The concept of honor is complex even in modern terms. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for instance, provides ten different definitions, some of which are archaic or specific to a certain activity. The common definition — what most people in the West mean when they use “honor” casually in conversation — seems to align most with “a keen sense of ethical conduct; integrity.” And in the West, ethical codes are based on the Christian morality that has been dominant for hundreds of years. Since the beliefs of the ancient Germanic peoples were pre-Christian, their ethical codes were, too — and subsequently, so was their conception of honor.
The Germanic concept of honor
The system of morality that developed among the ancient Germanic peoples arose from the needs of small, sometimes isolated communities. Every man, woman, and child was expected to contribute to each other’s survival, which often meant that the needs of the many superseded the needs of the individual. An individual’s actions were considered honorable if they benefited the community and dishonorable if they caused harm. However, this does not mean that selflessness or self-sacrifice were virtues. Causing harm to oneself through selfless or self-sacrificing acts could potentially be detrimental to one’s community, since removing oneself from a web of interdependence could be damaging, even fatal.
Therefore, honor was not a quality inherent to a person. It was akin to one’s reputation, which could be lowered or raised by one’s community based on the consequences of one’s actions. The greater one’s honor, the greater one’s reputation expressed to others. And among the ancient Germanic peoples, the reputation of a person was critical to outsiders’ impressions and reactions toward them. A person was more inclined to work together with others of great honor, in the same way they would prefer to work together with others of great luck.
Honor in modern Heathenry
The notion of honor as related to reputation continues today, for it is a commonly held view that someone considered honorable is a good person. Therefore, even Heathens practicing in solitude can bring honor to their hearths and communities, even if the other members of those groups are not Heathen. But modern Heathens should take care to understand the difference between honor as measured by Christian morals and honor as measured by Heathen morals.
Unfortunately, the subject of Heathen ethics is a more complex topic at the center of current debates. Modern Heathens usually agree, though, that actions for the benefit of the group are good, and actions that are detrimental to the group are bad. Action in general is also considered morally right compared to inaction (which is morally wrong). However, this dichotomy is Heathen morality in its most basic and extreme sense. In our complicated, modern world, we are often faced with morally ambiguous or challenging situations. In these situations, the modern Heathen should consider how to act the most honorably — not necessarily for their personal gain, but for the good of their people.
- “‘Ek Skal Hér Ráða’: Themes of Female Honor in the Icelandic Sagas” — Susan Elizabeth Rivenbark
- “Honor in German Literature” — George Fenwick Jones