Heathen Ethics, Part 1: Nine Nearly Useless Virtues

Quick!  Someone tell them they can't be vikings unless the read the work of Yeowal and Gibbs-Bailey!

Quick! Someone tell them they can’t be vikings unless the read the work of Yeowal and Gibbs-Bailey!

Let me make this clear; I think the Nine Noble Virtues are pretty damn pointless.

I can understand the psychological appeal of a codified ethical list.  Humans like what they can understand, and lists make complicated subjects look understandable.  The problem here is that the moment you simplify an ethical question or process is the moment you’ve probably messed it up.

I’m not here to malign the Virtues just for a laugh; I take ethics very seriously, especially when it comes to codes of conduct and behavior.  Even intelligent, well-written, and poignant ones can be the catalyst for actions of unbelievable  horror.  Even the serenity and contemplation of Buddhism was not immune to such madness.  Imagine than what a poorly realized code of ethics can do in the hands of a faith that has no aversion (in theory at least) to physical conflict.

As much as that is a valid concern, it is not good enough to simply say what we should be afraid of; fear-mongering is among the worst of tools that may be implemented in debate.  So, to showcase why the NNV truly have issues and problems at their core?  I shall analyze and dissect them using one of the most revered tools within modern Heathenry; the Nine Noble Virtues.  If they are truly an ethical code worthy of consideration, it should be easy for them to withstand their own scrutiny.

Spoilers:  They don’t.  Not even a little.

Courage: Dictionary.com defines courage as “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc. without fear; “.  Things that cause difficulty, danger, and pain are typically things that are unknown; if they were something we had an understanding of, they’re ability cause us problems would be diminished.  It’s easier to deal with things when their dangers are easily marked for us.  Clearly than, the worst dangers are the ones with unknown factors.  The Nine Noble Virtues are made to give ethical guidelines to Heathens, but the truly courageous Heathen is prepared to face their ethical quandaries without having an easy and convenient list.

True courage isn’t what you do when you have everything laid out before you; it’s what you do when the easier thing would be to run, either literally or metaphorically.  As such, courage seems a bit out of place for us to include in a list such as this.  Our ancestors were brave because they needed to be, not because they needed to be told to be.

Truth and Fidelity:  My issue is that these are, practically, the same thing.  Yes, I understand that one is talking about speaking nothing but truth, where the other states that we should not break our promises.  If you are truly speaking the truth in the first place, your initial word was all that was needed.  To speak only the truth is to never make a promise that isn’t intended to be kept.  The redundancy at play here exposes just how ridiculous the NNV can be.

Why would you need redundancy in honesty?  If we are truly wished to be forthright, we would only need to be told once.  This bizarre need to express this same virtue in two different words displays some upsetting implications.  Did the virtues need to be crafted with multiple reminders to remain honest because there was a fear that once wasn’t enough?  Was it to satisfy the desire of the authors to have nine of them for some symbolic worship of Odin?  If all of these upright upstanding Heathens are only dishonest via the influence of Loki, why do they all need two reminders to be honest?

Okay that was a little bit of sass on my part, but it’s still a pretty poignant question.  Our ancestors and their cultures are referred to by history as honest and forthright.  The Havamal repeatedly depicts honesty as being pretty binary; either you’re telling the truth or you are not.   Our ancestors did not need to be told something twice so, if we wish to emulate their strengths, why would we accept a redundant code of ethics?

Industriousness and Self-Reliance: Do you wish to be self-reliant?  Do you wish to make forward progress in your own life’s path?  Good; than throw out the Nine Noble Virtues and make your own code of ethics.

Only two men can claim to follow the Nine Noble Virtues and be both industrious and self-reliant, and that’s because they made them.

Honor and Discipline: These two have a better run of the NNV than many of the others.  They don’t score points for that, however, because they’re words that have a great deal of personalized meaning.  To define honor is to, in a manner of speaking, define yourself.  Further, what one man views as discipline is sloth to another; likewise, what one man views as discipline can be obsessive madness to his neighbor.  These words, by their nature, mean what you attribute to them and nothing else.

They’re not part of the Nine Noble Virtues;  they are a part of the human being that considers them and their place in their life.  In truth, to blindly use another person’s definition of honor and discipline is to have an absence of both in yourself.

