Our ideas of “right,” “wrong,” “good,” and “evil” have long been influenced by Christianity, and currently get perpetuated in the media based on our common understanding. If we are to know the culture of the ancient heathens, we cannot do so without ingesting their ideas about these fundamental concepts.
Eric Wodening’s We Are Our Deeds – The Elder Heathenry – Its Ethic and Thew provides a strong basis for beginning such a study. Using linguistics, the author examines English words and their origins in an effort to determine what the ancients really meant when they used terms like “good” and “evil”.
“Good” seems to trace back to the Proto-Indo-European *ghedh-, “to unite, to join, to fit.” This root led to the Proto-Germanic *godanaz (“suitable, fitting”) and eventually to our modern word. The Proto-Germanic *god- meant “to bring together, to unite.” Logically, then, the heathen idea of “good” likely meant “that which is good for the group,” the groups being families, clans, and tribes.
This fits well with the emphasis on frith that we’ve seen from other scholars such as Gronbech, who said “the individuals in this community show in all their doings that they are inspired by one passion: the welfare and honour of their kin,” and considered frith to require both reciprocity and inviolability. To serve frith was to act in a – no, the – fundamentally “good” way.
Coming from Proto-Germanic *ubilaz (“exceeding due limits”) which itself has a basis in the Proto-Indo-European term *upo- (“under, up from under, over”), our modern words for “evil,” as one might expect, present as an opposite of “good.” We all have a certain level of tolerance, both as individuals and groups; exceeding those limits is “evil.”
It’s important to note here that there is no indication of some sort of “ultimate” in the sense of the Christian ideas of evil and Satan; “evil” is simply “crossing the line” and passing the boundary into that which is not good for the group. Nor are these absolutes, for what might be good (or bad) for one group might be a neutral or even opposite in another. In other words, what is an evil act for Tribe A might be inconsequential for Tribe B, and therefore, to the latter, not “evil” at all.
It is one thing to read these words, but another to accept them. Too often I have seen people bringing their societal ideas of good and evil to heathenry and/or paganism in general. While it is fine if someone wishes to behave one way or another, it is erroneous to label as “heathen” that which is, in reality, Christian and/or modern social convention.
As a heathen, I know that the only “good” is that which is good for my groups, and to do bad for my groups is to commit acts of evil. That is the sole heathen measure of good and evil.