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There exists a community of people, though politically very heterogeneous, that feels attracted by the moral values they allot to a virtual people: ‘Ancient Germans’. This naming, though simplifying as it is, is not inappropriate since there is a community of ancient languages that all are resulting from Germanic linguistic roots. The people who spoke these languages are ‘ancient’ in the sense that one can find traces of their existence before the beginning of our era and that they left us many details on their way of living, during the first millennium of our era. They are also ancient by the fact that they resisted the advances of Christianity with some success until year 1000, date of the official conversion of the last bastion of Heathen resistance in the Germanic world, Iceland. The detailed knowledge we have on their way of living mainly comes from three sources distributed in three areas. These sources are historical, archaeological and legendary and come from continental Europe, the Scandinavian world, including Iceland, and the Anglo-Saxon world.
Each one of these areas developed its own Futhark. By studying the old Germanic Futhark, we can convince ourselves of the major bonds existing between these various Futharks. They differ by the importance they put on a given concept but they share a common view of the world, a philosophy of life that we will study here. Since their ethics are based on the ‘ancient’ way of life, it is quite obvious that they are very different from the modern ethics, based on the conjunction of the Christian Churches ones and the modern belief in a “humankind in progress.” The goal of this chapter is not at all to criticize Christian ethics but to present what we can know of Heathen ‘Germanic’ ethics. I am quite conscious of the fact that speaking of a Heathen ‘Germanic’ ethics can already be felt as an antichristian attack. Let me thus make clear that my sole goal is to explain the moral teachings of the runes and of the Heathen literature, mostly its poetry. In particular, the Rune Poems teachings largely differs from the moral judgments considered as obviously correct in our current society. How do I know of this ‘obviously correct’, which may be very different from an often ridiculous ‘politically correct ‘, but which really grounds our sense of morality? I know it by my everyday life, for example by the reactions of my close relations (and especially by my children statements which sometimes baffle me … “I could not have taught that to them!”), by my readings, especially those which seem not related to morality, as are comic strips or science fiction, or by analyzing the moral judgments implicitly made by the journalists when they choose the questions that they ask to their guests, etc.
I do not know and I am not interested in knowing if the origin of this ‘obviously correct’ is Christian or not. For example, I will tackle the problem to know if human relations must be based on mutual love or on mutual respect … my good sense tells me to believe that the importance of love in our civilization is related to Christian religion, but I do not see either why this religion would neglect respecting each other! I am satisfied to claim that ancient Germanic ethics gives to love a secondary role and do not base ethics on mutual love, but on mutual respect.
An appendix will broadly describe the ancient Germanic world I just cited. I hope, though, that most of my readers will be familiar with it.
The categories of ethics
The moral laws I uncovered during my study of the runes and of the poetical Edda are very different from the ones that are currently ruling our opinions. I thus feel compelled to precise where these moral categories fit in the general thinking of our time. For instance, I deal with the old category of ‘good versus bad’ as all kinds of theologies and traditions have done for ever. I however point at how much this category is dangerous, as we shall see and I propose to come back (this is often called ‘reconstructionism’) to what I believe to be ancient rules.
Below is a drawing that shows the structure of the moral relationships as I met them.
The categories of ethics
Each of them is, in our society, classed as carrying the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ or the ‘unbearable, disgusting’ depending on individual or social behaviors, and what a cosmogony figures. For instance, our Germanic cosmogony might be judged as disgusting in its description of Ymir’s dismembering in order to build our world, as performed by primary gods.
As you see on the drawing, moral laws are brought about from three sources. The influence of cosmogony may look surprising. It is however very usual, think for instance of the moral influence of the legend of Adam and Eve eating the apple of knowledge.
Each of these subcategories is judged in three levels: good, bad and ‘disgusting’ (or ‘revolting’ or ‘worse than bad’). The last mark may look surprising. It renders the idea that we receive, during our early childhood, a large amount of moral information from our social environment. This information tends to remain unconscious in us and to provoke deep feelings of the kind “this is unbearable!” that lead to qualifications as ‘disgusting!’ or ‘revolting!’ As an example, ponder how much children mistreatment is now ‘unbearable’, whilst it was commonplace during the 19th century.
We will now explain what is meant by these categories, most often by contrasting them to our present days beliefs. For instance, the category “enjoy your body” is usually vaguely reproved of (especially if pleasure is associated to body damage) while, for us, it is unethical to refuse enjoying our body (except if pleasure is associated to body damage).
[In Icelandic sagas] “great emphasis is laid on certain moral values and ideas, many of which are very ancient in origin, being pre-Christian and even contrary to Christian teachings.”
Jónas Kristjánsson, Icelandic sagas and manuscripts, Icelandic Review, 1980, p. 50.
Respect, friendship and generosity are the three bases upon which is built the ethics linked to Scandinavian mythology and the knowledge of Germanic runes. These three words will be used in a slightly particular sense that we have to explain. To achieve it, we will have to use or analyze several concepts, namely love, faithfulness to a word given, compassion, despising conceit, ignorance and knowledge, being wise versus being unwise. This last set of words will be used with their usual meanings. The links among all these words, in this ancient Germanic context, are often very different from what we are used to. For instance, we often oppose contempt and respect while we shall see that they proceed from essentially identical attitudes except that they differ by the generosity with which they are handled. As another example, I am used to observe that even highly knowledgeable persons end up confusing generosity and compassion, while they represent, for us, two absolutely opposed behaviors.
I need to place here two side-remarks in order to stifle at once some negative over-reactions to my proposal.
All these ideas cannot be seen as discrete features showing insuperable frontiers separating the one from the others. Two ‘opposed’ features are usually both present in the mind of everybody and the intensity of each feature can vary in a continuous way between say, 0 and 1. It would be real boring to repeat and repeat that again each time I am trying to set up a difference between two features … please add yourself this idea to each of my arguments to come. For example, I’ll try to set up strong differences between respect and love. Completely non-respectful love, or loveless respect are very rare. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. True, runic ethics gives more importance to respect than to love, it does not advise to forget that both have their place in each one’s mind.
We should not forget that many different factors are relevant to the morality of a relationship. Some features happen to be so overwhelmingly preponderant in our social life that I have to underline at once that they are almost meaningless in our runic ethics. In this ethics, it is almost irrelevant, when ‘judging’ of the morality of a relation between to humans, to take into account the following features:
- How old are they?
- How wealthy are they?
- Do they have sexual relationships or not?
- Do they believe in the same gods or the same God?
- What is their cultural background? (What we express by: “What is their ancestral inheritance?”)
Note: In the following, all citations in between “ ” are my translation of documents written in Old Norse.
I and the other ones: assessing Me and the Others
Before speaking of the above three bases of our ethics, we have still to see how our Ego, our Self, is related to the others’ Egos. As opposed to many Far East attitudes that advise self-effacement or forgetting our Egos, runic ethics insists on a proper self-assessment, which does not mean an oversized Ego but respecting our own Self, considering it with care, in order to be able to properly assess the Other. All considered, runic ethics criticizes solitary persons, happy in their solitude, because they are thought being unable to really know themselves. In other words, knowing the Other is looked upon as a necessary condition to the knowledge of the Self.
These two behaviors cannot avoid some kind of assessment, possibly not precise, of what are the strengths and the weaknesses of each one, Me and the Other. This is a real assessment, not a judgment, which always carries a sentencing undertone. This evaluation can be carried out in three different ways.
The first is an objective assessment where the assessor (Me) keeps aloof from the assessed, being Me or the Other. This is generally not felt as a ‘judgment’.
The second one is what is often called a judgment, that is a scornful or disparaging evaluation. The judge (Me) tries to emphasize how much he is better that the Other, and tries also to forget what is better in the Other than in Me. Such behavior will be defined here as a ‘conceited assessment’.
The third one is the reverse of a conceited assessment since the assessor tries to forget in what the Other is worse than Me, and tries to emphasize where the Other is better than Me. It will be defined here as a ‘generous assessment’.
My own experience is that generous assessments are very seldom while the conceited one are very common. This explains why so many persons hate being assessed: they guess it will turn out to be a conceited thing, and they are very often right.
In the following we shall see that the notion of generous assessment is primary within our ethics.
