Why We Need Vengeance

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It has been a couple of months now since Osama bin Dead. As expected, there were a lot of words written right after it happened. I thought I would wait a while for the dust to settle.

"We will smash our enemies!"

This was said by the leader of the first blót I ever attended, back in late September 2001. The invitation was timely and topical. You probably had to be there, because the words alone don't convey enough. There was a fury in those words. The feeling in them wasn't a mere sauce to their meaning. The feeling was the meaning. The words just gave the feeling an appropriate body to live in. Amid all the bogus hand-wringing I'd heard in the media in the couple of weeks before, it was refreshing to hear. It was refreshing to feel. It wasn't a call for Justice. It was a call for Vengeance.

Ah, yes: Vengeance! This is the substance at the core of so many stories across the canon of Humanity. The Iliad is a good example. Hamlet is another. Many of the Icelandic Sagas are in this category. As a storyteller, Vengeance is one of the deeper fonts of basic material. As a Heathen, I don't have to lie to you about my feelings on the matter. And as someone who tries to pay attention to what happens in life, I know that Vengeance, once released, is pretty hard to put away. It is a highly addictive drug: Enough is a word that rarely works against it when that might be a good thing.

The saga literature tells us a lot about Vengeance. The culture of Settlement Era Iceland had a lot going for it. In many ways, it was far ahead of its time. It also often ate its best. Part of the problem was a fixation on never allowing anyone to insult you, even unintentionally, and some slights had prescribed forms of revenge. For example, if you described a man using a feminine adjective, you had just given him legal license to kill you in a society that would no longer respect him if he didn't. Then, once he killed you, your relatives were required to respond. They might try to get a legal settlement at the Althing that summer, but someone in your family would probably try to kill him anyway, with predictable consequences in potentially endless epicycles.

Something had to change. The something that did change was the adoption of Christianity, with its Seven Deadly Sins and an insistence on turning the other cheek.

Well, I don't buy that approach, either, although the measure of a man or woman is often found in the affronts they choose to ignore or overlook. We accomplish more and live better if we aren't always trying to get back at each other over little things.

But some things aren't little. Flying airliners into buildings is one example. Those things need a response. So let me propose some suggestions here that might be helpful when it's time to get out the axe.

Try to maintain some perspective. It's true that this can take some of the fun out of it, but it can also keep you out of jail. Keep your mode of revenge in kind. For example and most importantly, if someone has hurt you with words, then limit your response to words. In personal dealings, if it goes beyond that, either call the cops or get a lawyer and call it Enough. That's why we call this arrangement we live in Civilization. When dealing with the likes of Osama, Enough probably isn't.

It's been said that revenge is a dish best served cold, and it's true. Blind fury is exhilarating, but it's also usually ineffective or counterproductive. Let your anger harden and sharpen the tool of your vengeance, but let it be moved and delivered by a coldly rational process. You're more likely to succeed that way. As an added benefit, if that word Enough happens along, there may still be someone home in your head to hear it.

People who truly deserve your vengeance will often get it by some means that has nothing to do with you. Don't be surprised if this happens. Then be wise enough to say Enough to yourself and go on.

You may never get the satisfaction you're looking for. That may be your bad luck, or it may be that you're gambling at the wrong table. The fact that you're mad doesn't necessarily mean you were wronged, or that the compensation you're looking for is just. When are you going to hear Enough?

Whichever gods you are closest to, take the time to think about Odin and Tyr. In whose hands are you placing your vengeance? It matters.

So now, after almost ten years and a huge amount of work by some very diligent people, Osama is extinguished, and that makes me happy. The words of a September morning are fulfilled. I hope his last hour was filled with fear and pain of the cheapest variety, and I can further hope that any new revelations about him will further tarnish his memory and reputation.

There's another kind of Vengeance that some people believe in. In Heathen lore, there is mention of a place called Nästrond, for which I've heard two different descriptions. One is that it's a room whose walls are made of poisonous snakes. The other is that it is a cold and stony beach, always on the edge of darkness, where the evil dead have only each other to eat. Either way, you have to do some very bad things to get there. I'd say Osama is a prime candidate for a space in either place. Of course, Osama wasn't Heathen, but it's nice to imagine, in any case.

And now we wait for the next epicycle of Vengeance to reach around for us again. When it comes, we'll deal with that, too.

Hail Tyr!

7/13/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Pagan
  • Letters from Midgard
  • 9/11
  • Heathen
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Paganism
  • 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.