Heathen Ethics – A Look into the Reconstruction of Old Norse Morality

Hello all! I’m going to do my best to make a short-ish post on the ideals of Ethics, Morality, and Social Standards in the pre-Christianized Norse world. To start off, one must remember that there is no one set of morals to govern all of the tribes that were in place during the time prior to the Christianization, but, from what we have, we can make a good inference on exactly what was followed ‘back in the day’.

Our main source of knowledge on the ethics of the Old Norse people are the Eddas, Sagas, and, to a point, the ‘Gray Goose Laws’ of Iceland. This brings up a problem, because most if not all of these sources have been ‘tainted’ by the Christian world view, especially when it comes to ergi and the stigma of homosexuality. There is little to no references as to how the Norse people viewed homosexuality prior to the Christianization, and this poses a problem for many followers of Heathenry. I’ll get more into that at a later date.

One major source of Heathen ethics would have to be the Hávamál. The Hávamál is, more or less, a moral guide book that seems to have been a way of passing down the expectations and rules on moral behavior through generations. We see in the entire first section of the Chisholm translation that one of the major pillars of the Norse worldview was the expectation to give and receive hospitality. In stanzas two and three, it reads:

Hail the givers! A guest has come
where shall he sit?
Hard pressed is he,
who tests his luck by the fire.

Fire is needful for those who arrive
with cold knees.
Food and clothing is needful
to men who have fared over the fells.

Hár, or Odin as it comes to be known, makes it clear that one must take care of the guest in their home. This is also prevalent in tales from the Edda, especially with the giant Hrungnir.

Another pinnacle of Norse society was the expectation of modesty, humbleness, and moderation. Multiple times in the Hávamál is it stated for a man “not to be boastful about his wisdom” and to drink in moderation, as is shown in stanza 17.

The fool gapes when among the folk.
He mutters and mopes,
and soon it is seen, when he gets drunk,
what his mind is like.

Now onto the controversial topic of ergi. Ergi, as we know it today, is an insult denoting “unmanliness”, alongside the word Argr. There is a problem with our information that we obtain from this, because these terms are only explicitly listed in the Gray Goose Laws and medieval Scandinavian laws, both of which were heavily edited and changed by the Christianization. Even though this is the case, we can still infer that the passive role during homosexual sex was stigmatized, but the active role definitely was not. The historian David Greenberg wrote about this in part in his book “The Construction of Homosexuality” in which he states:

“at first stigmatization did not extend to active male homosexuality. To take revenge on the disloyal priest Bjorn and the mistress Thorunnr in the Gudmundar Saga it was decided to put Thorunnr into bed with every buffon, and to do that to Bjorn the priest, which was considered no less dishonorable, dishonorable to Bjorn, not to his rapists. In the Edda, Sinfjotli insults Gudmundr by asserting that all the einherjar (Odin’s warriors in Valhalla) fought with each other to win the love of Gudmundr (who was male). Certainly he intended no aspersions on the honor of the einherjar. Then Sinfjotli boasts that Gundmundr was pregnant with nine wolf cubs and he, Sinfjotli, was the father. Had the active, male homosexual role been stigmatized, Sinfjotli would hardly have boasted on it.” 

This is one of the few examples of the view on the active role of homosexual sex, and how it wasn’t stigmatized. Many Heathens today who try to reconstruct the ethics and worldview of the Old Norse people seem to have forgotten this part of the information.

Finally, a major part of the ethics of the Norse people is their view on those who are disabled or otherwise handicapped. In stanza 71, Hár writes,

“A halt man can ride a horse. The handless
can be herdsmen. The deaf can fight bravely,
a blind man is better than a burned man,
and a dead man is of no use.”

There wasn’t a stigma for disabled people at all, as long as they fulfilled a purpose and helped the community in some way, shape, or form. This, however, did not save some infants from being killed because of severe birth defects. Infanticide, especially female infanticide, was prominent in the Viking Age. (The is evident in Gunnlaugs Saga. Thorstein said to Jofridr, “So you are with child. If you should bear a girl, it shall be exposed, but if a boy, then it shall be raised.” )

So, the question still stands, can one adequately follow this sort of moral code while living in the modern world? Even with all of our advances? I don’t see why not. Hospitality, kindness, and respect are three of the major virtues evident in Norse culture, and most, if not all of us, are able to follow these. If anything, I say more people should follow these and follow the Norse way of life. I see too many Heathens hating people because of their misconceptions about the Norse morality, and, honestly, it’s quite annoying. I know I’m a lover of lore, but a little reading won’t hurt anyone, especially if they want to adequately reconstruct the Norse people’s virtues and moral code.

Thank you all for reading, and I hope you all have a fine Frigga’s Day!

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