guests. To build a relationship with them you owe them honesty, where such will not cause you danger or strife. You do not owe them much more, but your worth is increased, and the perceived worth of your community as they perceive it is affected by your actions towards them. It is for you to determine whether your actions will increase the worth of your community in their eyes, or perpetuate misunderstandings between different communities.
The Christians have the 8th commandment: Thou shalt not steal. We have
58. He must early go forth | who fain the blood
Or the goods of another would get;
The wolf that lies idle | shall win little meat,
Or the sleeping man success.
Yes, the gods instruct us to get up early if we want to kill someone and take their stuff. Again, duty is based on relationships, this is about dealing with your enemies and the question of what is owed whom is settled thus; what do you owe your comrades, what do you owe your families, what do you owe your enemies? The answer: comrades are owed loyalty and protection, your families are owed the security you hope your arms will win for them, your enemy is owed…..nothing. The army didn’t train us to fight fair, we were not trained to stand shoulder to shoulder beneath flapping banners and bravely die for our country. If we could shoot the enemy while they slept, at no risk to us, our country is well served. If we incur casualties trying to turn a safe ambush into some sort of cheap OK Corral knock off, somebodies ego just cost children their parents, cost spouses their loved ones, and their nation the huge expense of training and equipping someone who died so you could play fair. Pragmatic not dramatic is what is owed your people. Our ancestors remembered that. Hollywood forgets, and sometimes our politicians drink the Kool-Aid and people die for silly pointless gestures.
Of course enemy is a relationship state as well. Thor is described as being the enemy of Jotuns or giants. He took for his wife Sif, fairest of the Jotun kind. She now is Aesir through her marriage bonds, but he now holds duties towards her folk as well, for marriage is an exchange of obligations, not simply selling a woman to another family. Since the marriage, Thor became the guardian of social boundaries, the protector of man, he destroys those Jotun who trespass upon and threaten the lands of man, but does not carry war into Jotunheim if they keep to their own lands. In similar sense Frey won Gerd from Jotunheim to be his wife, and in token of his commitment to keep the peace, gave up his famous sword, the Vanir answer to the might of Mjolnir. All conflicts end, and we must live together when they are done. It is the conduct of those who interact between communities after the fighting has stopped that will determine the direction of future relations. Honest and frithful dealings will draw honest and frithful dealings in return from those who understand that a gift for a gift requires that honest dealings be repaid with honest dealings. Reciprocal gifting and hospitality are the tools by which strangers become friends, friends become kindred, kindred become family. The establishment and strengthening of relationships between individuals has the power to bridge gaps between communities, and even nations.
Popular myth had the Norse being death seekers, feared because they sought death in battle. Seriously, people who want to die in battle are dead really quickly and accomplish little. The weight given to worth vs life is what gave that impression, for the ancestors did not fear death for two simple reasons; you can’t avoid it, and it doesn’t have to be a loss.
70. It is better to live | than to lie a corpse,
The live man catches the cow;
I saw flames rise | for the rich man’s pyre,
And before his door he lay dead.
71. The lame rides a horse, | the handless is herdsman,
The deaf in battle is bold;
The blind man is better | than one that is burned,
No good can come of a corpse.
Clearly, they were not seeking death, simply aware that you really only do have this one chance to accomplish something, this one life. If you are not dead, you are not done. Life goes on, you have chances to contribute, to build your worth, to make a difference in your community until the day that you die, and maybe longer. If your line endures, and your name lives on, all that perishes is your flesh.
78. Cattle die, | and kinsmen die,
And so one dies one’s self;
One thing now | that never dies,
The fame of a dead man’s deeds.
Death is coming for all of us, but death cannot take away what we have accomplished. Death will find us whether we get anything done or not, whether we make a difference in the lives of the people who depend on us, or not. It is up to us, will death be the crowning glory of a life whose deeds will be retold by those you inspired, aided, and shaped in life, or simply a period at the end of a sentence no one read?