Hospitality:  To be hospitable is to treat all who come in to your home in a dignified manner.  Friends and strangers, by the standards of our ancestors, should both be treated with respect and dignity.  My issue, in this case, is not with the virtue; it’s how so many selectively disregard it.  I have seen plenty of Heathens retract offers of hospitality for banal or idiotic reasons.  This says nothing of the elements of racism that sensible Heathens attempt to combat on a daily basis.

I’ve seen friendships discarded over momentarily lapses of frith.  Is a mistake in frith good?  Of course not, but frith is not an absolute; it’s a social contract.  Mistakes only remain mistake if they’re left unrepaired.  Yet, I see these mistakes being accepted as a perfectly acceptable reason to shun someone.  I’ve seen philosophical and ideological arguments used as justifiable reasons to deny oaths of kinship.  I’ve seen backhanded mockery, which disrespects both hosts and fellow guests.

Our homes and our message boards should both be filled with the very essence of a warm welcome and welcoming hearth.  All too often, it seems that they are the exact opposite.  The Havamal doesn’t provide too many exceptions for hospitality.  Why do we?

Perseverance: To persevere is to not give up in the face of adversity.  Much like truth and fidelity, perseverance feels like a redundancy; what can you say for perseverance that does not apply to courage and discipline as well?  Why do I need a redundant reminder to have the strength to follow with what I believe is right?  Either the writer’s thought they needed an extra reminder to stave off from weakness, or they were so dead set on having nine items that they were willing to use a thesaurus instead of their souls.  One thing is certain; if they had truly had perseverance, they’d never have put down perseverance in the NNV.

Where is frith?  Where is the reminder that we obliged to create harmony, whether as a guest or as a host?  That hospitality is nothing without the social contract that fuels itself upon it?

Where is our religious faith?  Many texts speak of the piety of the various cultures that made up the Norse worshiping people.  The belief that our ancestors did not bow to the gods is situational at best and a complete modern fabrication at worst.  Anecdotal records depict our ancestors as being devoted to their faith.  Why do we not depict the same within our ethics constructs?

Where is the hunger for knowledge that Odin displayed?  If we needed nine of these virtues  in order to show reverence to the Allfather, why is there not the virtue He would surely place the greatest emphasis upon?  Do you mean to tell me that we opted for three different words that meant standing your ground in the face of adversity, but we didn’t have room for ingenuity?  For brilliance?

Where is the joy?  Freya, Frey, Thor, and many other gods in our faith have been shown to be joyous entities.  Yet, in spite of Their example, there is no happiness in these virtues; merely the grim detachment of a falsely assigned Jungian archetype.

For those who disagree with what I say, surely you must see that my words point to some troubling problems.  Even if my arguments are struck down, there is so much of our faith that is missing.

Chainsaw Viking with a Bazooka.  Your argument is irrelevant.

Chainsaw Viking with a Bazooka. Your argument is irrelevant.

For the record, I do know that I used the Odinic Rite’s version of the NNV and that the AFA has their own.  Next time in Heathen Ethics, we’re going to be taking a look at the Asatru Folk Asembly’s version of the NNV.  I’ll be walking through and see what they got right, and what they still managed to get wrong.


13 thoughts on “Heathen Ethics, Part 1: Nine Nearly Useless Virtues

  1. Excellent! The NNV are a semi-decent stepping-stone for people fresh out of Christianity, but the way heathens cling to them long after they should have gotten the point that this is not a dogmatic faith really unnerves me. Your explication of their problems is well-considered, I never realized how redundant they are before. (I found Ásatrú in person so I never dealt with the NNV or other authorial biases until long after I was already heathen.) I look forward to reading your thoughts about the AFA’s version.

    • Thanks for your kind words! 🙂

      I love ethical/philosophical models, though I realize that they’re best they’re exercises in thought; not dogma. I thought the NNV were okay, but only really looked at what they were saying as I wrote this article.

      At first, this was intended as only a commentary on them and how they shouldn’t be used as a substitute for the ten commandments. As I went on, I realized that comparing the NNV to the ten commandment was an insult to Christianity. Not like, you know, stupid Christianity either.

