It is my firm belief that Asatru’s moral never worked with the concepts of right and wrong, and I hope to prove that in this paper. Asatru focused on the concepts of just and unjust. A just action was honourable, an unjust action was dishonorable.
Right and wrong as we use them today are Christian concepts. The start from a dual world view, typical for all semitic monotheistic religion. In the beginning you had the just god, who created man, yet the evil spirit of Satan destroyed the perfectness of this creation by introducing evil, typically by seducing woman into trespassing upon a forbidden terrain. This vision also justified and in some religions still justifies the unequal treatement of man and woman. The reasoning being that since woman was easily seduced by the evil one, she by nature is more easily temped by the dark side and must be kept at bay by man, the more properly oriented member of humanity.
None of these distinctions exited in the original European religions. Good and evil weren’t the basis of their moral believes, and as I have discussed in an earlier contribution, the conception of the value of women wasn’t less then that of man, although a certain separation of tasks did exist. Yet in this distinction of tasks never was included the notion of male superiority. Women could trade, even go to war and gather a warband, recent research seems to suggest that a significant number of the warriors in a viking warband were women.
As modern westerners we are used to think in the lines of the Christian vision, since this line of though has governed our ethics for more then a milennium. So it will take some adaptation in order to find out what this original vision implied. Adapting this ancient vision to our new modern world will also take some thought since our world is based on an elaborate set of rules and certain actions considered honorable by our ancestors will no longer be tolerated, just think of the concept of blood wrath.
So just what now was considered just and what wasn’t? Just was any action that supported previously taken engagements or ties. I explicitly add the latter, since some ties where not to be chosen nor of a contractual nature, such as the natural family bonds. But this doesn’t suffice to give any given action a just character. In order to be just, the action was to be made public and not be hidden. You were free to resort to ruse or lists in order to achieve your goals, but once you had achieved your goal, you had to openly claim your actions to the world and as such also to your enemies., enabling them to take honorable (just) countermeasures. You had the obligation to offer them the option of retaliation, you had to offer them the possibility to act justly themselves.
More then that, to act justly was considered a moral obligation, the family and surroundings of the one you had hurt with your just actions were obliged to seek retribution (which was also considered just). There was no obligation to retaliate immediately, a very clever revenge, carefully prepared was held in much higher esteem the the wrath taken in the heath of the moment, since the latter might very well cost you your own life. And then what was the value of your revenge? A very fine example of these principles is given in the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, and more specifically his death and the revenge taken on king Aella by Ivan the legless ( In most English texts he is referred to as the boneless, but I considerer this to be a mistake, the saga rather seems to state he doesn’t have legs. He did clearly have bones as is made clear by his actions in battle and his strong sword arm).
When Ragnar dies in the snakepit, he claims “the piglets will avenge the boar”. This is a first reference to the moral obligation of his sons to avenge him. After his death, Aella does the honorable thing and sends envoys to the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok in order to announce them he has been the cause of Ragnars death.
The majority of the sons wishes to avenge their father immediately, with a direct attack on King Aella, thus trying to avenge the wrong that has been caused to their family.
Only Ivar retains his calm attitude and refuses to aid his brothers in their rashness. It would seem he is not set upon a harsh revenge and doesn’t feel much like taking up his moral obligations. But in reality he plans the revenge of himself and his brothers with great care.
He refuses to aid his brothers in a wild attack which might cost them dearly, and instead he asks financial retribution of king Aella, and he claims land to build a city. The king agrees if Ivar vows never to take weapons against him. Ivar stated his revenge is accomplished and satisfied.
The story continues as his brothers feel themselves betrayed by Ivar, since they wanted immediate retribution. Has Ivan treated his kin unjust in refusing them their revenge?
At first sight he has, but being the most intelligent of them all, he has understood that Aella can only be beaten by a clever ruse. Thus, as soon as he has established his city, he starts to convince other lords not to support Aella should the latter be attacked by his brothers. Then he sends a message to his brothers stating that the time is ripe for their revenge, however he adds that he himself is bound by the oath he has given king Aella, he cannot take arms against him.
In the end Aella is heavily defeated with limited losses to the brothers, since half of his lords won’t come to his support. After Aella’s defeat Ivar continues to subject England and thus gains even greater honor and wealth.
In this entire affair Ivar has thus acted justly and honorably. He has taken rightfull revenge himself, has honored his promise to Aella and offered his brothers their own possibility for revenge, in the whole scheme, increasing his own wealth, and never breaking his bonds of kin and fealthy.