Love and friendship
Love is, within the present day civilization, a primary factor in human relationships, while its passionate aspect is belittled in Scandinavian mythology. In a long poem where god Óðinn (« Odin ») explains his own ethical choices, Hávamál, stanza 94 states that “the powerful need for love changes de wise ones into oafs.” More humorously, stanza 90 compares a (male) lover to the rider of a “frolicsome steed running without crampons on the ice.” Another poem observes that lovers “share many oaths but hold very few of them,” as it is said of Sigurðr (Siegfried) and Brynhildr. In a world in which respecting the word given is an essential part of human relationships, this statement is really belittling for love.
Friendship, on the contrary, is an essential base of human relations as already stated. It is explained in http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/OnTheContracts.htm : this friendship is sealed by a contract that lists the rights and duties of each one of the friends. The sentimental side we associate to our kind of friendship, if it is not forbidden to ancient Scandinavian friends, is at least a facultative plus. We would rather call fellows or allies these who are described as ‘friends’ in the Old Norse texts,. They will be called, from now on, fellow-friends. The furtherance of such a fellow-friendship is based on a mutual faithfulness to the terms of the contract – this defines a faithful fellow-friend. Besides, wisdom and fellow-friendship are linked. A stanza even says that a wise one brings much to his fellow-friend and such a fellow-friend is the one who does not breach the contract. Symmetrically, another stanza states that the unwise one has no fellow-friend.
Respect, its links with conceit and generosity, and love
Respect and contempt follow from comparing the worth of Me and the one of Other. When a person compares his/her Ego to an Other, and he/she is generous, he/she will try to note the better of the Other – or at least in what the Other is not inferior to Me. Me will be able to know why he/she respects Other. If Me is not generous, he will assess nothing but the Other’s mediocrity and this lack of generosity will drive Me to despise Other: He will behave with conceit and arrogance due to his conceited assessment.
Respecting the Other leads to balanced relations among humans: “A human is known of another human his/her words, the lonely oaf is known by his/her conceit.” This poem explains that exchanging words is the key to balanced relationships among humans, those who despise cut themselves from humankind by the means of their conceit.
Another poem deals with handicapped persons and explains that, in spite of their handicap, they deserve respect: “A cripple rides a horse, a one-handed drives the flock, a deaf one behaves outstandingly in combat …”
Respect for my reader is almost compulsory! … and I have to temporarily stop my enthusiastic reasoning in order to be honest with him/her.
The word ‘respect’ itself is very seldom used in the texts and the words translated by ‘respect’ rather mean ‘reverence’ or ‘sparing someone’s life’. Respect itself is most often left implicit and lack of it is described in a tragic situation. For instance, announcing Ragnarök (the end of the human and divine worlds), a poem says “human beings have no more respect for other human beings.”
Here are three examples where a respectful fellow-friendship is clearly described, even if the word respect is not said. A stanza says: “Young was I, I travelled alone, I thus took the wrong road; I felt being rich when meeting another human.” Another one, though it could be confused with a laud of stinginess, actually describes how friendship can be born with little means: “With a half-load of bread, I made myself a fellow-friend.”
A third respectful attitude that may look even out of place in the present context, is the one of the relations between gods and humankind. In Hávamál stanza 111, Óðinn states that he will really start teaching rune knowledge to humankind. You already know abundance of myths in which a god or God decides to teach people. Compare these myths with the way Óðinn approaches humankind.
It is high time that I chant
from the seat of Urðr’s source,
kept by the wise poet and storyteller.
Therefrom I watched,
I saw and I kept quiet,
I fell silent and I thought,
I understood and I lent an ear,
I heard the word of humankind.
Isn’t it amazing that he would speaks with the majesty fit to a god though he does not come to force his words down our throats, but to listen to us? This may be a unique display of respect from divinity to humankind.
A respectful assessment is necessary in order to enable Me to properly interact with Other. In our society, an assessment often takes the following form: the features of assessed, respectfully or not, and weighted in accordance with the amount of ‘good’ and of ‘bad’ carried by Other. When someone has been judged mainly bad because of a deviant behavior, it is even classical that his/her redemption depends on the amount of remorse he/she feels. We can then expect that, again respectful or not, an assessment in terms of amount of good/bad will never be willingly accepted and cannot serve as a bridge between individuals.
In runic ethics, guilt is looked upon as dangerous by itself and the very concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are not really significant. They will be replaced by a score of other features such as usefulness or dangerousness that do not entail automatically a guilty feeling. It follows that we will avoid using the words ‘good’ and ‘bad, which are loaded with guilt, which in turn confuses the issue.
In our civilization, the ethical value of love is so huge (not speaking of sexuality) that it crushes the ethical value of respect. As we just see, runic ethics is wary of love and favors respect. The importance of love relative to respect is the reverse and fellow-friendship takes more importance than love.
It may even happen that the friendship relationship is described in terms that we would presently use to describe a very deep and pure love. Hávamál, stanza 44, states: “You know that if you own a friend, one you fully trust … you must then blend (him/her) in spirit.” And stanza 121, insists: “Sadness eats your heart, if what you say does not reach someone’s whole spirit.” It is striking to see that these stanzas imply that a fellow-friendship can well evolve into a relationship we could call a ‘symbiotic love’, which is often featured as excessive. In our civilization, we can imagine that a love might evolve into a strong friendship, not the reverse. This illustrates how much respect comes first and love second in the ancient Scandinavian civilization and the reverse in ours.
Generosity and compassion
As I pointed out in the beginning, our civilization tends to confuse generosity and compassion.
[As a supplementary difficulty, some persons do not speak of compassion and would rather use ‘empathy’. ‘Sympathy’ would also be possible. Empathy and sympathy are inner feelings that trigger the acts of compassion, not compassion itself. It is obviously possible to enlarge the meanings of these words so that they could express a peculiar way of compassion. We could add that they provide some hearty side to a too dry generosity. They are thus useful to generosity though not imperative to it.]
They are strikingly different from each other in runic ethics.
Let us start with an example illustrating a generous behavior being of primary importance in runic ethics. In the section above, we insisted on the destructive effect of guilt. An essential feature of generosity can be expressed as follows:
A generous behavior always tries to avoid making Other feel guilty.
Inversely, it is possible to act with or feel compassion without taking care of the guilt caused by compassion itself.
This example illustrates the following more general difference. The first step of generosity is a generous assessment of Other (or Me!), as already seen in the above section. An assessment, however, does not stop at this early stage; it has also to attribute a value to the quality of the respect deserved by the Other. For any number of reasons, Other might not deserve your respect, it is though necessary for your Ego to do its best in order to perform a generous evaluation: this is not intended to provide excuses to Other, but to avoid you falling into trap of scorn, which excludes you from humankind. Inversely, Other may deserve your respect on some point or feature, which means that you feel him/her being better than you relatively to this feature. Generosity ‘runic-wise’ does not stop at a mere acknowledgment (which happens very seldom in our society!), it has to go further towards a need to help this Other one in achieving his life plans, to fulfil his/her destiny. Covetous or self-conceited ones, that is, those ‘non generous’ in the runic meaning of generous, on the contrary, will put all their will and strength to oppose these who oversize them in one feature. In other words, a generous person acknowledges his/her strengths and weaknesses, and agrees to use his/her strength in helping the better person. Conceit, obviously prevents from acknowledging anything better than one’s self.
On its side, compassion, in the best cases goes through a generous assessment of Other, it however works exactly in a reverse way: Feeling compassion amounts to acknowledge or feel a grief within Other’s spirit, and to share this grief, due to compassio (this Latin word means ‘shared suffering’). Me feels superior to Other and decides to help this inferior person.
Since admiring the Other actually is much rarer than despising the Other, it follows that generosity is seldom applied, and compassion is often applied. This remark justifies the criticism addressed to both: Generosity happens too seldom and compassion is too much indiscriminate.
In the texts of runic nature, it is striking to note how much ‘uncompassionate’ they are. Stanza 2 of Hávamál seems to me an excellent example of this ‘lack of’. It describes a welcome guest: “Welcome to those who come with gifts! …He has to hurry who is near the firebrands, to put himself to test.” The first sentence says that a guest being always slightly inferior to his host, he will be welcome (that is: his host will wield his generosity) only if he does not come empty handed. The second sentence tells us that who sits in a special place has to self-check, that is to prove that he is or not worth of holding this place. That a person has to assess oneself and be assessed is particularly obvious and the host’s generosity will apply to these who deserve it.