      Looking over the AFA’s version, I have a (slightly) more charitable opinion. For one thing, Joy is pointed out as a good thing. On the other hand…Honor is better than dishonor? No shit! What’s next? Light is brighter than darkness? Lava is warmer than ice? Okay, now I’m just being silly…

  2. […] I was writing about the Odinic Rite’s Nine Noble Virtues, it became clear that I really should take a moment to talk about the Asatru Folk Assembly’s […]

  3. […] Eric Wodening coined the phrase and it stuck, and I’m honestly okay with that.  I’ve dug into the Nine Noble Virtues in the past (and, not surprisingly, they’re not making this list) for a number of reasons. Well, […]

  4. […] some time ago, I talked about my issues with the Nine Noble Virtues.  I had a lot of issues with them too, but that wasn’t because I was against the existence of an ethical […]

  5. EmberVoices says:

    I don’t always agree with you, but you are always coherent and cojent, and I appreciate that.

    I therefore appreciate it all the more to see that you are one who questions the NNV as a model for Heathen ethics. Amongst other things, I’m glad to see someone who is coming from a significantly different, but still very well reasoned angle in their Heathen faith see similar problems with the NNV that I do.

    Thank you for this.

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  7. […] Heathen Ethics Part 1: Nine Nearly Useless Virtues […]

  8. Roland C. says:

    Contradictory Opinion.

    You contradict yourself several times here and appear to be close minded in your faith. Your first sentence while being from a personal point of view, still seeks to set the bar for Heathens around you.

    “Let me make this clear; I think the Nine Noble Virtues are pretty damn pointless.”

    Followed by
    “I’m not here to malign the Virtues just for a laugh” contradicted immediately by the condescending tone of
    “Spoilers: They don’t. Not even a little.” after stating that they cannot withstand their own scrutiny.

    Then you define courage, and talk about why we don’t need it which is fine, although I could argue where in todays society that it could be the courage to have your beliefs, ideas and views challenged. That’s more of an opinion so I won’t argue.

    You lump up Truth and Fidelity, and ask where Frith is later.
    Truth, as per Oxford Dictionaries
    “the quality or state of being true:”
    Fidelity, as per Oxford Dictionaries.
    “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support”
    Two entirely different definitions you lumped together and tossed off. Fidelity, by definition is akin to Frith, while not being entirely the same thing.

    I mention all this, and will now state my point of view.
    Just because you personally do not see a point or purpose to the NNV, is no reason to state them as generally useless. The allegory for this argument is a spear.

    Odinic rite has a bad reputation, but made a good tool. The Spear(nine virtues)
    One man, uses this spear, and he hunts wild game.
    Another man uses the spear, and kills his neighbour and takes his riches.
    The problem was not the spear, but the implementation of it’s capabilities.

    Why use the same spear? We don’t have too, but If I’m using the spear for wild game(not hurting anyone), saying it’s useless is…odd.

    • In regards to the apparent contradictions of “I’m not here to malign the Virtues for a laugh” versus my flippant tone: I was pointing to the fact that while my tone may have been irreverent, I was picking on the NNV just because I could; I was dressing them down because (in my opinion) they were made poorly and don’t hold up to any sort of analysis. The more I researched them, the less I could respect them.

      On that note…the definitions of those words could mean those things. Maybe they were even intended in that fashion. Or one could use one of the over a dozen legitimate, in the dictionary definitions of any of those words and come up with something else entirely. The words are such large concepts with so many varied definitions that it boggles the mind. Further, the NNV has almost no context provided. An ethical code so open and so unexplained can be used to justify anything someone wants it to.

      Ethics should be a responsibility…but far too often, I’ve seen the NNV used as a get out of criticism card because a given action can be explained via a very specific interpretation…and, likewise, I rarely see anyone demand more of themselves because of the dictates of the NNV. This is something that, admittedly, happens with any ethical code no matter how well written…but the lack of context, explanation or understanding makes them more vulnerable to this issue than most. More than once, I’ve seen a given individual’s interpretation change, within the same conversation, based on what they wanted to be true in any given situation.

      As for your metaphor? I am not forswearing the use of spears…I am saying the spear in question is broken, weighted poorly, and damaged. If one uses it well and without harming themselves or others? Well, I will say I doubt things will always remain that way…but that choice is theirs. I question why anyone would CHOOSE to use that spear…especially when each person has the ability to make one of their own. Or at LEAST try to repair the spear for their own use.

