Among the many foreign concepts perpetrated on my ancestors by the invasion of Christianity, one was the idea that belief mattered. Ancient paganism, whether from Northern Europe or elsewhere, is orthopraxic rather than orthodoxic, meaning that it is about what one does and not what one believes.
Many come to modern heathenry with a focus on gods and rites. This is understandable, as most of us were raised with Christian influences (even if we did not grow up Christian) and many of us came to heathenry via Wicca as the latter is the most accessible of the modern alternative religions. These factors set us up for a gross misinterpretation of heathenry, however.
Remember that the ancients had no word for “religion” until they needed it to describe Christianity. For the ancient heathen there was no separation between what we would call “spirituality” and the rest of life. Going forward, we’ll investigate this concept in more depth.
For now, let us remember our focus: we are bring order to our world via the toolkit of heathenry. We’ve seen so far the heathen creation story, and we’ve discussed how Anglo-Saxon heathens physically lived. What made their “enclosures” work, however, was not their houses and their walls; it was their virtues or thews.
There are several lists of virtues associated with modern heathenry. None are ancient in and of themselves; they are modern compilations based upon the study of heathen world-view. The most well-known of these would be the “Nine Noble Virtues” of Asatru. I believe that the best list is from Eric Wodening’s book We Are Our Deeds: The Elder Heathenry – Its Ethic and Thew.
- Bisignes – industriousness
- Efnes – equality; equal justice for all
- Ellen – courage
- Geférscipe – community mindedness; putting the good of the community above one’s self
- Giefu – generosity
- Giestlíðness – hospitality
- Metgung – moderation or self-control
- Selfdóm – the ability to be an individual, true to one’s self
- Sóð – truth; honesty
- Stedefæstnes – steadfastness
- Tréowð – troth or loyalty
- Wísdóm – wisdom
Let’s look at these individually and in greater depth.
From the Anglo-Saxon word for “business,” a good modern term for bisignes is industriousness. To be industriousness is to be “constantly, regularly, or habitually active or occupied.”
Ancient heathens were not lazy.
This doesn’t mean “busywork,” however. When taken in the context of the greater heathen worldview, this would be those actions or activities that bring benefit to one’s family, clan, or tribe.
One is of no benefit to one’s groups if one is dead, however. Do not take industriousness to extremes and risk exhaustion and illness. Bear in mind, also, that the better one is, the more one adds to his/her groups. Working out, learning, and practicing one’s skills are examples of ways in which our industriousness benefits ourselves as well as our kith and kin.
This Old English word means “even” or “equal” and is used here to refer to equality. Equality is “the quality or state of being equal: the quality or state of having the same rights, social status, etc.” Evidence suggests that the heathens of old judged others by their actions alone, and they valued law, justice, and fair and equitable treatment.
Although women in heathen society did not have full legal equality, they were afforded more rights and privileges than the women of any other society of the time. There is also no evidence of racism among the heathens of old.
The message of this thew, then, seems clear enough: let us judge others by their actions and not their gender, the color of their skin, or any other factor.
Bear in mind, however, that the application of this pertains to one’s innangarðr. We are under no obligation, for instance, to be even-handed with those who do not afford us the same.
In the Anglo-Saxon language, ellen referred to “zeal, strength, power, vigor, valor, courage, and fortitude.” Our modern word “courage” suggests having the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” It isn’t about being fearless, but instead deals with our response to fear; it’s having the “intestinal fortitude” to take correct action regardless of the danger.
It is easy to feel courageous when there is nothing to fear. We do not know how we’ll react to a particular situation until we are faced with it. Remember, though, that this is what is “right” in heathen terms. Let that knowledge give you strength when you are faced with frightening situations.
Translating literally as “society, fellowship, and brotherhood,” geférscipe denotes community-mindedness. In tribal societies, the good of the group tends to take priority over that of the individual. Everyone had to do his or her part for the survival of the group (and for themselves, as they could not survive on their own).
When one examines the roots of our words “good” and “evil,” one sees that in their earliest English forms, they could be interpreted to mean “that which is good for the group” and “exceeding due limits,” respectively. This is a powerful indicator of how our ancestors felt about geférscipe; it was, literally, the determining factor of what was considered good vs. bad.
