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The Concept of Beauty and Ugliness and Good and Evil in Heathenry

The Concept of Beauty and Ugliness and Good and Evil in Heathenry


I have a snippet of the last post that didn’t really fit in with the rest of the post, being its own subject. I looked at it and realized that I should probably expand the piece further, so I figured it belonged in a premium piece.  This is the snippet in question:

“Medieval people put a lot of stock on good = beautiful and evil = ugly.   So, when Loki’s children are born from Angrboda, they’re automatically  considered evil because they are arguably terrifying/ugly.  Hel has rotting flesh on half of her body, Fenrir is considered terrifying  because he’s a gigantic wolf, and Jormandr is, of course, the world serpent.”

Wow, that’s a lot to talk about in one post.  Read this premium post and all my other premium posts for just $1.

The Darker Side of Heathenry [Premium Content]

The Darker Side of Heathenry [Premium Content]

Image of Hel by Tara Ryzebol . Used under the    
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 
and the GNU Free Documentation License

I read an interesting post about the dark deities recently and it got me thinking about why the darker gods and goddesses have become more popular in recent years.  Rokkatru with its many members  is a viable part of Heathenry and Loki has grown in popularity, certainly in part due to the popularity of the Marvel character and the actor who plays him.  Even I am technically honoring a Jotunn when I honor Skadi.  And yeah, Loki does come by from time to time to annoy me, if nothing.

That being said, one pagan witch (yeah, I read Wiccan blogs, get over it) thinks that the popularity of the dark ones seem to coincide with the times we live in and something big and tranformative coming up.  I can’t say anything of that magnitude, but I do have some thoughts and theories…

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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.

Is there such thing as Good and Evil in Heathen Belief? (Part One)

Is there such thing as Good and Evil in Heathen Belief? (Part One)

I’ve been thinking about basic heathen morals and if there is such a thing as good and evil when dealing with Heathen and Asatru beliefs.  I’ve been considering stories that come from our ancestors, and I’m convinced that there is such a thing as good and evil, but not in the same way that Christianity and other religions define good and evil.

Faerie or Folk Tales

Some of the coolest stories come from our fairy tales or folk tales that have been handed down for thousands of years.  These stories are now told to children because in this day and age few people believe in magic, fairies, and whatnot. These stories often were told with Christian trappings because nobody wanted to get into trouble with the Church.  Still, there are a lot of pagan influences throughout the stories, and many of these stories are the same ones but with different trappings.

Morality in folk tales can be sketchy at times, but I’ve given it some thought and I think we can still pull out what the stories are supposed to teach.

Evil Stepmothers and Cinderella

We know about evil stepmothers and stepsisters from hearing stories such as Cinderella, or in the German, Aschenputtel.   This is highly suggestive that there is evil as acknowledged by our ancestors.  The stepmother isn’t evil because she doesn’t worship the Christian god or break one of the Ten Commandments.  No.  She is evil because she is vain, jealous, and vindictive.  She is also evil because she punishes the weak and the person who did nothing to deserve being punished.  She hates Cinderella because Cinderella isn’t her own child and is beautiful.  The stepsisters are evil because of the same reasons but also because they are cruel and try to prevent Cinderella from getting a better life (destroying her gown, forcing her to clean up after them, etc).

Our ancestors made evil people in stories ugly because it’s easier to understand that the person’s inner ugliness shows outside of them. It’s simplistic, but understandable why the villains are ugly and the hero is beautiful.

So, we understand that evil in Cinderella to be:

  • Jealous
  • Vindictive
  • Vanity
  • Petty
  • Being mean
  • Mistreating of others/Bullying
  • Forcing an innocent person into servitude (we can argue about this and the nature of slavery, given that humans have own slaves since the Bronze Age and before, but yes, it is wrong.)
  • Preventing someone from doing something to improve their life
  • Lying (when the servants of the king try to find who the slipper fits the stepsisters try to claim it to the point of even cutting off their toes.)
  • Ugly (both inside and outside).

Huh.  How about that?  I think I stumbled onto a code for good and evil in our stories.

You might argue with me that Cinderella has been tainted with Christianity, but I really don’t think so.  There are too many other Cinderella-type stories in other cultures — somewhere around 500 in Europe, alone. There are Cinderella stories not only in Europe, but also in the Native American tribes, the Egyptians, Africans, and Asians.  From what I could find around the Interwebs, it looks like either the Egyptian version or the Chinese version may be the oldest.  The Chinese story of Ye Xian is dated somewhere around 890 CE, but whether it is the first version is questionable.

I suspect that our fairy tales come from an older time, and apparently I am in good company on this because researchers think that stories such as Beauty and the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin go back to prehistoric times.

You may argue that Cinderella is not a true northern folktale, but given its prevalence, its archetypes,  and appearance throughout cultures, I suspect it is a story that our ancestors told before humans disseminated throughout the world.  You could (maybe) argue that Cinderella came with the Egyptians or the Chinese via the trade routes at a later time, but there really is no way to put a finger on how Native Americans got the story before Europeans arrived unless it came with them across the Bering ice sheet some 13,300 years ago.  If we take the Egyptian civilization starting roughly 5000 to 3100 BCE as the predynastic era (before the pharaohs), and ancient China at 2700 BCE, we can see that these stories actually appeared at least 10,000 years before those civilizations could have created them.

We know that humans (or at least hominids) moved into Europe some 1.2 million years ago, and arguably maybe even earlier.  With each new discovery, it pushes the out of Africa time frame to be earlier and earlier for human migration. So how old the story of Cinderella is will probably remain a mystery.  I’m guessing it is at least 15,000 years old, but may be older.

The Smith and the Devil

One of the stories, The Smith and the Devil is believed to go back to the Bronze Age.  Never mind the fact that heathens don’t believe in the devil and the Christian hell–four thousand years ago people were telling a story about a clever person who tricked a malevolent entity out of a bargain. Whether it was a bargain for his soul or some other thing in the original story, we’ll probably never truly know unless the good Doctor shows up with his TARDIS and takes us to see it.

I honestly can’t find the story Googling it, but I have gotten a rundown of what the story is about.  A smith is very poor and is offered a Faustian bargain with the devil.  The devil offers a gift but in return, the smith must give the devil his soul.  The smith asks to be able to weld any two objects together.  He welds the devil to an inanimate object, thus tricking the devil out of the skill and saving his soul.

I did read Gambling Hansel, which is an offshoot of The Smith and the Devil, which definitely fits the bill when it comes to Faustian bargains.  I would also suggest that Rumpelstiltskin is of the same ilk because a malevolent being demands the girl’s child in exchange for spinning straw into gold.

So, what is the evil here?

  • The malevolent entity that seeks souls, death, a child
  • We can assume that the entity is evil because of its demands
  • Forcing someone under duress into a Faustian bargain
  • Taking advantage of someone in a bad situation

Why our hero is a hero:

  • He or she outwits the evil entity often by using its own power (its name or the gift it offered) against it  

Good and Evil in Heathenry?  Why, Yes

So, looking at these folk tales, you can start seeing what our ancestors considered moral.  They did make snap judgments on what was good and what was evil.  Evil is taking advantage of innocents and people who are in a bad situation.  Evil is too much pride to the point of vanity.  Evil is lying.  Evil is that which seeks things that should not be bargained for: your life, your soul, or a child.

Seems to me like we do have good and evil at least on a folk level.  Next week I’ll talk about some of our stories of the Aesir and Vanir and see if we can ascertain if indeed there is good and evil in those tales.  (Spoilers: yes, yes there is a notion of good and evil.)