Weregild, or, There Is No Absolution in Heathenry

An Anglo-Saxon shilling.

An Anglo-Saxon shilling.

There is no sin, in the modern sense of the word, in the heathen religions. The word sin originally meant a guilty verdict in a court of law. There are no religious crimes in heathen culture, only secular ones. In heathen Iceland, both trial in courts of law and trial by combat were accepted. Crimes are to be paid for in this world, literally.

The old heathen custom was that the guilty party had to pay weregild to the victim or the victim’s closest survivor. If a demand for weregild was made and the weregild was paid, the case went no farther. If the case was disputed, it could go to trial. Criminals could be outlawed, that is, banished or rendered officially killable.

The only forgiveness comes from the victim. The gods may or may not forgive or excuse one, but whether they do or not has nothing to do with where one goes in the afterlife, and no human priest can cause a god to forgive someone for something. There is no confessing of sins to priests and receiving absolution.

Since there is no confessing and absolution, there is no “seal of the confessional.” That means heathen clergy do not hold confessions made to them under the seal of the confessional. That is not part of our tradition. The idea of the confession and absolution of sins and of the seal of the confessional comes from the Catholic Church.

In the United States, law and custom regarding clergy is heavily influenced by the assumption that “clergy” means Christian. However, most Protestant denominations of Christianity do not have confession, absolution, and the seal of the confessional, either. One of the main points of the Protestant Reformation was the idea that there is no intercessor between humanity and their God, just like the old Arian Heresy which the Catholic Church put down during the age of the conversion of Europe to Christianity.

So, even going from a default Christian point of view, religions that have no confession and absolution are included and understood in American culture. Heathen sects such as Asatru, Theod, Forn Sid, et cetera, do not have to adopt a Catholic model of what clergy is in order to be accepted as real religions. Even Catholic priests aren’t allowed to keep some things secret.

A gothi leading a sacrifice to Thor. Artist: JL Lund

A gothi leading a sacrifice to Thor. Artist: JL Lund

Within Asatru, there is some confusion about what a godhi actually is, for good historical reasons. The godhi of Iceland was as much chieftan as priest, and it was a hereditary title of nobility, which could even be bought and sold toward the end before the conversion era. Today, Asatru priests, called godhis and gythias, can be 1) people dedicated to a god, 2) people who lead religious rituals for their community, 3) people ordained by a government-recognized organization, either local or national, or any combination thereof.

All three types of godhis are expected to be able to lead rituals. Although Christian clergy are often expected to be able to provide counseling, that has never been a traditional duty of a godhi; none of these types are expected to be qualified as psychological counselors, and if they are, that would be in addition to their priesthood, something they went to college and got a license for. If a godhi or gythia is a licensed therapist, the rules of their particular licensed profession apply to them. In the United States, licensed therapists are mandatory reporters of certain types of crimes such as child sexual abuse. In fact, even Catholic priests are supposed to report child sexual abuse; that’s why it’s a scandal when they don’t. US law makes clergy mandated reporters, just like therapists. Heathen clergy who discover crimes in the course of their priestly duties have no obligation to cover up the crimes or keep them secret due to being clergy; rather, as moral human beings they have an obligation to uphold good laws and help the victims.

I say “good laws,” which sounds a bit redundant from a traditional heathen point of view: today’s world has such a complicated web of laws that there is often a gulf between what common law and common sense would regard as immoral and illegal, and what is actually illegal. “Law” and “good” were assumed to be the same thing during the preliterate age when all law was customary law. That condition no longer applies. However, I think we can rest assured that the things common law outlawed — murder, rape, theft, et cetera — are still the things we can regard as illegal and immoral, and which will not be supported by either society or the gods.

When heathens call on Tyr for justice, what they are asking for is either for weregild to be delivered to them, or, if the case is going to trial, for aid in obtaining the verdict they want. Because there is no priestly intercessor needed, any heathen can make a sacrifice to Tyr for this purpose. We can petition and interact with the gods directly, and seek justice for ourselves.

[Erin Lale is the Acquisitions Editor at Eternal Press and Damnation Books. Her writing and publishing career began in 1985. She has an extensive list of published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, etc. In the print era she was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine and owned The Science Fiction Store, and she publishes the shared world Time Yarns.]