Although folks speak often of honor in modern Heathenry it is something that is ill defined. Many problems arise because folks have different concepts of honor, or different interpretations. These can often come into conflict quite easily when ideas on honor differ. For example two thoughts on honor that often come into conflict are the idea one should stand by their word no matter what versus one should admit when one is wrong and apologize. The two ideas cannot always work together, and when one person has one idea, and one has the other, a conflict erupts with each thinking the other has no honor. The problem is there have been many different codes of honor in the time since ancient Heathenry. There was the ancient Heathen code of honor, this was followed by the code of chivalry of the Middle Ages, then there were the Victorian codes of honor, and all the ones in between as one transitioned to the other. And none of them can easily be applied to modern society. And yet Heathens try to adapt portions of each to their personal ideas on honor. Some Heathens have looked to ancient ideas on honor, but those are not easily adapted to modern Heathenry.
We cannot, in my opinion look to the Lore for an idea of honor. Much can be taken from it, but one must realize theirs was a different society, one in which different rules applied. It was a very martial society. Combat was a way of resolving conflicts. Many of the options they had for restoring honor are no longer available to us. Indeed, much of what the ancient Heathens held to be a part of honor do not apply unless one has served in the military. That is not to say as modern Heathens we cannot have some concept of honor. It is to say that it must be different. It is likely to be closer to what the common man amongst the ancient Heathens thought of as honor than the great warriors of the warbands did. Many members of a warband were often single men, in service of their lord, with no home other than their lord’s hall to call their own. This is in contrast to the farmer, who owned his own farm, and had a family to look out for. A single warrior could afford to throw his life away over a petty insult. The farmer on the other hand had to worry about the loss to his wife and kids would create were he killed.
If one reads Njal’s Saga, one can see a period when ideas on honor were transitioning even amongst those counted as warriors. Many in the saga seek to settle disputes through combat, but Njal always tries to get folks to settle peacefully, even if it means going to Thing. When killings happen Njal is quick to pay wergild or advise others that wergild be paid. At one point in the saga there is a feud between Njal and his close friend Gunnar. The two never come to blows. They simply meet, pay the wergild for whatever killings their family members had done, and go on. Their aim was to maintain the peace, and not go to full blood feud. When Gunnar is drawn into a conflict with Gizur, again despite killings a feud was ended through the paying of wergild even though an offer had been made to fight the holmgang. Every time a conflict seems like it is about to breakout steps are taken to avoid more killings. Even before killings take place steps are taken to try to prevent the slayings. Feuds and fights do break out in the saga, but not without an attempt to avoid them. One thing made clear in one of Njal’s visits to Thing is that it was in the best interest of the community to avoid bloodshed. These men were farmers as well as warriors and could not afford the loss of life duels and feuds would inflict. Perhaps it had always been that way in Germanic culture and the code of honor of the common man that allowed for peaceful resolution was not handed down. Even at that time people had many things to take into consideration such as what happens to the family if the provider is killed in a duel? I rather suspect they found more honor in looking after one’s family, keeping one’s word, being honest and truthful, at least amongst the common folk. It seems rather silly then when young Heathens today challenge each other to combat. It is clear from Njal’s Saga peaceful resolutions were sought, and besides ancient duels were to the death, not the first blow or whatever nonsense.
I think therefore an honorable man or woman in modern times takes care of his or her own. They do not take offense unless one of his or her folk is harmed in some way. The honorable man or woman is above allowing mere words to hurt him or her. I know this flies in the face of much of the Lore, but in ancient times Heathens could duel to the death to maintain their honor. Today, we do not have that option unless one wants to serve a life sentence in prison. This is why one should never hear in Heathenry anything close to, “You have offended my honor.” That is not to say one should let all insults slide, but there were other ways of handling insults to one’s honor in ancient times that we can use, instead of combat. The obvious one is through use of Thing, but a quicker way to resolve insults to one’s honor is seen in Beowulf. Beowulf is a perfect example of how an ancient Heathen handled taunts and insults in some situations. When his honor is questioned in symbel Beowulf did not take offense, and say “That offended me,” and ask Unferth to step outside. Instead he pointed out Unferth’s shortcomings, and then proceeded to boast of his own accomplishments.