This kind of generosity may seem to you not enough generous (in the usual meaning of the word) and also dreadfully devoid of compassion. The reason for this feeling is perhaps that we live in world that claims very loud its compassion – though it is actually stingy in its compassionate deeds. Might it also be that our Me are not used to acknowledge Other’s superiority?
Note: The texts I cited are taken in a poem, Hávamál, Hava (Hár’s, Óðinn’s) – mál (speech or measure), I believe to be wholly dedicated to teaching runic knowledge.
On my site, at http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/IntroNewHavamalEng.htm , you find a complete translation that tries to provide a Heathen view of this beautiful poem. The runic teaching is often hidden. For example, in the part named Loddfáfnismál, some stanzas look really incongruous. Their hidden meaning is perfectly proper, though, and their grotesque aspects are nothing but a way to hide the truth to those who do not deserve it, that is non-respectful readers.
and rejecting physical pleasure is immoral. Our society calls Hedonist someone who enjoys the pleasures of life: it is considered as an admissible philosophical choice, however not an admirable one. To be really accepted, it has to reach the status of a refined art of living, it cannot stay the crude self-enjoyment anyone can obtain. Inversely, the role of rune Wunjo is to praise, and give some amount of majesty, to a simple everyday well-being and to physical pleasure that life can provide us. Wunjo straightforwardly says to us that physical pleasure, be it sexual or not, is a healthy activity which does not need further justification.
The rune Gebo is the rune of love. The love it glorifies, however, is not the abstract love of others you are supposed to love as much you love yourself. It glorifies a concrete love, the one you share with your ‘best half’ who is incredibly close to you, someone you share physical pleasure with, and who, after some time, also becomes family.
Our morality does not require to take into account the demands of a God who is almost insanely interested in each of our small or great pleasures. We do not fear a weak minded Devil who is supposed to lead us to vices, a kleptomania afflicted divinity who tries to steals souls with a fastidious frenzy. For us, this little war between God and Devil is not worthy of the majesty of our divinities.
The Social Sides of Ethics
« … in spite of their natural politeness, (the Todas) could sometimes not refrain from showing their contempt for conduct which we are accustomed to look upon as an indication of a high level of morality. It is in the matter of ethical standards that the difference between the Todas and ourselves comes out most strongly. » W. H. R. Rivers, The Todas, MacMillan, 1906, p. 23.
Remember that we receive from our childhood life experience our faculty of judging what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and even more so, what is ‘disgusting’ (that is: unconsciously repelling) or ‘acceptable’. The way our parents react to what is happening, the stories that they may tell or hide, their wordless mimics, all that sets up the basis upon which our ethics are built. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to become conscious of what has been thus instilled into us, and to become able to accept or reject it as a responsible adult. This is why the rules of morality that I will now describe may appear to you as unethical. You might feel them as immoral or even not relevant to morality. This large gap between our current morality and the one still in use in the Scandinavian worlds some thousand years ago is explained by the way our triumphantly aggressive rationalism twisted or sorted Christian concepts to its own uses. The example that I gave earlier is perfectly typical: Christian thought, as far as I know, recommends love and respect to the others. On the other hand, ‘rational’ modern thought tends to forget respect and is focused on love and compassion for other, supposedly less fortunate, people. The ancient thinking that I will now present to you is based on a firm balance between what is rational and irrational, though it strongly rejects irrational superstitions, and on Heathen spirituality that pervades everyday life. It is not surprising that it would lead to a morality and a philosophy of life radically different from our current Western beliefs.
You may be surprised by the fact that I present some features as individual morality while you have been taught to look upon them as social behaviors. Your classification in individual morality versus social behavior is born from the implicit teachings you received in your childhood. My own expertise on the topic simply comes from the fact that I received teachings that were very similar to yours.
Thus, the morality rules of which I will speak of are related to the knowledge and the acceptance of one’s destiny, with the respect of the others and to keep one’s word, with the moral primacy of action over intellectual speculation, with the proper behavior towards accumulating riches (here, we have something in common with Christianity), with a deep acceptance of our ego (here, we oppose to some oriental beliefs), with the moral importance to take pleasure in our living body (here, we find back some behaviors calla ‘pagan’ or hedonist), all together with the primacy of respect and generosity over love and charity.
Somewhat funnily, our society expresses two opposed positions with respect to the glorification of the ego. On the one hand, there is a ‘politically correct’ position, seemingly inspired by the moral laws of the main religions. It recommends humbleness in dealing with oneself, it classifies pride among the sins and confuses vanity and shallowness by claiming: “vanity of vanities all is vanity.” On the other hand, the current morals that impels our actions requires a “building of our own destiny” that recommends to be “by ourselves and in ourselves”, that we should give forth our “major deep personal traits.”
Both positions sound deeply immoral from the point of view we develop here. On the one hand, our lives are not at all pointless, pride can be positive, and excess of humility may hamper our task of discovering and trying to achieve the tasks set for us by the Norns. Conversely, this destiny really does not rest on our deep ‘ourselves’. It rests rather on our place as a simple bond between our ancestors and our progeny. Avoiding excessive humility as much as self-importance and practicing a realistic pride are important moral values, here is the lesson of morality which seems to come out of the runes.
Another contradiction of our modern society on this topic is that it glorifies sacrifices achieved by compassion, while preaching a thorough concern for individual integrity. This concern goes even up to castigating the concept of sacrifice made to the gods (“How horrible! Nothing but offerings are allowed …”), and to set up as an absolute crime human sacrifices that our ancestors undoubtedly practiced. This is particularly hypocritical in a society where billions are sacrificed on the altar of economic prosperity: indeed, many people forget their ego, simply because they have no other choice. The thrashing against sacrifices is delivered by well-fed people who can revel in their ego and forget their role, though a tiny one, within large social decisions. Anyhow, this criticism of our society has no other goal than stressing that hypocrisy is a very good way to hide self-centering. We rather want to emphasize that, in what we call runic ethics, sacrifices are done in a state of mind where we have to forget our selfishness, since they are only done for honoring the gods (not for asking them favors!). Individual integrity is much less significant than a complete harmony with our individual self, our ancestors and descendants, and the social and natural environments.
Another of our great mythological poems is called Völuspá (prophecy (spá) of_the_seeress (völu, genitive of völva)). It describes the state of the first human ones, Ask and Embla before the gods give them the features of a living being by specifying that they were ørlöglausa, without destiny (and lítt megandi, little able of acting, of which we will speak below under “Moral primacy of action on speculation”). The gods then will confer to these bodies the properties which make life, but they are not in charge to give them an ørlög (a destiny). In other words, in our tradition it is not enough to be a living human to be automatically granted a destiny. As the Old English Rune Poem states: “Each one must share much if he wants to obtain a destiny on behalf of the Master,” implying that having a destiny is something to be deserved. That does not mean there are two human types, one that deserves a destiny and the other that does not. On the contrary, the moral law as we understand it from our old texts is very simple at the start: each one must act as honorably as possible, as far as he or she is able to, until destiny knocks at the door. At this very instant, the Norns grant you a destiny, they honor you, they do not curse you, and it becomes wrong, ‘disgusting’, to refuse your fate. Simultaneously and somewhat paradoxically, it is also immoral to passively give up oneself to this allotted destiny. In fact, the proper moral behavior is as follows. Either the being who has just met destiny still owns some degrees of freedom and this freedom must be used to achieve this destiny instead of fighting against it. Or this human being is totally caught in some kind of inescapable snare and is unable to change his destiny. In this rare case, the only proper behavior is accepting this destiny with as much dignity as possible. A myth perfectly illustrates this last attitude. It describes the fate of a hero who is locked up in a pit full of venomous serpents, his hands cut, and he plays until death the Scandinavian harp with his toes. Even in these somewhat worst cases, non-passive acceptance is requested. I understand well those who find all that ridiculous or even funny, but is not the attitude of these over-smart ones a little bit disgusting?
All this does not determine our everyday life behavior, it only does during crucial crises when our life is at play. In everyday life, this moral rule cannot directly help deciding what is morally acceptable or not. However, each decision must be weighed according to its possible role in our own possible destiny. This way of weighting our decisions constitutes the basic moral rule dictating the management of our lives. I would not be surprised if you react by saying: “Fine, but by promoting this moral rule as supervising all other rules, you then may also promote as acceptable behaviors I judge as being revolting?” My answer is that you are right, basing our moral principles on finding or fulfilling our destiny might drive us outside of what is believed to be acceptable.