So Heathenry is about building relationships, and about building worth. Now worth is based on relationships as well. This has some problems for modern folk to deal with. Let us say that you have a reputation in your local community, and you have grown used to your words carrying great weight in discussions, because you have a built a solid reputation of integrity, diligence, scholarship, and leadership. You encounter a new group, and at a meeting find the people there hear your opinion on an issue that you have proven time and again in different communities and had accepted. This time your words are greeted with indifference, and the group turns to another who has lesser standing in your community, and ask them their opinion. You have just discovered that worth is based on relationship, not intrinsic to your identity. In this community that other person has great worth, for this community knows their words and their deeds, and esteems them highly for it. They do not yet know you, and give you the respectful hearing of a new guest, but seek the advice of a person known and trusted by them to judge your words.
Relationships define how an act is viewed. Two communities can view the same action as worthy and unworthy, while agreeing on all the particulars. Take a look at a Christian police officer who runs the licence plates of someone parking in the staff area of an abortion clinic so that his church can advocate with that person against abortion. Now a conservative Christian would look at this act through Obedience to God as being good. A heathen, whether pro-life or pro-choice, is going to have a hard time with someone breaking their oath of service for private ends. Oath breaking to us is the worst of crimes, for it means you do not honour your relationships. The basis of Obedience model religions is obeying the dictates of god, whereas the foundation of Relationship model religion is the ties that connect us, the commitments, the sworn word or Troth that is pledged. We don’t burn heretics, but we outlaw oath-breakers. Heresy is a matter of individual practice and of little interest to those outside your immediate community, but oath-breaking calls into question every tie you have to the community, every trust placed in you. How can you deal with one who may or may not honour their end of an exchange? Imagine if people suddenly decided that they may or may not accept your cash in exchange for goods, maybe your money would be exchanged for goods, maybe it would be taken and you would get nothing back. This would destroy the economy; for exchange is the heart of commerce, without trust there can be no commerce, no agreement in law, no treaties of peace. Oath breaking attacks the ties that make society possible. Murder just kills people, destroying trust kills whole nations.
That covers dealing with people, but world view encompasses more than just dealing with living people. A complete world view incorporates dealing with the living world around us, deals with our place in this world, our relationship with those who have gone before, and those who will come after.
Reciprocal gifting relationships are what Heathens seek to develop between each class of being they interact with. We build these relationships with the wights, being classified as all things having spirit includes all living people, animals, plants, the spirits of rivers, lakes and streams, of field, forest and home. The laws of hospitality in the Havamal guide us in building these relationships between people, but apply as well to the other wights, the animals and plants that surround us, and that we not only share our land with, but depend upon. This building of relationships through exchange of gifts becomes the centerpiece of practice for spiritual matters as well. We offer to the wights of the lands we are in, we offer to the ancestors that came before us, and to the Disir, the female ancestral spirits whom tradition has guide and guard our lines still. We offer to powerful and self-aware spirits of the lands around us, the Alfar, the Jotun. Some we seek to build relationships with, some we seek merely to placate because their nature is not friendly to our presence. The volcano will not be your friend; it might perhaps not kill you today.
A question that drives most new heathens nuts is “who is a god?” Well that is a funny one. In heathenry, godhood is relationship based. Jotun or giants are classified as powerful self-aware discrete knowable entities of tremendous power, embodying powerful natural forces. Gods are those with whom we have built reciprocal gifting relationships. Our gods are of the tribes of the Aesir and Vanir. Most are at least half Jotun by blood, some completely so. What makes them Aesir and Vanir is the honouring of those bonds, the acceptance of duty. It is the reciprocal gifting relationship that makes Skadi a goddess, even though she was a Frost Giant until demanding her suffering price. Sif, Gerd, and most of the goddesses are in fact Jotuns won in marriage from those tribes. Their marriage vows made them Aesir and Vanir, and brought with them ties to us.
Who is a god then depends on who is honoured by local practice. To the Angles and Saxons, Easter was a goddess, and Volund or Wayland the Smith was a god. To other tribes, they were simply Alfar or elves, beings of power but not owed any reverence. To farmers on the plains of south Germany, Njord of the sea is of little importance. To a people of the sea, whose soil is of little worth, and whose position between warring tribes hangs ever by the edge of a knife, Frey the Peace-Good, lord of the renewing earth is not the most important god; rather Odin the Victory Father, Thor who calls the storm and fends off the Jotun who bring the fogs and sea locking ice, are most important, and Njord of the sea will know more offerings than Uller or Skadi the hunters patrons.
