The second part of this trifecta has been a while in coming for a number of reasons, including (but not limited to!) the demands of work, my social life, and a handful of other things. Among these, not the least of which is the complexity of the topic.
As described by Grønbech, honor is bound inextricably with blood vengeance. That is something from which we modern Americans, for the most part, are wholly removed. We have the good fortune of living in a place and time in which most of us will never suffer from something for which blood vengeance would be required. And for many of us, even if we did, the laws of our society would prevent us from carrying out that which we might consider doing.
I believe there is value in understanding how honor was perceived among the heathens of old, even if we do live in a far-different world. And, if we are honest with ourselves, we might find ourselves forced to admit that if our own family members were victims of heinous crimes, we might find ourselves wishing that “the old ways” had survived.
So let us begin with my extracts and comments from The Culture of the Teutons.
“Frith and honour, these are the sum of life, the essence of what a man needs to live fully and happily.”
Well that seems safe enough, no? But what, exactly, do we mean by “honour”?
“Honour at once brings up the thought of vengeance. It must be so; he who thinks of honour must say vengeance, not only because the two are always found together in the stories, but more because it is only through vengeance that we can see the depth and breadth of honour.”
Of the modern definitions of the word, I believe we are fairly safe in a heathen context to say that honour is to fulfill one’s obligations and to keep one’s agreements.
Honour, however, is often exemplified in the record of the elder heathens as being related to vengeance.
Bear with us, the good professor and I, and let us speak to you of vengeance. Let me say up front that I am in no way encouraging unlawful acts; however, let us consider the possibility that our laws are in conflict with the heathen worldview, for better or worse, and let us hear the voices of our ancestors through Grønbech’s words:
“The Germanic mind had as little conception of the word retaliation as of the word punishment.”
Vengeance was not carried out to punish, nor to retaliate in an “eye for an eye” fashion.
“All depends on what he does, not on what the other suffers. The avenger procures something; he takes vengeance.”
As we will see going forward, vengeance is about recovering something that has been stolen from the kith and kin of the slain.
“Two things are requisite for right vengeance; that the offender should fall by stroke of weapon, and that the weapon should be wielded by the one offended. If the slayer, before the matter could be settled, perished in some other wise — either died a natural death, or was killed by accident — then the offended parties had none the less their vengeance due to them; they must then look to the offender’s kin… Nor would the injured family regard it as any restitution that the offender should fall by the hand of a third party unconcerned in the affair; their vengeance was yet to come, for they had not yet ‘gotten honour over their kinsman.'”
[post-sticky note-id=’2426′]In order for the balance to be redressed, it had to be taken by the offended party. In the offense, honor was lost; in vengeance, it is regained.
“Vengeance, then, consists in taking something from the other party. One procures honour from him. One will have one’s honour back. … An injury done occasions a loss to the sufferer. He has been bereft of some part of his honour. But this honour is not a thing he can do without in case of need, not a thing he requires only for luxury, and which the frugal mind can manage without. He cannot even console himself with the part that remains; for the injury he has suffered may be likened to a wound which will never close up of itself, but bleed unceasingly until his life runs out. If he cannot fill the empty space, he will never be himself again. The emptiness may be called shame; it is a suffering, a painful state of sickness.”
It was in my own personal studies of honor and vengeance that I came to know of a recognized sociological area of study known as “Southern Honor Culture.” It would seem that in the southern United States that honor has lived much longer than in other parts of the United States and has become a phenomena worthy of its own scientific specialization. It is in these next few words of The Culture of the Teutons that “Southern Honor Culture” can be heard loud and clear:
“…blood need not be shed to endanger life. Honour might ooze out as fatally from the wound made by a blow from a stick, or by a sharp word, or even by a scornful neglect. And the medicine is in all cases the same. … Unless honour were taken for the injury, the little sore would, so to speak, lead to blood-poisoning.
“An insult, or an accusation, no less than blow or stroke of weapon, bends something within the man, something that is called honour, something which constitutes the very backbone of his humanity.
“The insult can be regarded as a kind of poison, which must be cast out and flung back upon the sender. And thereafter, the sufferer must get back honour again from the offender, for the full and complete strengthening of his humanity. Mere self- preservation forces one to seek restitution for any injury; for a man cannot carry on life in shame.”
As fellow-southerners, you no doubt need not hear an explanation of why this portion of our ancestral ways is so clearly a part of the ways of the South.
Nevertheless, our laws prevent vengeance and our society, having had “vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord” shoved down their throats hear these words of our ancestors through the voice of Grønbech as barbaric, uncivilized, and immoral.
I write this not to change your mind but to open it.
What if a man killed your son for a few hard-earned dollars from his wallet? Or raped and murdered your daughter? Horrific, and no, you don’t even want to think about it.
But chances are, you, like me, would want to take that man’s blood. And I do not believe you would be in any way morally incorrect in doing so.
Again, a topic that will be address more later is the heathen idea of that which is disruptive to social order as being “wrong,” and in the modern American social order, taking blood-vengeance is disruptive to that order. It is “heathen” to observe the conventions of the communities in which we live.
I believe it is a worthwhile mental exercise for us to consider these words of our ancestors and admit the possibility that what each and every one of us would want to do is in fact what we should be allowed to do by law.
We are not, however, and therefore it must remain a mental exercise, with a couple of exceptions. First, I have written a “Heathen Rite of Vengeance” that could, after much time, afford us some degree of spiritual and psychological release should we find ourselves in need of the collection of the vengeance debt; this will appear later in the text.
Second, let us not lose sight of the modern definition: “to fulfill one’s obligations and to keep one’s agreements.” Hopefully none of us will ever have the need for blood-vengeance; if we do, then we will find ways to work proactively with the existing legal system to find justice for our kin. And, regardless, we have the option of always adding to our own honor in positive ways, by fulfilling our obligations and keeping our agreements.
With a few more words from The Culture of the Teutons, let us move past this difficult topic and into the next:
“Humanity itself is dependent on the pulsing in the veins of a frith-honour. Without it, human nature fades away, and in the void there grows a beast nature, which at last takes possession of the whole body.”