Let us now analyze of few consequences of the above basic principle in our relationships to death, our heredity and social behavior.
1. Death. It may seem that the sole rune Kaunan points at hard facts of our lives: body corruption, the multiple warnings of a fore coming deaths, the slow decline associated to ageing are obvious part of our lives and of our hidden terrors. Our current civilization chooses hidden thus all the more frightening. Death is nevertheless the only part of our destiny we can be assured of. As a consequence, refusing death is as immoral as speeding up our unavoidable decaying. It is necessary to accept this slow decline of our vitality by riding it, not by undergoing it.
Applying this moral rule to suicide is very complex and would need a whole book by itself. Suffice to say here that suicide is obviously not always to blame. When destiny pushes you to live without the dignity you have been used to, when you feel that all the roads are blocked to you, nevertheless remember, all scaled down at your own level that, as the Northern hero did, you can still play the harp with your toes!
2. Heredity. Runes Naudiz and Othala, teach us that another component of our destiny is our belonging to an inheritance line of which we only are one tiny point. It is immoral not to recognize what we inherited from our ancestors and, if we have children, what we will bequeath to our children. Seen from a social point of view, stressing so much inheritance and bequest could lead to a racist or closed society. Seen from a personal point of view, it simply deflates our ego. A careful balance between these two points of view has to be established by each person.
The old texts speak of the powerful Norns, mistresses of humankind’s destiny as a whole, who rule the behavior of these human lines. They have three functions that are not specially linked to time-flow, as opposed to what state all translators.
Skuld ((he/she) ‘Shall-Should’) is the Norn of the not yet born possibilities that are still in the form of seeds. It is ‘disgusting’ to refuse to acknowledge the worth/danger of possibilities of the seeds that our ancestors brought to us. Part of our destiny certainly is to help some of these seeds to bud or, as well, to eliminate some others.
Verðandi (‘Becoming’) is the Norn of blossoming, this is why it is ‘disgusting’ not to seek to take part in the growth or the destruction of the budding seeds transmitted by our ancestors.
Urðr ((they) ‘Became’) is the Norn of achievement. It is ‘disgusting’ to be blind to what our ancestors already achieved and to give no care in transmitting or curbing what we achieved.
3. Social behavior. Social life means living with our neighbors, thus with their ancestors and their offspring. The one component of a harmonious social behavior, which is implied by having a destiny is the need for intertwining all these destinies, rather than trying to keep apart one ‘pure’ line. So far, our social environments have developed only two ways of dealing with this problem, both vaguely disgusting. It is either a soft one, in which the problem is simply ignored, or a hard one where the borders are mindlessly closed. The only attitude compatible with old Germanic morality, at least in my opinion, is to study the problem with serenity to know to which quantity of the “world’s misery” we can open our arms without destroying our society and our moral values. As you see it, and it will be often the case, the attitude which I describe as belonging to the ancient Northern ethics is the same as a simple rational attitude.
To conclude on the topic of the respect granted to the rulers of destiny, let us recall the following Norse ominous curse: “yðr munu dauðar dísir allar! for you the Dísir are all dead!” Too many people now throw this curse upon themselves and even find a source of pride in doing so. The main conclusion I can draw from all the poems that reached us, is that this behavior, was looked upon as revolting by our ancestors.
Here is the other moral law that touches both, individual and social behaviors. Lack of respect to other people obviously causes social disturbances, it is however mostly a self-shame, much more for the insulting one than for the insulted ones.
This moral judgment appears most visible in the texts relating a story including a commitment taken between two characters. As an example, I was struck by the fact that Judith Jesch, starting with a purely linguistic analysis of the skaldic poems and the runic inscriptions, can show us that the word drengr (which means, in ordinary use: a ‘guy’) describes, in the runic inscriptions, someone who did not betray his companions when facing difficulty. A sort of reverse is also very usual, the funerary inscription speaks then about a courageous man betrayed by his companions in spite of having been a gódhr drengr, a good guy. To keep or not to keep one’s word appears a primary qualifying feature, bringing praises or insults beyond death. This is why an oath is a serious constraint that binds you more than you could believe. An oath is a contract, one of the kinds it is forbidden to revoke, as opposed to a normal one.
On this topic, and as a limitation to the binding enacted by a contract, remember what happened to Skadhi when she accepted to end her revenge quest provided she could marry the god of her choice while seeing him. You know that the gods tricked her by letting her choosing among them, but she could only see their feet and she chose the ‘wrong’ one. When the gods committed themselves to the contract, nothing said that Skadhi should be able to see them in full, and they felt free to show her only their feet (Note 1). This myth seems to report a myth telling that taking advantage of some misunderstanding relative to the exact content of the contract is not forbidden. The gods did not break the letter of their given word, but they ruthlessly used the fact that Skadhi interpreted the contract in a different way than theirs. It looks as typical casuistry, and (Note 1) explains why there is one context in which some casuistry is not forbidden.
The largest majority of oaths can receive several interpretations and leave a possibility of partially escaping to keep one’s word. The contracts that have restrictive clauses written in tiny letters at the bottom of the page try to reproduce the Æsir’s trick to Skadhi, and we rightly call it cheating. Though very similar, this example shows a large difference with Skadhi’s since, in her case, she is in a position of power relative to the Æsir: she is claiming wergild for the killing of her father. The real ethical point lies in the relative power position of the contracting parties. When the powerful one writes the contract, such is the case with Skadhi, the less powerful ones then seem absolutely right to try cheating the more powerful one.
A much clearer case also happens so often! People swear behaving in some way, and they hasten, as soon as it bothers them, to behave exactly in the opposite manner. For example, they do an oath of reciprocal assistance and, as soon as feel like it, they drool poison on whom they promised their faith. This last attitude is obviously disgusting, and simply forgetting an old contract – this fortunately takes place much more often– is also looked upon as immoral. This casualness calls to mind a lack of respect for the others, and uncovers a lack of respect for oneself.
A particular form of respect, the one due to the ancestors, is also very important in this ancient civilization. When I speak of rune Othala, I quote a very few of the poems that stress how much dangerous it is to disturb the dead ones: Necromancy makes use of them, it does not give them proper respect. Some naive children calling on their dead mother are the only ones who are not cursed for transgressing this rule. Except in this special case, disturbing the dead souls causes at once their anger. This is why necromancy is not so much unethical because it is usually done with a destructive goal but because it does not show respect to our dead ancestors.
I however believe that the respect due to others primarily shows in the moral value of self-liability. Each one has to feel responsible for his/her actions. When harm happens, looking for someone else responsible of this harm instead of evaluating at once our own responsibility is also a really disgusting practice. Its origin is in the lack of self-respect (“I am too weak to be accused!”) and the lack of respect for the others (“This other person is the guilty one who should be prosecuted!”) In the legal system, the procedure of “pleading guilty” tries to promote self-liability. You however know well that the judicial system tends nowadays to promote the contrary by applying the letter instead of the spirit of the laws allocating responsibility, as shown by the mushrooming of ridiculous signposts warning of obvious dangers, such as the one on the Golden Bridge that warns you that jumping down this bridge is harmful!
Our great poem describing what is proper behavior, the Saying of Hár (Hávamál), points at a serious, though not obvious, bond between self-respect, respect of the others and the ancestors. Its eighth rune song (verse 153) beautifully stresses how futile quarrels due to the lack of mutual respect will calm down if each squabbling party agrees to take in hand its destiny (see rune Naudiz).
A simple moral rule emerges:
“Respect other people, as you would like them to respect you, and keep your devoted love for your close family of blood and heart!”
(Note 1) The story of the fraud done to Skadhi is somewhat intricate. Some detailed explanations seem necessary here.
Seemingly, the gods breach their word given by a casuistic trick. This however shows us very precisely what is really dishonest and what is not.
First of all, is Skadhi really a naive victim? Certainly not. She is a particularly powerful giantess since is able to go in Ásgardhr to require a wergild (for the death of her father) on behalf of the gods. She knows that when going alone to Ásgardhr, she is takes the risk to be disposed of without any form of lawsuit, but she also knows that if she claims for a wergild, which is a consecrated request, then the Æsir will have to comply. She thus puts them in situation of weakness. As said above, when a contract is forced upon you, then any ploy in self-defense is ethical.
the moral of the story is not: “If you seek to impose something to the gods, they will swindle you in any event, even if they gave their word not to.”
