Runic ethics in a few words
“ … 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
[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.
I am not trying to argue that this runic ethics is ‘better’ or not than another one. I simply claim it is embedded within the meaning and use of the runes. If you wish to work with or to understand the runes, you have to forget your personal morality and use the one described in the following.
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 spirit 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 argument to come. For example, I’ll try to set up strong differences between respect and love. Nor completely non-respectful love, nor respect without love really exist. 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.
1. 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 forces 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 seen 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 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 rare 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 a primary within our ethics.
2. 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. As 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. Who are described as ‘friends’ in the Old Norse texts, we would rather call them fellows or allies. 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 – it defines a faithful fellow-friends. Besides, wisdom and fellow-friendship are linked. A poem 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 poem states that the unwise one has no fellow-friend.
3. Respect, its links with conceit and generosity, and love
Respect and contempt follow from comparing our own worth and the other’s. When a person compares his Ego with 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 Me. Me will be able to know why he/she respects the Other. If Me is not generous, I will assess nothing but the Other’s mediocrity and my lack of generosity will drive Me to despise the Other: I will behave with conceit and arrogance due to my 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 the 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 poem says: “Young was I, I travelled alone, I thus took the wrong road; I felt being rich when meeting another human.” Another poem, 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 the Other. In our society, this meets the problem of what we are assessing. In general, the features that are weighted, respectfully or not, are the amount of ‘good’ and of ‘bad’ that we see inside the 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 these words that are so charged with guilt that they make us confuse 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 Hávamál, 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’, that is one 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.
4. Generosity and compassion
As I pointed out in the beginning, our civilization tends to confuse generosity and compassion. 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 more general difference that follows. The first step of generosity is a generous assessment of the Other, 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 the 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 the Other, but to avoid you falling into trap of scorn, which excludes you from humankind. Inversely, the Other may deserve your respect on any 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 is already 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 will, 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 his self.
On its side, compassion, in the best cases through a generous assessment of the Other, it works, however, exactly in a reverse way: Feeling compassion amounts to acknowledge or feels a grief within the Other spirit, and to share this grief, due to his compassio (this Latin word means ‘shared suffering’). Me feels superior to the 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 gest being always slightly below 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 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 is not used to acknowledge the 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 translation (should be completed by beginning March 2014) 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.