Pagan and Heathen Ethics

by Leif Njordsson

The issue of Pagan and Heathen Ethics is often a subject which promotes considerable discussion. As a broad topic, Ethics relates to the Society in which one lives and is frequently described as "standards of behavior relating to and influenced by that society."

This places Pagans in frequent dilemmas, since the primal influence on societal ethics in the Western World is undeniably Christianity. Most Pagans/Heathens within the western world are Pagans/Heathens by choice rather than by birth, and have generally adopted this form of spirituality as adults, after recognising the spiritual void offered by the traditional options. This means that in our formative years most modern Pagans/Heathens have had the Christian based ethos deeply ingrained within them.

This means that while modern pagans/heathens adopt a new (for them) spirituality inherent with its own ethos, whether it be the Wiccan Rede ('an ye harm none, do as ye will) or Asatru "Nine Noble Virtues", when pressed, pagans quite unwittingly, often revert to the safety and comfort of their childhood ethos, with its black and white view of matters, rooted in hundreds of years of Christian indoctrination. The fact is, that a true Pagan ethos is rarely so black and white as the traditional Christian ethos.

Probably the most elastic Pagan ethos is the Wiccan Rede already mentioned. It is possible to argue that the Wiccan Rede (a relatively modern development), is often misinterpreted by both adherents and detractors of Wicca, who both focus on the "do as ye will" part and conveniently forget the responsibility of the "'an ye harm none". Of course the entire Wiccan approach to ethics raises the pertinent issue of "What is harm?". Who do I harm, and is harm only physical in this context, or also psychological and social?

Asatru has taken a more definitive approach to living, with the majority of adherents citing the Nine Noble Virtues as the basis for action or lack thereof. The Nine Noble Virtues is also a modern development, but it has a historical connection as it is claimed to be a condensation of the behaviour principles found in the Havamal. While the Nine Noble Virtues go nowhere near having the "set in concrete" status of the 10 Commandments of Judaism and Christianity, they do provide a more complete and comprehensive basis for a Pagan/Heathen ethos than the very generalised concept of the Wiccan Rede.

When one compares the Wiccan Rede with the Asatru Nine Noble Virtues, one immediately notices that the principal themes are different. The principal theme of the Wiccan Rede is "harm" as in "'an ye harm none". This is in fact more significant than first meets the eye. "Harm" not only refers to the people with which we are in contact in society but also to "oneself", a fact often overlooked. The person living by the Wiccan Rede, must ask themselves "how, and in what manner my actions will harm those around me as well as myself". Conversely there is no imperative to do any actions which will benefit oneself, or those around, unless failure to act could, in some circumstances, be viewed as causing "harm".

The Asatru Nine Noble Virtues on the other hand, make no mention of harm at all, but rather focus on the concept of "honour" as the principal underlying theme for ethical action or inaction. This is in addition to honour being a specific virtue in it's own right. It would appear to me that all of the virtues listed in Nine Noble Virtues (and these are only nine of the more significant virtues outlined in the Havamal) relate back to the single underlying theme of "honour". The key question which an Asatruar must ask themselves is "Is it honourable?" and this is relevant to all of the Nine Noble Virtues.

Here lies one of the key divergences between the Wiccan Ethos and the Asatru Ethos. The Wiccan concept of "harm" is extremely close to a pacifist perspective (although many Wiccans could not be described as pacifist) whereas the Asatru concept of honour in no way excludes doing "harm" where honour demands it. Indeed there seems to be no restriction on "harm" at all as long as the manner in which it is done is honourable and the reasons for which it is done are both honourable and just.

As a final note neither Wicca nor Asatru consider the issue of sexuality to be worthy of a specific mention in regard to ethics. This is contrasted with Christian having a significant focus on sex and sexuality in it's ethical base. It would seem that both Asatru and Wicca believe that it is well enough covered by the principles already outlined, and that the issue sexuality and relationships lie in the domain of the individuals concerned, provided that no breach of the aforementioned principles have occurred. That said I was once told by one Wiccan that Homosexuality was offensive to the God/Goddess concept. This is however not the view of the majority of Wiccans

(c) 2001 Leif


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