Morals of the story are:
1. When a contract is forcibly imposed, it is moral to seek to circumvent the contract by any possible means.
2. When an oath is forcibly imposed, it is ethical to answer to force by intelligence and deceive the stronger person.
3. Despite everything, when an oath is made, it should be respected to the letter. The one who edicts the contract or the oath has to take care avoiding all possible loopholes in it.
Before stating the fourth consequence here a very simple example.
Suppose that for a reason or another, you decide freely, without constraint, to swear to come to clean my apartment. This more or less means that you will come to clean at home when this is necessary. You do not swear nevertheless that you will remain constantly at home with a vacuum cleaner in hand.
2'. The weak one should defend oneself, even if he/she is bound by an oath – a long as the letter of the oath is respected.
I already insisted on the fact that the human forms from which Ask and Embla were made had no destiny. They were also lítt megandi (‘little action-taking’). Thus, for the author of the poem Völuspá, it was also obvious that whoever is unable of action is not really human. It is besides acknowledged by all the specialists that a striking feature of old Scandinavian civilization is an admiration for active humans. The rune Laukaz, rune of ‘viridity’ (according to Hildegard von Bingen’s definition, viridity is the force that lifts tree sap – modern meaning is greenness) praises this lushness, this internal liveliness, which is in charge of our actions. Inversely, attraction for speculation, so typical of intellectual people (a group to which I belong!) is never praised in our texts (Note 2). I find striking that Hávamál constantly makes fun of unwise ones, i.e. of who have no good sense, but it does not exclude them: It only excludes those “moody from conceit,” as we have seen. Hávamál certainly underlines that too much silliness prevents an efficient action.
To some extent, it is quite obvious that physically or mentally handicapped persons hamper action, but Hávamál provides no moral judgment by which their handicap could be blamed. Living with handicapped persons belongs to our destiny and they should be treated with respect, as any other human beings, not with compassion. In other words, the moral rule stated in the above section specializes thus:
“It is enough to respect others, including these who are looked upon as handicapped persons. They do not expect your love, nor your compassion, neither your pity, which humiliates them more than it helps them!”
You note that, despite everything that claims modern morals, respecting the Norns is not only the source of respect of other persons, but also it is linked to primacy of the action being seen as a moral judgment. For instance, lack of respect for the others is typical of whomever remains locked up in his/her books, satisfied to speculate (as I like also to do …) about declensions and recensions, and refuses to act and feeds on his/her contempt for the others (that I do not). An active being must take into account the natural, social and human facts. This can be done with respect or brutality, and this last case is unfortunately the most common. This ‘rubbing against’ can fortunately be done with respect for the others and, in this is a case where primacy of action over speculation finds its best moral value.
(Note 2) The reader may contradict by citing the famous poem Hávamál, which draws so many barriers between the ósviðr maðr, or ósnotr maðr, (the unwise human) and the horskr or snotr (wise) ones. These are the proper meanings of the words, in spite of all the variations introduced by the translators. Thus wisdom is highly praised, not speculation. Note also that the primary meaning of svinnr (here spelled sviðr) is ‘quick’ thus ósviðr primarily means ‘slow’ and its usual use is metaphorical: ‘slow of thinking’, thus ‘unwise’. Our civilization puts emphasis on speculation, thus the translators, not unwisely, speak the language of their readers and often translate ‘unwise’ by ‘stupid’ or the like.
The moral judgments associated to wealth seem to be quite erratic since they always oscillate between criticism and praise.
As a good example of it, consider the argument between Thórr and Ódhinn, as described in Gautrek’s Saga. For each wealth granted to Gautrek by Ódhinn, Thórr immediately finds means to make of it a poisonous gift.
Richness is the prerogative of great men, provided they are generous enough to quickly get rid of some of it, otherwise it will become a source of discord.
Fehu is the first rune and yet it means ‘wealth’.
In fact, the solution of these contradictions is extremely simple and of good sense. You remember the rune Ingwaz, associated it to Njördhr in my understanding of the runes. This god is the one from whom wealth is requested, he is also the god of balanced richness. Quite simply and as good sense tells us, the best is avoiding greediness while allotting proper respect to wealth.
This is also illustrated by a tradition that provides a lot of respect to women, yet describes them as gold carriers. The Nibelungenlied gives some idea of what could have been this tradition by describing queen Sieglind as being riche (a Middle High German word), that is to say noble and powerful. Because of that, she cannot avoid liberally distributing her ‘rotez gold’ (her red gold) to ensure the popularity of her son Siegfried. This behavior is described as ‘alte site’ (an ancient habit) by the song. This tells us that this behavior is not specific to queen Sieglind: the antique habit is that a powerful woman gives her gold with open hands:
siglint div riche nach alten siten plach
Sieglind the powerful from the ancient tradition acts
dvrh ir suns liebe teilen rotez golt
through her son’s love distributes red gold
si chvndez wol gedienen daz im div livte waren holt.
she can full insure that to him people were held.
To be or not be a human being
A few lines in the Hávamál speak better that anything I could say (stanza 57):
funi kveikisk af funa; flame self kindle from flame;
maðr af manni human from human [also ‘self-kindle’]
verðr at máli kuðr Will at the measure known
en til dælskr af dul. is that moody from conceit.
As you see the last three lines cannot be understood without the image of a fire kindling a new fire. They thus mean: “human becomes human by meeting other humans, and this assesses the (lack of) humanness of the aloof one who hides inside him/herself.”
And stanza 47:
Ungr var ek forðum, A young was I formerly,
fór ek einn saman: walked I one self, [I walked alone]
þá varð ek villr vega; thus became I wild [or bewildered] to move. [thus I moved wildly, erratically]
The skald describes his loneliness as a form of harshness he underwent during his youth. Meeting other people and sharing ideas with them makes of you a human person. People who put themselves outside of humankind because they despise (they “show conceit for”) other humans. This ‘definition’ of humankind calls for three remarks. The first one is that conceit, nowadays a mild flaw, is told to be what excludes you from humankind. It has thus been that behaviors based on conceit and its parents, greed or jealousy, were looked upon as socially unbearable. The second remark is that there is nothing like the concept of someone being “less than human” because of some handicap. As soon as that some kind of communication takes place between humans they do belong to humankind and their rights and duties can be defined. It is even the case that deeply retarded persons who cannot communicate are not excluded as long as they do not stay away from their human siblings (who are thus in charge to help them to fully integrate humankind). The third remark is that an ethics should push us to avoid loneliness, otherwise we will become a (still human) savage.
As we all know, our society generates isolation, especially among the aged ones who are put apart in retirement houses. This is one of the most obvious example by which we might realize that our modern society is far from improving in all respects on more primitive civilizations, including the Old Germanic one, which concerns us here. ‘Primitive’ has become a condescending term while, in some respects, it should be held as laudative. This chapter provides several other examples of regression of the modern world. This absolutely contradicts the belief of our elites in the undisputable value of what they name progress. This phenomenon is particularly conspicuous among ethnologists who study the primitive societies. Under the scientific cover of objectivity, they unwillingly apply the value judgments that implicitly run in our civilization. Thus, while doing their best to avoid it, they report the primitive behaviors in a condescending way. It is extremely difficult to stay really objective. On our topic of study, we already met here as objective beings Mrs. Jesch and Dillmann, and there are fortunately many others, especially within the linguistic community.
Another way of losing the human statute is to become a living-dead. As shown by rune Othala, this is linked to the refusal of giving proper respect to our ancestors and to our descendants. On this point again, our society is based on a kind of ‘forward rush’ that prevents appreciating the past and that eats up the future. This makes of us a civilization of living-dead beings, a large progress indeed over primitive societies!
