• Jess

Beyond Good and Evil: Heathen Ethics

Updated: Jan 20

This week started with a lively conversation on good and evil in a Heathen (Norse Pagan) context. We spent about two hours trying to move away from good and evil, since within our lore and the stories of our gods and spirits, it's not a concept which really works. Often, good things come from unfortunate circumstances. If Loki hadn't cut off Sif's hair (and been threatened by a rather angry and creative Thor), Thor wouldn't have mjollnir, Frey would be without Skidbladnir and Odin wouldn't have draupnir or his spear, gungnir. More on that in a minute.

*Before we go any further, let me say that as Heathens, our ethics are as varied as our hearth cults (the practices we have at home for honouring our ancestors, land and house spirits and the gods). Some people hold to the Nine Noble virtues, others treat the Havamal (the sayings of the High One (Odin)) as gospel, and still others do something entirely different. The views I'm talking about here are my own, gleaned from lore study and personal practice and personal gnosis.

Maybe you're already wondering: "If you have no concept of good and evil, then what stops you from causing harm? Why would you bother doing something kind?" I've got a number of different answers to that particular question, but let's start with the two most important. Within Heathenry, we have some concepts which really shape our understanding of how we relate to the world and how the results of our behaviour affect us and others.

We have our hamingja, which is often loosely translated into English as meaning "luck". Our hamingja is something which can be strengthened or depleted based on what we've inherited from our family and how we conduct ourselves. I think of hamingja as being like a battery.

When we uphold our word, share our resources with others, work to the best of our ability, relate respectfully to the land and our community members, we're charging the battery. When we're dishonest, hoard our resources, do less than we're able to, etc, we drain the battery.

Sometimes, our family may have habits which are harmful and support disconnection, and this affects the strength of our hamingja. We can see this mirrored in what we know about epigenetics and intergenerational trauma. Often, we behave the way we saw trusted adults or authority figures behave, unless we become aware of ways that isn't working for us and actively put energy into learning a more skilful way of responding.

If what our caretakers had modelled for them was neglect, abuse or other unhelpful behaviours, they likely repeated these behaviours with us. We can work to shift this by conducting ourselves in ways which support kindness, mutual respect and connection.

We also have our wyrd. Like our hamingja, our wyrd is inherited from all the generations before us. I think of wyrd as not just our ancestral blessings, but also our ancestral challenges, things like harmful learned behaviours, addiction, hereditary illnesses, etc. Wyrd is spoken of as being woven, and if you've ever tried spinning or weaving, you know that if you move too fast or aren't attentive to what you're doing, you can end up with tangled knots.

We want our wyrd to be smooth, so it's helpful for us to behave in a way that supports that, and it's invaluable for us to reflect on the inherited beliefs and behaviours we don't want to continue, and find new ways of relating to ourselves and others. Wyrd is a web, much like our relationships are a web, and our family's wyrd is connected closely to our own.

This brings me to my second important reason. Growing up in a very Catholic household and in a society where Christian influence can still be strongly seen and felt, and choosing to follow a different path meant that I had to find a moral compass which didn't rely on promises of reward for following the rules or punishment for breaking the rules. This took a long time, and eventually, I settled on a value system which works for me. This value system is based on legacy, usefulness and compassion.

By legacy, I mean conducting myself based on the kind of ancestor I want to be and how I want to be remembered. I want to be remembered as someone who was kind and generous, who was trustworthy and supportive of those she loved, as someone who encouraged and inspired others to trust themselves and share their gifts with the world.

Next comes usefulness. Viewing my beliefs and behaviour through a lens of usefulness is one of my single most important ways of cutting through leftover moralizing and judgment. Is what I'm doing helping me to achieve what I want? This is almost always a question which can be answered with a yes or no. Useful to what though?

Useful to me practicing becoming a kind ancestor, and useful to my last point: self-compassion. For years, one of my guiding principles for decision making has been "If I do X, will I be able to look myself in the eye at the end of the day and feel at peace with who I am?" If I'm ever anything less than completely certain I'll be able to answer yes to that question, I don't do it.

To me, self-compassion in practice looks like moving away from behaviour that harms myself or others and moving toward behaviour that helps me recognize my best effort, be accountable for my actions and choose to pursue repair for any harm that was done. These three values feed into each other.

Because I want to be a lovingly remembered ancestor, I evaluate my beliefs and behaviour based on if they're useful to that goal, and if they support compassion for self. Compassion for self helps me to foster compassion for others and show up in a way which is supportive of the kind of person I want to be.

Within Heathenry, it's often said that "We are our deeds". In many ways, our deeds speak for us. They show other people what we value, what we're willing to do to achieve our goals, and how much we see ourselves as connected to and accountable to community. The company we keep matters.

It's rare to see someone who is kind, generous and responsible keeping close relationships to those who are cruel, stingy and reckless. In part, I think that's because we adapt to our environment and the behaviour that we regularly see framed as acceptable can shift our moral compass over time. If the people we spend most of our time with make promises with no intention of keeping them or don't follow through (and we see that happen enough), then maybe we start to think that honouring agreements isn't so important. There's some good advice on this in the Havamal.

That's not to say that people can't change. It's been my personal experience that often, when people are unkind to others, there are essential needs that haven't been met and they feel unworthy of kindness and unsure of how to show it to others. Living in a society which places profit before caring for people, short term convenience above environmental sustainability and self-indulgence over care for the collective, there are a lot of harmful behaviours for us to unlearn.

This takes time, it takes the courage to be vulnerable and admit when we've done something we're not proud of, and it calls on us to take time in self-reflection and ask the people we trust and respect to help us show up differently.

This is a complicated topic that can often bring up strong feelings. What I've shared here is just a snapshot of something I'll continue to write about. As always, I'd love to hear from you. What would you like to know more about?

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