I apologize in advance to those of you who scrupulously read the comments. This post was inspired by (okay, largely lifted from) an exchange I had with a commentor on “Defining a Heathen.” But I felt it was an important enough topic to make into a post, so here goes…
One of the most common defenses people give for religion is that it brings order to society. People look to their faith to tell them how to be good people, and because of their fear of God, Hell, or even the punishing power of priests, people choose to behave. (Or, to spin it in a more positive light, because people look forward to Heaven, they choose to be good.) Growing up I often heard the idea that without God, there would be social chaos, that we need God to live without giving in to our selfish natures. Today in the media – even in politics – we hear this same thing, that we need to return to God or the nation will self-destruct
This is a fundamental philosophical difference between Paganism and the Abrahamic faiths. In Paganism we have no concept of sin. We make mistakes and we wrong other people, but that isn’t offensive to god – it’s offensive to that other person. No higher power is keeping track. It’s very common in Paganism, in fact, to believe that death takes us all to the same place. There’s no great sorting of the wicked from the righteous. There’s no final tally of our deeds with a reward for the those who earned it and retribution for the rest. We Heathens say that at death we “join our ancestors;” take that to mean what you will.* But we believe people can and will form a civil society anyway.
So what, then, is our motivation to behave?
Heathens, like many (but not all) Recon Pagans, instead of fearing damnation or attempting to please our gods, live ethically by social contract – what we call wyrd (the idea that we’re all connected) and frith (the obligation to take care of your community). While there is no mystical force that will pay us back for our crimes or our good deeds (either karmicly or via what happens after death) there are other people on Earth with us right now who will. And because we’re all connected through wyrd, our actions necessarily affect us and those around us, for better or for worse. This isn’t magical, but more like when I pull on a rubber band, it snaps back. As people living in the same community, we are connected as tightly to each other as the front and back ends of a rubber band, and what happens to one end reverberates the other.
Wyrd and frith are Heathen ideas, but they represent something very logical and Earthly. You don’t have to believe in the word “wyrd” to believe that your choices affect other people. You don’t have to sign your letters “In frith” (a common Heathen closing in emails) to believe it is each person’s job to stop the social order from unraveling. It’s why people stop at a traffic light when there isn’t a policeman around – because if we only obeyed the rules when the threat of punishment was right there, the world would be chaos, and we don’t want to live in chaos.
The Teutonic/Norse people didn’t conceptualize religion like modern people do. They didn’t even have a name for their faith (until they had to to distinguish it from Christianity, at which point they named it forn siðr, literally: “old custom”).** From what I’ve read, when people from other communities asked what an ancient Heathen believed, the response was a confused look and an answer like “I do what my people do.” The social contract of a community was the primary facet of religion. Polytheistic gods are not “jealous;” they don’t require exclusive worship. Which gods a person worshiped, however, became significant when the New Custom (nýr siðr, i.e. Christianity) and the Old Custom went to war. The conversion in Scandinavia was particularly hostile (on both sides), and I think a lot of it was because the primary loyalties of the new religion were to the family of faith instead of the family of blood and to the leadership in Rome instead of the local community. This goes completely against the teachings of frith and ripped apart the social order of the time.
An example of this is one of my favorite conversion era stories. Radbod, a King of Frisia (NW Germany to NW Netherlands) was almost converted, but before his baptism, he asked the missionaries where his ancestors who had not converted were. When he was told they were burning in Hell, he told the missionaries he’d rather spend eternity in Hell with his ancestors than in Heaven with his enemies and the baptism was cancelled. He was willing to switch gods, but he wasn’t willing to desert his people. Modern Heathens today still celebrate him for this.
I hypothesize this is why heroes are such a fundamental part of Pagan mythologies. When I converted, all I cared about at first was god myths and I was confused why people kept throwing hero stories at me like they had equal – or even greater – importance. Now I get it. Heroes are the human beings who went out of their way to make sure the social contract was upheld and to provide justice for those who couldn’t get it for themselves. We teach these stories to our children and talk about emulating their values because this is what we should strive to be. Not because they get a better afterlife, but because “I know one thing that never dies, the glory of a dead man’s deeds.” (As says the Havamal, the closest thing to a divine text that we Heathens have.)
Basically, we do good for the sake of doing good. And we kick the crap out of people who do evil (or just put them in jail) because they’re screwing life up for everybody else. And then things go as smoothly as they can go. There is no fear of god or fear of what comes after death. There is a responsibility to other people that must be upheld or the community fails. We punish people who damage the community. We idolize people who strengthen it. We don’t need a god to make us behave if we believe in some version – mystical or mundane – of wyrd.
Readers, what do you think causes society to run smoothly and people to behave ethically?
* There is the famous legend of Vallhalla, Odin’s hall where soldiers who die in battle spend the days until Ragnorak (the Norse Armageddon) fighting each other (for fun – war is less traumatic when you can’t die) and drinking mead with valkyries. There are also stories in the Lore of Freya taking some of the dead, and from these tales some Heathens extrapolate that gods may upon occasion invite humans to live in their homes; that, for example, Shakespeare might very well be hanging with Bragi, and Abraham Lincoln with Forseti. Most heathens I know, however, don’t seem to take these stories literally – or at least don’t count on it happening to them!
** Ásatrú is a modern word, and Heathenry is a modern creation based on the word Germanic Christians used to label the unconverted (much like Roman Christians used “pagan” as a label for the unconverted there). Some groups who focus more on the folk part of Norse reconstructionism, particularly in Scandinavia , still call themselves Forn Sed (the modern translation of forn siðr).
+ Featured Image: Midvintur Blót by Torsten Gunnarsson