Whereas I have stressed hereabove that honor and justness were identically this isn’t entirely true.
Some just actions are honorable, but in order for an action to be honorable they are first of all required to be just. Suppose someone murdered your father, and the bloke who did it were far to mighty for you to taken open revenge on him. You can only muster a fraction of his forces. Thus you decide to take revenge in burning down his farm with all in it at night. Of course you must not forget to proclaim this action openly thereafter. You have acted justly, but not very honorably. Your honor might increase however, if you allowed all women and children to leave the building before it is utterly destroyed. If one of the woman in the home (as does Gudrun in the Siegfriedsaga) would therafter refuse to leave her spouse and in doing so chooses death, she acts justly and very honorably as well in her own right. A very good example is found in Njalls saga. Old Njall is given the opportunity to leave the burning house. He refuses and says “I am an old man unable to revenge my sons, and I will not live in disgrace” . This is a fine example of honorable conduct of both the assailants and the assailed.
Another portion of dishonerable deeds are the stupid and rash deeds. You were just in attacking single handed the army of you opponent in order to get revenge, but was that a honorable deed?
It is clear that this system of feuds can not endure in a more structured society, such as a medieval kingdom. I threatens to permanently destabilise society since the cycle of revenge has no end.
Thus the Germanic and later Viking kings try to structure this system into a less violent system of recovering their honor. You act justly and honorably when you bring the one who offended you before the courts and the court condemns the offender to pay you a financial retribution. This also assures that differences in numbers are far less important and that weaker families still can acquire justice. This was a major setback in the original system, wherein lesser families had to endure injustices made by larger and mightier families.
Justice is also no longer assured by individual action, but by the decision taken by the king and his representatives. Not respecting this decision is considered a dishonor and will again lead to you being brought before a court, this time for having offended the king.
Although honor still played an important role in the original system we also notice that this inevitably must lead to less emphasis on honor in the justice system .The fact that this legal mutation coincided with the advent of a new religion with a different set ofv alues greatly supported the demise of honor is and its replacement by the concepts of good and evil.
Honor became at first restricted to either the strictly moral sphere in the sense of personal honor, or to the sphere of pure fighting men, who still have the prerogative to settle their differences in a joust. In the later evolution, we also see that the concept of honor gets largely ritualised (e.g. Slapping each other with a gauntlet )
In the mean while we see that the concepts of good and evil completely replaced those of honor and dishonor. This evolution was greatly supported by the central power since the became the guardians of the good and used this prerogative as a mean to bring the entire justice system in their regal prerogatives. Slowly this lead to the creation of public prosecutors and official courts.
Seeking justice as an individual meant going to the administration of the royal court, formulating you complaints and then trusting upon the kings actions in order to find and punish the one that had harmed you.
The state prosecutes, condemns and punished, and imposes a retribution on the misbehaved . The state also determines that the retribution you get is to be considered just, not only by the person convicted, but also by the victim and the rest of society. Honor no longer was part of the process.
In a modern society we must accept that our honor is served by the legal systems that form the backbone of our society. If we feel our honor has been (seriously) injured we can only rectify this dishonor by addressing the state. If we are not content with the decision made by the state, we must satisfy our honor using the legal procedures provided by the same system, that is why something as appeal exists.
Honor as such can still be sought after, but merely in those areas of life that are left untouched by the state, in friendships and personal relationship. Yet it is clear that if we are being treated dishonorably by another we cannot satisfy this anymore by physical action. Rather in our age, honor is assured in the way you bear th burden of being dishonored. Keeping your head high, breaking all bands and not giving in unless the other one had offered you an apology etc.
Another important thing is to acknowledge that there is no such thing as good and evil. Realise that every society determines what it considers acceptable and what is doesn’t according to its own place and age. Only 50 years ago homosexuality was punishable in most western countries. Up until the seventies in most western legal systems states woman were still to be obedient to their husbands. All of this has changed, a husband that beats up his wife after she has cheated on him is no longer considered to be protecting his honor, on the contrary he is considered to be acting very dishonorable.
Thus it is important as a modern heathen to realise that there is no eternal right or wrong, and that even the concepts of honor and dishonor can be coloured in differently in different times and places.
This is a quite threatening realisation since it proves that every moral system is build on swampy marshland. But it is also reassuring for those considering that the systems mistreats them. Since it gives them hope the rules can be saved in the future. In the end it is this hope for improvement that forms the basics of a modern democracy.