Why we offer is a question that each model sees through the lenses of its own central Obedience models understand that God is owed worship because god is great. He doesn’t actually have to earn his keep, you are assumed to be in his debt simply by existing, it is the fundamental assumption that worship is owed.
Mystery models approach worship as craft. To those who follow the assumption that worship is magic, each act is specifically crafted to a purpose. Some are giving thanks, but even at such celebrations, the focus is on raising energy, and doing something with it. Magic is the focus, and the sacral season provides the form that magic will take. For such models, the god or goddess invoked is often the one seen to govern that aspect that the magic is expected to change. Frequently mystery models will treat gods or goddesses as archetypes, sort of a soft polytheism where gods are (to one degree or another) interchangeable. For this reason the specific god or goddess invoked will be entirely appropriate to the task at hand, or sacral season.
Relationship based heathenry operates somewhat differently. Like the mystery model we use prayer to ask for things, unlike that model, we don’t always pick what people would consider the “right god for the job”. The concept of Luck Holder, or god or goddess that holds highest place with a tribe or group is important. The ancient concept of cult is an expression of this. Sparta did not hold Artemis was higher than Zeus among Olympians, but they did hold that she was goddess of Lacedaemon, of Sparta. That she held them first and they held her first. In this way the Heathen Freehold has upon its banner, Odin’s steed Sleipnir, as sign that he is our luck holder, even as the Troth has upon its sign Idunna’s apples, as their magazine bears her name.
While a given god or goddess may be seen to represent that archetype best suited to a given task, when you make an offering in hopes of receiving a blessing or help towards a specific outcome, what is most important to you is that the one you are offering to has reason to look upon your offerings with favour, to look upon your needs as important. It is assumed that all gods have the power to affect the world, as do the Disir. What is the critical element then is why should they care to? Building that reciprocal gifting relationship is the keystone of heathen practice, building up a mutual respect and interest in each other’s welfare. For this reason heathens are quietly active in environmental protection, because the health of our wights affects our own. Heathens are concerned with honouring our ancestors, because through honouring our ancestors we better understand our role in properly guiding, providing for, and protecting our descendants. Each relationship provides a real and direct benefit to our daily lives and decision making.
A criticism from Obedience models is that we approach our gods as merchants, offering an exchange of favours. A second criticism from Mystery models that our rituals are more about the feast than the magic. Honestly, they are both right. Reciprocal gifting is the foundation of our relationships, hospitality, praise and gifts are all part of that same practice, both sacral and communal. Our gods gave us a whole book about the laws of hospitality, our obligations to friend, family, and foe. In this book they give us exactly one line
146. Better no prayer | than too big an offering,
By thy getting measure thy gift;
Better is none | than too big a sacrifice,
From the gods themselves we are told that we must look after our duties to those who we owe protection first. Those who depend on us, our dependents, our family, friends, and neighbors must be looked after before the gods. Our duty to the gods is paid by service to the folk. Through our community building, through the building of relationships we improve our ability to thrive as a family, as a community, as a nation, and as a people. We do not honour the gods by giving to them what they gave to us to help us succeed. If we have enough, then we offer to them in return, but if someone must go without, we do not honour the gods with offered food and hungry child.
The Jews speak of bread and Torah, that Torah is more important than bread. This is the Obedience model, god gets paid first, people last. The Norse speak of looking after the people first, that it is better to offer to the gods nothing, than too much. Honouring your relationships is honouring your gods. Your duty to your ancestors is paid in care for your descendants. Very much Heathenry is about paying it forward.
In the end, Heathen ethics and practice are about the relationships you build in this life. How you will affect this world, and how you will be remembered is based on how you honour those relationships.
John T Mainer
Freyr of the Heathen Freehold Society of British Columbia
Redesman and Western Canada Steward of The Troth