Relationship-Based Heathenry: Ethics and Practices: Part One

"The Stranger at the Door" by WG Collingwood

“The Stranger at the Door” by WG Collingwood

There are three different models of religion that are present in Western society today. The first and most well-known is the Obedience model of the Abrahamic faiths; the second is the Mystery model typified by Wicca, Golden Dawn, Mithraic and similar creeds; and the last is Relationship, typified by Asatru or Heathenry.  Inside each faith are obviously elements of each of these models, but the fundamental assumptions that form the core of that faith are based on one model alone, and form the lens 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 lens 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 as disobeying god.  For this reason the lens 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 at 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 hidden truths as aspirants journey from one level to the next along the paths of their instruction, with harsh rules regarding the 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, through the raising, sharing, and directing of 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, and 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 or 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,” a collection of 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 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 (which 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 (and by this I mean those born into the post WWII-era of Western Society) comes 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 by 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” on which they based their decisions 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, many of the problems that youth today 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 based upon that community’s definition of our duties (both to individuals and the community as a whole) and judgement of how our decisions have honoured our obligations to that very community.

Two significant points there are 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 held of little worth in another community, and be completely unknown in many others.  To a modern man and woman, this is confusing and attacks our sense of self, as we have the modern-derived concept that we possess an intrinsic worth.  Our society does not, and never has, functioned that way.  Justice is depicted with a blindfold, so as 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, physical perfection, 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 winners of the Nobel Prize or Medal of Honour or Victoria Cross.

Let’s 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 we are paying attention, and will not put ourselves into a bad place. Suppose I breeze into Starbucks and find my psycho ex-boyfriend and the former friend he’s now dating in line ahead of me. Do I really need to get in line up behind them and begin awkward conversation number twenty-one, or might I walk another block and get my morning latte at the next branch?  First thing the Havamal tells us is to pay attention to who we are dealing with — 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, 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 the exchange of hospitality), and the offering of praise as well as physical gifts, is important, and that fostering such relationships will improve your own success.  The next stanza shows us that our 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 those 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.

Okay, 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 the corollary that you 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 the 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 a 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 equally-weighted duties, the relationship closer to the inner circle 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.  For example, suppose that when you arrive to car pool with your friend, you hear him having an argument with his 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.  Consider the Tim Horton’s craze of paying for your own 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 to whom?  Well, what do they mean to you?  What of the coworker who won’t talk to you at work, but who is moving and needs a truck, just like the F150 in your driveway?  Do you owe him?  No.  Do you want to foster a relationship with him?  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.  What if the situation is the same, but the individual 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 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, somebody’s 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 to make 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; marriage is an exchange of obligations, not simply selling a woman to another family.  Since the marriage, Thor has become 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 a 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 depicts the Norse as 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 I 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 built a solid reputation for 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 his 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 his words and his deeds, and esteems him 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.  Consider the case a Christian police officer who runs the licence plates of a car 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 someone who may or may not honour his 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; exchange is the heart of commerce, and 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, but 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. These issues will be addressed in the second part of this essay.

[John T Mainer, Freyr of the Heathen Freehold Society of British Columbia and Redesman and Western Canada Steward of The Troth, is the 43 year-old married father of three beautiful daughters.  Heathen since basic training in the Canadian Armed Forces in 1988, he is the co-author of two heathen children’s books: Kindertales and Kindertales II, and contributor to The Troth’s handbook for Heathen soldiers, Words For Warriors.  He is active in the local Heathen and multifaith scene on Canada’s West Coast and with various online heathen and pagan groups.]


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