The proper response to an insult in modern times should be to answer it with evidence to the contrary, not to try to settle it with combat. In some cases the best thing to do is to ignore it altogether if it is a petty insult. This is quite simply because words cannot hurt us. And if we offer evidence to the contrary of the insult, we have already successfully defended our name. The folk are allowed to hear both sides, and decide whose honor is intact. Only bullies that cannot defend their names with words resort to the threat of physical violence in my opinion in this day and age. After all they know no one can challenge them to place their life on their words without punishment by the government. They know that they can fall back on the idea that should someone take them up on their challenge, that that person will be convicted of a crime should they be killed. Most all are not willing to go to prison just to prove a point so the bullies are rather safe in not having to face someone in real combat to the death. They may feel differently in a word duel where evidence that the insult is true or not true is provided.
Because we cannot resort to trial by combat these days, I think today a willingness to admit when one is wrong, and one’s opponent is right plays a part in honor. This may mean acknowledging one’s own short comings. For example, someone might say, “Swain Wodening is an arrogant ass.” My only response would be to admit that yes, I once was, but I have since changed. Part of being honorable is in being able to see one’s faults and seeking to correct them, and admit them when they are pointed out. Admitting one’s faults is not a sign of weakness. It takes more bravery to admit one is wrong, and accept the consequences than to steadfastly maintain oneself is right in the light of great evidence to the contrary. It is a part of being honest. And a great, great part of being honorable is about being honest.
After all, pride is a great thing, and it is counted as a virtue amongst Heathens, but pride based on lies is nothing at all. Pride is tied to renown. If one’s accomplishments are enough that others sing praises of his or her deeds, then pride should be the result. By steadfastly maintaining things that are not true just to save face is not saving face at all. Sometimes, a temporary bout of humiliation is not as bad as a life of shame when others uncover the truth. One should always admit one’s faults, one’s flaws, and strive to overcome them. Part of being honorable is trying to overcome one’s shortcomings. The result of pride is self-confidence. An honorable man or woman will be self-confident in his or her abilities. They will have high self-esteem and not demean themselves. Self-confidence is something that must be maintained, and it should not be confused with arrogance. Being self-confident means being confident in one’s own ability, while arrogance is an overblown opinion of oneself completely out of touch with reality. Part of building self-confidence means having a sense of dignity.
Dignity plays a role in self-esteem and therefore dignity plays a role in honor. Dignity means behaving in a way as to be worthy of honor. It means not stooping to things that are not honorable such as taking unfair advantage of people or being petty. A man or woman with dignity behaves in such a way as to show they have worth. They do not seek to harm the community in any way. They are courteous, do not stoop to vulgar insults, are genteel in their language and manners. They conduct themselves in a way that society deems respectable. They are careful not to give offense. To say something is “beneath one’s dignity” is to say one would not do something because it might do harm. To have dignity demands a bit of self-control. One cannot afford to allow one’s emotions to control them. In doing so one might say things he or she later regrets. To have dignity means to have control of oneself, to never allow oneself to lose control of their senses. One might call this discipline. In a way dignity is about having taught oneself to be in control at all times.
If one has honor and dignity all they must do is strive to make his or her name known and he or she will be renowned. Renown has already been mentioned, but I will touch on it in more depth here. Renown can be said to mean, “fame” or “glory.” Theodsmen refer to renown as having a good gefrain. Many think of it as having a good name. Most are familiar with the verse from the Havamal:
Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, —
fair fame of one who has earned.
If one is honorable and has dignity, and done things to make a name for his or herself he or she never has to worry about renown. Renown is at its core what people think of you. If our deeds have been honorable, and we have lived with dignity and we have done things to make a name for ourselves we never have to worry about being renowned. People will already sing our praises, speak well of us when they hear our names, and thus our fame will spread, and our name be remembered. And if we are accused of having done something we did not do, people will not believe it as it is not in our character to do such. A good name often means being above reproach. Renown carries with it benefits. I feel everyone should strive to be renowned. They should make their name known at least in their local community. But this should not be a case of vainglory. One should attempt to gain renown not by making a name for his or herself, but by serving the community, being kind to others, helping others, keeping one’s word, being an honest man or woman. This is what being honorable, having dignity, and earning renown is all about. If one has a good gefrain or reputation, is known for being kind, generous, hospitable, then that is honor.’ It does not take a lot of work to maintain one’s honor, dignity, and renown. All one really needs to do is be gracious, kind, courteous, and helpful to their fellow Heathens. One should ever strive to be the best person he or she can be. If one can do these things they will have honor, dignity, and renown. There is nothing special one has to do other than keep his or her actions worthy of the gods.