Charity vs. Generosity
While discussing this topic with friends, I realized that, even if they agree that compassion can be pure hypocrisy, they call ‘generosity’: Having “a good heart” and showing compassion for the less fortunate ones. Finally, they call ‘generosity’ a compassion done with sincerity. This is an example of how much our society confuses generosity and compassion. These two words do have a commonality in the sense that they both imply sharing material wealth. Compassion, however, is still compassion when performed in a patronizing way, while generosity never demeans and might be performed with admiration. When the generous donors are wealthier, they implicitly acknowledge that there exists a social dimension by which they are lower than the receiver. Generosity requests respect from the donor to the receiver, while compassion does not. Compassion requests love from the donor to the receiver while generosity does not. Obviously enough, there exist charitable persons who respect whom they give help. Obviously enough, there exist generous persons who love whom they give help. These feelings are not at all opposed and I cannot say that respect and generosity are morally superior to love and compassion. I only claim that our present day society tends to confuse them and tends to give supremacy to the social role of compassion. Inversely, the old Germanic civilization would draw a neat line between the two, and would see respect and generosity as much more important social features than love and compassion. My claim rests on the fact that I did not find many traces of praise for compassion in the poems and the sagas. On the contrary, generosity is praised as an admirable trait by many skaldic poems and sagas.
Long life to freedom!
The now classical shout “Freedom or Death!” is popular enough to stress the importance of personal freedom. This was already true in the old Germanic world with, however, two important restrictions.
Rune Othala suggests that our right to freedom is bound to our ancestral heritage. This link makes legitimates our need for freedom. As a consequence, lack of freedom becomes unbearable and ‘degusting’.
In addition, in the principal religions, neither God nor his Saints are supposed to protect human freedom. Conversely, in our tradition, as well Ódhinn as Týr are in charge of lowering the arrogance of the powerful ones who set up tyrannical rules.
All things considered, in the current civilization, only strength-enforced freedom violations are looked upon as unbearable. Any kind of gentle freedom curtailing is complacently judged as morally acceptable and socially useful. Such are commercial advertising and the ‘politically correct’ dominance, especially when applied to children. Conversely, in our tradition, these obstacles to freedom without physical violence are not less immoral than the others ones, and they sap the base of a respect-based society.
A gyno/macho society?
We lived such a long time under a strongly patriarchal mode that we regard as a feminist victory what should be ordinary, such as that equal work brings equal wages, that women can be in political position of responsibility, etc. As described in the Appendix, certain Germanic tribes lived under a matriarchal mode, an unbearable (and indeed disgusting!) fact for Tacitus. This world preserved, at least in its myths, details that became stories, which tell a history where women power has been substantial. This obviously shows in the everyday life attitude of these women, such as described in the Edda poems and the sagas. But what seems even more characteristic to me, are details which unexpectedly come forward in a tale and which are not even underlined by the narrator. It thus happens some heroines show a ‘typically male’ behavior and this is looked upon as ordinary. Here are four typical examples.
In Völsung’s Saga, two extremely significant details are given whereas Sigurdhr wakes up and frees Brynhildr. She tells him that she has been punished by Ódhinn because she caused the death of the king who was supposed to win the battle. Ódhinn pricked her with a svefnþorn (a sleeping thorn) and predicted to her that she will marry. She then adds that her answer has been a solemn vow (she uttered a heitstrenging) to never marry any man who would experience fear. Nobody seems to be surprised that a Valkyrie may partly counter a decision coming from Ódhinn himself. He is stronger than her, but she will relentlessly do her best to rebel. In the sentence of the saga that follows her speech, Sigurdhr who has just overcome nothing less than a dragon, finds normal to ask her: “Kenn oss ráð til will stórra hluta.” This means exactly: “Make me know the advice for hard fates,” which is often translated by “Show me the way of the powerful things.” What is amazing is not that Sigurdhr is enough intelligent to understand that he can receive useful advice from her; I find amazing that he asks it at once as if this were completely normal. This request shows that he knows that wizard women can teach him ‘the way of the hard fates’.
Eirik the red’s saga describes a battle between American natives (‘Indians’) and Vikings. The Indians behave so strangely, similar to some kind of magic, that the Vikings find it wiser to flee. Then, a woman named Freydís insults her companions by claiming she is a better fighter than them. She then tries to follow them in their flight but she cannot because she is slowed down by her pregnancy. The Indians catch up with her. She then grabs the sword of a dead fighter and prepares her defense: “Hún tekr brjóstið upp úr serkinum og to slettir á sverðið (she seizes one of her breast out of her shirt and strikes it with the sword)”. This way of showing her courage is already striking. What is even more incredible is that her behavior is looked upon as ordinary by her companions: She is simply congratulated for her luck at staying alive. A later convincing testimony is given by Olaus Magnus who, in 1555 (Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalis, book V, ch. 28-32), describes warlike women of antiquity and points out that, for these ‘Goth’ (Swedish) women, it is normal to be such good fighters “for from the very cradle they were brought up to strict conduct and soldiery training and … exchange a woman’s temperament for a virile ruthlessness …” In this case, Olaus Magnus does not describe an anecdotic case but a widespread social rule among the Swedes.
By a kind of reversed example, the poem Thrymkvidha would not have any meaning if a form of feminism did not appear in it. Thórr is on his way to marry the giant Thrym who stole his hammer. Thórr bears this humiliation because he knows that he will recover his hammer before the marriage completion and that will enable him to crush his ‘bridegroom’ instead of consecrating the marriage links, as it is usually done. This illustrates that a hammer symbolizes a form of female power on her wedding, though on a farcical mode.
In modern publishing, I was almost surprised by the title of the collective work published by Sarah Anderson and Karen Swenson, Cold Counsel, Women in Old Norse Literature and Mythology (Routeledge, 2002). This title is drawn from a saga where a hero says: “ok eru köld kvenna ráð (and is cold women’s advice)”: When men falter, women will not and remind the men of their duties.
It is difficult to draw clear rules from these convincing but not very detailed examples. It simply seems obvious that, in the old Germanic society, the male/female relationships are of different nature from ours, and they exceed in equality what the fieriest feminists request. Rune Fehu kindles female softness but Uruz is not very far to recall that strength and violence are not a male only prerogative.
Beginning and end of our World
All runes give us rules of life, intended for our personal and social moral laws, as we just have seen. Others, particularly Hagala and Naudiz, replace us within our gigantic universe and give us back our true size, the one of tiny ants insolated within a frozen vastness.
The section devoted to Science and Religion shows the kind of agreement existing between them in the ancient Scandinavian culture. It however concludes that this agreement leads to a kind of pessimism reflecting the cold scientific observations.
In fact, this pessimism is implicit in the description which our tradition provides for the creation of the Universe and our World. I use here capital letters because ‘world’ and ‘universe’ are ambiguously used to describe as well the entire Universe as our (relatively small) World. As an image, say that our World is the solar system. Dominant religions do not clearly specify the difference between the Universe and our World when they say that “God created the World.” Conversely, our mythology has a very clear idea on this topic. The universe as a whole, i.e. the Universe, existed before anything else. It included Ginnungagap, the ‘holy vacuum’, the primary waters represented as nine rivers and, somewhere around them, Niflhel and Muspell, extreme cold and extreme heat. This Universe slowly evolved, Ginnungagap filling itself with layers of poisoned ice-cold frost. Within this well-structured stack of frost layers, light and primal life were created by their contact with sparks issued from Muspell. These forms of primal life were the first giant, Ymir, and the cow Audhumla (aka Light), i.e. the primitive forces that stir change in our Universe. This cow licked the ice which fettered the first god, Búri. At this stage, we are still inside a Universe without World. Notice that our tradition does not honor especially Búri although he is the very first god.
Afterwards come in action the mediators between the Universe and our World. Búri generates three grandsons with giantesses. They are our first gods and they are in charge to put order within a chaotic Universe. As a part of performing this duty, they have to dismember Ymir whose body will be used to create our World, the sea (his blood), the clouds (his brain) etc. These three gods seem to be at the origin of our twelve gods and twelve goddesses. They are living beings who belong to our World. They do not seem, in our mythology, so much concerned with the Universe outside of our World. These gods create humankind and become the three ‘High ones’. In this, and although their names vary in the texts, they are integrated to the twenty four divinities of our World.
