Wandering Around in the Moral Dimension

The Nine Noble Virtues are an unofficial but ubiquitous part of modern Heathenry. As I understand their history, they were assembled by the founders of the Odinic Rite when they wanted to go beyond telling people what they weren't, moving on to tell what they were.

This strikes me as an admirable step. It's not just that we're not this, but that we are that.

The original list was: Courage, Truth, Honor, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Self-Reliance, Industriousness, Perseverance. Backing up this list is a claim that, if you read the myths and the sagas, these behaviors appear as what make things work right and well. You'll sometimes hear Heathens say something like, "We don't have a list of things not to do. We have something better."

The positive attitude is one of the things I love about Asatru.

As time passed, people began to ask, "But why only nine?" And the answer is obvious to anyone who knows our mythic base: nine is our "magic number." If we can make something fit into a nineness, we'll do that, just because. But the question still stands, and the list of Noble Virtues has mutated, and in some cases grown over the years in various people's hands. The front page of the website of The Troth, the Heathen organization of which I am a member, at one point listed the Twenty-Three Noble Virtues, which seemed to me to be a good idea getting out of hand.

But let's get back to this distinction between positive statements and negatives ones, Do This vs. Don't Do That. Here is an example:

In our current culture, the so-called Golden Rule is usually ascribed to a particular origin within Christianity, although equivalents can be found in many other cultures, as one would expect. The statement is rendered in English as, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." But there is an older form of this rule within the Abrahamic tradition: "Do not unto others what you would hate for others to do unto you." A careless comparison of these two statements might conclude that they mean the same thing. But this is not the case. The first one is a prescription: do this; the second is a proscription: don't do that. And these two don't fit together exactly. In most cases, they're not even close.

The latter statement is a rocky shore to steer our ships away from, so we don't end up wrecked on those rocks. The former statement is a fog far out at sea. Sometimes there are good things floating in that fog, but it's easy to get lost in it. The oceanic space between these two statements is where we spend most of our moral lives. The Nine Noble Virtues (or however many you like to list) are a good guide to navigating that space in between.

Heathen wisdom literature is rarely so succinct as either of the Abrahamic Golden Rules. For example, in the Havamal, we're told repeatedly that, if we are fools, we shouldn't be surprised when people make fun of us or otherwise treat us badly. We're also told not to be in a hurry to be on the giving end of such treatment. Perhaps you can see the Golden Rule lurking here. There's something else lurking behind that, and we can give it a name.

Some Heathens, when assembling their list of Noble Virtues, make a point of putting Reciprocity on it. This is a natural predecessor of Hospitality. If we share our friendship and good fortune, the whole world works better. When we look farther, others of the Nine Virtues show up in the shadow of Reciprocity as well. Can others count on us the way we'd like to count on them? Will others take care of themselves and mind their own business as they expect that of us?

Going farther, sometimes people need help, as we'd like to have help sometimes. Then it's important to ask: how much help can we ask for, and from whom. How much can we offer to others, and when? At what point does Reciprocity, in being fulfilled in one place, defy itself somewhere else? When does moral action become just another kind of wrong?

Some moral questions are easy to answer. Many are much harder than that. In creating an atmosphere where Reciprocity can operate, there must also be some Perspective, and each of us will have our own. That's the real trick: when establishing what we can share, we must allow each other the ability and the right to decide.

4/17/2012 4:00:00 AM
Steven Abell
About Steven Abell
Steven Thor Abell is a storyteller and the author of Days in Midgard: A Thousand Years On, a collection of original modern stories based on Heathen myths. As of 2013, he is also Steersman of the High Rede of The Troth.