Is There Such a Thing as Good and Evil in Heathen Belief? (Part Two)

Is There Such a Thing as Good and Evil in Heathen Belief? (Part Two)

The previous week, I talked about good and evil in folk tales, which is a window into our pagan past. Now, I’m going to address the concept of good and evil as it pertains to the heathen gods, jotnar, and wights.  It’s not as far fetched as many people will make us believe.

Let’s Get Christianity Out of the Way First

Before I start, I’m going to have to address Christianity, the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

Christianity and other Abrahamic religions have a bunch of rules that you have to follow in order to reach heaven.  Depending on your form of Christianity, it is belief based, but it is often rule based too.  In Catholicism which I grew up in, it wasn’t enough to believe in Christ to be saved.  You also had to not sin. God kept a running tally of sins on you, both mortal and venial. Mortal sins were those sins that sent you straight to the Christian hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Venial sins were considered minor (telling white lies, not listening to your parents, etc) and you wound up in a cheery place called purgatory to spend your time until god thought you suffered long enough to go to heaven or until the second coming of Christ.

Good and evil in Christianity and other Abrahamic religions is defined by a moral code given by their god. They define evil as rebelling or turning away from their god. Evil is not defined as the act, but rather what the god says it is.  So, for example, eating meat (but somehow fish and seafood are not meat) on Fridays during lent is a sin, even though eating meat is not a sin.  Murder is wrong, but taking your homeland away from Canaanites and putting everyone to the sword is okay, even though they did nothing wrong because your god said it was okay.  In the end, evil is looked at as rebellion against their god (hence the reason Satan is evil).  You figure that four of the ten commandments has to do with their god and not rules to live by and get along with each other.

Heathenry is not Christianity and the concept of tallying every little mistake we make in life and paying for it for eternity is ludicrous at best. In the Abrahamic religions, list of potential sins easily outweigh what isn’t a sin, and quite frankly there’s no way you can ever get to heaven with that laundry list. Some of the sins ban things in human nature such as sexual acts, masturbation, swearing, and even challenging your parents when you’re a teenager. Some are just plain made up so it forces you to become indoctrinated. You can go straight to hell for not attending church on Sundays, for example.

Oh Hell

It’s funny because the concept of hell is relatively new and is not part of Old Testament scripture. The Jewish people believed in sheol which is much like our Helheim, which was simply a place for the dead. Even the word, Gehenna, was used to suggest an underworld and not hell.

We see the word Gehenna used thirteen times in the New Testament which was actually a place outside of Jerusalem where they burned their garbage and unclean bodies. We can safely assume this is the Christian hell because it is a “unquenchable fire.”  Still, we know that the earliest part of the New Testament was written by Paul around 50 CE (Common Era) or 50 AD (Anno Domini), if you use the old nomenclature. The Gospel of Matthew, which is the oldest Gospel, is thought to have been written around 80 to 90 CE, some 50+ years after Jesus supposedly died. For the sake of argument, scholars accept the range of 70 to 110 CE for when it might have been penned. We know that there was a fair amount of Greek and Roman influence in early Christianity.  It would not be surprising if they adopted Tartarus from the Greeks. More on this later.

Thoughts on Heathenry Hell

As heathens, we don’t believe in sin, but we clearly can see both good and evil deeds. Our judgment of what is good and what is evil can sometimes be in flux, given the situation, but I would propose that there are rules to this and they’re not as flexible as you might think. The other side of the coin is that we do have a type of hell for the really bad people.  That is Náströnd where Níðhöggr chews on the corpses of the evil doers: the oath breakers, the adulterers, and the murderers. You might point at that and say that this is from Christianity, but I don’t think so. Other religions with afterlifes often have some sort of place for punishing those who offend the gods. The ancient Egyptians had a place of punishment for the wicked in the cult of Osiris, Buddhism has an afterlife which has much suffering (although you don’t stay there for eternity), and Naraka in Asian cultures. So, enough religions do seem to have concepts of a place of punishment, even if some don’t.

Let’s look at the classic Greeks’ (and ultimately the Romans’) ideas of the underworld.  They’re remarkably like ours with some differences. The Greeks had Hades, the place of where the dead resided similar to Helheim. They also had their own version of hell called Tartarus which is where evildoers went, those who ticked off the gods went, and was the place where the Greek version of the Jotnar resided.  Those Jotnar were called Titans who were overthrown by Zeus and the Greek gods. Our Helheim is guarded by Garm; the gates of the classic Greek underworld are guarded by a magical hound, Kerberos. You cross a river to get to the underworld: the Greeks required Charon; the Norse figured someone could have built a bridge.


