A Heathen Worldview
Defining Heathen morality needs to be understood through the lens of a Heathen worldview. It is particularly important to understand the difference between a Heathen worldview and ‘other’ world views, such as the Christian worldview.
When we talk about morals, the idea of right vs wrong and good vs bad might come to mind. Quite often these ideas will have been shaped by the society we were raised in. If one was raised in a Christian society for example, good behaviour might look like ‘loving your neighbour as yourself,’ while bad behaviour might look like ‘murdering thy neighbour.’ Both of these actions are representative of virtues culturally specific to Christianity. They can be understood by the biblical commandments ‘love thy neighbour as thyself‘ and ‘though shall not kill.’
In part, Heathen morality vs Christian morality, can be explained in a world-accepting vs world-rejecting analogy from James C. Russell’s The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. Here, this analogy is explained by Patricia M. Lafayllve:
A monotheistic worldview, for the most part, is what one could call “world-rejecting.” A world-rejecting perspective views everything on this plane as temporary, and also fairly irrelevant, because the goal is to ascend to a ‘better’ world after death.
Heathenism on the other hand, is considered a “world-accepting” religion. Heathens live in the here and now, and typically are not at all focused on the afterlife. There are multiple afterlives in the heathen thinking– Valhalla for the chosen slain, Ran’s hall for those drowned at sea, Helheim for the majority of heathens and their ancestors, and others– but there is no focus on where a heathen will go, nor does heathen behavior stem from a desire to have a better afterlife. No one knows precisely where we will go after we die, so it better to live in the active present than it is to worry about the future.
A Heathen worldview can begin to be seen as a way to view the world that is very practical.
A picture of Heathen morality can be pieced together from the Sayings of the High One, also known as the Havamal, in the Poetic Edda, where self-sufficiency, self-awareness, wisdom, courage, humility, generosity, honesty, and hospitality are virtues imparted by the High One.
The virtue of self-reliance aids one’s self-esteem in stanza 36:
A farm of your own is better, even if small,
everyone’s someone at home;
though he has two goats and a twig-roofed room,
that is still better than begging.
Humility is also a virtue, stanza 22:
He’s a wretched man, of evil disposition,
the one who makes fun of everything,
he doesn’t know the one thing he ought to know:
that he is not devoid of faults.
Courage can be gleaned from stanza 16:
The cowardly man thinks he’ll live for ever,
if he keeps away from fighting;
but old age won’t grant him a truce
even if spears spare him.
Wisdom in stanza 5:
Wits are needful for someone who wanders widely,
anything will pass at home;
he becomes a laughing-stock, the man who knows nothing
and sits among the wise.
And self-awareness in stanza 12:
It isn’t as good as it’s said to be,
ale, for the sons of men;
for the more a man drinks, the less he knows
about his own mind.
Reciprocity and Reputation
In the Heathen worldview, reciprocity is the glue that holds individuals together in ever widening circles, first as family, then as kindred, clan and tribe. Generosity and hospitality are tied together with wisdom and humility to create troth and reputation. Stanza 41 encourages community building and cultivation of good friendships:
With weapons and gifts friends should gladden one another,
those which can be seen on them,
mutual givers and receivers are friends for longest,
if the friendship keeps going well.
Generosity and courage, Stanza 48:
Generous and brave men live the best,
seldom do they harbour sorrow;
but the cowardly man is afraid of everything,
the miser always worries when he gets gifts.
The Nine Noble Virtues, which originated with a British group of modern Heathens, are often thought of as defining the heathen moral compass:
Bravery, Truth, Honour, Troth, Self-Rule, Hospitality, Hard Work, Freedom, and Steadfastness
I’ll talk more about those in Part 2 of Lesson Five.
Eyrbyggja Saga translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards, Penguin, 1989
The Poetic Edda translated by Carolyne Larrington, Oxford, 2014
A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru by Patricia M. Lafayllve, Ch 12, Llewellyn, 2013
The Elder Troth by KveldúlfR Hagan Gundarsson, Lesson 5, The Troth, 1996
Teutonic Religion by Kveldulf Gundarsson, Ch 1, 7, 9, Llewellyn, 1993
Our Troth: History and Lore, Vol. 1, Ch 26, Vol.2, Ch 1, 2, 3, 5, 24-28, The Troth, Booksurge, 2006