Pagan values and virtues
Pagan values are grounded in an appreciation of life and the enjoyment of being physically embodied, and the desire for others to enjoy the same experience. A value is shared norm or expectation of a group; something that is considered desirable. A virtue is a quality of a person or a group that is considered desirable. Traditionally, most Pagan ethical codes were lists of virtues which were considered desirable, instead of a set of rules to be kept. The cultivation of virtues by the individual was said to lead to eudaimonia, a happy state of being.
This was and is a hugely important virtue in just about every traditional culture, and governed the behaviour of both guest and host. Imagine you are travelling in a strange land, like Gawain in the story of Gawain and the Green Knight. The offer of a nice warm bed, and a feast every night, would be an absolute godsend if you were riding in a howling wilderness at midwinter. Imagine you were shipwrecked on a strange coast, like Odysseus in the story of The Odyssey. Rescuing and looking after shipwrecked travellers would be a sacred obligation in an age when there were no coastguards and few lighthouses. But the guest must also behave honourably towards the host. Many cultures still have the beautiful custom of the guest-gift – something that the guest brings the first time they visit your house. Being inclusive and welcoming to all could be said to be a logical extension of hospitality.
Reciprocity and balance
This is linked with the idea of hospitality. “A gift for a gift” says the Hávamál. Connections between people are maintained by the exchange of gifts (not necessarily physical objects, but the gifts of time and attention). Everything in Nature is balanced, and the same is true of society and culture – as in the saying “what goes around, comes around”. This is related to the Pagan concept of cyclicity, which maintains that everything goes in cycles: night and day; the seasons; birth, life, death, and rebirth.
A common treasury for all
The land is sacred in all Pagan traditions, and looking back at non-hierarchical cultures, we can see that it was held in common by the people, or not owned at all. The persistence of the idea of communal land, despite the Enclosures, the Highland Clearances, and the theft of land from indigenous peoples around the world, shows what an important idea this is.
The upholding of personal integrity appears in lists of virtues compiled by a number of different cultures and traditions, including the eight Wiccan Virtues, and the Nine Noble Virtues of Heathenry. What honour means to me is being honest in my personal dealings, including all aspects of life, and doing the decent thing: fighting against injustice, speaking up for the vulnerable.
Embodiment: Celebrating being alive
Pagans value physical pleasure: eating, drinking, making love, seeing beautiful things. We find that the enjoyment of these things increases our ‘spiritual’ connection, because we find value in the physical world. We love trees, rocks, mountains, flowers, beautiful art, the ocean, animals, birds, other people, the moon, the night, the sun, rolling hills, water, making love, eating, making merry. Oh yes!
The Charge of the Goddess, written by Wiccan priestess Doreen Valiente, says that “All acts of love and pleasure are [Her] rituals.”
The idea that the divine/deities is/are immanent in the world (intimately entwined with physical matter) also contributes to the sense that being alive in this world is to be celebrated and enjoyed.
“Women desiren sovereigntie”, wrote Chaucer, at the conclusion of his excellent story, The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Sovereignty is the ability to determine your own destiny. Pagans love being free, and not being coerced. We don’t like to be told what to think, what to do, or how to live. This extends to bodily autonomy, and not being coerced or cajoled into having unwanted sex or other physical contact. The value of sovereignty is particularly important in Druidry.
Paganism is a life-affirming religion, and most Pagans view the physical world as sacred. Pagan values flow from that and embrace it. Pagans do not usually regard spirit as more important or more valuable than matter. Most Pagans view matter as entwined with spirit, or perhaps as a denser form of spirit.
There are many different values embraced by Pagans, but the ones described above seem to be the most widespread. Have I missed any? Let me know in the comments.
- The eight Wiccan Virtues on Beliefnet
- The Nine Noble Virtues of Heathenry on Wikipedia
- The Charge of the Goddess, by Doreen Valiente
- The Pagan Values Project, which explores Pagan values in depth
- The Roman Virtues (Nova Roma)
- The difference between values and virtues
- Virtue ethics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’ link at the foot of the blogpost.