I bring this up because there’s enough similarity between the two afterlifes to point at them and say at one time, our common knowledge fuels our collective unconscious. I suspect it is because we pretty much came from one set of humans that didn’t go extinct when the universe was trying to end us in some fashion.  Our stories changed over time, but they’re still recognizable, to the point where Tacitus was calling Thor the name of Jupiter and Tyr the name of Mars, when explaining the religion of the Germanic tribes.

Good and Evil with the Gods and Jotnar

So, if we look at the Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar, we get an idea of what is good and what is evil. I would argue that what makes an Aesir and not a Jotnar is their attitude toward humans.  We can look at our gods and point to their Jotnar roots.  Some of the Aesir were even considered Jotnar until they were accepted into the Aesir clan.  I’m think Skadi, in particular.

Jotnar, by their very nature, do not care about humans. They are, in many cases, natural forces, including forces of chaos. In some cases, the Jotnar may be outright antagonistic to humans. They’re given some pretty nasty names such as “Evil Striker” and “She who brings grief” — not the kind of names you’d associate with helpful critters.  One may be able to make the case for Loki not being fully Jotnar in nature because he doesn’t always do evil.  He may cause trouble, being the trickster that he is, but until he causes Baldur’s death, he’s more just a pest and not necessarily an evil god.

So, a heathen should probably look at that which hurts people as being evil, as opposed to that which has the interests of humans at heart.  “But wait!” you say, “Even the gods have harmed people.” Yup.  You’re right.  And that is what we consider evil acts, even if the god can be considered mostly good.

Ethics of Reciprocity

So, I’m going back to the old ethics of reciprocity rule I’ve mentioned in my post Are the Gods

People? Sometimes called “The Golden Rule” in Christianity, this rule shows up time and time again in other religions that have had nothing to do with the white Christ. Whether you believe it is ordained by some deity, or whether you think it is some in our nature, I think it likely that this rule — and this rule alone — governs our existence.  Whether you want to follow the Nine Noble Virtues,  the Havamal, or some other rule book, if it isn’t some weird text, chances are it is based on the ethics of reciprocity.

Good and Evil in the Myths

Let’s take a look at the creation myth in some detail. To quote:

Ymir was a frost-giant, but not a god, and eventually he turned to evil.

Well, okay then.  We can point to Snorri Sturluson’s Christianity as a reason for this value judgment, but I have my doubts.  More on this:

After a struggle between the giant and the young gods, Bor’s three sons killed Ymir. So much blood flowed from his wounds that all the frost-giants were drowned but one, who survived only by building an ark for himself and his family. Bor’s sons dragged Ymir’s immense body to the center of Ginnungagap, and from him they made the earth. Ymir’s blood became the sea, his bones became the rocks and crags, and his hair became the trees. Bor’s sons took Ymir’s skull and with it made the sky. In it they fixed sparks and molten slag from Muspell to make the stars, and other sparks they set to move in paths just below the sky. They threw Ymir’s brains into the sky and made the clouds. The earth is a disk, and they set up Ymir’s eyelashes to keep the giants at the edges of that disk.

The reason Ymir is judged evil is because he fought with the young gods.  About what and why, we don’t know.  And that is often the problems with losing so much of our stories. We don’t know why he is evil, only that he is.  Which means people understood the concept of good and evil right there. We don’t have to ask why Ymir is evil.  He is evil because he is. It may be because he is not of the gods and therefore against them.

As an aside, you’ll note the flood story in the middle of this.  Interestingly enough, it is a Jotnar family that survives and not humans (who haven’t been created yet) or gods (who are apparently elsewhere).  I can’t say whether this is a Snorri Sturluson’s nod to the Noah story or whether this is really a flood story of our own.  Given that most cultures seem to have flood stories in their mythos, it’s conceivable that we had it too.

So, What Have I Decided?

It’s hard to completely get away from the concept of good and evil in Heathenry. I think that is because we do have a concept of good and evil, albeit not the same list of rules that the Abrahamic religions have. I suspect that people who follow the Northern religions do so because there is a sense of honor in them, and a lack of cookbook salvation. In the end, we go to Helheim, Valhalla, Fólkvangr, or one of the other gods halls. None of them are bad save Náströnd where the really evil people go.

I think living honorably is probably the best in determining whether we act good or evil. We can look at acts and say “this is good” or “this is evil” by looking at the amount of harm done to someone. A white lie might be a Christian sin, but we can look to see what the intent and the outcome is. If it causes positive things to happen, then how can it be a bad thing? Telling a loved one they look awesome, when maybe they just look cleaned up, is an exaggeration, but if it causes them to take care of themselves more or think more positively of themselves, we can’t consider that a wrong thing. While the ends do not justify the means, we can consider each action and what harm it will cause, if any, to guide us.

Again, if you act honorably, I believe no god or goddess will find fault with you.

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