That which aids in the maintaining of order and frith in the innangarðr is good. That which does not, is not.
(generosity — to be added)
(hospitality — to be added)
Metgung translates to “moderation, temperance,” which entail “avoiding extremes of behavior or expression,” “observing reasonable limits,”and “restraint exercised over one’s own impulses, emotions, or desires.”
Moderation is often praised, and with good reason. In obsession and over-indulgence, we can lose ourselves and consequently our value to our family and tribe. Extreme behaviours are also likely to exceed “due limits” and make us less compatible with our groups.
In heathen societies, a person could be “outlawed,” which is to say that they are set outside of their community and the legal protection that it affords. Extreme behaviours put one on track to the state of being outlawed.
Translating to “independence,” this is the conception that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals, and it stresses individual initiative and action.
Having spoken so much of the needs of the group in these thews, this might seem a bit out of left-field. Consider, though, how the ability for one to act on his or her own can ultimately benefit the group. Ideas begin in the minds of individuals, and many a great human achievement would never have happened were it not for one person who believed when no one else around him or her did.
Additionally, the idea of personal responsibility is one of great significance to both the heathens of old and those of today. I believe that in selfdóm we see this reflected as well.
Defined as “very true; the opposite of that which is false or merely pretends or has the appearance of genuine real; true in conformity with the actual state of things.” It is also “fairness and straightforwardness of conduct” and “adherence to the facts.”
Sóð, then, is not just what one believes to be true but what one has confirmed. The heathen has a responsibility to do his or her due diligence before making statements or taking stands.
It is important to remember that truth is only owed to the truthful:
“To his friend a man | a friend shall prove,
And gifts with gifts requite;
But men shall mocking | with mockery answer,
And fraud with falsehood meet.”
Again, we can see how innangarðr and útangarðr might become factors.
Defined with such terms as “steadfastness” and “constancy,” stedefæstnes is to be “very devoted or loyal to a person, belief, or cause; not changing.”
Is not this the core of frith? I am reminded of Grønbech’s reference to “reciprocal inviolability.” It is loyalty that does not waver; commitments that cannot be violated.
Although it likely went without saying in older times, for moderners, this steadfastness should apply also to our heathenry. Without firm devotion to the effort to remold one’s views into something akin to that of the heathen, one is likely never to make noteworthy progress.
Some of the modern terms associated with tréowð are “truth, veracity, faith, fidelity, pledge,” and “covenant.” Tréowð is “loyal or pledged faithfulness; fidelity,” and “one’s pledged word.”
Even the newest of heathens generally know that heathens keep their oaths. To say that a heathen’s “word is his/her bond” is an understatement; it is fundamental to the heathen’s social order.
What we say we will do, we must do. What we commit not to do, we must not.
Wísdóm is a complicated concept with many definitions. Perhaps most fitting in this context is “accumulated philosophic or scientific learning” and the “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships.”
Although it may not be obvious from the outset, in taking these first steps you are on the road to greater understanding and, potentially, wisdom.
Although I am hesitant to summarize (for fear one might reduce all of the above, which itself is a scant first-pass look at them.) Still, let’s recap in a nutshell:
A heathen is someone who can “stand on his or her own two feet” but uses that strength for the good of kith and kin; s/he is hard-working and fair-minded; s/he is a person of integrity who values learning toward an end of becoming a better person; s/he is loyal to his or her family and tribe; and s/he is strong of character, not given to excess; a consistent person and one in whom “what you see is what you get.”
We must not overlook reciprocity in all of this. These thews are for the most part social and are most powerful in terms of one’s kith and kin, i.e. the innangarðr. Where there is one who does not keep the thews, the whole can begin to implode. This is why heathens used outlawry, the casting out of the tribe of offenders, whether for a fixed time or permanently. Harsh though it may seem, those who are not completely playing their parts cannot be tolerated for long, as one person with the wrong attitude can unhinge an entire tribe.
It is important to remember that these are not commandments given from on high. These are practical ideals; these are the attributes of an ancient heathen, to the best of our knowledge. England became a dominating military force, gave birth to what is now the world’s leading “super-power” (the United States), and the grandchild of the Anglo-Saxon tongue (English) is one of the most-spoken languages of our planet.
These are practical, useful; tools that serve the greater good of family and tribe.