As claimed by Science, our World is finite both in space, and in time. Similarly, our mythology carefully differentiates the World and the Universe, and introduces the myth of Ragnarök – the end of the World – which describes a World limited in space and time. Our mythology is no more ‘pessimistic’ than science is. On the one hand, I do not see in how the idea of an infinite World is comforting for humankinds. On the other hand, if the World is finite, it is then obvious that it sooner or later will end and, with it, the gods who live in it. This is called Ragnarök in our mythology. The poetic description given by the poem Völuspá is a catastrophic event during which the primitive forces of the Universe (the Giants) eliminate most of the existing gods. Völuspá hints at a kind a renewal following Ragnarök. This is however the only poem describing such a renewal. Besides, their final stanza raised so many controversies that details are not very relevant. Two things are however clear. One is that our mythology included a sort of cyclicity in the existence of successive Worlds but is quite fuzzy when describing these new worlds. Second a catastrophic Ragnarök takes place, and this event is reported many times. In other words, cyclicity exists but it did not attract much attention. Inversely, Ragnarök is cited by name in five eddic poems*, and pointed at through kennings in three other poems**. Put in modern words, ancient Scandinavians seem too have believed that
it is stupid to seek consolation for an event that might happen one billion years earlier or later. It is cowardice to look for loopholes to avoid facing our own death and our World’s death. It is a shame to refuse carrying forward our destiny and to ignore our own input, as tiny as it might be, to our World’s destiny.
* Völuspá, Lokasenna, Atlamál in grænlenzku, Baldrs draumar, Helgakviða Hundingsbana önnur.
** Vafþrúðnismál, Sigdrífumál, Hyndluljóð.
Relations between Giants and Gods
During the creation of the Universe the enormous forces of nature were created and the Æsir called these forces: ‘Giants’. Their attitude with the giants also shows us that they had an agreement with these wild forces since all of them descend from some giant mother or grandmother. For example, Thórr’s mother, Jördh, the Earth, is a giantess. Völuspá explains that Ragnarök will occur when these wild forces categorically refuse to stick by this agreement. The last stanzas of Völuspá, as we have seen, allude to a renewal but this renewal is not central to our mythology. It is central to the revelation of the main religions.
One of the oldest Skaldic poems, Hautslöng, describes images painted on an old shield and two of them evoke myths that illustrate the brittleness of the gods in front of giants’ strength. This poem describes how a goddess, Idhunn, who is in charge of providing the gods the apples of youth, is abducted by a giant. The gods then start to age quickly (“the gods were very gaunt”). The state of affairs, desperate at the beginning, is timely restored by the release of Idhunn. Another part of the shield, evoked at the end of this poem, describes a kind of first Ragnarök where the gods and the giants fight and where Thórr is seriously wounded by a whetting stone which is stuck in his forehead. Thórr is finally saved by a witch who removes the stone.
Another poem, the Galdr of Ódhinn’s Ravens (Hrafnagaldr Óðins), goes even further. This poem is not regarded as skaldic, because it was undoubtedly written in 16th or the 17th century, and it is particularly difficult to understand. In this poem, Idhunn goes away by herself and, at first, she is sad to have left Ásgardhr where she had her habits. She nevertheless becomes used to this new world and catches there a passion for knowledge. Ódhinn feels that the situation is perilous and would like that she shares her knowledge with him. He sends Heimdalr, Loki and Bragi, her husband, in order to question her. All Ódhinn’s envoys obtain of her are tears that say more than any long speech. The poem finishes on a funeral pitch by describing the last day before Ragnarök. In this version, there is no hope that the world of the gods would not disappear forever. Such a pessimistic conclusion can look odd provided you adhere to the moral values of our modern world. Conversely, if you found interesting the moral principles that have been developed here, remember that it is disgusting to flee our destiny, we have to achieve it proudly.
Science and Religion
As a general rule, the main religions exaggerate the importance of humankind and stubbornly oppose any scientific discovery that contradicts to the least their mythology. I already described in chapter 2 the main stages by which Scandinavian mythology describes the formation of the universe. I ironically acknowledge that indeed, paleontology did not find the gigantic bones of Audhumla, the primitive cow which licked the first gods out of their gangue of poisoned frost. Obviously, we do not have any problem to recognize that this cow is undoubtedly mythical and that it represents the natural forces, namely light, which contributed to create life. All these mythical concepts, such as the tree Yggdrasill, the primitive giant Ymir etc. are not opposed at all to the scientific discoveries because they do not claim to belong to Science: they belong to myths and the magic. Science, quite rightly so, does not want to speak about magic while this magic infuses each concept of Germanic mythology. But this old Germanic magic is not a dogma, it is a simple sign that there exist many non-explicable phenomena, and it is necessary to deal with them, too. Thus, when it keeps its own grounds, the ones of the unexplained and the non-rational, magic neither meets science, nor opposes to it. Those who absolutely want to integrate science and magic, and who tend to take sides with magic, do not realize that they declare an implicit war with science, which unrelentingly ends in the defeat of magic. We should thus not be surprised that the latter is turned in derision as it is it presently. What is really laughable is their lack of humility, and not the incapacity of magic to better predict the future than science. Moreover, it is remarkable that the Scandinavian myths put up so well with scientific ideas. For example, the contact of frozen Niflhel and of burning Muspell, used to explain the creation of the universe is, at the very least, not absurd,
In coming back to Ragnarök, we will find a last common feature between Germanic mythology and science. Science has no problem predicting the end of our World, as it does. We can see that scientists do their best to foresee natural catastrophes, that are ‘small’ Ragnaröks. Their aim obviously is fighting them at the best. These forecasting, however, are frightening enough to be often blindly denied. In contrast, a religion that foresees the death of its own gods is unique and the Ragnarök importance in our texts witnesses the stability of this idea in the old Germanic cosmology.
The Historical and Geographic Context
In order to give you a better vision of the physical and intellectual universe in which this philosophy developed, allow me to provide you some details on these areas and the sources of knowledge we have.
There is no lack of charts showing the migrations of the continental Germanic peoples over time. Have a look at them in order if you want to associate images to the global view I will now give of this world. It covers a large area centered on what we now call Germany, Holland and Austria. It includes also parts of Belgium, is France, the north of Italy, Romania and Hungary.
One of oldest of the historical sources describing these continental (or ‘European’) Germanic world is second hand Tacitus’ testimony (Germanica, written in 98). It describes what is astonishing for a Roman about these Germanic tribes. This testimony can be summarized in two points: it praises what Tacitus calls the “purity of manners” of these ‘Germans’ and it despises what he calls a “situation worse than honorable slavery,” i.e., a still very powerful matriarchy. Among the nostalgic factions we have met earlier, many are those who took Tacitus as a starting point to create their own moral values. The example of McNallen’s “nine odinist virtues” (created in the years 1970-80 and also inspired by the Eddic poem Hávamál) well illustrates this attitude. On the other hand, what more than a little amuses me is the fact that, among all these modern groups looking for their ‘Germanic’ roots, the main stream is macho-er than feminist!
We find also a description of these German tribes made by historians as Jordanes (http://people.ucalgary.ca/~vandersp/Courses/texts/jordgeti.html , 552) but they are more concerned with the various wars of these peoples than by their ethics and customs. I must also cite Jakob Grimm’s basic work (Deutsche Mythologie, 1835). He gathered all kinds of historical sources, including texts of the Latin authors as well as the many prohibitions issued by Christian authorities. These last indirectly witness of the very late existence of pagan habits, unfortunately without giving us any other detail on these ‘sinful’ habits. Do not be surprised that I will quote again this masterwork, which is centered on Germanic Heathen faith, but covers much larger scope: Jakob Grimm collated everything possible on European pre-Christian faiths, be them historical or legendary, including what of the Greek, Roman and Celtic paganisms when they could bring some light on an aspect of the old Germanic civilization.
The most indisputable source, but the less detailed, is the archaeological corpus of old Germanic runic inscriptions, written using the letters of the Ancient Germanic Futhark. They have been carved since year 175 and they disappeared a little after year 800. You will find on my site an analysis of what is known of this corpus, and various interpretations of the experts in scientific runology ( http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/runinscript.htm ). The three great rune grammarians, Krause, Makaev and Antonsen, built their grammars of the runic language through their analysis of these inscriptions. In turn, from these grammars, the names of the runes were reconstituted such as I use them.