      Ethics and philosophy are not some ethereal realm beyond our ken. Heathen spirituality requires no intercessor. Heck, I wrote an ethical code of my own…but as a demonstration of what anyone can do; I was not looking to replace the NNV, but simply to point out one can replace them if they choose and still remain a Heathen and even deepen their understanding and perspective by means of examining it. Hell, if someone desires to codify their own interpretation of the NNV in an honest way that demands accountability from themselves? That’s great! My problem is that, so often, I see the NNV just dumped out, put on a pedestal, and held up as immutable because someone who was deemed important at the time said it was important.

      My issues with the NNV can be answered, and answered easily, just by people considering. While I don’t think I’d agree with your every interpretation, it sounds like you’ve done some of that…so…awesome! Very few seem to do so…and that’s a big problem.

  9. Bobby says:

    I can’t express how disrespectful I think this is. Would you dissect and tear down the 10 commandments? I doubt it because it’s a mainstream religion and you would be bombarded with hate mail but if you had the the first noble virtue, courage that wouldn’t matter. That’s where you and members of this faith differ. They stand up for what they believe in regardless of popularity, we need a little more of that in this world. To tear down someone’s religion is to tear down everyone who follows it.

    • I don’t really address problems with Christianity here on this blog…because I’m not Christian. I have considered addressing some posts towards Christians, who REALLY need to start addressing the radical elements within their religion…..but as a whole? I leave Christianity to the Christians.

      However…even if that wasn’t my stance? I wouldn’t pick apart the 10 Commandments or the 7 Deadly Sins in the same way….because they are actually apart of the Christian religion in a meaningful way. If you are throwing out the 10 Commandments, you’re probably not doing Christianity right. Same with the 7 Sins. They are cornerstones of their faith, attested to within the holy text of their revealed religion. They are thousands of years old.

      Now….at some point maybe I’ll go ham on Christians who hold up Leviticus, ignore Jesus tearing the temple shroud, and cherry picking their hatred out of the Old Testament? However…probably not; I’ll leave those arguments to those who can make them best because you REALLY need to know your shit to pick apart the Bible like that. Better informed people can make that argument better than I could…

      I digress…

      The Nine Noble virtues are less than 50 years old. We do not have a revealed religion and, even if we did, the Nine were never apart of it; versions of it were written by Yeowell, Gibbs-Bailey, McNallen and/or Thorsson….figures within modern that are certainly not above being questioned. Further, their work does not need to be included in one’s practice to *be* Heathen in the first place. Just as I don’t need to subscribe to McNallen’s view of Meta-Genetics to be Heathen, neither do I need to acknowledge the NNV.

      And that’s to the side of the fact that I see so many Heathens use the NNV not as an ethical mandate…but as an excuse. They’ll cite the NNV as it pleases themselves…only to forget to apply it at times where it would demand something of them.

      Look at this moment right here: I had the courage to criticize a sacred cow of Heathenry, question whether it follow the true ideas of our ancestry….but rather than acknowledge that? You want to ask me why I’m not picking apart the 10 Commandments, something that has nothing to do with my spiritual path….and say I didn’t do it because of the reaction I’d get. What the hell are the 10 Commandants to me when I’m not bloody Christian. By contrast, the NNV are used by people who claim the same religion as me…and are often used in a very sleazy and dishonest way.

      If you were following the NNV yourself, you’d have the courage to take an honest look at the criticism I made, and figure out how true they were for yourself. You’d have the honor to respect the opinions of others, the discipline to take a look at the matter unclouded by emotional reactions, and the industriousness to either follow them undaunted.

      Whatever *I* say about the NNV only effects your, personal practice of the Heathen tradition as much as you let it. Who am I? Am I showing up at your events? Am I spitting in your horn, or showing up to yell at your kindred and tell them all the NNV is a pile of garbage? I don’t think so. You can walk away from my computer, and laugh off my blog post and it literally never has to effect you ever again for the rest of your life.

      Lastly….at time of writing, this article has been viewed 1,026 times. I am going to guess that plenty of people who read it didn’t like it….perhaps even the majority! However, you’re the only person in the five years of this article’s existence to accuse me of cowardice for not also being critical of the 10 Commandments…which is the silliest, most ridiculous criticism of my work I think I’ve ever read it.

  10. Bobby says:

    The 7 deadly sins is probably more appropriate to compare

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