Thirdly, the most abundant of these sources is made of a huge mythological corpus containing all the tales and legends, the sayings, the old songs which were gathered by writers or ethnologists. The brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm of course contributed in a fundamental way to this knowledge gathering by their tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen). This is far from being their only contribution to the safeguarding of our Heathen collective memory. For example, Wilhelm also very early collected old heroic Danish songs (Altdänische Heldenlieder, Balladen und Märchen, 1811). Yet another example is that, in his Deutsche Mythology, Jakob systematically quotes the passages of the Middle Age fabliaux and Reynard the Fox that are of interest to Germanic mythology and that would be forgotten by eyes less sharp than his. There is also a large amount Germanic Middle Age poetry, only partly translated in modern German. Most of these texts are written in High Middle German (Mittel Hoch Deutsch), and they tell folk epics of the mythical heroes. The best known are the Song of Nibelung (Nibelungenlied) written around 1200, Lanzelet of von Zatzikoven (a little before 1200) and Parzival de Wolfram von Eschenbach (approximately 1210). One can add to them Völsung Saga and Thidhreks Saga that describe continental heroes, although they have been written in Old Norse. The importance of this plentiful literature seems to me to have been underestimated, undoubtedly because of its difficult access.
It covers Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland that spoke the same language, Old Norse, until the end of the Middle Ages. All these languages evolved since, but modern Icelandic preserves a structure very close to that of its ancestor even if the meaning of the words obviously evolved too. Icelandic historians and scholars preserved a precious lore knowledge which constitutes the main bulk of what is left of the ancient Germanic faith.
The first of these historians, who has been in contact with direct
witnesses of pagan practices, is Ari Thorgilsson (nicknamed ‘The Learned’) who
wrote around 1130 Íslendingabók (The
Book of the Icelanders) that I will use to shed light on the meaning of rune
Ingwaz. Nevertheless, two writers produced the basic historical corpus, which
includes a part of mythology. One is Saxo Grammaticus which gives us in his Gesta Danorum, written around
Icelandic and Norwegian Sagas are overlapping history and myths and have
been looked upon as totally unreliable by most experts until the end of the
last century. For instance, we had to wait 1961 (and as a matter fact, the 70s
for official recognition) to have Viking remains in L'Anse aux Meadows that
confirm the ‘hysterical claims’ of the Vinland Saga. As another striking
example, each one ‘knew’ that there were no old runic inscriptions in Iceland.
Some historians used this ‘fact’ to express the greatest doubts on the contents
of the sagas describing a hero carving runes. No luck for them, a runic stick
has been discovered in
The Scandinavian world provides us also a large number of runic inscriptions often carved in Denmark and in Sweden on their famous standing stones. To these runes are associated Rune Poems, which deeply inspired me. Currently some 6000 listed inscriptions are accounted for. On this number, 3400 were carved during the Viking era, i.e. between the year 800 and the year 1150 in a Futhark which is called Scandinavian or Viking. More precisely, 150 inscriptions were carved before year 800 and 2400 of them, carved after 1150, are said to belong to the Middle Ages. Insofar as the Christianization of the Scandinavian world did not become really harsh before year 950, one can consider that the inscriptions of before 950 are direct testimonies of the old Scandinavian world, whereas the others are already a mythical testimony. However, Judith Jesch in her remarkable work Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age (2001) compares the texts of the runic inscriptions drawn after 950 with skaldic poems composed at the same time. A precious understanding of what was the world of the Viking sailors, Christians or not, emerges from this comparison. Thus Mrs. Jesch, just as Dillmann, provides us an objective description of the old Scandinavian world based on its traces.
The two principal sources of the Scandinavian myths are the poems of the poetic Edda and the skaldic poems. The poems of Edda are found bound together in several manuscripts and describe mythological topics. This is why one distinguishes them from the skaldic poems that deal with everyday life or praise the king in power. There are however also skaldic poems concerned with mythology and this blurs the difference between 'Eddic’ and skaldic poems.
In any case, all these poems were not composed before the 9th century nor after the 14th century. Only the poems made between these dates are considered by the experts as giving a ‘genuine’ information on the Old Norse world.
This world had a very strong influence in spite of the fact that it only covers a very limited surface. At that time, Scotland, Ireland and Wales were independent Celtic territories. We are thus concerned with less than the territory of current England, divided in many small independent kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxons called themselves Bryttas (‘Bretons’) in their language, Old English, and called their country Bryten (‘Brittany’). This zone was occupied very early by the Romans who brought Christianity with them as of the 3rd century. After the departure of the Romans, takes place a disturbed period of Saxon invasions and of internal fights. The Christian religion becomes official religion only in 616 when one of the kings of Bryttas (the king de Kent) baptized. The properly Anglo-Saxon world starts to break down after the battle of Hastings, in 1066, and its language becomes gradually Middle-English.
There are two main historical sources of on this period. The first one is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written and held up to date by a series of historians. This chronicle is the one that gives the date of 616 for a comeback of Christianity among Anglo-Saxons. There is also Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum due to Bede and finished in 732. Bede’s work of is particularly interesting for us because it criticizes Heathen habits that were the still alive at the beginning of the 8th century and it thus attests of their existence. You will see an example of it with the rune Pertho: ‘everyone knows’ that the Germans celebrated a ‘Mothernight’, still called Mutternacht in the German folklore until the 19th century: Bede enables us to be certain that it existed already during the 8th century. You will find more details in the exhaustive edition of all the old historical sources realized in 1955 by Dorothy Whitelock (English Historical Documents, volume I).
The archaeological source is it also plentiful, as for example the celebrated site of Sutton Hoo. But I will insist here on the inscriptions, and mostly on the runic inscriptions, written in a particular alphabet, called Futhorc because its fourth letter is pronounced ‘o’. The experts seem to have difficulties to provide a precise dating to these inscriptions. We can nevertheless state that they have not been carved before year 550 and were until there Middle Ages. To these runes, are also associated Rune Poems which, when freed of their Christian coating, largely confirm or precise the content of the Scandinavian and Icelandic Rune Poems. All these Rune Poems constitute the base of the ethical construction which I present in this chapter 4, but the construction itself is made with the multitude of materials that I am summarizing here. A glance to the bibliography will show you the extent of the documents which I consulted and from where I draw the assertions which will follow. Another archaeological source, rather Celtic that Anglo-Saxon, is the one provided by the ogamic inscriptions (I use the Middle Irish orthography of this word and not its modern British orthography, ogham). To understand this topic fuzziness, you should be aware that the first systematic study of the ogamic inscriptions was published in 1945 only (Macalister, Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum). This study shows that these inscriptions are primarily distributed apart from the Anglo-Saxon areas, i.e., in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The basic texts presenting knowledge of the Middle Ages on these ogams were published only in 1917 (Calder, Auraicept Na N-Éces). There has been a steady flow of proposals to find bonds between the runes and the ogams: Refer to the bibliography under the heading Runes, and non-scientific runology. Not the least discussed topic is relative to the Pictish ogams found in Scotland. They have been finally understood in 1999 as being Old Norse words written in ogamic letters (Cox, 1999, The Language of the Ogam Inscriptions of Scotland). All this explains why I consider that a comparison between the ‘runic philosophy’ that I will present now and a hypothetical ‘ogamic philosophy’ is still far away.
Lastly, the mythical sources are initially found in Anglo-Saxon poetry whose most famous production is the long epic poem Beowulf, composed at the end of the 8th century. There also exist many Anglo-Saxon charms you will find in volume 1 of this book. As for the folklore, a good amount of which is born in Heathen times, it has been collected since 1725 (Henry Bourne, Antiquitates Vulgares), was checked and extended by Carew Hazlitt (Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, 1870) and put in the form of dictionary by same Hazlitt (Faiths and Folklore, 1904). This Anglo-Saxon folklore seems to have been strongly influenced by the Celtic influence coming from Ireland and Wales. The Anglo-Saxon world seems to have absorbed and assimilated the Celtic myths known to us through many Irish myths, and Welsh Mabinogion and Taliesin’s poetry. In particular, the myths relating to king Arthur seem more attested in Welsh and Breton legends. For example, a primitive version of the Arthurian cycle exists in the long tale describing how Arthur helps his cousin Kulhwch to carry out the exploits necessary to gain beautiful Olwen, simultaneously cutting down the power of her father, the giant Yspaddaden, see http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/KilhwchAndOlwen.htm ).
I had to make here disputable choices in the sources which I quote here. The chapter on bibliography will give you the whole of these sources. In it, I associate brief comments to each work so that this bibliography is a kind of ‘academic’ chapter describing knowledge which I used.
The references relative to this work are available at http://www.nordic-life.org/nmh/biblioNewEng.htm